I was new to the church and wanted to hit the ground running. I had big plans and high hopes, but enough sense to know I ought to learn a little bit more about their past before I could take them into the future. So, I went downstairs to the basement and pulled dusty old Session minutes out of the broken down safe where they were kept.
Most of them, you might be surprised to learn, were not very interesting, but one account stood out. In September of 1908 the Session of the North Branch Presbyterian Church in Monaca Pennsylvania conducted a trial for a member of the church named Jim Hadley because he was seen horseracing on a Sunday afternoon. This was a clear violation of the fourth commandment to honor the Sabbath day. One elder was designated as the prosecutor. One elder was to act as defense counsel and the rest of the Session served as judge and jury. They were there to decide if Jim should be excommunicated – kicked out of the church.
The prosecution called witnesses who testified that they saw Jim galloping down old Broadhead road on a Sunday afternoon and that his neighbor George Buckner was racing right next to him. With that the prosecution rested.
The defense called only one witness, Jim Hadley himself. Jim stood up and put his right hand on the Bible and promised to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Then he told the elders, “Yes, I was galloping down old Broadhead at the time in question, but I just wanted to get to Sabbath School and didn’t want to miss the Pastor’s Bible Study. I was running late. When asked why George galloping next to him. He said, “I don’t know.”
The vote was 9 to 7 to acquit so Jim remained a member in good standing.
That was only a little more than a hundred years ago, but it might as well be a thousand. I never hear of churches holding trials to determine if someone should be excommunicated anymore, but if they did it would never be over something like this.
We don’t even use the word Sabbath any more. And Sunday is not much different than Monday. But, I’m not sure we’re better for it. I’m not sure we haven’t lost something that is important for the soul.
That was what those North Branch elders were afraid of. And they were not the only ones. In today’s story, the Pharisees, those who saw themselves as guardians of the Law believed that if you wink at the Law to the smallest degree it opens the door to greater infractions. It becomes a slippery slope. In no time at all you can lose something important like your relationship with God.
Jesus had a different take. He believed there is a difference between liberty and license, between legalism and respect for the law. He thought justice and mercy, law and grace should be woven together to form a single fabric. How he does that and how we respond is where we are going today.
Let us pray: Lord, you have given us the Sabbath to remind us that you are in charge of the cosmos, and that you can use us for the fulfillment of your plans. Remind us again and again, that you never give us more than we are able to do in the time you have given us. Amen.
“One Sabbath, Jesus was going through the grain fields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” This casual gleaning of grain for a midday snack was in their eyes was a clear violation of the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” How do we remember the Sabbath and keep it holy? When God said, “you shall not do any work on the Sabbath”, what does that mean? What is work?
Rabbi’s wrestled with these questions again and again as they tried to parse this word, so that by the time of Jesus, they had developed a list with 39 chapters and countless sub-sets that provided a clear and explicit definition of this word “work”. Keeping the Sabbath “holy” was reduced to knowing and following these prohibitions. They determined how far you could walk on the Sabbath day, what you were and were not allowed to do for meal preparation. As a result, Sabbath for some became an odious experience. There was nothing refreshing or healing about it. It was just something to endure.
But, that is not what God intended. The Sabbath was not to be a burden; rather it is to help us lay our burdens down. To understand God’s purpose for this command, we go back to the story of creation itself. You remember the pattern; “In the beginning God said, “Let there be…” and creation began. Order came from chaos, light broke through the darkness, and life emerged from the earth. The account of creation is elegantly folded into one week. In six days God created the heavens and the earth, with the creation of humanity appearing to be the grand finale – God’s greatest work. One more day is added to finish out the week, so the Bible says, “God rested.” How about that? Even God deserves some time off.
I think many of us, if we think about this at all, imagine that God was perspiring and panting after an incredible week of thinking up giraffes and hippopotamuses, and creating plants and people. So we figure that on the seventh day, God just plopped down on an easy chair with a beer in one hand and a remote in the other. If that is your view the seventh day then is understood to just be a kickback, do-whatever-you-want day. It is a reward for completing a hard week. Even God, some say, collapsed at the end of the week.
