Jason Alexander.blog
Sermons and writing about prayer, camping, bikes, and love.
6-min read

Sabbath

As I’m sure is the case for many of us here, reading the newspaper is a key part of my morning routine. Coffee is, of course, key as well, making the news of all that’s going on in the world somewhat more digestible. This is a morning routine that my parents follow, learned from their parents before them, I’ll bet, and on up the generational line. There are a couple of differences, though, in how this routine gets carried out these days. First of all, the coffee’s different. I’ll admit, mine is a generation of coffee snobs, and you’re more likely to find Starbucks Verona in my cup rather than Folgers. No offense to the traditionalists out there. And the other difference is silence. Instead of opening the front door, picking up the newspaper from the stoop, and shaking it open, eliciting that familiar rustle, I simply pick up my iPad, tap on the New York Times app or Apple News, and swipe from story to story.

Yes, the digital revolution is upon us – enhancing lives yet complicating them at the same time. One distinct enhancement, though, I want to share: consuming the news digitally not only gives the reader the most up-to-date information (no printing press delay), but it also allows readers to interact by observing and contributing to the day’s “trending” topics. Most news apps have a “Most Shared” aggregator, where readers can see the most shared, and presumably, most interesting or relevant stories … not according to the editorial boards, or advertisers, but the readers themselves.

To the armchair social scientist, this reveals some fascinating data. One might think, playing to stereotypes here, that since the New York Times, for example, is a serious paper for serious people, that the most shared stories would be, well, serious. You know, stories on global issues – treatises on the state of the economy or commentary on the latest diplomatic efforts in Ukraine. And those stories do make it to the top, but interestingly the number one most shared stories often have to do with something else entirely. Here are a few headlines I’ve seen: “Looking for Genes for the Secret to Happiness;” “How Exercise Can Help Us Sleep Better;” “Making the Case for Eating Fruit;” “The Seven-Minute Workout;” and somewhat ironically, “Resisting the Siren Call of the Screen: Seeking Balance in a Wired World.”

No, these stories are not about global, national, or economic anxieties, rather they are stories about the personal anxieties of the readers themselves – a revealing glimpse into what seems to be truly important to us. At least important enough to press the “share” icon and send the story to friends or family. And do you notice a theme? Happiness. Better exercise. More sleep. Eating right. Taking a break from our cell phones and the wired world. These are all articles that have to do with a desire to live life in a different way than we currently do. Ever since the 1950‘s, when the term “stress” was coined in reference to an emotional state, we have been trying to find a way out of its relentless grip. Parents are stressed, professionals are stressed, the unemployed are stressed. We are so stressed, or burdened – even debilitated – by our responsibilities that we crave relief. And we share newspaper articles with one another, strategies really, about the latest trick for fixing our fatigue.

And in today’s gospel, we learn that Jesus attends to the same theme. While Jesus was teaching in the synagogue a woman appeared who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. Jesus laid hands on her and called out, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Freedom is an important concept in this gospel. Jesus goes on to convince the skeptics of his right to do healing work on the sabbath (a day of rest enforced by Jewish law) by making the case that just as one would untie, or release, his donkey to lead it to water on the sabbath, one should certainly be permitted to release a suffering person from her bondage.

A popular way to interpret this passage is to see Jesus as a rule breaker, modeling for his followers a more evolved and enlightened lifestyle above and beyond the legalism of Jewish law. The downside of this interpretation is that it seems to give us permission to disregard the sabbath altogether – and that’s something Jesus never intended. On the contrary, Jesus was a great fan of the law, so much so that many of his teachings, including this one, have to do with sharply defining law rather than disregarding it.

And yet, as modern Christians, we have all but lost the sabbath tradition entirely. We are ambivalent about a day of rest and being told what we should and should not do with our time. For many of us, the sabbath amounts to little more than going to church. So we try to fight our exhaustion by swapping the most shared articles about the seven-minute workout and the latest scientifically proven strategy for finding happiness. Maybe it’s time to take another look at this sabbath thing.

Jewish writer Judith Shulevitz decided to write about the sabbath because of her initial ambivalence about observing a weekly day of rest. “I don’t like being told what to do — and don’t like being told how to spend my time,” she says. Shabbat, which means, “to cease” in Hebrew, is traditionally observed in Judaism from sundown on Friday until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday evening. The Talmud lists 39 categories of work that Jews are not allowed to perform on the sabbath, like baking and plowing. The rules have been updated for modern times, so instead of not lighting fires, there are rules about handling electricity. But the basic premise of the rules is the same. We are to stop our work, and acknowledge that we do not have mastery over the world. “For one day a week, you let the world be as it is,” she says. “And you be in it, and try not to dominate it.”

Though they are not particularly religious, Shulevitz and her family decided to give the sabbath a try. They have a traditional Shabbat dinner on Friday nights, and attend synagogue on Saturdays. They spend the rest of day enjoying long meals with friends and taking walks. They refrain from email, video games, and TV. The kids had to find something else to do, and they got used to it. Shulevitz says that even though they don’t follow all of the rules, the family has come to enjoy the sabbath as time of freedom, unburdened by a world otherwise full of distractions.

Our Gospel today reminds us that the sabbath is about healing, be it healing of body, of spirit, or of relationships. And although preferences may vary on the kind of coffee we drink or the way we read the newspaper, one thing will never change – and that is our non-negotiable need for rest and restoration. I can see the headline now, bumping the “Seven-Minute Workout” out of the number one most-shared slot. “The Seventh Day, a Day of Rest: Forget the Science, this Method’s Backed by a Higher Power.” After all, even the One who ordained time in the first place, rested on the seventh day. Amen.

Proper 16, Year C

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