A New Take On An Old Rule (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:23–3:6


I received an email from one of our elders last week informing me that he would not be able to help with serving communion today. He had to work. I understood, and was sympathetic. This is the world in which we live, a world in which Sunday, the Sabbath day for Christians, has to go by the wayside for the sake of keeping the economy going.

When I was a boy there were the so-called blue laws in Memphis. Why these laws went by the color blue I am not exactly sure. Essentially they were Sunday laws that forbade commercial activities. Virtually all stores and other commercial enterprises were closed except for drug stores and hospitals. Back in the early days of this nation, and influenced by the Puritans, every commercial enterprise was required to be closed. This even included enterprises that had to do with entertainment, such as movies.

You weren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath day. And, in fact, as some of you who are older can remember, you weren’t supposed to have fun on the Sabbath either. This was the view of my loving and God-fearing grandmother. Indeed, in the small Arkansas town where she lived, there was a softball league that played on Sundays, the Sabbath day. This was troubling to my grandmother. But when a team was formed of her own church members and the pastor of the church was the pitcher, and they actually played a game on a Sunday, she was appalled. I’m not sure she ever got over that, and the ugliness of visualizing her pastor pitching a softball on the church’s team on a Sunday. The world, and the church with it, was going to hell.

Having been a pastor all these years in a setting where children, along with their parents, are often missing Sunday School and Worship to go play soccer or baseball or participate in other Sunday activities, I sometimes find myself channeling my grandmother’s pious anger. Of course, even though keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, it’s not that big of a deal to many Christians, or maybe even Jews, as it once was. People don’t see it legalistically as they once did. Blue laws have gone by the wayside. As the pastor of this church, on a Sunday I could pitch in a softball game, go to a movie, or even mow my yard (as I did last Sunday afternoon) and you could care less. In fact, some of you might be glad that I spent my Sunday afternoons in such pursuits, even if you might sympathize with me having to do yard work.

The truth is that my grandmother’s views regarding Sabbath-keeping have never held much sway over me. They seem quaint and anachronistic—a throwback, at least in this country, to Puritanical times. I imagine most of you think or feel the same way.

But sometimes life has a way of working us over so that we begin to see the meaning and purpose of practices of by-gone years. Such was the case with me. When I first came here 33 years ago as your pastor I was a dutiful servant of the church. In fact, I was so dutiful that I rarely took a day off. I was always doing something for the church, thinking about the church, every day—seven-days a week. Old jokes about preachers only working one day a week, and that for one hour, really got under my skin. So I strove to prove them wrong. Sabbath? There was no Sabbath for me. Yes, I took vacations with my family. And enjoyed those times very much. But back home I was back to the seven-day a week grindstone.

I was to learn that it is a professional hazard for many pastors. Not to mention many others in other lines of work. And I learned that never having a day off, never practicing Sabbath, was not good for me. It was wearing me out. It was making me a lousy husband and father. It was not making me a better or more faithful pastor. It was not making me a very pleasant person to be around.

So I began to wonder if Mammaw (that’s what I called my grandmother) was on to something. And I began to discover that the Sabbath commandment was every bit as important as the other nine commandments. In fact in the Ten Commandments, as we have them in the book of Deuteronomy, the people of God are called to Sabbath-keeping with the reminder that once they were slaves in the land of Egypt. And the Lord freed them. The Lord their God brought them out from there “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” In other words, slaves work all the time. Oppressed people are always busy and never get a day off. But free people observe the Sabbath. People who have been liberated work for six days, and then take the seventh day off without any work.

So, with the help and prayers of some of you, I began to take a Sabbath day off (which, for me, turned out to be Mondays). And I began to look for Sabbath times in my daily schedule—times when the most important thing was not doing and getting things, but simply stopping. I made time for daily meditation and prayer, for walks, for times simply to enjoy others—especially my wife and children.

Of course my practice of Sabbath is imperfect, and, like an alcoholic struggling for sobriety, I have fallen off the wagon many times. But I have learned that Sabbath-keeping is for our benefit, that, as Jesus said, the Sabbath is made for humans, and not humans for the Sabbath. Slaves, subject to the whims of their masters, never get a Sabbath. They must be available for work every day. Sabbath is for people who would be free, who would be the people God has created them to be.

So for Jewish people Sabbath-keeping became a defining practice. And it still is. It is what sets them apart. Six days they have to work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord. That means no work—not just for them, but for everyone who lives among them or that works for them—even work animals. At an ecumenical gathering a few years ago, one of my Jewish colleagues told about being in Israel when the Sabbath day came. “Everything stops,” he said. “There is such peace. Such quiet. It’s wonderful.”

But then we have the gospel lesson that is before us today where Jesus runs into trouble and controversy with the religious leaders—a controversy that begins a conspiracy to have him killed—over this very issue of Sabbath-keeping. He is walking with his disciples on the Sabbath through a field of grain. His disciples are hungry. They haven’t eaten. So they begin to pluck heads of grain and munch on them. To the Pharisees, this was harvesting. It was farm work, and on the Sabbath. And so they asked Jesus, “Why are your disciples doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”

Jesus’ answer? Basically what he said is that his disciples were plucking that grain and eating it on the Sabbath because they were hungry. They needed something to eat.

Then Jesus and his disciples go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, which is their custom. But he is still being watched by the Pharisees for any Sabbath slip-ups. Well, it’s hard to go to any synagogue, or church for that matter, without someone being present who is hurting, who is in need of healing. And so in that synagogue there was a man with what was called a withered hand. When Jesus saw him, he said so that all could hear, including those Pharisees, “Come forward.”

Jesus knew he was being watched critically, and so he said, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” No one said a thing. Knowing that he was being watched by people who wanted to criticize him, Jesus looked around at them with anger. Mark tells us that “he was grieved at their hardness of heart.”

But that didn’t stop Jesus from saying to the ailing man in the synagogue, “Stretch out your hand.” And so the man did, and his hand was restored to full functioning. And that’s when we are told that the Pharisees went out of the synagogue and sought those with whom they could conspire to have Jesus killed.

So was Jesus anti-Sabbath keeping? Or at least disrespectful of the Sabbath? His enemies thought he was. Or at least that was what they were trying to say about him.

What Jesus was trying to say is that the Sabbath is for our good: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” So, if it makes you angry, if it makes you judgmental, then this is not what the Sabbath is about. If it makes you indifferent to the needs of people, like those hungry disciples in the field or that man with the withered hand in the synagogue, then you are not getting what the Sabbath is all about.

This past week one of my younger Facebook friends made the comment that she struggled with guilt in her role as a parent. I responded as I have responded as a pastor many times through the years. “You are forgiven,” I said. A day or so later I received a private message back from this person thanking me for those words: “You are forgiven.” As she wrote, “It’s hard to explain, and I don’t want to get sappy, but I don’t think I’ve ever embraced those words. And when I read what you wrote, it hit me like a ton of bricks.”

I could identify with what she said. So much of our faith goes over our heads, and doesn’t ever quite get embraced. So, as an example, we have in the gospel of Mark the example of very religious and zealous people like the Pharisees being nitpickers and looking for ways to criticize while healing comes to a man who has been disabled.

But what we are invited to do in the keeping of Sabbath is to experience our faith in its fullness—to experience the forgiveness, to experience the joy, to experience the peace, to experience the compassion, to experience aliveness to God. This is what Sabbath makes possible. And, if we are lacking these realities—if our faith has not come alive in us—it may very well be a sign that we are missing Sabbath, it may very well be a sign that we have been so busy fixing and doing that we haven’t stopped just to be open to the wonder of God and God’s presence in our lives.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, June 3, 2018

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