Will you indulge me this morning? I would like everyone to take off their watch and turn it face down on the pew beside you. I’d also like you to turn off your cell phones, not just put them on vibrate, but turn them right off.
The reason for my request is that I want to talk about Sabbath this morning. And Sabbath means taking some time outside of time. Sabbath means making space in our lives for rest and refreshment, and we can do that much better if we can put out of our minds the whole concept of time. Sabbath means, to use the modern phrase, to be present to the moment.
As Jeff begins his Sabbatical time it occurs to me that we as the congregation that he serves can benefit from a Sabbath time within the Pastoral Relationship as well.
Jeff has been our minister for five years and when he returns from his sabbatical he will be full of energy and ideas. This is something to look forward to, but the question arises as to how we might prepare for this new stage in the pastoral relationship.
My suggestion is not that we engage in active discussion and planning about the next five years, the time for that will come. But we need to remember that there has been a great deal of that work over the last several years. For instance there has been a successful reconfiguration of the governing structure, the implementation of a new ministry to children, youth and young families and at long last a mutually agreeable resolution to the Camp Hurlburt question.
What I suggest is that we as a congregation engage in a Sabbath time over these next four months. What might this mean? What might it look like? Well part of what it means to take a Sabbath time is to do less planning and be patient as things emerge. Sabbath is a time to clear our minds and focus on paying attention to the world around us, rather than thinking about it, thinking about how to change it, or thinking about what we would like to be different about it.
Let that be enough setting of the context for why I chose to depart from the lectionary and use some of the Scripture texts that introduce the concept of Sabbath. Today I want to talk about the origins of the concept in our faith tradition and its meaning for our lives.
It might be said that we are gathered here this morning largely in response to the fourth commandment that was read a few moments ago, the commandment which echoes in the creation story when it tells us that God rested after a full week of work creating the world. When Christians think of Sabbath they tend to think of Sunday worship as their response to that commandment. But the mandate is actually much broader than a direction to take an hour out of our busy weekends and go to church.
Literally the word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word Shabbat, which translates as rest. The seventh day is holy, which means it is set apart, it is different from all the days of the week. And it is holy because it is the day on which God rested. Setting apart the day means doing no work at all ourselves, but it also means not doing anything that requires other people to work: not your children or your servants or the migrant workers in your town.
Most of us are old enough to remember the constitutional court cases of the 1980s in which the Lord’s Day Acts of the various Canadian provinces were struck down because they were deemed to contravene the right of Canadians to freedom of religion. I’m going to resist the temptation to get into a legal analysis of the issue, but only want to make the point here that even if we acknowledge the religious origins of the custom of having a day of rest each week, there is a real social benefit to the practice that has been lost to us with the coming of Sunday shopping.
Even if we of the Judeo-Christian tradition honoured the Sabbath by resting and not shopping, not eating out, and not asking anyone to do any work such as showing movies, or selling popcorn at the ball game the world around us would still be a busy place on Sunday because we are a small minority in modern Canada.
Many years ago I was a member of the congregation at Bloor Street United Church in central Toronto. On Christmas Eve there was a midnight service and for several years I walked from my home some four or five miles away to arrive at 11:00. Most of the walk was down Yonge Street, the main drag in Toronto, a street full of stores, restaurants, coffee shops, art galleries and many other businesses. Yonge Street is full of pedestrian and automobile traffic for close to 24 hours a day 364 days a year. On Christmas Eve however, as it got close to midnight, the traffic subsided and all the shops closed, even the all night donut shops. There was a special magic for me as I walked through a city that is perpetually bustling, yet on this one night allowed even Tim Horton to have a Sabbath.
Sabbath is inextricably bound up with our religious tradition, but it is primarily a prescription for community health. In my view, at least, the world would be a better place if on one day a week we paused and spent the day only with people within walking distance, if the shops and the restaurants, the airports and the sports stadiums were silent.
It has become a commonplace thing to talk about how busy we are. It used to be that if you asked someone how they are the answer would be ‘fine’. Now it is as common to hear them say ‘busy’. But recent scientific research by neuroscientists and social psychologists among other academics is revealing to us how important it is for us to take a break. Science tells us that if we have a difficult project, or are having trouble writing a report, or trying to analyze a problem, the best thing to do is to put down our task and go for a walk, or take a nap. When we try to stay focused on a task and to hammer away at a solution we are in fact interfering with the subconscious working of our brain. If we let go of the problem or the task for a while, our brains whir away outside our awareness and we return to it with new insights and energy.
What is true for the individual is, I believe, also true for organizations and for society generally. Just as an individual benefits from taking a break, so does society. If we took one day to just chat with our neighbours, or make music together, or go for walks with one another, who knows what that might do for our relationships and our communities. For too many of us time with other people is too often about tasks and not about building relationships.
