The Gift of Sabbath 06/03/18 (Proper 4B)

The Gift of Sabbath
Texts: Deuteronomy 5:6-21; Mark 2:23-3:6
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
June 3, 2018 ~ Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 4, Year B)

When I was in Divinity School, I took a two-semester course on the Jewish Liturgical Year. We began with sabbath: what it was and is; where it comes from; why it was important in the time of Moses and why it’s important now. And Professor Levenson explained to us that over time the rabbis and other leaders began to do what he called “build a fence around the Torah.” They knew that people tend to look for loopholes in the rules. We like to find ways in which we might be exceptions. Even unintentionally, we tend to grow slack in our observance of the expectations of community.

So, knowing this, the rabbis tried to protect the Torah – God’s promises and God’s expectations of us – by putting rules in place that would keep us away from the worst sins, which is to say, those things that would break our relationship with God and with one another. Over time, the rules were made more elaborate and increasingly specific, gathering in concentric circles around the Torah in a fervent effort to keep right relationship with God. Jews down through the centuries have dedicated much time and effort to understanding those rules and discerning how to abide by them.

But considering those rules is really a way to engage a more important question –the very question which Jesus poses in today’s reading from Mark – is: what is at the root of all of those rules? Why keep them at all? That answer – or one of the answers – is right there in the story from the time of the Exodus. “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 commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” (Deut. 5:15)

As you may recall from our sabbath studies last year, there are two versions of the Ten Commandments – one in Exodus, and the one in Deuteronomy which we just heard – and they are essentially the same. But there’s one exception to the nearly identical wording of the commandments.

In the Exodus version, the people are commanded to remember the sabbath and keep it holy because it is part of the rhythm of God’s creation: on the seventh day, God rested; therefore, on the seventh day of each week, the people of God are to rest as well.

But here, in Deuteronomy, the reason for the sabbath is different. “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 commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” (Deut. 5:15)

Sabbath is meant for freedom.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ time know this perfectly well. They observe the rules in a strict fashion to protect the sabbath, to keep it holy, to make sure that it is a day of rest and freedom. But, as scholar Scott Hoezee says, “it’s in the nature of rules to take on a life of their own. Sooner or later they have a way of sapping joy and making people and their needs disappear from sight.” [1] The Pharisees have fallen into this trap. In the not uncommon way of things, their rules have become, not a fence around the Torah, but a shackle around the people’s spirits.

In the two stories from today’s reading, Jesus is trying to remind people of what sabbath is for. He’s not getting rid of the sabbath, and he is not throwing out the laws about sabbath-keeping. However, knowing that Jesus is a growing threat, not only to their power but perhaps also to their safety under Roman occupation, the Pharisees try to present him as doing just that. They begin to seek out ways to trap him, presumably in order to destroy his credibility and shut him up once and for all. They are watching him carefully in this first episode from today’s reading, and as they observe him in the field they discover the chance to accuse him of breaking two sabbath laws, specifically: they are traveling and they are gleaning on the sabbath. But Jesus uses his – and their – scriptures to explain why they have done nothing wrong.

He uses one piece of scripture (a story about David) to interpret scripture (the purpose of the sabbath). He reminds them that David did more than pluck grain on the sabbath; he ate the consecrated bread that only the priest was allowed to consume. But the priest, knowing that hunger was reason enough to break the rules, gave him the bread and contributed to David’s freedom and well-being.

By reminding the Pharisees and his disciples of this story, Jesus is offering a legal opinion. “He contends that sometimes certain demands of the law are rightly set aside in favor of pursuing greater values or meeting greater needs, especially when those greater needs promote a person’s well-being and facilitate the arrival of divine blessings.” [2]

The Pharisees can’t argue with this interpretation: it is undeniable that sabbath laws can be broken when someone’s health or safety is threatened, and hunger surely counts as one such time.

But the Pharisees also are not to be deterred in their efforts to accuse Jesus. They follow him and his disciples out of the grain field and to the synagogue. There Jesus encounters a “man with a withered hand.” Before the Pharisees can accuse him of breaking yet another sabbath law (presumably in this case performing “work”), Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to do good or harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” They seek to trap him; he in turn traps them. He is not, in actual fact, breaking any sabbath laws. Healing the man’s hand restores him to wholeness, even perhaps saving his life in a larger sense by making it possible for him to return to work and provide for himself and his family. In his comment to the Pharisees, Jesus asks, “what better day is there than the sabbath, a day meant to promote God’s commitment to humanity’s well-being, for the restoration of the man’s malformed hand?” [3]

Before the Pharisees can scramble to refute Jesus’ claim, he commands the man to stretch out his hand and the man is healed.

These are interesting stories, but what do they have to do with us? What are we twenty-first century progressive-leaning Christians to make of the sabbath?

We may know some of the things that observant Jews still don’t do on sabbath because they are considered work, even if they don’t fall under our usual definitions of “work. The Hebrew word melakhah, which we usually translate as “work,” is better translated as “deliberate activity” or “skill and craftsmanship.” Some Orthodox friends of mine simplified it for me by saying basically anything that is an act of creation or that fundamentally changes something is prohibited. Therefore: no cooking, no cutting flowers, no lighting fires, no working at our jobs, no carrying things outside of the home (with some exceptions that are too detailed to go into here).

