God’s Green Earth: Sabbath

Cat Goodrich
Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
September 12, 2021

God’s Green Earth: Sabbath
Genesis 1:31a, 2:1-3; Mark 2:23-28

Every day for the past week and a half has begun with absolute haste in my house.  See, Maddie started school a week ago last Tuesday, and second graders must arrive by 8 am.  Ordinarily, I imagine a family might be a bit rusty at organizing the morning routine after a few months of summer vacation.  But we are forming a new routine after a year and a half of pandemic!  Pandemic which began with lockdowns and no school, then shifted to online learning – zoom school which started around 9, when the technology was all working properly.  We could be eating breakfast at 8:56 and still make it on time.  So the mad rush to get out the door at 7:30 sharp to navigate our way to school is new… and feels a little hectic.

All that to say it is a peculiar time for me to be thinking about Sabbath, and maybe it is for you, too.  Then again, it may be the perfect time for us to think about Sabbath.  As school ramps up and fall sports begin – go Ravens (did I do that right?)!  As the city continues to cautiously move toward reopening and my fall calendar fills up – it may be the right time to ask, “what is Sabbath for us?”  What does it mean for you?  How can we practice it this fall?

The story of creation in Genesis tells us that after the work of making the universe, God rested.  Some scholars say God rested not because God needed to, but to give us an example that could be a model for our lives – God rested because we need to.  We can’t work day in and day out without stopping, without making time to sleep and eat and relax, without space for what feeds and restores us.  Not just humans, but nature needs rest and restoration, too – We see it in the cycle of the seasons: the frenzied flowering of spring and lush harvest of summer give way to the cooler, dormant months of fall and winter.  Fields must lie fallow, crops must rotate or risk sucking all of the productivity out of the land.  Rest helps creation be more productive.

In Deuteronomy, the commandment to remember the sabbath day and keep it holy is not only a commandment to rest, but a reminder of God’s work of liberation.  While enslaved in Egypt, Israelites were worked relentlessly, perpetually, with no time off for themselves, their families; once freed, God commands that they have a day to rest, be restored, and remember.  In the spirit of Deuteronomy, Sabbath frees us: frees us from exhaustion and overwork, frees us to delight in the goodness of creation, to forge community connections, and to reconnect with our creator.

In the story Patrick read from the gospel of Mark, we hear Jesus challenge and reinterpret traditional notions of Sabbath.  Jewish law strictly forbids any kind of work on the Sabbath.  The disciples plucking grains of wheat from the field, was considered harvesting – not appropriate Sabbath behavior, and so the religious leaders disapprove.  But should hungry people not gather food to eat?  Should sick people not be healed?  Should we pay attention to the letter or the spirit of the law?  Jesus says, the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.  I take that to mean, our practice of Sabbath should not be punitive.  Sabbath activities should be things that nourish and restore us.

My understanding of Sabbath was challenged and expanded by a couple in my church in Birmingham, Jeanne and John Plaxco.  John was a PK, his dad a minister in the Dutch reformed church.  When he was growing up, Sunday was for going to church, and spending time with family.  Likewise, when Jeanne and John’s children Jack and Margaret were young, they couldn’t go to the movies or football games on Sundays – the activities were limited to church, food, and family.  My first year in Birmingham, I helped the deacons plan a service Sunday, organizing work projects around the church and at member’s homes on a Sunday afternoon.  When I told the Plaxcos about the day and asked if they were planning to participate, Jeanne’s eyes got wide and her mouth got small.  She gave me a little smile and said, “on a Sunday?!  Service work on a Sunday?!”  Here I was, a minister, encouraging the church to plan a workday on the sabbath.  In her own, gentle way, Jeanne let me know this was highly unusual.

But is it, really?  Not anymore.  Many of you I’m sure grew up in households where Sunday activities were restricted to church and family.  But not all.  Our concept of time, and work, are completely different from ancient Israelites living in an agrarian culture thousands of years ago.  And they’ve changed significantly since the 1950’s and ‘60’s too, thanks be to God.  These days, there are a few cultural dynamics that are challenging my idea of Sabbath – the increase of people with no religious affiliation at all makes Sunday a day for brunch or soccer tournaments.

Living in a multi-faith world means Sabbath for me looks different than Sabbath for my Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist friends and colleagues.  With the rise of the gig economy, and more and more people working multiple jobs to make ends meet, it has become an unattainable luxury to be able to actually take time off for sabbath whatever your faith or lack thereof.

One impact of pandemic pushing church online means that we can access worship from almost anywhere, watch recordings anytime.  It makes me wonder – how do we practice Sabbath here and now?

At the end of the work of creation, God pauses and notices that everything God made is good, very good.  Sabbath begins with a pause, with noticing the good that is around and within us, and acknowledging that the good comes from God.

Maybe for you, that pause comes each morning when you wake up, or over your morning coffee.  Maybe it also comes each evening, at the close of day.  Whenever we stop to remember that we are part of something more than just ourselves.  Casper ter Huile, a consultant with the Sacred Design Lab, puts it like this: making “space in our days to feel fully big and fully small.”[1] For us, clearly, this pause happens on Sundays, when we set aside time to be together, to worship, pray, and sing praise, to connect, and grow in our faith, and be challenged to live it out when we leave this place.  And we do it again and again and again.

We humans make meaning through ritual.  Ritual isn’t something we just do once and are done with it.  Ritual becomes embodied, it forms us as we do it over and over again, training our bodies to know what it feels like to be held by community. Building our muscle memory as we are fed with the bread of life at Christ’s table.  And to rest in the mystery and wonder of God.

I know a pastor who talks about breathing in and breathing out God’s love. That’s as good a definition of Sabbath as I can think of.  A time when we stop to notice the goodness of creation.  When we are nourished by the Word of God and renewed by the Spirit.  A time to remember who and whose we are.  And a place and community where we find ways to share our gifts, our love, God’s love with others.

So this fall, I hope we will make space to practice Sabbath together.  To commit to pause together.  To breathe in and breathe out God’s love… together.

One last thing… John and Jeanne came to the service Sunday.  This is what they did: they stood in the sanctuary and they vacuumed the pew cushions, all 119 of them.  It took more than two hours, as they slowly and methodically made their way up and down the aisles.  I don’t think they even took a break.  We laughed together about my call to work on the Sabbath – but a job needed to be done, and so they did it, breathing out God’s love, serving together on a Sunday because they loved the church. Thanks be to God.

[1] Ter Huile, Casper and Angie Thurston, “How We Work: Beyond” Sacred Design Lab, https://sacred.design/how-we-work