Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
February 24, 2019
Texts: Exodus 20: 8-11; Leviticus 23:3; Deuteronomy 5:14; Luke 6: 1-11
One Sunday morning last summer I realized I had left the plant I had intended to put on the altar, but at that point I had just gotten off the parkway onto Route 35. Too late to turn around now, so I stopped off at Dearborn’s to get a plant. A young woman, maybe in her late twenties, was at the counter. Off-handedly I asked rhetorically, “How do you think this will look on the altar?”
She asked me what church I belonged to, and when I said I was the pastor, all of a sudden it was like someone had turned on a spigot of a combination of pent-up guilt and emotions. “Do you think God will forgive me for working on his holy day?” she asked, and then without stopping, she went on to explain how she had to work in order to pay the rent and the bills.
I looked at her and after listening to her for at least fifteen minutes or so, I tried to reassure her that God was not angry with her for working on Sunday. “You know,” I said, “the Pharisees berated with Jesus for healing on the Sabbath and your help today will make people happy when they see this lovely plant.” I could see that she was clearly troubled by something that went a long way back well beyond working on a Sunday. She seemed to want to talk more but there were people behind me waiting to pay for their plants so the conversation ended.
I saw her several times since that morning, but this past Sunday when I stopped by she was not there. There were very few people on the floor and I asked about her stating to the floor manager in the nursery that she had been a great help in selecting plants. “She’s moved on,” I was told. “I hope to better things,” was my response. “She was very nice.” I wondered about her and her concern about keeping the Sabbath.
In the early days of the colonies, of course, people kept the Sabbath Day. In fact, not keeping the Sabbath primarily by not going to church for two- to three- hour worship sess-ions could earn someone severe punishment. In Massachu-setts and further north where winters could be severe, villages had places called Sabbath houses so people could come in the night before in order to attend worship.
Farmers, of course, have had to always tend to animals but they got up early in the morning to feed and water the animals, turn them out to pasture when the weather permits and then go to church. I remember being sent out early on Sunday mornings to gather eggs from the chicken coop those summers I was packed off to Alabama. Did I ever tell you that I hate chickens? They would, come at me when I tried to get the eggs. But after the eggs we went to church.
The traditional 11 AM church service time was estab-lished so farmers could get the essential tasks completed and still have time to go to church. If you live in a farming com-munity, the time makes absolute sense.
The original nineteenth-century weaving mills ran 14 hour day six days a week. The mills throughout Massachu-setts had a system of hiring young girls who lived in dorm-itories under strict supervision; no alcohol and church on Sunday. That system began to break down with the influx of Irish and German immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s. Piece-work was handed out to the immigrants who often worked seven days a week to earn enough to eat.
Slave culture in the South also permitted Sundays off from the grueling work in the fields. Slaves were encouraged to go to church but to listen to the white man’s gospel, usu-ally from Paul where slaves were urged to be obedient to their masters. Bayard Rustin, whose grandmother had been a slave, once told him that she did not want to hear Paul preached in her church for that very reason.
The secularization of our culture is reflected in those internet sites that give ideas about what to do on a Sunday. Read the paper, go to a museum, take a walk, but no mention of worship. Now some of that could be the result of our grow-ing cultural diversity, but I’ll wager that most of it is the dis-sociation of the idea of the Sabbath from our lives.
We think of the breakdown of Sunday Sabbaths due to our commercial culture and although that is certainly true, the breakdown began well before. Even in New Jersey there are towns with blue laws closing shops, notably in Bergen County. Christie’s attempt to eliminate them failed miserably.
The real challenge has been the growth of youth sports programs which are usually held on Sunday mornings cutting into the traditional worship day for many. One result has been the development of Saturday worship services, drawing on families that participate in those sports programs.
Last Saturday as I was leaving a church meeting in Toms River I saw a street full of Orthodox families walking. By the hour I assumed they were returning from synagogue services. The old rule about not making your animals work on the Sabbath, not even to carry people to worship, has extended to cars. The Orthodox walk; they don’t drive – as if driving an inanimate object is work.
So, we may ask, what does Sabbath mean in our twenty-first-century culture – for us as people who follow the One who plucked grain and healed on the Sabbath? First-century Christians had already broken with the Sabbath com-mandments by the time Luke’s gospel was written, indeed by the time Mark’s gospel was put to pen, which has a similar story. We really do not need to go into the story from Samuel about David since it had nothing to do with Sabbath practices.
The text states that Jesus said that we were not made for the Sabbath but that the Sabbath was made for us. We certainly all need a time to pull back, to rest, to be together in community. Although life without work – and by work I mean tasks that help to fulfill our sense of purpose – can be mean-ingless, what we do should not be the sum and total of our lives without which we have no identity.
We have created an environment where there is little time to pull back from what commercial culture requires of us. And I’m not just talking about Amazon which does have a reputation for being more than fast paced with little time to rest. Living in a global economy means that while we sleep others are awake and vice versa. Many corporate law firms with enough lawyers to people a small village run on 24-hour days because they have interests on the other side of the world.
The American Bar Association Journal recently noted
the turnover rate of lawyers in this kind of corporate world. True, the money may be good but the demands can be terr-ible making it difficult to balance those demands with the demands of family and emotional not to mention spiritual needs.
Our society is driven by production and consumption very often leaving us stressed to the breaking point. Recover-ing our sense of Sabbath is important for us as human beings, or as one friend commented, even God needed a rest. And, I know, as driven as I am, I, too, need a rest from time to time – time to read and think, time to be alone and with others, time to play with my plants – or my cats.
And we certainly all need what I will call a “mini Sabbath,” a time during the day to just sit or look out the window at the birds or the colors in the sky as the sun begins to show its rays. It’s this time of meditation, prayer, reflection that gives me the respite I need to go on with a day. It’s essential to recover the rhythm of life, a rhythm we ignore at our emotional and spiritual peril.
In our reading this morning “on another Sabbath,” as the text tells us, Jesus enters a synagogue and sees a man whose hand was withered. Studying Torah, even debating the meaning of certain texts was not a violation of Sabbath rules, since interpreting Torah is a form of worship just as the dis-cussion of a text is a form of continuing our worship as we eat following the formal worship service.
The text is curious because healing is not one of the 39 activities prohibited by Torah injunction; it’s possible that the writer of Luke is beginning to build a case for why the Phari-sees opposed Jesus and become over time among his chief accusers. Jesus had a habit of upstaging them, to be sure.
Indeed, the Sabbath was made for us and we should learn how to encourage it to help us develop a deeper sense of our relationship with God and each other for we cannot have one without the other. Recovering the Sabbath does something else for us; it reorients our sense of time.
As we consider how we spend our day, this day, Sun-day, after worship and our time together in community, let us breathe in the suspension of time from our usual busy-ness, pulling ourselves into another realm, that in which time can be suspended even if only for a few hours, and listen to the rhythm of life God has given us and take our Sabbath rest.
Let us pray: Creating One, who has given us life, help us to restore our sense of your time, your creation. In Jesus name, we pray, Amen.