As human technologies have evolved, so have the rules, in that ever-present attempt to keep a fence around the Torah. An observant Orthodox Jew will not turn an electric or gas device either off or on during the sabbath, nor will they use a battery-operated toy or gadget or drive a car. The list goes on, and probably seems very restrictive to most of us.

But maybe you didn’t know that some things are also commanded on the sabbath – and these commands give a whole different flavor to the whole sabbath enterprise. I didn’t know this until my friends explained it to me. Synagogue attendance and prayer is expected, not surprisingly. But they told me that reading, studying, and discussing Torah commentaries called Midrash and Talmud are also encouraged. Spending time with other Jews and socializing with friends, relatives, and guests make sabbath meals festive and full of love; it’s a time to catch up and relish important relationships that can suffer neglect amidst the busyness of life. Singing special sabbath songs is definitely part of sabbath observance – and as we in our church know, music – especially making music ourselves with our own voices – is a wonderful way to commune with one another and with God. Furthermore, marital relations between husband and wife (yes, heterosexual marriage is all that is permitted in Orthodox Judaism, but that’s a topic for another day) is commanded. Imagine that! Lovemaking is part of Sabbath! And, of course, sleeping. You’re supposed to rest and sleep on sabbath. How glorious!

It strikes me that those activities are worth far more than any of the activities that are prohibited on sabbath. They instill a far greater sense of freedom, peace, and calm than checking email, watching TV, driving to an event, participating or watching sports, or – certainly! – literally slaving away for someone else.

Each week I listen to the TED Radio Hour, a curated combination of TED Talks focused on a particular theme. This week, in a show entitled, “Attention Please,” various speakers asked: “In an age of constant information and infinite distractions, how can we pay more attention to our … attention?” [4]

This question stuck me as intimately tied to questions of sabbath-keeping. After all, on the sabbath every action must be considered in light of sabbath’s intention: does it deeply and meaningfully focus our attention on God and one another in such a way that our true well-being and wholeness is cultivated?

In her TED Talk, neuroscientist Amishi Jha explains attention this way:

One way we can think about attention…[is that it’s] sort of like a flashlight…[W]herever we direct [a flashlight] in a darkened room, that part of our visual scene will be processed better. [Attention] allows us to willfully direct our brains’ resources to particular things, whether it’s the external environment, or we can even direct that flashlight internally to memories or emotions, if we’d like.

But in today’s world, particularly in first-world countries like ours, our attention is divided, fractured. Furthermore, our attention is treated as a commodity. In his Talk, Tristan Harris, who runs the Center for Humane Technology, explains:

People have been competing for attention for a long time. But, you know, I think we have a very new environment for that competition that’s unprecedented. We’re not built for this. And I think we have to start by looking in the mirror at how human instincts really work…

He goes on to say:

What do you think makes more money in the United States than movies, game parks and baseball combined? Slot machines. How can slot machines make all this money when we play with such small amounts of money? We play with coins. How is this possible? Well, the thing is, my phone is a slot machine. Every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, what am I going to get? Every time I check my email, I’m playing the slot machine to see, what am I going to get? Every time I scroll a news feed, I’m playing the slot machine to see, what am I going to get next, right?…In other words, you’re either distracted or you have a fear of missing out. Right?

Harris says that our technologies are not inherently bad. The ways in which we are captured by our devices, though, is – or at least, can be. To quote him one more time, he says:

We’re bulldozing each other’s attention left and right. And there’s serious cost to this because every time we interrupt each other, it takes us about 23 minutes on average to refocus our attention. We actually cycle through two different projects before we come back to the original thing we were doing…[Research] shows that [splitting our attention this way] actually trains bad habits. The more interruptions we get externally…[the more we are being conditioned and trained] to interrupt ourselves. We actually self-interrupt about every 3 1/2 minutes.

Amishi Jha, the neuroscientist I first quoted, contends that the way to retrain ourselves to truly pay attention – and thereby to be creative, and loving, and present – is to make space for our brains to grow quiet. She says:

That capacity to let the mind engage in spontaneous thought is so generative. Positive mood increases. Creativity increases. And the key is that we have the space to do that. So if every moment the attention system is being occupied by some other demand, there are fewer opportunities to let that spontaneous thought arise. And I think that’s why we need to set ourselves up to have daily practices that help give us that space back.

Sabbath creates space, expands time, in a way that allows our attention to settle. It provides us the opportunity to set aside distractions and get focused on those things that allow us to flourish: rest, relationships, and time with one another and with God.

Maybe we aren’t ready for a daily meditation or prayer practice. Maybe – almost certainly – we aren’t willing to give up our televisions, our phones, our computers. But maybe, just maybe, we can carve out a little time each week to allow our minds to wander, free from outside distractions. Maybe, just maybe, we can protect a little time each week to slow down, calm down, and pay attention to our lives.

I hear Jesus inviting us to wonder: what place might sabbath have in my life? For some of us, our primary sabbath activity is coming to church. But soon summer will come and we will not meet weekly in this sanctuary. Nevertheless, as we look towards the summer, we can still find some regular sabbath time. Summer comes and goes so quickly, that it might be wise to start pondering this and making some decisions now. What extraneous things can I – can each of us – cease doing, what attention-grabbers can be released, in order that I pay attention to the very thing sabbath bids us attend to: God and one another? It is, I think, a worthy question. After all, as Jesus says, the sabbath was made for mankind.

Thanks be to God.


[1] Scott Hoezee, Commentary on Mark 2:23-3:6.

[2] Skinner.

[3] Skinner.


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