Sabbath: Care and Feeding of the Soul

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Some sermons start with a question; a few start with an answer.  My sermon this morning is some of both: a question and an answer but an answer that can be deeper than we know and hard to live into.  Hard enough to live into that I’ll be honest and say I’m not at all where I wish to be on this answer – but because it’s something many of us wrestle with, and because it’s an opportunity that is always with us, it’s important to lift this up.  In some ways comes down to work/life balance writ large, but maybe it’s more accurate to say this is about life/life balance, ordinary life and spiritual life.

Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word Shabbat, which means ‘rest.’  Where does this idea of a day of rest come from? The earliest reference is in Deuteronomy 5:14:

“But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.  On it, you shall not do any work, neither you nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female slave, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your livestock, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest, as well as you.”

There is so much in that one verse, I could do a month of sermons on it, a whole book, on details and implications of that verse in its original context, and the way many religions and practices built on it, not only Judaism and Christianity but also Humanist practices and some Zen Buddhism teachers who see connections between the awareness and intention that is part of Sabbath practice, and awareness and intention at the heart of Zen.  But right now what I’ve got is this morning, and a necessarily narrower focus but still, strap in.

What a way to define Sabbath – focusing not on the elite, but the underclass – foreigners and slaves.  Deuteronomy, of course, comes out of an ancient oral tradition, but it was set down in writing about 600 BCE.  Slavery had long been pervasive in the ancient near east – in every country, culture and people.  Nobody worried about it.  You just had to hope your side didn’t lose a battle.  And everyone understood slavery the same way.  The whole point has always been that a slave has no rights – your life belongs to another and they do what they want with you.  Then came this extraordinary declaration that claimed access to sacredness for slaves, not just the right to engage the sacred, but arguably by extension, some selfhood, for slaves – and for foreigners which meant, of course, people who weren’t even Jewish, bound by Jewish practice – they too were to have this day for themselves – and then even oxen and donkeys, livestockall creatures.  Everyone living as part of the interdependent web of existence as we Unitarian Universalists like to put it, every living one deserved a day of rest, and time to be rather than do.  That’s some radical, justice-making, soul-affirming theology.

It’s extraordinary.  But of course, that’s the very nature and purpose of Sabbath as a concept, as an experience – it is necessarily extra-ordinary, necessarily outside the ordinary, time unlike any other time, ‘time to be rather than do’ – which is still the essence of Sabbath all these millennia later.  Because while Shabbat means rest, Sabbath is not just about respite.  It’s not just a time to zone out or grab the equivalent of a quick nap for our spirit. For my money, the best take on Sabbath is in The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man by the great religious scholar R. Abraham Heschel, published back in 1951.  Its gendered language is pretty much the only thing I could critique; the book is brief and brilliant and accessible – a rare combination.  In it, R. Heschel points out that religions often consecrate places and things that happen in those places.  But for the Sabbath, it doesn’t matter where you are, it matters how you are.  Holiness is about how we spend our time rather than how we fill our space.  Now, physics teaches us to think about space and time as two expressions of physical existence, inherently related, as with the space-time continuum, within which, as you may know, time slows or speeds up for an object depending on how fast it is moving through space.  But for R. Heschel, space was defined as “technical civilization,” something we conquer, or gain, a venue for power.  And we exercise that power or make those gains by sacrificing, as he saw it, “an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time…”.  This is a problem because, as he wrote, “to have more does not mean to be more.  The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time.  But time is the heart of existence.”  Which makes sense, right – whatever the circumstances of our life, we all lead lives bounded by time and nothing can change that.

Now when R. Heschel suggests we need to pay more attention to time, which is what observing a Sabbath requires us to do, he wasn’t suggesting that we ignore, or throw up our hands, about worldly matters.  He knew that exerting control of the world of space is necessary in human living.  That’s what the other 6 days of the week are for.  But he also saw that those 6 days can dominate our consciousness such that we lose awareness of the sacred realm of time “where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.”  Because the higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information but to face sacred moments.

That’s such a critical insight for us Unitarian Universalists, both because we are a worldly faith that doesn’t always find as much time as we want for spiritual experience, and because part of what defines us is our passion for information and understanding.  You may have heard that joke about the Unitarian Universalist who dies and comes to consciousness in the next life.  Before them are two paths, one labeled “Heaven” and the other “Discussion Group About Heaven.”  You can guess which path the Unitarian Universalist automatically starts down.

Our commitment to knowledge and understanding is part of our DNA – it is part of why we embrace science, part of why our faith has always been expansive, respectful and progressive.  But it isn’t the whole of our faith – another part of our faith – something that keeps us from being instead simply a philosophy – is that many of us experience or seek experience beyond our knowledge and understanding.  As R. Heschel points out, – putting words to spiritual experience which is a very difficult thing to do -during a religious experience what we encounter is not a tangible thing … but a spiritual presence.  What is retained in the soul following that experience is the moment of insight, a moment that is a treasure, “transporting us beyond the confines of measured time.”

