Celebrating the Sabbath: Sabbath and Surrender

 

Read: Exodus 16

 

The house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey (Exodus 16:31, NRSV).

Did you grow up being lulled to sleep with lullabies like this one?

Hush, little baby, don’t say a word.
Mama’s going to buy you a mocking bird.

And if that mocking bird don’t sing,
Mama’s going to buy you a diamond ring.

And if that diamond ring is brass,
Mama’s going to buy you a looking glass….

The lullaby goes on to promise prizes that reflect other “hot items” of the song’s era: a billy goat, a horse and cart, and even a dog named Rover.

I confess that I like this lullaby. I sang it to my children and I continue to sing it to my grandchildren. (Although I sometimes wonder when they will wake up and point out that they would much rather have an iPhone than a billy goat.) But as I sing it, I also wonder if I may be inadvertently encouraging little consumers. While we can’t blame everything about our consumeristic culture on an old lullaby, could it be symptomatic of the insatiable aspect of both our culture and our human nature? Have we been guzzling consumerism along with our mother’s milk?

The “manna” story, with its emphasis on not gathering on the Sabbath, is a perfect parable for those of us who feel like we never have enough.

Soon after their escape from slavery in Egypt, the people of God face a test that will reveal whether or not they truly trust God to care of them in the wilderness. Moses relays the instructions directly from God. Each morning, God will rain down “bread from heaven” in the form on mysterious but tasty “manna.” They are to gather only enough for each day, and twice as much on the sixth day, so that they will have enough for the Sabbath on the seventh day.

But of course, people being people, they disregard God’s instructions and gather more than they need. This does not work well. The hoarded portions quickly develop worms—except on the sixth day, when the manna’s shelf-life is miraculously extended to cover their needs for the Sabbath day.

It’s easy to get distracted by the miraculous characteristics of “manna” when we read this story. We, like the Israelites, can’t get past “What is it?” But obsessing over the characteristics of the manna may distract us from the true miracle of this story: those people who are able to recognize when they have enough.

The ancient Greeks had a similar cautionary tale about a man named Erysichthon. When he cut down one of the goddess Demeter’s sacred oaks, she cursed him with insatiable hunger. After devouring everything (and everyone) around him, he finally served up himself for dessert.

I think of Erisichthon every time I see my favorite bumper sticker, which reads: INSATIABLE IS NOT SUSTAINABLE.

But maybe I should remember the manna story as well—especially as I attempt to receive God’s gift of Sabbath. At its heart, the manna story is a call to trust God to provide for our needs. It is a call to surrender our unhealthy striving for more wealth, more stuff, and more success. It is a call to recognize when it is time to say, “Enough.”

Prayer:

Drop Thy still dews of quietness, ‘til all our strivings cease;

Take from our souls the strain and stress,

and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of Thy peace.

 

(John Greenleaf Whittier, 1872)

 

Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:

Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.

Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!

Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.

In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.

Celebrating the Sabbath: Sabbath and Celebration

 

Read: Matthew 12:1-8

 

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat (Matthew 12:1 NRSV).

It has to be said. Many people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, Sabbath conjures up unhappy childhood memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On the woman’s first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath day….

 

Although stories like this are becoming increasingly rare, they explain a lot about why many of us have negative associations about the Sabbath. Even our language gives away our attitude. We talk about observing or keeping or honoring the Sabbath. But how often do we talk about celebrating the Sabbath?

Hold on to that question a moment while we consider Jesus’ confrontation with the first-century version of the over-zealous neighbor lady.

In Matthew’s story, the Pharisees play the role of the Sabbath police. When they see Jesus’ disciples plucking and eating heads of grain on the Sabbath, they threaten to write them a ticket for Sabbath breaking. Jesus is ready with a couple of citations of his own, however, and reminds them of a couple of important precedents. His closing argument is that the “Son of Man is lord of the sabbath” (v. 8). I’m sure that sent the Sabbath police scurrying back to the precinct….

What the Pharisees and the neighbor lady fail to understand is that Sabbath is more about “yes” than it is about “no.”

In an earlier installment of this series, we talked about Sabbath as God’s invitation to rest, tranquility, and delight. We can hear hints of this in the passage just prior to the one about the disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath. It’s impossible to miss the power of Jesus’ appeal when he beckons to us and says,

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30).

