Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Tending the New Creation:  Sabbath for Humans

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Mark 2:23-3:6


This is not the sermon I wanted to preach.  I have been wrestling with this text for the last 2 weeks, telling my colleagues and anyone else who would listen what I wanted to say about the Sabbath, which is mostly not what I’m going to say today.  The Sabbath was not the problem.  My colleagues were not the problem.  Jesus was the problem.  Yes, you heard that right.  The main thing standing between me and the sermon I had planned to preach today was Jesus.

Before I get to that, let’s recall a little bit about the Sabbath.  The fourth commandment is “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” The 10 commandments were given to the Hebrew people after God liberated them from slavery in Egypt.  The commandments were rules, principles for a different kind of life than they had known.  A holy Sabbath provides for regular, consistent rest.  That would be in sharp contrast to Pharaoh’s demands to produce, produce, produce, for him, all the time. 

Sabbath is a marvelous gift for formerly enslaved people.  This day of rest includes women as well as men.  It includes people of all social statuses, even the immigrants and foreigners.  Men were not allowed to have Sabbath rest at the expense of women; citizens not allowed to enjoy it at the expense of immigrants.  And it includes the animals and the land, at least for a day, the fields are not to be worked or weeded or harvested.  There is rest for all of creation.

Sabbath-keeping became a key part of Jewish identity, for millennia.  When Christians and Jews separated, Christians kept the principle of Sabbath.  We moved it to Sunday in remembrance of the resurrection, but we still understood the life-giving idea of holy rest every seventh day. 

Now, the communal support for a Sabbath has eroded.  Businesses are open, youth sports leagues treat Sunday like any other day. And Christians seem to have mostly just gone along with the culture.  We think we can have it all, do it all  – so we live at a frantic pace all week. Sundays become the days we try to pick up the pieces, the laundry, the yard work, the bills.  Or Sundays are the days we get everything set up for Monday so that it can start over again.  I know a lot of pastors who love the idea of Sabbath, but they are lousy at practicing it.  We have a great excuse – we have to work on Sundays!  But so do many medical personnel and police officers and even some of you. 

Keeping Sabbath is a profoundly counter-cultural action.  Our world presses us to do more, faster, to speed up and never slow down, to use every moment to the fullest.  If we do take a time out,  we may feel guilty or deprived or lazy or wasteful.  And in many ways, we are like those who were enslaved in Egypt, only valued for what they could produce, never allowed to simply be. 

The Sabbath was and is a profoundly good thing, a marvelous gift intended for people’s well-being.  It is a spiritual discipline we could recover, or I should say that more of us could recover it, because I know that some of you have, and better than me.  That’s the sermon I wanted to preach, until Jesus messed it up.

Jesus does not need me or anyone to tell him how important the Sabbath is. He knows already, which is what makes his behavior so puzzling.

We heard about two times when he violated the Sabbath. The first instance was that they picked grain and ate it as they made their way through a field.  The Pharisees confronted them for gleaning on the Sabbath.  This seems so contrived.  If you live in a place where grocery stores are closed on Sundays, you learn to plan ahead and do your grocery shopping on Friday or Saturday.  Jesus and the disciples lived in that kind of place.  They had been raised in that culture.  They knew to plan ahead.  If you want to eat on the Sabbath, you prepare your food ahead of time. 

Jesus defends their actions by comparing them to King David, who was given the priests’ bread at a time when he was fleeing for his life.  The two situations are not comparable.  Jesus and the disciples are on the verge of starvation. Jesus just seems to be upping the ante, provoking the Pharisees even more. 

And then there is the time when he heals the man with the withered hand, in the synagogue, on the Sabbath.  Breaking the Sabbath in order to save a life was permitted, but that does not appear to be what is happening here.  Jesus could have waited until after sundown and healed the man.  He would have honored the Sabbath AND restored the man to health.  Instead, he acts as though he is performing CPR, asking “is it lawful to save life or to kill?” before he carries out this carefully staged political theater.  

You might think that making the man wait a few hours is hard-hearted.  If Jesus can restore him, isn’t sooner better than later?  Well, yes, but remember that Sabbath is a gift.  It is a gift to everyone, including Jesus.  People are already demanding his attention 24/6.  If  word gets out that he will heal on the Sabbath, then he will never have any peace.  This is why I was irked with Jesus this week.  He is not modelling appropriate self-care.  He is setting a bad example for over-functioners everywhere.

