“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; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” Exodus 20:8-11
It’s hard to think of a command repeated more often in the Hebrew Bible than the instruction to practice sabbath rest. The people of Israel are instructed about sabbath during their wilderness wanderings, reminded of this command before they enter the Promised Land, and reprimanded by the prophets to turn back to this practice when they fall short. Sabbath is meant to be a defining aspect of Israel’s identity. In practicing these scripturally instituted periods of rest, Israel reminds themselves of who they are and their dependence on God.
Sabbath practices and healthy boundaries were an emphasis during my time at seminary. My professors continually reminded my classmates and I of the theological importance of this practice and the value of modeling this for our future congregants. It’s like they knew how hard honoring the sabbath would be in the busyness of church work and the 24/7 world that we live in. Like the people of Israel, I have also failed to practice sabbath rest in the way that I am supposed to.
The Coronavirus pandemic and the global shutdown that it has caused has forced us into new rhythms. For those of us that are socially distancing, working from home, or attending virtual school, we have the opportunity to participate in sabbath renewal. With our options for social and economic engagement limited, we have the chance to do something that is so groundbreaking it might just be a part of our salvation . . . nothing.
That’s right, nothing.
Now, I am about as terrible at this as anyone can be. Constantly on the move, restless, and perpetually productive, I measure my time against what I am able to get done. For folks like me, the sin that prevents healthy sabbath practice is arrogance. The idea that if I am not working that God is not either. This is theologically disastrous and a failure to be appropriately humble as a creature in relationship to my creator.
But sabbath is about more than our personal work-life balance, but is a protection of ecological health and economic justice. The rhythms of sabbath provide rest for the fields, livestock, and laborers as well as land-owning citizens. As creator, God understands better than we do that our world and all of its inhabitants flourish when we are not constantly overworked. There is a certain amount of respect and dignity communicated to all of creation when we take a break.
An image that has emerged during this time of pandemic is that of dolphins returning to the waterways of Venice. Because Italy has shut down in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus, the clarity and quality of the canal water has improved and aquatic wildlife has returned that hasn’t been seen in this busy city for generations.
So what would happen if you turned off your phone, went for a long walk with those that you loved, or paid for the person behind you in the drive through?
I pray that God’s Holy Spirit would transform shelter-in-place into a moment of sabbath rest for you and your family. I pray that you would remember that you are a human being and not a human doing. And I pray that you would join in with all of creation in praise of a God who heals the world if we just give it a break. Amen