Sabbath Rest – Aug. 11, 2019

Sabbath Rest

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Deuteronomy 5:12-15

Matthew 11:28-30

August 11, 2019

Main Idea: God gives us Sabbath rest.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen

When household appliances, such as refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners began to be widely available, this was supposed to usher in an age of leisure for the women who had toiled so hard to care for their homes and families.   When computers became widely available, this was supposed to usher in an age of imagination and learning as we would all have the time and opportunity to get advanced educational degrees.  With smartphones widely available, it has become second nature to expect instant knowledge, instant access to everyone and everything.  “What is the capital of Tasmania?” (Hobart)  “Where is Timbuktu?” (Mali, Western Africa) “I want purple hiking boots.” (available from LLBean for $160).  All of these advances were supposed to give us more time, and more freedom.  But instead we have less time, we are less free, and we are more anxious as automation and robots increasingly take away jobs from people.  How did we get this way?  How do we change?

Our Jewish friends and neighbors have built their religious life around the practice of Shabbat; observing the Sabbath, and Sabbath keeping is part of our Christian tradition as well.  For the next 3 Sundays we will be explore what Sabbath is and how we can experience it.  The Sabbath is a gift from God to us that frankly we are not very good at receiving. The Sabbath gives us rest.

Our Hebrew Scripture text for today comes from the 10 Commandments.  The 10 Commandments are recorded twice in Scripture; first in Exodus 20 and then here in Deuteronomy.  The rules are basically the same with one major divergence; the reason for the Sabbath.  In both lists, the commandment for Sabbath is the longest one and it serves as a bridge between rules about honoring God and rules about caring for the community.   In the Exodus text, the reason for the Sabbath is to model our behavior on that of God.  God created for 6 days and then rested on the 7th day.  So we too should work for 6 days and rest for one.  Here in Deuteronomy, a different reason is given.  We observe the Sabbath to remember that once we were slaves with no freedom to rest.

“Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”(5:15)  Once, the Israelites had no control over when they worked, or what they did.  They received no pay and they had no claim to any resource, not even to their own bodies or their children.  They were slaves. 

But God led them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.  Now they had freedom and responsibility.  They had to make choices about how they would spend their time.  God wanted them to be prosperous, with enough to care for themselves and their families, but not to forget from whence they came.  The Sabbath was a weekly reminder of their freedom and of God’s care and provision.  Not only for them but for everyone, for all of creation.

Notice that the text is very specific about who should observe the Sabbath.  It is not just the head of household.  It is not just the family.  It is not just the Israelites.  It is everyone, even the animals.  The “seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work— you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you”.(5:14)  God knows how easy it would have been to take the day off while requiring your employees to work on your behalf. God knows how easy it would be for former slaves to become harsh task masters of others, subjecting their servants to the oppression they themselves had escaped.  On the Sabbath everything stops.  Everyone gets the day off, “so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you”. Observing the Sabbath means that all distinctions between people, based on social status, or origin, or material worth disappear as all are valued as beloved children of God, worthy of freedom and rest.

In the Jewish tradition, Shabbat begins on Friday at sundown.  At that time all work stops, whether it is finished or not.  The Friday night dinner is a festive occasion with special prayers, candles, and often friends or family invited over.  Saturday is a day to spend in community, in worship, unplugged and unencumbered by the worries of the rest of the week.  Shabbat is a remembrance that the world can go on without us for one day a week.  We are not God and this fact is a gift.  Shabbat continues until 3 stars can be seen in the night sky on Saturday evening. 

For Christians, the Sabbath has an additional layer of meaning. We observe the Sabbath on the eighth day or the first day of the week. Every Sunday is an Easter Day, a remembrance of Christ rising from the dead.  It is a festival day, a day of celebration and joy in addition to being a day of rest and remembrance. 

Now all of you are here today, so you recognize Sunday as a special day but why, in our general practice, have we given up our claim to the Sabbath?  Why do we not celebrate it and guard it as well as our Jewish siblings?

First, our Puritan ancestors, in their zeal to observe the Sabbath, made it into a day of obligation rather than gift.  Back in the day, Sunday was a day for church and for no fun. We have all heard stories of folks getting dressed up and then having to sit quietly for hours, no laughing and no play!  In Plymouth, Mass, my husband Mark’s church had long sticks with a ball at one end and a feather at the other which had been used long ago to poke or tickle people who fell asleep during the hours long worship services. When I worked at First Baptist, Newton in Massachusetts, I planned a church family outing to a Red Sox game on a Sunday afternoon.  One member complained that going to a baseball game was inappropriate for a church activity, especially on a Sunday.   I remember a friend’s mother saying, “You have 6 days of the week to do whatever you want, you can give one day to God.”(as if God had no part in the rest of the week.) Sabbath keeping was seen as a drag, a cheerless, boring obligation.

But even more than because of Puritan cheerlessness, we have given away Sabbath through our own anxiety and lack of care.  We have shaped a culture that does not value rest nor anything that does not produce.  All of the technological advances we have make us less free and more anxious. Our economic and political structures depend on us working and buying and wanting more and more, never content with what we have, always needing to be better than someone else, always needing to be on call.  We have created a system which gives more and more to those who are rich while denying value to those who are in need.  We have supplanted God with our own theories of self-help, self-sufficiency, the illusion of the“the self-made man”.  We don’t dare to unplug or step outside of these systems.  It may not surprise you that “the average American checks their phone 80 times a day while on vacation.” (Kara Root,

To observe the Sabbath is to be countercultural.  It is to remember that God is God and we are not.  Not only does it bring us rest, it puts us in right relation with God and with others.  It makes us aware of those for whom Sabbath is an economic impossibility. Those who must work 2-3 jobs to care for their families. Those who are living in fear rather than peace.  The Sabbath is not just for our individual renewal but for the renewal of society so that all are valued and able to rest.

Sabbath rest is not something to be earned, it is our starting point. It is God’s gift to all of us.  And we are so in need.  Jesus says ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matt 11:28-30) We do not need to earn God’s love.  Christ welcomes us and cares for us just as we are.

In the coming weeks we will explore how the Sabbath affects all of our life, not only one day, but everyday and we will recognize the blessing and grace the Sabbath brings to us and to the world.

So this week, let us observe the Sabbath, let us rest in God’s love and providence. (Unfortunately, we have board meetings today after worship, perhaps we might revisit that decision for the future.) But perhaps this afternoon, or some other day this week, we can unplug and really attend to our loved ones, we could go for a walk, or visit a neighbor, or read a good book. We can contemplate God’s power and care for us until the first 3 stars appear in the sky and then we can thank God for the Sabbath and for all that we are.

Let us pray,

God of the Sabbath, we praise you and thank you for your gifts of time and rest.  Help us to let go of all that leads us away from you.  Help us to spend our time in freedom and joy, sharing your love with the world.  Amen.