From my mom’s house, it takes an hour. I never really knew it was there. It had always been a mystery to me, this place set apart where the faithful gathered and spent lives in silence. It wasn’t until God pushed me into sabbatical that I discovered the Abbey of Gethsemani. It was two years ago. I was living at my parents’ home in Kentucky, without a church calling. A week in silence seemed the only possible salve.
You can imagine that a silent retreat is nearly impossible for me. It isn’t the silence alone but that on a silent retreat, nothing is expected of you except for silence. You can eat, worship, pray, and sleep, but it is up to you. There is no agenda. No work is expected except the most important work of all -turned attention to God.
In the beautiful rolling hills of my home state, I stretched through what felt like endless days of nothingness and at the same time, everythingness. My heart and head whispered to God without pause. I went on endless walks. I kept a journal. I went to worship. I read the Psalms and listened to the chiming of the bells to keep the time. I lay on my back in the autumn sun until I felt the warmth of God seep into my bones. I was bored out of my mind. But I persisted: this was a resting place, a Sabbath from whatever the outside world, whatever I demanded of me. This was for my Creator who without question carves out holy time to be with me. I was there to return thanks for such endless yet often ignored rhythm.
As soon as the retreat was over, I bounded for my car. I had locked my cell phone in the glove compartment and although I didn’t miss it – I swear I speak the truth – I called my mom and didn’t stop talking until I was home and standing in our kitchen yet again. Back in the world, I realized I’d missed relationship with my people, with my family and friends, with Blair. Being on a Sabbath retreat was lovely but it was so entirely lovely that I wanted to share it.
What I want to share with you from the abbey is internal. I have nothing to physically show for it but that intentional Sabbath time reshaped my soul in a way that now has a much wider door through which God may enter. I pray we can travel through this story of holy time together and that we can together find a way to be a truly covenant people.
To get there, we need some common ground. Let’s break down the word Sabbath or in Hebrew – Shabbat. Sabbath can be intimidating in its history and mystique. We’ll begin by exploring what Sabbath is literally, figuratively, theologically, and practically.
Literally, "Shabbat" means "to stop." The first time we hear this word is the creation story. On the seventh day, God stopped working. Think of it as constant labor – six days of being physically in labor with child, building a house non-stop, writing a lab report for 144 hours, whatever your context might be – and then all the sudden you stop. You sit back. You see the fruit of your labor and rest in its glory. Such is Shabbat.1
Figuratively, "Shabbat" means "to rest." The most common understanding of Shabbat is to practice a distinctive pause. To rest is to step away from chaos into a quiet place. Rest is to close your eyes to what fills your line of sight and observe endless darkness of unseen futures. Rest is also a humble response to a truth God is teaching us. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a 20th century theologian, wrote the seminal text Sabbath in which he says this in reference to God’s command "For six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest": "Does not our work always remain incomplete? What the verse means to convey is: Rest on the Sabbath as if all your work were done."2
Theologically, Shabbat is communion with God in the space and time God first called "holy." When God created the world, the first six days were all called "good" or "tov" in Hebrew. But on the seventh day, when God rested and took a Sabbath, God deemed that day "holy" or "qadosh." Not the sky nor the sea nor the birds nor beasts nor even human beings were holy. It was this Sabbath day that was holy and set apart. Through the Sabbath, God invites us into the holiest space and time.
Practically, Shabbat is the act of carving out moments – days, hours, minutes – to accept God’s invitation to dwell in a space made for you and God to be in relationship. For different families and different levels of orthodoxy, the Sabbath constitutes a variety of practices. At its most literal heart, Sabbath is the full stoppage of the outside world: no electricity, no machinery, no kindling fire, no carrying of goods, no exchange of money. For those of you who have experienced this type of Sabbath, you know that it is an incredibly disciplined yet worthwhile endeavor. But one does not have to draw those specific boundaries to meet God in the Sabbath. You can decide to turn off your cell phone at the dinner table or read a book instead of watching TV. You can forgo a Saturday to-do list to the more blessed act of playing with your children. You can take the scenic route home in these fall days and with God, draw in the beauty of creation that has happened and re-happens even today. Sabbath is the carving out of intentional time to stop, to rest, to commune with God.
That’s the "what." This is the "how" of Sabbath.
Sabbath happens through relationships. When God commanded the Sabbath, God did so in the context of a community, a covenant people. To keep the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, the original covenant between God and God’s people. In our scripture this morning, we hear this commandment’s elaboration. God commanded the Israelites to keep the Sabbath day and year, explaining what that looked like in practice for their wilderness journey. Exodus 31 tells of God’s seriousness with the Sabbath, saying, "Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death." Harsh, yes, but the message is clear: there is a deep gravitas to keeping the Sabbath. How God’s people protect the Sabbath is the measure of our relationship with God and of God’s intended relationship with us.
