Sabbath: A Commandment

manus-ten moses receiving the tablets of the lawExodus 19:16-20:21

Last week I invited the congregation to consider the practice of Sabbath; to join me in making room for holy rest in our lives. But the biggest question is: how? What is it that we can avoid doing in order to make holy rest possible?

Traditionally, there are 39 specific acts prohibited during Sabbath – tasks such as sowing, plowing, and reaping crops; processing grain into flour, and baking it into bread; spinning and weaving fibers; hunting and slaughtering animals; constructing buildings; travelling. With the exception of cooking and travelling, though, most of us don’t do many of these things at all. So this ancient list of Sabbath prohibitions doesn’t give us very specific help.

Turning to our more recent ancestors in faith seems like a good idea, but it may be even less helpful. Christian Sabbath in in early American congregationalism was a grim affair, and not one I think most of us would want to recreate. Sabbath was for sitting still, being silent, and reading the bible; preferably all three at once. Church attendance was mandatory in many communities; and we’re not talking an hour-long service in the morning. Morning worship; afternoon worship; you could spend all day in church, including at least two hour-long sermons. Part of the thinking was that church was a great way to keep people out of trouble, and more specifically, out of the bars, whenever they weren’t at work. You may know that First Parish in Concord moved the door of its church so that its services did not let out right in front of Wright’s Tavern; thereby doing their part to discourage Sunday drinking.

Avoiding agricultural tasks won’t help most of us find any rest. And who wants a rest that is deadly dull and full of endless preaching? Surely, that is not what God has in mind for our holy rest. So this week we’re going back to the source, back to the beginning. What was it like when our ancestors first received the instruction to rest?

In the scriptures today, the people Israel are gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where God is putting on an impressive display. God has descended upon the mountain with fire and billowing smoke. Clouds come down from the sky. The earth is shaking. A trumpet blast sounds louder and louder as Moses speaks and God answers with a voice of thunder. Finally, Moses goes up to the top of the mountain to receive God’s law. This was a day to remember; a terrifying event.

But the most amazing thing to happen that day was not all these pyrotechnics and special effects; but the ten commandments given to Moses for the people to live by. They may be familiar to you – I hope that they are. They may even be so familiar as to seem boring. But this is a radical document. God has led these people out from under the rule of Pharaoh. Now, She is laying out a covenant – a holy agreement – by which the people will be in relationship with a completely different kind of overlord: God herself. These people have been slaves for generations; they’re not sure how to start living a new life. So God offers them a charter for freedom.

What is that charter? What are the commandments? Different traditions count them slightly differently, but here are the big points:

1. Love God: with all that you are.
2. Put God first; no idols, no other gods.
3. Do not make wrongful use of the name of God.
4. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
5. Honor your father and mother.
6. Do not murder.
7. Do not commit adultery.
8. Do not steal.
9. Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10. Do not covet your neighbor’s house; wife; slave; ox; donkey; or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Both Moses and Jesus say that the most important of all of God’s laws is that we should love God with all that we are, and also our neighbor as ourselves. But if we can remember just a little more, these 10 commandments are the ones to go with. Sometimes they’re divided into which ones are primarily about our relationship to God; and which ones primarily about our relationship with our neighbor. Other times, they are divided between Dos and Don’ts. But the law about the Sabbath lies between these distinctions. Sabbath, as it is described, is both about what we do and what we abstain from doing. It is both about our relationship with God, and our relationship with our neighbors.

Here’s the full text of that commandment: Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 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. 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 commandment is a do: remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. And it’s a don’t: don’t work, or ask any family member or slave or even a stranger or an animal to work. It’s both a do and a don’t.

This commandment is about our relationship with God: keeping one day out of each week holy for God. And it’s also about our relationship with our neighbor: perhaps the first fair labor law ever made. It’s both about God, and our neighbor.

Sabbath may seem archaic to us; or logistically impossible; or even self-indulgent. But the more I think about it, the more I want to take it seriously. Depending on how you count them, Sabbath is number 3 or 4 on our God’s list of the top ten rules for life. Setting aside time for God, for holy rest, is even mentioned before the prohibition against murder.

It won’t help most of us if we abide by the ancient guidelines of avoiding sowing or planting. I’m not urging you to schedule a Sunday afternoon service, so I can preach a second hour-long sermon, to keep you away from alcohol. The task of discerning what is most important for us not to do; and how we can manage to not do it; this is an ongoing challenge for each of us.

But here’s the basic principle: we need to find a way to say “no” to the tasks and ideas that we are usually focused on and beholden to, to make room for something else. We need to make room for something more restful, something more holy. What can you say “no” to – what fast can you make – for an hour, for an afternoon, for a day – to make time to honor God and neighbor? It’s not a suggestion, or a nice idea, but a commandment; part of our ancestors’ covenant as free people under God.

God, you are our God. Help us to turn from all of the idols in our lives to worship you alone.
May your ancient commandments find new form in us. May we discover how to follow you
not only in what we do, but in what we refrain from doing out of love for you and my neighbor. Amen.

Practice: Choose at least one heavily used appliance or device: telephone, television, computer, dishwasher – and refrain from using it for a Sabbath period. Or, fast from another regular task. Whether it is an hour, an afternoon, or a whole day, notice how this fast impacts you.

Prayer: Jesus, you dismissed the crowds, entered the wilderness, and rose early in the morning to pray. Help me to find a time and space to honor God’s Sabbath commandment. Amen.