Monday, August 27, 2007

Sabbath Work



Isaiah 58: 9b-14; Luke 13: 10-17
First Congregational Church of ******, CT
August 26, 2007

Poet Wendell Berry is a lover of the Sabbath. In his book of poetry entitled Given he includes several sets of poems he wrote on the first day of the week, on this Day of Resurrection on which we are gathered, a day when he would find a quiet place outdoors to write, to rest, to observe the world, free from the tyranny of time. He writes of his love for stillness, beauty, for the sound of birds and of the Kentucky River near his home, for the eternity of trees, for the cycle of work on his farm; he records his griefs and joys and how all of this has shaped his soul. He names the Sabbath “the timeless we pass through”.

When I read his Sabbath poems I sigh and wish for a day like his: contemplative, quiet, restful, but also creative, imaginative and deepening of purpose and meaning. We dream of such a Sabbath yet we also struggle to give ourselves over to such a Sabbath. We feel the pull of tides within: the yearning for peace and the cessation of work; the revulsion of guilt and the compulsion to finish a task; the narcissism of entitlement, the rebellion against rules, and the comfort yet also gatekeeping of tradition. It seems there has always been a contest for the Sabbath and today’s gospel lesson is no different.

The division that Jesus said he would bring in the previous chapter of Luke is present in this morning’s reading. He is in the synagogue teaching on the Sabbath; he is at the center of the practice of his faith. To practice the Sabbath is to practice the way of God, to participate in God’s rhythms. A woman with, in the Greek translation, a ‘spirit of weakness’ enters, presumably to worship God. She is unable to stand up straight, only able to focus on the small square of floor her circumscribed vision will allow. She does not call out to Jesus, she probably could not lift her head to see him, let alone know he was there. Jesus is the one who calls out to her. Without asking permission of anyone, without changing any laws, without organizing a committee to talk about it first, he heals her and creates a crisis for the leader of the synagogue and his colleagues yet an occasion of praise for the crowd.

This healing on the Sabbath is meant to carry us back to the last time Jesus healed on the Sabbath in chapter 6 and further to the first time we read of him teaching in the synagogue in chapter 4. When he healed the man with the withered hand Jesus asked the scribes and the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” When he teaches in the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown, he reads from Isaiah and we hear echoes of the lesson from this morning: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In the eyes of Jesus, the Sabbath had become a system of rules rather than the gift of God it was meant to be. Jews were enjoined to refrain from 39 types of labor, not to ‘legalize’ the Sabbath but so that on that holy day the people of God would alter their hearts and minds from their agenda to God’s agenda. Human beings of recorded history have an apparent difficulty with an imposed communal day of rest; it does not seem to come naturally to us in our industrialized, individualistic age. So laws, both religious and secular, have been enacted to steer us toward a time of not just rest, but also toward moral behavior.

The blue laws, those that govern activity on Sundays, were written for those purposes. The Blue Laws of Connecticut and the Colony of New Haven date back to 1655, appointed by Governor Theophilus Eaton with the help of Rev. John Cotton. Though these laws were not actually on the books, they can be inferred from other statutes and codes of conduct. Here’s some idea of how the Puritans lived out not only their Sabbath but their daily lives in the Colony of Connecticut:


  • Each freeman shall swear by the blessed God to bear true allegiance to this Dominion, and that Jesus Christ is the only King.

  • No one shall run on the Sabbath day, or walk in his garden or elsewhere, except reverently to and from Meeting.

  • No one shall travel, cook victuals, make beds, sweep house, cut hair, or shave, on the Sabbath day.

  • No woman shall kiss her child on the Sabbath or fasting day.

  • The Sabbath shall begin at sunset on Saturday.

  • Every rateable (or taxable) person, who refuses to pay his proportion to the support of the Minister of the town or parish, shall be fined by the Court £2, and £4 every quarter, until he or she pays the rate to the Minister.

  • Married persons must live together, or be imprisoned.

  • A wife shall be deemed good evidence against her husband.

The drinking of alcohol was allowed so long as it did not lead to drunkenness. To be considered a freeman, and in order to vote, one had to be a member in full communion and in good standing in one of the churches of the colony. These laws strongly restricted behavior but for the purpose of aligning that behavior with God and God’s ways.

What is left of these blue laws is not much, and there is controversy over that as well. Retail laws were declared unconstitutional but we cannot buy liquor on Sundays in the state of Connecticut. Most of us can remember when all the stores were closed on Sundays. I myself learned to drive on Sundays, when there was not as much traffic on the highway, and I could practice in empty parking lots. I doubt if my mother got much of a rest on those Sundays (!) but it was a quieter day, a slower time, a permission given to put one’s feet up and refrain from the marketplace and the world’s sense of duty.

