‘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.’
At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ Matthew 11:28-30 NRSV
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last week, I shared with you pieces of my vacation with my brother and sister-in-law, and an old friend. I mentioned that we very easily fell into the custom of the afternoon siesta. Each afternoon, around 2 o’clock, most of the shopkeepers and restaurants would close down to go home for a late lunch and to rest during the hottest part of the day. Then, around 6 or 7 pm, they would return to their shops and restaurants, re-open them, and remain open until around 9 p.m. each day. This was a long-standing custom in Orvieto - the more rural village in central Italy, where we spent our first week.
It was interesting, however, to note that, when my friend and I arrived in Rome for the second week, this tradition was nowhere to be found in this large, bustling city. Even so, we still continued the restful pattern we had experienced that first week in rural Italy - the time of rest in the middle of the day in a cooler space. To nap, if we were tired. To read, if we weren’t. And, particularly, to be together.
Because, after the first few days, that’s eventually what began to happen naturally. While we might disappear into our rooms for a short period at the beginning of our siesta time, we inevitably found ourselves gathering together in the living area. And, then, with the setting sun, moving onto the covered patio with a glass of wine. To catch up on our lives. To share our joys. And our challenges. And, yes, to sometimes irritate each other (as my brother and I occasionally do). To simply stop. And to be human. And to find rest.
Today, we begin three weeks learning about and living into what it means to keep the Sabbath. Sabbath, or Shabbat, in the Hebrew. A word that simply means to stop. To cease. To be at a standstill. This word that is at the center of the Fourth Commandment. And not only at the center of the commandment, but at the center - the hinge - of the Ten Commandments. The hinge between the commandments that address our relationship with God and those that address our relationship with each other.
I think we have a really hard time with the idea of a Sabbath. In our 24/7 world, where we are constantly busy. Where technology keeps us constantly connected to work. Where the average American checks his or her phone 80 times a day while on vacation, where parents are hiring coaches to help them raise “phone-free” children. The idea of keeping the Sabbath seems foreign to us. Perhaps, even ridiculous.
Yet, it is this commandment that is the longest and most descriptive of the ten. It is a command that is on the level of the command not to murder. This fourth commandment is not a throw-away comment by God. Given to Israel, first by God at Sinai and then, in our Deuteronomy text today, repeated by Moses to Israel as they were about to enter the Promised Land. It is this commandment - this practice - that God insists we do. Regularly. Why? Because God knows it is the hardest lesson - the hardest practice - for us to do.
It was for Israel. They had been enslaved in Egypt for some 400 years. It had been deeply ingrained in their psyche that their worth was determined by what they produced. Their value was defined by their output. They were measured with each other based upon it. They compared themselves with each other, striving to produce more and more so that they would be viewed as valuable and important to their slave masters. Their lives literally depended upon what they did.
But, they are no longer slaves. They are no longer owned by a master or locked into a system that dictates their worth based on their production. They’re now free. The will need to learn how free people live. Alongside other free people. With God as their master, rather than Pharaoh.
This why this commandment is so important. Because, while the other commandments take the people out of slavery. It is the Sabbath command that takes the slavery out of the people. So that they may truly be free.
This was a hard lesson for Israel to absorb. It is a hard lesson for us to absorb. Because we forget this most of the time. This is why, God tells us, we have to do it regularly. We have to keep the Sabbath regularly. To step out of the mindset and activity of the world around us. The measuring, the comparing, the competing, the striving, the producing, the consuming. We have to regularly stop doing and practice just being. Because neither our value, nor our worth are to be defined by the values and worth of the world.
All the other creatures and the earth itself already does this. We, too, are commanded by God to succumb to the cycles of rest and renewal that God built into the fabric of all existence. Cycles that we are determined to transcend.
One day in seven - the commandment says - we are to remember that we are not God. On purpose. That we are neither better, nor worse, than anyone around us. That we are all connected and belong to God and to each other.
After all, isn’t it this what it means to be human? Isn’t it this what it means to be free?
But, again, we forget this most of the time. Even as we seek to find meaning in our lives, there are forces around us that shape how we do this. Our 24/7 connectivity saturates us with messages that strip us of our freedom. And our humanity. They suck us into a relentless comparison and division. A ranking and a judging. A striving and a measuring. And we begin to believe - and to act - that the world can’t run without us.
Sure, spirituality is nice. God, of course, is real. But, do we really need God? We’ve pretty much got it all together, don’t we?
Yet, in the meantime, we’re so disconnected from our true selves that we can barely handle it when emotion of any kind arises. It throws us off balance. We chronically over-commit, under-resource, and exhaust ourselves. Who in the world even has time for Sabbath? If we step off our spinning carousel, it will all fall apart. We’ll never be able to put it back together again. Plus taking a Sabbath is self-indulgent. Shouldn’t rest a reward for a job well done? Isn’t this part of the Protestant work ethic in our country? We wear it like a badge of honor. “How are you?” someone asks us. “Busy!” we reply, as if it is our busy-ness that is proof of a well-lived life. Look at what we’re doing! Look at how well we’re producing and consuming! We’re not going to waste any time with a Sabbath!
And do we really need God?
Unless we regularly stop, sisters and brothers, we forget that God is God. And that we are not God. We forget that we are creatures. With bodies and minds and hearts that need to be tended. That are dependent upon the love and care of a creator who is ready to meet us when, or if, we simply stop moving long enough to be met. And we forget that we are in this together. Alongside everyone else. That we need one another, because life isn’t meant to be done alone. And, finally, human beings who forget their humanity are arguably the most destructive force in the universe.
So, stop! And, then, “come,” Jesus calls. “Come. You who are weary. You who are tired of toiling. Of striving. Of struggling. You, who have lost heart. Come. Find your life again. Find your humanity. Find your soul. Let go of the world’s yoke and take on mine. For it is light. Because it is a yoke of grace. Practice this. Each week. Take on the life I desire for you. A life of obedience and righteousness. So that you, like Israel, might learn to let go of that which enslaves you. Of that which binds you up. Of that which reduces your humanity.”
Stop! Keep the Sabbath. And live. Live into this commandment that gives life. And relationship. With others. And with God. Who frees you. Who loves you. Just because you are you.