Monday, June 28, 2010

Sabbath: the unwrapped Gift

Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Galatians 5:13-17
Mark 2:23-28

"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth" is probably one of the strangest, if incomprehensible, sayings I've heard, but the meaning is clear. Be aware of all you have and don't take it for granted. By the same token, don't let what you have become the essence of who you are. Stuff or jobs, that is. And I was once there as I know so many were - and still are.

It would be easy to say I should never have allowed myself to become so intertwined with my secular job, but try telling that to 95% of today's workforce. Try telling that to the millions who have lost their jobs and are STILL searching. Try telling that to the thousands who have lost homes and other property for lack of income. Try telling any one of these persons that their jobs are not as important as they may think, and one can imagine the sort of response one may expect.

In this it is easy to see how our lives, the core of who we are, may be defined by the work we do. Some jobs are so demanding that it is hard to separate who we are from what we do. Commerce has become so demanding that our entire nation moves 24/7 such as in transportation, manufacturing, oil and gas production, and farming to name only a few. And may we never forget our nation's military and our community's' first-responders!

These are the things we choose to do, though. In many cases we spend incredible amounts of money, take on enormous debt, and spend years preparing for some careers that may well be the death of us, but we pursue these things because they are important to our nation, to our families, and to ourselves. Commerce is a necessary reality without which many a working class family would have no means. Buying and selling, making and moving all kinds of goods and services are how millions of men and women make, bake, and butter their own bread.

Commerce in and of itself is not evil. There is a good, moral lesson in doing an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. There is nothing wrong with earning an honest living, and there is nothing wrong with working long and hard at it. To a certain extent there is nothing wrong with some honest and well-placed ambition but when it all begins to consume a person to the point that personal identity is lost and found in the job, we've gone too far. And this, I think, is a pretty fair assessment of what Sabbath is offered to counteract. The Lord knows we have to work. In fact the Lord demands that we work lest we become a burden to others. The Lord also demands, however, that we carve out a solid 24-hour period in which we can reconnect not only with Him but also with our loved ones, our neighbors, and the community of faith. ALL of these; not just some of them.

The Sabbath is not only the great equalizer in that ALL - rich or poor, ruling class or working class - are commanded to rest, including livestock, but Sabbath continues to be perhaps the greatest "unwrapped" gift of all because we lack a full appreciation for what true Sabbath is all about. It is a holy day, to be sure, sanctified by the Lord God but Jesus reminds His followers that "Sabbath was made for humankind"; truly a "gift" rather than a mere point of law. Sabbath came from the mouth of the Lord God Himself and is clear evidence of the mercy, love, care, and concern that comes from our Holy Father. It is, truly, love - not law.

Given this, then, why have Christians all but surrendered this remarkable gift to the point that it virtually no longer exists? We should not confuse what has come to be known in the Church as "the Lord's Day" with the biblical Sabbath, the Lord's Day being the first day of the week in which the Bible tells us Jesus was resurrected. Nor should we confuse "a" seventh day with "the" seventh day in which the Lord commanded that His people settle down and rest because if it is the "seventh day", then by reason it cannot be "any" day we choose.

Maybe we have a difficult time appreciating the concern and care of this Holy Day because we bristle at the idea of being "handled" like young children who are forced to take afternoon naps. Witness the antiquated "blue laws". I'll grant you that parents need that break as much as toddlers do (!!), but we also know that the bodies of young children need the rest for their physical well-being. So we impose "nap time", the principle of which is not completely inconsistent with our Holy Father imposing "Sabbath".

So if it is truly a "gift", does the gift come with strings attached? In other words, can we not accept this remarkable gift on our own terms and use it how we see fit, according to our own schedules? Does the Lord have a stake in whether we do Saturday or Sunday, Tuesday or Wednesday, according to swing shift work schedules, for instance? Is it, as some have said and as Mark seems to imply, that Sabbath is no longer a day of the week (let alone a particular day) but is, instead, Christ Himself who gives us "true rest" (Matthew 11:25-30)?

