The Liberating Gift of Sabbath
The following was the keynote presentation for the 2007 College of Pastoral Leaders Annual Conference, Feb. 6-9, “Sabbath: A Way of Life” and was originally published in Volume 4 of Communitas, a publication of the College of Pastoral Leaders at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
The man across the aisle on my flight to Austin was far more interested in the open notebook on my lap than the Sky Mall on his. “Goin’ to Austin for a presentation?” he finally asked.
“Yes. Goin’ to talk to a bunch of preachers.” That’s the line that usually either opens or closes the door to further conversation. I sized up Mr. 11-B as the kind of guy who’d politely slam the door.
“Huh. What do ya’ talk to preachers about? Preachin’, I guess, huh?”
I decided I might as well enjoy the ride. “Well, actually, I’m going to talk about the commandment that preachers break more often than any other.”
There was a long pause as I imagined him inventorying the shalts and shalt nots. Pretty soon the corner of his mouth turned up in a grin like a snagged fish. “Ohhh … I hear that’s a real problem these days.”
“More than most people know. In fact there’s been a lot of research that says nearly every pastor breaks that commandment more than all the others.” I let that settle in for a bit and then added, “Sometimes I break it every week.”
I couldn’t tell if that look on his face meant he was genuinely sad or he was ready to use me to break another commandment but I decided it was time to let him go.
“Yep. If a pastor doesn’t keep the Sabbath, how does she expect anybody in her church to do so? Keeping sabbath isn’t just about giving our body a rest but about letting God transform our life, our relationships, and our way of relating to each other. Sabbath-keeping is one of the ways we claim God is taking care of things even while we rest. Otherwise, we’re just a bunch of practical atheists.”
A few seconds passed as the effect of my rehearsal sank in. He chuckled and gave me points for pulling one over on him. The rest of the flight he sat with his unopened magazine on his lap. He never looked back at my notes but I hoped he might be making some of his own. Intuitively, I think he got it. I think most of us do. But if there aren’t other folks to hold us accountable, sabbath-keeping will disappear as soon as our feet hit the ground.
Confessions of a Sabbath-breaker
I don’t intentionally preach about God’s commandments and then set off to break them. Most of us preachers, however, seem to be serial Sabbath-breakers. Although sabbath-keeping is more than taking off one day a week, few of us even do that. Some pastors feel guilty because their parishioners don’t get the “luxury” of a sabbath. Other pastors will spend, literally spend, a day away while hardly resting. We run errands, finish the sermon, clean the house, and mark items of the to-do list that didn’t get done.
My first supervising pastor was the poster child for sabbath-breaking. He didn’t take a day off and made sure everyone else knew it. When I asked him which day of the week I should plan as my Sabbath, he told me I could pick any day I wanted since he didn’t have a day off. “But I know that’s how you recent seminarians are,” he moaned. It turns out that his father, also a pastor, did not allow lawn chairs in the parsonage’s front yard so parishioners wouldn’t pass by and see the pastor “being lazy.” Whenever the doorbell rang at the parsonage home, the elder pastor picked a book off the table and tucked his finger inside as if he’d been reading. He certainly didn’t want to greet a parishioner empty handed as if he might have been “doing nothing.”
There are many reasons why we’re such poor sabbath-keepers: cultural expectations, family influence, economic pressures, lack of planning, and high ambitions. Eugene Peterson likes to say that most of us preach like Augustine but act like Pelagian. We preach that we are saved by grace but know that we better get back to work.
What are your obstacles to sabbath-keeping?
What do we mean by Sabbath?
The Genesis account of creation is certainly a good place to begin describing sabbath. According to Genesis 2, God finished working on the seventh day and rested from that work. If God can rest, we ask, why can’t we? But there’s a deeper understanding of sabbath that may be expressed more clearly in the Decalogue.
Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5: 12-15)
Why do we keep the sabbath? Because we’re free! Slaves cannot stop working; only free people can. If we are free, we’re called to act like it. Rather than spending each day glued to the computer screen (I’ve broken the bonds and now neither read nor send emails on Sunday), chained to our desk (do you ever close the door to your study when you’re not inside the room?), or working the malls and shopping centers (trust me, you will not single-handedly destroy the economy or put people out of work), we are called to pray and give thanks, sing and dance, rest and relax, as a sign of our freedom. We are also called to exercise justice to others by ceasing from those actions that enslave our neighbors.
