Thursday, May 21, 2009
The Preacher’s Corner
‘This is the day the Lord has made’
This morning (Monday) I made an early trip to Wal-Mart. The nice gentleman, who gathers up the carts in the parking lot, greeted me with the words, “Isn’t this a beautiful Lord’s Day?” His words reminded me that even though we Christians, following the thought of John in the Book of Revelation, often speak of Sunday as “The Lord’s Day,” every day is God’s, and we should rejoice in it.
Those of you my age or older are on the tail end of the era when keeping the Sabbath was an exercise in enforced inactivity. In Cleveland where I grew up, it was, through my high school years, against the law to play golf or tennis before noon on Sunday.
Old records of the governing bodies of the Presbyterian Church in the 1800s regularly contain resolutions against the operation of railroad trains on Sunday—along with votes of thanks to the officials of the railroad lines for allowing the members of the presbytery or synod to ride at half-fare to the aforementioned governing body meetings and expressing the hope that this courtesy would be continued in the future.
Mary Virginia Grigsby, daughter of a pastor of this congregation in the late 1890s, gives a picture of what young people did on Sabbath days in Holly Springs in that era long ago: “Breakfast of course, then Sunday school followed by the church service, and a large Sunday dinner prepared by our cook and her helpers. This was followed by brief naps, then the reading of The Herald and Presbyter and The Christian Observer. How well I remember them! Suitable reading for both young and old. Then the study and recitation of the Catechisms, the Child’s Catechism for the very young and the Shorter (misnomer, certainly) Catechism for the more mature. These must be memorized and repeated verbatim. . .”
Such activities were often remembered as restrictive, even oppressive. The fact that stores and other places of business remained closed by the requirements of law added to the idea. As a result, people in our time still have some remaining idea, however much a vestige of the almost-forgotten past, that keeping the Sabbath is a negative thing—a part of our religious observance to be swept under the rug—not recalled—and certainly not commended for a positive spirituality in the present era.
But I recently saw a book entitled The Sabbath as Green. I did not read the book, but I gather the idea is that giving things a rest is good for the environment!
And that leads me to the idea that this ancient observance was actually designed for our good, and that we should not, perhaps, blame God, for the strictures that human beings placed on what should have been a glad and happy day. After all, whoever said it would have been a good idea for humans to have to work seven days a week with no time off for rest?
That the law of Moses codified a social structure that gave men and women one day in seven for rest must have been radical in the ancient world. The theology upon which it was based must have seemed equally radical as well. It was that the earth’s ability to produce was so abundant, that six days of work would yield seven days of sustenance. That was truly a wonderful thing for people who lived in a subsistence culture. One was promised by God that you didn’t have to work yourselves to the bone to survive. It let ancient peoples wrest a certain serenity and poise from the vicissitudes of their agricultural lives.
In the chapter we read from Leviticus, we encounter a very interesting social arrangement buried deep in the ancient Hebrew law. The idea was that every seven years the land was to be given a rest. Was this idea of a Sabbath for the land an ancient concept of our modern realization that it is good for a field to lie fallow every few years to replenish the essential nutrients in the soil? Had crop rotation been used in this country in bygone eras, we would not have had the erosion and worn out soil that caused so many old farms to go bad.
But the ancient Hebrew idea of the Sabbath went a step further, in that after a series of seven such cycles of six years’ farming and one year’s rest, there was (in what would have been the fiftieth year), a year of Jubilee, in which debts were to be forgiven, and slaves were to be freed. Land that had been lost to debt was to be restored to its original owners, and there was a general wiping clean of the slate. The Sabbath meant not only rest, but restoration for those who had come up short, and this was to be done once in every generation.
Those of us who grew up in the shadow of the old Puritan Sabbath may not have such liberating ideas in our conception of Sunday. Too often for me as a child, Sunday was the day I had to go to church, whether I wanted to or not, long naps for the adults during which I had to be absolutely quiet; it was also the day my best friend, the Baptist minister’s son, could not go to the swimming pool, so I did not go either; and during the school year, Sunday was the day before Monday, which meant that homework had to be done on Sunday evening. People often say TGIF, but I seldom heard anybody say TGIS.
Maybe we need to reconsider.
I think it is a remarkable idea that God did not design human beings or their environment so that we had to labor without respite. Of course, the world could have worked that way. For some, in great poverty, because of poverty or inhuman conditions, work with no end in sight may be a reality. But the idea that people could have one day in seven for rest was a possibility and a reality for those in the Judeo-Christian tradition over a great many centuries.
In our United States, where for various social reasons, our people work more hours in the week than in any other industrialized society, it raises the question—even in a secular sense—why we have abandoned the concept of a Sabbath’s rest.
Karl Barth used to say that the Sabbath was given to remind human beings that there were limits placed upon us. We could not simply work ourselves into the ground, as if pride and greed, or a misplaced need to “get ahead” could rule our desires. No, said Barth, humans must, as the Psalmist said, “Be still and know that I am God.” But what we forget (and there is great irony here), that in keeping Sabbath, we are given rest, refreshment, restitution, renewal, and respite. And as everybody knows, when one is tired, a change of pace does a body a great deal of good.
If sitting quietly and doing nothing is not your cup of tea, perhaps you need to think of the Sabbath not so much as the Victorian cessation of activity, but in the Hebrew sense of a change of activity.
And if this variety “is the spice of life,” then could it not also be good for the world, as well as for earth’s inhabitants.
The ancient Sabbath allowed the land to lie fallow. Perhaps in our time, it would replenish the earth if, for example, we would give the oysters a rest from time to time in the sea, or let the forests grow again, instead of clear-cutting all the land, or planting clover instead of cotton and making it grow with powerful chemicals year after year. Indeed, to recognize that the land has limits is simply to recognize as God did in Eden that humans have limits, and that everyone and everything does better when it has a Sabbath rest.
What is given up does not compare to what is gained. By keeping Sabbath we are reminded of the source of all that is. We are not the source of our energy and productivity any more than is the soil from which we reap. Our wealth is the product of our own effort or hand. All of it is the gift of God, and it is healthy for humans to pause, take stock of the giver, and go forth once more with a renewed sense of the solidarity that we have with God and all that God has made.
Adam and Eve were the first environmentalists. They, along with the entire creation God had made rested with Him on the Sabbath day. And if, as Jesus says, not a sparrow falls without our heavenly Father’s notice, then when we care for the land and creatures God has made, we are acting in solidarity with the God who creates and cares.
The act of replenishing and refreshing is at the root of what the Biblical Sabbath means. The Sabbath means that once more God is with us, walking as God did of old with Adam and Eve in the garden in the cool of the day. In the kingdom that Jesus brings, care for our neighbors and for all that God cares for is part of our joy and our concern. In this kingdom, as Brian McLaren says, “Sparrows matter.” People matters more, but the saying about the sparrows simply illustrates that no part of creation is outside the realm of God’s interest and care. God’s realm is a place where everything that is good matters, and God’s love implies a rest and a respite for all. It is a world where the poor find release from their burdens and the earth is allowed to renew itself to blossom forth once again.
When we keep Sabbath, we find space to think clearly again, to go forth with new energy and to do the sorts of things God does, creating, redeeming, and renewing after His image and example.
These days, people often take leave of each other by saying, “Have a nice day.” But if you took the old Hebrew mindset, you could say with the psalmist, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!”
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