I will give you rest. Now that’s a promise worth celebrating. And it’s an invitation we can’t afford to resist.

If you’re one of those people that has negative associations with Sabbath, try creating some positive associations instead. Imagine a sphere of space and time that’s been set aside especially for communing with God, each other, and the rest of creation. Explore what it means to celebrate Sabbath. Because at its heart, Sabbath is much more like a party in a beautiful place with people we love than it is a list of obligations. Maybe this is why the Sabbath is greeted like a bride in Jewish tradition. When “she” is with us, it’s a time of great joy and celebration—a time to savor each other’s company and give thanks for the beauty of life.

So, let the celebration begin. And what the heck…let’s invite the neighbor lady!

Prayer: Show us how to say yes to the Sabbath. Welcome us—as we welcome others—into that sphere of serenity, celebration, and delight.

 

Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:

Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.

Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!

Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.

In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.

Celebrating the Sabbath: Sabbath and Hospitality

 

Read: Deuteronomy 5:12-15

 

But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or you donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns…. (Deuteronomy 5:14 NRSV).

Look closely at the picture reproduced above. The scene in the foreground is familiar. The table may be a bit less formal than the ones that typically grace the front of our sanctuaries, but the bread and the wine are a giveaway. This is the Lord’s Table. All things are ready.

Now focus on the scene in the background. The man in the white shirt on the near side of the fence is an Uruguayan pastor named Dario Barolin.[1] He was visiting the US/Mexican border with a group of Latin American Christians concerned about the treatment of refugees. Just as he was about to begin distributing the communion elements to those in his group, he realized that there was someone participating in the service from the southern side of the border fence. So he did what any self-respecting pastor would have done. It was the Lord’s Table, after all, and he was certain that Jesus would not have let a border fence get in his way. So Dario served communion to his brother on the other side of the fence.

Some things just ought to be obvious.

The logic of justice and hospitality prevails in a similar way in both versions of the Bible’s Sabbath commandment. Sabbath rest is not something granted exclusively to the covenant people. Both versions of the Ten Commandments make it clear that Sabbath rest should be extended to children, livestock, slaves, and resident aliens. There is something in the very nature of Sabbath, evidently, that demands it be shared.

Both versions of the Ten Commandments devote more real estate to the Sabbath than any other commandment, and both agree on the necessity of extending Sabbath privileges to all. The reasons given for Sabbath observance are different, however, and that difference is instructive.

In Exodus 20:11 it is all about imitatio Dei: God worked for six days and rested on the seventh, so we should, too. In Deuteronomy 5:15, however, the rationale is a pointed reminder of the covenant people’s past. “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.”

One wonders if Moses thought the people needed that reminder. Had people gotten into the habit of putting up their own feet on the Sabbath while asking those with fewer privileges and power to keep working? Perhaps in the time it had taken them to move from Sinai to the promised land the memories of slavery had faded. Maybe some people were starting to savor whatever scraps of power they could claim over those with fewer options.

There is no way to know, of course. But we do know that Moses’ reminder says something important about Sabbath. Sabbath is not about entitlement. Its essence is both generous and just.

One has to wonder if this reminder was enough to make those ancient Israelites uncomfortable, not just with their lack of Sabbath generosity, but about the fact that they owned slaves at all. But perhaps we should worry less about the ancient context than the modern one. If we decide to accept the gift of the Sabbath, should we not also commit ourselves to generosity and justice?

Some things just ought to be obvious.

Prayer: We are grateful for the gift of your grace, both at the Lord’s Table and the Sabbath table. Show us how to be more generous and just, especially to the strangers within our gates.

[1] The Rev. Dr. Dario Barolin is pastor in the Waldensian Church of Rio de la Plata and serves as the Executive Secretary of the Alliance of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches of Latin America.

 

Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:

Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.

Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!

Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.

In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.

Celebrating the Sabbath: Sabbath and Creation

Read: Genesis 2:1-3

 

So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation (Gen. 2:3 NRSV).

“It’s not all about you.”

This caustic comeback has become something of a cliché. Of course, the reason clichés become clichés is because so many people find them to be true.

“It’s not all about you” was never more true than with regard to the Bible’s first creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:4a. Contrary to most people’s assumptions, human beings are not the crown of creation. That honor goes to the Sabbath. The fact that so many of us are confused about that fact says a great deal about us.

But what can we say about Sabbath? At least with the other days of creation there are tangible results. Who can forget fruit trees, after all? And then there are the stars, the cattle, and the ever-popular swarming things. Each day is chock full of cool creations, and God seems positively chuffed at how well things have turned out.

When we get to the seventh day, however, the inventory seems to come to an abrupt end. “God rested,” it says. Our busy 21st-century brains hardly know how to picture this. Should we imagine God in an Adirondack chair drinking a micro-brew? That image might be less misleading than the boring blank canvas that is our typical impression of Sabbath.

Once again, the problem is not with the Sabbath itself, but with our misconceptions of it. When the medieval rabbi, Rashi, considered this conundrum, he suggested that the Sabbath was actually the last thing God created. Rather than an absence, menuha (rest) connotes a presence. It is not emptiness, but fullness. Imagine a sphere filled with tranquility, serenity, and peace. Imagine that God invites us into this sphere so that we can share that exquisite shalom with all the rest of God’s good creation. Imagine.

In his marvelous book, Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight, Norman Wirzba reminds us that Sabbath is far more than a “divine afterthought.” In his words, God’s rest “is not simply a cessation from activity but rather the lifting up and celebration of everything.”[1]

Suddenly Sabbath sounds not just attractive, but essential.

Many of us live like we are being chased by a train. We complete one task, but we can’t take time to celebrate because we are already late for our next deadline. Weeks go by, months, years, then decades. Like the Energizer Bunny, we keep going and going and going.

But hear the good news: it’s not all about us. It is about all creation, invited into a sphere of rest, tranquility, and delight.

Why on earth would we say no?

Prayer: Forgive us, O God, for rejecting your gift for so long. Show us how to enter your sphere of rest, tranquility, and delight.

[1] Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), p. 33.

 

Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:

Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.

Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!

Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.

In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.

Celebrating the Sabbath: Sabbath and Slavery

Read: Exodus 31:12-18

 

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 (Ex. 31:12-13 NRSV).

Some years ago I remember thinking, “I need to work harder at keeping Sabbath.”

The irony of this observation was not lost on me. Still, the resolution was fleeting—as so many resolutions are.

Then I read an article by Ellen Davis that made me think again about the consequences of being a Sabbath scoff-law. The title alone got my attention: “Slaves or Sabbath-Keepers? A Biblical Perspective on Human Work.”[1] Really? I thought. Is the choice that stark?

Judge for yourself.

Davis points out that the book of Exodus offers two powerful examples of work. There are 13 chapters of “bad work” (slavery in Egypt), and 13 chapters of “good work” (the instructions and construction of the Tabernacle). The differences between this “unmatched pair” are instructive, to say the least. But one of the most striking contrasts is that good work has limits. The consequences of ignoring these limits are stunning. To put it bluntly: work without Sabbath is slavery.

That’s the view of Exodus from thirty thousand feet. Let’s lose some altitude and look more closely at the passages that cluster around the “good work” of the Tabernacle.

When God finishes giving Moses the instructions for the Tabernacle in Exodus 25-31, God makes it clear that good work makes room for celebrating the Sabbath (31:12-17). God reiterates this at the beginning of the Tabernacle’s actual construction (35:1-3). Think for a moment how important—and freeing—this would be to a group of former slaves. It’s as if God is saying, “I freed you from Pharaoh’s industrial killing machine, but there’s still work to do. It’s good work, but even good work needs to have limits. Look at me! Even I rested after the six days of creation! So you must rest as you work on the Tabernacle.”[2]

Even good work needs to have limits. What a wonderful shock that must have been for those former slaves. But it’s a wonderful—and sobering—shock for us as well.

One of the hardest things for us to get our minds around as Christians is that there can be too much of a good thing, even where good works are concerned. No one will dispute that preparing meals, taking our kids to their sporting events, preaching a sermon, or volunteering at the soup kitchen aren’t good—and important—things to do. Yet, even good things need limits. If our lives are so crammed full of good deeds that there is no room left for Sabbath, then something is seriously wrong.

