Sunday, August 21, 2022

Sermon: “What Sabbath Actually Is”, Isaiah 58:5-7, 13-14/Luke 13:10-17 (August 21, 2022)

Today, we’re getting not only a lesson in theology, but in internet culture, as well! This is a meme format that first emerged in 2012 but seems to have had a slight resurgence over the past couple of years.[1] The idea of the meme is to humorously portray a profession by visually depicting how different people or groups view it through six different images. The default categories are usually something along the lines of “What my friends think I do/what my parents think I do/what society thinks I do/what I think I do/and what clients or customers think I do”. It almost always ends with “What I actually do”, which often serves as a punchline of sorts. For example, in a version about teachers, the last frame might be a desk covered in paperwork; in one about a customer service specialist, a bottle of aspirin; in one about a nurse, a comically large mug of coffee. (I highly encourage you to google your own profession or hobby; odds are there’s already at least one version of this meme already in circulation.)

Today’s scripture readings are about Sabbath; specifically, the correct way to observe it. The passages from both Isaiah and Luke depict some pretty serious discrepancies in how different groups of people interpret (or misinterpret) the idea of Sabbath. It seemed to be the perfect fodder for a “What people think I do/What I actually do” meme…so I made one. Maybe we can use it as a tool to help us to determine what Sabbath ACTUALLY is.

First time I've used a meme in a sermon!

First up in my version is “What the fourth commandment says it is.” Although the idea of Sabbath appears as early as Genesis’ first creation account, the formal requirement for US to observe Sabbath shows up in the Ten Commandments: “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…”[2] So, the literal, most basic definition of Sabbath is a once-a-week cessation of work. We keep the day holy by deliberately pausing our busy lives. It seems like a simple concept, doesn’t it? But anyone can take a break, so that alone can’t be what makes Sabbath holy. This literal description isn’t, at its core, what Sabbath actually is.

Of course, human beings have taken this commandment and changed its meaning countless times through our own interpretations. Sabbath means something very different to us today than it meant to our spiritual ancestors. In modern society, we take weekends for granted thanks to the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century (and we often use them to “catch up on work”, anyway), so for most Christians, Sabbath has become synonymous not with rest, but with “going to church” – the second panel of the meme. Sabbath is the one hour a week we set aside for worship, and by showing up and participating in this tradition, we assume that we’ve met our contractual obligation to God. But while worship is certainly a worthwhile way to spend a Sunday morning, making an appointment with God isn’t really the best way to keep a day holy. This isn’t what Sabbath actually is, either.

We pastors are guilty of interpreting the sacred meaning of Sabbath for our own purposes, too, which brings us to the third panel. Leading Sunday morning worship is a part of our job, so it can’t be considered our Sabbath by either the scriptural or cultural definitions. Instead, few things say “Sabbath” to a pastor like the third sacrament, the sacred Sunday afternoon nap. We immerse ourselves in God’s Word during the week, we go-go-go on Sunday mornings, and then we crash on the couch as soon as we get home, dead to the world for the next hour or two. It’s almost like we try to binge Sabbath as soon and as fast as we can to make sure we can squeeze it into our schedules before we start planning for next week’s worship. Needless to say, this isn’t what Sabbath actually is, either.

But this isn’t a problem that’s unique to the modern Church. Almost as soon as Moses shared the original commandment with the Israelites, the people began misinterpreting it. The fourth panel of the meme illustrates the attitude of the Israelites in the early days after the Babylonian exile. According to Isaiah, they’d been interpreting the Sabbath commandment VERY loosely since their return. Apparently, “resting from work” had somehow morphed into “doing whatever you want” in their collective understanding. The former exiles saw Sabbath the way someone today might view an all-access pass to an amusement park – a ticket to unlimited fun. After all, they’d spent over 400 years enslaved to the Egyptians and more than a generation exiled from their homeland; surely, God’s deepest desire upon their return was for them to have a good time! Unfortunately, as Isaiah makes clear, this also isn’t what Sabbath actually is.

