Worship notes: sabbath as resistance to anxiety (part 2)

Here are my worship notes for the second in a summer series using Sabbath As Resistance: Saying NO to the Culture of NOW by Walter Brueggemann.

“Keeping Sabbath,” writes the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, “is a bodily act of testimony” to both the alternative values of human respect and rest as well as an active act of resistance to a culture addicted to work and obsessed with acquisitions.  Sounds about right to me even if it is a mouthful to proclaim, so let’s start this conversation by breaking it down.

·   Sabbath keeping is a body prayer – an embodied act of devotion – that honors the Lord of the Sabbath by acting like we were created in God’s image.

·   Do you remember the opening story of creation in the Bible?  As it unfolds it tells us that on the sixth day the Lord our God said, “Let us make humankind in our very imagine – according to our likeness – so God made human beings in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them… and God blessed them… and when God saw everything that he had created – and saw that it was indeed very good – there was evening and there was morning as the sixth day.”

·   And then the story concludes like this:  On the seventh day, when God had finished the work that had to be done, God rested on the seventh day from all the work that had to be done. And God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it – set it apart and called it holy – because on the seventh day God rested from all the work that had to done in all creation.

To honor the Lord – and to live as people who celebrate being created in God’s image – means that we, too, know how to rest.  Keeping Sabbath in one way or another and hallowing it, you see, is a way of using our living, breathing bodies as a prayer. And while our mystical and devout Jewish cousins in faith remember this truth far better than we, from the very beginning of Christianity both Jesus and St. Paul have urged us to pray with our bodies by honoring the Sabbath and keeping it holy.

·   St. Paul, in Romans 12, was blunt: I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual* worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

·   As some of you know I sometimes think that Eugene Peterson’s reworking of the sacred texts helps us get closer to their blessings in our culture, so listen to how he renders Romans 12So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

And let’s be clear that Jesus was just as much an advocate of Sabbath body prayer as any of his later disciples. We may not always grasp his radical commitment to Sabbath because, when he speaks, it is to a people saturated in honoring and hallowing the Sabbath – it is both assumed and implied – and even if we miss it, it is always there.

·   Take one of my favorite texts – Matthew 11: 28-30 – where Jesus says: Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you… rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

·   Same is true for today’s gospel lesson from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:  I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

Running through the totality of Christ’s wisdom – and the message of the early church – is a call to embrace trusting God’s grace by using our bodies and our time as a prayer – prayers that practice taking on the image of the Lord through Sabbath rest.  That is what Brueggemann is asking us to consider – so before I go any further let’s check in – are you with me on this?  Any questions or concerns?

Now there are two other implications to practicing loving God in Sabbath that I want to consider with you and they both have to do with the remaining five commandments.  You may recall from last week, or already know, that the first four commandments have to do with loving God:

·  You shall worship NO other gods except the LORD your God.
·  You shall not bow down or create idols.
·  You shall not disrespect or trivialize the promises you make in God’s
·   And you shall honor the God who rests by keeping the Sabbath and making it a time set apart – that is, holy.

Those first four commandments are all about God – they have to do with a unique and life-changing way of living that treats life like a prayer – a way of being that is rest-full rather than rest-less. The other six commandments are about extending our love of God to our neighbors and worshiping God by how we treat one another.  And they are all about sharing respect and rest with those we live with just as God has shared respect and rest with us:

Honor your father and your mother - Commit no murder - Commit no adultery - Do not steal - Do not lie or bear false witness against your neighbors - Do not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor; their house, their spouse, their pets, tools, resources or status.

Why? Because if you do, you will return to a form of slavery – addiction – obsession – and the Lord our God heard the cries of our first family when they were in slavery back in Egypt – and God’s mercy and justice empowered Moses to lead them into freedom and hope. So never willingly go back into slavery of ANY form. Back in Egypt, there was only relentless work saturated with threats and fear. But the way of the Lord is different: the way of the Lord is Sabbath.

Now here’s the first challenge and concern: it is damn hard for us in 21st century America to get our heads around actually practicing Sabbath. And I suspect that there are two reasons: First of all, the very structure of our economy, educational systems and family life is built around busyness.
·   We are a people on the go with things to do and accomplishments to satisfy. And very honestly almost NONE of us are willing or able to set aside a full day for rest and renewal, right?

What are some of the impediments or conflicts that you can think of to setting aside one whole day to honor and hallow the Sabbath with rest?

So what that tells me is that if we are to honor the heart of the Sabbath we’re going to have to find new and creative ways to unplug ourselves from doing in a disciplined and accountable way. It is clearly unrealistic for most of us to take a full day for Sabbath rest, but unless we find a way a new way to regularly replicate the ancient practice of holy resting with our bodies, minds and time, we won’t be able to experience the blessings and grace that God promises us when we honor and keep the Sabbath.  Like my friends in AA say all the time: if we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got – and most Americans are too stressed-out, sleep-deprived and anxious to be bearers of blessings to our family, friends and neighbors in a consistent manner.

·   Another way of saying that is that most of us are often too frazzled to be able to put into practice the 10 Commandments. You see I don’t really believe that people of the 21st century are any more sinful or evil – greedy or selfish – than our relatives in Israel 4000 years ago. Truth be told, we haven’t changed or evolved all that much. What is different is that for too much of our time we’re just too exhausted and anxious to do more than we’re already doing.  Many of us are stretched to the max.

So I think the call to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy needs some new thinking and creativity so that our generation can start to reclaim the deep blessings that God promises will be ours when our very bodies become a prayer.  And let me be clear that this does NOT mean a return to the old New England Puritan form of Sabbath keeping! OMG I wouldn’t want that humorless, sanctimonious and pleasure-fearing type of Sabbath to be imposed on anyone again!

·   You know that is the second reason so many Americans are resistant to honoring the Sabbath: we thoroughly screwed it up with our blue laws, legalisms and self-righteous morality that were so life-denying and harsh that they clashed with our freedom loving American hearts.

·   Who CARES if you go to a movie – or play cards – or have a drink on Sunday!  Give me a break!

Exploring and practicing life-giving, realistic and satisfying new forms of Sabbath keeping is one of the challenges we’re going to have to explore – and over the next few weeks we’re going to talk about what that might look like here at First Church. 

+  What are some new/old ways that we can reclaim and renew that might help us make a living commitment to the spirit of Sabbath keeping?

+  What changes can we embrace that will lead us into the unforced rhythms of God’s grace in our very bodies?

Because without new ways of honoring the Sabbath that bring blessings to 21st century people, it just isn’t going to happen – and that is one of the challenges to hallowing the Sabbath for us.

The other is that so much of our culture, our economy, our habits, our politics, our entertainment and our worldview is now shaped by the so-called divine pursuit of happiness, that we have lost touch with what used to be known as caring for the common good. The six commandments that have to do with caring for our neighbors, you see, are all about nourishing the common good.

+  They call out to us to honor our elderly, to disengage from crimes of passion, to respect one another’s property and loved one by crafting a culture of respect not competition. How did our forbearers put it:  in order to create a more perfect union…?

+  We in the Bay State know something about caring for the common good because our very institutional construct is called the commonwealth, right? We, along with Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Virginia have at least an historic sense that one of the commitments our more perfect union must work at is caring for the common good.

But for the last 35 years caring for the common good has not been held in high regard – in fact, some of the key commitments we once made to caring for our neighbor have been dismantled and degraded. Think of changes recently made to the Voting Rights Act or the incredulous Supreme Court decision extending to corporations the same political rights as individuals. As we used to sing not all that long ago, “the times they are a’changin...” but these times don’t look so good for many of us with a commitment to the commonwealth.

Cut to Jesus teaching his disciples the ethics of Sabbath living as it pertains to our neighbors: God’s plan for your life is embedded in the heart of creation!  And God’s plan is all about trust rather than anxiety:

+  Look at the birds and the lilies: they are a sign that from the very beginning of creation the way of the Lord works!  The birds and the lilies don’t manifest anxiety, do they?

+  No, they organically trust the Lord – embrace God’s way – blossom and fly according to the goodness of God’s grace.  So why don’t you knowing that you are even more beloved than the flowers and the birds? What keeps your locked in anxiety rather than bountiful in trust?

If we are paying close attention to the message of Sabbath in Christ’s words, we cannot help but realize that our anxiety is connected to our restlessness and lack of trust in God’s grace. We are enslaved to other gods and idols who oppose the God who rests.  We are enmeshed in habits and institutions that denigrate the common good and exaggerate our worst fears and addictions.

To which Jesus says, “Beloved, look at the birds of the air… and the lilies of the field.  Spend some time watching how much God loves them and you will know that you too are loved and cared for and cherished by the Lord.” Did you hear that? Jesus asks us to slow down for a bit and smell the roses – to take a moment for contemplation – quiet watching and waiting – because it will lead us to a sense that we are cherished by the Lord.

+  Practicing Sabbath, you see, however we figure out how to do it together is not only a way of honoring God by letting our bodies become a living prayer, it is also a form of resistance to anxiety.

+  Whenever we stop to pray – or meditate – or walk the labyrinth – or receive Eucharist – or call time out so that we can feast with our loved ones and friends “we stand alongside the creator in whose image we are made.”

