One of the few great preachers in our time, pitifully few, is Barbara Brown Taylor. The gifted pulpiteer, and I mean seriouisly gifted, left parish ministry years ago to teach philosophy and religion at a southern Georgia college, Piedmont College, about which few people outside its geographical area had ever heard before she joined the faculty. Where she goes, where she writes, where she preaches, she is noticed and read and heard—very deservedly. Among her many gifts are her way with words and her ability to see a practical life lesson in any text she comes across; listen to what she said about the Sabbath:
Anyone engaging in the practice of Sabbath can expect a rough ride, at least at first. This is because Sabbath involves pleasure, rest, freedom and slowness, and most North Americans are sold on speed, productivity, multitasking. Stopping for one whole day can feel like a kind of death.
The first thing you may have noticed about her insightful interpretation of life on North America is that she isn’t just talking about going to church on Sundays—and maybe not that at all. Sabbath has never just been about attending a weekly service. Sabbath is the rest part of the rhythm of life. Bad news for happily addicted workaholics: all work and no rest undermines our physical and emotional health.
If your employer isn’t concerned about protecting your time off the job as well as ensuring your productivity on the job, then you are not in any full sense a real person to that employer; you are a functionary, and when you cease to function according to the company’s benefit, then you’re a nobody—and fast. I don’t care how much your employer may pad your paycheck with bonuses for work well done, if she or he or the company isn’t concerned that there is real rest for you with zero phone calls or emails or texts or tweets from the office during your off time you need to have an understanding of how that employer really feels about you. I don’t know if there are any exceptions to the maxim, “Actions speak more loudly than words.” Probably not.
Few of us want to believe such a thing about the company that helps us support our families and helps us have what we want materially, but I can tell you that before the representative from your office who is tapped to represent your employer at your funeral leaves bosses and coworkers behind to keep the grind going while she or he goes to express collective sympathies there have been meetings and perhaps interviews to name the person who will next sit at your desk. Corporate overwork isn’t what the overseers demanded of the slaves in the old South, but it can still do you in—end your life or cripple you WAY before your time, as it were.
In Corporate America today, overwork is not an extra for those who’d like to move up the ladder; it is a basic requirement. One of my friends who transitioned out of academia into Corporate America doubts that she will make it. The office opens at 9; everybody who is anybody is at her or his desk by 7:30, and if anyone cares to slip out before 6 or so except maybe on Fridays, the walk to the door is accompanied by icy, condemning eyes—a pair or two of those belonging to someone who has sold out to the higher ups and, thus, expected to report “early” departures.
CNN called us “the no vacation nation.”
The United States is practically the only developed country in the world that doesn’t require companies to give their workers time off. In Germany, workers are guaranteed a month. In the UK, they’re guaranteed more than five weeks of paid vacation. In the U.S., unique in its class, there is no such guarantee.
Austria and Portugal are the places to be if you want to live where laws guarantee your paid vacations and holidays. In those countries, every fulltime worker gets 22 days annually of paid leave, typically vacation, and 13 additional days of paid holidays. You math whizzes have already added it up. That’s a month and a half of paid off time even for company newbies. This is not to say citizens there are unable to earn more time away to reward quality work and longevity. Closest to us is Japan that offers workers 10 days of vacation in the first year of employment. (Richard Bunce tells me that some Japanese friends of his wouldn’t dare take the days off, however!) Canada offers its workers, right out of the gate, 10 days of paid annual leave plus 8 paid holidays.
Wouldn’t you think that a well-rested worker is a more effective worker? Work, rest. Work, refresh. Work, renew. It’s all about balance.
Sabbath takes a healthy daily pattern and considers it in the context of a week. The Sleep Disorders Health Center contends that adults need about one-third of every 24-hour period in slumber, about 8 hours of sleep nightly. One day out of seven–8 hours are for sleep, and the other 16 are for uncommitted, non-stressful enjoyment of life. Otherwise, we forget that there’s any life to enjoy, and that is unspeakably sad.
