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Keeping the Sabbath

"Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy" — thus reads the beginning of one of the ten commandments. Yesterday marked the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hoshannah. As I thought upon that holy day I considered that Rosh Hoshannah is like an extension of the idea of Sabbath, in Hebrew the seventh day is called shabbat.

The Sabbath, if you are me it sounds like something out of Puritan times. It seems a restriction. In this country, or at least the Southern part of it when I was growing up, the idea of Sabbath held legal restriction. One could not buy alcohol or groceries or clothes or almost anything else on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath when I was a child. It was considered scandalous to hear a lawn mower running on a Sunday morning. I can remember the people in the small Southern town where I went to high school whispering to each other that so-and-so mowed his lawn on a Sunday. It was tantamount to atheism or membership in the ACLU, whichever was worse. When I was a child I was told that I might play on Sunday but that I had to play quietly. I thought that the adults around me really believed that God would strike us down if we made too much noise on a Sunday. God-fearing people in Georgia did not do yard work on the Christian Sabbath nor did they play profane games with cards or dice. As a teenager I learned that some adults did not even make love on the Sabbath. That was what keeping the Sabbath meant to me as a child. It meant a time of some social repression and some small degree of fear.

This interpretation of the Sabbath is totally unlike the Jewish concept of the Sabbath, shabbat. Today, we shall reflect on the spirit of the Jewish concept of shabbat and its possible meaning for our individual lives and our lives in community.

What does shabbat, the Sabbath, mean? If it does not mean the obligatory, repressiveness of Victorian culture then what does it mean? Shabbat is the concept of holy time, time that is given to connect with the source of the Spirit, time that is meant for connection with other, time that is intentionally given for all that is good in life. Shabbat is also the time meant for reflection and synthesis. It's the time for making sense of everything that has happened the other six days of the week, time for bringing together our feelings, time to sort out that which is really pulling at our lives.

Unlike the Puritanical, conservative Christian rules of Sabbath-day that I grew up with in the Deep South, the Jewish idea of shabbat is not a time of restriction or of repression. It is supposed to be a time of joy. As Rabbi Heshel wrote, ". . . the Sabbath is not dedicated exclusively to spiritual goals. It is a day of the soul as well as of the body; comfort and pleasure are an integral part of the Sabbath observance. (Everyone) in his or her entirety, all the faculties must share its blessing."

As I was studying the idea of shabbat I found that it was a social innovation that changed the ancient world. Why would the idea of a Sabbath be so significant? When the Romans met the Jews and noticed their adherence to restraining from labor on the Sabbath, their only reaction was contempt. The Sabbath was a sign of Jewish indolence according to Seneca, Juvenal and other ancient Roman writers.

When Christianity spread through the Mediterranean world it still retained some of its originally Jewish flavor. The early Christians believed in shabbat. Though they began to change the nature of worship and invented new rituals, they retained the idea of shabbat.

Why was that so significant? The peoples in the ancient Mediterranean before the advent of Christianity took off days from labor for the holy days of their faith but no faith took off one day out of every seven. As I learned about the Sabbath I realized that its adoption meant that people who worked seven days a week suddenly had a day off. top

Even slaves and animals had the day off. Slaves in Christian Rome had the Sabbath off and had worked previously for seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. The interpretation of the Sabbath even insured that beasts of burden were to be permitted to rest and to graze one day out of every seven.

The idea of the Sabbath must have been very popular in ancient Rome, especially with the working classes. I suspect that as many people were converted to Christianity by the thought of a day off as they were by Christian theology and Christian ethics. Time off had to be a great marketing ploy for the new faith.

For us in our time though, we need the concept of the Sabbath as much as the ancient people did. Shabbat is not just a day reserved for worship, as it has been practiced in our culture, it was given as a time for earnest reflection and for play, a time to connect with each other. Shabbat is a time to renew one's soul, a time to refrain from working in order just to be with the universe.

A few years ago I saw a program on PBS that illustrated for me the concept of shabbat. I think that it was called Prairie House. Prairie House was a reality show in which people from our time were placed in a sod house on the prairie and asked to live like the original settlers of the region lived. They were not permitted to use modern tools or modern conveniences. It was a very tough reality show.

One of the families featured in Prairie House were a rich couple and their eight to ten-year old son. As the program began we saw how this couple lived. They had a huge house. It was so big that a significant amount of family talk occurred on the house's intercom. That is, they talked on the intercom when they were home because they were so far apart. The parents were busy working hard to afford this ostentatious life style and they rarely had time to spend with each other or with their son.

Like everyone else in the program, this family had a rough time adjusting to living in a dirty, one room home. At the end of the program the people who took part were asked to reflect upon their experience after they had returned to their modern lives.

The boy who lived in the mansion had an interesting reflection. He did not enjoy returning to his modern, convenient home in the suburbs. He wished that they were still living in the sod house on the prairie. Why did he wish that? He wished that because when he was in that sod house, he was with his parents. He was growing up in this huge house, surrounded by toys and many luxuries yet, what that boy really wanted most of all was to be with his parents. Sharing space with them for weeks was paradise to him. They were not called away on the cell phone for business. They did not rush out to spend many hours every day on business. For that time in the prairie house, his family was together — and that was all that that boy wanted.

I think that that boy on Prairie House understood the concept of shabbat. He understood the need to take time off to reconnect with loved ones. I think that he would have understood the need to savor a moment with the universe just by being.

Many people need shabbat. For those in a certain age range, the need for shabbat is even greater. You see this need in those who are between thirty and sixty years of age most especially. They are often caught somewhere in between taking care of children and taking care of parents. Running from soccer practice to their parent's homes. Their days off are busier than their days on. They spend most of their weekends running errands and trying to relax for a few hours — hours that rarely come. Though they do not say it, I imagine that they argue on the weekend because they want the homes they live in now to be as neat and clean as the ones they grew up in — the one in which mother did not work out of the home and had the free time to sit and be with her children. I imagine that this generation experiences the frustration of mixed expectations and roles more than any for many centuries. top

As I have ministered people in that age group in the past I have became aware of the need for a true Sabbath in many of people's lives. Over the course of time I have observed that the only readings that seemed to speak to where so many were actually mentioned the closeness of time. If I found a reading that spoke about living stressful, harried, fast lives, I had people's attention. Readings on more intellectual themes, readings on theological ideas, had little effect. Give a meditation about slowing down or missing out because of the pace of their lives, give a reading about feeling pulled in many directions, and they were listening, they were there.

I do not know all the things that could heal a person's soul. Certainly the pressures that any one of us experiences are unique. Yet, I know of only one thing in all the world that makes sense — shabbat.

For many people going to church is only one part of a very busy day. You are here. I hope that this time will help you. I am grateful for your commitment. The idea of shabbat though goes further than an hour or two on Sunday. It is for the entire twenty-four hour period. No, that does not mean that the Sunday service should be significantly extended. Nor does it mean that we should impose legal restrictions upon commerce and transportation on the Sabbath. Rather, the idea of shabbat is not only about connecting with our values or our God, it is about also connecting with the people who remind us of the creative, inspiring nature of this world. Shabbat is also about connecting with this earth as well so that a walk in the woods is also that needed moment of reflection of prayer.

Sometimes we need to take this concept of shabbat and extend it. It is no surprise therefore that the word "sabbatical" is derived from "Sabbath" or shabbat. A sabbatical is a time for reflection, for re-energizing, for reconnecting differently to the world.

This might mean taking time off from a voluntary position or taking time off from cleaning house. Where is it written that your home has to be vacuumed several times every week? It might even mean taking time away from a relationship, to reflect upon something other than what is present.

In the midst of this though lies the possibility that sometimes one needs to take a sabbatical. Sometimes a person needs to stop doing something and just be.

This seems abstract but it did happen to one of my colleagues in the ministry when she was a layperson in her Unitarian Universalist church. She was active in many, many committees. One year she resigned from her responsibilities and only sang in the choir. People at the church were concerned. Was she angry with someone? Was she wanting to leave? No, she told them. She just needed to take a sabbatical from the work of the church before she became angry or wanted to leave. She took a year off from major commitments and returned later energized and ready to be useful again.

Though this is about church life, it is also about anything. I have observed that those who are retired are as likely sometimes to be over-extended as anyone else. Sometimes, if we can, we need to take the time to reconnect with our life.

That is what shabbat is like. It is a holy time given to our relationship — universe, God, mother, father, sister, brother, children, friends — shabbat at its best, is about taking the time to find that which inspires us, that which we love. When we spend that time with someone or that community that brings joy our lives; when we spend time reconnecting to that which we revere, we are stronger and feel the pulse of the universe all the more.

The Sabbath is not Sunday, nor is it Friday or Saturday. The Sabbath is the time we give to that which is holy in our lives. It is time that we give not only to ourselves but to others as well. It is time spent singing and sometimes spent dancing. It is time feasting with friends and time spent playing with babies on the floor.

Among all the religious bodies in the United States, Unitarian Universalists always test the highest on any measures of the Protestant work ethic, as the German sociologist Max Weber called it. Even though most of us do not identify Protestantism as our theological grounding, Unitarian Universalists tend to rate most highly with the Protestant work ethic. We are people who believe that there are no hands to accomplish the work of the world but our own. We place responsibility upon each individual to develop her or his own theology. We are a people who believe in individual rights and responsibilities. We are a people who want to be useful.

Sometime though, paradoxically, the most important way to be useful is to be useless. At times everyone needs to reconnect with the reason for existing. At times everyone needs just to be rather than to be doing.

As a congregation in the interim transition from one settled ministry to another, I would ask you to reflect on the shifts that you might need to make in leadership. During the interim ministry some move up to leadership positions and others step back from them. This is one of those things that is supposed to happen during the interim ministry. For some, it is a time of taking a sabbatical. For others, it is a time of high activity. Either way, do make the most of our time together — even if that means taking a break.

In closing, let me share with you that I do not share with you the Jewish spirit of shabbat in some sort of self-help, learned kind of way. The need for Sabbath is as important for me as it is for you. I have learned that if I do not take the time just to be that life is ultimately flat, mechanical. But with the spirit of shabbat I revere each person more fully, appreciate this life more completely. And isn't that an important aspect of human existence?

May you find the spirit of the Sabbath in your life. May you take out all is not necessary and replace it with all that it is fulfilling. May your shabbat be a blessing unto to you and unto all the world.

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