Remember that the commandments tell us that by the end of “six days God had done all that was necessary for creation… and so have we!” (Brueggemann.)


ddl said…
Lots to chew on here, RJ. Trying to do Sabbath here at Bon Secours, a Catholic retreat center and it's really special...I think I am in love with the place. It has a rock garden with cairns.

But how to do body prayer, exactly? When I pray, I usually am on my knees if I am really praying-- it's a form of surrender-- I admire the Muslims for this. Jewish thought used to talk about sex on the Sabbath (LOL) but that isn't an option for many in our congregations who are single or willingly celibate for whatever reason...so what do you mean by body prayer? I sort of think of it like surrender or maybe inviting sleep when I just want to cram one more thing in before going to sleep-- or maybe resting in the rhythms of music. Please forgive me if I am asking something to specific here. I consider play, perhaps, a form of body prayer-- something that gets you out of the head and into the body??? And if we talk about body prayer as clergy won't there be a difference betw. the perception of a male addressing this, and a younger woman addressing the same? What do you think?
RJ said…
Hey there... I think there are a lot of types of body prayer. Walking the labyrinth is one type of body prayer that comes to mind. But what I was trying to emphasize is that on the Sabbath EVERYTHING we do with our bodies becomes a prayer: resting, eating, touching,etc. It is no longer mostly in our heads - or in the realm of ideas - but the way we use our time and our bodies becomes an act of devotion. Does that make sense?

Most of the time most Protestants address prayer as mostly an intellectual exercise. To make a commitment in time to rest and explore actions that will refresh and renew - and then to do it rather than talk or think about it - is a body prayer.

I am with you that sometimes kneeling prayer is a surrender; it is certainly embodied. But that type of prayer is only one of many options, yes? There are prayers of celebration that involve song, dance, feasting; there are prayers of contemplation that involve walking and listening; there are prayers of renewal that even involve sleep and rest.

Does that help? I am sorry if I wasn't more clear about that. I am grateful for your questions - they help me become clearer. Many blessings on your retreat. I LOVE retreat centers as a rule and the rock garden sounds awesome.

Be gentle and kind to yourself on this retreat, ddl. And let me know if this helped or hindered, ok>
ddl said…
Yes, that helps. You know what would really help? Maybe making a list of options. So that when one particular option doesn't "work" anymore for us, or for that particular Sabbath, then there is another option. It's odd-- as creative as I can be, sometimes I have trouble envisioning other Sabbath "options." So, there is a labyrinth here...and I hope to use it later after a phone appt. with Spiritual Director. But these things aren't available 24/7 on demand. So, I have to find other ways...add young children to the mix and limited time and a solo parish calling, well, you see my point. I'd love to "feast" but most of my meals are just me and the kids (which is why communion takes on a new resonance). To me, right now, it's like trying to build new Sabbath habits with realistic ways to participate. So-- your blog-- a kind of Sabbath moment. And other blogs I have discovered. But this is still leaning heavily into the intellectual play space... I think of a monk in a book that I read (I can't remember the title but it was written by someone in MA) and this monk made eating just one M&M a Sabbath. It was funny how the narrator in the book observed this, and how it drove the narrator crazy...but the monk had mastered something very special. Just one savory M&M candy...and he really enjoyed it. That is a place I'd like to go. Sometimes my husband and I shared this. Just one beautiful song. Just one handhold. Just one kiss or one fleeting and precious moment. But if you live in your head, it's hard to suddenly become "tactile" again. To use all of your senses to slow down -- not in an obsessive or consuming way, but in a savory way...just one M&M. I wish that I could remember the name of the book...a guy travels unwittingly with this buddist monk and he learns a lot along the way about himself -- and Sabbath too.
ddl said…
RJ-- The book that I refer to was/is called "Breakfast with the Buddha" -- I remember it being very good as it highlighted the narrator's interaction with a deeper spirituality as they traveled together.
ddl said…
RJ-- Just to revise something that I wrote-- I didn't like the part about 24/7 Sabbath "on demand" -- it sounds like consumer mentality and that wasn't my intent. What I mean is that we are habituated to find Sabbath in certain ways...and those "ways" may not always be available (ie church may not meet during the week). So the challenge is to open our eyes (and bodies?) to other ways of meeting this hunger in healthy ways, but sometimes, try as one might, you just can't see options or perceive what is right in front of your face because you've not considered that option before in that particular way...So, maybe that is finding Sabbath in dancing alone around a room, or walking to get the mail, or whatever. But you can't slow down to see these as options because you have forgotten how to dance or you rush to get the mail as an obligatory part of the day... Does that make sense? Sometimes seeing a list or making a list helps to see what we have taken for granted or how we have habituated (can't find the right word) or bled out the beauty of the everyday.

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