Sermon: Sabbath is meant for everyone

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 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, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15

My sermon from 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (June 2, 2024) on Deuteronomy 5:12-15.


Today’s first reading from the book of Deuteronomy can feel a little bit repetitive. It is, after all, repeating what we first heard way back in the book of Exodus. At that point in the biblical story, God had freed the Isrealites from slavery and gathered them together at the foot of Mt. Sinai. For four hundred years, the Egyptians had controlled their work and their rest. So God, through the ten commandments, invited them into a new way of being in the world. Deuteronomy, though, took place 40 years after that moment – and Moses knew he wasn’t going to be with the community once they crossed into the land of Canaan. These words then are primarily a series of messages and sermons Moses wanted the people to hold onto – especially those who were born after they were enslaved. So Moses gathered the community together to hear – once again – the Ten Commandments. And we’d expect this moment to simply be Moses repeating words he had already shared. On one level, he did exactly that – recalling the shared promises they were drawn into such as don’t make idols, don’t steal, and don’t bear false witness against their neighbors. But Moses wasn’t interested in only doing what he had always done. And so rather than merely repeating why the sabbath came to be through the work God did during the story of creation, Moses expanded it to speak to those moments when rest isn’t an option. The sabbath doesn’t simply break up our week. The sabbath is meant to be an interruption that shows us who God imagines us to be. 

Now Professor Julián Holguín, in a commentary about this passage, pointed to two stylistic changes that expanded what the sabbath is all about. He noted that when the sabbath first appeared in Exodus, the community was invited to remember it. This remembrance was always more than simply thinking about it but it does seem to treat the sabbath as a kind of object or thought we hold in our head. Moses, though, changed the words – telling the community to observe it. The sabbath wasn’t merely something we hold in our hearts or our heads. That sabbath is something we do and live. It’s a moment in time when put into practice the art of not working – and this not working isn’t only for us. Moses, while describing who gets to stop, added to that invitation the ox, the donkey, and every animal in the field. This break in the week wasn’t only meant for those who had the opportunity, the resources, and the wealth to take a day off. It’s also meant for the enslaved; those of lower social classes; those who came from somewhere else; and even the creatures we use for our food and our lives. God tells everyone to just stop. You, as you are, shouldn’t turn in that spreadsheet that was due last Friday or make that one more phone call trying to fill your sales quota for the month. You shouldn’t take on that extra bit of uncompensated work you think will show your boss how much you care about your job. God, instead, tells you to stop – because your worth isn’t only defined by what you do. This invitation, though, isn’t only for you. The gift of rest – according to Moses – is also a gift meant  for everyone that happens on the exact same day. The rest we take is a rest meant for the gas station attendant who filled up our car before church and also for the undocumented line cook who will prepare our meal during brunch. The rest God imagines for us is a rest meant for everyone else too. And when we make others serve us while we take our break; we’re not really observing the sabbath even if we made it to worship that day. The sabbath, when practiced fully and completely, breaks the cycle that says God’s creation – and everything a part of it- is only valued through the ways it supports us. And instead of letting the community fall into that kind of trap – one they experienced during their long history of enslavement when resting wasn’t an option – Moses grounded the command to live out the sabbath in the kind of future God imagined for all. God’s beloved children aren’t only worth a break; they’re also invited to make sure others get their own kind of break too. 

Now what we should take a break from has been an ongoing conversation since God first gathered those people around Mt. Sinai. It’s a debate we’ve never truly resolved since what we do – and what we ask others to do – always changes. We typically focus the conversation on what we – as individuals or as families do: such as our never-ending-to-do list or how travel teams impact our ability to regularly attend Sunday worship. It’s a conversation that centers us rather than imagining what life might look like if everyone – and everything – could simply rest. Even Jesus, near the very beginning of his public ministry as depicted in the gospel according to Mark, was caught up in the same kind of conversation since the Greco-Roman world didn’t have a weekend. Observing the sabbath was one of the ways the Jewish community practiced their faith out loud. And it was incredibly at odds to be the kind of people who stop while surrounded by a culture that defined people based on what they do and what they could get from others. When anything other than God’s love and grace becomes the primary way we define ourselves and others, we end up falling into the trap that claims certain people, rather than others, are the ones who are truly worthy. Jesus, and those around him, were doing their part of not falling into that trap by engaging in an ongoing conversation about what the sabbath is all about. And while their answers to that question were a bit different, they were all living into the bigger question of what life looks like one God has claimed us as God’s own. It’s a question we keep living into even as new ideas, new technologies, new languages, and new cultures shape what the sabbath might mean. And while taking a break isn’t something all of us can currently do – the promise at the heart of Jesus’ words – is a promise meant for you. The work you do or can do isn’t the limit of who you are. Rather, you are shaped and defined and held by a God who claims you as God’s own. I’ll admit that, most weeks, I don’t rest as much as I should. I struggle to not only claim the sabbath but also to help others live into that sabbath too. It’s so hard to imagine the kind of rest for myself that would enable others to rest too. Yet the Jesus who lived, died, and rose for you doesn’t choose to see us only through the work we do or the value and wealth we create in the world or even through the rest we claim for ourselves and others. Rather who we are is rooted in who Jesus says we are – and Jesus, in faith and through baptism, has included you as a part of him forever. The purpose, hope, meaning, and promise we have in Jesus invites us to see ourselves, and others, as people worthy of rest, care, and love. And that value isn’t built on what we’ve done but on the Jesus who promises to be with you – forever.