Sabbath? Who Needs Sabbath?

May 27, 2018
Reverend Matthew Johnson

Genesis 2:2-3; Mark 1:9-13

It’s been a busy month here at Westminster. Since the beginning of this month, we celebrated with St. David’s the grand opening of their new Harman Center; on the same day, we broke ground on Great River landing with Beacon Interfaith Housing. We had a wonderful all-church celebration of Open Doors Open Futures. We welcomed siblings from our global partnerships in Cameroon, Cuba, and Palestine; many of you hosted them in your homes and took care of them throughout their stays – thank you for that! On Mother’s Day, our youth led us in worship, and we welcomed the Rev. James Makuei Choul from South Sudan to present at our Social Justice Forum. We had a two-day encounter and Bible study with our partners and members of Westminster. In one busy day, we had an incredible breakfast conversation with our Cuban and Palestinian friends, an inspiring Town Hall Forum presentation by Honey Thaljieh, and an Iftar co-hosted with Masjid An-Nur and the Minnesota Council of Churches. We partnered with multiple congregations and many volunteers to host Windows Into Palestine, and together, we celebrated the work of Dar Al-Kalima in Bethlehem, Palestine, raising more than $50,000 to support scholarships for students there.

Somewhere in there, the APNC’s candidate for the Associate Pastor for Justice and Mission role was named, I was approved to serve as Interim Associate Pastor for Families, Youth, and Children, and we celebrated Tesfa, saying farewell as he moves on to teach at St. Olaf.

In these last weeks there have been three more school shootings – in Palmville, California; Santa Fe, Texas; and Noblesville, Indiana. The U.S. embassy in Israel was moved to Jerusalem, and scores of Palestinians have been killed or injured during protests in Gaza and throughout Palestine. Talks between the U.S. and North Korea have been cancelled and now may be back on. Meanwhile, we’ve all tried to continue with our regular jobs, with school, with our personal lives, and with life together as the body of Christ.

I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. I need some rest – some sabbath time. Fortunately, we get a good model for sabbath in the first creation story in Genesis and in the mystery and diversity of the Trinity. According to this beautiful, poetic account of creation, God spends six days making order out of chaos, bringing forth abundant life of all kinds within this world. On each of those days, we are told, there was evening and there was morning, clear delineators of time. But the seventh day has a totally different air about it: on the seventh day, God ceases – God rests – from all the work God’s been up to in creation. Then, God blesses the seventh day and makes it holy – setting it apart for all of creation. There is no mention of evening and morning – no clock watching. It’s a time to step back and slow down.

The author is telling us something important here. The number seven bears special significance in the Hebrew tradition; it signifies completeness and wholeness. God does not see creation as complete without the inclusion of rest. God models sabbath for us by stopping, perhaps admiring the creation that has just been called “very good.” I like to imagine God setting up the divine hammock and taking it all in, enjoying the grandeur of the mountains, the flowing rivers and roiling oceans, the animals crawling the earth and the birds filling the trees and sky, smiling at those funny humans, enjoying the ebb and flow of abundant life. I also imagine God listening deeply to the needs and desires of creation, tending to those parts of creation that lack the wholeness of sabbath – that are excluded from the divine vision of shalom, then reflecting on how to work toward including them.

In short, God’s example tells us that to fail to take time to rest and to listen deeply to one another and all of creation is to disrupt the order of things. Without sabbath, neither we nor creation are complete.

Mark’s gospel drives this message home more forcefully. Mark, who will later remind us that the sabbath is created for us and not the other way around, points us back to the image of the fullness of creation. The same parent who set apart the sabbath just after calling all of creation very good now calls Jesus the beloved, the one in whom God is well pleased – in whom God “takes great delight” is another way to translate the Greek. The heavens are torn apart, signifying something significant. The Spirit, the one who swept over the face of the waters, descends in the form of a dove, bridging heaven and earth in the form of a creature of God’s own making.

What happens next is curious. The Spirit immediately – a favorite word of Mark’s – immediately drives Jesus out into the wilderness. The word translated as “drove” in the NRSV is a form of κβάλλω, which means to cast out. This is the same word that will be used for the demons Jesus will cast out of several individuals later in the story. This is strong language, consistent with the tearing apart of the heavens. Something irreversible is going on here, but Mark doesn’t give us much detail; we’re left to piece things together for ourselves. Like the other gospel accounts, we are told that Jesus undergoes temptation, or testing, but we’re not told what that means.

