Lesson Three — Words of Love: Keep Sabbath
The Fourth Word
Primary Scripture: Exodus 20:8-11, Deuteronomy 5:12-15; and Mark 2:23-28
Life has a rhythm. It moves and slows. It rises and falls away. It hurries and it stops. There is work and there is rest. That rhythm is baked into the created order itself and is in the very nature of God. After the wild burst of creation, God stopped, observed, rested, simply was. If human beings are to mirror God on earth—as is our call and intention being created in God’s image—stopping, observing, resting, and being are necessary. We are made for it. And yet, of all of the commandments, this one has been the hardest for me to live. Still is.
When I was pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham Alabama, my staff and I took a day of prayer together most months. We showed up at the big old downtown church on those days in jeans and tee shirts, piled into somebody’s car and headed north from the city for about an hour’s drive to a lovely small Benedictine convent where we spent the day. We prayed together in the morning, ate lunch with the sisters and had quiet time on our own in the afternoons. One day one of the sisters with whom I had sought spiritual direction a time or two, stopped me in the big quiet hallway. “Reverend Eugenia,” she said, “Just stop.” At first I didn’t know what she meant. Was I wearing my Protestantism like a giant Scarlett P and doing something offensive? Was I walking too fast, too loudly, too something? I stopped and looked at her, confused. “When was the last time you took even 5 minutes of Sabbath,” she asked. “When was the last time you just stopped?” And I burst into tears. I could not remember the last time I had simply stopped.
There is not much in our culture that supports Sabbath. On some levels, we are applauded for our busyness, our fast-paced schedules, our many responsibilities. Whether it is putting in overtime at work, ferrying the kids to games and classes, or volunteering at the church, the idea of ‘just stopping’ seems beyond us. My daughter-in-law, a speech therapist and mother of 3-year and 18-month old girls, says that her idea of Sabbath is being able to go to the bathroom by herself! I get that. Apparently, keeping Sabbath was no easier for our ancestors than it is for us. Some ancient rabbis even taught that Messiah would come if Israel kept two holy Sabbaths.
So why is Sabbath so important? First, on Sabbath, we leave this present time and place and enter into the vastness and wonder of eternity. On Sabbath we acknowledge that just as it is in heaven, all is as it should be; God is at work and will provide. When we keep Sabbath with the worshipping community, we experience a bit of eternity at the Communion Table. There we leave this time and place and gather at the Great Banquet with all those who have gone before and will come after us. Sabbath keeping connects us with eternity and humbles us enough to experience life, and eternal life, as pure gift and pure blessing. We do not earn it by our work. We are given it in love.
Second, Sabbath is important because when we stop and no one works we experience God’s level playing field. All of the hierarchies of achievement are meaningless. God sees all as one, all as equally valuable. To keep Sabbath is to acknowledge that in the realm of God, justice rules. When Sabbath ends, our work is to make justice real in this world as in the next.
Finally, Sabbath encourages us to see who we really are. Often we become so anesthetized to our real selves by all of our doing and achieving, we don’t know who we are apart from what we do. As a recently retired pastor after 35 years of service, my neglect of this aspect of Sabbath has become painfully clear. Without the sermons, and studies, and planning meetings, is there really a Eugenia in there? Keeping Sabbath, radically, regularly, and routinely invites us to leave our doing for a time and commune with God. In that way we find out not only more of God, but more of who we are at the deepest levels as well. It is a tough journey to unhook and to unmask. Still, even the air smells different when we do!
Eugenia Anne Gamble
Author of the 2019–2020 PW/Horizons Bible Study
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