Laughing on the Sabbath (All the Way to the Altar)

Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 3.17.06 PM
An old photo from a long-ago trip to Disney.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Mark 2:23-3:6

I get to talk about two of my favorite theological concepts today, so strap in:
the texts are about the Sabbath,
and we baked communion bread today for Rachel’s first communion.

First, Sabbath.
A short, simple church-type joke that’s been circulating for awhile goes something like this: “I once heard a pastor say that he doesn’t take any days off, because Satan certainly doesn’t. I gently suggested that he choose a better role model.” 

Deuteronomy and the fourth commandment are where we find our commandment to observe a Sabbath, which the Jewish people dubbed as Saturday and which most Christians moved to Sunday to celebrate the resurrection. Modern interpreters, myself included, have advocated for a moveable Sabbath; for me, it’s really about self-interest as well as practicality. It’s hard, you see, for a pastor to observe a real Sabbath on a Sunday, since Sundays are when we are running around making copies, proofing our sermons, checking in with everyone, and making sure that the servers are ready and that any unattended children aren’t cutting each other’s hair. So I observe my Sabbath on Friday.

When do you observe yours? How?

I like to take time to be quiet. I have one criteria for talking at length to me on Friday, and I got it from an older, much more experienced pastor than I. He would say to his congregation, “I don’t want to talk to you on my day off. You see, because that would mean that either you or someone you love is in mortal peril. And I don’t want that. I want us all to rest.” 

Deuteronomy five tells of the Sabbath this way, as it was written to the Hebrews long ago:

“Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God… Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt…therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” 

Six days you shall labor. But the seventh day you shall rest. Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, but you are not slaves anymore. Now you get a whole day of rest, and so does every member of your household, right down to the animals. The Sabbath is a commandment, but it is also a gift. Because God has freed you from slavery, Israel is told, you and everyone under your roof are given the gift of rest. 

The commandment comes from Exodus and Deuteronomy, but the concept itself comes from Genesis. As the story goes, God made the world, and then God rested.

And here’s what I think about that: God doesn’t need to rest.
So why did God take a break? 

I think it’s so that we wouldn’t associate taking a day off with weakness, but with strength. 

Sabbath rest is one political issue that I am passionately convinced belongs in the pulpit. It may not seem political — all kinds of people like rest, for sure — but trust me, it is. It rubs uncomfortably right up against our society that tells us that we are only worth what we can produce. The first question we often ask each other, after all, is “What do you do?” People, even pastors, constantly praise those who never take vacation, who respond immediately and never seem to take a day off. “She’s a great doctor,” we might say, “because all she does is work.” 

We never really stop to think that maybe she’d be a better doctor if she were better rested.

If the Exodus story tells us anything, it should be that humanity was not meant to be enslaved to anything or to anyone. We were made to work hard, to produce things, to create things — and, when the work is done, to rest. We are commanded to do so.

Christians haven’t had a great track record with Sabbath, though. In fact, this whole time you’ve probably had some bad connotations running around in your mind. Me too — one of my favorite Halloween costumes entails dressing like a Puritan in the stocks with a sign that says, “FOR LAUGHING ON THE SABBATH.” 

So, yeah. Religious people have often made the Sabbath far less like a gift and far more like a burden. First, there were our New England Puritan ancestors who forbade all kinds of fun things on the Sabbath.

Scholar Walter Brueggemann (whom my seminary friends and I lovingly called Uncle Walt) wrote about how the concept of Sabbath quickly got “enmeshed in legalism and moralism and blue laws and life-denying practices that contradict the freedom-bestowing intention of the Sabbath. (1)

In other words, we took a promise from God and made it into a law with which we could control other people. In case you haven’t noticed by now, we humans are really good at that.

Case in point: today’s Gospel story.

Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field of grain. I imagine the sun shining down on them as they laugh and walk together. Jesus is only beginning to call the first disciples; he’s just picked up Levi, and he’s already taking flack from the religious leaders for hanging out with unsavory people. He’s gaining quite the reputation.

