The title of my meditation today is “No.” This is a No title sermon. No is one of the first words we learn as children. Why? Well the world is a dangerous place and the people around us are trying to protect us. No, don’t touch that hot stove. No, don’t run out into the street. No you can’t eat candy for dinner. And children learn to say No back. Working in a toy store I hear No a lot, especially when it is time to leave. There are many different kinds of No. There is the casual, No. You hear the parent say, “C’mon its time to go.” “No,” the kid replies as if the say is equal. Sometimes you get the curt, “No.” Strong. Defiant. Like a rock. And once in a while if you are really lucky and it is close to nap time or mealtime you get the long pronounced whiny, “Noooooooo,” which is usually followed by a full blown melt down.
Yes, kids in a toy store have no trouble saying no. But as we age, yes becomes much more popular. People love hearing yes. Just imagine the toy store parents asking their kids, “Are you ready to leave?” and receiving a resounding “Yes.” I guarantee you will have happy parents there. Yes makes for happy bosses, friends, co-workers, pastors, people asking for money, people asking for time. Yes is polite, whereas No is such a rude word.
But can we reclaim the No? As many of us read in Altar in the World this week, one way of reclaiming the No is by observing the Sabbath. Now observing the Sabbath means so much more than coming to church on Sunday. Though it is good to worship and partake in community, taking Sabbath is so much more. For starters it is a whole day. A day of saying No to the obligations of the world and taking the time for yourself and for God.
There are three points of Sabbath. The first is rest. You have to rest. God wants you to rest. In fact there is Biblical precedent for it. Genesis 2 begins, And on the seventh day God finished the work that God had done, and rested on the seventh day from all the work that had been done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that was done in creation. God does two things here. God rests and blesses the day and hallows it. This is the first thing in the Bible that is hallowed. Before this everything was good, but the day of rest was hallowed. I find it interesting that these two things, the resting and the blessing are inseparable. So if it helps, you can think of resting as a holy practice. It was so holy in fact that it was made into one of the 10 Commandments.
Another way of looking at this story is from a historical perspective. The creation story was written by a culture centuries ago that clearly valued rest. For whatever reason rest from the week’s work was important. In fact rest was so valuable that when they told the creation story to one another, they depict God resting. Their God was not at war with other gods, murdering his siblings, but resting peacefully. Rest achieves the value of being a Godly act.
Does rest retain that same value today? Do we honor the commandment? In modern society where stores are open 24/7, where a thousand channels of television bombards us without end, where people working 2 and 3 jobs to feed their families are common, where is Sabbath? Where is rest? One might think that it is gone, that the concept of Sabbath is an ancient idea whose time has past. But I disagree. I think that because it has lost so much value by the world’s (or at least American) standards, it is even more important that we try to reclaim its value. Take back the importance of rest. Make it more important than constant work. And one of the only ways that we can do that is through practice. By practicing Sabbath, we give it the value that it deserves. We honor its holiness.
After rest comes rejuvenation. This is the 2nd aspect of Sabbath, rejuvenation. When I lived in New York, I worked out with my neighbor, Johnny, who as it happens was a former bodybuilder. Anyone who trains professionally will tell you that you cannot work out every muscle every day. It will never get stronger that way. You need to give it time to rest and recuperate. It is during that time that the muscle rebuilds. You know you get that good soreness. Just like physical muscles in a workout, our spiritual muscles need time to rest and rejuvenate as well. This is a function of Sabbath.
At first this can be quite tough. One thing that can happen is what I call activity withdrawal. People who thrive on speed and work find it hard to take time for themselves. They cannot sit without feeling guilty, feeling like they don’t deserve this time of rest, feeling like they have to take care of that one last thing. Maybe you can relate. Maybe you have suffered from activity withdrawal. In these times it is helpful to remember that this time is mandated by God. It is a gift that we are not only invited to use, but ordered to use. And the benefits of rejuvenation more than make up for the time that is “lost.”
But sitting by ourselves and with God can have other difficulties as well. Have you ever been in a car with a pile of stuff precariously balanced in the back seat? As long as you are maintaining a constant speed everything is fine. However, if something happens and you have to slam on the brakes, everything comes crashing down on you. Stopping everything in our lives can be a very similar experience. Busyness and constant motion has a way of keeping things at bay. But when we stop, when we take that Sabbath time to reflect, years of baggage can come crashing down. And it can be painful. It can leave us with sore spiritual muscles.