In the next breath, Mark tells us Jesus is with the wild animals, and the angels wait on him during his time in the wilderness. He is cast out into the wild, surrounded with creatures, and ministered to by divine messengers. Framed by the tearing apart of the heavens and the descending of the Spirit, the in-breaking of the cosmic order of things, this sudden casting out into the wilderness evokes the image of God stepping back and resting on the seventh day, delighting in the fullness of creation. This is what God desires for the world.

Imagine if this story unfolded in our context. Jesus might suddenly be cast out into the Boundary Waters or the north shore, to be among the deer, moose, and bear in the north woods. To be sure, it’s not fair to pretend that this is just a lovely, bucolic story of Jesus communing with nature; there is still the tempting and testing to consider. But, Mark opens the door for us to see this as a time of listening and preparation for Jesus before he begins his ministry in earnest. He is at the same time fully present with the fullness of God’s creation and with the challenges of life in this world.

That’s the nature of sabbath. It’s not about escaping the difficult parts of our lives or running away from things. Rather, it gives us the room to pause, to cease from our work and our busy-ness for a little while. Sabbath gives us time to listen, to process and make sense of the events of our daily lives, to examine conversations and experiences in the midst of God’s very good creation, following God’s model of sabbath rest. It’s about growing more deeply in our relationships with, and understanding of, God, each other, and all of creation. It’s about resting in God.

We live in a fast-paced society with seemingly endless deadlines and piles of work. Sometimes it may even feel like we’re creating our own worlds week after week. The Spirit reminds us that we are called to be part of the fullness of creation, to take time to appreciate the life-giving abundance of this world. The Spirit is ready to cast each one of us out into a time of listening, reflection, rest, and preparation, to broaden our perspectives and to embrace God’s expansive, inclusive vision of shalom. It is so tempting to get wrapped up in creating our own little worlds, but God’s word to us is, “CEASE! REST!”

There is plenty that gets in the way of sabbath for each of us. God knows that. Last Sunday, I had the opportunity to talk with Munther Isaac, the pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, as I drove him and his family back to their host home after dinner. On the way, we talked about sabbath and what it looks like to practice sabbath in their context.

In a word, it’s difficult. Like many of us, he faces work pressures and finds it hard to set aside time for rest. When he, Rudaina, and their boys can reserve some time to get away, it’s not as simple as piling the family in the car and going wherever the Spirit moves them. There’s a zoo in Jerusalem that should be about 15 minutes away but depending upon the day and the whims of those staffing check points, it could take hours to get there. The same is true if they want to visit a beach to play in the water with their little ones. Sometimes Sabbath isn’t worth the hassle. They are walled off from much of God’s good creation. Without sabbath, creation is not only incomplete, it is unjust. While our Palestinian siblings are restricted by literal barriers, I too often create barriers of my own, believing that getting a few more things done today is crucial. There’s always time to rest later.

It is too easy for us to take sabbath for granted in our context. We have an opportunity to learn from our partners, to consider the conversations we have had with them, and to grow together. God invites us to slow down, to make time for sabbath. Since Easter, we’ve been experiencing a bit of this slowing down during The Clearing contemplative worship on Wednesday evenings, with sounds of nature, poetry, music, and scripture. Beginning June 6th, the theme for The Clearing will be In the Heart of the City, and we’ll move the service outside, under the tent. There will be a time of play for children beginning at 5:00, with dinner beginning at 5:45 and gentle worship around 6:15. This is a time to listen and share and to be in relationship with one another and the city, a time of sabbath.

Beginning June 4th, we’re expanding our hospitality ministry to offer the practice of active listening to guests who stop in between 1:00 and 4:00 on Mondays and Wednesdays. This is a time to offer your presence in an act of careful and attentive listening, an experience of sabbath for you and for our guests. Please let me know if you’re interested. In each of these sabbath opportunities, you may just be ministered to by angels, as Jesus was.

Who needs sabbath? We all do. Sabbath is an integral part of all of creation, and it is for all of creation. When we skip sabbath in our own lives or withhold it from others, we disrupt the order of God’s very good creation. We are called to rest, to pause from our work, to not only be a telling presence in this city but also to be a listening presence. We are called to listen with all of our senses, as we grow in relationship with God, with our human family, and with all of creation. There is no perfect way to “do sabbath.” Our sabbath expressions are as diverse as the Trinity. May the Spirit cast each one of us out into the Sabbath times and places we need.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Latest Sermons