The short answer is "no". "No", we cannot make things up as we go along to suit our own individual purposes. "No", we cannot accept this gift on our own terms. And a resounding "NO", we cannot accept the Sabbath for ourselves but deny Sabbath for others. Just as Jesus teaches, the Sabbath was made for "humankind", meaning EVERYONE and not just a privileged few, to include servants and the livestock, the responsibility of the privileged. EVERYONE gets to rest. It is not the call, duty, privilege, or "right" to remove Sabbath from others especially to suit ourselves or to accommodate our own personal needs or even recreation. It is unjust to require of one what we would refuse for ourselves.

Many writers and preachers have tried to interpret Sabbath in ways that speak to our busy and hectic lives. In the book, The Sabbath, Abraham Heschel speaks to everyone caught up in a complex life and consciousness that cannot comprehend any other way of being. You see how easily we have been conditioned over a period of years? Heschel advocates for the enduring value of Sabbath because of – and not in spite of – our lives. He writes: "The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. We are called upon to share what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world." In other words, spiritual contemplation; reveling in the knowledge and presence of the Lord.

St. Paul exhorts the Galatians to "stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery" (Gal 5:1b). I wonder that as we are continually blinded by our alleged "freedom" to pursue a contemporary, fast-paced, consumerist, make-hay-while-the-sun-shines culture we have become virtual slaves to, if there may ever return that blessed and holy day when we can actually find that critical time to spend with the Lord and - by our refusal to continue paying homage to such a godless culture by contributing to it - also allow others to do likewise - especially the least among us - to find the rest we all so desperately need; to rest with the Lord, our families, and our neighbors - and not from them.

Sabbath is not strictly about attending worship services though there is that very important element, but careful consideration must be made that others are not prevented from attending that same worship by being forced to attend to our own pleasures. We may feel as though we are being faithful Sabbath "observers" by going to church and then going out to eat rather than "work" to prepare our own meals, but are we not forcing others to accommodate us? Are restaurant owners not exploiting their staff by demanding they be available to work to serve you and me? I remember when Mark Winter, the evangelist, was here. Tricia and I took him out to eat at a local restaurant Saturday evening, and Mark invited the young waitress to join us on Sunday and for the other services? Her response? "I cannot attend worship on Sunday because we're here early Sunday getting ready for the CHURCH crowd." Ouch.

How are we then being faithful even to the "spirit" of the Sabbath when we force others to serve us on what we may consider "our" Sabbath - if we consider it at all? And I think we don't. If Sabbath is the great "unwrapped" gift meant for ALL of "humankind", are we not taking their gift and perhaps dangling it in their faces just beyond their reach and suggesting they can have their Sabbath only after we've had ours?

Such a mindset does not come close to the "spirit" of Sabbath and makes an inconsistent argument for the notion that Sabbath can be any day of the week. It is an inconsistent and shallow argument that there is a Jewish Sabbath and a Christian Sabbath but only one and the same God. This does not compute.

Useless arguments can be made for or against Saturday, Sunday, or whenever, but there is that undeniable element of servitude when we realize that businesses are open on Sunday catering to us. I don't suggest for a moment a return to the "blue laws" because it is not government's place to force us to rest. It is only when we are introspective of certain spiritual knowledge by which we come to understand that the Bible, as the voice of the Holy Father, should not be taken to require of one but excuse another by the same Word. But the choice must be made just as it was commanded by the Lord God at Passover - that other sanctified and Holy Day - as recorded in Numbers: "The person who is clean and is not on a journey but ceases to keep the Passover, that same person shall be cut off from among his people" (9:13).

It is a choice we make, just as other choices are made daily that we are the WHOLE people of the Lord God - or we are not. There will always be those who will choose not to be here or at any house of worship on any given Sunday just because they don't want to be. It is important to remember, however, that the Sabbath came in the midst of a world in which there were the "have's" and the "have-not's" who worked for the "have's". While the rest of the world (man, that is) required that slaves and servants and livestock work without a break, the Lord required that HIS beloved would get that much-needed rest. It would be how the rest of the world would not only identify the people of the Lord; it also helped the people of the Lord know of the benevolence of the Lord our God.

It is how the people of God understand justice when ALL are required to rest, and it is how the people of God understand mercy when they finally "unwrap" that Great Gift of Sabbath and be reminded that He loves us, but He loves our neighbors as well.

No comments: