Last week, I sent out a survey. I’m grateful to all of you who responded! You’re helping with my doctoral project but also helping me understand how we’re all faring as a church during this unusual season of our lives. Based on the survey results, most of us are experiencing more family time while simultaneously being more aware of what really matters and experiencing more rest. And that’s great! In fact, those are the outcomes of a regular practice of sabbath.
For sabbath is God’s gift of time, set aside to be free of work and obligation, so that we stay healthy, renewed, and centered in God’s love for us.
So today, we embark anew on this study of sabbath. Back before the quarantine, we were looking together at sabbath. We talked about how it teaches us that we are not God, and thus we are not capable of doing all the things. Sabbath, that intentional time set aside for rest, for ceasing from work and productivity, teaches us that we are not defined by what we do, but rather we are defined by whose we are.
We had spent time discussing that prior to the quarantine, which led to a discussion about taking time for the things that matter in life, especially making intentional time to be a family. That, ironically, was the last sermon I preached in the pulpit. Now, we all have more family time by default.
We’re discovering together, based again on survey results, that this sabbath time, this extra time for family and fun, is really valuable for our lives. You reported that you’re experiencing more peace, more balance, and even engaging in more introspection. This is exactly the point! This is the gift that is sabbath time.
At some point in the future, our lives will go back to normal. We’ll return to old routines, with a new sense of perspective on them. That new perspective holds tremendous opportunity. When we return to old routines, will we go back to living life as we had before, with all the rushing, the stress, the pressure, with limited time for family and fun? Or will we purposefully carve out time for family and fun, ensuring that we maintain the goodness we have discovered because of this quarantine?
To put that question another way, will we practice sabbath or not?
This is a time where we feel out of control. But we have control over our schedules. We can sit down, individually and as families, and decide that we’re going to carve out time where no work will be done. And instead, during that time, we will play.
That’s what we’ll talk about today. But before we get too far, let’s pray.
I hit that on my truck just a few weeks ago. When I bought the truck, it had 5 miles on it. Here’s the kicker. I bought the truck in June of last year. Ten months, 20,000 miles. I do a lot of driving.
Most of it for work. Before the virus hit, I drove to out of town hospitals, I drove for meetings, I drove for retreats; basically, I drove to Macon at least once a week. And after a while, it all adds up. During all those miles, I find myself often spending time in prayer, sometimes through singing. Lately, I’ve been addicted to Cat Stevens’ rendition of that classic hymn: Morning Has Broken. There’s a line in it that stood out to me. It’s one of those times that you hear a familiar word differently, in a way that you can never unhear.
In a latter verse, the hymn says, “Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning, born of the one light Eden saw play. Praise with elation, praise every morning, God’s recreation of the new day.”
God’s recreation. There’s a double meaning there. In the morning, with the light playing over Eden, God recreates, literally plays. But, God also re-creates. The word recreation, so common to us especially because of how many of us are involved with the Recreation Department, is literally the word re-create.
To play is to re-create, to be reborn and renewed. Recreation is re-creation.
And to be re-created is a central purpose of the sabbath.
Let’s hear our scripture for today. It’s from Deuteronomy’s version of the Ten Commandments, chapter 5, verses 12-15.
Build more bricks!
This is the reason for the Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy; the relentless building of bricks.
This commandment, like Exodus, says to take time for a sabbath, as commanded by God. And both versions of the fourth commandment give a rationale for why God commands the sabbath. In Exodus, it’s because God rested on the seventh day of creation. In Deuteronomy, it’s because God delivered the people out of slavery in Egypt.
There, in Egypt, they heard over and over again, “build more bricks!” With the crack of the whip from their Egyptian overlords, the people made bricks out of straw and mud. Day after day, without ceasing, with only enough time to sleep before going back to do it again. Pharaoh needed more storehouses. Popular legend says that the Israelites built the pyramids. Perhaps, but Exodus says they were building something far less grand: storehouses for all the riches Pharaoh was accumulating.
Anyone who’s worked with concrete or mortar knows this must have been back-breaking work. Then to do it seven days a week. Then to do it all year long. No holidays. Then, consider that the Egyptians had not developed the wheel. It puzzles scholars still to this day how they moved the bricks, once built, without use of wheelbarrows or carts or anything else that goes about on a wheel.
Build more bricks! The Israelites lived in an on-demand workforce, where they were to work at the pleasure of the pharaoh as much as he wanted, whenever he wanted, doing exactly as he wanted. There was no freedom, definitely no time for recreation.
It’s fair to say that pharaoh had the people on-demand: whenever he wanted, for whatever he wanted.
This is what God saved the people from when rescuing them from Egypt; God saved them from being an on-demand workforce.
On-demand is a buzzword today. We hear of it much through our televisions, where programming is on-demand. My children have no concept of having to wait for 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning to watch their favorite cartoon, like many of us had to do. For them, whatever cartoon they want to watch, whatever episode, is available through Netflix, Hulu, or Disney Plus, whenever they want it. It’s on-demand.
