Spirit of Sabbath

Dalai LamaIt takes a bit of time and effort, after spending three weeks “on the mountain top,” to adjust to life in the lowlands. While it’s not actually a mountain top, San Francisco Theological Seminary does sit atop a high hill in San Anselmo, with sweeping views of Mt. Tamalpais to the south. It is a blessing to be able to take this sabbatical time for study and refreshment. One of the wonderful books we read for this year’s course on “The Art of Discernment” was the classic, Sabbath, by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel’s insight, wisdom and eloquence help us to understand Sabbath as spiritual discipline rather than time off to play or just be lazy. Of course, play and rest can be integral to Sabbath, but it is so much more.

In her introduction to the book, Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, describes Sabbath in their household as a re‐membering of ancient Jewish rites. There was ritual and reading, discussing and sharing with family and friends. There was worship and reflection and practice of the presence of God. There was a blessed ordering of life, both familiar and sacred.

On the seventh day God did not just settle down for a nice nap. On that day, God reveled in creation, loving what had come to be, calling it good and blessing it. It was a time for taking stock. It was a time of replenishment. It was a time for beauty, for reflection, for blessing. And so God, recognizing its importance, gave Sabbath to creation, inviting humanity to share in that sacred time.

After six days of creative work (or any other kind, for that matter,) even God Almighty chose to change the tempo, to slow down, to contemplate. When we treat time with this sort of care and respect, we may find ourselves face to face with questions about the meaning of life, about the nature of things, about the creative process, about God and our relationship to the Holy One. Heschel insists that this is good and right – to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, to bring oneself with purpose and devotion, with joy and humility into the presence of God. In fact, Heschel argues that we were created for the experience of Sabbath, for communion with the Holy, for giving ourselves over to the grace of God.

Jesus uses this same argument when his disciples are chastised for plucking grain on the Sabbath. In the spirit over the letter of the law, he reminds his critics that “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath…” (Mark 2:27). It is not some rote repetition of rules or ritual that makes the Sabbath sacred. It is the opportunity to enter deeply into the holy presence – which may be quite difficult on an empty stomach! Of course, the ancient rules and rituals do have their place in helping to develop the discipline needed to enter fully into Sabbath.

Sabbath is not a practice we fall into easily in our frenetic culture. Give me a weekend so I can “veg’ out,” napping in my easy chair in front of the football game. I need time to do my laundry, clean the kitchen, shop for groceries, visit family and friends, hang out with my spouse and kids. There is so much pulling at me, screaming at me, coming at me that I sometimes feel I can barely tread water until the weekend comes. I need “me” time! And this says nothing of those who work multiple jobs just to make ends meet with no time left over or those whose time is disordered by homelessness, hunger, refugee status, imprisonment, oppression, abuse.

The spiritual discipline of Sabbath is as challenging for most of us as it is rewarding when we discover its true meaning and value. To take time or make time to draw just a little nearer to the heart of God, in whatever form that may take, is sacred exercise. There is always the possibility that seeking to dwell in the presence of the Most High will have inevitable ramifications for the living of our lives over all. I don’t mean that we will win the lottery or every trouble will disappear, but somehow committing oneself to living closer to God, to embracing God’s way and God’s will, can’t help but bring shalom to us – some deeper sense of peace and fulfillment.

Well, this is what you get for allowing me to spend time on the mountain top. Perhaps, you can see why it’s not so easy to re‐enter the routines of daily life. Don’t get me wrong. I love living here and working here and sharing life with each of you. It is a blessing in itself for which I am deeply grateful. But one of the things that I think about up there in San Anselmo is how I can share with you some of that Sabbath experience. As I said in last Sunday’s sermon, a significant goal I have for us as pastor and people is that we might find ways together to deepen our spiritual life. How can we cultivate Sabbath and celebrate it as a people? What will bring us closer to living in a constant awareness of God’s presence in us and around us? And how will that sense shape our living? This is the challenge, the work and the promise of spiritual formation. It is a joy to walk this way with you. Thanks for the time away and thanks for the home to which I may return.

God bless and keep us on the way.
Pastor Rick