Attending a Sunday service is a remnant of a tradition that used to require the whole community to refrain from most activities on a Sunday. And for those of us who still do attend it is not just about the service, it is also an opportunity to do some of that sitting with neighbours during the coffee time and just chatting together, with no work agenda. So for many of us there is a true Sabbath experience, though it is limited to the time we are with our small congregation and is diminished by the continuing buzz of activity in the community around us.
But Sabbath is not just observing every seventh day as holy and set apart. Scripture tells us that we are to observe a Sabbath for the land itself, to let the soil rest every seven years. Before the advent of chemical fertilizers this was a very common agricultural practice. But it is not just applicable wisdom for farmers. The commandment speaks to the need to treat the land and the natural environment with respect, to recognize that whether we are growing crops, gathering fish, harvesting trees or grazing cattle, we need to treat the natural world as a resource to be nourished by rest, refreshment and regeneration. In other words the environment is like us in benefitting from a Sabbath.
And in return we will gain from allowing a Sabbath for the land. We will see that the land continues to produce: to volunteer its fruits in the phrase used in Leviticus. Our relationship with the land changes from one of unceasing exploitation to one of mutuality and caring for one and other – we care for the natural world and it cares for us. That mutuality means that the environment benefits from our active engagement with it, we can make improvements; but it also benefits from our disengagement as we learn that the natural world is not entirely within our control. During a Sabbath year we have an opportunity to experience the fields and forests, the hills and the mountains in a more relaxed and attentive way.
There is a certain amount of metaphorical imagery in thinking about a Sabbatical for mother nature, but to do so stretches our understanding of Sabbath beyond the idea of a day for worshipping God, to thinking of it as a new way to experience our relationship with God. To take a break from our activity requires a degree of trust that the world will not fall apart without us. It challenges our usual sense of being in control and reminds us that God is active in the world as it changes and evolves without human intervention and direction.
I won’t take the time to say all that can be said about the concept of Sabbath today. I want to respect the Sabbath process and give you time to mull on the notion rather than have me try to busily construct a sermon that is a perfect analysis of and argument for the concept – an impossible task I quickly note.
But our reading today introduces one more aspect of Sabbath that I want to mention because it is particularly suggestive for those of us who are of retirement age: and that is the concept of Jubilee – a word that means a time of celebration, a time that like the Sabbath is set apart as special, even holy. There are extensive rules in the book of Leviticus for how the Biblical Year of Jubilee is to be observed – it presents a profoundly different concept of how an economy should be structured than our modern capitalism. They are worth looking at and reflecting on.
But I want to point to just one aspect of Jubilee that was introduced to me by a Spanish speaking friend who tells me that in that language there are two words for the concept we call being retired – one is ‘retirado’ which is roughly equivalent to our notion of being retired (one’s working life is at an end), but the other is ‘jubilado’ which means something more like ‘celebrated’ or ‘special and set apart.’ This suggests that we think of our retirement years as a sabbatical time of life, a time to disengage from the busyness that has preoccupied us and allow ourselves to be more reflective, more observant, and freer in dispensing our wisdom which is, I quickly note, different from telling people what to do.
This brief reflection on the notion suggests to me that one of the roles for the church in our increasingly busy society can be to nurture and promote the idea of Sabbath – the idea that rest and inactivity are of vital importance to good health for individuals and for communities. The church was wrong to seek to impose a Sabbath by legislation when we were in a position to do so one hundred or more years ago. But when that legislation was ruled unconstitutional some thirty years ago, we may have been too ready to give up on what was a central doctrine of the faith, or to relegate it to a private practice.
During my time teaching leadership at UBC I would take half an hour at the end of one class each term to introduce students to the practice of meditation. Meditation might be thought of as a mini-sabbatical, a time to shut down our active busy minds in the midst of our hectic days. That small taste of Sabbath time was the part of that course that got the most positive feedback of all. Students were so grateful for the experience of not having to do anything but sit still and breathe. Their lives are so jam packed with activities and diversions that for many of them it was a completely novel experience. Maybe there are ways and times for us in the church, those who still celebrate and benefit from Sabbath time, to share that gift – the gift of quiet, of stillness, of being set apart – with a world that seems to need it desperately. Maybe modeling Sabbath in our own lives will encourage others to do the same, with consequent benefits for the mental health and well being of individuals and communities. Maybe if we live our doctrine of Sabbath rest in ways that let the world participate in it, even if they don’t participate in our services, we will be enabling the Spirit of God to be active in the world in new ways.
Note to readers – For those who refer to this manuscript during the service as the sermon is actually preached, or after having heard the sermon, there may be some variation from the text.
Rev. D. John Burton reserves all rights © 2016. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.