In the Spirit of Sabbath

Sermon by Sue Browning
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton


I first heard the word ‘Sabbath’ in Sunday school. I vaguely remember a worksheet, and being given directions to color in pictures next to the words for The Ten Commandments. There was something about ‘Honoring the Sabbath’ or ‘Keeping the Sabbath holy,’ which I think I lodged in my brain as ‘go to church on Sunday.’

Over time I figured out that Christian’s held Sabbath on Sundays, i.e. went to church on Sunday, and that Jewish families worshiped on Saturdays. It was their Sabbath day and they actually called it Sabbath.

More recently, I’ve heard ministers declare their day off during the week as their Sabbath and don’t answer emails that day. In a more secular use of the term, Sabbath has come to mean escape of daily routine, and for some the self-discipline of unplugging.

Sabbath – the need to rest, and ‘Sabbath keeping’ – rituals for the rest.

The roots of keeping the Sabbath emerge in the Hebrew Bible. In the Book of Exodus, Moses leads the Israelites from Egypt, where they had been slaves, to the promised land of Canaan. As the Israelites journey through the wilderness, a 40 year trek, as a community they are working out and formalizing the rituals of daily living. How will they live as a covenantal people? What will keep them in relationship with God?

In the scripture, Even before the Ten Commandments appear from on high, Moses and God start laying the ground work for a Sabbath day.

(Exodus 16: 23-30)

“He [Moses] said to them, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord; bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.’” So they put it aside until morning, as Moses commanded them; and it did not become foul, and there were no worms in it. Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is a sabbath, there will be none.”… See! The Lord has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day.

The journey in the wilderness continued, and eventually Moses is summoned to the top of Mt. Sinai, and God delivers the commandments, including this one

(Exodus 20:8-11)

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 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.

So it is declared. There is to be a holy day is of rest, where even collecting and preparing food on the day will not be ok with God. These practices are given authenticity by tying the Sabbath back to the seven days and creation and the shared understanding that even God need to rest.

When I hear of Sabbath as ‘Take a break ‘me’ time…a sweatpants, watch movies, do some laundry kind of day’ I wonder how someone from the ancient traditions would hear this in relation to Jewish Sabbath observation?  My guess is some with some disconnect.

Sabbath can be a time of solitude. The key is that it be rest with purpose.

Our meditation poem this morning was by Wendell Berry. For years, Berry has found time in nature create his Sabbath. And too he goes to church, at least most of the time, yet also claims nature as home for his Sabbath.

Our reading this morning was one of his Sabbath poems. Reflecting on Sabbath he shares, “In such places, on the best of these Sabbath days, I experience a lovely freedom from expectation – other peoples and my own. I go free from the tasks and intentions of my workdays, and so my mind becomes hospitable to unintended thoughts: to what I am very willing to call inspiration…In such a place one might expectably come to rest, with trust renewed in the creation’s power to exist and to continue.”

Yes, an exhale, but to an opening to inspiration…a readiness to take in what offers regeneration. I love that phrase freedom from expectation.

I was recently doing some self-assessment for the ministerial reviews I’m required to go through. I observed I read plenty on spiritual topics, went to workshops, and took in plenty of fresh information. Plenty coming in, and I noted that I could grow from letting these disparate sources connect and flow more gently. Not rest exactly, but an intentional making of time to put down the lists – my work – and to wonder of connections that might open to a new way, or to feel healing.

What is this work we put down – the Talmud, the rabbinic law had 39 categories – from planting, and cooking, to shearing and grinding. For orthodox Jews, the list guides their Sabbath. As we imagine putting down work, even for those of you retired, there is the work of paying bills, and arranging car repairs, of grocery shopping, and church committees.

Sabbath is of quiet, and too it is a communal time of meals and of gathering. There are practices keep the day worshipful, and also festive. All of these are guided by the principle that the seventh day be kept in a contrast to the other six days.

Energy is created around remembrance, and the holiness that comes through the telling of story. The Sabbath experience isn’t rushed; there is no need to keep events tightly timed. In pre-cell phone days there was a suggestion to take off one’s watch and set money and tools aside.

