TEXT: Exodus 20:8-11
In the fall of my last year of seminary, I took a class all about the Sabbath. We read various books about the Sabbath, studied various theological interpretations about the Sabbath, learned about Sabbath practices, etc. However, there was one class assignment that was the most stressful out of all of them. As the professor discussed the assignment on the first day, you could watch the anxiety level of class go up. Some students began to sweat from the anxiety. Some were on almost on the verge of a panic attack. And what was the assignment that was so stressful? Every person in the class was required to have six uninterrupted hours of total Sabbath – where they stopped doing ALL work (including class work) and instead rested in a way that gave them more life – both for themselves and for their loved ones. Six hours without doing any kind of classwork, homework, reading (for class), studying, or preparing sermons and Sunday School lessons for their church internships. Six hours to simply be present to ourselves and to the ones we love. It sounds simple – yet there was nothing more stressful to a busy seminary student training for the ministry.
Because if there is one commandment that Christians break more than any other, it’s the Fourth Commandment. If there is one commandment that Christians cause others to break more than any other, it’s the Fourth Commandment. If there is one commandment that Christians actually encourage others to break, it is the Fourth Commandment.
Why? Why do we constantly break the Sabbath? Why do we constantly cause others to break the Sabbath? Why do we encourage others to break the Sabbath? It’s because – as much as we would like to think otherwise, our culture teaches us to center our lives – our very identity – around what we create and what we consume rather than around the God in Jesus Christ who is the Lord of all creation and the true owner of all that we consume. We are taught to express this secular truth in many subtle and socially acceptable ways. And as a result, commit the sin of breaking the Sabbath over and over and over again. But because it’s “socially acceptable” we convince ourselves that we are not sinning. (PAUSE)
Upon meeting someone for the first time and learning their name, one of the first questions we ask is: “What do you do for a living?” Rarely is the first question about other aspects of their identity such as, “Are you a parent?” or “What religion do you follow?” We might ask them, “Where are you from?” Yet our culture trains us to identify others by what they do because, unconsciously, it allows us to find out if they could do something for us.
The great Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann further points out that we’ve evolved to where our identity is not only what we do, but also what we consume, saying: “In a consumer economy that is committed to endless growth and reducing everything to commodity… Life comes to consist of an insatiable pursuit of goods, with prizes awarded to the most productive… [therefore]… Living is reduced to competing for endless goods, and neighborliness is completely scuttled; the prevailing attitude seems to be “without God everything is possible.” In other words, because our consumer culture teaches us – “the one who dies with the most toys wins” – that “your self-worth and personal-meaning is reduced unless you have the next latest and greatest product” – life becomes about obtaining stuff and working yourself to death in order to obtain it, rather than growing as a Disciple of Jesus Christ who teaches you to “build up treasure in heaven” and to “sell everything you have and give the money to the poor.” The demon of consumerism misleads us to find our identity in stuff, which requires us to work harder in order to obtain more stuff, and that stuff gives us less and less meaning, so we work harder and harder to get newer stuff, and so on and so forth. As a result, instead having life in abundance, we become the walking dead.
Even though the very word Sabbath means “to stop” our culture rewards and praises those who do NOT stop and chastises, even punishes, those who do stop – even at the expense of their own physical, emotional, and spiritual health. So, we work harder and harder because our society tells us to. Then, when you are finally crushed under the constant toil of working without stopping, our culture blames and shames you for not taking Sabbath, for not taking time off. Rarely will you have a job where the boss reprimands you for working too long. Personally, in 25 years of full-time work, I’ve only worked one job where my boss actually made me go home because I was working too much – even threatened to fire me if I didn’t. All others praised me for my long hours or said I needed to work MORE if my work products did not suit their needs– even when those long hours kept me away from my family and my devotion to my faith. Even when those longer hours caused me to be less and less effective at my job. And when I held to the boundaries of my Sabbath, I was shamed into feeling selfish, lazy, and ungrateful for my job. And when we enable this blame and shame culture of constant work without rest, we cause others to break the Sabbath, and therefore we also break the Sabbath. Unlike God, when it comes to Sabbath in American culture – “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.”
That’s why social worker, researcher, and author Brene Brown says, “It takes courage to say yes to rest and play in a culture where exhaustion is seen as a status symbol.” It’s completely counter-intuitive to work until you’re physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted – and then, because you are praised for your hard work or because your work is not seen as “good enough” to work some more and still expect to perform at the same level. It does no one any good (employees, customers, bosses, etc.) for the employees of a business to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted all the time at work. That’s when accidents happen. Mistakes are made. Things and people fall through the cracks. It does no one any good (employees, customers, bosses, etc.) to praise someone only when they go above and beyond what are already unreasonable expectations. It causes people to respond to mistakes, even to meeting basic expectations by working longer and harder. It does no one any good to shame and blame someone for taking time off to practice self-care and observing healthy boundaries. It only causes people to believe that self-care and boundaries are selfish and uncaring. Yet, those who do not rest when they need to, who do only work harder for more praise, who fail to practice self-care or set boundaried are doomed to burn out – and then have others blame and shame them for not taking care of themselves better, even when others wouldn’t allow it. Fortunately, God knows this about humanity, and therefore, God commands the opposite – declaring anything or anyone who demands the contrary as breaking the Sabbath commandment – a sin equal with breaking all the other commandments.
As Jesus tells us in Matthew’s Gospel, “The Sabbath was created for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath was created by God to remind humanity that our life and our identity – our very worth – is not centered on our work. Not centered on what we create. Not centered on what we consume. But our life and identity is centered on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Anything else we center our lives upon, simply becomes an idol – and we become guilty of breaking the first and second commandments as well. Our work and our achievements do not give us our life and our identity – only God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit does by calling us “Beloved Children of God” – and the Sabbath reminds us of that every time we observe it.