Even in the New Testament, misunderstandings abound (albeit, on the opposite end of the spectrum). The religious authorities in Jesus’ day FAMOUSLY didn’t get the point of Sabbath. Sure, they understood the literal commandment, but they thought it was their solemn duty to make sure that it was observed precisely and completely, with absolutely NO exceptions. They saw themselves as the referees of Sabbath (the fifth panel of the meme). To them, Sabbath was an inflexible rule meant to keep people in line. It’s almost embarrassing how many times Jesus had to correct them, because they certainly didn’t understand what Sabbath actually is.

Which brings us to the sixth and final panel of my Sabbath meme: what Sabbath ACTUALLY is. Since centuries of humankind have done such a terrible job of interpreting the concept of Sabbath, it seems that the only way for us to understand it is to hear it straight from the source: God’s Word. Let’s revisit that original commandment for a moment. It says, “…the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you.” Each of the interpretations represented in the meme fall short of understanding Sabbath because they all disregard one very important fact: God intends it for EVERYONE.

No matter how well we personally might be adhering to the fourth commandment (and let’s ignore for a second the fact that we’re probably not), we are not truly observing it unless we’re sure that every single one of God’s beloved children is also able to rest. This responsibility involves a great deal more than merely not impeding them. If we truly want to honor Sabbath the way God intends for us to, then we need to be actively working to make sure that everyone is able to take their divinely mandated rest.

This is why God prefers the fast of releasing wicked restraints, setting the mistreated free, and breaking every yoke. This is why Isaiah talks about sharing bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless into your house, and covering the naked when you see them. This is why Jesus controversially chooses to heal on the Sabbath. Because a person cannot rest, no matter how much they may want to, when they’re experiencing any of these painful realities. When someone has to work nonstop in order to feed their family, when someone has been made to believe they don’t DESERVE rest, when someone spends every moment worrying about their basic needs, or when someone spends all of their energy trying to overcome physical differences that society says are no excuse for unproductivity, it’s impossible for that person to observe the Sabbath faithfully. So whenever it’s within our power to change those conditions, we have a sacred obligation to do so.

Of course, the best way to make this happen is by challenging the systemic impediments to rest that are embedded in our culture (like Jesus did). To make sure that the sick are cared for, that the working poor make enough to feed, clothe, and house their families, and that there is adequate time for rest built into our society. But this doesn’t always require picketing and protesting and political lobbying to accomplish (although those are great ways to make your voice heard, if you’re up to it). Sometimes, we need to speak out about these values like Isaiah; other times, we need to personally provide whatever we can, like Jesus. But sometimes, the most revolutionary and holy thing you can do to make Sabbath accessible for everyone is to make sure you’re faithfully keeping it yourself.

As you face the beginning of another busy fall, don’t forget to set an example of Sabbath-keeping for those around you. Don’t skip your vacation days. Don’t work from home when you’re sick. Don’t say yes to an obligation that you don’t have the energy for. Don’t habitually overfill your schedule (or your kids’). Don’t forgo a nap that you desperately need, just because you’re a grownup. The more often we model Sabbath rest in our own lives, the more normal it seems, and the easier it becomes for others to do. Don’t consider rest a luxury; consider it a spiritual discipline and a form of ministry. Find ways to invite others into the rest that you claim for yourself. It’s not just a good idea; it’s a commandment.

We shouldn’t have to wait for the perfect meme to demonstrate that there’s something missing from our understanding of Sabbath (although it’s certainly a fun way to experience an epiphany). We should be intentional about our rest, and vigilant in ensuring others’. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the chief end of humankind is to glorify and enjoy God, but that’s impossible without the time, space, and permission to be still. Let us remember and keep the Sabbath, then, by refusing to let our kindred go without. It may mean doing some work on the Sabbath…but it’s a holy work to which we’re called by God, moved by the Spirit, and joined by Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[2] Exodus 20:8-10a, NRSV

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