Text: Mark 2:23-3:6

On this first Sunday of what we consider the summer, it’s appropriate that our Gospel story concerns sabbath. Sabbath is an important biblical precept. We have been commanded to keep sabbath. 

There are two versions of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Bible, one in Exodus and the other in Deuteronomy. The Exodus version says to remember the sabbath day and keep it holy because after God created the world in six days, he then rested on the seventh day, and so we should, too. The commandment as written in Deuteronomy says to observe the sabbath to keep it holy as it is the day to remember that God delivered the people out of slavery in Egypt. Both versions declare that this remembrance/observance means that on the seventh day, we should do no work. Instead, we should rest.

What constitutes “work” has been a debated topic ever since Moses came down from the mountain with those tablets. Is “doing good” work? But still an appropriate Sabbath undertaking? Or is “doing good” an activity that is not work but a joyful extension of God’s generosity to others?

Meanwhile, the concept of “rest” has been downgraded from a commandment and holy activity of God to a poor excuse for lazy people or a feature of decrepitude or a sign that someone just isn’t up to dealing with life.

And then there’s the undeniable truth that our society expects everything to go go go 24/7/365. We’re supposed to be productive. We’re supposed to be “on.” We’re supposed to get things done and be hard workers and never let up. This is what our society values now. Not rest. Not reflection. 

Even clergy sabbaticals, if they are to be funded by a foundation, are supposed to entail a project, a product, a proof that the time was well spent. If you want to just rest on your sabbatical, then you have to pay for it yourself.

But here we are at the beginning of the time we call summer vacation (even if we are not on vacation and it’s not yet summer) and Jesus asks, what’s the sabbath for, anyway? Isn’t it about holiness? Isn’t it about reaching out to God, who calls to us over the noise of the world?

Sure we have stuff to do. People to see, places to go, home repairs to do, papers or legal briefs or memos to write. And many of us don’t have the luxury of taking a day to rest on Sunday or any other day. I work on Sunday. Some clergy say that their day off is their sabbath but that often means that that’s their day to go to Target or regrout the bathroom tile or write their sermon. Young parents don’t get to just lie down in the yard and look up at the clouds all afternoon while the kids are indoors drawing with crayons on the new dining room wallpaper.

But we must take time to rest, for our bodies, our minds, and our souls. We need time for reflection. We need time to just be. We need time to remember our blessings and be grateful for them. We need time to look at the flowers or lie in the shade and read a book for the pure pleasure of it. Our world and the way we live now doesn’t make it easy to stop, but glorifies busy-ness and productivity. Our world doesn’t make it easy to pay attention and stretch out our own hands towards God to be healed of the things that have eaten away at us and diminished us. But we must take the time or we will wither ourselves.

Last year on my (self-funded) sabbatical I visited the French city of Le Puy en Velay, where the most popular French pilgrimage route to Santiago (via the Way of St. James) begins. Ancient volcanic activity in that area resulted in a few tall skinny outcroppings of hardened magma, creating platforms for statuary or buildings. One such building is the chapel of St. Michael of the Rock, a 10th century church perched on top of a nearly 1000 foot tall volcanic plug. 

To get up to the chapel, one has to climb 268 steps that are carved into the rock. I pondered this awhile - I really really wanted to go up and see the chapel’s 10th century frescoes and I really really dreaded the effort that I knew it was going to take to get up there. But the helpful person at the entry said that along the way there were a few benches where one could stop to catch one’s breath. So I paid my six euros and started up the steep climb.

When I got to the first bench, I almost passed it by, but then decided to stop and sit. The bench was situated so that while seated, one could gaze into a small but lovely garden space dedicated to Archangel Raphael. It was a nice view. I decided I didn’t need to hurry. After a while, I started out again, and the next bench afforded a gorgeous vista out over the city of Le Puy. This was worth a stop, I thought. So I sat and enjoyed that view for a little while as well. The last bench was on the other side of the rock, where one could gaze out into the countryside. I lingered there as well. 

A couple coming down from the chapel stopped and said to me, you’re practically at the top now! They were friendly but the unasked question was, so why are you stopping here? I smiled and said, that’s good, thank you. And I lingered a little while longer.

The church was a wondrous place. It was worth the climb. The frescoes were fascinating and the atmosphere inside was so cool and quiet and sacred and holy. After all, people had been saying their prayers in this place for more than a thousand years. Among the ancient paintings, there is a faint one of a man reaching out to touch the hand of another man. There’s also a painting of the hand of God, reaching out to touch and restore the weary soul of a climber of 268 rocky steps. 

We must take the time or we will wither ourselves. Sabbath time is necessary. Sabbath time is holy. Sabbath time is commanded by God. Even a few hours, even a few minutes of rest to remember and be grateful and truly see all the loveliness that God has surrounded us with, will bring us joy and peace.