Greetings in the Name of our Lord, Jesus Christ!
At Exod. 20.8 the Lord gives the commandment, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” How sabbath has been observed in the history of Judaism and the Church has varied widely. Let’s focus on the phrase in the commandment that we are to keep the day “holy”. For something to be holy means that it is “set aside”, i.e., dedicated or consecrated to God, just as each of us is “marked as Christ’s own” in our Baptism (BCP 308). In other words, once we recognize that sabbath is about that which is consecrated to God, we recognize two realities: (a) sabbath is about God; but (b) sabbath is about our relationship with God. God has established this day of rest for our benefit. God’s glory is revealed in the Ten Commandments in how He has established an ordered creation in which our wellbeing is part of God’s purpose; in how God’s nature is revealed.
When you observe sabbath you not only give glory to God, you also coöperate with His plan, and perhaps the best evidence this can be found in the absence of sabbath, in the 24/7 cycle of busyness, worry, “keeping up”, and “never being done”. It has been my own experience in the life of the parish that when I attempt something purposeful (a sermon, a newsletter article, a blog, a project) the first thing that happens is multiple reasons why my focus is called elsewhere. To call these reasons “interruptions” would be unnecessarily negative. Someone who walks into the office needing counsel and prayer is not an interruption, but has been placed before me by God in order that I may be used in ministering to that person. But then there are things that really are interruptions or distractions—another email arriving while I attempt to think and write; a text arriving when I am studying; a phone call, etc., etc. (I think if I were to use social media I might just melt down.) To really focus requires that I protect myself from interruptions and distractions, but the culture around all of us makes this increasingly difficult.
Remember when we thought that email and texting would save us all time, and allow us to be more productive? I am old enough to remember shaving weeks off of an international project because we could fax documents rather than rely only on air mail. I am old enough to remember when, as a lawyer, I could receive a document in a case and spend a couple of days thinking about it before drafting a response. We can all remember a time when we left work and nobody from the office contacted us over the weekend, except in a real emergency. It is in the constant little beeps and buzzes of devices that our focus is drawn away. It is in the constant reminders from social media that we are distracted to worry about the accomplishments claimed by others. It is in the constant round of scheduling that we find we are always having to reprioritize, and that it can become easy to treat Sunday as a day of rest that does not involve worship.
But notice an important difference: worship is active; a Sunday of “rest” that involves just watching an NFL game is passive. The busyness of life, the ongoing distractions, tempt us away from what we can in fact do (and are called to do) in favor of just consuming. If the Devil’s first and best trick is to make people believe that he does not exist, surely his second is to keep people so busy that they can focus only on themselves. Which is why sabbath matters!
I recently preached about “breathing out” our busyness and anxieties in order to better breathe in the Holy Spirit. To do this we have to observe sabbath. In making God the priority we discover what really is important, and then when we spend the rest of this holy day outside of church we start to prioritize of what we set aside for God, and how in doing so we are ourselves set aside into a healthier and more blessèd place. Our priorities become things like: I don’t read and respond to emails, or texts, or social media postings unless there is an obvious emergency. Having spent time with God; having been bathed in His word; having offered my own praise and thanksgiving; having received the Body and Blood of my Savior to participate in His very Being, now I can be set aside. I can read a book, or go for a long walk, or play a board game with my family, or cook a special meal. I can experience love without worrying about a schedule.
Just as Jesus famously teaches that we will always have the poor with us (that the cares of the world are a constant), so does He invite us to abide in Him. And He is the very definition of that which is not worldly, bound by or worried about time, responding to busyness, fretful. In setting us aside, and in commanding us to set aside a day for Himself, God calls and equips us to abide and to be refreshed, renewed, and literally inspired. Breathe out the little demons of life, to breathe in blessing.
Yours in Christ Jesus,
The Rev. Dr. Karl C. Schaffenburg