Weekly Seeds: Sabbath

Sunday, June 2, 2024
Second Sunday after Pentecost| Year B

Focus Theme:

Focus Prayer:
God who Rests, give us peace, clarity, and trust to rest from our labor and to good work in its time. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Mark 2:23-3:6
23 One Sabbath he was going through the grain fields, and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food, 26 how he entered the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions?” 27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath, 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
3 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They were watching him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

All readings for this Sunday:
1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20) and Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 • Deuteronomy 5:12-15 and Psalm 81:1-10 • 2 Corinthians 4:5-12 • Mark 2:23-3:6

Focus Questions:
What is sabbath?
Do you observe sabbath? If so, how? If not, why not?
What opportunities does sabbath offer the individual, the church, the world?
What are the barriers to sabbath?
How can sabbath be reimagined to overcome those barriers?

By Cheryl A. Lindsay

Negation is a communication technique in which something is defined by what it is not. For example, an ostrich is a bird that cannot fly. Negation is often employed when describing a new experience by comparing it to a more familiar one. Expanding on the same illustration, we might state that an ostrich cannot take flight like an eagle is able to do. In other instances, negation wields the comparative term as a weapon to demean, devalue, and diminish the defined object. An ostrich is not a real bird because it does not have wings that can carry it up to the sky.

Along those same lines, sabbath is often defined by the restrictions it places on human behavior and activity. Observing the sabbath means refraining from work. Unnecessary labor is prohibited by sabbath laws and even necessary labor should be moderated. When possible do the work before or after the sabbath to faithfully adhere to the restrictions, boundaries, and limitations imposed by the day or time of enforced rest. Historically, blue laws developed as societies adopted cultural norms of sabbath and codified them. While many of these prohibitions have been struck from the legal code today, there remain communities that continue to limit or ban the sale of alcohol, the practice of gambling, and certain forms of entertainment on the Sabbath.

This understanding of sabbath is by its nature limiting and assigns a negative connotation to a practice that God instituted as holy, satisfying, refreshing, and restorative. After all, Creator modeled sabbath rest as the completing action of the first creation narrative:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished and all their multitude. On the sixth day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
Genesis 2:1–3

The Holy One does not indicate being exhausted by work. There is no suggestion of tiredness of any kind. The creative work of bringing all things into being was considered “good”, as articulated repeatedly, Creator was satisfied with their work. The work was finished but the creative act was not complete until the Holy One had the opportunity to rejoice and rest in it.

Sabbath, then, is not the opposite of work but the fulfillment of it. That does not suggest that rest can only be the reward of work. Rather, our lives are balanced by doing what is needed in the moment, including restoring and replenishing ourselves. Even more importantly, sabbath encourages us to do so in the presence of and in communion with the Holy One.

The gospel reading contains two stories focused on sabbath. According to Mary Ann Beavis, “Mark 2:1-3:6 constitutes a series of controversy stories that introduce the theme of escalating opposition to Jesus by various authority figures: scribes, Pharisees, disciples of John, and Herodians.” These stories reflect the type of opposition often particularly expressed by religious leaders who get attracted to power and fixated on maintaining it for themselves even if that is at the expense of the tenets of their faith traditions, the exercise of their faith commitments, and the flourishing of their faith communities. Imagine objecting to someone being healed because their deliverance came on the day of rest. What could be more laborious than living with chronic or acute disease? The healing that occurs in Mark is a miraculous demonstration of sabbath fulfillment. The religious leaders are too occupied with establishing and gatekeeping their own authority and positions that they fail to recognize true sabbath unfold before them.

[quote} The scribes in 2:1–12 and the Pharisees and Herodians in 3:1–6 do not believe Jesus has the authority to forgive sin or transgress Sabbath law just because he has the power to heal. They do not share the same willingness demonstrated by Jesus when he healed the leper: a willingness to use both power and authority to help those in need. Therefore, Mark shows his audience that if things are left up to the current religious leadership, nothing will change for the vast majority of people.
Racquel S. Lettsome

The Creator established rest as part of life’s rhythms. From daily patterns of sleep to routine days of refreshing and recreation, our bodies, minds, and souls need it. Further, Jesus demonstrates that there is healing to be found in the Sabbath. Is it coincidence that he encounters the man with a withered hand while joining in worship with the gathered community? Or, is that design? Notably, the man does not come seeking a healing from Jesus as we have witnessed in other circumstances. This man comes to worship God. In fact, in the act of keeping the Sabbath, the man who comes to worship encounters the Holy One and finds healing in that encounter.