Let us remember. The nation of Israel was in the wilderness because God rescued them from slavery. What can free people do that slaves cannot? Rest. This Sabbath was a sign of the perpetual covenant, as God calls it, between the Creator and the created. It was the promise that in God, we are not bound by earthly demands but by a freedom to be in relationship with the holy. Without the Sabbath – without the intentional time to rest in the presence of God, with God – we are quick to forget to whom we belong. God crafted this commandment for us because it was how we could realize our claim amidst a crazy-demanding existence. Heschel writes, "Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else."3
God knew that the Sabbath was crucial to the Israelites existence and to our existence today. Twice in our passage from Exodus 31, God says that the Sabbath is a sign of the perpetual covenant throughout the generations. This means us. Sabbath was the mark of a community, of a covenant people then in the wilderness and now, in perhaps what we’d call a modern-day wilderness.
We know that God calls us into this relationship – this covenantal, communal life – not only by the giving of this commandment but in the words God uses. In Exodus 23:13, God gives the imperative: "Be attentive." But underneath our English variation on God’s words, what we find is a most intimate Hebrew rendering. "Be attentive" comes from "t’shmaru," a command from "shomer" which is the verb to keep, observe, shelter, guard. The prefix and suffix on t’shmaru tells us that God is doing two things in using this word: one, is speaking in the imperative, giving a straight-forward command and two, God is speaking directly to the Israelites. This second person plural is our southern equivalent of y’all, a familiar and pointed demand at the Israelites then and to us now. This isn’t formal or distant – it is as if God is in front of us all, a sweet old Southern woman looking deep in our hesitant eyes saying, "Y’all listen, this is important. Be attentive to my words, my commands. This is for you and you and you because I want to be in relationship with you and you and you."
Now let’s explore the "but really how" because what I’ve said so far is all nice and packaged and devoid of the messiness that is Sabbath. I’m sorry if I’ve led you astray and if it sounds like Sabbath is easy. It isn’t. Most days, it feels impossible – to take time away from our already demanding, insane, overwhelming schedules to spend time not doing what we’re supposed to be doing – ack. When I have the brief second to breathe I want to do that on my watch, not on God’s. When there’s a moment to rest, I want to take a nap and sink into the abyss of no responsibility, not dwell in a sweetly nestled God-cocoon. But see, God knows this pattern for it was the pattern of the Israelites.
Sabbath is difficult because it means putting aside our own agenda, our own to-do lists, our anxieties and preconceived notions of rank and file, of the world’s commands. It means loosening the ties that bind us to ceaseless work, to perpetual unrest with the world. Keeping the Sabbath means remembering that our Maker is our Master. It means being free in God and God alone. Keeping the Sabbath means realizing that you, that me, that we are not in charge and certainly not the keepers of time. We never have been and we will never be. But that’s terrifying, probably as terrifying as it was for the Israelites who for the first time in their history, had the chance to shape their communal life.
What if we looked at it this way: certainly Sabbath is difficult and seemingly impossible in today’s hurry and flurry. Forget the time part of it for a second and concentrate on what is at stake in the Sabbath: God’s commandment is not a commandment of time but of relationship with God. Time is the means to the end of being in relationship with God and God’s people. Being a community, a covenant people, happens when we carve out intentional space to be with God, to rest in the holiness that is all around. Sabbath is the simple request from God to be with you. Yes – you. To draw in the incredible work of creation that is eternal and now. To see your family in the light of guarded time. To observe how your body hopes for attention. To keep a pace that reclaims that God – not us – is our Creator, Liberator, and Redeemer.
But, as with all practices of faith, it starts with small steps. I have a challenge for you if you choose to accept it. From October 26th to the 28th, seventeen of our senior high youth will be over in Montreat on our fall retreat. All of them have signed a covenant to do the following: put their homework and cell phones away so that they can be in community with one another and with God. You heard me. Those busy teens that we think are glued to their cell phones and that we know are under great pressure at school have chosen to commit to a weekend of Sabbath time. I’m amazed and in awe and truly humbled by their faith. I also know that they, like myself, crave a space where the only commandment is to be in relationship with the Holiest of Holies. So we’re going to try it. And I want you to try, too.
On that Saturday October 27th, I challenge you to turn off your phones. Take a long walk without agenda. Stay in your pajamas until you absolutely can’t anymore. Hold your spouse’s hand because you have nowhere else to go. Laugh and giggle and snooze with your children. And when your anxiety about to-do lists or mounting yard work or dirty kitchens or unanswered emails comes bubbling to the surface – and it will – tell it to be quiet because sisters and brothers, your work is done. You need not worry. God will not abandon you in this time or space. God will meet you there because God has been waiting for you there since the creation of the seventh day. Friends, this is the Good News: God is calling you, the covenant community, to observe and protect the most precious of gifts – a relationship with the divine that no earthly thing can hinder. Be attentive, y’all. Amen.
1. To read a most gorgeous poem that tells this tale far better than I, read Scott Cairn’s "YHWH’s Image" found here: http://topsyturvyland.wordpress.com/2008/08/14/poetry-no4/ or in his book Recovered Body.
2. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Sabbath. New York: Farrar C Straus and Giroux, 1951. Print.
3. Heschel, 13.