It’s more than a little unnerving to realize that we may have allowed ourselves to slip back into a kind of slavery—even if we’re filling our time with things that are intended to honor both God and our neighbor. Still, it’s a little like that old science experiment with the frog and the hot water. No self-respecting frog would respond well to being dropped into a beaker of hot water. But if the frog is placed in cool water that’s gradually heated up, it may stay put until it’s too late.

How have so many of us allowed this to happen? The answer to this is probably too complex to answer here. But I suspect that there are three things that combine to “turn up the heat” for most of us:

  • First, we don’t think that Sabbath applies to us as Christians.
  • Second, we are part of a culture that increasingly equates “busy-ness” with “worth,” and
  • Third, we genuinely want to do good.

Yet, for whatever reason, many of us find ourselves back in Egypt, trying to make bricks without straw. As one busy pastor remarked, “I feel like my life has no margins. Ministry has become my master.”

In another context, Paul put it this way: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).

 

So, how about it? Do you need to work harder at keeping Sabbath, too? Instead of a resolution, let me suggest beginning that “work” with this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. It is intended for the end of the day, but it as good a start to Sabbath as any I know.

 

Prayer:             O God our Creator,

                        by whose mercy and might

                        the world turns safely into darkness

                        and returns again to light:

                        We give into your hands our unfinished tasks,

                        our unsolved problems,

                        and our unfulfilled hopes,

                        knowing that only those things which you bless will prosper.

                        To your great love and protection

                        we commit each other

                        and all those for whom we have prayed,

                        knowing that you alone are our sure defender,

                        through Jesus Christ our Lord.

                        Amen

 

 

Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:

Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.

Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!

Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.

In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.

[1] Ellen F. Davis “Slaves or Sabbath-Keepers? A Biblical Perspective on Human Work,” Anglican Theological Review 83 (2001).

[2] This is obviously a paraphrase. I owe Ellen Davis for the phrase, “industrial killing machine.”

Celebrating the Sabbath: Why Should Christians Care about Sabbath?

Introduction:

Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.

Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!

Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.

In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.

 

Why Should Christians Care about Sabbath?

 

 

Read: Luke 4:16-22

When [Jesus] came to Nazareth…he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom” (v. 16, NRSV).

When I was a teenager, I remember my grandmother saying to me, “Carol, pretty soon you’re going to have to stop burning the candle at both ends.” Forty years later I’m finally figuring out what she meant. Human beings—or all of God’s creatures for that matter—are not designed to be constantly “on.” We need time that is set aside for rest, reflection, and communion with others, with nature, and with God.

What a coincidence! God has designed just such a time, and it’s called Sabbath. Never mind that we’ve abused it or ignored it or misunderstood it in the past. The invitation still stands, and we desperately need to accept it—as individuals, as Christian communities, and as a culture.

So, if Sabbath is something we need, and if Sabbath is something God has woven into the very fabric of creation (see Gen. 2:1-3), why don’t we pay much attention to it anymore? Or to put it more positively: why should Christians care about Sabbath?

The short answer is: Jesus did. As Luke 4:16 illustrates, Jesus’ own Sabbath observance involved visiting the synagogue (see also Mk. 1:21and Lk. 13:10). Yes, he tangled with religious leaders who objected to some of his Sabbath activities, but to these nay-sayers he simply pointed out that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” Then he calmly reminded them that he was, in fact, “lord of the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:23-28).

Jesus’ early followers continued to observe the Sabbath, and often proclaimed the Gospel at Sabbath synagogue gatherings (Acts 13:14-16; 17:1-3). These gatherings would have happened on Saturday—the Sabbath Day. Sunday—the Lord’s Day—was also a day set apart for honoring Jesus’ resurrection, which, according to all of the gospels, had happened on a Sunday.

As Christianity began to spread into the Gentile world, we can assume that celebrating the Sabbath was one of those things that created some tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians.  In Colossians 2:16-19, for instance, Paul counsels the Christians in Colossae not to “let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons or Sabbaths.” Yet, this is a far cry from a condemnation of the Sabbath, which Christians from a Jewish background continued to observe.

It wasn’t until 321 C.E. that the newly-converted Roman Emperor Constantine declared that ‘the two should become one,’ so to speak. One wonders if he was worried about workers taking two days “off.” But in any case, he conflated the “Sabbath Day” and the “Lord’s Day,” and Christians have been following his lead ever since. To the extent that we have a “day of rest,” it is now supposed to be on Sunday.

What was lost in that sweeping decision so many centuries ago? Is it possible for contemporary Christians to recover those losses?

In this series, we will explore such questions. At the risk of giving too much away, I think it’s fair to say that such a recovery is not only possible, but urgent.

There, Grandma—I hope you’re happy.

Prayer: Gracious God, we are weary and heavy laden. Grant us rest.

Welcoming the Stranger: Safe Passage

Story:

At the height of the Mediterranean refugee crisis in late 2015, an ecumenical group of Italian Christians banded together to establish Humanitarian Corridors. Since that time, over 1500 refugees have been given safe and legal access to new lives in a new country.  Priority is given to victims of persecution, torture, and violence, families with children, and people with illnesses or other disabilities. Similar efforts have also begun in France and Belgium, and at this writing (June 2019) there is reason to hope that another 50,000 people may be allowed into European host countries through similar “corridors.”

The drawing above has become the symbol of Humanitarian Corridors. The artist (or as he prefers to be called, “social cartoonist,”) is Francesco Piobbichi. Working on the front lines of the crisis, Piobbichi asks what, to him, is the obvious question: “How could we be indifferent to this pain? In front of all those coffins, we said we wanted to change things. That’s why we had to create “humanitarian corridors” (Drawings from the Border, p. 56).

Bible Reading: Job 29:16-17 (NRSV)

Pelted with a litany false accusations by his so-called friends, Job responds with a list of his own. In that list, he names acts of kindness and justice that reflect the kind of person he truly is. “If I am guilty of anything,” he essentially says, “find me guilty of these things.”

Part of his manifesto includes the words:

I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger.

I broke the fangs of the unrighteous, and made them drop their prey from their teeth.

For refugees awaiting safe passage from torture, war, and despair, such words must seem as distant as the far side of the Mediterranean. Yet, they reflect the compassion and courage that created Humanitarian Corridors. They reflect the heart of all those who ask, “How can we be indifferent to their pain?”

Discussion/Reflection:

  • A verse from the Talmud says, “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” How does this quote relate to the refugee situation? …to indifference?
  • The Italian Christians who banded together to create Humanitarian Corridors were from the Community of Sant Egidio (a lay Catholic association), the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy (FCEI), and the Waldensian and Methodist Church in Italy. Why is it so significant that this was an ecumenical effort? What might happen where you live if Christians worked together?

Action:

  • Learn more about how the rise of hard-right populism relates to the immigration crisis by listening to this podcast from the New York Times’ “The Daily”: Italy First. Don’t miss the story about the teenage girl’s reaction to the news of an immigrant raft going down in the Mediterranean. It comes about 25 minutes into the 32 minute podcast.
  • Read more about the work of Humanitarian Corridors at the web site of Mediterranean Hope

Prayer: Save me from the soothing sin of the empty cultic deed

and the pious, babbling din of the claimed but unlived creed.

Let my actions, Lord, express what my tongue and lips profess.

From the hymn, “As a Chalice,” by Thomas Troeger, 1984

 

Welcoming the Stranger Series

In the last ten years more than 35,000 asylum seekers have died in the Mediterranean. Desperate to escape untenable situations in  countries like, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, refugees risk both life and livelihood to board rickety boats bound for what they hope will be a new life in Europe. Many of them die within sight of what they hoped would be the promised land.

 

Welcoming the Stranger is a devotional series designed to help Christians connect this unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean with the Bible’s call to “welcome the stranger.” Recognizing that “the stranger” can sometimes be an abstraction that blinds us to the face of Christ, the series approaches the refugee crisis from a personal perspective. Each entry focuses on one person’s story, brought vividly to life by Italian artist and relief worker, Francesco Piobbichi. These stories are then linked to relevant Scripture, prayer, discussion, and action prompts.

