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Horizons 3: Keep Sabbath

“Words of Love: Keep Sabbath”
Lesson 3
Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5: 12-15; Mark 2:23-28

When I was a child and later a teenager, my family would attend conferences each year at the Montreat Conference Center. One summer Sunday afternoon, my brothers and I were playing Monopoly in the lobby of the place where we were staying. The woman in charge of the facility walked into the lobby, saw us and told us to put away the game because it was the Sabbath and, besides, it was gambling because the game involved dice. I was totally confused. My brothers and I were not fighting. We were keeping quiet, so we would not disturb other people. What she said made no sense to me.

There used to be a version of Sabbath-keeping that basically eliminated all wholesome fun. It was to be a quiet day with Sunday school and worship in the morning; in some traditions, one attended worship in the evening as well. Not much else was allowed. This restrictive understanding reduced God to a grim-faced disciplinarian.

I was amazed in seminary to hear my Old Testament professor talk about his family’s celebration of the Sabbath. They attended worship and Sunday school, and then spent the rest of the day visiting with friends, family and those who were lonely. For his family, the Sabbath was a celebration of good and loving relationships with God and one another.

Today, setting aside one day a week to love and enjoy God and one another is virtually gone. Keeping the Sabbath is reduced to worship once a week, if that. We no longer enjoy God and rest on the Sabbath or on any day. Americans don’t get enough sleep, with 30-40% of us sleeping less than six hours per night, depending on which study one reads. Our lack of sleep contributes to health problems such as obesity, depression, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. We check our electronic devices all day. We work, shop or do chores every day.

The Sabbath is meant for rest and worship so that we might center our lives on God’s creativity, beauty and priorities. It is saying “no” to a society obsessed with busyness, productivity and consumerism. The practice of Sabbath-keeping is realizing that we are not defined by how much work we get done, nor is our worth defined by how busy we are. Focusing on constant busyness, entertainment and productivity can reduce us to being joyless, anxious, tired grumps. (I am speaking from experience!) One day a week we need the reminder that our worth is defined by God as God says to us, “You are my children, precious in my sight.”

Keeping the Sabbath is a “radical reorientation of life and priorities in which all people are equal” (“Love Carved in Stone,” page 37). The Sabbath is radical? Yes. In Exodus 20:8-11, we notice that free people, slaves, resident aliens and animals are to rest from work. The Sabbath is the great equalizer, in which social status is eliminated for one day a week. It is a day that reveals God’s intention that all people be freed from oppression, and asks us to envision God’s kingdom in which all people know God’s love, justice and mercy. The Sabbath is a call for justice. Imagine a world where once a week we acknowledged the equal worth of every sweatshop worker, the working poor, the disabled, the homeless, the middle-class moms and dads, the extremely rich, those enslaved in the sex trade, the illegal alien, migrants and the frail. How would your perspective be changed? How would your understanding of God change?

The first chapter of Genesis tells us that God created the world in six days, and then rested on the seventh. God’s pattern for creation is a pattern for our own lives, calling us to work, create and rest. Creativity and productivity increase when we rest and celebrate God’s provision for us. Anxiety decreases when we are reminded that it is not all up to us, that we are not in charge of the universe. How many times have we believed that if anything is going to be done well, then we have to do it ourselves? How many times have we believed that our agenda is the most important thing, without regard for or even noticing the needs of others? Loving and enjoying God for a day each week centers us and gives us the badly-needed perspective that God provides, that God loves all, that God’s agenda far surpasses the agendas we would write.

In many ways, our spiritual, emotional and physical health depends on Sabbath-keeping. To rest in God’s love, to nurture relationships, to remember that God loves justice, mercy and forgiveness provides us with a center — a place from which to live life well.

rosalind-banburyRosalind Banbury lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is a pastor in the Presbytery of the James.

You can purchase the PW/Horizons Bible study book through the PC(USA) Church Store.