“Sabbath as Enough, Sabbath as Resistance”
A sermon given at First Parish Dorchester November 19, 2017 by Rev. Tricia Brennan
From Hebrew Bible, the book of Genesis 2: And God blessed the 7th day
and declared it holy, because it was the day when God rested
from all God’s work of creation.
I had my first real introduction to the practice
of seriously keeping the Sabbath when I was in my late twenties
and pursing a graduate degree in social work in New York city.
In order to live rent-free in that expensive city,
I worked as a residence assistant- an RA-
in one of the undergraduate dorms on campus.
There I met a number of observant Jews
who freely shared about this weekly spiritual practice.
I had been familiar with the no working part,
and saw how that meant not studying or writing papers,
and I learned that for an observant Jew
a day of rest meant you didn’t cook-
so meals were made the day before.
The one thing that really baffled me was the rule
against turning a light switch on or off.
I couldn’t fathom how the mere flicking of a switch constituted work.
And so the young men gave their RA a Torah lesson.
Turning a light switch on and off meant
you were engaging with electricity-
and electricity is a creative force.
And remember on the 7th day, the holy day-
God rested from God’s work of creation.
Thus, keeping the Sabbath for an observant Jew
meant you did not create.
Turning a light switch on, was turning on electricity, was creating light.
I was intrigued, to say the least.
Here I was in the city that never sleeps,
here I was hardly sleeping myself, between my studies,
my internship, my various part-time jobs.
Here I was, a budding social worker,
whose clients were some of the hardest working people on the planet-
single parents on limited incomes.
And in the midst of all that non-stop busyness,
these young Jewish men were doing something really different
from the rest of us one day a week.
On Shabbat they slept in, napped, walked to visit family and friends,
ate food previously prepared
they told jokes, they laughed a lot, if I recall.
And when a light switch needed to be turned on or off,
they knocked on the door of their agreeable RA.
I learned since then that they are many interpretations
about this prohibition against generating electricity-
there are some other reasons given not to flick a light switch
and reasons given that it is permissible.
But what mattered to me about that encounter
with the young Jewish cohort in my dorm hallway
was that it got me started on a lifelong interest and attempted practice myself in Sabbath keeping.
To intentionally set aside a chunk of time-
a day a week, a day a month, a portion of a day-
and declare it a period of rest and renewal-
a time when one would cease striving to be productive in any way,
when you deliberatively put away the to-do list of work or home tasks –
is a very countercultural thing.
The pressure to accomplish things is intense in the American society.
It’s troubling how pervasive is the message that your worth
is measured by how hard you work and how much you get done.
I think that message underlies just about everything-
so much so that if you are not working or getting something done,
you at least ought to be thinking about doing that, or worrying about it.
When I was pregnant, a lot of people asked me
what we planned to do for day care
or where we thought we might go for day care,
and offered seemingly helpful suggestions.
It felt a little presumptive and bit ridiculous,
considering she had yet to take her first breath.
But the day someone asked me if we had considered
whether we’d send her to public or private school
was the day I really began to understand
that parenting could become its own competitive sport.
The questions implied that these decisions were weighty-
which they can be- and a good parent
would start pondering and planning as soon as possible.
I felt the anxiety beneath those questions,
and while part of me thought these folks were over the top,
another part of me mentally put these topics into a future to do list
and absorbed some of the existential worry.
I wondered what it was like for kids
to have all this worry and strategizing
about future decisions surround them so early on.
The pressures to make the right choice, to plan ahead,
to not fall behind or lose out-
gosh, those themes were alive and well from utero onward.
Now lest this sermon start to off the rails
into a commentary on our crazy making world,
let’s get back to Sabbath, a practice that can open us up
to other ways of thinking about ourselves,
and how to live in this world, and what is right to expect of ourselves.
At the heart of Sabbath is a profound receptivity
and a stillness that seeks to prove nothing.
At the heart of a practice that values
enjoying life and one’s friends and family
is the belief that pleasure and rest are good things.
At the core of a Sabbath practice is the message
that you are good enough as you are right now,
your worth is not calculated in billable hours or how exhausted you are.
The god of the Sabbath, if there is one,
does not say don’t work but does say don’t work all the time,
and above all else don’t mistake your worth with your work.
How very hard it can be to change direction
from output and doing and striving
to receiving the fruits and beauty of the world,
to a playful ease, to a use of time
that affirms one’s inherent worth and dignity, simply as is,
right now, no questions asked, no need to prove a darn thing.
Now I don’t usually think about things like paradise or heaven-
those other worldly things- but when I think about taking Sabbath,
especially a family or a community enjoying a Sabbath time together-
it has a taste of paradise in it to me.
