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Matthew Sleeth answers: What does sabbath have to do with caring for the earth?

Observing sabbath can help save the planet, says a physician who gave up his medical career to devote himself to spreading the gospel of creation care.

Illustration by Jamie Farrant

June 4, 2013

Matthew Sleeth

Vocation: Environmental leader, executive director of Blessed Earth
Background: A former chief of medical staff at a large hospital, he now writes, preaches and teaches full time about faith and the environment
Books: “Serve God, Save the Planet,” “The Gospel According to the Earth”

What does sabbath have to do with caring for the earth?

Matthew SleethI started keeping a sabbath about 10 years ago, and I’ve had the experience of seeing what it’s done in my own life. In regard to creation care and the environment, in the Old Testament the rules about taking care of the land fall out under the set of laws called the sabbatical laws.

The fourth commandment tells us not only to put it in park one day a week ourselves but to extend that to everyone who is within our home, who works for us, who is a stranger in the land, our children, even the beasts of the field. So there’s an intimate connection.

Two things result from that: one, an acknowledgement that God is the owner of the lease on this piece of real estate called earth; and two, that God is a God of restraint. After creating the heavens and earth in six days, God didn’t go on and do something else. In that restraint we see a godly quality.

I would say that many of our environmental problems result from our showing no restraint whatsoever and simply taking license with a planet that we do not acknowledge ultimately belongs to God.

Keeping a sabbath stops me from consuming one day out of the week. Although the definition of rest and work has changed over the centuries, the definition of consuming and commerce has not. To get away from being somebody defined as a consumer to being a human being is a freeing thing. It’s something that I find that I take with me during the rest of the week -- that feeling of freedom.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded by messages, by advertisements, by things that tell us we’re not thin enough, rich enough, pretty enough, don’t have enough friends, live in a good enough home, sabbath is that time where you just hear you’re loved. I think the world needs that desperately now.

I believe that the church has sat on the real estate in time called sabbath for thousands of years and that essentially we’ve given up the lease on that. I do not believe that the church will survive without it. I think we’ll either reclaim it or we will lose the church.

I tell people to really wrestle with sabbath -- to explore what it would be like to know that once a week for the rest of their life they are going to enter into this quiet and renewing and holy time and to envision what that would look like in their family and in their church and to work toward that, because that’s the kingdom of heaven on earth.

We are a people of hope, and we, in my view, are simply given good work. A kindergarten teacher doesn’t look at the new class in the fall and say, “I have to wipe out illiteracy.” What the kindergarten teacher says is, “I need to teach this group their ABCs and to begin to read simple words.”

As a follower of Christ, I’m not responsible for the outcome of all of history and human endeavors. I’m simply given good work, and that gives me a kind of peace that if I’m doing that work, then I am where I’m supposed to be. Yes, things are overwhelming, but I have to say I’m more optimistic now than I’ve ever been, and that’s that hope in Christ.

The preceding is an edited transcript.