Thoughts on Sabbath Rest

Introduction

The Touchstones theme for the month of May is Sabbath. Although we don’t always choose to base our services around these themes, what an appropriate topic in this time of pandemic, as the idea of Sabbath grew out of a crisis that threated the existence of ancient Israel.

Sermon

We haven’t been paying much attention to monthly themes lately, but in preparing for the last Worship Team meeting I noticed that the theme of May is Sabbath. It occurred to me that this is an appropriate topic in this time of pandemic, because the idea of Sabbath grew out of a crisis that threatened the existence of ancient Israel.

To understand this, we need a short history lesson. The Kingdom of Israel came into being around 1000 BCE, when King David made Jerusalem his capital. Religious observance centered around the temple there until it was conquered in 587 BCE by the Babylonians, who not only destroyed the temple, but carted the leading citizens back to Babylon, because that’s just what Babylonians did when they conquered a new land. Those exiled to Babylon faced a dilemma – do we assimilate into Babylon and worship their high god Marduk, or do we try to somehow remain Jewish without being able to practice our religion as we once did.

They chose the latter, and out of this rose the practice of Sabbath rest. This was institutionalized by creating a new story of creation that was in opposition to the Babylonian story known as the Enuma Elish.

You might have seen that I shared the cuneiform challenge on Facebook, which asks the participant to share Sumer-Akkadian cuneiform tablets that have profoundly influenced them. Originally, I shared this as a humorous commentary on all of the similar types of challenges I’ve been seeing lately. But then I realized that the Enuma Elish is from cuneiform tablets – seven to be exact. And learning how they influenced the biblical writers has profoundly influenced me. It has taught me that the Bible was not written in a vacuum.

This new origin story reimagined the Babylonian saga to show how the God of Israel created the universe in a more powerful way than Marduk. One thing the two stories kept in common is that after the work of creation is complete Marduk and God rested. The number 7 is another commonality; 7 tablets, 7 days. This new story became the opening for what we now know as the Old Testament. It ends with words familiar to anyone acquainted with Christianity: “…God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” (Gen 2:2-3 NRSV)

Cynically, one could think that the priests in exile wrote the Sabbath climax to the creation story to keep themselves in business in a foreign land, but there is more to Sabbath than that. The Genesis story also tells us that all humans were created in the image of God and not just the king as the Babylonians believed. As a result, everyone is invited to participate in the life of the divine by practicing the same ritual observance as the God of all creation. This Sabbath rest was very egalitarian for that time. It included rich and poor; women as well as men; even slaves and farm animals. It was a joyous occasion because God’s people were basking in the glory of their creator. In her book “The Misunderstood Jew” Amy Jill Levine says:

As with any royal arrival or any wedding, the people celebrate the Sabbath by dressing in their finest clothes, preparing their finest food, and ensuring that no one goes hungry. [They sing] to greet the Sabbath… “Come, my beloved, to greet the bride, the presence of the sabbath let us welcome.”

A sentiment that is echoed in our opening hymn?

But what about the rules. I’m sure many of you are like me in remembering the conflicts taht Jesus had with religious leaders of healings done on the Sabbath, or the simple act of picking some grain to eat. A.J. Jacobs in his book “The Year of Living Biblically” writes about some of the seemingly absurd lengths some ultra-observant Jews go to, even in the present, while attempting to comply with the admonition to do no work:

In postbiblical times the rabbis wrote down a complex list of forbidden behavior… including cooking, combing, and washing. You can’t plant, so gardening is off-limits. You can’t tear anything, so toilet paper must be pre-ripped earlier in the week. You can’t make words, so Scrabble is often considered off-limits (although at least one rabbi allows Deluxe Scrabble, since the squares have ridges which provides enough separation between letters, so that they don’t actually form words). …One sect of Judaism… turn(s) off the heat so as not to engage in commerce with the electric company, which could be considered work.

Now we may chuckle and sneer at these observances, but if in fact they bring peace and rest and joy to the worshipper, who are we to judge these practices. On the other hand, if following the rules becomes the point, and we look for loopholes, like hiring someone to come into your house to turn the lights on for you so you’re not doing the work, then Sabbath observance becomes following the letter of the law rather than its spirit. I think this is why Jesus responded to the religious leaders complaining about his disciples picking grain by saying “The Sabbath was made to serve us; we weren’t made to serve the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27 The Message)

Now, what does all of this have to do with us today at UUCE? Well, we are living in a time of crisis with both a dangerous pandemic, and the injustices we see on our screens every day. Hopefully our existence won’t be threatened, but COVID-19 has forced us, like the ancient Jews, to rethink how we celebrate our version of the Sabbath. At UUCE we covenant to: Nurture the spirit; Grow in relationship; and Serve with love and compassion. When forced to close our doors due to the pandemic, we continued our commitment to nurture the spirit by creating a virtual Sunday worship experience. There are also plans for regular Spiritual Path meetings.

We have continued our commitment to growing in relationship by meeting virtually. Committee meetings, Tea with Lee, and the small group studying well-being are three examples of this. Our fellowship time after the Sunday service has even changed. Instead of sitting with our closest friends, which is natural, we are assigned randomly to Zoom groups that give us the opportunity to grow in relationship with those we might not spend much time with otherwise. As an introvert in group settings, I have found it a bit uncomfortable, but also quite rewarding to meet and learn about people in our congregation that I might not speek with during the more traditional fellowship time.

Our commitment to serve with love and compassion also continues. PADS lunches are still being delivered even though we can’t serve them directly, and our congregation responded to the challenge of providing nearly twice as many meals due to the increased demand for PADS services caused by the pandemic. Share the Plate continues and several members are attending virtual social justice training sponsored by the UU Advocacy Network of Illinois. We also have a new challenge now, dictated by current events, and that is to create a response to the injustices that have always been present, but are now being exposed for all to see on a seemingly daily basis.

These and other ways I haven’t mentioned are how we have adjusted our Sabbath celebration and commitment to our covenant. Maybe we can learn from this and incorporate some of what we are now experiencing into the life of our congregation even after we are able to meet again in our Prairie Cathedral.

But what about taking seriously the need for rest that our ancestors in faith embedded in the Sabbath? In the poem Pandemic that David read to us, Lynn Ungar suggests that we think of sheltering in place as sacred time where we:

Cease from travel.

Cease from buying and selling.

Give up, just for now,

on trying to make the world

different than it is.

Of course, we can’t just give up trying to make the world different than it is as the events of the past week so clearly show. But self-care is still important. This time of sheltering in place has forced me to learn that doing nothing can be okay. I’ve heard members of our congregation share that staring out the window provides peace or feeling the warmth of the sun feeds the soul. What are the ways in which you have experienced Sabbath rest differently during this time? I invite you to share in the chat right now.

These are what I think of when I hear the word “The Sabbath was made to serve us” and these are things we need to hang onto even after this crisis passes.

In his book “The God We Never Knew” Marcus Borg writes:

In… the modern Western world… we have lost a sense of sacred time. Time has been homogenized. Though the majority of people have the weekend “off,” it is typically filled with ordinary busy-ness: catching up on work and household chores, buying and selling, recreational activities, and so forth. In the name of freedom, work has penetrated every moment of the week.

I don’t think very many would disagree with what Borg wrote, but I would like to respond by suggesting that sacred time can also penetrate every moment of the week. We don’t need to be in church physically or virtually to experience Sabbath rest. Perhaps we can begin to put into practice what we learned in our Time for All Ages story:

To be mindful enough to notice the here and now.

To find our anchors.

To be in the moment and be able to say “I am peace”

Let’s start right now.

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