So they’re walking through a golden wheat field, and the disciples’ stomachs start to rumble until they notice, “HEY! There’s food all around us.” So they start plucking heads of grain as snacks.

This is where Mark gets a little weird, because it seems like suddenly there are Pharisees present. It’s like when you get the one “whoopwhoop” from a small town police siren for a minor infraction and you’re doubly humiliated because you know you’re not even worth a full siren.

So — in come the Sabbath police. Whoopwhoop.

They demand to know: “Why are your disciples doing what’s not lawful on the Sabbath?!” 

In response, Jesus says two things: first, he tells a story about when David and his friends, as in King David, giant of Judaism, ate bread that only priests were supposed to eat. Because Jesus is a rabbi whose arguments are always on point, he’s even able to tell them which high priest allowed it: it was Abiathar, y’all. 

Second thing he says is one of my favorite sayings of Jesus: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” 

You were not made to meet ritual and religious obligations just because. You were not created to be a slave: to this faith or to rules. This faith is yours. It is in you and for you. Religion and ritual were made to serve humankind and to help us find meaning and even God; humankind was not made to serve religion.

We live in an age where people are deeply suspicious of organized religion, and I can’t say I blame them. We have acted like people were, in fact, made to serve a set of rules. For far too long, we have used religion as a social control. We have restricted other people and scared them into thinking that they would go to hell unless they listened to us. This is the greatest sin of religion: that we have tried to make people slaves to it. That’s just us, though.

As for Jesus, he locks eyes with the Pharisees who were testing him and he heals a man who needs healing on the Sabbath.

We tie each other up in rules, but God has always been in the business of healing and freedom.

We’ve done the same thing with communion. We’ve tried to put fences and barriers around what has to be done and who can lead and who’s worthy, when all the time, God has been loose in bread and wine, inviting everyone, giving Jesus’ very body to anyone with outstretched hands. 

What a scandal of freedom Jesus is.

In my faith background and many others, there’s a practice called an altar call, when anyone who would accept Christ should come forward.

Author Matthew Paul Turner joked that as a kid he wished there were toilet-less bathroom stalls at the front of the church, because obviously meeting Jesus was a very private event, but as a five year old, he hated keeping his eyes closed like the preacher told them to. 

Some of us grew up hearing, “With every head bowed and with every eye closed…” 

While it’s very different in many ways from your typical conservative evangelical altar call, the Eucharist really is nothing short of an altar call itself. Except instead of one or two people coming forward and hearing from the pastor whisper in a low voice exactly what you have to do for God to accept you — at the altar call of the Eucharist, everyone who wants to meet Jesus comes forward with joy. And they don’t just meet the pastor: they receive Christ himself, in bread and wine, not during just one church service, but a million times. It’s not a private event for which we have to close our eyes; it’s a public event we all experience together every single Sunday.

As Paul wrote in the words that set Martin Luther on fire: “By grace you have been saved, through faith; it is not of yourselves, so that no one may boast.” 

Communion is grace. 

Sabbath is grace.

Sunshine is grace, and so is a sense of purpose, and love, and friendship, and a brand new morning.

We do not earn these things. We do not get to control them or use them to control others.

We experience and enjoy these things, not so that God will love us,
but because God already does. 

The conclusion to my sermon today is not my own words; it is the rest of the service. The service that ends with the only altar call we need: the Eucharist.

Like the Sabbath, it is a gift from God to us. It is not a burden that binds us to a bunch of rules; it is a gift that frees us. It is a gift that is God, who is always in the business of freedom.

So come, beloved people, to the altar, when it is time. This altar call will not be a private event. It is a public one, and we come not because we must, but because we may.

Let us come with joy, laughing on the Sabbath, to find the God who laughs and meets us here.

Thanks be to God for love, for the Eucharist, for Sabbath rest… and for grace. Amen.

1. Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the Culture of NOW, p. 20.

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