Good morning, Friends!
Labor Day isn’t just an extra day off. It honors the place of work in our society. Most people work pretty hard to earn their daily bread. Labor Day also gives us an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between work and rest in our daily lives.
One of the many interesting facts about religion, which you might not have noticed before, is that three of the major religions of the world – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – all three of them set aside one day every week to be special.
In the Jewish world, the sabbath is on Saturday. Strictly speaking, the sabbath runs from sundown on Friday till sundown on Saturday.
For devout Muslims, the holy day is Friday – that’s the day they go to the mosque for prayers, and spend additional time in study. And for Christians, traditionally, Sunday is the day when we gather for worship. We worship on Sunday because that’s the day Jesus rose from the dead.
So, all three of us have a different day. But Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all people of the sabbath, in spite of our many differences.
This morning I’d like us to take a look at two different Scriptures. Both of them have to do with the sabbath.
The first one comes from the Jewish scriptures, what we often call the Old Testament. It’s a part of the Ten Commandments. The first three commandments all have to do with idolatry, which means replacing God with anything which is less than God. But the fourth commandment has to do with the sabbath.
I don’t know if the Ten Commandments are rank ordered, in order of importance, or whether all the commandments are equal. But taking a day of rest is right up there with not taking the name of the Lord in vain, not worshipping idols, and not trafficking with any other gods. It’s pretty important!
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.
On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.
For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.
Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
– Exodus 20:8-11
That commandment doesn’t seem very flexible, does it? It’s presented with no ifs, ands, or buts. And an enormous amount of thought and study has gone into it interpreting this commandment over the years, especially by our Jewish brothers and sisters.
The detail in which the sabbath commandment can be observed, is staggering to people who haven’t grown up with a strict interpretation of the sabbath. You see, “work” really covers an incredible variety of human activities.
For strictly observant Jews – which includes most of the people Jesus knew – work that is forbidden on the sabbath includes cooking. It includes travelling more than a very short distance. It includes tying a knot, or threading a needle. It includes writing more than one letter. It includes lighting a candle, or blowing it out. All activities, which have to do with building, or gathering, or planting, or harvesting, or every kind of everyday labor are forbidden.
I have a cousin who is a very strict Orthodox Jew. In my cousin’s community, people won’t even turn on a light switch on the sabbath. That would be work. On the sabbath, if any lights have to be on, they use automatic timers.
That may all seem very picky. But underneath it is the understanding that a day of rest isn’t just a nice idea, or a family tradition. It’s the commandment of God. And they take it very seriously.
For people in my cousin’s tradition, the sabbath is also the most joyful day of the whole week. It’s the day that everybody looks forward to. People celebrate the sabbath. It’s a day of freedom. It’s a day when families gather and people relax. Couples make love on the sabbath. Grandparents play games with their grandchildren.
Not only are things we would consider work forbidden. But grieving is forbidden on the sabbath. Fasting is forbidden. Anger and controversy are forbidden. The sabbath is the day when God Almighty took a day off. God rested. And God stood back, and God blessed everything that had happened, during the whole week of creation that preceded it.
So, the sabbath is a day of joy and rest. It’s a day for reflection and giving thanks. It’s a day of completeness and blessing.
In the Jewish tradition, it’s OK to break the sabbath only for one thing, in order to save a life — that’s the one exception. Jesus got angry when certain people tried to enforce the sabbath, on an occasion when he was healing someone – when he was relieving their suffering and misery.
There are Christians who still take this idea of the sabbath seriously – even though our sabbath is on Sunday, rather than on Saturday.
I remember, years ago, I worked on a dairy farm. The guy I worked for would milk cows on a Sunday, of course – the cows would suffer if he didn’t milk them. But everything else was laid aside.
I can remember, one summer, we had worked all week to get in the hay crop. We cut it early in the week. And then it rained. Every time it started to dry out, it would rain again. We would rake the hay, and fluff it up, so that it would dry. We had 20 acres – close to a quarter of his hay crop, for the entire year – lying out there on the ground. With all the wetting and drying, it was starting to get mildewed.
And then, on Saturday afternoon, wouldn’t you know it, the sun came out. And I asked the farmer – I was 15 years old then, and he was in his sixties – if it stayed sunny on Sunday, if he didn’t want me to come over, and help bale it up. We were talking about his livelihood here.
And he said, “No. I don’t work on Sunday.” That was that.
At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got sayings like the one Paul writes, in our second scripture this morning.
One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.
Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.
For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
– Romans 14:5-8
That’s a different point of view. It’s not quite an attitude of “anything goes”. Paul isn’t saying that the sabbath is meaningless. He’s saying, “Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. . .” Let people do what they really believe, in their own conscience.
Some you here today probably feel pretty strongly about honoring Sunday. For other people in our meeting, it’s not so important. Me – I’m always looking for the middle way. I look for the truth, between the extremes.
There are some very good reasons for taking a day of rest seriously. In our society today, people tend to be pretty stressed out. I remember when I was a kid, there were all these predictions about how much less work there was going to be for everyone to do by the year 2000. If you read Popular Science back in the 50’s and 60’s it was filled with things like that.
People were all going to be working less than 30 hours a week. Maybe less than 20. People thought that we were going to have a big problem, just finding things to do with all our leisure time. (There were going to flying cars, to0!)