I said that to a pastor friend.  He told me that these stories were not intended to answer the questions I was asking . . . and that made me wonder what else was happening here.  What was I was missing?   Jesus is proclaiming the kingdom of God, the same God who created the Sabbath.  Surely the kingdom of God is going to include the peace symbolized within Sabbath, so why, why on earth, would Jesus so wantonly disregard it?  I came to the conclusion that Jesus is committing a first-century version of civil disobedience in order to bring about change. 

His major opponents in the gospels are the Pharisees.  Now the Pharisees have gotten a lot of bad press among Christians for a long time, not all of which is deserved.  By the time of Jesus, rabbis had been teaching and interpreting the scripture for centuries, so there were a lot of opinions about how best to please God. The Pharisees were the folks who thought that ordinary people could keep the purity codes, like the rules about food and the Sabbath.  The Sadducees, on the other hand, thought that only the priests could  and should do it.  The Sadducees were kind of elitists in this regard, while the Pharisees were more populist, seeming to represent or identify with common people. The Sadducees’ power base was around the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Pharisees were in the regions beyond.

If the Sabbath gift is for everyone, then why are Jesus and the Pharisees at odds?  This should be something they agree on.   It seems that the Pharisees made it easier to keep the law, but they did so ways that preserved their own power.  Their elaborate interpretations of oral traditions and rabbinic teaching made them indispensable judges of the system.  

New Testament scholar Ched Myers says, “The Pharisees were certainly committed to making piety possible for the masses . . . But this could be – and was – seen as a strategy of courting the artisan and lower classes in order to build a regional and popular base of socio-political power over against the Jerusalem elite.” [1]

Did you get that?  It is political.  They appear to be in solidarity with those on the margins, but their true feelings are on display when they refuse to eat at the same table with them and criticize Jesus for doing so.  Jesus breaks the Sabbath to challenge the social code which separates and segregates, a system which labels some as righteous and some as sinners.  All my life I’ve been taught that the Pharisees were just into rules, that they were legalists.  It is more nuanced than that.  They are using a particular set of rules to maintain their power.  That is what Jesus is challenging.

The peace and rest and joy and compassion of the Sabbath are intended for everyone, everyone, everyone.  The Pharisees pretend to go along with that, while at the same time, they interpret the law to maintain a social order that benefits them.

Wendy Farley is professor of Christian spirituality at San Francisco Seminary.  She says, “The rather terrible implication of this story is that normal and natural religious commitments render us indifferent to human suffering and true community.”[2]

What the Pharisees do can happen in any system.  That very much includes us and our systems.  Just this week, I talked with a woman whose church makes regular mission trips to the US/Mexico border.  She claims to be a follower of Jesus.  And yet, in this conversation, she defended the current policy of forcibly separating families who present themselves for asylum as they cross the border.  She kept saying “It is the law. We have to keep the law.”  She even cited a federal immigration law, but it was not one about separating families, since there is no such law. She was entirely indifferent to the enormous trauma and suffering this policy is creating.

Even the immigrants were granted Sabbath rest in ancient Israel.  That was the law.  Let that sink in.  Jesus’ civil disobedience was not to destroy the Sabbath, but to restore it to its fullest purpose, of peace and well-being for all of creation.

I didn’t get to preach the sermon about Sabbath that I planned today, because that darn Jesus got in the way.  The Rev. Anne LeBas is a priest in England.  In her sermon last week, she managed to say a whole lot about Sabbath in just a few sentences.  Let me close with her words.

She said “God’s command that people should have a day of rest once in every seven was meant to be a safeguard against the idolization of power, a weekly reminder that we don’t need to have it all or do it all in order to keep ourselves safe. Only God can do that anyway. Keeping the Sabbath, choosing not to work every hour there is, dares us to trust that we aren’t on our own in a hostile world, with only ourselves to rely on, but in the hands of God who loves us. It dares us to trust, too, that we are part of a community, in which each is responsible for the others. Keeping the Sabbath says “enough is enough”. It declares that we don’t have to cling to our power and wealth, or look down on those who don’t have them, or feel ashamed if we can’t do the things we feel we should do. It is God who provides, God who empowers, God who gives each of us, able and disabled, the dignity that can’t be taken away, the dignity of being [God’s] children, frail and fallible as all of us are.”[3]

So much is wrong with our world. Many of us are consumed with worry and busyness, wearing ourselves out trying to fix it.  Sabbath is the gift, the reminder that in and behind all things, God is present, providing for our needs, sustaining the creation.   In love for us, God provided the Sabbath.  May we receive and treasure it.  Amen.

[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1988, 2008), p. 76. 

[2] Wendy Farley  in Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 3, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors,  (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009), p. 96.

[3] Rev. Anne LeBas in her sermon “Stretch Out Your Hand”  http://sealpeterandpaulsermons.blogspot.com/