Years ago, my sister Heidi and I lived together in Chicago – a huge city with lots of concrete and traffic and noise. So one of our favorite activities on a weekend was to drive out to Morton Arboretum and walk the trails and explore the gardens. One day we were delighted to discover that somebody had planted a display of grass, as in different types of lawn. They were planted in strips about 4′ wide and 30′ long in a sunny field with signs at the front that said what kind of grass it was: crab, buffalo, blue…. Each strip was a different shade of green and had a different texture. Without saying a word, we both took off our shoes and started walking up and down the first strip, and then the second, and the third, up and down, up and down. The grass tickled our feet and warmed them and stained them and people looked at us and wondered.
I couldn’t have told you this at the time, but now I understand: it was a sabbath moment. Remember the sabbath and keep it holy. Did you know a commandment could be so much fun? Remember to delight in life, in the fruits of your labor. Remember that everything you have received is a blessing. Remember to stop and enjoy what you have been given and to say thank you for the wonder of it. Feast on creation.
This is not a suggestion; it is a commandment. It is one among ten, as you may recall, most of them stated in the negative. Very negative. Thou shalt not: murder, lie, steal, commit adultery, take the name of the Lord in vain. Strong stuff. Strong commandments to stop behaviors that destroy life and destroy human community. It is obvious that lies and murder destroy. CEOs of giant corporations lie and steal and many lives are destroyed, including their own. Murder leads to murder leads to war and wholesale destruction of cities and nations that make the whole world tremble. The commandments prohibit what destroys life. To say it the other way, these commandments open life and protect it.
So what’s this light, fluffy little “Remember the sabbath and keep it holy” commandment doing with all the Thou shalt nots? Unless “Remember the sabbath” also prohibits what destroys life. Or, to say it the other way, opens life and protects it. Working without ceasing? Gandhi said, “There is more to life than merely increasing its speed,” but you wouldn’t know it. Our pace of life, stress, loads, worries, complexity add up until after days, weeks, months, years…we collapse, we burn out, we lose direction, we get sick and we cannot see where it happened. It happens in a thousand unconscious events, task, responsibilities that seem easy and harmless and necessary but that, one after another, use up, destroy our precious life.
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Sabbath is necessary for life. This is the rhythm in which and for which we were created and to thrive we must live in it.
A gifted and thoughtful physician was talking about the effects of exhaustion on the quality of work. Physicians are trained to work when they are exhausted, to perform when they are sleep deprived, hurried, overloaded.
“I discovered in medical school,” this doctor said, “that if I saw a patient when I was tired or overworked, I would order a lot of tests. I was so exhausted, I couldn’t tell exactly what was going on. I could see the symptoms, I could recognize the possible diagnoses, but I couldn’t really hear how it all fit together. So I got in the habit of ordering a battery of tests, hoping they would tell me what I was missing.
“But when I was rested — if I had an opportunity to get some sleep, or go for a quiet walk — when I saw the next patient, I could rely on my intuition and experience to give me a pretty accurate reading of what was happening. If there was uncertainty about my diagnosis, I would order a single, specific test to confirm or deny it. But when I could take the time to listen and be present with the patient and the illness, I was almost always right.” (Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight In Our Busy Lives, 5,6) Sabbath is necessary for life.
What is the sabbath?
• In Jewish tradition, sabbath begins at sundown on Friday. The Christian sabbath begins with Sunday morning worship. In both, the time begins with the lighting of candles and this is often the moment when the stopping truly begins. Following the creation story, sabbath is a day set apart following six days of work. Separate, different from all other days of required activity, productivity, performance, acquisition, service. It is periodic, disciplined, regular disengagement from all the systems of work and effort that exhaust people and use them up. It is stepping off the wheel. We do it because God does it. God is not a workaholic.
• Historically, it was a practice that set the people of Israel apart. This commandment came to them during the long, difficult period of exile. In a strange land and culture, sabbath was a way (along with circumcision), that the refugees staggering along dusty roads with bundles on their heads declared, “I may not have a country, but I belong to God.”
• It is a gift, made for humankind, not the other way around.
• And it is a commandment we observe poorly and, even worse, reward and admire ourselves for breaking. Clergy among the worst.
Remember the sabbath. Remember to delight in life. Remember that everything you have received is a blessing. Remember to stop and enjoy what you have been given and to give thanks for it.
How? There are many ways and feasting is one. This is when we let our senses loose to enjoy what is beautiful and sacred. In fact, many sabbath prohibitions restrict what restricts sensuality, like driving instead of walking. This morning, in preparation for this service and as a gift to you, I backed cookies and filled the house, then filled the car with warm chocolate cookie perfume. A sabbath feast.
Taste, see, smell, touch, listen your way from work to rest, from action to sabbath wholeness.
At festival last weekend where my family gathered at sister’s home near Ann Arbor, they started those toe tapping reels, and then the dancers hopped up on the stage and they started tapping and clacking, River Dance style, on the stage, adding layer upon layer of complex rhythms. My father, 89, scootered himself over to the stage, sitting half in the sun, temperatures 106, tapping his feet and humming and smiling. If he could spend every day at a Celtic Festival, chances are good he would live forever.
This sabbath, let us:
Sing with our mouths
Pray with our hands
Run down the aisle with balloons
Walk in the grass
Smell cookies baking
Eat a cookie on the way out.
Smile and remember who you are.
COPYRIGHT 2006, Dr. Heather Entrekin. Used by permission.