When you read the fourth commandment in its entirety there is something more to it than that. In Exodus 20:11 the Hebrew word which is usually translated as “rest” is “vaiynafesh”, which literally means, “exhaled”. It is that breath you take when you have finally finished that important project. It is a cleansing breath. It is that transition between what you have just done and what you are about to do. Skip that breath, or slide past that moment, and one thing just leads to another and there is no distinction. You just end up living in a 24/7 world without reflection or celebration. There is no opportunity to stop and take a breath to reflect upon what you have done, and how you have lived, and where you are in your relationship with God. We give no time to celebrate the blessings God has given nor do we carve out a space to consider the direction God may be leading. Life, as Ghandi said, “just becomes a matter of increasing speed.”
Even Jesus took time away from the crowds to be alone with God. Even Jesus drew away to be alone with God. Am I more important than he? That’s why Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for people,” he said, “and not people for the Sabbath.” God gave this and all commandments for our benefit. God is our creator so is well aware of our limitations and so created this commandments to protect us from ourselves. The fourth commandment is found in two places. I’ve mentioned the focus on the importance of “rest” that is shown in Exodus 20:11, but this command is also repeated in Deuteronomy 5:12. It looks at this command from a slightly different angle. At the end of the command it says, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty outstretched arm.” This is a reminder that the Sabbath is to be a liberating and healing experience. It is to be a time when we rekindle our trust in God.
Why do we work so hard? Why do we push ourselves so relentlessly? Bonnie Thruston, Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary asked, “Why do we have to be so busy all the time?” I think it is because we like to both complain and brag. You know the pattern. The conversation goes like this:
“Hi! How are you?” Oh, I’m so busy. Everything is chaos at work. There’s this big project I have to complete. Then I have to attend night classes in order to finish my Masters. Of course, the kids need me to sew a costume for Halloween, and the dog has to go to the vet…” But, beneath the complaint that we are too busy is really the pride of attainment and achievement. “I’m so busy” may well be a way of saying, “See how needed I am, see how important I am. I am the one essential human being.” A thousand times a day, in a million forms, calling to us from billboards, magazines, television, radio, newspapers, movies, and telemarketers, every sings message without exception is this: You are not enough. You do not have enough. You are not happy. You have not achieved. Never do they say, “You are the light of the world.” I believe God well understood this quite human need for security. When the story of the Exodus was attached to this command to keep the Sabbath, God reminds us of the provision he made in the wilderness.
Stopping work tests our trust: will the world and I fall apart if I stop making things happen for a while? Is life really gifted and the Spirit moving through it, so that I can truly rest and taste this playful caring? Can I trust that this caring will be the bottom line when I rest, beneath all the suppressed and repressed sides of myself that are likely to rise when I relax my controlling reigns? Does everything depend on my producing and asserting? I believe that is why God rhetorically asked Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments?” The disappointment is not because God’s feelings are hurt, but because God knows how are insecurities make us “weak and heavy laden”. God knows how are faithlessness and lack of trust in Him becomes a heavy burden. That is the point of the Sabbath. It is about lifting the heavy burdens we carry throughout our lives. John Calvin, the spiritual grandfather of the Presbyterian Church wrote that the purpose of the Sabbath is to “rest from our work so that God can do God’s work in us.” “By saying no to make some things happen, deep permission arises for other things to happen. When we cease our daily labors, other things – love, friendship, prayer, singing, rest can be born in the space created by our rest. Worshiping, walking with a friend, reciting a prayer, caring for children – those are the intimate graces that need precious time and attention.” I know that some of you have staggered in here this morning and plopped down on the chair with a great “vainyafesh” – a great exhale. This past week has just been one thing after another, and next week looks like it will just be another rerun of the last. Hearing me to you slow down won’t make a bit of difference because most of the responsibilities you carry are important. Your boss has expectations, and your family has more. You are carrying heavy burdens that you cannot just toss aside, but here in this place and on this day you can lay them down at the foot of this cross and allow Jesus to “give you rest unto your souls.” Let’s do that right now.
Lord, we come to you “weak and heavy laden”. We carry great burdens and calendars that are filled to the brim. Grant that in this moment we might “exhale” the stress of this past week, and “inhale” the cleansing breath of your Spirit. We carve out of our week this time, and consecrate it to you, so that we might keep it holy.”
 Exodus 20:8
 Mark 1:35
 Mark 2:27
 Muller, Wayne: Sabbath. Pg 135
 Exodus 20:28
 Muller, Wayne: Sabbath. Pg 29-30.