Sabbath = The first day, not the last day of the week

March 9, 2023

By Rev. Rick King

As you and I prepare for a period of sabbatical this July through September, what things will make for a REAL REST for our tired bodies, minds, souls, and spirits? Sabbath and sabbatical are both about integrating the rhythms of rest and work into our lives so that they’re in balance. In this series of Sabbath columns, I’d like us to explore the gift of God in the practices of letting-go, hospitality, and resting in God and Creation.

I confess that over my years in ministry, I’ve fallen into the habit of thinking of Sundays as the endpoint of my work week—the goal I aim for, toward which much of my week’s work strives. And for a long time, this impoverished my spiritual life.

Why and how did this happen? Because when I started in ministry, I was under the delusion that the work itself, because it was for the church and supposedly for God, was by its very nature “holy” work. And as long as I believed that, the tasks of ministry theoretically should have nourished my relationship with God and developed my love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control (to quote the “fruit of the Spirit” in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter 5).

When the newness of the work of ministry wore off a few short months into my first ministry position, as an associate pastor in Palatine, Illinois, it soon became an arduous job like any other, and the work week before Sunday all seemed devoted to developing a product for members of the congregation to consume. And Sunday became the last day of the week, rather than the first.

But Sabbath is not so much a specific day as a practice that enables us to be renewed on a regular basis for living the rest of our lives in a balanced, sane way, conscious of God’s love and generosity, and the creation, God’s good earth.

Sabbath is the FIRST day of the week, not the LAST. It’s where we build up the energy to draw from during the rest of the week. In his book, “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives,” Wayne Muller observes that our society’s universal refrain is “I’m so busy!” It’s the way we reassure ourselves of our importance, based on all that we are DOING. He continues, “Despite [our] good hearts and equally good intentions, [our] work in the world rarely feels light, pleasant, or healing. Instead, as it all piles endlessly upon itself, the whole experience of being alive begins to melt into one enormous obligation.”

Is that the way we want to live?

UCC theologian Walter Brueggemann speaks of Sabbath as a subversive act, an act of resistance against the production-consumption economy that drives so much of our lives. He draws a parallel between that and Pharaoh’s production-consumption economy that enslaved the Israelites to achieve its goals of more, more, more, and exalted an earthly Empire above the value of human life and above God.

After Israel was liberated from that slavery and crossed the Red Sea to safety, among the key commandments (and the one the book of Exodus spends the most verses on of the Ten) was that of a day of rest, the Sabbath. It was to be a celebration of not having to work continuously, but have one day NOT devoted to productivity, where the people, their livestock and even the land itself rested from all the work they had to do just to stay alive.

And that Sabbath was a way of beginning the week mindful of how God provided for them apart from all their efforts, and resting in the goodness of God, the creation, and simply being. Sabbath should refresh us, not exhaust us.

Does Sunday at our church right now feel like work, a bunch of tasks—or rest, refreshment, and renewal? And is that the way we want to start our week?