That hasn’t exactly happened. Most people today are working longer hours, not shorter ones. Things like inflation, and competition, and complexity, have changed the picture from what we thought it was going to be.
A lot of people today work two jobs. Most families have two breadwinners. The demands which employers place on people, are a lot higher today.
What people call the “margin” in our lives, is getting a lot smaller. Margin is our free time. It’s our discretionary time. It’s the “wiggle room” that everybody used to have in their lives, not so long ago.
Do any of you remember when Sunday always used to be the day for family dinner? It was the day for visiting and porch sitting. It was a day when nobody expected you to do much of anything.
Today there are so many pressures on us, that we’ve let the day of rest become the catch-up day for the rest of the week. Games and practices. Paying bills. Homework. Cleaning house. All kinds of frantic activity. Sunday is a major shopping day for a lot of people.
I don’t think that we should go back to the old days. In New England, it used to be that if you hung out your laundry on Sunday afternoon, it would guaranteed that someone from the church would be there knocking on your door on Monday morning. I don’t want to go back to that kind of pressure.
But that only makes it more important for us to pay attention to the commandment to rest. Notice that it’s not a suggestion. It’s God’s commandment.
God doesn’t command anybody to work like a machine, full speed, non-stop, till they burn out. Even the most hard-working, dedicated people among us, are required, by God, to knock off and rest on a regular basis.
I had a friend once who boasted to me that he never took a day off. He never took a vacation in 15 years. He was a minister, too! He said that God just gave him something to do, every day, that was too important for him to stop, even for a minute. The only time off he ever took was to go home to Iowa, for family funerals.
I told him, “God Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth and everything in it, took a day off once a week. What’s with you? Do you think that you’re better than God?”
We know that rest is important, for our physical health. It’s important for our mental health as well. And rest is important for our spiritual health. If we never rest, we never really step back, and get off the treadmill, and break the routine. We forget about who we are, and why we’re here.
Too many people lead driven lives. They are forced, or they force themselves. They go from one mindless or soul-less activity to another, without letting up, until they collapse.
And God says, “You weren’t made for that. I don’t require that of you. And you shouldn’t require it of yourselves. I created you, to share in my work of building the world. But even I took a day off at the end of the week. Even I, God Almighty, I needed to step back, and rest. And you aren’t any better at this stuff, than I am.”
Part of what goes on, in a day of rest, is re-discovering who we are. We have so many roles we have to play during the week, we have so many different hats we have to wear, that we forget our deepest identity at times.
Say to yourself, “I am a child of God. I was created by God. God was here before me, and God will be here after me. God is the underlying reality, behind and beneath all of the other things that I see and feel and hear and smell each day. When all those other things are gone, God is still here.”
I had a wonderful experience of that, earlier this year. I woke up one morning, and the electricity was off. There was a power outage, all over the neighborhood.
The refrigerator was off. The air conditioning was off. All of those little electric motors that hum quietly in the background, all day long, were off. It was so quiet. Even the clocks were off. All over the neighborhood, all the fans and motors and things that beep and ring, all the things that make civilization go and rule our lives, were shut down.
And I started hearing sounds that I had forgotten were present. The quiet, early-morning voices of the world waking up. The bird songs. The morning sounds. The wind in the grass, like God walking through the garden of Eden.
I think we maybe ought to have power outages more often. Like, once a week. Maybe it would remind us that all those little clocks on the microwaves and VCR’s aren’t really worth setting to begin with. Don’t you just hate re-setting those, over and over again? Maybe we would start looking and listening for what things really need to be done, rather than letting some clock be our master.
In Hebrew, the word for “sabbath” is shabat. And the ordinary greeting, before and during the sabbath, is shabat shalom – to have a peaceful sabbath, to experience the peace of the world which God has created.
The purpose of having a sabbath isn’t just to catch up on your sleep – though in today’s world, that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Most people today just don’t get enough rest. The purpose of the sabbath is also to understand and to experience directly the peace of the world – the peace which God intends for it.
The things which make up so much of our lives – the guilt, the fear, the anxiety, the barriers – those are all the opposite of the peace which God has created for us to enjoy.
“One day a week,” God says, “one full day – not a half day, not just for an hour on Sunday morning, but a full day – let’s sit back, and enjoy. Rejoice in the world and in the day which the Lord has made! Reclaim yourself!”
The point of a day of rest is joy.
Re-connecting with the source of joy, with the well springs of joy, that underlie the whole creation. In spite of all the grief we may feel, in spite of all the pain we pick up and carry every week, there is a joy at the heart of things, which we experience when we are together with God.
There’s one other important point, which Paul makes at the end of our second reading this morning. After letting everybody off the hook as far as strict observance of the sabbath goes, Paul writes:
“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
Part of the reason for coming together as a group, and not just taking a private sabbath on our own every week, is that sense that what we do, we do together.
We are not alone. We worship God, and we discover God, in company with each other. We help each other remember, when the love and the joy seem far away. We help each other to sing. And we help each other to see. We rest, and we encourage each other to rest, to be renewed and restored, to be made whole again.
Here in the South, I hear people say to each other, “Have a blessed day!” People don’t do that, in other parts of the country. I wish they would. It’s a custom that’s new to me, but I like it.
I wish that I could also hear people day, “Have a good day of rest this week. Have a day of peace. Restore yourself. Re-create yourself, as a child of God, made in God’s image. Do that this week, and be glad.”