Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day and consecrated it.
So imagine, says Moses at Sinai, you who engage in production and consumption are not little replicas of anxiety-driven Pharaoh. You are in the image of the creator God who did not need to work to get ahead. Nor do you! God invites the ones at Sinai to a new life of neighborly freedom in which Sabbath is the cornerstone of faithful freedom. Such faithful practice of work stoppage is an act of resistance. It declares in bodily ways that we will not participate in the anxiety system that pervades our social environment. We will not be defined by busyness and by acquisitiveness and by pursuit of more, in either our economics or our personal relations or anywhere in our lives.
–Walter Bruggeman, Sabbath as Resistance
All week we may ponder and worry whether we are rich or poor, whether we succeed or fail in our occupations; whether we accomplish or fall short of reaching our goals. But who could feel distressed when gazing at spectral glimpses of eternity, except to feel started at the vanity of being so distressed?
–Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath
We call them, “Montana Rules.” A few summers ago, when our family packed up like the Joads and went out West, we had a long road to travel, and a vast stretch of unencumbered time to make the journey. Usually our vacations and car trips are negotiations. How long can I keep us going on the road without stopping? The children need a rest stop. “Would you prefer a nap?” That doesn’t often work. “Let’s see if we can make it another twenty miles,” or “let’s see if we can wait until the next state to eat.” Eventually Katie intervenes and we stop. The children wander around the rest stop, playing in the trees. I look at my watch and edge us back towards the car. We head on down the road. Not so with Montana Rules. Montana Rules mean you have to approach the trip with a leisurely spirit, stopping at a whim to enjoy whatever pleasures the road may provide. You know you will reach your destination eventually; but the leisure itself is the point of the trip. In the case of our Montana trip, we would have missed Little Bighorn, a decommissioned nuclear missile silo, and the world’s fastest carousel without our special rules.
It’s hard to keep Montana Rules in our regular lives because there’s often so much to do. Our morning routine is hectic enough, getting everyone dressed and even just one child ready for school. It’s amazing how often children’s activities set your schedule, too. You may remember from that phase of life; you may be in that phase of life now; or you may sympathize with all of those demands on your time than you can think of yourself—doctor’s appointments and home improvement projects and errands and volunteer commandments and yes, even church.
Church can be demanding, too. You know that if you have ever served on an especially active committee—planning events or, heaven help you, a building committee. You know that if you have ever served on session.
At one point, when the church was really humming pre-pandemic, it took thirty to forty volunteers to do what we did each and every Sunday—whether teaching or leading worship, singing in the choir or ushering. Maybe the last year has been a welcome break from some of those commitments, and I’m glad for it. We need breaks, even as a church. And we’re often not very good at them.
The Old Testament in particular makes theological provision for our human frailty. Well, really, frailty sounds wrong. It’s simply part of our humanness—we need rest. God creates the heavens and the earth in six days and rests on the seventh. And from their beginning as God’s people, Israel shares in that rest to remember who they really are as people made in God’s image. God rests, and so do we.
The particular commands of rest and worship come from Exodus and the giving of the Ten Commandments: “Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.” But the importance of rest comes even earlier in the story as Israel, in their first move toward freedom, asks Pharaoh for rest from their labor so that they can worship God. Pharaoh refuses and orders that they produce more than before. The Exodus is the story of Israel’s salvation; but it also describes what that salvation is: moving from the lordship of Pharaoh who demands their permanent subservience to productive ends to the Lordship of Yahweh who commands them to rest.
For all the gifts of the early church, they attempted to distinguish themselves from their Jewish roots by limiting the importance of sabbath as practice. The Lord’s day was about worship, not rest. This is when, I imagine, the church committee first became the dominant form or organizational life.
So we don’t always do a good job honoring Sabbath as rest. After worship we have meetings, or lunches that take many hands to prepare. Some of us have meetings or additional social or volunteer commitments. Some of us get a jump on work for the rest of the week.
One of the challenges of anyone working remotely this past year (and really, remote is a bad word for it since work at your house is about as close to home as things can get), is that the lines of work and rest become hopelessly blurred. You can be off the clock for a while—that is, until your phone dings, and you find that you have another email to answer before turning in.
This is not to over-dramatize the reality of things, but to provide a little context. This year, more than any, maybe we just need some rest.
There’s an important word related to Sabbath and that is “Sabbatical.” In the social arrangement of Israel, even the land and the livestock enjoyed Sabbath. The land would lie fallow for a year because it was written into creation itself. Rest is good. Incidental to that observance, the land became more productive after its fallow period.
That’s what a sabbatical is—for pastors. I’ve told you already that the session has granted me a sabbatical this summer. Following worship this Sunday, I will be away from the church. I will not lead worship, attend meetings, answer emails, or provide pastoral care. The point of this time is not just to disconnect from the church but to provide space for rest and reflection following seven years of intensive ministry with you here.
I believe that our church is at an important moment in its life as we respond to challenges of the past year and COVID. What church is God calling us to be next? I don’t know the answer. But I look forward to helping you think about that question and calling following a time of sabbath and rest, and after I have spent some time listening for the voice of God in my own soul, too.
So for the next six weeks, know that you will be in my prayers. I hope you will pray for our family as we travel. We’ll be visiting family and friends, many of whom we haven’t seen for some time—even years. And we’ll be living by Montana Rules, basking in the graciousness of a God, and a congregation, who nurture rest.
See you in August!