This Sabbath thing sounds great, for a minute or two, but upon reflection we’re not sure we can buy in. The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor again, who decided to live on a farm down there is South Georgia, knows us doesn’t she?
Sabbath involves pleasure, rest, freedom and slowness, and most North Americans are sold on speed, productivity, multitasking. Stopping for one whole day can feel like a kind of death.
As an undergraduate student at Carson Newman College, recently Carson Newman University, my first Hebrew Scripture course was taught by a master teacher, Dr. Ben F. Philbeck, who happens to have been studying at the Johns Hopkins University while our own Tom McDaniel was working on his doctorate at Hopkins in ancient Near Eastern Studies. Philbeck was my professor in a course called “Foundations of Biblical Faith.” I learned a lot in that class.
When we came to the Ten Commandments section of the course, we naturally got to the commandment, Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Dr. Philbeck’s summary of the teaching of that commandment’s life lesson was this: even religion takes time. Even religion requires time.
That commandment led to all sorts of explanations in ancient Israel about how exactly to keep the Sabbath holy. Initially, it seems to have been a reflection, though, on the rhythm of life as evidenced in the story of God’s having created the skies and the earth in six days, whatever days may have been in the ancient storyteller’s mind, and then taking the last day, the seventh day, for divine rest. It was not only, therefore, a way of honoring the God of creation by following that God’s example of work then rest, but also it was a practical reality or a practical need. People needed to know that in order to be able to continue to do diligent work rest was needed.
Wayne Muller wrote:
When we live without listening to the timing of things, when we live and work in twenty-four-hour shifts without rest – we are on war time, mobilized for battle. Yes, we are strong and capable people, we can work without stopping, faster and faster, electric lights making artificial day so the whole machine can labor without ceasing. But remember: No living thing lives like this. There are greater rhythms, seasons and hormonal cycles and sunsets and moonrises and great movements of seas and stars. We are part of the creation story, subject to all its laws and rhythms.
If there were ever a time in modern history when people needed to be reminded that there must be a Sabbath rest in a weekly schedule it’s today. In ancient Israel where the Sabbath commandment was first given, no work whatsoever could be done on the day of rest. Meals for the Sabbath day were prepared the day before the Sabbath. One could only help the neighbor on the Sabbath if the neighbor’s life were in danger. No entertainment. No partying. No sports undertakings for children or adults.
Jesus was subverting the ancient Sabbath teaching when he insisted that the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath. We’re supposed to benefit from practicing the Sabbath, which means rest and renewal.
At my home church during my impressionable childhood years I was hearing from the pulpit, because children were required to go into big church as soon as they started first grade, frequent sermons on how the Sabbath was being abused. Generally the culprits were those who were not present to hear the sermons castigating them. In that context Sabbath competition was boating or the movie theater or retail stores opening on the Sundays leading up to Christmas. The general threats said that when Jesus comes back to call history to a close he will find those who should have been in church on the golf course or in the movie theater or on the lake or, worst of all, in Sears and Roebucks.
My parents were very supportive of our pastors so in our household we were forbidden from any of those activities. My, my how things have changed. Now everything competes with weekly worship gatherings. The Catholics and some of the larger Protestant churches have tried to combat competition by having services more than once per week. They have more than one Sunday service as well as in the case of Roman Catholics a Saturday mass in addition to the standard Sunday mass. In that regard, for those of us who meet only once per week and that on the day when many people think they have just those 16 hours to get everything done they can’t get done during the rest of the week, we might not be enhancing our draw.
How much can we do though? How can we encourage new members into the fold, when many members we already have are chronic no-shows? And it’s not just about us. Fewer and fewer people are going to religious services of any kind in our country.
In 2005, opinion polls showed that 40 percent of all Americans were attending a religious service at least once per week. That’s quite a chunk. Sadly, some sociologists got involved in trying to understand what seemed to be an incongruity, and sure enough they found that only about half of those who told pollsters they were in church on a weekly basis actually were. What an awful thing to lie about! And to a pollster who couldn’t care less! So in 2005, 22 or so percent of all Americans were attending a religious service of some sort each week. Another 20 percent were liars who needed to be in church to hear a few sermons on truth-telling.
