sacred time

We talked about the ancient practice of sabbath at Bethany this week.  Our texts were from Deuteronomy and Mark.  There’s so much to say about the sabbath, and at the same time saying anything seems foolish.  It’s a practice, not an idea–we learn about it best by simply doing it.  But, if you’re looking to learn more, there are many great resources.  Two of my favorites are An Altar in the World, by Barbara Brown Taylor and The Sabbath World, by Judith Shulevitz.

Audio from Sunday is below and text is after the jump.

How are you?  Good.  Busy.  How are you?  Good.  Busy, busy—you know.  But good.

Sometimes it feels like saying hello can be a competition to see who’s busiest.  It feels like we’re defined by how we spend our days.  And so busyness becomes an end in itself.  If we’re busy, things must have meaning, right?  There’s the sense that if our days are not full, and full of the right stuff, then we must not be either.  If our days our empty, we are too.  But when our days are uncomfortably full there’s a sense of life disappearing too quickly to appreciate and enjoy.  You can’t win!

How do we live in the midst of this push and pull?  How can we get a handle on our schedules?  Or at least some perspective?

Abraham Heschel pointed out that the very first thing God called holy in all of creation wasn’t a thing at all.  It was a day.  God’s first act of consecration was to consecrate time.

The way our first creation story in Genesis tells it, God made the earth and the heavens and all that creeps and crawls and swims and walks, calling each good in turn.  And then God rested, and called that day not good, but holy.

From that story comes the Jewish, and sometimes Christian, practice of honoring the sabbath.  It’s so important it made it into the ten commandments.  In Exodus last week the people were told to keep the sabbath because they are made in the image of God.  God rested and so should we.

The version we read today gives a different rationale, but it’s the same command.  Work for six days, and one day, out of every seven, rest.

Yeah.  That’s nice.  But this is the real world.  Life is 24/7.  There’s not time for sabbath.  Maybe I could take a day off from my job, but not a day off from all work.

And besides, as we read the ten commandments it’s as if there’s an asterisk by that one.  *Does not apply to Christians.

That’s what the passage in Mark is about, right?  There’s no point in following a law just for the sake of the law.  Here’s Jesus proving that very thing.  After all, what’s more soul-killing than legalism?  It seems like the rules multiply on the sabbath.  It’s supposed to be simple.  Do no work on this day.

But, what is work?  Is it just what we’re paid for?  What about volunteer work?  Or housework?  Or homework?

As the rabbis tried to sort it out, they came up with 39 kinds of work.  39!  39 categories of things that are prohibited.  And the restrictions multiply from there.  To an outsider it seems absurd.

And maybe sometimes to an insider as well.  It seemed at least somewhat absurd to Jesus.  Hunger and healing trumped the restrictions in this story.  Which is a good caution anytime we’re setting stuff aside as sacred.  Anything that we consider too sacred to be used for life, too special to be soiled in the use of helping another, maybe we should reconsider.

Perhaps as mainline Christians today we most need that reminder when it comes to our buildings.  There are some church buildings with parlors so special that children’s grubby hands are not welcome.  We don’t have furniture quite that rarified here—thank goodness.  I’ve enjoyed our recent conversations about how we can use our building to serve the community.  As we go down that road, we’re likely to have moments where we wonder, should we use the church building for something that secular, or that messy?  These stories may be good reminders in those moments.

But it seems to me that when it comes to time we’ve swung to the other side.  Are there sacred times left in our lives?

Maybe what we need to glean first from Jesus’ example is not his corrective to the deadening legalism of consecrated time, but the simple fact that he continued to observe the sabbath.  Sure, he healed people and fed people on the sabbath, but that does not mean it became a day like any other day.

We see throughout his ministry that he’s regularly in the synagogue on the sabbath—sometimes teaching, sometimes arguing, but always there, setting aside the day as sacred.  Even after his death, his followers observed the sabbath before they came to anoint his body.

We jump so quickly to the changes and limitations on the sabbath that we neglect the persistent witness to Jesus’ practice of it.  And so maybe we should take a second look at this consecration of time thing.

Really, on the face of it, what’s not to like?  Take a day off.  Chill out.  Rest.  For no other reason than God said so, and if it’s good enough for God, it’s good enough for us.  That’s, in essence, the logic of the commandment as we see it in Exodus.  God did it.  Now we do it.

And there’s value in rest.  Just as sleep deprivation is a form of torture, so too our spirits need rest.

But rest can be disconcerting.  Many of us, when faced with the question, would you rather be bored or be too busy, will consistently answer, I’d rather be busy, thank you.  We’ll do virtually anything to escape boredom, and with rest often comes boredom.

Boredom, sometimes even the blues.  A day of enforced rest for someone whose schedule is not full enough, who struggles with loneliness day in and day out can feel like a cruel taunt.