Senator Joe Lieberman, an observant Jew wrote a book The Gift of Rest, where he shares his own rhythm of weekly Sabbath observation. He talks of prayer time, and of time for intimate communications – both romantic, and in the spirit of deep connection with those closest to you. He suggests dressing up a bit, and has a practice of bringing home flowers to his wife, which he buys on his way home before sundown every Friday. Food is prepared and the house readied before sundown on Friday. During Sabbath, Lieberman suggests, “Elevate your talk. Rather than gossip, discuss ideas…avoid talking business.

In his book, Lieberman shares rest is not just about negation and not doing, but about a positive nature of our rest. From his perspective, “The difference between the work we do the rest of the week and the rest we do on Sabbath lies in the objective toward which each is directed. With our labor during the week, we seek to change and improve the world. With our rest, we seem to change and improve ourselves and to renew our relationship with God, family, and community and truly feel how much we have to be grateful for.”

Lieberman’s audience is not just Jews, but he encourages all open to considering how something along the lines of Sabbath can be meaningful rest.

Our UU ancestors, the American Puritans, had their own spin on rituals of Sabbath. Puritans as a general matter shunned idleness – they wanted to cure idleness, so Sabbath was countercultural (doing less), and still scriptural (God’s command). These exhausted workaholic types needed to protect the “industrious sort” from themselves and Sabbath helped as an antidote to these early workaholics. Church wardens were the enforcers. Puritans found orderliness a response to the disorder in the society. These Puritan traditions emerged the Blue laws shutting businesses on Sundays, which held on in Massachusetts and other New England states for years.  (Source: Sabbath World, Judith Shulevitz)

In some forms, Sabbath becomes rule focused; a collection of prohibitions and ‘to dos’ that have framed rituals over the years. For many, rules and rituals frame purposeful rest. But tight rules can also be tools to judge others on their Sabbath compliance, likely not what was imagined in God’s commandment for a holy Sabbath.

A routine ‘putting down’ of our work seems needed in today’s world. In our information deluge we can become disconnected. In The Sabbath World, author Judith Shulevitz quotes scholar David Levy who finds we are deluged and process information quickly rather than thoughtfully. Levy cautions, “If we don’t fend off these pollutants, he cautions, we risk becoming cut off from the world, rather than more connected; less able to make decisions rather than be better informed, and in the end much less human.”

What is restorative for you? A nap to be sure, but is there something more that tugs at you in these days of tension, and our culture of achievement, and the continued pressure to contribute more and more?

Our need for replenishing from a source, in a healthy, routine way is there. Those here do join weekly services – a part of a Sabbath practice. What other practices restore your faith and open you to new inspiration?

What of our need for Sabbath this week, say, Wednesday? I offer this sermon today, in advance of a national election, anticipating that this week will call us to vote, and to be our best and most reflective selves in the days and weeks to come.

In Joe Lieberman’s book he talks of a time when Sabbath and his public role overlapped. Back in the year 2000, he was the VP candidate in the protracted election result proceedings between Gore and Bush. That year January 20, 2001, Inauguration Day, fell on a Saturday, the Sabbath. He asks, “Could I miss this event?”  “No. I couldn’t. I had run for vice president on the ticket that George Bush and Dick Cheney defeated in a bitterly contested election. I knew it was time to come together for the good of the country. Our absence would be noted, and not withstanding Shabbat, would be seen by many as divisive and “unsportsmanlike conduct”

He still walked to the event in honor of the Sabbath, and kept what he could of his Sabbath. A day of unique perspectives.

This week as we watch the election results unfold, my hopes and prayers are for words and actions that from well-grounded leaders that add perspective, and care. And we all all these leaders in our many capacities – as community leaders, family members, and friends. And like one looks for the helpers in a crisis, I challenge us to look for the bridge builders in the weeks to come; to look for those who offer inspiration, and to find our own practices and rhythms that keep us open to inspiration.

In a Wall Street Journal article this week, John Haidt and Ravi Iyer note, reflect on the almost-post-election this way,

This has been a frightening year for many Americans. Questions about the durability, legitimacy and wisdom of our democracy have been raised, both here and abroad. But the true test of our democracy—and our love of country—will come on the day after the election. Starting next Wednesday, each of us must decide what kind of person we want to be and what kind of relationship we want to have with our politically estranged cousins.

Might this be a week, where a midweek day in the spirit of Sabbath might make sense?

May It Be So

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