What is going on now is that less than 20 percent of Americans attend a religious service each week, but about 40 percent attend often enough that most everybody knows their names. Cheers to keeping the Sabbath!
So what in the world could the teaching on Sabbath possibly mean to Silversiders and to you WordPress readers who find these sermons because we call them sermons for progressives and liberals? We have truly bought into Jesus’ lead in rejecting the idea that keeping rules in any way pulls us more dependably into God’s love. Let me speak to you as I hope I do in all of my sermons–from the heart and about practical realities.
You do not have to come to church on the Sabbath or at any other time in order to have a future in God’s more intimate embrace if that is what you choose for the next realm. You do not have to keep the Sabbath by attending Gatherings to benefit from whatever blessings the universe spills out onto the whole of humanity. You do not have to come to church to prove you’re pious, and I happen to mean piety in a good sense here; indeed, many of the people who are attending church across the world today have no piety.
Yet, if you do not include us regularly in how you keep the Sabbath because we happen to meet on what is generally taken to be the Sabbath day, you will be missing out, and so will we. Keeping the Sabbath holy, different, in a Silverside setting means that you offer the gift of your presence; at every event you attend your presence is always the best gift you can give to your church. Nothing can be more valuable to us as a community than the presence of all the people who are a part of our church family. Of course we realize the many reasons our people have to be away from a Sunday morning Gathering these days. If you are not here, the reality is that you are missed for several reasons. Most significantly, you are not using this time to deepen your spirituality; nor are you able to witness nonverbally to the importance you place on this church.
Your presence here shows a visitor or potential member as well as those who are already a part of the Silverside family more than anything else how much you value your church. The Sabbath has never been simply about what your religious institution can do for you. What can you do for it? Most prospective members are not going to join us if they come on a Sunday with attendance so low that the main thing they remember about having looked around during the Gathering is wood.
The church will not run itself. If those who are a part of the church do not become involved in making healthy and vital decisions for the well-being of the church where do you think we might end up? If we do not model Sabbath-keeping in connection with active church involvement for our children, what will they be doing when they hit adulthood? Only when our core community is present to enjoy Sabbath rest and renewal together, in a Gathering context, can we look and feel alive.
Even religion requires time. We could say that nurturing a healthy spirituality also requires time though you wouldn’t have to go to church for that to happen. We certainly hope we can make a strong contribution to that. Bottom line, there are very few things that mean anything to us that we fail to support with our presence.
When I was a pastor in New Orleans my very best clergy friend was Rabbi Ed Cohn from Temple Sinai. He was all excited one spring about some classes he was going to be offering at Temple for people who were interested in learning more about Reform Judaism—meaning, liberal Judaism. I thought I should take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about Reform Judaism and who better to learn from than my own Rabbi!
I went, and indeed the classes were terrific–filled with good will, humor, challenge, and intriguing information about this particular branch of Judaism. When Ed got to the session on the Sabbath he seemed even more enthused than usual. Everything is a little bit better on the Sabbath, he said; it’s a day of plusses. The food is tastier, even if it’s what you eat every day. Your joy is heightened. The sense of God is intensified. And Sabbath sex, he said, is better. I thought that was a really cheap way to get seekers to come to his place instead of mine! I privately asked him why Sabbath sex was better sex, but he couldn’t explain why he included that on the list. The only thing I could think of as I reflected back on that statement was if you’re just sitting around the house pretty much doing nothing, as Sabbath directives describe, I guess there’s a much greater chance that someone will initiate sexual activity.
I don’t know if Ed would go so far as to say the Sabbath is special just because it’s Sabbath or that we have to allow it to be all it can be if honored. Alice Walker, a God in nature kind of person, said: “Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week.” If God only pops up in our thinking on the Sabbath, there’s not much going on with God and us. Incidentally, “holy” simply means different or unique. It’s a day unlike all the others because our Jewish friends are having better sex and because we rest from the heavy responsibilities of the workweek. Rhythm and rest.