Sermon by Melanie Hardison
Crescent Hill Presbyterian
June 3, 2018
The Sabbath: Made for Humankind
Our New Testament reading comes from the Gospel of Mark, 2:23-3:6, and includes two stories about Jesus and the Sabbath. Listen now for the Word of God:
23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grain fields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 And Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 David entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and David gave some to his companions.” 27 Then Jesus said to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
Jesus entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched Jesus to see whether he would cure the man on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Jesus. 3 And Jesus said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” The man stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against Jesus, how to destroy him.
It is so good to be back with my church family. Some of you know that I recently graduated from Louisville Seminary, and for the past eight months I have been away from Crescent Hill Pres, because I have been serving as a seminary intern at Second Presbyterian Church, just up the road. It was a great year of learning and growth in ministry. And just as it was good to be there, it is also good to be here. It feels like coming home to family. And so I am honored to be invited to preach and to explore these stories about the Sabbath. Will you join me for a prayer?
Holy God, you move through our lives in so many ways. As you promise to be with us always, we invite you to be here now as we consider your Word. Open our hearts and minds that we might follow you. Amen.
I used to have a neighbor, who we’ll call Lynn, who faithfully observed the Sabbath. Every Sunday, she took the day
to nurture her faith by attending Sunday school and worship
to nurture her body with healthy food and long naps and walks in the park, and to nurture her mind and spirit by journaling, praying and meditating.
Many Sundays I would see her after church, sitting in her garden enjoying a meal slowly, or writing in her journal, or just enjoying the surroundings.
Can you imagine? An entire day, dedicated solely to restoring yourself and your relationship with God. Every Sunday, Lynn said no to other commitments, said no to work, and said yes to herself and to God. I was enamored by Lynn’s Sabbath practice, because it was so admirable and wise and beautiful, really.
And I was also exasperated by it, because try as I might, I have such a hard time actually doing it myself.
“Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. You shall not do any work.” Of all ten commandments, this is the commandment that gets the longest explanation. The instructions are explicit: six days of work, one day of rest. And everyone gets to rest: adults, children, slaves and workers, visitors to your town, even oxen, donkeys, and livestock. Everyone takes a rest on the seventh day, just like God took a rest on the seventh day of creation.
Another scripture, from Leviticus, takes this practice a step further, spelling out a Sabbath of Sabbaths: every seven years there was to be an entire year of rest, and every seventh seven years, or the fiftieth year, there was to be a jubilee.
Not only did everything and everyone rest–people, animals, and land–but certain economic statutes were to be followed during the jubilee, such as the canceling of debts, and the freeing of anyone so indebted that they had fallen into slavery.
Slaves could return to their families, make a new start, and pursue the freedom and wholeness that God intends.
After all, the Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy is directly related to slavery. God says “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day.”
The Sabbath provides rest. It provides balance. It provides for the human body to be restored to wholeness. The Sabbath and jubilee were created as protections against overwork, exploitation, and slavery. The Sabbath, as Jesus said, was made for humankind.
And yet, how many of us have heard someone say, or have said ourselves,
“Take a rest? I’m so busy! I can’t even think about resting! Nope. Too many demands: my boss, my partner, my kids, my parents, my own goals, my social justice causes…” You-name-it.
One astute person observed that the Sabbath is the only commandment we brag about not keeping. And doesn’t that really mean we think that we’re so important? That doing God’s work is up to us? It starts sounding a bit like a savior mentality, when we think it’s all up to us, and that if we stop and take a break, everything will fall apart.
Well I’m here to reassure you–you are essential, we are all essential, and our work is essential. But none of it is so essential that we can’t observe a Sabbath day once in a while. Or even once a week. I’m preaching to myself here too. Because when we live like the Energizer Bunny and keep going and going and going, we lose sight of God. We forget that God is the one enabling the work in us.
Observing the Sabbath and keeping it holy is actually a way to show our trust in God; that God’s got this, whatever important thing we’re working to bring about is in God’s hands, not ours.
This seems to be what Jesus is saying in his encounters with the Pharisees. He knows the commandments, he knows the law; he knows the tradition. Like the Sabbath and jubilee, which serve as structural safeguards against overwork and indebtedness and slavery, Jesus keeps these safeguards focused on life:
If someone is hungry, and cannot pluck grain to eat on the Sabbath, then Sabbath observance does not support life, it supports suffering.
If a person has a withered hand and cannot work in a manual-labor economy, and would be denied restoration so they can feed a family, then Sabbath observance does not support life, it supports suffering.
Overall Jesus seems to be saying, “My purpose here is to show that God so loves the world, and all of humankind, that Sabbath life is meant for all, even if it means you bend the rules a little in order to let that Sabbath life in.”
He says even David and the high priest bent the rules a little in order to feed a weary fugitive who would soon become king. And of course Jesus himself, only two chapters into the Gospel of Mark, already is on the way to becoming a fugitive. The Pharisees are out to get him, and they’re not the only ones.
We know how the story ends. The One who came to bring life loses his life, and in losing his life, gains new life for us. And this is the grace by which we are saved. Our work does not save us; our Energizer Bunny lifestyle does not save us: God’s grace and new life in Jesus Christ saves us.
Yes, Jesus says that you can bend the rules on the Sabbath in order to preserve life, but he works within the Sabbath, he respects its existence and structure. He doesn’t say to do away with the Sabbath, or to bend the rules to the extreme that we have taken it today–be that in our personal lives, in the church, or in our work for justice and peace. He continually points to God.
It is God who delivers, God who liberates, God who made the Sabbath for humankind. So we can take our Sabbath rest. We can step out of the rat race–and rest and restore ourselves so that we might have the energy to do those six days of work, and to do the taxing work that might overturn oppressive systems that many of us feel called to, such as immigration or racism or human trafficking.
We’re no good without Sabbath rest, no good to ourselves or anyone else.
My friend Lynn got it. She knew the God of liberation and freedom and joy. She lived in that faith and trust. She was one of the most faithful activists I’ve known. She was discerning about where she placed her energy, and her work was effective. She understood Sabbath keeping as John Calvin understood it: as “resting from our work so God can do God’s work in us.”
I think part of the problem for most of us is that we don’t see the need for rest in this theological way. We might see it in a physical way–I still remember the lightbulb going off in my head years ago when I heard Deepak Chopra describe rest as “how the body heals itself.” That when we sleep, our cells do the work of repair.
So speaking theologically, what if Sabbath rest is God repairing and healing us, so that God can continue working in us?
What if Sabbath rest is also us continuing to keep ourselves open and energized and available to God? The Sabbath was made for humankind. Thanks be to God.
Charge and Benediction
Go out in the world remembering that the Sabbath was made for humankind:
For you and me and all of God’s people,
That when we allow for Sabbath rest we affirm God’s promises for life.
And now may the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you now and always.