"Keeping a Holy Sabbath"

Proper 4.B.24
Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

“Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy…” proclaims Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.”
That said, it’s interesting to note that according to Mark, the first day of Jesus’ ministry was a sabbath day—and goodness, the Messiah was busy. Jesus begins by teaching “with authority” in the synagogue; then heals a man possessed by an unclean spirit and to top it all off, proceeds to heal Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever. Then we come to the lesson for today.
It’s another sabbath day, and Jesus and his disciples are going through the grainfields. As they make their way, they pluck some heads of grain. The gospels of Matthew and Luke say it was because the disciples were hungry. Mark doesn’t seem to think that detail matters—for all he cares, they could have been doing it mindlessly as they walked, hands brushing and grabbing the tall grain without intention or thought.
But in the eyes of the Pharisees, what the disciples have done is reaped the field. They have worked on the sabbath—they have violated the command of God. Jesus responds by contending that the point of practices such as sabbath-keeping is to help foster healthy forms of life. In other words, religious observance is valuable precisely to the extent that it helps life to thrive; and that same religious observance is destructive precisely to the extent that it does not. However, Jesus is not yet done making his point. He enters the synagogue and heals a man with a withered hand, further enraging the Pharisees—who begin to plot how to destroy him.
From the point of view of the Pharisees, God created the law, and humanity needs to live up to it—or else we are lost. It is that important. So, if you are hungry on the sabbath, and you failed to prepare ahead of time—you should remain hungry. If you are crippled before the sabbath, you should remain so until after.
Counter this with the perspective of Jesus, that the sabbath was made for humanity. In this sense of understanding, God is chiefly known as love and the laws of purity rituals are for humanity’s own good. The sabbath is a gift. It is about celebrating a world of abundance, self-restraint, and mutual care. So, bear in mind that Jesus, through these two examples, of grasping at grain and healing a withered hand, is making a point—that the sabbath should point to restoring the health and well being of others, not simply to keeping a rule to keep a rule. In other words, observing the sabbath, if we do it rightly, isn’t all about us. It’s about ourselves, certainly, but also our family community (including animals) and God.
Give a thought as to how we perceive the sabbath. Blue Laws, church and family regulations, for many of us, have been put on the shelf—relegated to another age, wrapped up in our memory and all but forgotten. We are a people encouraged to pursue lives of constant action and purpose. The gig economy, work-from-home trend and move to have most sports practices and games on Sunday mornings, have further blurred the line between work and rest. For many of us, the Sabbath no longer fits into the rhythm of our lives—if anything, it is more of an imposition rather than a force of liberation. Many folks have simply given up—seeing the Sabbath as an antiquated concept—so Sundays might be for recreation, for chores or for rest—but frequently God doesn’t even manage to get a credit for the concept. But the truth is that--from the point of view of the Jews and of Jesus, keeping the Sabbath matters.
Think of the Sabbath, if you will, as a spiritual “reset” button, helping to reorient our spirits and our lives to be focused on God.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was studying in Germany in the early 1930’s. One evening, while strolling in Berlin Heschel had a breakthrough. He writes: “Suddenly, I noticed the sun had gone down, evening had arrived.” He had forgotten about time. He continues: “I had forgotten God—I had forgotten Sinai. I had forgotten that sunset is my business.”
For Heschel, engaging in a God-centric understanding of spirituality (which included observing the Sabbath) was the only sure guarantee of human dignity. In his mind, without an absolute standard that reflected the will of God, people could countenance any evil; everything could be relativized--nothing really matters. And it wasn’t enough merely to contemplate this supreme being. For Heschel, the God-centric vision of a life of faith had to be nurtured in a life of prayer and ritual—that is to say, in the dimension of time. In the Sabbath.
Imagine how revolutionary the concept of Sabbath must have appeared in the ancient world, where vast multitudes of people were slaves. Into such a world there appeared a religion that told slaves and even animals that they had an identity separate from their labor, that their nonwork, their time of rest, was sacred. Judaism taught people to find inner liberty by freeing themselves not only from the domination of things but also from the domination of people.
Heschel is best remembered for his political activism in the United States during the 1960s. He vociferously opposed the Vietnam War, marched arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King Jr. and was the only Jew to eulogize King at the civil-rights leader’s funeral. His lifelong hatred of injustice was foremost an outpouring of his faith—a faith deeply tied to sabbath rest.
Think of it this way, the purpose of the sabbath is to help us become people who resist doing harm and evil not so much because we are following rules (and are thereby doing good), so much as we are following God—a God who is good and always working for redemption. This is the distinction Jesus is pointing out in the Gospel lesson, and it is a distinction that Rabbi Heschel lived out in his faith and life.*
Recall again that moment in the synagogue when Jesus heals a man with a withered hand. Looking at the Pharisees, Jesus says: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath…? And the Pharisees are silent. Now, Mark tells us, Jesus looks at them with anger. Jesus likens the Pharisees inaction with causing harm and doing evil. Essentially, what Jesus is saying is that our self-preservation or law-keeping cannot come at the expense of our neighbor’s well-being. Think of it this way—keeping the sabbath, resting from our own works and giving thought and praise to God’s works—this results in a call to justice and compassion not only for ourselves (who need a rest) but for all of creation, including our neighbors. Sabbath-keeping, done well, is an antidote to apathy and a call to justice.
Today’s lessons are a challenge for each of us to give thought to how we observe the Sabbath in our own lives. Consider setting aside a month to intentionally observe the Sabbath for four consecutive Sundays, no matter where you are—using this day to remember God, to glory in the divine love, to recreate ourselves—and be re-created by God, thereby finding ourselves empowered to change the world. Do this, and see how your life, your cares and concerns, change as a result. In the name of Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath. Amen.

“What We’ve Lost in Rejecting the Sabbath” by Sohrab Ahmari, Wall Street Journal, May 7, 2021