Getting the Seventh Day Free
by Catherine Merrill
I have a confession to make. ?They made me keep the Sabbath when I was in seminary. ?Which is kind of funny when you think about it. ?Because they?re training you to work Sundays. ?But for one course, ok, for six whole weeks, I had to keep the Sabbath. ?They didn?t bring up any of the other Ten Commandments. ?Apparently I was on my own on the killing, stealing, lying, coveting, adultery, swearing, honoring my parents, worshiping idols and having any other Gods departments. ?I guess they figured that given the societal pressures to keep me out of the Lincoln County Sheriff?s Office and the Lincoln County News, I would figure out how to keep the other nine commandments. ?I?ll admit to some coveting and in when I?m cut off in traffic the Lord?s name has been known to come up. ?But I feel bad about it when I do it. ?I tell myself not to do it again.
I didn?t feel bad about not keeping Sabbath. ?In fact, I don?t think I had any notion of what keeping Sabbath might look like. ?I had some vague notion of Puritans in aprons going to church all day, not anything I was interested in.
Scripture actually offers more words on keeping Sabbath than on any other commandment. Deuteronomy 5:12-15 says ?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 from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.?
OK, then, how hard can this be?? There weren?t any servants at Chez Catherine who needed the day off, and surprisingly few oxen or donkeys in a fourth floor apartment.
In today?s reading, Jesus is pointing out that, according to ritual, you tend to those who are dependent on you. ?Oxen and donkeys to be sure. But if it is within your power to heal one of God?s daughters, then you do it.
So the issue is not why Jesus was so steamed, but rather why the leader of the synagogue was so upset. ?In Jesus? time, the Jews were universally regarded as slackers, as people who wouldn?t put in the effort to work a real job. ?The vast majority were subsistence farmers, so they ate what they grew and whatever was left over was either traded or used as seed for the next year. ?So taking a day off at all, never mind once a week, was not the way mature and responsible adults?behaved. ?Parents who loved their kids worked every day to gain that tiny edge that would swing the difference in the horrible scarce years. ?The perception of Jews by gentiles was that they were just using their religion as an excuse for laziness. ?In the face of that perception, the Jesus? community kept the Sabbath.
Imagine it from the inside of that community. ?You have a whole season?s harvest in front of you and after a week of wretched weather, the perfect day dawns. ?But it?s the Sabbath. ?For those of us living on the coast of Maine, after a solid week of rain, when Sunday morning dawns bright and sunny, we?re relieved that we can mow the lawn.
?How much do you have to love your God to live being scorned by the people around you, how much do you have to love your God to give up the slightest edge in a hand to mouth existence to observe the Sabbath? And yet as a people they did it. ?I can see why the leader of the synagogue in today?s reading got upset. ?Being insulted by outsiders is one thing. ?Being shamed by a member of the community is another.
Because at its heart, observing the Sabbath means doing no productive work. ?From the first flight into the desert from Egypt, God provided for God?s people. ?From Egypt through the Babylonian exile to Jesus? 1st century Palestine to today, God provided a world where six days work provided seven days sustenance.
Was that true for everyone? No. ?People died from want then, just like they do now. ?Jesus knew that. ?Indeed, he was pretty clear that we were supposed to make a special effort to help those people. ?But for most of the people then, just like most of us now, it?s true. In fact for most of us, not only does five days? work provide seven days? sustenance, it provides years more sustenance in retirement.
Doing no productive work one day a week forces us to acknowledge what?s really going on. ?It?s only too easy to believe that our six days of work is the reason we have enough for seven days. Take the seventh day off, do no productive work, and you?re forced to realize that God set up a pretty miraculous world. ?We?re benefitting from the way the system was designed.
If God has done all the heavy lifting, what?s so hard about keeping Sabbath? This is where the ritual comes in. ?And here I?m going to step into my own experience of keeping Sabbath. ?The first few weeks it was just wonderful. ?I loved my days wholly dedicated to celebrating God?s abundance. ?Listen to Jane playing the organ today and marvel.
