That Subversive Sabbath

Sermons Proclaim
Homily: Ordinary Time 5
February 07, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

I have a question: What are you doing here?

You, there, sitting in the pew. What do you expect to accomplish? Here you are, spending a perfectly good hour - sitting, listening to sacred music, maybe swapping small talk with friends. Were a squad of efficiency experts to descend upon our church, scribbling on their clipboards or making notes on their smartphones, they would look askance at what we're doing. They would be appalled; appalled, I tell you!

Take the hour spent in worship, multiply it by the number of people attending our services, and you get hundreds of what some would call "wasted" hours. Assuming a 40-hour work week, that calculates out to well over a month of gainful employment. Think of the meaningful contribution to society we could collectively be making if each of us avoided wasting an hour a week by coming to church!

A different sort of time

That argument is absurd, of course. It makes no sense to apply ordinary standards of efficiency to this practice called worship. What do we accomplish by being here, really? Nothing, more or less. And that's exactly the point!

Walk through the doors of this building, and you enter a different world. It's a world where time has a different value. There's a clock hanging on the back wall, but it's only an illusion, for, here in this place, time can no longer be quantified (except by those who glance at their watches and begin to get nervous, 55 minutes into the hour - but they miss the point).

Worship time cannot be quantified. It can only be qualified. You don't assess the quality of a worship experience by how long you spend doing it. Workers can boast of putting in a lot of overtime or concertgoers rejoice at hearing two or three encores, but those measurements of time don't apply here. No, the value of worship is measured according to a depth dimension. The value of worship arises from one thing, and one thing only: an encounter with the living God.

On some rare days, we're lucky to have such an experience. But we spend more Sunday mornings than not waiting and hoping.

Jesus: master of Sabbath time

In today's scripture, we hear how Jesus used time to access that depth dimension. He'd just had a grueling day, teaching and healing from morning till night. Even after the sun had set, "they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door."

The ever-generous Jesus took time to respond to every need, to cure every ailment. Surely, when that teeming crowd finally dispersed, it was very late indeed. No doubt, Jesus collapsed into his bed in exhaustion.

But he awoke early. There was something he had to do: something quite different from the previous day's labors. When his disciples stopped snoring and woke up, their master was nowhere to be found!

Jesus had escaped them. He went off to what Mark calls "a deserted place." It was a place where he could cease doing and simply be. It was a place where he could draw close to his heavenly Father in prayer.

In doing so, he was being faithful to the traditions of his own people. For if there's one thing that makes the Jewish spiritual tradition distinctive, it's the high regard for keeping Sabbath.

The roots of Sabbath are in the creation story, but it seems clear that for the Jews, Sabbath-keeping especially came into its own, as a spiritual art, in Babylon.

It was the time of exile. The Babylonians treated their captives fairly well, but they used them for forced labor. The Jewish laborers' time was not their own, and their work brought them little reward except food to eat and clothing to wear. They were a captive, servant class, with little hope of ever bettering their condition.

One of their songs has come down to us, preserved as Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon -
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion...
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

It's as though some plantation-owner in the American South called for an old slave to leave the ramshackle slave quarters and come sit on the steps of the veranda. "Sing us one of them darky songs," the master would command. And then, in a voice clear and proud, the aged African would sing a song from his homeland, a song in a language he knew his owner could not speak. The old man would sing one particular stanza looking his master directly in the eye. And then he would sing that most troubling of lines:

Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!

It was a subversive act. The beleaguered Jewish community in Babylon found ways of resisting their oppressors, of subverting their rule - until the day God miraculously intervened, in the form of King Cyrus of Persia. Cyrus' armies descended on Babylon from the east, captured the city and sent God's people home at last.

Until the dawning of that glorious day of liberation, the Jewish captives had to be content with quietly subversive acts, like singing that bitter stanza of Psalm 137.

Sabbath is subversive

The most subversive act of all was the Sabbath. It wasn't a new idea, of course. The Sabbath dated back to Israel's earliest history. Yet, it took on new importance during those years of exile. Large portions of the books of Genesis and Exodus were edited into their present form in Babylon, during the exile. Central to those books is the institution of the Sabbath: the Lord's command to take one day in seven to rest.

In terms of economics, Sabbath amounted to a once-a-week sit-down strike. The Babylonians grew to tolerate it. They had little choice. The Jews claimed it as a commandment of their strange and silent God, the God who demanded exclusive obedience and allowed no graven images to be made.

In Jesus' action to seek out a deserted place you can see that same spirit of subversion. His disciples - today we might call them his handlers - had big plans for him. He'd made quite an impression on the larger community. He was a phenomenon. His fame was spreading far and wide. The thing to do, the disciples reasoned, was to give his adoring public more of what they wanted. The band was on tour to sold-out venues, and 10 new concerts must be added to the schedule, post-haste! This was no time to slow down.

But that morning, Jesus showed he had other ideas. He disappeared, much to his followers' consternation. He went to the last place they would expect to look for him: the deserted place.

Still subversive, after all these years

There are plenty of other stories of Jesus and the Sabbath. Many of them are examples of misplaced legalism: of the Pharisees berating him for not faithfully keeping Sabbath laws. Mostly their objections have to do with him not keeping the jot and tittle of the law, of him not sweating the details. In today's story, though, we see the deep appreciation Jesus has of the true value of Sabbath: of the necessity of seeking out time apart for spiritual rejuvenation.

Sabbath is still subversive. For some of us, even during the stay-at-home restrictions necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us felt overworked, overstressed and/or overly busy. Many of us still feel that way. We belong to a society of compulsive overachievers. There's a special place in our national mythology for those who work hard, who "burn the midnight oil" or who proudly declare they'd "rather burn out than rust out." Such individuals are often richly rewarded in the workplace, even as their family life crumbles.

Our technology is designed to work for us - but so often, doesn't it have the opposite result? A great many of us use computers in our work or to manage our households. More and more of us are carrying around smartphones that are so portable that there's rarely a time - except, perhaps when we're in the shower - when a vast universe of data isn't within arm's reach, or we are within reach of the demands of our job.

It used to be, there were places we could go where we just couldn't be reached. Now that's a rarity. Once upon a time, a trip to the supermarket or the park meant a break from work. Now, work travels with us. For those of us who wear those little earbuds around, work is even sticking out of our ears!

The literal meaning of the Hebrew word shavat, or sabbath, is "to stop." That's all we need to do, ultimately: to stop. The prescription couldn't be simpler. Stop our striving, our contending, our frenetic activity for just one day. Repeat on a weekly basis. Discover that attitude of peace and contentment that comes from dwelling in the Lord's presence.

If we do that, we'll find that the lonely place is not lonely at all. It's a thin place, where God's spiritual power touches our needy hearts. It's the place where we ultimately find new strength and power for living!

And worship can help us do that.