Earlier in July, I met with my Committee on Preparation for Ministry, or CPM, to check in and see how thing were going in seminary and to make plans for furthering my ordination process. They had lots of questions to ask after a quite a second year- school, family, pandemic, new work and leadership here and at the seminary. After their questioning, they went away to discuss goals for my third year of seminary, and when they came back one of the first goals they presented was this: rest. As someone who prides him on taking on as much as I can to learn and soak up all the learning and serving opportunities I can, the last thing I was expecting was to hear this. For me, thinking about wholesome rest always drums up the idea of Shabbat, or Sabbath rest. Sabbath has always been one of my favorite spiritual practices to study and read on, so I took this goal as an opportunity to dive deeper into the idea of Shabbat and how we need Sabbath rest now more than ever.
In one of our recent conversations during Coffee Hour, one person named something that put a lot of what I’ve been experiencing into perspective during this time of pandemic. When talking about Sunday worship, they remarked that Sunday worship is an anchor for knowing what day of the week it is. Have you had to ask “Now, what day of the week is it again?”. So many of our routines were and are constantly being upended, at times it’s been quite tricky to keep track of all that is going on. We’ve spent this summer in Sunday worship with the theme Together We Create, we’ve named ways in which we are actively participating with God in the creating and recreating. Back in May we started with the first part of the creation story from Genesis: six days of creating, working, naming, growing, moving. But as Lorna read for us earlier the grand finale of the creation week, at the end of all that splendor, God chose to rest and take delight in all that God had done and created, naming that final day the Sabbath.
Traditionally, the Christian understanding of the Sabbath has been similar to our Jewish siblings in that there should be one day each week where working ceases and we refocus, rest, and renew ourselves with God. We have for years looked at Sunday as a day set apart for worship. For some of us, I’m sure the idea of Sunday Sabbath also meant a list of do’s and don’ts on Sunday. Our plans of governing the Sabbath were an attempt to modernize the early Jewish laws of Sabbath, found later on in the Exodus text (see Exodus 31). For Jewish rabbis, responsible for teaching and presiding over Shabbat worship, they found that Shabbat was a day of ceasing from creative work, or melachah- work done to control or contain your surroundings. For them, melachah was the type of work God engaged in when creating the cosmos, so when God rested on the seventh day, so must they. The ceasing from creative work was most seen and felt in the construction of the temple, as many of the do’s and don’ts of Jewish Shabbat today were inspired by the 39 acts of melachah done when working to build the temple, such as kindling a fire, using a hammer, or taking an object from the private domain into the public domain.
To see this translated into our Western Christian culture, it seems we’ve taken bits and pieces of the Jewish practice of shabbat and almost haphazardly applied it to our Sunday ritual. Some businesses choose to close on Sunday with Sabbath in mind. Growing up in Alabama meant that even local government laws and ordinances also sought to “keep the Sabbath Holy” by outlawing dominoes and card games on Sunday. Now, whether those laws were actually enforced (or even real) is beside the point. Do these attempts at maintaining the Sabbath actually help or only convolute Sabbath practice? I would argue that we need some middle ground here, that part of our creative work done outside of Sabbath should be an attempt at reclaiming a Sabbath for ourselves. For in the Gospel of Mark, even Jesus remarks that the Sabbath was made for us, not us for Sabbath (Mark 2:27).
In order to start to reclaim a Sabbath for myself, I looked deeper into the values and ideals of the Jewish Shabbat. While the Exodus text we read uses the verb zakhor, or remember the Sabbath, the reiteration of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy instead uses the word shamor, or observe. When remembering the Sabbath, Jewish scholars see the Sabbath as a commemoration of God’s creation, but also as a commemoration of the Israelites’ freedom from slavery in Egypt. For rest and leisure was a privilege reserved only for the elite, as slaves were not given time off. Moses puts this into perspective in the Deuteronomic telling of the ten commandments in Deuteronomy 5:15: 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. Jewish author Tracey Rich says this in regards to Moses’ connection of the Exodus and Sabbath:
“What does the Exodus have to do with resting on the seventh day? It's all about freedom. Thus, by resting on Shabbat, we are reminded that we are free. But in a more general sense, Shabbat frees us from our weekday concerns, from our deadlines and schedules and commitments. During the week, we are slaves to our jobs, to our creditors, to our need to provide for ourselves; on Shabbat, we are freed from these concerns, much as our ancestors were freed from slavery in Egypt.”
As many of us began to work from home in the pandemic, the line between work and home has certainly been blurred, and I personally have had to really focus on keeping some sort of boundary between the two, which hasn’t been the most successful. I’ve caught myself checking my emails and messages more often lying in bed trying to go to sleep or even as soon as I wake up in the morning. The idea of being beholden to my work and responsibilities seemed to be in direct conflict of the premise of Sabbath.
With some clarity on what we’re doing when we remember the Sabbath, how then should we observe it? When reflecting on my conversation with the CPM when they encouraged rest, why I was trying to look for Sabbath instead of just a few days off for self care?