But on-demand extends beyond our various screens. Some employers have gone to an on-demand workforce. In warehouses in this country, workers are called in by an app on their phone on an as-needed basis. As the warehouse receives more orders, it automatically pushes notifications out to workers that they’re needed and required to report to work. When the warehouse has fewer orders, it pushes out fewer notifications. From a logistics stand-point, it’s a brilliant system that efficiently manages personnel expenses.
It’s just like a Lyft or Uber driver: the worker gets a mobile notification when they’re needed and only when they’re needed. But with one crucial difference: the Lyft or Uber driver can turn off their availability in the app when they need downtime, or when they don’t have childcare available, or when they need to run errands, or when they just don’t want to work. The Uber, Lyft, Door Dash, or other similar gig economy worker has full control over their schedule. The on-demand warehouse worker has none. She or he is always on, always to be available for work, with consequences for their continued employment if they fail to report when notified.
So while brilliant from a logistical standpoint, this on-demand workforce is tyranny to the worker. They never know when they’ll be needed, which means they have no regular schedule around which to build their lives. They have no flexibility to schedule appointments because, if they say no when called in to work, they risk losing hours or losing their job. This is because those workers who report more often get notified first when the warehouse sends out notices. And so workers must report, if they want to make money to provide for their families and keep their jobs secure.
For these on-demand workers experiencing the tyranny of being always on, the push notification to their phones might as well say, “build more bricks!”
They work for the company as much as it wants, whenever it wants, doing exactly as it wants. There’s no freedom, no time for recreation.
It probably sounds foreign to us, for we exercise much more control over our jobs and lives and schedules. We might not have ever heard of such a workforce either.
But it actually should sound familiar to us. Think back to before quarantine, when keeping your normal schedule: how many nights a week did you go to bed thinking about something related to work or an obligation you hold? How many evenings did you spend time looking at your email, responding to text messages, or making phone calls related to work or obligations? How often have you shrugged your shoulders and said, “oh well, that’s just how it goes,” when some obligation pops up that you must attend even though you already had plans to do something for you or your family?
For most of us, even those of us who are retired but still sit on boards and hold property and other interests, there’s always one more email to return, one more call to make, one more project to complete, one more todo to check, one more thing, just one more. Always one more.
Always one more thing.
Always one more brick to build.
It’s exhausting isn’t it?
We live in an on-demand world. And that increasingly means that anytime, anywhere, someone can make a demand of us because we must always be on.
Our obligations and workplaces demand as much as they want, whenever they want, doing exactly as they want. There’s no freedom, no time for recreation. We, too, live as an on-demand people.
In Deuteronomy, providing freedom from being on-demand is exactly why God established the Sabbath as the fourth commandment. Sabbath is like how we Methodists talk about grace: it’s a free gift of God to us. It’s a gift of time, a gift of freedom.
A gift that offers us freedom from an on-demand lifestyle.
A gift that offers us release from a world that constantly says to us, “build more bricks!”
In Egypt, the people were only valued for what they could produce; in this case, bricks. They had no other value. They were not valued for being human beings, images of God; they were not valued as people of “sacred worth,” as the United Methodist Church says all humans are. They were simply brick producers; that’s it.
When we succumb to an on-demand lifestyle with our work and obligations, we come to value ourselves as merely brick producers. We gradually learn to only be valued for what we can produce and achieve. Work creeps in to every facet of life because we tell ourselves, even subconsciously, that we must always be on because that’s where we find our value: in production and accomplishment; in being needed and responding to those needs.
The problem with our work-focused lives, with lives lived in a work/work rhythm instead of sabbath’s work/rest rhythm, is not “simply an issue of too many hours being claimed by work. Rather, it is a lack of any theoretical limits to working time…[which] means that any time in a person’s life is increasingly liable to the claims of work, suggesting that human life is for the sake of work, rather than work existing for the sake of human life and flourishing.”
So says a sociologist who studies this new phenomenon of the on-demand workforce. An on-demand lifestyle means that life is for the sake of work, rather than work existing for human life and flourishing. Which way is it for you? Does your life exist for the sake of your work? Or does your work augment a life defined by God, family, and love?
On-demand work is the former. It makes us exist for the sake of work, for the sake of the board, for the sake of the church, for the sake of our obligations. It, in fact, makes us captive to the demands on our lives. We must always be working, moving, doing, accomplishing, producing.
It’s like this new todo app I just downloaded. My old one is no longer supported and I miss it. Honestly. It’s one of those things that keeps me focused and ensures that I meet my obligations. My new one has awards, badges that I can earn based on how productive I am. And I can share those badges on social media.
This might not seem like a bad thing except that being rewarded for our productivity encourages us to think of life as existing for the sake of producing: more meetings, more functions, more boards, more volunteering, more work, more items checked off the todo list, more bricks.
