Link to take survey stating your family’s plan to practice sabbath: Click here
A pillar of his community.
That’s how a young man described himself. In the 1960s in Italy, he was working with a Catholic youth association, moving and shaking, getting things done. He prided himself on all that he was accomplishing for the Kingdom of God; he understood that he was making a difference! He was living out the calling on his life.
He likened it to being an actual pillar. In his vision, he was one pillar among many; all of them together holding up the Kingdom of God. In his work, he sought to encourage the youth of his day to become pillars themselves, for the more pillars holding up the Kingdom of God, the larger and more impacting that Kingdom would be.
They were working for Jesus! Then, he gave it all up and moved to the Sahara desert to live alone, loosely in community with a group of hermit monks.
As he wrote from his desert abode, he said that he realized God needed no pillars. He had been busy doing for God when God didn’t need him at all.
That’s a sobering thought. And the point of our scripture for today. Let’s hear Jesus speak of the sabbath in Mark 2:23-28, brought to you by one of our children!
A pillar of his community.
That’s something I think many of us value. I would think of many of you as pillars of this community. In your volunteer service, in your work on boards of hospitals, banks, and the like, in your support of the arts and education, in helping feed our hungry children and providing for stray animals, in these ways and others, many of us are pillars of our community.
Certainly this is something I value. To borrow a phrase from Graton, I’m an “old Wesleyan,” meaning I’m a fan of the old ways of being Methodist. Pastors are itinerant, meaning they’re sent out by the bishop to serve both a church and a community. In our DNA as a denomination is this concept that pastors are sent equally to a church and its community. While such an understanding is increasingly lost in our current day, I have lived out my life in just this way. It’s in my bones to be a community servant as much as lead a church.
Pillars of our community. For me, and I suspect for you, it’s an honor to serve, a joy to be involved, and a hope of better things to come to labor together for Eastman and Dodge County.
At times, we might think to ourselves that we’re doing a great thing for God. That we are busy doing for God, living into God’s expectations for our lives. We’re working, moving, shaking, making things better, just as God would want us to. We’re doing for God.
And in our scripture this morning, Jesus challenges our notion of doing for God.
The disciples are walking on the sabbath. That, by itself, was a problem. The pharisees had set down rules: only so much walking on the sabbath could occur. They’d set down other rules, too, including no harvesting. The disciples are eating, apparently hungry, as they walk through a field of grain. What they’re doing as they eat is technically harvesting. The pharisees see this and smell a trap for Jesus. He’s clearly violating the sabbath.
In Exodus and Deuteronomy, as we’ve seen, God says that six days are for labor but the seventh is to be a sabbath; a day set apart for God. What does it mean to rest? We’ve asked that question and I’ve provided answers: family time, engaging in things that bring us joy, ceasing work, ignoring obligations and demands for a time. All those are good and modern answers.
But the pharisees have their own answers. They’re very concerned with doing rightly for God, based in upkeep of the law. The better the people keep the law, the more blessed they will be, and one day they’ll experience liberation from the Romans and the joy of being their own nation again. So the pharisees impose strict regulations on all the laws, including the sabbath.
The more devoted the people are to God, the better, is their assumption. Because they need to be doing for God to keep God happy.
The pharisees are fanatical about regulation with all the laws, not just sabbath. And before we get judgy, which is very easy to do with the pharisees considering how judgmental Jesus and the gospels are of them, we must pull the plank out of our own eye first.
When I have preached and taught here about spiritual disciplines, about making time and space for a regular habit with God, I have often encountered guilt about not having been better about that already. The response to that guilt is motivation to do better, because God expects it of us. Out of sheer devotion, we engage in our devotionals.
When I have preached and taught and encouraged us to be more servant-oriented, I have often encountered guilt. We think we were supposed to be doing more all along and feel guilty that we have not. Or when I ask you to help me, and as you know, I always am clear you have the option to tell me no; still I encounter guilt very often. The thought of turning down the church is just hard because we think that we’re supposed to do for the church.
Because we’re supposed to do for God. Because God has many expectations of us. We’re supposed to be devoted to God and make that our first priority. And so we labor, we strive, we fight, to do better, do all the good we can, do more, so we can be better Christians.
That’s the accusation the pharisees level against Jesus and his disciples. They’re not being good Jews. They’re violating the sabbath. Their duty is to keep the sabbath, to do for God. Just as I mentioned last week, several of you have mentioned to me that sabbath is something we’re supposed to do for God because God has commanded it. That’s how the pharisees understood it, too.
Which is why Jesus says what this whole passage, and indeed this whole idea of sabbath, hinge upon: “The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath.”
God made, gave, the sabbath for our benefit.
In his retort, Jesus says to the pharisees that they have the law all wrong. They think the law is a set of regulations so that the people can keep God happy; so they know how to do for God. Instead, the law is a gift to the people from God so that they may flourish.
The law is a gift to the people so that they may flourish. The law has a definite humanitarian bent.
Forgetting sabbath for a moment, consider the example of shellfish. The law prohibited the eating of shellfish. Was this a regulation God passed down so that the people would keep God happy? Did God just hate shrimp and lobster and decide that abstinence from those would please him?
No! In fact, the Israelites lacked the technology and cooking knowledge to cook and consume shellfish safely. God knew this and provided that law to keep them safe. The prohibition of eating shellfish was for human life, for human flourishing.
I could cite many examples from the law that demonstrate that it’s God’s gift to the people; it can be humanitarian, it’s designed for human flourishing in this life. God knew better than the people and set down limits, regulations, so they could flourish in this life.
