“What is the Sabbath For?” by Rev. Amelia Fulbright

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Listen to the sermon from September 1, 2019, titled “What is the Sabbath For?” by Rev. Amelia Fulbright.

Developmental leaps are hard. They require a lot of energy and effort, and in the first year of a human life, there are a lot of them. My sweet George, who just turned 6 months old this week, had several in the same week, right around 3 and a half months. He learned how to roll over in both directions, lift his head high off his play mat, and reach out and grab for objects all in a matter of days. Of course he had been rehearsing for these advancements since the day he was born, and the week prior he had been especially busy, waking up in the middle of the night, tossing and turning—determined to flip himself
over onto his tummy. On the day it finally happened, that night his restlessness gave way to a good night’s sleep. Ahhh…achieved unlocked. Time to rest.

Rest is essential to the spiritual life. It is part of the creative cycle established by God in Genesis 1. God created the Earth and all that is within it. God called it good. And then God took a break. Action. Reflection. Rest.

The biblical admonition to keep the Sabbath is situated squarely among the Ten Commandments, listed in both Exodus and Deuteronomy.

12 Keep the Sabbath day and treat it as holy, exactly as the Lord your God commanded: 13 Six days you may work and do all your tasks, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Don’t do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your oxen or donkeys or any of your animals, or the immigrant who is living among you—so that your male and female servants can rest just like you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That’s why the Lord your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deut. 5:12-15)

We create because God created. We reflect because God reflected. We rest because God rested. And we are God’s Beloved. The scripture implies that there ought to be one day a week when we can be free from all the rules, requirements, expectations, and demands of the hard work that is living a human life. A place to go where our value is not reduced to a grade or a performance or a job or a gender or whether we are getting along with our kids or our parents. Or even each other. A time and a place where we can release ourselves into the Abiding Presence of love and peace and acceptance. This time and place is Sabbath. And it is here.

Keeping the Sabbath is a core commandment, and it is also a paradoxical one. When we look more closely at the Sabbath command, we notice that God has to remind a group of people who carry the trauma of not-so-long-ago being enslaved to Egypt to grant their own servants at least one day of rest from their labor. The fact that this reminder is even necessary points to the way that cultures and systems and institutions inevitably compromise us in some way as they become more complex and more disconnected from the hearts of the people they serve. They end up freeing some more than others. And this is also the inclination of Empires—what starts out as a nation’s aspirational search for wealth and space and security becomes an unchecked impulse to consume, to control, to conquer everything and everyone in its path, creating haves and have-nots, winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, too.

In direct contrast to the ways of empire, congregations like this one, are called to be about the work of building the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven. And as the late Rabbi Abraham Heschel describes in his mystical book, The Sabbath , “sabbath is that realm of time and space where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.” Essentially the opposite of Empire.

It is a beautiful and lofty vision laid out by Heschel. But we also know that in the generations of humanity that have walked the Earth since God orginially handed down the Ten Commandments to Moses, rules and restrictions have developed around what it really means not to work on the Sabbath. Commentary upon commentary upon commentary about what it means to keep the Sabbath and make it holy. Now this desire to codify ritual practices and to develop laws that will guide and protect the sanctity of our common life is a noble one. But over time, what was created to be freeing can become binding once again.

This is what we see transpiring in today’s Gospel, when Jesus reaches out to free a woman from a spirit which has kept her bound for 18 long years. In a house of worship. On the Sabbath. And though the gathered crowd cheers him on, he is met with the wagging of a giant finger from the religious folks in charge. “Not today, Jesus, not today. That’s too much work.”

Sabbath is supposed to be our respite from the mechanations of Empire; it’s not just a chance to rest, but a chance to tell the Pharaohs of the world to “give it a rest!” The trouble is, the trouble is…is that even church cultures, and systems, and institutions end up getting mixed up with Empire, too.

One way to tell that the spirit of Empire has creeped into your congregation is when budget meetings produce a vision of scarcity rather than abundance: Not today, Jesus, not today.

Or you find yourself lamenting who is not at church more than you are finding God at work in those who are. Not her, Jesus, not her.

Or we become more obsessed with the proper order of worship than the spirit of our worship, or more fixated on the maintenance of buildings than the building of the Kingdom. Not today, Jesus, not today. That’s too much work.

Sabbath is for resting (to be sure), and that is revolutionary in and of itself in a capitalist system, where our worth can be reduced to either what we produce or what we consume. But sabbath is not merely the ceasing of economic activity. Rather, it is the regular day and the regular way we testify to the inbreaking of another reality—the Kingdom of God, the Economy of Love. Where we are free, really and truly and unreservedly free. All. of. Us.

If we reduce Sabbath to a simple day off, we have been duped by the powers that be.

Again, Rabbi Heschel says that,

“Strict adherence to the laws regulating Sabbath observance doesn’t suffice; the goal is creating the Sabbath as a foretaste of paradise…in our prayers, we anticipate a messianic era that will be a Sabbath, and each Shabbat prepares us for that experience: “Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath … one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come.”

Sabbath is not a return, like “Make America Great Again;” it is an anticipation. We are not trying to go back to the Garden of Eden, or the glory days, or the way things used to be. We are trying to get to the New Heaven and the New Earth. And a rehearsal for the Kingdom here and now is what prepares us to embrace another way of being in eternity.

This means that if, on the Sabbath, our thoughts are primarily tuned to self-preservation or even institutional preservation, we simply are not thinking big enough.

Y’all, our world is in trouble. The Earth itself is sick. There are desperate children and adults in cages at our southern border. Gun violence is an epidemic. And some people don’t have enough to eat.

If sabbath is a dress rehearsal for what is to come, then it is showtime, and we are running behind. There is an urgency to these days that I think many of us feel. But the urgency is not about the future of this particular church. Truly. We would do well to loosen our grip on that worry for a while.

The urgency is about what will become of this particular world, and if what we do in this hour on Sunday does not directly impact our ability to repair the world, then it is not worth our time. This is true for old congregations and new congregations, stable congregations and those in transition like this one. Our healing will not come with a more narrow focus, only with a wider one. One as big as eternity. Indeed,the practice of sabbath is what will join our healing to the healing of the world.

What is the Sabbath for? The Sabbath is for healing a bent over, broken down world, and all the bent over, broken down people in it. And sometimes that is us. Often that is us.

And sometimes we are the crowd, cheering Jesus on.

And sometimes we are the religious leaders getting nitpicky with the rules and traditions. When this is the reality of us, then the Sabbath is for nudging our priorities back in order.

UBC, at any moment, the Spirit could free you from all that is weighing you down. Healing is possible, even on the Sabbath.

We can’t predict precisely when that will happen, but we can begin to imagine it right here, today. And we can begin to rehearse it right here, today.


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