Walter Bruggeman sees sabbath as resistance. He remarks on our text from the book of Exodus: “Rest as did the creator God! And while you rest, be sure that your neighbors rest alongside you. Indeed, sponsor a system of rest that contradicts the system of anxiety of Pharaoh, because you are no longer subject to Pharaoh’s anxiety system. Create restfulness with theological rootage, political viability, and economic significance for all the domain of covenant….God invites the ones at Sinai to a new life of neighborly freedom in which Sabbath is the cornerstone of faithful freedom. Such faithful practice of work stoppage is an act of resistance. It declares in bodily ways that we will not participate in the anxiety system that pervades our social environment. We will not be defined by busyness and by acquisitiveness and by pursuit of more, in either our economics or our personal relationships or anywhere in our lives. Because our life does not consist in commodity.” 
Lauren Winner, a professor of Christian Spirituality and Jewish-Christian relations at Duke Divinity School, took a series of Jewish practices and applied a Christian theology and approach to them in her book Mudhouse Sabbath, with her first chapter being on shabbat. Lauren grew up Jewish and converted to Christianity during her college years. In her chapter on Sabbath, writes:
“There is something in the Jewish Sabbath that is absent from most Christian Sundays: a true cessation from the rhythms of work and world, a time wholly set apart, and perhaps, above all, a sense that the point of Shabbat, the orientation of Shabbat, is toward God”.
Lauren then writes about the two flaws in the modern approach to Sabbath: the first dealing with capitalism’s justification for Sabbath rest. While the idea of resting for one day a week so that you can be productive the other six may be true “rest for the sake of future productivity is at odds with the spirit of Shabbat”. The second flaw is the fallacy of the direct object: Whom is the Sabbath designed to honor? Whom does it benefit? “In observing the Sabbath, one is both giving a gift to God and imitating God. Exodus and Deuteronomy make this clear when they say, ‘Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.’ To the Lord your God.”
So now that we’re equipped with more context of the history and premise of Sabbath, how do we put it into practice? Obviously a one size does not fit all. But I can share with you my experience of Sabbath.
As a member on the church staff, its quite impossible to consider Sunday as a full day of Sabbath rest, and then combine that with being a seminary student and the idea of a full 24 hours Sabbath is out of the equation for the time being. So instead, I’ve established what I call my Sabbath replenishment cycle. I’ve named five things that I do regularly each week that slows me down and gives me Sabbath rest.
The first is cooking a good meal. Whether it’s a family recipe or a new recipe I’m wanting to try, I make the most of that meal each week. And my time preparing it grounds me in creation. It is a worshipful experience. I often feel most connected to God when I am preparing a meal, so it’s a time of prayer, music, and creating something beautiful. The second is an unscheduled call to a loved one. I call friends or family with no agenda but to spend time with them. Sometimes these calls last 10 minutes, others last an hour plus. Interwoven in our call is a time to check in, reminiscing about a memory or moment in our lives, and typically a good bit of laughter.
Third, I also try to throw in an extra-long leisurely walk with Archibald that almost always ends up in us getting lost somewhere in the San Anselmo or Ross. I treat it like a labyrinth walk, always finding our way back home at the just the right time.
The fourth piece attempts to address the idea of embracing Sabbath in those around me. Sabbath rest ultimately comes with privilege, so its my responsibility to limit my purchasing and buying so that others may have even just a moment of Sabbath rest.
The fifth and last piece of my Sabbath cycle is “negative space”, which is a term which graphic designers use to describe white space. Designer Jocelyn Glei writes that “it’s not blank space because it has a purpose. It is balancing the rest of the design by throwing what is on the page (or the screen) into relief. The white space helps focus your visual attention”. From a design perspective, Sabbath seems like a lot of negative space. She says, “if we want to create an environment that nourishes innovation and imagination, we need to build quiet counterpoints into our daily rhythm. These small moments of ‘white space’ are what give balance and flow and comprehension to our lives as a larger whole.” The theological equivalent to this is what we call apophatic prayer, a prayer practice of emptying the mind of words and ideas and simply resting in the presence of God. In cooler moments, I find negative space for Sabbath rest outside on my rocking chair, listening closely to the sounds of the seminary grounds or sometimes some taize chants.
I think if we take a larger step back, all of Sabbath looks like negative space for our life- Sabbath rest provides balance, resistance to anxiety, and time to refocus. Sabbath provides us an intimate space to rest in the presence of our own Creator. May we find divine rest in Sabbath.
And an invitation to prayer following the sermon:
As we now move into responding to the word, we will continue with our virtual worship ritual of responding in song, silence, and then prayer. Today’s hymn, Stay with Me, is a familiar one from our Lenten journey. It may feel unsettling to use such a somber song to respond to the promise of Divine Rest, but consider this: In Jewish theology, a second spirit dwells with us during Shabbat. The closing of the Jewish Shabbat is bittersweet because one is moving back into the regular routine of work and play, so one must say farewell to this extra presence. Perhaps our hymn, echoing the words of Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane, might hold us in that bittersweet moment of soaking in God’s Divine Sabbath rest to the very last drop. After Christine leads us in our hymn, there will be time for silence, and I encourage you to reflect on your own needs for Sabbath rest. Perhaps you use that time to practice negative space, emptying your mind, or perhaps you think about what your Sabbath replenishment cycle might look like.
© 2020 Patrick O'Connor