Christian Ethicist Patrick Miller writes, “Work is required for human survival. The issue is not getting work done but making sure that [work] does not go on all the time and that one may let it go – and let it go regularly…[for]…Work may have its rewards, but only if its limits, pressures, and demands are set apart under the safeguard of the Sabbath. Therefore, it is important that we set Sabbath boundaries – that we set the Sabbath apart from the other six days of the week – in order or release the pressures and reap the rewards of our work – even if it means disappointing or upsetting others. In her book, Daring Bravely, Brene Brown says, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” The word “holy” in Hebrew means “to separate” or “to set apart.” If you do not keep your Sabbath separate or set apart from your work, then you are not keeping the Sabbath “holy” – you’re only profaning it. If you do not take time to set yourself apart from your work, you are not holy. If you are not keeping your Sabbath set apart – then our identity and your work will merge – and you will become your work, instead of being the Child of God you were created to be and called in your baptism.
And God reminds us that the benefits of the Sabbath are not just for Christians or Jews. Listen carefully to the words of the commandment: “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, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the foreigners residing in your towns.”
The commandment goes to great lengths to name everyone for whom the Sabbath commandment applies. To make sure we know that this commandment to rest – to stop work – is for ALL of creation. Not just for Christians or Jews – but for your children, for those who work for you, those who serve you, for the animals under your care, and even for those who are not native to your country or do not worship the same as you (as was the case for foreigners living in the land of Israel). Observing the Sabbath commandment is more than just ensuring that YOU stop work. The Sabbath command also assures that you do not cause or require others to work. That you allow others to rest. For if only allow yourself to rest but not your neighbor, then you are not loving your neighbor as yourself. In the modern world, this includes the employees of your business, those who wait on your table during lunch after church, or your pastor taking a day off instead of attending a church function. Instead of demanding that they continue to work for our benefit, we should be encouraging them to rest for the benefit of themselves and their loved ones. Even if their Sabbath is not Sunday, we should encourage them to have a day of rest. And we should encourage all employers to pay them well enough on the days that they do work, so that a day of rest doesn’t break them. Otherwise, our whole society is breaking the Sabbath commandment. Sabbath is not just about you getting a break, it’s about ALL of God’s creation getting the equal opportunity to rest. Because when everyone is provided the opportunity to stop work without losing quality of life, then everyone becomes equal regardless of socio-economic class. When everyone can afford to rest, then everyone is united in their rest. As Christian Ethicist Patrick Miller writes, “Whatever practices or customs divide the different strata of society in their daily life, they all disappear on the Sabbath. One practice is required of all.”
And it’s especially important to remember that the Sabbath is NOT something that you earn, is NOT something that you deserve. The Sabbath is something that you receive. The Sabbath is a free gift from God. That is why the Exodus version of the ten commandments includes the following statement about the Sabbath, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” This is a reference to the seven-day creation story in Genesis. In the seven-day creation story, God creates human beings on what day? (The sixth day.) And then the next day – the seventh day – what does God do? (Rest). Therefore, in remembrance of and in appreciation for that gracious gift of rest, we are to model our creative lives upon God’s example. “We work and rest because God worked and rested.”
I am reminded over and over again of a quote from the President of my seminary, Dr. Craig Barnes – I’ve said it in at least two other sermons here before, but in our American achievement culture, it’s worth repeating over and over again: “You can either achieve your life or receive your life. If you achieve your life, your constant companion will be complaint, because you will never achieve enough. But if you receive your life, your constant companion will be gratitude for all the God is achieving in your life.” Our lives are meant to be received from God – not achieved by our own efforts. Otherwise, we do not worship God – we worship the idol of our own achievements. We worship ourselves.
Those of us who keep trying to achieve our lives are the ones most often guilty of ignoring the Sabbath and encouraging others to do the same. Those of us who keep trying to achieve our lives are those who work harder and longer hours when things go wrong instead of caring for ourselves and focusing on the love and grace of God in the midst of our losses and failures. Those of us who keep trying to achieve our life are those of us who complain the most about things not going our way, and therefore cannot find peace in our lives – only chaos.
But those of us who try to put our total trust in God. Those of us who look at each day with gratitude. Those of us who are able to find peace in the midst of the greatest storms of life. Who see each moment, each day, as a new opportunity to receive God’s grace, to joyfully celebrate it, and lovingly share it with others – are often the ones who hold to the Sabbath the most. Who understand that the Sabbath – rest from our daily toil – is gifts of God’s grace that gives us eternal life, not in the hereafter, but in the here and now.
The great 20th century theologian, Karl Barth argued that human history, “really beings with the Gospel and not with the Law, in accorded celebration and not a required task, with a prepared rejoicing and not with care and toil, with a freedom given… and not an imposed obligation, with a rest and not with an activity… The aim of the Sabbath command is that [humanity] shall give and allow the omnipotent [all-powerful] grace of God to have the first and the last word at every point.” In other words, human life starts with the grace of Sabbath rest and ends with the grace of eternal salvation rest. There is nothing you can do to earn the Sabbath – just as there is nothing you can do to earn your salvation – both are simply free gifts of God’s amazing grace. The Sabbath is God’s first act of grace – the first proclamation of the Gospel.
The Sabbath is God’s gift of grace to all of creation. And we observe the Sabbath every time we graciously receive it by stopping work, faithfully observe it by celebrating God’s grace, and lovingly share it with others by providing them time and space to do the same.
Thanks be to God for the many creative gifts the Spirit has given to us to use for the building of God’s kin-dom here on earth. And thanks be to God for the gift of Sabbath rest, where we may be refreshed, restored, and renewed to use those gifts again. AMEN.