Why You Should Remember the Sabbath

I learned the 10 Commandments by heart when I was in Sunday School. I can’t remember what I earned when I could say them from memory for my teacher—a sticker perhaps, or maybe a treat—but I knew them cold. The shortened version, that is. The same one that we used this morning for the Decalogue. When we get to the Fourth Commandment, it’s simply “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.” Which, of course, is the first sentence of that commandment, and what it gets distilled down to. But then it gets 3 more verses to explain it and giving reasons as to why the sabbath should be remembered. You may have noticed that it’s one of the longer commandments. One of those with the most air time.

A sermon based on Exodus 20.

And, sadly, it’s the one we tend to ignore the most. The one we will break without even giving it a second thought. Notice for God it’s equal with you shall not murder or steal or commit adultery or bear false witness, all of which would likely give us great pause before doing them. Breaking the command to keep the sabbath? That’s just a regular weekend.

Now before you start thinking I’m pointing the finger at you, know that I’ve struggled with this throughout my life. Most of the time I didn’t even consider it. Or if I did, it was to call my weekly day off “my sabbath” when really it was a time when I ran errands and checked work email to make sure nothing needed my immediate attention, and, from time to time, it was a sermon writing day. In other words, it wasn’t a true sabbath. Not the way God intended. Not the way God commanded.

I’ve spent the last few years studying the need for us to embrace zimzum and make space in our lives. What I’ve discovered along the way is that one of the best ways to do this is to engage in a weekly sabbath. One day a week with a work stoppage. A day given to delight. A day for rest and renewal. A day removed from screens and technology. A day to forgo commerce. A day to focus on relationships.

And friends, it is both unbelievably hard and amazingly beneficial. So let me slow down, and go back to the command itself, and then offer some thoughts for our modern day.

First, notice what the command includes and who it is for. “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 alien resident in your towns.” Did you catch that? Six days you work. One day you shall not do any work. Each week. And that goes for you, your kids, the people who work for you, your domesticated animals, and even the foreigners in your town. Everyone gets the day off. No exceptions. Don’t even think about it. 

Then there’s the why: “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.” You know how this goes. In the opening chapter of Genesis we hear how God called into being light and darkness, the sun and moon and stars, the vegetation and the birds, sea creatures and creepy crawlies, and last of all mammals and human beings. That was Day 6, of course. And then on Day 7, God rests.

So a couple of notes on this. First, it’s not as if God needed a day to sit back in a Lay-Z-Boy with feet kicked up and a cold one in hand. God wasn’t overworked by Day 6 needing to collapse, exhausted at home. Rather, God saw that everything that had been created was good, and God looked at it all and delighted in it. God sanctified a day to simply enjoy the beauty of creation. And, please note, that the very first day that human beings were in existence was a sabbath day. They were created sometime late in the day on the 6th Day and then evening came with the beginning of the sabbath. So humanity began with a day of rest even before they worked. They began with a day of delight and enjoyment.

And that is the point of a sabbath, by the way. Several years ago after one of those snowy February weeks, a friend mentioned his rabbi’s sermon. The good rabbi said, “With the sabbath, we get a snow day every week.” You remember the joy as a kid, right? When you would listen to the radio or turn on the news station on the TV to see if your school had gotten the snow day. And then the euphoria of the whole thing, because nothing would be due and you could grab your sled and head outside or play a game or build a fort out of the cushions in the living room or drink hot cocoa. It was like you could do anything and go anywhere because the whole town had the day off.

In a recent Washington Post article, Michael J. Coren details how keeping a regular sabbath has impacted his life. He writes, “What I try to do is — nothing at all. Or, rather, I spend time with people I love, usually outdoors. I swim or surf. I share a meal with friends and family. Sometimes, I just lie on my back in the park enjoying the sun. It has rekindled a sense of joy I last felt when I was a kid with nothing to do, and gratitude for whatever miraculous series of events led me here to this moment.” He details how it was not easy to do this. “[Being] on the verge of burnout a few years ago, I began to practice a Sabbath. Giving myself permission to stop doing was hard. My brain betrayed my intentions, unconsciously leading me to flick open my phone, check work emails or scurry ahead to a Monday that hadn’t yet begun. Disconnecting took practice, and still does.” Yet, he says, “as the weeks rolled on, I discovered a freedom I hadn’t known I’d lost. My Sabbath jolted me out of a daze.”

So how might you engage in delight on the sabbath? Theologian Dan Allender goes into great detail to suggest what that might look like. He writes, “Sabbath is the holy time when we feast, play, dance, have sex, sing, pray, laugh, tell stories, read, paint, walk, and watch creation in its fullness.” His list is not exhaustive, but rather an invitation to imagine what a day filled with delight might actually include. Still, Allender notes, few people choose to participate in the sabbath “because a full day of delight and joy is more than most people can bear in a lifetime, let alone a week.” 

We cannot imagine a full day of delight even every so often, let alone every week. And so we hesitate, uncertain of what that might look like, or if we deserve it, or if we might be considered lazy if we take a stop from work.  Yet Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his seminal work The Sabbath, writes, “Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath while still in this world, unless one is initiated in the appreciation of eternal life, one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come.” You will be unable to enjoy the world to come if you cannot enjoy the sabbath now.

But, you might say, I’m doing good stuff on the sabbath. I’m helping others or doing things here at the church. Isn’t that a good thing? Thomas Merton answers that question in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. He writes, “The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.” We cannot do it all without committing violence to ourselves. Even Jesus took regular breaks. Weekly, in fact. He kept the sabbath. 

So what are we to do? First, decide on a day. Currently, I’m following the Jewish custom of Friday evening to Saturday evening which allows me a day to truly enjoy my family and the world around us. Second, make some hard and fast commitments. I don’t do technology on the sabbath, eschewing screens. I will make some exceptions since Noah is away. However, I don’t do any email, social media or web browsing. I simply close my laptop on Friday evening and put a pile of books on it. My phone gets set aside at a charging unit. And yes, this is challenging, and not always something I can do. It’s a work in process.

And then I do things that bring me joy. I cook. I read. I sleep. We go on walks as a family. Recently we’ve been in to Boston a number of times for a track meet for Olivia. We have friends over for dinner. We play games. We don’t fold laundry or get the car serviced or pick up the dry cleaning or run to the transfer station. All of that we squeeze in earlier in the week, or it simply doesn’t get done that week.

And that’s been my biggest learning. Sometimes I just need to let something be and wait. It reminds me that I’m not superhuman. That I cannot get it all done. That there’s a better way. And that God wants me to set aside my work for one day every week in order to enjoy the life I’ve been given with the people I love. To experience delight.

So, friends, remember the sabbath. Remember the sabbath. Remember the sabbath. We are so quick to forget. So quick to push it aside as frivolous or old fashioned or unnecessary. And yet the God of the universe made it the very crown of creation, the very first day that we as human beings experienced when we were created. And we are called to delight in a full 24 hours every single week and experience the true gift of this world that we have been given. To experience delight, and in so doing to prepare ourselves for the age that is to come. May we do so with vigor and gusto.

Image by dograapps from Pixabay.

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