Scripture Exodus 20:8-11 & A Meditation on Psalm 46:10 by H. Nouwen
The Reverend Dr. Kristina “Tina” Campbell
Black Mountain United Church of Christ
July 9, 2023
I have a friend who loves to go fishing. He carefully packs his gear, and then gets up at three in the morning to head out to one of the lakes that surround Phoenix. He has everything he needs to spend the night on the shore, including a bacon wrapped filet for dinner. He spends hour upon hour out on the water. I asked him what he does with the fish he catches, and he replied, “Oh, I just throw them back, but when I’m out fishing, I don’t think about anything.” This is Sabbath.
Most of us are running around way too much. If we bump into a friend we haven’t seen for a while and ask, “How are?” Twenty years ago, a typical answer would have been “fine,” but today the reply is more likely to be “busy.”
We’re caught up in emails, phone calls, long hours working, schlepping kids from here to there, and trying to match velocities with everyone else who has speeded up. There’s a place for revving up occasionally, whether it’s dealing with an emergency or cheering at a high school basketball game, but chronic speediness has many dangerous effects. We clearly need to back off the gas pedal from time to time.
The modern pedal-to-the-metal lifestyle produces chronic stress and tension and related physical and mental health issues. It also crowds out creative pursuits, friendships, recreation, spiritual life, and time for children and family.
Let me be clear that I am not recommending a sedentary or disconnected lifestyle that can quickly become deadly, creating a myriad of health issues, often resulting in cynicism and negativity. Sedentary and isolated people have a million cynical criticisms of what is wrong with the world, but few examples of how they are contributing to solutions to our massive social problems. People who are isolated and sedentary have a carefully practiced and often sophisticated list of excuses of why they can’t engage, self-motivate or even walk to the mailbox. They drain the energy of the people around them. Social isolation is the opposite of Sabbath, and is a deadly lifestyle.
It’s easy to feel stressed these days or worried, frustrated, or irritated about one thing or another. Humanity seems to be in an overall bad mood. When we are stressed or upset, our bodies tense up to fight, flee or freeze…that’s Mother Nature’s way, and its short-term benefits kept our ancestors alive. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we see countless incidents of stress, anger, and frustration leading to mass violence against innocent people.
As more and more people live longer lives, and when quality of life is a priority, we pay a high long-term price for daily tension. We are aware that daily tension leads to heart disease, poor digestion, backaches, headaches, and hormonal ups and downs. Tension also contributes to anxiety, irritability, and depression.
The number one way to reduce tension is through relaxation. Besides its benefits for physical and mental health, relaxation just feels good. Just think how good it feels to soak in a tub, curl up in bed or plop on the couch after the kitchen is cleaned.
When we’re stuck in traffic, wading through countless emails, or having a tough conversation, being able to relax at will is a critically important life skill. Sometimes we just need to pause. Whether we’re faced with criticism at work, a partner whose feelings are hurt, an internal urge to lash out verbally, or an opportunity for some gratification that will cost us later, we’ve got to be able to put on the brakes for a moment.
Today there’s a lot of confusion about what it means to keep the Sabbath day holy. For the most part, this commandment is simply ignored or viewed as a lifestyle suggestion more than a faithful practice. More and more, it’s business as usual on Sundays: many of us are obliged to work on Sunday, and church attendance is declining steadily. We are living increasingly pressured lives.
Unless we pull back from our normal lives regularly to rest, worship and forgive, we will lose perspective on what is ultimately important and become compulsive, driven, hurrying persons caught up I pressure---ambitious, greedy, resentful, unable to pray, unable to forgive, and unable to simply enjoy life.
In our Scripture we are reminded that we weren’t made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath was made for us. Sabbath time is our time, our chance to rest, to worship, to forgive each other, to taste a slice of heaven, and to be in sync with all that is alive and holy. In six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God exhaled.
Theologian Walter Brueggemann believes that “the fourth commandment is the most difficult and the most urgent of the commandments in our society…because it defies the most elemental requirements of a commodity-propelled society specializing in control and entertainment, bread and circuses…along with anxiety and violence.” By instituting the Sabbath, God intervened in human history to make right something that had gone wrong and re-established a pattern present in creation that had been tragically lost. In the Exodus narrative, the God who is free to rest on the seventh day is calling the people God loves to participate in his freedom by embedding rest in their life’s routine.
Sabbath is a gift of God for the people of God, a time to come together, to take a breath together, a time to relax, a time to sing, a time to just be. I love observing all of you during coffee hour. I love how you linger, how you lean in, and are unhurried. Have you noticed that many of you huddle in the kitchen? Perhaps we are better people on the Sabbath. We move more slowly, talk more slowly, and listen more carefully. Perhaps we are kinder, more patient, more loving, more forgiving, more grateful. Perhaps we are more at home with our humanity, more grateful, less driven. We are free to love and be loved, to experience ourselves valued and blessed just for being. We are free to delight in the gifts money cannot buy. We are free to rest ourselves in God.
By establishing a Sabbath practice, we affirm and accept the fact that God is the only one who is infinite, and we are finite. This means we live within the physical limits of time and space, strength and energy. There are limits to our relation, emotional, mental, and spiritual capacities. By being faithful to a Sabbath practice, we are saying in a very concrete way, “God is the only one who can be all things to all people; I am not. God is the only one who can be in two places at once; I am not. God is the one who never sleeps; I am not.”
By keeping the Sabbath, we create a path that enables us to live humbly within the limits of being human by letting go of our relentless human striving at least one day a week so we can nurture human being-ness versus our human doing. By keeping the Sabbath, we are able to acknowledge: I am human. I am finite. I have limits.
Our limits are not a surprise to God, nor are they a disappointment. This is what we witnessed in the radical choice American gymnast Simone Biles made during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. An athlete who has routinely seemed to defy limits, Biles came to the realization that she had hit up against real limits so she pulled out of the four Olympic finals—she knew that she was “off” mentally and needed to prioritize her mental health. Having come into the Tokyo games under immense pressure to win all five gold medals she had been haunted by a condition that would make it unsafe for her to continue to compete. In a stunning move that captivated the world, she prioritized her mental well-being, eventually coming back to win one bronze medal. Time will tell how history remembers Simone Biles…the number of medals she earned in these particular Olympic games or the self-respect she demonstrated by acknowledging her limitations and prioritizing her long-term health and well-being.
Sabbath shows us how to move beyond lamenting our limits as liabilities to embracing them as gifts that are part and parcel of being human—an aspect of our created selves that God actually intended and called good.
The heart of God’s intention for Sabbath-keeping is that there would be a regular rhythm of ceasing our work for the purpose of resisting cultural influence and personal drivenness, so we can live on God’s own terms for us. God knows we need a regular rhythm of rest, worship, and delight.
We might ask ourselves what we would include in our Sabbath. What activities bring us delight? Might we include some activities that rest the body and mind: a nap, a float in the pool, a bike ride, a long bubble bath, a meal with family and friends. What activities rest our minds and replenish our spirits: art, music, reading for pleasure, playing with children, spending time with an upbeat friend. What activities restore our souls? Worship, spending time in silence, creativity, prayer, journaling.
Sabbath is an opportunity to find ourselves in God. Sabbath restores us to a sense of our truest identity as God speaks into our souls and whispers to each and every ear: Remember. Remember who you are—you are precious in God’s sight and God loves you. Remember who you are and that you belong to God. God has called you by name. You are beloved by God. Remember that God has a purpose and a calling for your life. And so we stop, we pause, we gather together, and we give thanks for the Sabbath. See you in the kitchen! Amen.