Scripture: Mark 2:23-3:6
Good morning, friends. It is so good to be with you today, and I want to thank my beloved friends and colleagues Rev. Ashley and Rev. Rebecca for giving me the honor of being in your pulpit this morning. And I must say, as someone who doesn’t preach regularly from the lectionary, I found it particularly convenient to discover that the text this week was this passage, that tees up your summer theme of Sabbath so very well —thanks for the softball, Mark!
Not so conveniently, though, the two stories in today’s Gospel are about breaking the Sabbath. It might have been better to explore this text in another week or two, when y’all had already done some exploration of what the Sabbath is, and why it exists as both a commandment and a practice. Because I can tell you, as a parent of both a toddler and a teenager, that it’s pretty important to human development and spiritual maturity to understand why rules exist before violating them.
So let’s press the pause button on Troublemaker Jesus in this passage, and recall where the idea of Sabbath comes from in the Jewish tradition. Way back in the book of Exodus, when the Israelites are liberated from slavery in Egypt, they finally make their way to Mt. Sinai. There, God delivers what we have come to know as the Ten Commandments—and coming in in the number four position, is this:
“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 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—you, your [child], your […] slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”
It’s good stuff. Basically: if the Almighty creator of the Universe can take a break and appreciate the beauty and goodness of the world, so should all of creation. Put down the plow, don’t conduct business, take a break from the kitchens. Instead, be with your family. Pray, sing, eat. Rest, and give thanks. Metaphorically, Sabbath is about disrupting business as usual and reminding ourselves that we were created from and with and among beauty and goodness, and our inherent worth and dignity is not bound up with how much or how well we produce. That regular reminder of our belovedness—and the profound blessing of being alive—is absolutely imperative for human wellness and flourishing.
But the Sabbath commandment isn’t just about a personal obligation to slow down. When it is reiterated in the book of Deuteronomy, the writer adds an important caveat. After the bit about neither you, nor your child, nor your slave shall work… comes this: “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.”
What does Sabbath have to do with liberation from slavery? With justice and the transformation of the world toward the kin-dom of God? This addendum is a critical reminder that the Sabbath was delivered to a people who had been enslaved—a gift from a loving God who declares an intention for even the most oppressed people to experience the liberation of rest and time and beauty. And it also reminds us that we are all co-creators of the world, right alongside God, and we are called to ensure that each and every one of our human siblings have the possibility of rest—from exploitation, from poverty, from violence, from greed.
Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis, the Anderson Chair in Preaching over at Luther Seminary, invites us to think beyond our individual practices toward this broader, communal, “Sabbath perspective.” She writes, “A Sabbath perspective sees that observing the Sabbath is not optional. We keep the Sabbath so as to look around and ask who needs rest? Who is in need of life when no one else seems to notice? We keep the Sabbath to be reminded that without it, it becomes too easy to give up on fighting for those for whom life has been taken away. We keep the Sabbath for the sake of resilience and ongoing resistance, to fight the righteous fight.”
When my daughter was born three and a half years ago, I learned for the first time that I did not, in fact, have unlimited energy. And boy, did I resent that! I had always been a person who considered myself willing to show up at every action, to stay up late organizing campaigns and movements, to dedicate my entire life to The Cause… and all of a sudden, I had a tiny human being who was utterly dependent on me, literally strapped to my body most of the time, and I was just plain exhausted. No matter how much I wanted to—or how much my ego told me I had to— it just wasn’t possible. And I went through a bit of an identity crisis, to be honest. Would people still love me, value me, respect me, if I weren’t out there on the frontlines every time the call went out?
I almost lost it one day when an activist friend who was organizing a big civil disobedience action asked me to risk arrest, and I had to refuse because it’s not so good to spend a night in jail when a tiny person is literally feeding from your body. I talked with a beloved mentor, and I said, “Everybody tells you that this will happen when you have a baby. But nobody tells you it’s gonna feel this way!”
And she said back to me, so kindly and patiently, “Ashley. Do you believe that the movement for justice and liberation is strong enough to win?”
“Of course I do.”
“Do you really think that if you, personally, aren’t at one particular event that the whole thing is going to fall apart?”
“Well, then. Now it’s your turn to be with a tiny life. Other people are taking their turns getting arrested and going to organizing meetings and marching in the streets. Someday they’re going to need to step back, and you’ll be ready to step in again. That’s how it’s supposed to work.”
Since that time, I’ve been thinking about how we need to be taking shifts for the revolution. In every individual life, there needs to be a balance of work time, play and relationship time, and rest time. But collectively, we have a spiritual and political imperative to help one another create and maintain that balance on a broad enough scale that at any given moment, we have enough people well-rested and nourished and skilled enough to jump in and play the roles that need to be played.
In order to do this, we need to hold a fluid, communal practice of Sabbath. I’m not talking about the rigid, obligatory, rule-laden Sabbath of the Pharisees— they are more concerned with catching Jesus breaking the Sabbath restrictions than with the intent behind them. Nor am I talking about the individual, capitalistic self-care sabbath sold to us by the beauty and wellness industries, promising bliss and peace to anyone willing to check out of a sense of belonging to the world community for a while.
I’m talking about the spiritually mature Sabbath practice of Jesus. He reminds us that “the sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath.” Now remember, Jesus is an observant, faithful Jew—he knows perfectly well what the law says, and he practices those rules and restrictions most of the time, because he understands that they are a helpful structure for living a balanced, grounded life. But he also understands that the Sabbath’s purpose is to give people the physical energy and the spiritual resilience to not only see, but address the brokenness of the world; to create beauty and support abundant life. And so, Jesus is willing to break the rules to feed his hungry disciples so they can spread their life-giving message as they travel, and to heal a person’s hand so he can go back to making a living in support of his family. As the Rabbis of Jesus’ time often said, “Profane one Sabbath for a person’s sake, so [they] may keep many Sabbaths.”
If we are to show up as worker-bees for the creation of the kin-dom of God, we must have a truly communal Sabbath practice… each of us taking our shifts, showing up when we’re needed and helping one another practice rest, re-connection, renewal, and recommitment in the down times. We have to learn when to say yes, and when to say no; to say both, “Help me!” and “How can I help?” We must help one another learn that each of us is both indispensable, and entirely replaceable.
Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis asks these two “Sabbath perspective” questions:
First: Who needs rest? Perhaps it’s you, and you need to take seriously the holy obligation to care enough for yourself that you can show up as your best self for your partner, your family, your community, the struggle for justice. What can you put down, say no to, in order to find your rest? And who can support you in your sabbath practice?
Second: Who is in need of life when no one else seems to notice? Black and brown and indigenous people; poor folks; queer people and the trans community; women and girls and disabled folks and immigrants… the list goes on. But a Sabbath perspective and a Sabbath practice can give us space to remember the humanity of people we too often think of as statistics, remembering that everyone is our neighbor, and none of us are free until all of us are free. So what can we pick up, say yes to, in order to provide Sabbath for others?
So let us try on this “Sabbath perspective,” this communal Sabbath practice. And in doing so, may we find ourselves re-connected, re-charged, re-committed to showing up for one another until each and every person has the possibility of of rest, of health… of freedom.
May it be so. Blessed be, Ashé, and Amen.