The Sacred Art of Rest - A Sabbath Origin Story
This week’s sacred story comes from Genesis 2:1-3 (where God rests on the 7th day of creation and establishes the Sabbath as holy) and Mark 2:23-3:6 (where Jesus heals a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath).
Even when it’s blazing hot outside, I enjoy being out in creation and particularly working to tend creation. I delight in drawing low to the ground, digging into the dirt of my garden, feeling its dry grit and soft richness, planting new life and pulling up the weeds that get in the way. I delight in having my chickens cluck around me scratching at the earth, doing their part to help me in this work. As the stringent scent of green and the sweet smell of earth fill my nostrils, it makes me feel aligned with creation in my inmost being. Clearing the ground to make room for growth and flourishing is so satisfying. It’s a form of work that I find refreshing, almost meditative. But just because I enjoy this work and I do it unpaid in my “free time”, doesn’t necessarily mean it counts as Sabbath. Sabbath is what comes after - When I sit in my lawn chair in the shade as my sweat turns cool with the breeze, as I look out at the beauty of what is, and rest.
The cycle of work then rest, work, rest is a rhythm built into the very fabric of creation by our Creator. It’s a rhythm our body and soul already knows, was created to know. This is how we are created…in the beginning. When God creates the heavens and the earth, the world and all that’s in it…it culminates in a holy day of rest. Sabbath. Not only for God, but for all of creation.
This part of our rhythm of life is so critical it becomes part of God’s Ten Commandments – to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. It is codified into the structure that holds the People of God together. It becomes part of our Rule of Life to remind us who we are and where we come from…when we forget.
And sometimes, we over-emphasize the “rule” part of that equation.
Cleaning, cooking, even harvesting or shopping for things to eat is considered work. Perhaps, in our time, we should also name the work of the mental load - the unclocked and unpaid, often invisible work and emotional labor (disproportionately done by women in our society) that is necessary to manage household life and relationships - remembering family birthdays and the fact your need to get that card in the mail, researching which heartworm med is best for your pet, reminding your partner that the field trip permission slip is due today. All this work - things that require rather than refresh us.
As we follow Jesus in today’s text, we see that even plucking a head of grain as you walk through the fields was considered “work” because technically it’s harvesting (I guess?) and thus a violation of Sabbath. The law of Sabbath exists for a reason, we need the enduring reminder. And this Rule of Life has held the people together for millennia, so it is good and right to want to hold it in regard. But such a fundamentalist misunderstanding of the law sets the Sabbath as constricting rather than liberating. It mistakes the heart of Sabbath.
In Genesis, God rests on the seventh day OF creation. Rest doesn’t come AFTER creation, but is a part of it. Rest is the culmination of God’s work, the cherry on top. Thus, seven becomes a holy number that signifies complete-ness. The Sabbath is established as a consummation of completeness, wholeness, restoration. In the beginning, the keeping of this holy day is set not an obligation but a gift. It is not strictly a “we have to,” but “we get to.” We too are easily lured into a fixation on what rules must be kept in order to be “good.” Sabbath…at its heart, reminds us that by God’s grace, we are already created “good” and that in God we are whole. Jesus witnesses to this truth as Jesus chooses relationship over rules, love over law every time. That’s the Gospel.
And yet, our sin strives to keep us enslaved as we continue to condemn ourselves - telling ourselves everything we need to DO in order to feel complete and whole. The Sabbath resets us, reminds us that our wholeness comes not from what we do but who we are, not how many tasks we complete, but in our identity – created and declared very good, beloved by God. The open space of Sabbath helps us to become aware – of what is good and beautiful and alive. It ground us to our proper place in creation - that we can indeed stop and yet the world will continue to turn, and asserts God’s rightful place as the one who sets the pace.
Some among us don’t dare to even dream of rest because it can be dangerous – their existence on the margins means that every moment must be concerned with survival, they must always be “on” or they are at risk of harm. Against all evidence to the contrary, God declares that your weariness does not go unseen, and that rest will come.
Some among us create our own cage. Studies show that workers in this country spend an average of half their day receiving and managing information rather than doing their actual jobs.Americans, on average, leave 90% of our vacation days unused. And that’s IF you’re even lucky enough to have paid time off. We are a generation plagued by production and multi-tasking. It’s so much of our way of life that we even try to multi task our rest. Many of us continue working even when we’re not at work, even in the company of others we care about - checking messages, picking up this or that. Vacations become about checking off a to-do list of experiences, or what we can produce or present that is Insta-worthy. We tell ourselves we’re just being good workers or good citizens trying to keep up with the news or “live our best life now,” but we are also addicted to the stimulation of work and information, to busyness, to the idea of maximizing ourselves so that we might actually be worth something as a person. It’s a drug that often functions as a coping mechanism to avoid the places our brains take us if allowed to be free.
I’m not here to point fingers as if I’m exempt. I wrote this sermon over the weekend while out in the country with my family. I missed out on some things because of it. And I can tell myself that it’s because this was just a particularly busy week that demanded other priorities during my regular hours (because like all addicts, I am well-practiced in the art of rationalizing my habit), but this happens almost every week.
We may think it’s not really that big of a deal, but our brain, our bodies know different. Remember, we have Sabbath in our bones from the beginning. Research shows that we neurologically benefit from rest. Actually it shows that our bodies critically REQUIRE down time, idleness, doing nothing, even being “bored.” When we receive actual real rest, we’re more creative. The open space of idleness allows us to see the world in wider ways and make connections across creation we would otherwise miss. THAT’S where I often find God to be most evident and clear - when my brain has space to see and become aware of the great mysteries that surround me. And while rest does not replace therapy and medication, complete rest does improve our mental health as we find better balance.
We didn’t develop these habits overnight and we won’t be able to reset them that quickly either. But perhaps we can begin to reclaim Sabbath moments, then Sabbath hours, until we can truly embrace a Sabbath day. I wanted to have a list of Sabbath practices to offer you today, but it didn’t get done, and then I had to let it go for the sake of Sabbath. So I encourage you to go google some things- practice deep breathing, visit parks, meditation centers, take a technology Sabbath and activate that “do not disturb button” on your devices. May God give you eyes to see that there IS space, however small, to start.
How do we break the habits we know aren’t good for us? While I think it’s good to be honest about what our lack of Sabbath rest costs us – in our relationships with others, in our own health, and in our relationship with the Divine…Jesus shows us that we are not changed by shame through obligation. We are transformed from the compulsion of endless work that leads to death by being reminded of the heart of God for us – for healing, for life, for resurrection. This is what we come to be reminded of …in this table, in our song and in our silence, in this community. That even when others aim to exploit us, even when we work to destroy ourselves…God promises us life, reminds us that we are already created complete, valuable and beloved for who we are not just what we do. God restores us to wholeness, again and again. God invites us to find our rest in Godself. Our God is a God who rests. Sabbath is for me but not about me. It is about God and what God has declared for us and what God provides for us - the promise that there is enough, that we are enough. Enough now. Let it be. Amen.