 

Immigration is a hot topic around the globe, and the Bible passages in this series speak to wherever we are called to “welcome the stranger.” My specific interest in the Mediterranean context was sparked by a 2016 trip to the island of Lampedusa—a small island off the coast of Sicily that is the scene of so much hope and tragedy for refugees trying to enter Europe via small, unsafe boats. In addition learning about the situation there and the work being done by ecumenical groups like Mediterranean Hope, I spent significant time interviewing Francesco Piobbichi, whose art documents the stories of individual refugees and families who often die trying to reach safety. You can learn more about him and work through the following link: Francesco Piobbichi’s Artwork Each of his “snapshots” tells a story—sometimes of triumph, but often of tragedy:  Piobbichi’s goal is to help people understand this large-scale human tragedy on a more personal level. My goal in this series is to use Piobbichi’s art as a starting point for Bible study and personal reflection/action.

Welcoming the Stranger: I Remember You

 

Story:

Putting flowers on a loved one’s grave is one way to say, “I love you. I miss you. I remember you.”

Francesco Piobbichi’s drawing gives us a brief glimpse into a young boy’s grief. The boy stands at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, which has become a mass grave for over 35,000 refugees in the last decade. The statistic is staggering, yet this glimpse into one young boy’s grief has the power to move us in ways that statistics do not. It makes us wonder who he lost—who he misses—who he remembers. And it may even make us wonder, “What can I do to help?”

Francesco Piobbichi is a relief worker with Mediterranean Hope—and organization that seeks to save and welcome refugees trying to make their way across the Mediterranean. One of the ways Piobbichi has answered the question, “What can I do to help?” is by reminding us that each statistic has a story. He describes it this way: “My drawings tell a story that otherwise would be consigned to the oblivion of the sea” (Drawings from the Border, p. vi).

 

Bible Reading: Psalm 72:12-14 (NRSV)

Psalm 72 is a prayer. In fact, it may be a prayer written by King David for his son and successor, Solomon. Yet, the author of the prayer is not as remarkable as its values. Verses 12-14 cut straight to the heart what makes a good ruler. They may not be what we expect.

For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.

He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.

From oppression and violence he redeems their life;

And precious is their blood in his sight.

Mahatma Ghandi once observed that, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Psalm 72 seems to have a similar score card for political leaders.

In the caption for his drawing of the young boy with the flowers, Francesco Piobbichi suggests that we place a flower “for all the victims of this barbed sea made murderous by the selfishness of [human beings], from the hunger [for] profit that upsets the world…a flower for every innocent victim of this war of the rich against the poor” (Drawings from the Border, p. 55).

Discussion/Reflection:

  • How would you grade your leaders against the rubric of Psalm 72? Why?
  • Why is it so hard to respond to a statistic like the one cited in the story above? Was the 35,000 number a surprise to you?
  • How do you respond to Piobbichi’s words about selfishness, profit, and “this war of the rich against the poor”?

 

Action:

  • Learn more about Italian politicians’ response to the refugee crisis. Listen to the New York Times’ podcast, “The Daily,” from June 12, 2019: Italy First
  • Listen to a news story about immigration in your context. Grade your political leaders against the rubric of Psalm 72:12-14.

 

Prayer: Help us to hold our leaders accountable, O God.  Give us the courage to imagine the stories behind the statistics.

 

Welcoming the Stranger Series

In the last ten years more than 35,000 asylum seekers have died in the Mediterranean. Desperate to escape untenable situations in  countries like, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, refugees risk both life and livelihood to board rickety boats bound for what they hope will be a new life in Europe. Many of them die within sight of what they hoped would be the promised land.

 

Welcoming the Stranger is a devotional series designed to help Christians connect this unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean with the Bible’s call to “welcome the stranger.” Recognizing that “the stranger” can sometimes be an abstraction that blinds us to the face of Christ, the series approaches the refugee crisis from a personal perspective. Each entry focuses on one person’s story, brought vividly to life by Italian artist and relief worker, Francesco Piobbichi. These stories are then linked to relevant Scripture, prayer, discussion, and action prompts.

