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October 8, 2017

“Resisting A Rest”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Exodus 20.1-17

Exodus 33.12-23

October 8, 2017

                E. B. White wrote: “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. That makes it hard to plan the day.”[1] Should we spend our days trying to fix what is wrong in the world, or spend time resting in what is good in the world? We want to do better – we want to end violence and world hunger and addiction and abuse – and God calls us to try to create a better world. Except, God also calls us to rest. Are those two calls mutually exclusive? When we don’t rest, we do harm to ourselves and to others. Does that mean resting is a more important calling?

                Both passages we read today involve God telling us to rest – with the first passage being more directly about Sabbath. In Exodus 33 we are reading about Moses and the Israelites as they are wandering in the desert. God has liberated them from Egypt and they have struggled to remember that God is with them the entire journey. At one point they melted all their gold and turned it into an idol while Moses was on the mountain talking to God, because they assumed God had abandoned them. This conversation between God and Moses comes on the heels of that incident. Moses and the people are confused because they are hungry and revolting against Moses. The crowd and Moses are anxious and seeking an answer. God remains calm and listens patiently, even after they have created this golden idol. God has not given up on the people.

                Moses insists on knowing God more – on having some knowledge of God’s presence.[2] They start to bargain with one another, and God tells Moses that he can see God, but only God’s backside. No one can see God’s face and live. Before this agreement, God told Moses “My presence will go with you and I will give you rest.” The implication is that when the people truly know God, their anxiety will lessen and they will find rest in God. There is a reassurance that God is present, and in that presence, they will find the rest they need. This is sort of cyclical – when we rest in God, we know God. When we know God, we find rest and peace – sort of a chicken and egg scenario. God gives us Sabbath, and that Sabbath is to know God more deeply. When we know God, we find rest.

                What is Sabbath? How do we define Sabbath? Rabbi Abraham Heschel, an American rabbi from the 20th century, wrote: “What we are depends on what Sabbath is to us.”[3] Perhaps we need to define Sabbath to also define ourselves. Is Sabbath part of our lives? Is it integral to our faith? Sabbath is not something that happens naturally – it takes intentionality and effort.[4] Therefore, whether we take Sabbath or not influences our faith. Simply, it is resting in God.

                Sabbath looks different to different people – especially in different faith traditions. The Jewish tradition states many laws about what to do and what not to do on the Sabbath, including not working, not tearing toilet paper (because that is to be done the day before), not baking, not cleaning, and on and on and on. The list of what not to do is often focused on, though, when the list of what to do is much simpler – live with God. That is the core of Sabbath.

                In Christianity we recognize the Sabbath as a day of rest, but we are much more laid back about the not working bit, and sometimes our Sabbath moves from Sunday, to Friday, to Saturday, depending on our jobs and what we have planned. Sometimes it moves from one day a week to once a month. In the world, Sabbath has become commercialized. People see a day of rest as a vacation or a time to go pamper one’s self and go shopping.[5] What is important to realize about Sabbath is that it isn’t about us – it is about God.

                To define Sabbath, the Ten Commandments is a great place to start. We’ve read all ten but we will only focus on the piece about Sabbath this morning. It is helpful to have some context, which is why I have included all ten. Walter Brueggemann asserts that the Sabbath commandment links together the first three and the last six commandments.[6] The first three focus on our relationship with God and the last six revolve around our relationships with others. We see how we are to respond to God and to community, through rest. Both our relationship with God and the community are enhanced when we take time for Sabbath. We are able to not only have knowledge about God, but also to take a step back and see our neighbors in a new light, as well.

                We are to keep the Sabbath holy and to work for six days and rest on the seventh. Now, you might be thinking, “Well, when this was written Moses wasn’t dealing with college students and their problems, which pop up even on weekends,” or you might think, “That’s great, but the lawn still needs to be mowed, and I can’t do it during the week since the daylight is escaping quickly!” As a pastor, I’ve made similar excuses myself. I always say pastors are often preaching to themselves. I chose this sermon topic months ago, and as I began working on it this week, and realizing that I wasn’t going to be able to find a full day for Sabbath, I knew I needed to hear this, too. Taking a Sabbath day is hard. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it, but maybe it looks different in today’s world. Maybe we don’t take an entire Sabbath day – maybe we take a Sabbath morning on Monday, and a Sabbath evening on Friday.

                That being said, Brueggemann also emphasizes that Sabbath is about resistance – about going against what seems natural to us. When society tells us we want more or bigger, we have to work more and more. When society doesn’t pay fair wages, people have to work more and more to support their families. For Brueggemann, it is about seeing the whole of society, not just the individual. If we continue to consume, we make people work. If we don’t pay fair wages, people are put into situations where they must work and work and work. A single mom might have to have three jobs to make ends meet – and she doesn’t have the luxury of taking a Sabbath. When we do take a Sabbath and pause, we recognize the injustices around us.

                Sabbath is hard. It means going against culture. We must slow down, stop working, and not do what everyone else is doing around us. Judith Shulevitz, a journalist for the New York Times, wrote extensively about Sabbath. She says, “The Sabbath seems designed to make life as inconvenient as possible.”[7] We have to work at Sabbath, which is ironic, since we’re told not to work on Sabbath.

                When we take the time to acknowledge Sabbath – to keep it holy, we recognize God’s presence in the world. Moishe Konigsberg said, “only when we cease interfering in the world do we recognize it as God’s world.”[8]

                So, what does Sabbath look like? I love the story of a monk going on the subway. He was traveling with some companions and were headed to a meeting in New York City. One of the people with the monk looked at his watch and said, “We’re ten minutes early!” The monk exclaimed, “Great!” and sat down on a bench. “What are you doing?” the companions asked. The monk replied, “I thought we should enjoy the ten minutes.”[9] For what, or whom, are we living our lives? What are our priorities? Think about how you spend your time – is it really how you want to be spending your time?

                While I was at a writing retreat in Michigan earlier this year I heard author Barbara Brown Taylor speak. She asked us how many wish we had more time in the day. Of course, we all raised our hands. She said that Mahatma Gandhi had the same amount of hours in his day as we have in ours. Mother Teresa had the same amount of hours as we do. They chose to spend their time with God’s people. We all have the same amount of time – what is important is being intentional about how we spend it.

                As I mentioned before, sometimes taking an entire day for Sabbath doesn’t work. We might find that we have to start small – an afternoon, a morning, an hour. Maybe it needs to be an electronic-free Sabbath where you turn off your laptop and phone for an hour and go for a walk with God. Perhaps you just need to sit in silence for a while. Whatever it is, be intentional and plan it – our calendars are “spiritual documents,” and we have control over how we spend our time.[10]

                MaryAnn McKibben Dana, a Presbyterian minister who spent an entire year doing a Sabbath experiment with her family, has a great saying that I think puts life into perspective: “Everything everywhere is all right already.”[11] Yes, we’re called to change the world. Yes, we’re called to be active and live out our calling. Yes, that pile of paper will still be on your desk when you return. If we assume that everything everywhere is all right already, we can let go of our control, and just exist with God, even if it is but for a few moments. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] MaryAnn McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs. (Missouri: Chalice Press, 2012), 1.

[2] Johanna W. H. van Wijk-Bos, Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), 221.

[3] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath. (New York: Harper Collins, 1951), 89.

[4] Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath. (Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2003), 48.

[5] Ibid., 10-11.

[6] Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 1.

[7] Dana, 83.

[8] Winner, 7.

[9] Dana, 11.

[10] Ibid., 22.

[11] Ibid., 15.