God created sabbath to save us from being captive to our work; to save us from being on-demand. And by work, I mean anything that is an obligation; more than just jobs that pay us salaries. Our kids engage in work at school, retirees among us engage in work on their boards and in volunteering, stay at home parents engage in work when parenting. Some work is good. We’ve explored that before.
But work becomes a problem when it becomes the rationale for living. That’s why Deuteronomy’s rationale for sabbath is being saved from Egypt. We are literally saved from having to live for work. Sabbath says that we were not created to build more bricks; to be machines of production and achievement. We were created to enjoy life by enjoying God forever! We were created out of God’s abundant joy. Psalm 8 says that we were created just a “little lower than God.” We are images of God, we are a reflection of God, and we were created for joy in God.
Joy should be a central characteristic of our lives; a joy that comes from taking intentional time for rest every week. That’s what Sabbath does. It reminds us of who we are and whose we are by providing time for play; to experience God’s joy.
We were created for joy. But a typical week’s demands of obligations, responsibilities, tasks, running around children and parents, keeping up with all the ways people put pressure on us, keeping up with all the bricks we must build, all of that wears us down. It draws us away from how we were created. It leaves us in need of being re-created.
And that is why we opened with that verse from the hymn “Morning has Broken.” God established the sabbath as a gift to us for recreation, literally so we could be re-created after the week has worn us down; re-created into our central identity as a beloved child of God.
What does that look like lived out in our daily lives? In our times that we set aside to practice sabbath?
Your comment cards from a month ago have been super helpful, both from Sunday school and from the services. And one of the things I note in many of your responses is a desire to use the sabbath for spiritual activities like reading your bible, praying, and the like. Those are well and good and I hope that you have a daily habit of that.
But unlike many things, sabbath is not a call to engage in spiritual disciplines. Sabbath is it’s own spiritual discipline: the discipline of rest and the discipline of play. It’s a time set aside for doing things that fill us up after a draining week.
Because sabbath is a time for recreation! It’s a time literally for fun. It’s a time to delight in things! That’s why back on March 8, in that sermon on building Godly families as a part of sabbath, we talked about sitting around a relative’s home on Sunday afternoons, whiling away the hours: drinking a favorite drink, maybe playing checkers or chess or some yard game, or just talking and laughing. God knew that we would need to recreate, to have these mini re-creations to stay in tune with how we were created; with who we are and whose we are.
And so sabbath is about recreation! For when we recreate, when we play, when we engage in things that bring us joy, things in which we delight, we are indeed being spiritual because we are doing what God made us to do! We are giving ourselves to God to be re-created.
Here’s the standard, then, for activities on the sabbath. When you think of something you might want to do on the Sabbath, consider whether or not it fills you up or drains you. After you are done with the activity, do you feel refreshed and renewed or do you feel like you need rest? If it’s refreshed and renewed, go for it! If it would drain you, don’t do it! Leave it for another day.
The classic example is yard work. For some of us, that’s a filling activity, one that might leave us physically tired but renewed and rejuvenated in our hearts and souls. For others, like me, it’s a tiresome and tedious task that I abhor. So I won’t work in the yard on the sabbath, but you might!
Whatever it is, find things that you delight in, that you love, that fill you up and do those during your sabbath time. In fact, in that survey I sent out last week, many of you report doing just that! Fifty-eight percent of us are spending more time on hobbies and things that bring us joy. That’s great! In doing so, you’re living into God’s standards for the sabbath, you’re being spiritual, you’re doing exactly what God commands.
In fact, 69% of us are spending more time with family, 58% of us are spending less time on work, and 94% of us are more focused now than we were before the quarantine on what matters. Ironically, these are the kind of outcomes, what we’re experiencing right now, that come from a regular practice of sabbath.
Which means we can know these things on a regular basis, not just when they’re faced upon us by a quarantine. So here’s the central question, one I asked at the start of this sermon: will we continue?
When we return to normal, will you create time in your regular week’s schedule for recreation and family time? In other words, will you make time, regularly, with intention, to practice sabbath?
We are all experiencing the joys, the benefits, of living into God’s command to keep sabbath. In a time when we feel very much out of control, we have the opportunity to take control of our time by ensuring that we practice sabbath. You now know what you value about having more family time, more recreation time, and less work time. Create a plan, sit down with your old schedule, talk around the table with your family, and carve out time, every week, on a regular basis for sabbath.
That time you set aside, even when quarantine is over, is when you’ll do what you’re doing right now: playing board games, reading more, gardening, going on family walks, and watching TV together. Doing so will cause you to keep experiencing what you reported in the survey you’re experiencing right now: a slower pace of life, more introspection, more balance, less stress.
So make a plan for sabbath. And in that plan, take time to recreate. That’s a purpose of sabbath. For in doing so, we are re-created, made afresh in God’s image; an image that says to us we were created for more than obligations, demands, and responsibilities; we were created for joy, for peace, for love.
God saved you from a life lived on-demand, for you are a beloved child of God. Live like it. Practice sabbath.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.