For not only is a Sabbath time marked by ease, it is marked by peace.
Maybe you can hear in my words my yearning
that we know such times in our world,
and in our lives, that we do stop the mindless haste
and rest and relax and enjoy one another.
Last night at the Gratitude Pot Luck we did that,
rested and relaxed and enjoyed the fruits of the earth and the good company. Hopefully Thanksgiving Day will be like that for you.
Truth is, if we can carve out even little Sabbaths,
times intentionally set aside for rest and renewal, we are doing good.
A Unitarian Universalist Sabbath will look different
than an observant Jew’s Sabbath.
What would it look like?
We don’t have a theology of Sabbath, I dare say-
though we do hold holy the coffee hour,
the fellowship hour- and that is good.
But it feels like we’re making it up as we go along somewhat,
since it’s not really codified in our faith
the way it is for some other faith traditions.
UUism is religion of doing, to a large degree,
this congregation is full of people who do lots of things,
for the church and outside the church.
Busy people doing lots of good things.
The kind of a faith tradition, the kind of a church, the kind of a people
who could really use and love the practice of Sabbath.
Why? Well, because if we don’t pause in our busyness
we run the risk of believing that we are only what we do.
We run the risk of losing our joy at the center
of our being and our faith.
We run the risk of thinking we are more important that we are,
that if we stop for a moment, everything will fall apart.
UU’s like to think of ourselves as a progressive faith,
on the cutting edge of justice and liberation work.
The truth is that a Sabbath practice
is one of the most radical things we can do.
By it very nature of non-doing, non-working
it calls into question the entire capitalist system,
flies in the face of an unholy consumption that pillors the earth,
and jams the machine that grinds us into exhaustion.
Not bad for what comes from taking a day off.
Still, you may be wondering, as I have at times,
if a Sabbath practice is something reserved for the privileged only.
I think back to my struggling self in graduate school
and to the single parents I was working with,
and I ask myself that question.
Can one really rest when you are homeless, or sick and unable to afford health care, or working three jobs, or in prison. Not easily, I’d think.
A related question is does a regular practice of Sabbath time
lead us to be more loving and compassionate
and wiling to challenge systems of oppression,
and I think the answer is yes, it can.
When we recover a sense of ourselves,
in a sense return home to ourselves
as we do when we rest and enjoy those we love
and the world we live in,
we are giving time to our hearts.
And when our hearts are opened, the circles we draw round those we care about extend much further.
When we pause for a bit, we can look at things freshly,
more honestly, and ask questions about who benefits
from how our world is currently constructed.
A practice that detaches worth from work,
and reminds us that we are enough, just as we are,
can reminds us too, that this is true for all people,
that everyone matters, regardless of their station in life.
And the refreshment of Sabbath times extends into all our days, enabling us to bring more balance and compassion and wisdom
into all we do and say and are.
Does the preacher do what she preaches? Well, she tries.
To some degree I have it easier than many because the day I take off,
and call my Sabbath, is a Monday, and Mondays tend to have less social invitations/obligations that a weekend day.
So I am freer to spend that day as I wish. No small thing.
I can attest that I love my Mondays.
I love the relaxed time I have with friends and loved ones.
I love the chance to spend longer stretches in nature-
hikes in the Blue Hills, walks in the arboretum.
I do cook often on Mondays, and it is a pleasure, not work.
I meditate with a group of friends every Monday morning,
and that restores me to myself as well.
The Monday Sabbath enables me to give of myself
more fully and in a more balanced way to my ministry here.
What a Sabbath day or a Sabbath afternoon/evening
will look like differs for each one of us.
If we are raising children, if we are caring for elders,
if we are partnered, what our work schedules are, for instance,
all impact how we would shape a Sabbath.
Whatever our lives are like, there will always be compelling reasons
not to push the pause button.
Bringing Sabbath into our lives does take intention
and support from others.
It is a discipline, a spiritual practice,
that we get better at as we go along,
that we figure how to do even as we experience
its benefits all along the way.
To paraphrase a quote from writer Wayne Muller,
“At our best, we become Sabbath for one another.
We are the emptiness, the day of rest.
We become space, that our loved ones,
the young and the old, the lost and sorrowful,
the spirited and the busy, may find rest in us.”
Who wouldn’t want to be such space for one another-
And who wouldn’t want to find such rest in others.
I wish for you such Sabbath space in your lives,
especially as we head into the busy holiday season.
May we create Sabbath time in our lives,
may we be Sabbath for one another,
may we bring the peace of Sabbath into our world.