Sermon

Exodus 20:8-11, Genesis 1:29-2:3

Rev. Dr. Heather G. Shortlidge

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T.F. Royal[1] was a circuit minister in the state of Illinois.
He didn’t have any formal education,
but he was intent on pointing people toward the Lord.

But in 1853, T.F. Royal felt his call shift to the wild, wild west;
in those days that meant the remote state of Oregon.
So the circuit minister packed up his life in Illinois
and hitched his wagon to a group of others
seeking new opportunities in the west.

Now Wagon trains didn’t move very fast—
only about 10 or 15 miles per day.
And it was standard practice to stop on Sundays—
honoring the Sabbath.

Part way through the journey to Oregon, however,
the wagon master said they needed to pick up the pace
or they wouldn’t get past the mountains before the snow started.
The wagon master instilled just enough fear in the group,
that they decided they could no longer take a full day off.
Instead of stopping on Sunday’s,
the wagon train would keep on moving.

But T.F. Royal didn’t think this was right.
After all, it said right there in the book of Exodus
“to keep the Sabbath holy.”
So the circuit minister and two others broke off—
choosing not to travel on Sundays.
All the other wagons,
thinking the minister and his crew downright foolish,
left the Sabbath keepers behind and picked up their pace.

At night, T.F. Royal could spot the campfires
of the other wagons who had gone on ahead.
They were pretty far off in the distance,
but he could still spot the flickering flames on the horizon.

But as the weeks wore on,
the Sabbath keepers noted something curious.
It seemed that the distance of those fires out on the horizon
was getting shorter.

Indeed it was.
By the time T.F. Royal hit Northern California,
the Sabbath keepers not only caught up to,
but passed the wagons
who had chosen not to stop on Sundays.

Turns out there was something to that Sabbath rest.
Precisely because he had taken a day off
allowing his animals to graze and regain their strength,
T.F. Royal’s wagons ended up being more efficient
arriving in Oregon ahead of everyone else.

***

We begin at the beginning this morning.
The first chapter of Genesis when God creates the universe in six days.
And we hear that things were not just good, but very good.
But God’s productivity level shifts on that seventh day.
After six days of working to create the world,
God finished the work and put up God’s feet;
declaring the seventh day a holy—
a period of time quite different from the previous six days
when God had been hard at work.

It’s our first introduction to Sabbath rest.
But it shows up again in the very next book of Exodus,
the passage from the Ten Commandments that the liturgist read.
It’s towards the top of those formidable ten best ways to live,
even before the injunction against murder.
“Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy,”
God commands the Jewish people.
In other words, do not work, do not create
on one day out of six.

You shall not clean the gutters or wash the car.
You shall not catch up on emails or organize the garage.
You shall not run sprints on the lacrosse field
or tackle that AP assignment due tomorrow.
One day a week, your entire household
shall do no work.

I always like to talk to Rabbi Phil Pohl
when I’m working on a sermon from the Old Testament—
to see what he sees in the text,
and to hear what it means to his community, Kol Shalom,
the synagogue off Bestgate Road.

During the Jewish Sabbath,
which is observed from sun down on Friday to sundown on Saturday,
Rabbi Pohl said there’s no cooking in the synagogue,
no one is writing things down,
members are not on their smartphones,
they don’t even use the copy machine,
and the lawn service has been schooled to never mow the grass on Saturdays.
Members go to the synagogue for services, but nowhere else on the Sabbath.
In fact, I’m embarrassed to say,
we invited Rabbi Pohl to speak this winter at our Officer’s Workshop,
held on a Saturday, and he politely declined,
graciously reminding us
that he does not schedule things on the Sabbath.

But the practice of Sabbath is not just for our Jewish sisters and brothers.
It shows up often in the Christian New Testament—
usually when Jesus is infuriating the Pharisees
by not following all of their rules.

After plucking grain on the Sabbath,
and getting major pushback from the religious leaders,
Jesus criticizes those who make a fetish of observing the Sabbath
insisting that “Sabbath was made for humans,
not humans for the Sabbath.”
It wasn’t that he was doing away with the Sabbath,
instead, Jesus was making the point
that it should not become a stumbling block.

In the fourth century, Sabbath keeping gained particular traction
when the Roman Emperor, Constantine,
banned official business and manufacturing on Sunday.

And here in the United States, blue laws,
kept shops and restaurants closed on Sundays
often prohibiting the sale of alcohol before noon.
It wasn’t until women poured into the workforce in the 60s and 70s
giving them less time to shop during the week
that the laws began to shift.

Now almost everything is open on Sundays.
And besides morning church services,
which have become much more optional,
Sunday’s are just another day of striving, working and creating.
I see it in your harried faces
as you shake hands on the way out of the sanctuary.
Off to a swim meet or soccer practice.
Traveling for a business meeting
or tackling the loads of laundry that have piled up during the week.
Sunday’s pace may be a bit different from the rest of the week,
but it still seems like full speed ahead.
I had an “aha” moment one Sunday morning
when a darling acolyte carried the light down the center aisle
and peeking out beneath her traditional linen robe
was a pair of shin guards and cleats.
My brain silently registered
that worship was not the only activity on Sunday.

Sabbath rest does seem to be coming back into fashion
for those who can afford it.
Slick advertising and all the glossy magazines,
urge modern readers to take a day off.
Rest. Relax. Go to the spa. Play a round of golf.
Now I wholeheartedly support good self-care,
however, this kind of indulgence doesn’t quite seem to line up
with God’s intention when the seventh day was hallowed.
Leaving work early to squeeze in nine holes
looks a lot like honoring the golfer, not God.
And the Bible says: a Sabbath to the Lord your God—to the Lord your God.

