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How can we learn again, what it means to live in a rhythm of work and rest?
The Reverend Dr Fiona Stewart-Darling Priest Vicar
Sunday, 3rd June 2018 at 11.00 AM
In Canary Wharf where I work as chaplain to the business community, most people I talk to say it is becoming harder to achieve a work-life balance. Job insecurity, working across different time zones and being constantly connected digitally, are cited as reasons and workloads continue to rise.
Many of us will recognize that our own lives have become increasingly busier, even those who are retired from paid work.
How many of us find ourselves saying “I haven’t time”? We are all too busy to notice what is around us. Too busy to notice we have become sucked into a lifestyle in the fast lane. We cling on for the next holiday.
And yet the bible has always taught about work-life balance. Our biblical readings today are on that theme - keeping the Sabbath, a day of rest and refreshment.
As western Christians many of us are in a bit of a muddle as to how to interpret and understand the biblical command of keeping the Sabbath in our culture today. Some of us will be familiar with what others might determine as old-fashioned Sabbath observance: Sunday best clothes, no shopping, no work. Most of this has disappeared from today’s British culture. Although we mostly believe that a day of rest each weak is a healthy ideal, for many it’s not at all obvious how to achieve it.
How can we learn again, what it means to live in a rhythm of work and rest, and help one another in our wider society to do the same without becoming legalists in the process? Let’s look more closely at our scripture reading from Deuteronomy in the Old Testament.
Sabbath, the Israelites, and their relationship with God
You may or may not be aware that there are two distinct versions of the Ten Commandments. Exodus is the version most of us are familiar with, but today we heard a section of the Ten Commandments from Deuteronomy, relating to the 4th commandment “Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
Both versions begin by reminding the Israelites of their relationship with God “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”. Exodus 20, at Sinai, the 10 commandments were first given. Here the people of Israel made a defining choice, to trust God who made heaven and earth, who brought them safely out of the slavery in Egypt into freedom.
However, we know that the Israelites struggled to keep God’s commandments. Later in Exodus 32 we learn that Moses had been away up the mountain for 40 days and nights talking to God, but for the Israelites left behind, the God of the covenant seemed remote and they became anxious – God seemed absent. So out of their anxiety you may remember they made an image of the golden calf. When Moses came back down the mountain he was furious and broke the tablets of stone on which the commandments were written and the covenant with God was dissolved. But Moses did not give up but prayed to God and bargained on behalf of the people. And God in an immense act of forgiveness restored the covenant with his people.
So we now fast forward a few years and we find Moses and the children of Israel on the banks of the river Jordan in anticipation to enter Canaan, the Promised Land. It has been a long time since God restored his covenant with them at Sinai so Moses gives Israel instructions for the new land, i.e. the whole of the book of Deuteronomy which lasts 30 chapters, a very long speech or sermon!
Moses recognizes moving to a new land was a high-risk venture. He wants to be sure, that the people understand the old covenant, that God had made with them not long after they had been rescued from Egypt, was still valid on entering this amazing new rich agricultural land with all its opportunities. Moses understands well the temptation and seductions that this new land has to offer – he knows that the affluence that the land has to offer is sure to create a crisis in covenant faith. He is worried that as the Israelites discover the potential of the land and its ability to yield great prosperity, that the Israelites will think they can manage on their own and forget God.
Moses had on a number of occasions warned the Israelites about not forgetting - it was God who liberated them from slavery in Egypt. God had rescued them from the cruelty they had faced to meet impossible and relentless production schedules to make more and more bricks. Now this new land with all its potential Israel can be both safe and happy. Hence Moses is warning the people to be on their guard.
Interestingly when Moses now repeats his speech about the Sabbath it is the same familiar wording as the earlier Exodus version commanding them that all are to rest: “your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, immigrants” but he adds to it and makes it clear that they “may rest as well as you”.
Walter Brueggemann, the theologian in his book about the Sabbath says about this additional phrase…
“Sabbath is the great day of equality when all are equally at rest. Not all are equal in production. Some perform much more efficiently than others. Not all are equal in consumption. Some have greater access to consumer goods. In the society defined by production and consumption, there are huge gradations of performance and, therefore, of worth and significance. In such a social system everyone is coerced to perform better, - produce more, consume more – be a good shopper!
Such valuing, of course, creates ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots ‘, significant an insignificant, rich and poor, people with access and people denied access.”
“The Sabbath breaks that graduation caused by coercion… Because this one day breaks the pattern of coercion, all are like you, equal – equal worth, equal value, equal access, equal rest.”
Jesus – The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath
In our gospel reading Jesus makes an interesting comment. He says “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath” in other words part of God’s covenant with us and the commandment about keeping the Sabbath is for our benefit, it echo’s the Moses addition to the commandment in Deuteronomy - may rest as well as you. Keeping the commandment to keep the sabbath, is not a legal thing to appeased God it is for our benefit and our communities alike. That is, we need regular times of rest, mentally and physically. Jesus in healing the man with the withered arm does not disregard the sabbath commandment but he understands the deeper implications of it – He contends that at times keeping the commands can be at odds with a person’s well-being. Jesus is committed to preserving life.
In the time of Moses, he would have reminded the Israelites about the widow, the poor and the orphans in their communities that they too are entitled to a sabbath rest. Reflecting that in our world today, we need to be aware of those in our society, who have less control on their lives than we do, those who need to work several jobs to feed and clothe their families, those who work long hours to make our lives more convenient, those who are exploited in modern day slavery.
We might well reflect on a number of things as Christians such as: the need to recover the theological significance of Sunday as fundamental to rebalancing our lives and the need to remember the Sabbath is the opportunity to weekly refresh, renew and transform our lives. It provides that opportunity to take stock, of our habits, behaviors, wants etc. To become attentive of the life of those around us who are part of our everyday lives: family, colleagues in the workplace, retail workers, and we those don’t even notice as we go about our daily lives. We may look for a better life balance for ourselves, but what about those who make our lives less stressed and easier.
Let us remember - The Sabbath is not simply a luxury it is a way of life, it is the pause that refreshes us. It is the pause that transforms us to serve God and our fellow human beings in the rest of the week.