I recently preached a sermon on ‘Sabbath’ and I must say I was surprised at the response. People were genuinely surprised to hear about Sabbath as a gift, as a way to rest and reconnect with God, as a day of joy, food, fellowship and deep conversation.
To many as they were growing up it simply was a day when they had to go to church, visit the relatives, eat a big meal and have no fun. Sabbath meant boredom to them not joy. As they got older some of those aspects of Sabbath fell away but the sense of it being a day of obligation remained and not always an obligation they looked forward to. Plus with their busy lives during the week, they didn’t have time to rest on Sunday. It had become a day to catch up with work around the house, shopping, laundry, lawn work and the obligatory hour in church.
Others spoke about how busy they are on a Sunday morning when they get to church checking on committee work, making contacts with people they won’t see the rest of the week and any number of things on their to do lists. One woman, the church secretary, told me she hates coming to church because people think she is on the clock and there to work.
So how did we get to this point? How did this beautiful day of rest, refreshment and renewal become a day of work, stress and obligation? Perhaps the more pertinent question is how do we redeem the concept of Sabbath in a culture that is way too busy for its own good?
Let’s start with us as pastors. We are not very good at taking a Sabbath rest each week. Fewer and fewer pastors that I talk to take their days off anymore. There is too much work to do, they tell me. And then they ask me why are they feeling so burned out and spiritually dead inside.
The spiritual renewal that comes with Sabbath rest is necessary if we are to lead a church into spiritual renewal. Being ultra busy doesn’t make us better pastors, it actually lowers our ability to respond and be present.
There is a story told of a group of Western businessmen who went on safari in Africa. They hired a group of African guides to lead them. Each day the Westerners were up every morning before dawn and went all day long without hardly a break. This went on for several days and then one morning as the Westerners were gathering to leave for another frenetic day they couldn’t find the African guides. Finally they found one of them and told him to gather the others because time was wasting and they wanted to get started. The African man looked at them and said, “We are not going anywhere today. We are going to sit and wait for our souls to catch up with our bodies.”
Isn’t it time we decided to sit and wait for our souls to catch up with our bodies and model that for our congregations as well? Even if we cannot take a full 24 hours of Sabbath (and if we are honest, most of us can), we can take Sabbath moments where we pause and let ourselves be refreshed in the presence of God.
Teaching our congregations to do the same can be a first step toward the renewal of body, mind and spirit. So many of our people are exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally from the pace and circumstances of their lives that they cannot think of any other way of being church than the one they are used to…It’s easy and doesn’t require any more energy from them.
But with Sabbath rest whether in moments or hours, the body and soul do have a chance to rest and renew themselves. And a rested body and soul is a body and soul ready for the newness that is missing from our churches.
If we keep ignoring this gracious commandment to rest on the Sabbath and keep it holy, then our souls will be permanently separated from our bodies. And when that happens the church is dead.
“Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God…” Exodus 20.8-10a
Is this the commandment you intentionally choose to break each week?