So what do we do with the Sabbath?
This radical practice of an entire unscheduled day;
a full 24 hours of non-productivity?
Many might call it an ancient artifact—something irrelevant and impossible.
After all, in a 24-7 world,
a ban on getting, spending, and going
is not exactly popular, and certainly not convenient.

But this weekly break,
helps remind us of our place in the world
and it orients us back toward God.

And there’s a reason we call the Sabbath a spiritual practice.
For it is something that takes practice—
something we must learn how to do.
It’s not something we wake up one morning and simply know how to do.

The writer, Madeline L’Engle, once compared spiritual practice to piano etudes:
when you are learning to play the piano,
you do not necessarily enjoy the etudes—
you want to skip right ahead to the sonatas and concertos,
the much more exciting stuff
but if you don’t work through the etudes, she writes,
you will arrive at the sonatas and not know what to do.[2]

So, too, with the spiritual life.
Faith is not all about mountaintops.
Mostly it’s about training, about practicing,
so that we’ll know the mountaintop for what it is
when we get there.

So we practice.
After all, discipline is related to the word disciple.
And the ancient disciplines, like keeping the Sabbath holy,
shape us so that we can recognize and respond to God.

I think God may have stopped on that seventh day
in order to show us that what we create
only becomes meaningful once we stop creating it
and start remembering why
it was worth creating in the first place.

I think we must remember to stop
because we have to stop in order to remember.[3]

For me, personally, practicing the Sabbath
helps chip away at my despair.
In the beginning, God looked at all that God had created
and deemed it not just good, but indeed, very good.
And yet just this week in Annapolis,
there have been things that are nowhere near very good:

              a parent overdosing in front of a child
              a 58 year old told she had about a year to live
              gunshots fired just down the road on West Street
              an 18 year old dying in a car accident
              just two weeks after graduating from high school

Sometimes stopping to remember
helps push back some of the despair
that threatens to overtake me.
That weekly reboot helps me take stock of things
and it gives me time to pray, to process, and to let God be God.

After all, I think the whole point of keeping the Sabbath,
is that point blank reminder that we do not run the show.
That one day in seven, we can put away the idol of control
and work on trusting the One who created the heavens and the earth.

Much of the time, however, I’m not very good at trusting.
Not very good at letting God be God.

When I first started preaching,
I’d stay up half the night
writing and rewriting the sermon
convinced that it wasn’t enough
and that I didn’t have anything theologically decent to say.

I had a hard time trusting that the Spirit would show up
and take my words and make them into something holy.
I thought that I had to do it all. That it was all up to me.
And if I worked hard enough—
if I stayed up until 2 or 3 in the morning,
if I fretted about it all day on Saturday,
than the sermon would be a much better sermon.

It took me a long time before I could realize
that I wasn’t creating a better sermon at 3:00 am
and more importantly, I was dishonoring God
by thinking that it was all up to me,
that I was on my own up here in the pulpit.

Keeping the Sabbath is an exercise in trust.
Trusting that God will provide.
That there is enough to stop for an entire day.

The earliest Israelites had a hard time trusting in this, too.
Six weeks out from Egypt,
all their food gone and nothing but sand as far as their eyes can see,
the Israelites panic.
They murmur, as the Bible puts it, against Moses and Aaron, saying:
you brought us here to kill us!

But then God shows up,
raining down enough manna for everyone.
The Israelites were told to only gather enough manna for one day.
But they could not restrain themselves.
Instead, they tried gathering up huge stockpiles,
unsure of, and not trusting, that there would be manna again tomorrow.

Their tendency, like ours, was to go out and get—
and yet God says we are to structure our days
and our hearts in a different way.
Compete all you want for six days,
and then it is time to stop.

When we don’t stop,
when we ignore this commandment
of remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy,
it is a loud and clear statement
that we do not trust God—
and we do not trust there will be enough.

***

The American author, Seth Godin,
wrote a simple, but captivating poem a few years ago.
He titled it “More and Less.”[4]

It goes like this:

More leading, less following
More contributing, less taking
More patience, less intolerance.

The beauty of Sabbath—
this time set apart for rest, renewal, and re-creation—
is that interplay between More and Less.
Another way of thinking about it
might be the difference between saying yes and saying no.

According to a friend who wrote an entire book
about practicing the Sabbath with her family,
Sabbath provides space for us to say yes
to things we normally don’t give ourselves space or permission to do.
And it also gives us license to say no
to things that drain our energy or distract us from our true north…[5]
Saying yes and saying no.
I wonder what you want more of and what do you want less of in your own life?

Here are a few of my own yes’s and no’s for this summer.
Some things I want more of and some things I want less of:
              More empathy, less assumption
              More books, less skimming
              More analog and less digital

More and less. Yes and No.
It’s how I like to think about the Sabbath today—
one of the most difficult spiritual practices,
but one with great gift and grace.

I wonder what your More and Less poem would sound like?
Perhaps you write it down this week.
Maybe it’s how you start to practice
remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy.


[1] T.F. Royal was church member, Will Mumford’s, great-great grandfather. In fact, Will gets his middle name “royal” from this insistent Sabbath keeper.
[2] Winner, Lauren, Mudhouse Sabbath
[3] Shulevitz, Judith, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time
[4] http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2017/01/more-and-less.html
[5]
McKibben Dana, MaryAnn, Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time