On Sabbath, I had the time to step back in awe that someone could even come up with the idea of an organ, that Jean Langlais could compose such a thing as Chant de Paix, that someone else would figure out a notation scheme that would allow it to be handed down. ?That Jane would fall so deeply in love with that sound that she?d dedicate years of her life to playing it. ?That I?d be lucky enough to end up on the coast of Maine having her music open my heart. ?Don?t tell me I don?t live with a God of abundance. ?But on the weeks when I don?t keep Sabbath, I don?t even notice that abundance if I?m hustling in here, half already on my way home, thinking about all?the emails from work sitting unanswered in my inbox.
There are all sorts of things that I chose to connect me to God?s abundance. ?For some strange reason, watching the Patriots does it for me every time. ?I usually iron sheets during the game, because sliding between ironed sheets also connects me to God?s abundance. ? Mum & Dad dragged me to simulcast of the Metropolitan Opera at the Lincoln Theater.?? I?ve never told them, but I went because of that ?honor thy mother & father? thing. ?I fell utterly in love with?something I was sure I would hate. ?That is abundance. ?Going back to bed in the morning with a?cup of coffee and a book instead of racing around. ?Abundance. ?Tidying up my house? Work. Tidying up my collection of jewelry making beads lets me run God?s abundance through my fingers. ?Everyone will get in touch with God?s abundance in different ways. ?The point is to?make your own ritual which intentionally connects you to God?s abundance while avoiding any productive work.
?So the first few weeks of Sabbath keeping were wonderful. ?I looked forward to that rush of?color, to the slowing down of time. ?Having a whole day of without productive work is weird and?wonderful and not like vacation. ?All I can tell you is you have to try it.
The trouble is that after a certain number of weeks, I was pulling a hamstring to get everything done. ?I mean, if I?m not going to work on Sunday, then some portion of Saturday afternoon and pre-dawn Monday became email time. ?I learned which the grocery stores on my way home from Boston are open until midnight. ?I learned the NPR schedule for Saturday night because that was when I paid my bills. ?I was so tired that I began to dread Sunday.
That was when I began to understand that Sabbath keeping had a lesson to teach me about time. Just like I was appropriating some of God?s abundance and pretending that I had created it, I was trying to bend time to my will. ?Abundance is God?s. ?Time is God?s. ?God is just loaning both to us to see what we do with it.
I found that I was wrong about what it took to keep Sabbath. ?I didn?t need to have everything done beforehand. ?In fact, the resting on the Sabbath was completed the week?s work. ?God created the world in six days. ?But Creation wasn?t complete until God rested.
I had to learn to put work away, to stop worrying about crossing stuff off my list. ?I discovered that I could take 10 minutes to sling all the unfinished projects into a couple of big LL Bean?bags. ?If I couldn?t see the unreturned library books or un-ironed shirts, I stopped worrying about?them for 24 hours. ?The sense of abundance and depth of time returned, but without the dread.
So my Sabbath observances became richer, connecting me far more deeply to the Creator of Abundance, the Giver of Time. ?Sabbath observance is a way to connect to God. ?If I were a better minister, I would probably stop there. ?Because what more can anyone want?
But as I understand it, a minister?s job is to witness truth. ?So here?s another thing I learned. ?In the weeks I keep Sabbath, I am more productive the other days. ?I am far more whole hearted, efficient and cheerful in my work. ?I spend less time dithering.? ?If there?s work I don?t like but have to do, like ironing shirts or filing papers, I just do it. ?There is something about having the whole glorious day waiting for me that makes me much more able to discover little pockets of God?s abundance and little slivers of God?s time every day.
That?s why I think God put Sabbath keeping in the Ten Commandments. ?For us to live wholeheartedly, we need to be productive. ?And we need to rest. ?We need our own efforts. ?And we need to focus on what God is giving us. ?We need all of that. ?And we need it so badly that it has to be in the set of rules that governs our relationship with God, with God?s creation and with each other. ?If you really want to keep the other nine commandments, you have to keep this one too. ?And ritual is the way to ensure that you?ve built the rules into your life.
In the end, I suspect Jesus was asking, ?Do you want to dive whole heartedly into the abundance of this world that God has given you? That woman has been sick for 18 years. ?Enough is enough. ?There is no greater lesson that Sabbath can offer than to heal her here and now. ?Why wait for even one more day??
So it is the Sabbath today. ?Let me ask you. ??What are you waiting for? God has given you this abundant world, God has given you time. ?What will you do now that you?ve gotten the seventh day for free??