Reading the scriptures reminds us how the development and interpretation of sabbath has transformed over time. Nehemiah recollects a strict enforcement of Sabbath, so strict in fact, that Jerusalem was said to have fallen in 168 BCE because sabbath-keepers were prohibited from taking up arms to defend themselves on the Sabbath.
When Jesus was criticized for plucking grain on the Sabbath (Matthew 12: 1-8), he reminded his critics that even King David allowed for such an exception (I Samuel 21:1-6). Some who condemned his Sabbath healings were reminded that if Jewish law allowed for taking care of animals on the Sabbath, why would they not want to care for humans?
The sabbath practices of early Christians is a conflicted history. Some early Christians pointed to the debate at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) as evidence that Jewish law, including the practice of sabbath, did not need to be heeded. Constantine established Sunday as a day of rest but, similar to modern legislative action, slowly began to create exceptions and exemptions. It was not until the 12th century that Christian sabbath emerges in literature. Luther and Calvin emphasized Sunday as a day of rest and worship but did not regard Sunday as a fulfillment of sabbath. Some reformers were careful to legislate what could and could not be done on the Sabbath since Sunday was frequently the time for drinking and gambling. Some seventeenth century American Puritans lived up to their reputation, however, by declaring that smiling was not allowed on Sunday, nor was a mother allowed to kiss her baby.
I used to be one of the three heaviest kids on the youth football team. Every practice we had to run laps and every practice the three people who finished last would have to run extra laps. “Run faster!” our coach would yell at us. Did my red face and sagging shoulders make it look like I was holding back? All I could think was, “I’m running as fast as I can!” Today, we have people and devices that constantly urge us to run faster. God intended for creation to breathe in God’s Spirit, to rest as people free from bondage, and to rely on God. But unlike the New Yorker cartoon that shows a modern Hassidic rabbi telling a friend, “Remember, I’m here for you 24-6,” we have become a people who are available 24-7. We’re worn out but still wishing we could run a little faster.
What changes do you notice to the patterns of sabbath in your life and in the lives of others?
Building a Sabbath House
There are many ways to begin or deepen our sabbath practices but let me suggest just one. Perhaps the best place to begin is at home. Literally, at home. The shape of our homes has an ethical as well as architectural quality. How we dwell says something about who we are.
To be fair, Jesus seemed to be ambivalent about home life. Foxes and birds had their home but not would-be followers of Jesus. When his family came looking for him, presumably to take him home, Jesus said he was already at home. This unsentimental understanding of home was not meant to destroy our life together but to reconstitute it. Keeping sabbath forces us to ask what conditions are necessary for us to keep the sabbath in our home and among the people we call family.
Take a moment to draw a sketch of your home’s floor plan. Make an outline of each room, including any outside space where you may spend time. Now put a number in each room representing the hours (or minutes) you normally spend in each room on a given day. If you live with others in your house, ask them to try the exercise and compare notes for agreement and divergence. Then ask a few questions:
Our attentiveness to how we live, work, and rest at home shapes, and is shaped, by sabbath habits. Just as we need periods of solitude apart from work, noise, or one another, we also need a place of solitude where we are able to pray, listen, and read scripture in a manner that restores our relationship with God. Is there a quiet place where each day you can retreat from the crowds, chaos, cell phone, or internet? If others live with you, do you encourage those practices for others as well as ask for those spaces and places of quiet rest “near to the heart of God?”
Similarly, we need time and place for community. What are the times and ways you discover God in your midst as you offer and receive hospitality with friends and strangers? Inviting and receiving others reflects the abundance and generosity of God. We are free to give of ourselves because God’s time and God’s daily bread is sufficient.
In our family, we’ve agreed to certain practices that allow us to receive the gifts of the day and to enjoy the gifts God offers us. (These practices are not for everyone. What helps us keep sabbath may be oppressive to others.) For us, the kitchen is a place of liberation and feasting. As far as possible, we’ve tried to participate in a sabbath-economy by purchasing our food locally. Much has been written about the sabbath-economics of gardening, food purchases, and local markets so I’ll leave that discussion to the experts. But I can testify that such practices can instill deep attitudes of thanksgiving to God and to those who are stewards of God’s creation.
