Workers in the UK currently work the longest hours in Europe, take the shortest lunch breaks and enjoy the fewest public holidays, according to the TUC. It estimates that on average people work six weeks of overtime each year, so if a year’s worth of unpaid overtime was worked starting from 1st January, no one would be paid before the middle of February.
Now put this national picture for work in the context of what we do with our free time. If you find that you are food shopping for the family on your lunch break, scheduling in sports and leisure activities, looking to upgrade your technology, car or life, you are not the only one. We live in a 24/7 culture.
A Christian pastor, Maryann McKibben Dana, decided to keep the Sabbath for a whole year as a way to resist this culture of always working more, achieving more and getting more. She asked lots of questions during the year especially ‘what is rest and what is work?’ Admittedly these are complicated questions for a parent of three children under eight years old. She tellingly reflected that Sabbath wasn’t just about rest. She discovered that while rest is sometimes a by product, it is not the primary purpose.
In a busy culture, simple rest sounds great and potentially a good in and of itself. However, Sabbath was given as a commandment from God, and its primary purpose was not to ensure that God’s people don’t burn out.
Thinking back to when the Commandments were first received, as recorded in Exodus 20: 1-17, the people of Israel were in the desert. They were given the Sabbath as the fourth of ten commandments. Brueggemann comments that the commandment to keep the Sabbath was a bridge between the first three commandments which focus on God – acknowledging that God is the One, without accompanying idol, whose name should be not used in vain – and the following commandments that cover how to live well with your neighbours including do not steal or covet and so on.
The Sabbath commandment is the bridge between knowing God and living as God’s people. Israel is instructed to know God, as God who brought his people out of slavery and freed them from the endless demands of the pharaoh; God who created and then rested. And knowing the nature of God enables us to treat other people well. In the hostile environment of the desert, as a ragged group of people learning what freedom meant, keeping the Sabbath was crucial to living as part of the covenant.
Which sounds great, but the people got it wrong, almost immediately they rushed back to the old security of gold and an idol they could see and touch. So they received commandments again (Exodus 34). Although they were not quite the same commandments as previously given, they included the Sabbath commandment. This time the commandment is given in the context of ploughing and reaping, anticipating the time when they will live agricultural lives. In this reading, the Sabbath is reinterpreted in a different context, but Sabbath is still essential. There is reinterpretation and application again when the commandment is declared in Deuteronomy 5: 1-21, in the prophetic references in Amos 8:4-8 and in Isaiah 56: 1-8.
Maintain justice, do what is right….keep the Sabbath…
These are the opening words in the reading from Isaiah 56. They are addressed to the people of Israel who were living at a time when Israel was being re-established in its own right after a time of exile and oppression by Babylonian foreign rule. It was a time to reset the boundaries, and Sabbath is part of that. Perhaps surprisingly, the boundaries are also set to include ‘foreigners and eunuchs’.
Including the outsiders is unusual for any community. In this instance, the outsiders were foreigners who for a long time had been seen as oppressors and also eunuchs. Some scholars suggest that the term eunuch here refers not specifically to males who had been castrated, but to those who colluded with the foreign powers when they held sway over Israel. So, the community practice of a shared day of rest does not exclude ‘troublesome’ outsiders, but specifically includes them. It is notable that the Sabbath is such a powerful marker in Isaiah, and the meaning of Sabbath is explored and revisited.
Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.
These words of Jesus are recorded in Matthew 11: 28. At the time these words were said, they will have been welcomed by those burdened by Roman oppression and by the struggle to survive in everyday life. In the Gospel narrative, they come just before Jesus has a robust discussion with other leaders about how to keep the Sabbath. Is it a time for casually picking ears of corn, a time for rescuing a sheep or a time to heal a sick person? There has always been and always will be discussions on how to keep the Sabbath.
And so we are inheritors of this tradition – what might keeping the Sabbath look like in Leeds? We can learn from our Jewish neighbours who are blessing to us, about community, family, faith and spiritual awareness. We obviously have to recognise that much of traditional Sabbath keeping has been abandoned for us as Christians. But what if we engage with the idea of a Sabbath that energises our living and search for justice? How can the Sabbath align us to God who sets us free and who rests?
One way is through the Eucharist which can be to us, as Christians, a Sabbath. At the Eucharist we are in communion with God and with each other similar to the way in which the Sabbath is a bridge between God and neighbour. We come with our needs and our awareness of the needs of others. We experience the Eucharist as gift, both the gifts from the goodness of creation and the gift of all that Christ has achieved for us.
Sabbath is a time limited experience that comes to an end and then we act on what we experience in our Sabbath. When we are sent out after the Eucharist, we find ourselves back in the same Leeds where people are asked – What do you produce? What do you contribute to society? How important are you? What do you own? In these questions we can hear an echo of the oppressive words of Pharaoh. How many bricks were produced today? I need more tomorrow.
Ours is a society that values endless production and consumption. As a result it often disrespects those without work or in low paid work, and labels them benefit scroungers; and disrespects those without status, like Asylum Seekers, and calls them bogus. It’s a society where people who are differently abled are too often the victims of hate crime.
Sabbath rest sends us out with good news for people who are undervalued or seen as ‘troublesome’ outsiders. It sends us out to ask what needs to change for people under these pressures to hear the good news that they are valued. Sabbath rest calls us to ask how we can be part of that change. The gift of Sabbath empowers us in a search for justice that includes the excluded. It can be so much more than the opportunity to rest and recharge, it can invigorate faithful, prophetic witness and action.
This article is based on Walter Brueggemann (2014) Sabbath as resistance. Saying No to the CULTURE OF NOW. WJK Books
It also references Maryann McKibben Dana (2012) Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time
It is written from a sermon delivered at the Allerton Deanery Service, at St Martin’s Church, Potternewton in June 2015.