Rector's Ramblings May 9, 2018
We had a great visit from Dr. Matthew and Nancy Sleeth this past weekend. Those who were able to attend the Louchery Lectures on Saturday or their classes on Sunday remarked on how helpful and insightful they found their lessons. Matthew was also the presenter for the Diocese of Georgia clergy conference on Monday and Tuesday, and received a standing ovation following his final presentation. My only regret is that there were not more people to participate in this offering. Their overall message is one we need more of in this world, and Matthew’s teaching about Sabbath offers suggestions that might just be able to address some of the greatest ills in our culture.
It is Dr. Sleeth’s teaching on Sabbath that first captured my attention and led to the invitation to come to Christ Church. He has rightly identified the collapse of a Sabbath culture in his lifetime; in my lifetime, for that matter. As he suggested during his talks, “the Church is experimenting with not keeping the Sabbath for the first time in 2000 years in our generation.” His wry follow up question, “How’s that going for us?” indicates that somehow, the loss of Sabbath may be related to some of the problems we are experiencing.
Now, this could be a “chicken or egg” topic. Is the decline of Sabbath-keeping a symptom of larger issues at play, or is it the elimination of Sabbath-keeping that has fueled problems in other areas. The most truthful answer is that we can’t say either, and that both is likely the better response.
Nearly everyone over the age of thirty remembers keeping Sabbath in one form or another, whether we called it that or not. Like many, my childhood Sabbath was full of church, food, family, and rest. We didn’t shop on Sundays, we didn’t cut the grass on Sundays, and as I think back, Sundays were really lazy days, unlike Saturdays, which were full of all kinds of stuff. Most kids today don’t know what a day like that feels like. Most families are on the go so much that the family doesn’t have time together in an unstructured and relaxed way. It’s one thing after another, day in and day out, even over the summer. We never stop running.
As Dr. Sleeth reminds us, Sabbath keeping is one of the ten commandments. In most cases, when we break one of the ten commandments it is frowned upon, but not the fourth commandment about Sabbath. If, as he pointed out, a pastor breaks the other commandments they are often reprimanded, whereas if they breath the Sabbath, they are given a raise! We have always rewarded extra hard work. So much so, that we forget that Sabbath rest was instituted by God, and work right through it. Some say we should be keeping the Sabbath because of the ten commandments alone, while others say we should keep Sabbath because of all the good it can do for us and for the world. The Sleeths fall into both, but they lead with the latter encouragement.
God instituted the Sabbath so that we would find a natural rhythm of rest and refreshment. Our Judeo-Christian tradition has seven-year Sabbaths (sabbaticals!), and seven seven-year cycles that culminate in Jubilee years. For all of Jewish and Christian history, these cycles were honored until very recently, and I am in the camp that agrees that losing such cycles has not been good for us. Going too hard for too long is not healthy. It’s killing us. It’s part of the reason we’re so unhappy, despite how hard we work (looking at labor and mental health statistics). It’s also part of the reason our kids are increasingly being treated for depression and anxiety. When we keep Sabbath, we’re never more than six days away from a restorative break. Without it, we can go for far too long without the breaks we were created to take.
Sabbath isn’t meant to be a legalistic exercise. We don’t have or expect to follow a host of laws that define what we can and can’t do on the Sabbath. Nancy Sleeth’s definition of work is the best, when it comes to Sabbath: Figure out what work is to you, and then don’t do that on the Sabbath. It’s that simple. For example, if gardening is an unpleasant task, don’t do that on your Sabbath. If it brings you joy and life, get digging. Sabbath is about setting regular time aside for God, for prayer, for rest, for family, and reflection. It seems like an impossibility in our fast paced, modern world, and yet... And yet it’s not. Our fast paced, modern world needs Sabbath to come back into it in so many ways. Somehow, we’ve not even missed it as it’s gone missing, but that’s about to change.
So, fair warning. Your clergy are going to gang up on you a bit this summer, as we work on fostering Sabbath behaviors as a community. Summer is probably the easiest time to practice Sabbath for many of us, so we’re going to give it a shot. I’d say keep your eyes and ears open, but if we do what we’re thinking of doing, you won’t miss it. So be ready. Sabbath is coming.
The Kiddush, a Jewish Prayer used at the start of the Sabbath:
It was evening and it was morning. The sixth day. So the heavens and the earth were finished, with all their complement. On the seventh day, God had completed His work which He had undertaken, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had been doing. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He ceased from all His creative work, which God had brought into being to fulfill its purpose. Blessed are You God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine. (Amen) Blessed are You God, King of the Universe, who made us holy with his commandments and favored us, and gave us His holy Shabbat, in love and favor, to be our heritage, as a reminder of the Creation. It is the foremost day of the holy festivals marking the Exodus from Egypt. For out of all the nations You chose us and made us holy, and You gave us Your holy Shabbat, in love and favor, as our heritage. Blessed are you God, Who sanctifies Shabbat. (Amen)