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Give It a Rest

Sermon, Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto, August 22, 2010

Jeremiah 1:4–10; Hebrews 12:18–29; Luke 13:10–17


Is today the sabbath?

For some reason, this seems to be a very important issue for a lot of people. Lengthy tracts have been written about it. Heck, reams of civic laws have been based on the matter.

It starts with the fourth commandment. Well, actually, it starts with the creation: on the seventh day, God rested. And if God can take a rest, so can we, eh? (And that’s not just the morning – what are you doing the rest of the day?) Anyway, Hebrew “rest” or “stop working” comes out as shabbath. By the time of the commandments, the practice of taking a day off to rest was well entrenched – it’s referred to in such a way as to imply that it’s already known: “Remember the sabbath day.” But why do we remember it? “To keep it holy.” Not just to watch football; to dedicate one day, at least, to paying attention to something better and more than just working, working, working.

Not that this concept is unique to Judaism and its derivative religions. Buddhism has similar days, between two and six of them each lunar month. Heck, the Babylonians had similar days, where certain kinds of activities were prohibited and one was expected to make an offering to this or that god or goddess. Wiccans have ’em, Baha’is have ’em, [sing] even communistic guys have ’em… [/sing]

But the point is, on the sabbath, you don’t work. You worship. It’s spiritual exercise day. Reconnection day. It’s the Lord’s day!

Ah, and now there’s the thing. Millions of Christians will tell you today is the Lord’s day. Can’t argue with that! Everyone knows it! But then they’ll also tell you that the Bible tells you that you have to honour Sunday, because it says so in the fourth commandment. But it doesn’t.

Look, why is Sunday the Lord’s day? Not because the fourth commandment says so. Not because God rested on Sunday. Oh, no… that was Saturday, the day that in some other languages is called “sabbath”: sábado in Spanish, for instance. On Sunday, the day after the sabbath, Jesus was resurrected. And that’s why Sunday is the Lord’s day. The earliest Christians celebrated on the sabbath, but somewhere in the first couple of centuries the practice came in of celebrating on the day of the resurrection instead. Most but not all Christians therefore go to church on Sunday, and make a sabbath of it. But not all do. Seventh-Day Adventists and a few others don’t. (A co-worker of mine is a member of one such, which is called the True Jesus Church.)

But most modern Christians don’t seem to be aware of this history. Oh, we all know that the Jewish sabbath is Saturday. But the insistence that the fourth commandment means you can’t miss church on Sunday is quite common – I grew up with that idea. The question, though, is “Does it matter which day it is?”

I’ll tell you this: it sure matters a heck of a lot to some people. Those who insist on worshipping on the seventh day are of course quite firm on the point, and it’s easy to find lengthy tracts on the web discoursing on the perfidy and grave error of worshipping on Sunday. God doesn’t make rules just for the fun of them, you know! But on the other side, there are, as we know, many who are quite firm that Sunday is the Lord’s day and the day of rest and so on, and the Bible tells us so.

The whole thing puts me in mind of the word “thou.” Now, there are millions of Christians – and even non-Christians – who believe that the word “thou” is a form of address so respectful, so elevated, it is only suited for God, and God should be addressed no other way. These are typically also people who are firmly fixed on the holy, divine glory of the King James Bible and its perfect phrasing. Give them a more accurate translation and they may react quite badly, as some of us have experienced up close and personal-like. And point out to them that “thou” was actually the equivalent of French “tu” and German “du,” a familiar form of address used for friends and social inferiors, and they will be surprised, at the very least. They may also be resistant.

But so it is with matters of language. People have a whole lot of ideas about what is and isn’t right in language, and what’s a new error and what’s the great old and correct way of saying something. And a great many of those ideas are utterly baseless. In language as in so many other things, “timeless tradition” really just means that it started before you were aware of it, and simple-minded overlays take the place of thoughtful analysis. People will tell you you can’t use “hopefully” as in “Hopefully they’ll stop,” can’t split an infinitive, can’t start a sentence with a conjunction or end one with a preposition, are supposed to say “an historic” rather than “a historic,” and a variety of other invented rules that serve no good purpose to the language, have no real basis in English history or structure, and have been ignored with good effect by many of the most respected users of the language. And on the other hand they’ll inveigh against things they see as gross modern errors, such as various verbings, when in fact many of the things they see as errors have been established in the language much longer than the supposed rules they adhere to so ardently.

And they get so upset about it! It’s very easy to find the implication – or even the overt statement – that someone who breaks this or that supposed rule is inferior, unintelligent, poorly educated, lower class, and so on. Meanwhile, thousands of professional editors shake their heads and roll their eyes, because, being paid to ensure clear, effective communication, they know that language rules exist to serve communication, not vice versa.

But people like rules. And some people seem to like rules quite a lot. The more arbitrary, Byzantine, and inflexible, the better. It gives their lives structure; it also gives them a means of exerting authority, wielding judgement, asserting superiority. Some people deface public signage to correct grammatical errors, just as others sternly denounce those who go to church on the wrong day of the week or go shopping on the Lord’s day. And just as some insist that only certain pairings of persons may make legitimate marriages. Timeless tradition! Don’t mess with my framework of authority!

Now, Jesus didn’t say “To heck with the sabbath. Let’s put in some hours at the office and then go shopping.” No, no, he recognized the value of the sabbath. A day on which to rest and focus oneself on the holy. But, as he said (Mark 2:27), “The sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath.” So even if for six days of the week we go about playing our stupid status games and making up rules to beat each other over the head with – [clear throat] “with which to beat one another over the head” – for one day, we have to let all that fall. Relax. Re-centre. Listen. Enjoy creation as it comes. Follow the spirit, not inhumane interpretations that force people to be less compassionate, less caring, less loving, less open, and that enfranchise small-minded gotcha games. For God’s sake, give it a rest.

And which day should we do that on?

Pick one. And give it a rest!


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