Sermon: Practicing Sabbath

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

Deut. 5:12-15

Growing up there were things I always expected to happen (or not happen) on Sundays. My Mom would tune the radio to the Christian program called Sunday Praise while we were getting ready for church. Then we would all pile into the van and tumble out at church, taking our usual spot in the front row. After church we would have a home-cooked meal and maybe a guest would join us. I think in the afternoon we usually played board games or did something as a family (we did have a TV, so TV watching was always off the table). No one went to the store because shopping was not allowed. The day would conclude with lots of stovetop popcorn for dinner.

I’m curious, in your households growing up, were there certain things that happened or definitely didn’t happen (or weren’t allowed to happen) on Sundays? As a kid did those things make sense? Were any of the practices or prohibitions frustrating? Did they set Sunday apart from other days? 

Fast forward to the present, other than participating in church like you are now, are there things that set Sunday apart for you? Do you associate Sundays with honoring the Sabbath in some regard? 

In looking through the lectionary texts for this week, I was drawn to the passage from Deut. 5 that Katelin read. I realized I’ve never actually preached on sabbath and I want to better understand what it’s about. What does it actually mean to remember the sabbath and keep it holy, especially for those who are not Jewish and do not regularly celebrate Shabbat? What is the invitation?

One thing I’ve noticed in myself is a real struggle to unplug from the drive to be productive all the time. Even in my downtime when I’m not doing paid work or tending to specific family responsibilities, I feel the need to use my time in the best way, and definitely not waste time. OR I just crash because I’m exhausted. So it’s still about doing the right thing or not doing anything at all. Simply put it’s focused on “doing” rather than “being.” 

In my study of sabbath for this sermon I’ve found that it’s all about being. It’s about a different way of being in relationship with ourselves, with each other, with the world and with the divine. The commandment to honor the Sabbath is articulated twice in the Hebrew scriptures, in Exodus and in Deut. These are the two places where the 10 commandments are articulated. Although the command is the same in each passage, the reason is different. 

Elias told me there’s an ancient Jewish story that God said both versions of the commandments at the same time… so having two versions is not about determining which is right and which is wrong. 

In Exodus the reason for honoring the Sabbath is based in the creation story, that we are to follow the divine example and rest on the 7th day. God rested so we also rest. 

Along these lines Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book “The Sabbath,” further explains how the command to rest was not an absence of work, but was another divine creation. In Hebrew the word for rest is menuha which means tranquility, serenity, peace and joyful repose. Creation was not complete until God created menuha, the delight and celebration of its goodness. 

In Deut. the reason for honoring the Sabbath is in remembrance of the liberation from enslavement in Egypt by the hand of God. You were slaves and now you get to rest. This is about God’s provision for the people in the desert and non-exploitative labor relationships with humans and animals, and by extension the earth. 

In his booklet, The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics, Ched Myers writes, “Christians trivialize (and even ‘profane’) the Sabbath if we regard it merely as a day to do as little as possible, or as an antiquated Jewish code of nit-picking prohibitions. Torah’s Sabbath regulations represent God’s strategy for teaching Israel about its dependence upon the land as a gift to share equitably, not as a possession to exploit… It functions to disrupt human attempts to ‘control’ nature and ‘maximize’ the forces of production.”

The cessation of doing is about opening oneself and one’s community to being. Heschel writes about detachment from things and attachment to spirit. Sabbath is an “opportunity to mend our tattered lives… It is a day of the soul as well as of the body; comfort and pleasure are an integral part of the observance.”

Within the Jewish tradition the Shabbat rules are not meant to be unto themselves. Rather Heschel explains, they are to create the freedom of attention to connect with the divine, to have a taste of eternity–eternal connection with spirit–in the here and now. This spiritual attunement runs counter to our formation as fragmented, stressed, disembodied units of production.

“The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life,” he writes. “Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work… the Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays… It is not an interlude but the climax of living.” 

Sabbath practice is an invitation not only to non-exploitative relations with each other and creation, but also with ourselves. In my experience the drive to be endlessly productive manifests in an internal tyranny where I am constantly looking for the next right thing to do. This drive cuts me off from my body and emotions, since they can easily get in the way of productivity.

Even though I have an analysis of the exploitative nature of capitalism, I have also internalized its values. I can easily see myself as a unit of production (granted I am producing better things as a pastor and an organizer). And these values are ultimately rooted in a Christian supremacist (or hegemonic) worldview that constantly judges and moralizes, and denies the wisdom of the body. 

Sabbath practice is therefore an act of resistance to these forces. It is a path of liberation. It connects us back to our bodies and emotions and spirits… to our being. 

Sabbath practice invites questions like:

1. What is going on in my body? What can I do to be more connected to my body and its innate wisdom? 

2. How am I feeling? What emotions do I rarely experience or do I repress? 

3. When or where do I experience a connection to spirit? 

Sabbath practice invites us away from the doing, and into embodied presence. It is a joyful rest that calls us to delight in the abundance of creation. It is a reminder that the Creator is our provider and everything we have is a gift to be equitably shared. 

In our weeks filled with many demands and responsibilities, may we cultivate moments and practices of Sabbath honoring the beauty of our beings, created in the image of God. Amen, and may it be so.