So it was with Jesus; he came for us to flourish. He came to die for our sins but too often we talk about the cross and neglect the resurrection. Yes, we’re sinful, but we’re also set free from that sin! Yes, we need Jesus to fill up the empty parts of our souls but, when filled, we’re at peace and become ambassadors of love because of the new life we’re given! Too much pop Christianity today, seen in music and books and Facebook quotes, puts too much emphasis on our sinfulness when we’re set free from that sin by the new life given at the resurrection!
When we keep reminding ourselves of our sinfulness, of our unworthiness before God, we reject God’s offer of freedom through the new life of the resurrection! That new life comes with some obligation; freedom is a responsibility. But we need not keep our sinfulness ever before us because, when we do so, we keep ourselves in bondage; we reject the freedom offered by the resurrection.
Admittedly, there’s a lot God asks of us. In coming into relationship with him, there are expectations. But there are also gifts. And we tend to emphasize the former and lose the latter. Like in a healthy marriage, our spouse expects things of us and, sometimes, we do those things not because we want to but out of devotion. But our spouse also gives us gifts, even simple things like the gift of presence, the gift of time, the gift of love, and we wouldn’t trade those things to simply live a life of devotion. So why do we do that with God?
With God, too often in our relationships, we accept our responsibility to be devoted while rejecting the gifts God gives us.
That’s the point Jesus is making when he says that the sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath. We weren’t made for the sake of religious devotion, for the sake of keeping God happy, to make up for our sinfulness, or to do for God. We were made to flourish in this life! God has given us gifts to make that happen. One of those is the sabbath.
So let’s accept the gift of sabbath. God made the sabbath for us, so that we would know flourishing in this life. We’ve explored what that means already in great detail. So suffice to say here that sabbath allows us to cease doing, especially doing for God, to instead become love.
The world needs loving people. We all know pillars of our community who are not loving. They might even be pillars we’d just as soon push down, leaving a hole, rather than continue to do deal with! We’ve all been part of a church at some point where the pillars of the church were not very loving. In my experience, I have served a church where the pillars of the church had little love but were, instead, focused on making sure their church never closed so it could continue to serve them.
Just because we’re doing doesn’t mean that we’re loving; it doesn’t ensure that we’re serving God, even if what we’re doing is for God or for the church!
That’s because the grounding of all we do must be love. And we ground ourselves in that love when we create intentional space to experience God’s love for us. That comes through accepting the gift of time, the gift of rest, the gift of space with family, the gift of hobbies and other things that bring us joy; the gift of sabbath.
When we practice sabbath, we create intentional space to experience God’s love for us.
Sabbath is a gift, created for us, so that we will know we need not do for God. We only need to be in love with God. And to be in love with God is to be in love with each other, especially our families. To be in love with God is to delight in the things God has given us as joys. To be in love with God is to be at rest. In short, to be in love with God is to practice sabbath.
That Catholic youth activist turned monk, the one who had considered himself a pillar of his community, now sitting among the desert sands of the Sahara, said, “I had walked, run, spoken, organized, worked, in the belief that I was supporting something; and in reality I had been holding up absolutely nothing.” (Carlo Carretto, Letters from the Desert, 16)
Holding up nothing. All our doing is nothing if it does not come from our love for God.
We are nothing if we are not in love with God. All our doing amounts to nothing, even if what we’re doing is for the church, if we’re not in love with God. All our efforts are fruitless and pointless if they don’t originate out of the love of God. Nothing we do will matter if God’s love is not first in our lives.
So cultivate love in your life. Stop doing for God. For all the many reasons I’ve given for practicing sabbath, for all the sermons and surveys and the like, this is the grounding, the ultimate reason. It’s a gift from God to us so that we might do all things in love. So that we might stop wearing ourselves out trying to do for God to simply rest in God’s love for us. And when we rest in God’s love, we’ll know what to go and do.
St. Augustine said, “Love and do as you will.” So, “don’t worry about what you ought to do. Worry about loving. Don’t interrogate heaven repeatedly and uselessly saying ‘What course of action should I pursue?’ Concentrate on loving instead. And by loving, you will find out what is for you. Loving, you will listen to the Voice. Loving, you will find peace.” (Carretto,23)
This is the final sermon on sabbath. I have preached my heart out about it because it’s near and dear to my heart. That’s also why I chose to do this for my doctoral project; what takes the place of a dissertation in my program. And here’s what I hope, what I long for and yearn for: that you, having heard these sermons and having experienced the benefits of Sabbath through this time of quarantine, are convinced of the necessity of having a sabbath practice of your own.
If you are so convinced, or even if you’re not but you’re willing to experiment, here’s the challenge:
- Find a regular block of six hours in your schedule where you will practice sabbath: time with family, engage in things that bring you joy, rest.
- During that six hours, cease all work, ignore all alerts to your phone; choose instead to engage in things that bring you joy and spend time with people near and dear to your heart.
- Allow yourself to be bored if that’s what happens.
- Make that regular block of six hours non-negotiable.
- Practice your plan weekly for a month. Only then will you be able to evaluate its effect on you and your family
Approach it as a gift from God, one that requires intention to receive, the intention of setting aside time, but a gift nevertheless. For the sabbath was made for us; we weren’t made to keep the sabbath out of devotional obedience
That’s the challenge. And there’s a survey with just one question that I’d love for you to complete after you’ve determined how you’ll practice sabbath: What’s your plan? Here’s the link for that.
All we do should come out of our love for God. Can that be said of you? Of your work? Of your leadership of this community? Of your social media posting or reposting? Of your actions?
Even if your answer is yes, we can always become more loving.
And the world needs loving people.
Dodge County and Eastman need loving people.
Let’s be those people.
Let’s practice sabbath.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.