The Practice of Saying No
In our gospel this Sunday, Jesus gets a report from his disciples on "all that they had done and taught." They had been so busy that there had not been time to eat. Sound familiar? Where was the fast food? So Jesus invites them to go with him to a deserted place all by themselves and "rest a while…." "Rest a while" echoes something deep in Jesus Jewish bones, the practice of resting on the Sabbath.
The commandment about the Sabbath is the longest of the ten commandments. In his book on the Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joseph Heschel, says that the Sabbath is the only one of God's creations called holy. Everything else is called "good." Only the Sabbath is called "holy." The blessedness of time preceded the blessedness of people. The people weren't sanctified until they became the chosen people. Places were not sanctified until the tabernacle. The Sabbath was the first and truest medium of God's presence and holiness.
Heschel says the Sabbath is the first and truest medium of God's presence in creation. Observing the Sabbath has always kept God's people from being absorbed by the alien cultures where they resided. The Sabbath commandment came long before the rest of the commandments. Even as slaves in Egypt, they observed Sabbath.
For six days of the week, they belonged to Pharaoh, but on the Sabbath, they were free men, women and children who belonged only to God. The Sabbath was not a day simply for recovering their strength. It was not free time. It was freedom time. It was time to recover their identity, time to remember who and whose they were.
Later, there were 234 specific tasks prohibited on the Sabbath. The basic idea was to cease and desist from all acts of creation, to stop competing with God, to stop helping God, so that we might remember that the world was created by God totally without us. The world would be preserved, at least until a new week began, without us. The Sabbath was a mandated gift, a gift we were commanded to enjoy.
In a world where multi-tasking is prized, I remember the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth who said, "A being is free only when it can determine and limit its activity." That determination and limitation is built into the creation story at the beginning of the Bible and is the Fourth Commandment.
Alexis de Tocqueville observed Americans observing the Christian Sabbath in 1840 and wrote that, "Not only have all ceased to work, but they appear to have ceased to exist." One hundred and twenty years later the Sabbath would be all but gone in American life, giving way to longer and longer work weeks and the rise of consumerism.
I have a modest Sabbath vision for Sundays. I like to go home after worship, take a nap, and do as little as possible the rest of the day. It means I'm often saying no to a lot of other things I could be doing: not working, not shopping, not worrying. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Altar in the World titles her chapter on Sabbath as the Practice of Saying No.
What would it be like to stay home once a week, turn off the computer and lay down all the devices? Not because you are sick but because you are well. Talk to and play with those you love, take a nap, go for a walk, read a book, spend an hour eating. You have been commanded to take the time to be good for nothing. Meister Eckhart said, "God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting."