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LEARNING FROM LUKE: SABBATH
Luke 13: 10-17
This week I learned that there is a new condition that is becoming more prevalent, especially in the bodies of young adults. It’s called “text neck.” From looking down, excessively texting, people are putting a strain on their neck and shoulders. On the older end of the age scale, some are bent over with balance issues or having to watch where they step. In all stages of life the old maxim “Sursum Corda”- “lift up your heart” might be extended to all of us: “Lift up your head!’ Taking the time to pause, to gaze out across a landscape, or a body of water, or to look out of a window can bring relief and rest to minds and necks under strain.
With the strain of life in mind, I am sure that the Almighty created the Sabbath Day for the health of men and woman. With the inclination of people in our world to take things in print and make them rigid, the Lord Jesus demonstrated the flexibility he believed was intended to keep of the Sabbath Day. Over the years there have been those at both ends of the Sabbath debate. At the rigid end of the spectrum are Orthodox Jews in Israel, for example. During Sabbath hours, absolutely no work may be done; no cooking, no schoolwork, no labor. Some who have been to Israel with us before noticed the “Shabbat” elevators in our hotels; elevators that stopped at each floor automatically so that a person would not have to “work” pushing buttons. Looking out of our hotel windows on the Sabbath, the streets looked like an evacuation order had been given and we’d missed it! The hustling streets of the day before were deserted! On the other end of the Sabbath spectrum are those treating a Sabbath just like any other day: people catch up on work, or shop, or pack restaurants or theme parks or grocery stores. That’s what Florida looks like on every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, no matter what day different faiths observe. We fail to observe the Sabbath to our own detriment. But some people in our society think of non-work as laziness. Ministers such as me often have no business acting like an expert on Sabbath because my days of rest are not regularly done well. Today I will admit to you where I have succeeded and where I’ve failed.
Our daughter Jenny is a Hospital Chaplain, a Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor. She has a trying and taxing profession in addition to being the mother of a one year old. One day last week she told her boss she was overwhelmed and asked if she could take a couple of personal days. (Remember, ministers are always going beyond a 6 day work week) He said, “Of Course.” So on her personal day of exhaustion, she dropped her son off with his teachers and went home to bed. She awoke noticing two text messages: “Jenny, where are you?” And a second one: “Are you alright?” It was from a colleague. He reminded her that they had a meeting that day. Now you should know that Jenny is wired like I am: we always put things on our calendars and are hard on ourselves when we overlook a commitment or let someone down. So Jenny felt terrible; she had missed a meeting. But what was harder on her was hearing the response from that colleague, “Jenny, I’m disappointed in you.” Now, in her state of exhaustion, she experienced shame and tears. Her personal day turned into a day of anguish. Words can be powerful and cutting. By contrast, this summer I had one of the most restful vacations I have ever had. Janet Nace, whose mother died the day before my vacation started, agreed to wait until the end of my vacation for me to do her mother’s memorial service. What a gift. Kristin and Cara and Richard also handled all issues that came up so I did not get regular phone calls or texts. One I sent a business related text to an elder with what I though was an important question. He taught me and encouraged me with his answer: “What are doing texting me now? Take your vacation! You deserve it!” How empowering. Thank you for helping me take time, weekly, or yearly. I am back at 100% because I was granted a hassle-free break.
Sabbaths sometimes have to be molded to the circumstances. People who necessarily work on weekends will need to carve out a different day. I try to make it Mondays. Any of us who keep plowing through the evident stop signs that are intended to point us to a Sabbath time; stop signs like chest pains, tears, depression, excessive drinking, or exhaustion, keep going at our own demise. And God must be watching and saying:” I’ve given you a gift for life; you will see how miserable life can be without regular Sabbaths.” Those of you, like me, who keep your proverbial “nose to the grindstones” will drop in productivity, in joy, and in functionality. So Americans get heart disease, stomach ulcers, or mental illnesses often at a higher rate than those in other countries. One of the reasons: work gives us meaning, to the point at times of giving us our identity. Some get lost when they are disengaged from their work. I have known people who worked very hard, too hard, for years. They told themselves they would work, work, work, until retirement, then take it easy after that. But such a life dwindled the health of their bodies. Others never developed enjoyable hobbies outside of their work. Some I have known became totally bored with retirement; some became hard to live with, and some died soon after they retired. Too much work is detrimental; so is too much free time. Some people in their retirement do other things for their community; things like doing a new kind of work, or volunteering in their church, at a school. My father, for example, a salesman with ALCOA, retired to play golf: something he did all his life. But he also volunteered at their church, read books to children at a local elementary school, and joined the Service Corp of Retired Executives. He was great employee, but he learned how to retire well. The long approach to balance in life is important. But so is the weekly approach. And that brings us back to Sabbath.
On tablets brought down from Mount Sinai, Moses revealed laws for living that he said came from God. We give great weigh to them and have great debates about the meanings of some, like “Thou shalt not kill,” or “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” But another commandment, higher in number but not higher or lower in importance is “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.” The other commandments I mentioned cause more ethical dilemmas than the last one for many people. But people regularly disregard the Sabbath commandment. Is it because Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath that allows guilt to govern our choices for that day? We would do well to triage legitimate crises that bring us to break Sabbath from non-rest choices driven by guilt or convenience. If a family member becomes critically sick on a Sabbath day, don’t wait for the next day: call 911 or get to an ER right then! Or if a pipe bursts in your kitchen, don’t wait a day to act: turn off the water ASAP! If a hurricane is bearing down on you, or if you are in Louisiana and water has come up to your roof, preparations, safety, and recovery may take weeks without a break. (I’m preaching to myself as well as to you as I do every Sunday) Do not let ordinary events of life take away your Sabbath, and do not let a Sabbath take away your emergency response when necessary! ‘Jesus said, when people chastised him for healing a woman on a Sabbath: “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox from a manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?”
When I was in Israel, I was keenly aware that a Sabbath day had arrived because things were so different. When I was up at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia working on my Doctor’s degree, on Sunday people went to church. That day classes met, the dining room was closed; even the seminary library was closed until mid Sunday afternoon. There were no distractions from the Lord’s Day. Then I returned from Israel; and I returned from Georgia, …back to Florida. In our state I can hardly tell it’s a Sunday. Cars pack the parking lots of stores, and traffic is still heavy. So I need to do what I advise you to do: carve out your own Sabbath. Receive the gift from God and honor God by observing it. But habits that have been entrenched in our lives can be hard to change. I’ll need your help to keep it. Remind me to keep a Sabbath. And I’ll do my best to help you keep the Sabbath too. To do so honors God, and offers us God’s gift of living that is neither boredom nor a constant grind.
God has given us a gift if we will take it. I will try; I’m not good at it, but I’ll try. What about you?
Jeffrey A. Sumner August 21, 2016