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Reclaiming Sabbath -- Patrick O'Connor preaching -- Gen. 2:1-3 & Ex. 20:8-11

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 co