The hope and holiness of the sabbath is found not in what one cannot do; rather, its promise and gift is the discovery of what is possible when we slow down and search for God.

In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods. Such an act of resistance requires enormous intentionality and communal reinforcement amid the barrage of seductive pressures from the insatiable insistences of the market, with its intrusion into every part of our life from the family to the national budget…. But Sabbath is not only resistance. It is alternative….The alternative on offer is the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God. To be so situated is a staggering option, because we are accustomed to being on the initiating end of all things. We neither expect nor even want a gift to be given, so inured are we to accomplishing and achieving and possessing.
Walter Brueggemann

Sabbath provides a reset for our embodied and spiritual lives. Sabbath provides space for holy encounter, healing, and restoration. Sabbath remains God’s gift to creation as all living beings have cycles that incorporate or center upon rest. Humanity is the one species that often fails to receive it.

The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments. In a religious experience, for example, it is not a thing that imposes itself on man but a spiritual presence. What is retained in the soul is the moment of insight rather than the place where the act came to pass. A moment of insight is a fortune, transporting us beyond the confines of measured time. Spiritual life begins to decay when we fail to sense the grandeur of what is eternal in time.
Abraham Joshua Herschel

Creator calls us to sabbath. Let us listen to this call and respond, here I am.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
I’m so tired I could cry. But what do we do when our bodies or minds can’t access rest, even when we posture it?
For one, I’ve chosen silence. I could turn on some sad, slow music and hope that it would put me to sleep. For some, this works. But I’ve learned the language of my body enough to know that, for me, music is only a soundtrack for an anxious mind. I’ll have that conversation a dozen times more, only it will be put to music, made as real as a movie. It may be different for you. Perhaps music is your lullaby, but the point is that you would pay attention enough to realize it as such. For me, in this silence, I am steadied. The noise of my mind grows loud at first, but in the silence its loudness becomes so stark, I cannot help but contend with it. Silence leaves no place for denial. And so, it is in silence—listening to some creature crunch through the snow outside my window, listening to my own staggered breath—that I realize one of the causes for my restlessness. I see it more clearly. And I remember I am free to walk away from this conversation I will never actually have. I’ve learned I cannot empty my mind (for an emptied mind will always find something to fill it), but I can reclaim it with a different, more restful conversation.
Second, I’ve chosen darkness. Lately, I’ve been trying not to rip myself fully into the land of the conscious with the light of my computer screen. Some nights I do. But tonight I chose my journal so that I could avoid turning on the light. I hardly know if this letter will be legible come morning because I can hardly make out where the next line should begin. This is okay. It is in the darkness that I am reminded of darkness’s beauty. In a body that is hyperalert, this moment alone in the dark is a kind of rest. It narrows my vision, keeps me from being able to see more than I should be alert to. I must be content with the hidden. I cannot make out the doorknob or the muscles twitching beneath my skin, I can only see the words before me, the pen in my own hand. In a way, I am calmed by this.
There is a reason you can’t bring yourself to close the laptop, to walk away from your work, to close your eyes. How terrifying might rest appear to a woman who is working three jobs to pay her rent? To those who fear homelessness or hunger or punishment if they do not produce for these toxic systems? We belong to a society that claims ownership over our bodies, that across generations has used our bodies for its own ends. Our petitions for rest cannot be grounded in self-help wellness talks that don’t recognize this reality.
— Cole Arthur Riley, Black Liturgies

For Further Reflection
“The Hebrew word Shabbat means ‘to stop.’ But it can also be translated ‘to delight.’ It has this dual idea of stopping and also of joying in God and our lives in his world. The Sabbath is an entire day set aside to follow God’s example, to stop and delight.” ― John Mark Comer
“A life built upon Sabbath is contented because in rhythms of rest we discover our time is full of the holiness of God.” ― Shelly Miller
“Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.” ― Marilynne Robinson

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at //ucc.org/SermonSeeds.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor, public theologian, and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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