 

Immigration is a hot topic around the globe, and the Bible passages in this series speak to wherever we are called to “welcome the stranger.” My specific interest in the Mediterranean context was sparked by a 2016 trip to the island of Lampedusa—a small island off the coast of Sicily that is the scene of so much hope and tragedy for refugees trying to enter Europe via small, unsafe boats. In addition learning about the situation there and the work being done by ecumenical groups like Mediterranean Hope, I spent significant time interviewing Francesco Piobbichi, whose art documents the stories of individual refugees and families who often die trying to reach safety. You can learn more about him and work through the following link: Francesco Piobbichi’s Artwork Each of his “snapshots” tells a story—sometimes of triumph, but often of tragedy:  Piobbichi’s goal is to help people understand this large-scale human tragedy on a more personal level. My goal in this series is to use Piobbichi’s art as a starting point for Bible study and personal reflection/action.

Welcoming the Stranger: Freedom

 

Story:

At first glance we see only the boy with the ball. He could be the kid down the block. We smile at his exuberance. We marvel at his skill. We worry for his safety, since he seems more intent on scoring a goal than on landing well.

But then we look more closely. The “net” is made of barbed wire. And why is he suspended over the waves? Look more closely still. The waves, the sky, and even the sunset are filled with barbed wire. What kind of a game is this?

It is not a game at all. This is a heroic attempt to break free from oppression, poverty, and war. This is a beautiful child who is willing to risk everything for a new life. The barbed wire is the border that binds his future and scars his soul.

Maybe that’s why Francesco Piobbichi calls this drawing, “Kick the Fear.” Here is what he says about his drawings in general:

 

My drawings are conceived and end in a matter of minutes [using] vivid colors that give hope mixed with the pain they recount. The colors, scrawled onto the page, swirl as in the vortex of a storm; they almost tear the paper on which they are drawn. My drawings reveal the hatred that surrounds the migrants and the barbed wire that sticks in their skin, barriers so oppressive that the migrants will always live with it wherever they go. My drawings are an act of love for humanity—I would consider them emblems of justice and freedom (Drawings from the Border, p. vi).

 

Bible Reading: Isaiah 61:1 (NRSV)

The “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah’s prophecy announces good news to the people imprisoned in Babylon:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;  he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted,  to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.

The messenger may have been new, but the message was not. This was the theme-song of the exodus, after all. And if we trace the trajectory into the New Testament, we can hear the Suffering Servant singing the same song there. Our God is a god who liberates captives and binds up the broken-hearted. Second verse, same as the first.

Once we learn the melody of God’s theme-song we begin to recognize it in all sorts of places. One of the places I hear it is in these stories from the border. It makes me want to join God in that liberating song.

Discussion/Reflection:

  • Where do you hear God’s liberating song? How might you join in?
  • Had you noticed the barbed wire in Piobbichi’s drawings? What does that image evoke for you? How might we be contributing to it?

 

Action:

Prayer: We, created in your image, would a true reflection be of your justice, grace, and mercy and the truth that makes us free.

 

Welcoming the Stranger Series

In the last ten years more than 35,000 asylum seekers have died in the Mediterranean. Desperate to escape untenable situations in  countries like, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, refugees risk both life and livelihood to board rickety boats bound for what they hope will be a new life in Europe. Many of them die within sight of what they hoped would be the promised land.

 

Welcoming the Stranger is a devotional series designed to help Christians connect this unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean with the Bible’s call to “welcome the stranger.” Recognizing that “the stranger” can sometimes be an abstraction that blinds us to the face of Christ, the series approaches the refugee crisis from a personal perspective. Each entry focuses on one person’s story, brought vividly to life by Italian artist and relief worker, Francesco Piobbichi. These stories are then linked to relevant Scripture, prayer, discussion, and action prompts.

 

Immigration is a hot topic around the globe, and the Bible passages in this series speak to wherever we are called to “welcome the stranger.” My specific interest in the Mediterranean context was sparked by a 2016 trip to the island of Lampedusa—a small island off the coast of Sicily that is the scene of so much hope and tragedy for refugees trying to enter Europe via small, unsafe boats. In addition learning about the situation there and the work being done by ecumenical groups like Mediterranean Hope, I spent significant time interviewing Francesco Piobbichi, whose art documents the stories of individual refugees and families who often die trying to reach safety. You can learn more about him and work through the following link: Francesco Piobbichi’s Artwork Each of his “snapshots” tells a story—sometimes of triumph, but often of tragedy:  Piobbichi’s goal is to help people understand this large-scale human tragedy on a more personal level. My goal in this series is to use Piobbichi’s art as a starting point for Bible study and personal reflection/action.

