The Lord said to Moses: You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: “You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. … Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord… It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed. (Exodus 31:13, 15a, 17)
Everyone is tired.
Two years of pandemic have worn us out. Wherever you go, people are saying they are tired. In church meetings, on social media, in community groups, over and over again I have heard the same refrain. We are so tired. We are worn out by all the unfamiliar things we have had to do, by trying to do more with fewer resources, by never having enough help. We are exhausted by worry and fear and loneliness. We have cared for the sick and the vulnerable until we have nothing left.
We are overdue for a rest. But the grind goes on, the daily needs never cease, the nightly news gives us new fears and worries. Somehow, now is never the time. There are too many things that need to be done, too much that requires our attention. Maybe later? But later never comes.
When was the last time you observed Sabbath? Not just by rushing off to church to squeeze in an hour of worship before you tackled the day’s to-do list, but really, truly took a day of rest? Not sure? Yeah, me too.
But God’s command to God’s people to observe the sabbath is not ambiguous. God thought rest was so important he included it in the Ten Commandments: it actually appears higher on the list than the prohibitions against murder, adultery and stealing. In Exodus, God calls it a sign forever between God and the people of Israel. The punishments outlined for failure to observe the sabbath were harsh.
In his book Sabbath as Resistance, Walter Brueggemann argues that this command to observe the sabbath calls the People of God to a radically different identity than that given us by the consumer culture that surrounds us, one that is rooted in gratitude to God and love of neighbor. Observing the sabbath turns us away from restless productivity and consumption and toward our life-giving God.
“Sabbath is the opportunity to recall Egypt and Pharaoh and then to remember YHWH and exodus,” he writes. “Those who remember and keep Sabbath find they are less driven, less coerced, less frantic to meet deadlines, free to be, rather than to do. Because Sabbath is the great festival of freedom, when Pharaoh and all coercive expectations are dismissed…Moses, in Deuteronomy, imagines that Sabbath is not only a festival day but also a new social reality that is carried back into days one through six. People who keep Sabbath live all seven days differently.”
Like the Israelites in Egypt, we have found ourselves in the last two years constantly challenged to do more than less. We have labored heroically to make bricks without straw. But Sabbath-keeping reminds us there is a limit to what we can do and invites us to turn aside from the restlessness of a system that prizes productivity above all else. It provides time and space to breath deep and reclaim God’s liberation of us from anxiety and fear.
In this post(?)-pandemic moment when we are all so tired, our bishops have called upon us to take some sabbath rest — to turn aside from the daily grind, from the constant need to keep things going, and rest. As Bishop Alan said to me, he’d like to be able to require this for everyone, everywhere, but his authority is limited. So he, Bishop Gayle, and our Diocesan Standing Committee have asked the churches in the Diocese of Massachusetts to be role models, to bear witness to the importance of sabbath rest in our own communities. We cannot declare a sabbath for everyone around us, but we can extend it to clergy, staff, and volunteers in our churches and in doing so bear witness to the goodness of God who calls us to sabbath rest.
At the urging of our bishops, St. Mark’s and Trinity Chapel have declared May 10-23 a post-pandemic time of Sabbath rest. During this time the office will be closed, no meetings will be scheduled, and our Sunday Worship will be a simple Morning Prayer service shared equally by all, with a simple pot-luck fellowship hour afterwards. There will be no Sunday School programming: instead, families are encouraged to participate in Morning Prayer or to enjoy family time at home. Most of all, the entire community is encouraged to set aside time during these two weeks for rest and renewal, for unhurried time for reconnection with family and friends, for prayer and reflection, and for rest. We look forward to returning to our regularly scheduled activities in the fourth week of May with renewed vigor and excitement for doing the work God has given us to do.
Personally, during this time I plan to avoid driving more than a few miles from home, to tend to the earth in my garden, and to read one of the books on ministry in changing times that I never seem to find the time or energy to begin. I will spend time with family and friends who have been somewhat neglected due to the demands of the pandemic. For this brief time, I will step away from leading public worship, where so much of my energy normally goes, in order to sit in silence in the presence of God, listening instead of speaking.
I invite you to use this time to claim your own sabbath rest, as you most need it. Whether it’s gathering for prayer at Trinity or St. Mark’s on Sunday morning or sitting in the garden listening to the birds sing; whether it’s a nap or time spent with family and friends, I hope you will step away from the relentless demands of the appointment calendar and the to-do list to remember that our God is a God of abundance, and that there are limits to what we can do.
Wishing you all a holy sabbath rest.