Reflections on Sabbath

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            I remember when I lived for many years in the Boston area and would be out on a Saturday morning whether in Brookline or Chestnut Hill.  I would often see Jewish families walking together to the Synagogue for Worship.  It was their Sabbath and for those who are observant Orthodox Jews, this meant that they would not drive or do any work from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday evening.  In Jewish homes, preparations are made before Shabbat. The house is cleaned, food is prepared, and two candles are placed on the dining table. These represent the two commandments received by Moses on Mount Sinai related to Shabbat, which were to“remember” and “observe” the  Sabbath.  The observance of the Sabbath has come down to us from this tradition. The idea of Sabbath time, of a time for rest and renewal, a time to remember and observe,  a time to be mindful of the presence of the Holy in our lives is perhaps more important than ever for all of us.  Let us pray,

            I wonder if any of you remember the Jetsons, an animated kids show that aired quite a long time ago.  It was set in some future age when people lived in space, rode about in their own individual little rockets and so much of life was automated.  There’s one scene I often recall of one of the characters walking on a treadmill to get exercise and the dog is walking beside her on a mini treadmill.  The treadmill speeds up to the point that it gets out of control and the woman falls off of course.  Sometimes, maybe too often, we may feel that life has become like that.  Life just keeps speeding up and we find ourselves nearly falling off.  Except, it’s not entirely a physical thing.  It’s taking a psychological toll with the pace of the days and all that needs to be accomplished.  And instead of getting any easier, it’s harder just to get something done whether it’s reaching our doctor or talking to the phone company. 

I remember a time when life was slower, when we had less to occupy our weekends, when many people actually stopped working at a respectable hour and ate dinner as a family. And that wasn’t all that long ago.  Importantly,  the Sabbath, whether it was on Saturday or Sunday was a time for almost everyone to give themselves a break from the busyness of the week, to relax, to be with family or friends, and to be renewed.  The Sabbath is meant to be a time to remember God’s presence in our lives and to observe the importance of the sacred in our lives.  How many of us find it difficult to us set aside time to nurture our faith,  and to just rest in God?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in The Sabbath, writes,

“On the Sabbath, we empty our lives of worldly ‘spatial’ affairs – efforts to gain, build, occupy material things – to join in God’s rhythm of creation and rest. Sabbath honors the time which God made sacred in Genesis, time set apart from work.  The Sabbath is a way of drawing closer to God and honoring the part of us which is eternal – our souls – yet it is also a way of remembering our humanity. It is God, not us, who makes the Sabbath sacred, who makes time sacred. (7) We join God in this divine rhythm of rest.”

As we look ahead to the summer months, we would be wise to take stock of how we spend our time at work and how we spend our time at rest.  We live in a society that values busyness, that values work and accomplishment; and yet, I think we recognize that we are sorely in need of balance, of taking time off from all that we take in on a daily basis, of taking time to pause and reset. There’s just too much going on, whether the mundane stuff of life or the looming concerns of the world,  and we need to get off the treadmill, at least for a time.  We need to slow our minds and bodies down so that our souls can catch up.  We need to take a break from the cares of the world, if even for a short while. 

You might reflect upon moments when you felt at peace in your lives. What is it that draws you here on a Sunday morning?  What bring us rest?  What fills our souls?  How might we find balance?

One of the wonderful things about the Jewish practice of Shabbat is that it is already scheduled every week.  They know it’s coming; they know how they’ll spend the time in some sense.  It’s in the calendar and part of what they have chosen for their lives. We too may observe the Sabbath by coming to church, but is that enough?  We know that the only way to slow down is to be intentional, to set as a priority a time for nurturing our very souls and our relationship with the Holy.

In our Gospel today, we find Jesus being chastised for healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath.  Jesus knows the practices of Shabbat and has gone to the Synagogue to Worship.  And it is in that holy space that he meets the man who is suffering and he is moved to compassion as he often is when he meets those along his journey.  And when questioned about offering healing, he turns to those who would judge him and asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?”   He understands the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.  For him, the Sabbath is a time of worship and remembrance, and, at the same time, it is a time to offer compassion to one in need.  “Stretch out your hand,” he tells the man.  And in that simple phrase, he offers us a model of what is at the heart of God’s hopes for the world-that as people of faith, we too stretch out our hands to others in need. 

In her book, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time, Dorothy Bass writes, “As God worked, so shall we; as God rested, so shall we. Working and resting, we who are human are in the image of God.” …Without rest, how can we remember who we truly are, held within grace, held within God’s love?

Bass reflects, “The fact that society no longer protects a sabbath should alert all of us, whatever our faith, to become more mindful about opening the gift of time. If we are not mindful, the culture will not be mindful for us.” Ironically, when we need rest the most, it feels impossible to rest. Or those of us who do need it the most cannot rest. We leave mindfulness for another day, another week, another season.

Sabbath is not an obligation, but rather a guidepost, a North Star, a loving invitation. Through Sabbath, Abraham Heschel writes, “the world becomes a place of rest.” (10) The earth rests, society rests, our families rest, we rest. When we can, even if just for a moment, we join God in God’s rest. We dwell, briefly, in God’s time. May I gently invite each of you to rest this summer? To savor what is good and what is of God? (Sarah James)

A Blessing of Solitude, by John O’Donohue

May you recognize in your life the presence, power and light of your soul. May you realise that you are never alone, that your soul in its brightness and belonging connects you intimately with the rhythm of the universe. May you have respect for your own individuality and difference. May you realize that the shape of your soul is unique, that you have a special destiny here, that behind the façade of your life there is something beautiful, good, and eternal happening.

May you learn to see yourself with the same delight, pride and expectation with which God sees you in every moment., Sarah James

John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space