This process can be like a relationship. Oftentimes in some of my relationships, there have been problems or things that I have been neglecting, but they go unnoticed because there is just so much to do. Then when there is a break, or a time of rest, those issues come to the forefront. Like the junk from the backseat. Sometimes they caused an end to that relationship. But other times they provided an opportunity. Those issues gave me pause. They gave me something to think about, a way of reflecting on the relationship. And after sitting with the issues, and dealing with them, the relationship became stronger. Rejuvenated.
The same process can work with our relationship with God and our spiritual selves. When we first take a break, there might be some stuff that cascades from the back seat. It might be hard to address. But it also might give us that opportunity for reflection and growth and rejuvenation. Scripture can be very helpful during this time. There is wisdom there that has been gathered over ages by people reflecting on these notions. They can bring us comfort by assuring us that God is with us. We can flip to a proverb and meditate on the wisdom within. Or read a psalm and see the trust in God that it promotes. We can look to the life of Jesus and as a way of being mindful about out own lives. Birds of air/Lillies of the field. Filled with the wisdom and assurance of the scriptures, we can come out of Sabbath not just rested, but rejuvenated as well.
One of the reasons that I loved working out with Johnny was that he had been there before. At the front of his small gym were three pictures of him from his days of bodybuilding competition. He knew the process of building muscle. He knew that it required times of rest. And he respected those days. Respect. This is our third aspect of Sabbath. One of the results of our taking Sabbath is that we will come to respect that day, not just for ourselves, but for everyone.
In the second scripture that Kay read for us Isaiah is blasting some of the leaders for their abuse of the Sabbath. His claim is that they are pious and believe that they are following the Sabbath because they pray to God and then they wonder why God does not see them. Isaiah has no problem spelling it out. He tells them that they have lost respect for what the Sabbath truly means. He speaks for God saying, you think that this is the kind of Sabbath I care about? No way. You fill your own needs and oppress your workers. No, I want the kind where you clothe the naked, feed the poor, and let the oppressed go free. In short, he is saying that Sabbath is about respect. Respect for the Sabbath means respect for one another. This kind of respect is what the Sabbath is all about.
Laws that were written around the Sabbath idea were intended to promote respect and equality for one another. First among people. No one was permitted to work on the Sabbath. This rule was not meant to limit people from working when they wanted to, but to limit masters from making their servants work. It was intended as a protection against the powerful. And it did not stop at just work. The forgiveness of debts was also a part of Sabbath law. Again the intent was to prevent the powerful from taking too much advantage of the meager. In modern times when the ideal is to get ahead by any means necessary, valuing respect and equality is a revolutionary alternative.
Similar laws were written for the land. Every 7 years the land was to lay fallow so that it too could rest and recuperate. Any farmers out there? You know about crop rotation? As you might know, crops steal nutrients from the soil. Every few years it is good to plant nothing so that the land can revive itself and regain those nutrients. Again this is a law meant to limit the powerful landowners from abusing their land. Today as we bombard the planet with factories, pollution, over-farming, over-fishing, over-logging, and just plain overuse, we would be wise to look at the philosophy of the Sabbath and give the land some respect. This does not mean that we have to stop everything altogether, but at least let’s give the planet a bit of a Sabbath. Let it just be for a while.
Rest Rejuvenation Respect. 3 R’s that I invite you to think about in choosing time for your own Sabbath.
Though in this modern world, we may not all take our Sabbath at the same time, we can all respect each other’s need for Sabbath. We can learn to see the word “No” in a positive light. We should not longer be afraid to stand up a say no. Because No means that we will not work ourselves to the point of nervous breakdowns and heart attacks. No means that we will not put unnecessary demands on those around us. No means that we will not allow consumerism to run our lives. No means that we do not have to destroy more trees for catalogs. No means that we will not farm the land until it is unfit to grow anything. No means that we will not patronize places that treat their workers unfairly. And finally No means that we will not let our spiritual needs go unfulfilled. No means rest. No means rejuvenation. And No means respect. Amen