And enforced rest in the midst of a too full schedule can sometimes feel like slamming to a stop on a ride at the fair—a little nauseating and disruptive.  Who am I if I’m not doing all these other things?  What do I do with myself?  Do I even exist if I’m not sending email and answering the phone?

This sense of disease points at another spiritual component of the day of rest—one that we see in the command in Deuteronomy.  To rest, to stop, to say no to doing just one more thing, is an assertion of freedom.  Once the Israelites were free from bondage they rested one day out of seven as a reminder that they were free, and that everyone and every thing else is fundamentally free too—even slaves, even livestock.

The practice of a weekly sabbath evolved into a practice of resting the fields every seven years, and every fifty years literally everything rested.  Commerce, farming, even all debts were forgiven.  It was known as the year of Jubilee.  The regular marking of time, setting it aside as sacred, and engaging in the regular practice of stopping, resting, and practicing freedom, not only changed their relationship to time, it also changed their relationships with each other.

We, in this time, are defined by what we produce and consume.  To stop all that production and consumption for twenty-four hours is a radical act.  We live in a culture where the protestant work ethic still holds sway.  To cease all work is an act of rebellion.  When we are defined by how busy we are, when our worth is determined by what we do, and our status often measured by what we are able to buy, to stop from all of that is no small thing.

For one, it’s a reminder that we are not what we do.  Or, put differently, we don’t earn our keep on this earth.  That dis-ease that can come when we set down the smart phone and look up at the rest of the world and wonder, well, what do I do if I’m not answering email, that dis-ease is a reminder that we are not what we do for a living.  And neither is anyone else.  Whether we’re unemployed, underemployed, or overemployed, on sabbath, we’re all the same.  The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor points out that it’s really hard to tell the CEO of Wal-Mart and the stock boy who works nights at Wal-Mart apart when they’re both reading books on park benches.

Our inherent worth is in no way, shape, or form determined by what we earn or don’t earn.  We know that with babies, but we forget it with adults.  Sabbath is a reassertion of that truth.  And I can’t think of a reminder we need more right now.

We are all God’s children—whether we earned ten million dollars last year, or are facing bankruptcy.  All of us are God’s children, and God intends for all to have enough of what they need, including food, shelter, work, and rest.

This is the heart of the law that Jesus was seeking to return to in the story in Mark.  Jesus reminds us that the sabbath is a gift, for us.  It is intended to put us in right relationship with each other and with God.  The sabbath, in reminding us that we’re all just creatures made by God, puts us on level footing and restores dignity to all—including the hungry, the broken, and the ill.

We were not made for the sabbath.  The sabbath was made for us—to give us life.


So, as we bring all of our baggage and stress and worry about time to the Lord, how might the sabbath still be a gift from God that is life bearing?  If this is a gift the Lord still wishes to give to us, what shape might it take in our lives?  How would a day off change the shape of your week?  A day off from work, and commerce, and doing anything that kills your soul?  What would that look like?

The question is: how is God asking you to consecrate your time?  Perhaps it is by picking up the old practice of sabbath.  Maybe you already set a day aside.  Is God calling you to deepen your practice?  You might even want to read up on how Jews still celebrate—they’re old pros at this.

Or maybe you feel more called to consecrate each day, setting aside thirty minutes in your morning, or the commute in the evening for prayer and rest.  Perhaps you’ll set an alarm to go off on your phone or your watch a few times a day as a reminder to stop whatever you’re doing and give thanks, hearkening back to the old practice of praying the hours.

But before we jump too quickly to alternate ways of consecrating time, let’s not forget the sabbath.  What would a day dedicated to only those things that give life and rest, deep down in the bottom of your heart, look like?  Would you stay in bed until noon?  Or get up with the sun and go for a walk?  Would you call that friend you’ve been meaning to talk to for ages?  Or maybe read the rest of that novel, or the good devotional a friend recommended?  Would you go garden, or take a break from yard work?  Would you maybe just sit out on your porch for a while and watch the world go by, reflecting on everything and nothing, letting the sanctity of time seep into your soul?

Could it be that setting aside some time in regular intervals like this would shape the rest of our time?  That by declaring this one day sacred, the rest of the week would look different?

That, I think, is at the heart of the spirituality of sabbath.

Whatever we do, it’s worth remembering that the very first thing our God ever called holy was not a thing at all, but a piece of time.  Even still our God seeks to sanctify not just our actions and our words and our hearts, but all of our moments.  Our endless, numbered days* are a gift from God who loves us.  For these we give thanks and pray that we might use them well.  May it so be.

* I owe this turn of phrase to Iron and Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days, 2004.
by Sarah Wiles
October 23, 2011
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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