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  • The Rev. Dr. Brian Rajcok

Honoring the Sabbath

Mark 2:23-3:6

There’s a story about an aging woodsman and his young apprentice who have an all-day wood chopping contest. The apprentice was a strong young man in his physical prime. He worked very hard, stopping only once for a quick lunch break. He hacked and hacked, was dripping with sweat all day, and by the end of the day was completely exhausted. The older man, well past his prime, but wise, worked slowly, had a leisurely lunch, and took many breaks throughout the day. At the end of the day he didn’t seem nearly as depleted as his hard working apprentice, and the young man was surprised and annoyed to find that the old fellow had chopped a great deal more wood than he did. "I don't get it," he said. "Every time I checked, you were taking a rest, but you chopped more wood than I did." "But didn't you notice," said the wise old man, "that I was sharpening my ax when I sat down to rest."

I really appreciate that story because it shows how recharged and re-sharpened we get when we take Sabbath rest. Rest replenishes us, gives us energy for the hard work ahead. It makes us more productive and efficient when we take time to stop and sharpen our ax. But the Sabbath Day is more than just a day to replenish us so that we can be more productive on workdays. The Sabbath Day is God’s holy day, a sacred time to dwell with God free from the stress and pressures of ordinary daily life. It’s a day when we’re supposed to experience what life is really all about. To be fully present in our lives, not wrapped up in all the responsibilities and obligations and distractions and agenda items that normally claim our attention. The Sabbath is a day we are called to lay aside those things and simply be alive with God. It’s not a day to be a couch potato, channel surf, or endlessly scroll on our phone. It’s a day to be mindful and present. A day to be engaged with the sacredness of life. To recognize God in all things.

When the Israelites were travelling from Egypt into the Promised Land God told Moses the people must honor the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. And reading Exodus and Deuteronomy shows us the Sabbath was more than a day of rest, it was a day of freedom. A day when everyone—men, women, and children, slaves, foreigners, and prisoners, even animals—would be free from labor and obligation. The Sabbath Day according to the Torah is a day about being liberated from our labors, a day when all beings are to experience the freedom that God intends. From its very inception as a commandment, the Sabbath has been about freedom: freedom from oppression in Egypt, freedom from work or school, freedom from the things that burden us, cause us stress, or distract us in any way from our relationship with God.

Now considering that let’s turn back to the Gospel lesson this morning. Knowing that the Sabbath is about freedom and appreciating the gift of life, it only makes sense that Jesus would heal someone on the Sabbath! The Sabbath is the day above all days when we’re supposed to enjoy life to the fullest—so why wouldn’t Jesus free this man from his ailment on the Sabbath!

But Jesus was criticized for doing work on the Sabbath because the Pharisees saw it as Jesus dishonoring God’s commandment. The problem with the Pharisees’ understanding of the commandment though, is that they took a commandment that was supposed to be about rest and freedom and life in all its fullness—and they made it into another law to follow. Into another obligation that burdened people. They turned it into a holiness test. And then they criticized Jesus for telling his disciples it was ok to pick grain on the sabbath if they were hungry, for doing a little something to feed themselves. To this Jesus famously responded: “The Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath”.

People in Jesus’ time misunderstood the Sabbath commandment, to the point where it caused them even more stress and worry. But how the pendulum has swung in our time. We now live in a culture that has no regard for Sabbath. We’re on the go 24/7/365. Resting time is solely for the purpose of regaining energy so you go out and deplete yourself again. While the Pharisees of Jesus’ day treated the Sabbath like yet another obligation to be fulfilled, most humans today don’t really treat the Sabbath like anything at all. Sure we have weekends off from work or school, and it’s a good idea to take vacations. But we don’t really have a concept of true Sabbath. We fill our days off with all sorts of activities, successfully distracting ourselves from any real alone time, burning ourselves out more, depleting all our energy, and staying on the surface level of life. Doing the exact things that the Sabbath commandment was meant to avoid.

Honoring Sabbath isn’t another obligation like the Pharisees taught, something to stress us out even more. But it is a commandment. God wants us to take Sabbath, for good reason. Honoring the Sabbath is about honoring the sacredness of God and the sacredness of life. Not treating yourself like a grueling workhorse, but respecting yourself enough to honor the fact that you need time to yourself and that you need time with God. To spend a day devoted to practicing your spirituality. To spend a day in awe and reverent joy appreciating the gift of life.

To not do that, every once in a while, is to miss the point of living.

One thing our Western culture does do well is that we tend to have a period of “summer sabbath.” Schools are closed and families try to go on vacation or take time off. Here at church our Sunday School and Confirmation programs take a break. Our adult forum, bible study, and some other ministry groups too. Following this rhythm invites us to slow down a bit. To enjoy life and be more present. To intentionally make time to cultivate our relationship with God in prayer or meditation, the reading of scripture or spiritual devotions. Or to spend time alone in nature encountering the Spirit. This summer I encourage you to take Sabbath rest seriously. Allow your body and mind time to relax. Spend a day a week this summer completely unplugged from technology. It can be challenging but you’ll also find it’s incredibly freeing. Treat the Sabbath as a day where you walk with God, honoring the sacrament of the present moment, letting go of all the stressors and worries that distract you from enjoying life. Not feeling the need to come up with some activity to entertain yourself, but rather spontaneously doing whatever the Spirit inspires. Simply sit outside and observe your natural surroundings. Be aware of the life that’s all around. Treat yourself with care, and take seriously your call to embrace the spiritual practice of observing Sabbath.

So my point here is twofold: Sabbath is about freedom: freedom from the burdens of the world—be it school, work, appointments, obligations, worries of any kind. And once you learn to set aside those stressors on the Sabbath, it becomes a day about appreciating the gift of life, a day when you learn to see God in the midst of this earthly journey. Sabbath is more than freedom from whatever stresses you out, although that’s the place to start. On a deeper level, honoring the Sabbath means setting aside a day to dwell with God, inviting God to direct your experience, surrendering a 24 hour period to the spontaneous flow of the Spirit.

So this summer I hope you will take seriously our call to honor the Sabbath. Ask for God’s guidance and take on the discipline of honoring Sabbath time. It could be the entire day Saturday, it could be your Sunday afternoon, or your Friday evening. Doesn’t really matter when. And if you can’t possibly imagine yourself dedicating an entire 24 hours, start with 8 hours, or 3 or 4. Set aside a good portion of time to do nothing but what the Spirit inspires. Don’t worry about planning what you’ll do. Sabbath is a time to practice trust and patience. To dwell with yourself and your God. It’s a discipline. You’ll need to guard that time, many pressures and obligations will threaten it. That time is sacred and must be honored. It will be challenging. But it will also be fun and life-giving.

Remember that the Sabbath day is about you and God and cultivating your relationship. It is time to spend dwelling with God, practicing the art of being the authentic you. Don’t take it too seriously like the Pharisees did. But don’t forget about it like most people today do. Honor the sacred Sabbath. Honor the sacredness of yourself. Honor the sacredness of your time with God. Sabbath is a time to be free from the pressures of the world, free to live life to the fullest, freedom to experience peace, joy, and life as God intends it.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pastor Brian | June 9, 2024 | Third Sunday after Pentecost

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