The Importance of Sabbath

Throughout high school and into my college years, I worked for a local grocery store chain called Stauffers of Kissel Hill.  SKH was named after the Stauffer family, and Mr. Stauffer was still running the place even when I worked there in the mid-90s.  It was a family run business, which held to some of the core values of their faith, including being closed on Sundays.  Every Saturday at about 7pm, the same group of old ladies would arrive ready to grab a deal on produce, meats, and fresh flowers that wouldn’t last through the day off.  It was a buy hour before we closed.  Each department had extra work to do in order to prepare for the 36 hour window, during which the store would be closed.  It was hard work, but everybody knew the reward – a day off was coming.  Rest was not far away.


Right about my senior year of high school, Mr. Stauffer decided that the rest wasn’t worth the lost profits as his stores sat empty on Sundays while the bigger chains like Giant and WalMart raked in the dough, and we began to open on Sundays.  I’ll never forget that first weekend.  The old ladies showed up on Saturday night, as always, only to be disappointed that the quick sales they were used to were no more.  I opened the store as a cashier at 9am, and for the first hour, not a soul walked through the door.  “Brilliant plan,” I remember thinking to myself, “this was totally worth it.”  Of course, as time went by and word got out, more and more people shopped on Sunday.  Within only a few months, it was normal for SKH to be open seven days a week.  In one more place, sabbath was no more.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we hear of Jesus and his disciples’ ongoing struggle to balance the cost of sabbath with the needs of the community.  The disciples are back from their first missionary journey and they are exhausted.  Jesus, who has been on the preaching and healing circuit for a while now knows how they feel and encourages them to find a place to rest.  As they search for a quiet spot, however, it becomes clear that rest will not find them as crowds rush to meet them, to hear them, and to be healed by them.  Still, Jesus doesn’t throw up his hands and say “sabbath isn’t important,” but rather, he steps out in front, allowing the disciples some time away, and he takes on the crowds all by himself.

Sabbath is important.  It is more important than profits.  It is even more important than preaching and healing.  Without rest and refreshment, without time to sit with God on your own, spiritual reserves slowly drain away, exhaustion looms, and burnout is not far away.  I may be preaching to myself here.  It has been a good month since I’ve felt like I had even a minute to think about a blog post.  Last week was filled with 14 hour days.  It is 9AM on Monday, and I’m already tired.  Sabbath is important, and it is coming.  The key, is making room to take it.


Finding Sabbath


The spices sit waiting

“On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.”

The final line in the longer version of Luke’s Passion Gospel might not be the most important one, but it certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. Luke’s Passion is a story of nonstop action from the time Jesus sat down at dinner with his disciples until Joseph laid Jesus’ body in the tomb and the women set out to prepare spices.  There is frantic dialogue, character development, anxiety to the point of sweating blood, fear, anger, tears, and unspeakable violence in this story.  And then it stops.

The disciples are off hiding somewhere.  The spices sit waiting.  Joseph wonders how the Council will respond to his actions.  The women rested, according to the commandment.  As the busyness of Holy Week looms large, the word I’m hearing loud and clear this day is to not forget the importance of following God’s commandment and resting on the Sabbath.

There are sermons to write, bulletins to print, decisions to be made, logistics to logic, but God says that all that can wait for a moment while we all sit and rest in God’s loving embrace.  The next 10 days are a marathon, not a sprint, and if my super-star runner of a wife has taught me anything in her training, the key to a successful long run is teaching yourself to start slow.  Negative splits are the best assurance of a good finish.  So that’s what I plan to do.  Tomorrow will be Sabbath: a quiet, rainy day of rest and reflection before the insanity of 15 services in 9 days begins.  I pray you’ll find some Sabbath time too, dear reader.  God knows, we’ll all be better off if we do.

21st Century Sabbath

The folks over at spent the vast majority of their weekly podcast this week dealing with the issue of Sabbath for the 1st century Jew.  They pointed out that there are two very different rationales given for the commandment to keep the sabbath holy in Exodus and Deuteronomy.  In fact, the “intention clause” for the sabbath is the only real difference between the two lists.

In Exodus 20, as Moses gives the 10 Commandments for the first time, the reasoning behind the sabbath commandment is Creation. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work– you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.  For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

In Deuteronomy 5, our second go-round with the 10 Commandments, the reason for sabbath is the Exodus and God’s having restored the Hebrews to the fullness of their humanity by allowing a day of rest. “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But 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.  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.

Note that in both cases, the commandment for sabbath applies to everything that does work in a pre-modern agricultural society: landowners, slaves, and animals.  This is all well and good, for the first century near east, but what role does sabbath play in 21st century America?

There are scant few places where Sunday is kept as a true day of rest.  The most famous company that is closed on Sunday is Chick-fil-A, but there are many others.  Here locally, Hoods, a sort-of home improvement Big Lots, is closed on Sunday’s and the sign reads, “because the day is worth more than the dollar.”  Realistically, however, with smartphones, soccer schedules, and a service based economy, we live in a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week, 365 day a year world.  How is one to keep a day of rest, a day of remembrance of the mighty acts of God, in such a world?

Perhaps this is our entrance to the Gospel lesson for Sunday.  Maybe we are bent over by the weight of our sheer busyness and in need of some time to remember all the good things God has done for us.  Maybe we need to be set free from our bondage to the swiftly moving clock.

I say “we,” but what I really mean is “I.”  Maybe I need to be better at sabbath in order to set an example for our congregation.  Maybe I need to be more fully present to my family.  Maybe we need a 21st century theology of sabbath.  It won’t be easy, and I’m not advocating for Pharisaical understandings of rest, but what would it look like if Christians were reintroduced to sabbath and to its underlying call to worship, thanksgiving, and mercy?  I imagine health costs would diminish, and the world just might be a better place.