Welcoming the Stranger: Welela

 

Story:

When I visited the island of Lampedusa in 2018, artist Francesco Piobbichi took me to a sun-drenched cemetery where we visited the grave of the young woman at the center of this picture. Her name was Welela. Here is her story in Francesco’s own words:

Welela was in prison in Libya when a gas cylinder exploded and burned her body.

She was not treated but loaded onto a dinghy. I think of her burned skin with the salt

of the sea and the pain that she could have felt and none would [ever] tell. I think of

her friends singing to say goodbye to her. Welela stared at Europe and at our European

rulers from a dinghy of fire over this sea of barbed wire. Welela will give us her eternal

accusing eyes.

From Drawings from the Border (Claudiana, p. 22)

Bible Reading: Galatians 6:9 (NRSV)

Paul encouraged the Galatian Christians to “not grow weary in doing what is right.” For the people who work on the front lines of the refugee crisis, this is easier said than done.

I wanted to let you hear Welela’s story in Francesco’s own words because, in the telling, his pain is so intertwined with her own. Just as the salt-water must have seared Welela’s wounds, so memories of tragedy sear the souls of the rescue workers. How can one not grow weary? How can one not be angry?

For Francesco, the drawings are a way to “harness that anger” without forgetting what made him angry in the first place. As he puts it, “Drawing means getting inside yourself to narrate what is happening inside you: A picture…becomes a key to open the door of a tale that crosses borders” (Drawings from the Border, p. vi). Perhaps it is also a key to not growing weary in doing what is right.

Discussion/Reflection:

  • What part of Welela’s story is hardest for you to hear? Why?
  • Sometimes the secondary traumatization experienced by those who work with victims of tragedy is called “compassion fatigue.” Have you ever experienced this or known someone who has? What was it like?

Action:

  • The young man cradling a refugee baby in the photo below is a young Italian Protestant, Daniele Naso. This photograph was taken on his fifth volunteer assignment on a ship doing search and rescue operations on the Mediterranean. Pray for people like Daniele as well as for those they seek to help.

 

  • Risk your own comfort to help someone else today.

Prayer: Help those who help, O Lord. May they draw from the inexhaustible well of your compassion, so that they may not grow weary of well-doing.

 

 

Welcoming the Stranger Series

In the last ten years more than 35,000 asylum seekers have died in the Mediterranean. Desperate to escape untenable situations in  countries like, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, refugees risk both life and livelihood to board rickety boats bound for what they hope will be a new life in Europe. Many of them die within sight of what they hoped would be the promised land.

 

Welcoming the Stranger is a devotional series designed to help Christians connect this unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean with the Bible’s call to “welcome the stranger.” Recognizing that “the stranger” can sometimes be an abstraction that blinds us to the face of Christ, the series approaches the refugee crisis from a personal perspective. Each entry focuses on one person’s story, brought vividly to life by Italian artist and relief worker, Francesco Piobbichi. These stories are then linked to relevant Scripture, prayer, discussion, and action prompts.

 

Immigration is a hot topic around the globe, and the Bible passages in this series speak to wherever we are called to “welcome the stranger.” My specific interest in the Mediterranean context was sparked by a 2016 trip to the island of Lampedusa—a small island off the coast of Sicily that is the scene of so much hope and tragedy for refugees trying to enter Europe via small, unsafe boats. In addition learning about the situation there and the work being done by ecumenical groups like Mediterranean Hope, I spent significant time interviewing Francesco Piobbichi, whose art documents the stories of individual refugees and families who often die trying to reach safety. You can learn more about him and work through the following link: Francesco Piobbichi’s Artwork Each of his “snapshots” tells a story—sometimes of triumph, but often of tragedy:  Piobbichi’s goal is to help people understand this large-scale human tragedy on a more personal level. My goal in this series is to use Piobbichi’s art as a starting point for Bible study and personal reflection/action.