More and more these laws governing Sabbath are being repealed. One reason is because there is more than one holy day in our pluralistic society. Muslims observe Juma on Friday, Jews keep Shabbat on Saturday, and the majority of Christian churches worship on Sunday, with Seventh-Day Adventists and Seventh-Day Baptists worshipping on Saturday. In some areas there is the feeling that the government is intervening unnecessarily in people’s lives by requiring a day of rest. Also, with many professions and low-paying service jobs being 24/7, when a day off is taken is up to the individual.

Ironically, there is no dispute among Jews and Muslims as to whether the Sabbath should be observed, law or no. It is only Christians who seem to have need of a law in order for the Sabbath to be obeyed. Author Christopher Ringwald, in his book A Day Apart, says that “we’ve converted a blessing into a burden.” Often I have heard grumbling about the length of Sunday worship services. Our Puritan forebears went to Meeting in the morning for about 2-3 hours, returning in the afternoon for another lengthy assembly. My response has been, “This is the day for praising God in the company of one another—I can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday. God is not ‘on the clock’.” But then clergy are considered part of the establishment, hence the guilt we encounter when meeting absent church folk in the grocery store.

The Enlightenment had its blessings but one of its curses was its effect on the Christian Sabbath. Somewhere along the way it became optional. Modern-day Protestants have often scoffed at the Roman Catholic Days of Holy Obligation. The Code of Canon Law states that “the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass. Moreover they are to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.”

In fact, the word ‘obligation’ leaves a bad taste in our mouths. We want to come to God out of free choice; we don’t want to be coerced into worship nor the Sabbath. Indeed, Ringwald says that the Sabbath is “an experience, not a creed.” This is God’s desire as well, but knowing human nature, we need to be told to take a day off, to focus on God’s desires and purposes rather than our own, so that perhaps one day, the other six days of the week might start to resemble the Sabbath day, that is, God’s day.

We keep the Sabbath day holy as a poignant reminder that all days are holy, given to us by our Creator. We may be endowed with certain inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but it is only because we draw breath from and have our being in that which made heaven and earth. Jesus loosens the bound woman on the Sabbath so that she might give God what is needful: worshipful, unbounded praise. And we are given a vision of our Sabbath work: to give justice wherever, whenever it is needed, to not hinder or burden others in the worship of God, and by so doing offer God our praise.

The Sabbath is a day for community, community that sustains and challenges us toward honest, humble living; community that builds justice and speaks peace to the world; community that strives to be the kingdom of God, God’s beloved community, which is the ultimate rebellion against the ways of empire. And as we participate in the Sabbath more and more, as our sense of community grows, we will surely come up against the ways of empire and all its seductions to leave behind our Sabbath work of justice and peace. But God promises us, that when we feed the hungry, fill the needs of the afflicted, when we honor the Sabbath and refrain from our own interests on the holy day, that our light shall rise in the darkness, that our needs will be satisfied in parched places and we shall be like a watered garden, a spring of water, whose waters never fail. We will take delight in the Lord and God will make us ride upon the heights of the earth, that earth which was created for us and hallowed with the Sabbath.

And so, First Congregational Church of ******, how is this Day of Resurrection a day of rebirth for you? How do you prepare yourselves to alter your agenda in order to follow God’s agenda? Sabbath and worship are to be directed within and beyond the self—is there a balance of Sabbath work within the congregation and beyond the congregation? What sustains you as a community? Are there any traditions or tenets that might hinder someone from worshipping here? When was the last time you ate together as a congregation with no other purpose than enjoying one another’s company? What are some social justice issues you would like to focus on as a congregation, as part of your Sabbath?

In the words of Wendell Berry:

Teach me work that honors Thy work,
the true economies of goods and words,
to make my arts compatible
with the songs of the local birds.

Teach me patience beyond work
and, beyond patience, the blest
Sabbath of Thy unresting love
which lights all things and gives rest.

Amen.

5 comments:

Suzanne said...

Thank you Cynthia for feeding me. I really love Berry and you used his work beautifully.

Cynthia said...

Even though he is a cranky old man, he writes beautiful stuff.

Thanks for reading.

Cynthia said...

Sorry, Mimi. Wendell Berry seemed to fit better than the quote from Irenaeus. But I have it filed away for future use.

Suzanne said...

Yeh, I had heard the Wendell Berry was a cranky old man, in this case,
you can't judge a cover by it's insides.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Cynthia, a lovely sermon, surely. Why instead of rules and obligations concerning the Sabbath, are we Christians not eager to set aside a day with the Lord as a day of rest, refreshment, and restoration? Such a day like that seems not to fit with the getting and spending mentality of our society.

I love Berry's work, especially the latest, Given, which you reference. I know that he will have nothing to do with computer technology, but is he really a cranky old man? I didn't know that.