Dinner is a sabbath occasion for our family. Except on rare occasions, we expect to prepare our meals and eat together. We may have to negotiate times and menus but dinner is the time when we share our day, our news, our stories, and our thanks for the goodness we’ve glimpsed that day. When our daughter was young, she would play on the floor as my wife and I prepared the meal. As a toddler, she’d help set or clean the table. Over time she not only learned to cook but we all learned how to narrate the many stories that have become our family story.
Like good liturgy, our time in the kitchen and around the table has recognizable patterns. The table is open. Guests are welcome. There are sacred rituals and sacred stories. We acknowledge what is offered to us and by whom. We often give thanks. Our interruptions are few: We answer the door but not the phone during a meal. We get up from the table together, a little stronger, a little more thankful, almost always more refreshed than when we sat down. Even when schedules call for fast food, we still eat face-to-face. We’re not among those Americans who now eat one of every five meals in their car.
Our sabbath house has other rooms and rituals. No television or computer in the bedroom. That’s the room reserved for sleeping and love-making which, by the way, are both considered in Jewish custom as gifts of the Sabbath. We have a screened porch that allows us to breathe the fresh air as we eat, rest, talk, welcome guests, and pray. The garden out back provides food for the table and, perhaps more importantly, reminds us of the gift of the earth and our responsibility as stewards of God’s creation. Our home is not always tranquil but there are habits that we practice together that prepare us for living as a sabbath people in the larger world.
What is true for a household is also true for a congregation. How does the design of your congregation’s space and the practices you share prepare people to live as sabbath-keepers in the larger community?
Resources for Sabbath-keeping
Our conversations about sabbath at the College of Pastoral Leaders occurred in the context of communal worship. We acknowledged that Sunday worship is the primary, though not exclusive, focus of Sabbath-keeping. For some of our parishioners, Sunday worship is their only true sabbath. The hour of worship in which they participate is the church’s one chance at an alternative vision for faithful living. If that’s all we have to offer, however, the church is merely a rest stop for people who will quickly return to the fast lane. As pastors and congregations, we need to develop a connection that is greater than one hour and wider than the walls of the sanctuary.
I’ve included a few books, articles, films, poems, and websites that I’ve found helpful in guiding a Sabbath attentiveness that can be shared with others. I want to commend three books that I’ve found particularly helpful. The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel is considered a classic in the sabbath literature. Heschel introduces the idea of an "architecture of holiness" that appears not in space but in time. Judaism, he argues, is the religion of time: it finds meaning not in space and the material things that fill it but in time and the eternity that imbues it, so that "the Sabbaths are our great cathedrals." Brief and accessible, Heschel helps Christians understand the Sabbath roots and offers the fruit of this life-giving practice.
Dorothy Bass’, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time, is another volume in the Christian Practices series that offers both theological interpretation and practical testimony. Her stories from local congregations provide encouragement for practicing Sabbath communally and the accompanying website allows practitioners to share their challenges, stories, and questions.
Finally, Marva Dawn’s Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing Resting, Embracing, Feasting offers a theological language for speaking about how we restore our sabbath covenant with God and why it’s so difficult to do in our world.
No resource can define Sabbath for you but many of these resources can contribute to a sabbath imagination. It’s neither possible nor commendable to incorporate every idea you discover about sabbath nor to impose those insights and ideas on your family, friends, or congregation. Like a good friend, however, perhaps some of these resources will challenge your Sabbath-breaking habits while encouraging the gifts of Sabbath you’ve been afraid to claim.
A good friend was once asked during an icebreaker which commandment he was least likely to break. “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” he quickly responded as he looked endearingly at his wife. “That’s good,” she said. “That way I won’t be tempted to break the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’” Few of us set out to break the commandments we commend. Sabbath-keeping, however, may be the most difficult. By God’s grace, and within a community that will hold us accountable, we can hopefully discover what it’s like to dance, pray, and celebrate as freed and liberated people.
The Rev. Kevin Armstrong is senior pastor of North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Ind., and a senior public teacher with the Project on Religion and Urban Culture at the Polis Center at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.