Facing sacred moments, engaging them, puts us into that heart of existence, takes us out of measured time and into sacred time.  And those moments of insight, awareness, communion, or revelation are a fortune, a treasure, they do transport us beyond the confines of minutes and hours and schedules and ticking clocks; they are transcendent, as our own Unitarian forebears put it.  These moments of sacred experience are the harvest that is sown when we plan ourselves in sacred time and see what can grow in us, with us, what comes when we free ourselves of all the alarms and clocks and ordinary preoccupations to give ourselves divine rest that is so elusive, so difficult to preserve and protect, so challenged and denied by so much in this world of space that needs us to manage and fix and do.  But – when we do enter that sacred time, remember the words of our reading?  We enter a period of sacred stasis; the heartbeat of repose may suffuse the mind and limbs of one’s being and generate an inner balance poised on quietude and a settled spirit.  We let go of the thousand pictures filling our heads, our minds flying a mile a minute even as our limbs and our spirits are weary, weary sometimes beyond reckoning –we give ourselves over, we let go of so much – the treasure we cannot compel, we can only invite and make room for it, the treasure then may come to us….


Oh all we hear and cannot say, all we feel and cannot speak, how it moves in us and how we move with it body and soul.  The communion of music, of voices in the choir, of choir and listeners, of all our spirits as the sounds wind around and through us like bands of colors in the air, sacred as any prayer, making a Sabbath within our Sabbath for all of us here in this time apart who receive the blessing, the sacred moment.

Surely music is often one of those gifts that brings us into sacred time. We think but we are beyond thought. We feel, and we are beyond words. We move to the music, and our movements are the only expression, only response, we can summon.  We are not asleep; we are awake in a different way, a way we seek and welcome just as we do our biological answer to a long hard day.  Sabbath is our theological answer to long hard days.

Making music.  Reading, writing, talking, thinking.  Holding silence.  Meditating or praying, walking mindfully, communing with the larger world in whatever way you can.  Play – remember play?  Play even for adults.  Getting off the phone, off the commute, off the clock, offline, out of meetings, out of the kitchen and out of the office.  It’s time to go be.  Making love is a sacred Sabbath observance, the rabbis all agree.  So is study and learning.  So is gathering with friends or family.  So is lighting candles and gathering to worship in community.  So is saving a life, even if saving that life requires doing some of those things we’re supposed to be free of at this time of spiritual living.  But maybe sometimes, engaged in Sabbath, the life we are saving is our own.

And maybe time doesn’t just limit us; maybe it reflects us.  R. Heschel talks about time the way a lot of folks talk about people. Would it help us value our time differently, hold it sacred, do better at making time for the sacred, if we thought of time the way we think of people?  He writes: “There are no two hours alike.  Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.”  For us Unitarian Universalists who affirm that every human being has inherent worth and dignity – what if we thought that way about time – how would we treat time then – if we really leaned into that?

Many of us need more Sabbath, and yes, including retirees, especially retirees. Many of you tell me that retirement has not yielded the kind of expansive time you anticipated, at all.   Many of us get very little Sabbath. Some get none at all. Some of us can’t even imagine it.   My hope is that we can at least think of it, but frankly, that we can also do a lot more than that — that we can abandon the path of discussion groups about Sabbath and take a path that offers us some actual Sabbath.  And by Sabbath I don’t mean just an hour we hastily or occasionally grab, but a real practice, a commitment, a whole day, a day we don’t just aspire to but claim, and live in, as fully and mindfully as we could wish.  A lot of Unitarian Universalists wish for this, not a lot of us who manage it.  And time is passing – let’s not wait, and let’s not settle for carving out an hour, adding some wedge of time to an already overfull schedule. Or worse, we set aside the time, and in the end we use it to meet all the routines and commitments and urgencies we couldn’t squeeze in before.  I’ve done that – have you done that?  R. Heschel figured we might. Way back in 1951, he wrote, pointedly: “Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of …work.” And hey, remember, back in Deuteronomy – even if we were beasts of burden – say, an ox or maybe a donkey – both famed for their bearing of burdens – even they, specifically, are prescribed, are owed, this experience of Sabbath.

It’s easy to agree with this in principle.  It’s much harder to enact.  But if this is what we yearn for – and many do – then we need to find some room to shift some of who and how we are into a Sabbath-inclusive model.  That’s not easy – but nothing radical ever is, and Sabbath, remember, has always been radical. And everything worth doing has to start somewhere, imperfectly, and full of possibility.  So here are my questions for your own reflection, and not just reflection but discussion and not just discussion but action:

  1. Do you want some Sabbath in your life?
  2. What would that look like for you? – Music, meditation, playing, walking, reading, thinking, writing, talking, gathering, eating, making love, making food, making life, what do you want for your Sabbath?
  3. What will you do to make room for your Sabbath in your life?
  4. This all comes down to time, unique and precious time we will never see again in our time-bounded lives – when will you start?