Sabbath: More Than Our Work

Scripture: Exodus 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:12-15

A few years ago, I went to visit two of my friends in London.  They were unrelated friends – one from high school, one from college – both of whom just happened to be living and working in London at the time: one for a big corporate law firm, the other for a large bank.  In some ways, especially from my outside perspective, they were both living the dream.  They were doing big, important things, for big, important people; living in Europe; making money that made their lifestyles seem fancy and glamorous, at least to me.

They were also both, it turned out, completely miserable.

Their schedules were grueling.  My banker friend routinely got home from work around 2 am, and got up to go again the next morning.  She called her life “unsustainable.”  My lawyer friend described working all the way through her family’s visit for Christmas.  At one point she said to me, “You know, I don’t actually want to die, but sometimes I think that if I just kind of accidentally walked in front of a bus, it would be OK.”

My reaction was, “What??? None of this is OK.”

I was working in Williamsburg at the time, the associate pastor of a large church.  In a lot of ways, my world seemed very distant from theirs.  I was neither working those hours nor making that money.  I was surrounded, in my ministry world, by admonitions to self-care.  But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how that kind of corporate culture and mentality in which they lived has really seeped over into the rest of our world as well, and how it has quietly set expectations even for those of us who never opted in.

Some of you may know that corporate world and culture well, and others of you, like me, might feel pretty far removed from it.  No matter which applies to you: how many of you know people who humble brag about how busy they are?  How many of you know people who feel the need to be constantly available, even on time that should rightly be theirs – who never turn off that work email notification?  How many of you have been those people?  I know that even in my world that seemed so distant from the one I encountered in London, I found myself surrounded by near constant talk from pastors about how many hours they worked, how they were constantly on call, their struggles with taking a day off.  And I found myself lured into that kind of mindset, too – thinking that if I wasn’t working as much as someone else then I must not be as good a pastor, feeling that gnawing need to check my email on my day off on Friday because someone might expect a response, resisting the temptation to inflate the amount of hours I worked in casual conversation to make myself sound and feel more important and necessary.

It’s experiences like that that have made me passionate and sometimes even a little bit soapbox-y about the idea of Sabbath, because the more I realized how this corporate mentality actually had me in its grips, the stronger I felt the need to resist it.

Last week we began this series on the subject of Sabbath and talked about how our practice of it is modeled on the six days of creation, and how according to some interpretations God even takes a day off on an ongoing basis, and how God invites us to live into that divine rhythm of creation and enjoyment by resting one day a week ourselves.

But Sabbath is such a recurrent theme throughout the Bible, and especially throughout those first five books we call the Torah or the Pentateuch, that we can find lots of different understandings of where it comes from and why it’s important.  Modeling our own weekly rhythm on God’s rhythm is one.  Another is much more mundane – and that is simply the realization of rest as a human need.  We literally can’t just work all the time without a break.  God knows that, and God not just allows for that: God demands we respect that fact about ourselves.

And, in fact, not just about ourselves, but also anyone we may have power or influence over.  In the part of Exodus we heard this morning, which is part of God’s speech to the people from Mount Sinai, after the Ten Commandments, God says this: “Do you work in six days.  But on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and donkey may rest, and even the child of your female slave and the immigrant may be refreshed” (23:12).  The Bible is often written to relatively privileged people, but that’s what makes it all the more important that those with less privilege are remembered.

In our day and age – and perhaps not only in our day and age – the practice of Sabbath is something that may very well require some privilege.  Not everyone can afford – on a survival level – to take time off, especially when payment comes by the hour.  And the Bible indicts those of us responsible for a culture and economy that demands that.  Rest is a human need – and not just a human need, since God includes the animals too.  Rest is a creaturely need, never meant solely for the privileged few.

Remember that this is a law given to a people who have just escaped from slavery in Egypt.  In Egypt, it was the work of the Israelites to make bricks and build things with those bricks.  When Moses goes to Pharaoh and says “Let my people go,” Pharaoh says, “Why are encouraging the people to slack off? They’re just lazy!”  And he demands that from that point on, they will no longer be given straw for the bricks.  They’ll have to gather their own straw.  But they’ll still have to make just as many bricks as before.

But when the Israelites cross the Red Sea into the wilderness and hear from God at Mount Sinai, they are not slaves anymore.   And for these people who are slaves no more, the observance of Sabbath becomes a way they remember their past and commemorate their freedom: As Deuteronomy 5 reminds them, “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy.….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.”

Pharaoh might have demanded a life defined by making more and more bricks: but God does not.  And in fact, God explicitly demands the opposite: that life be honored as more than that.

Clearly, my friends in London were far from slaves.  Again, there are also people in all around us, right in our city and community, who are forced to work multiple minimum-wage jobs just to make a living, if they even do that; there are prisoners who pick up our trash and harvest our food and put out our fires for WAY less than minimum wage without much choice whatsoever in the matter.  My friends were well compensated for the toll their jobs took on their lives.  They were also free to leave, which both have since done.

They weren’t slaves.  But the way I saw it, as long as they bought into this culture where work claimed an ultimate hold over their lives, neither were they completely free.  And as long as we also buy into that culture, neither are we.

It’s been a weekend for celebrating freedom, or at least the highest ideals we hold of freedom, and in that vein, I believe that God has given us the gift of Sabbath because God wants us to be free.  Free from a culture that defines our worth based on our billable hours.  Free from a culture that expects us to chained to our phones and check our email on vacation.  Free from the lie that the busier I am, the more important I am.  Free from a life of making more and more bricks.

I’ve heard a lot of justifications for taking a break along the lines of, “You can be more productive in 40 hours a week than you can in 50.”  There is truth to this; there have been studies.[1]  At some point we’re working more for the show than for the results.  And I can absolutely tell you that on weeks when I’m stressed about a million things to do and tempted to cram all those things into all the available time I have, but instead stop and let my mind lie fallow for a day, those things tend to get done more efficiently and effectively.  That’s true.  It’s just not the point.

The point is, Sabbath is more than just a strategy for doing more and better work.

I liked the way one article I came across put it: “The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath.  It is not an interlude, but the climax of living.”[2]

I believe that work is good.  I believe that God has given us work to do.  Maybe it’s the work we get paid for, or maybe our truest and highest calling is separate from the way we put food on the table.  But either way, our work – of contributing to society, providing for our families, volunteering, advocating for justice, caring for children, making food for a sick neighbor, moving the parking sign on a Sunday morning so visitors can see it – all of it is good.  It’s how we use our gifts, it’s how we find purpose, it’s how we play an active role in the Kingdom of God.  But it’s only good when we also know when to stop, to say no, to enjoy what God has already given to us without clamoring for more.  It’s only good when we are free.

Maybe freedom is even the wrong word.  My professor for the class I recently took on Exodus liked to remind us that when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, it wasn’t really freedom they were crossing into.  They were no longer subject to Pharaoh.  Instead, they were subject to YHWH.  But of course, that was a much better deal.

As Christians, we understand our ultimate freedom to be found in Christ.  As Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”  And yet it is in that freedom from sin, freedom from the pressures of the world around us, and freedom from ourselves, that we find our call to serve – God and each other.

Maybe, when we find ourselves sucked into this culture of overwork and business, this is the question we should be asking ourselves: who are we going to serve?

Will it be God, or Pharaoh?  Christ, or corporate culture?

Do we want to spend our lives making more bricks with less straw?  Or do we want to get about God’s business of building the Kingdom of God on earth, together?