by Kristin Berkey-Abbott
The Narrative Lectionary Readings for Sunday, January 27, 2013:
optional reading: Psalm 92 or 92:4
Many people have never met anyone--anyone--who is serious about keeping the Sabbath. Amongst my friends, I'm seen as an oddity for regularly attending church.
Imagine what modern folks would have made of people like my grandmother. My grandmother believed that there should be no work on Sunday. Of course, her idea of what constituted work was curious. My grandfather, a Lutheran pastor, certainly worked for much of Sunday. My grandmother cooked. But there would be no shopping.
I have a lot of memories I'd like to go back through time so that I could do things differently; I remember insisting on washing my car in my grandmother's driveway one gorgeous Sunday afternoon. It upset her more than I realized that it would, and now I regret it.
We tend to see the Pharisees in this story as the bad guys, and indeed, they do seem to be a legalistic bunch. It's important to remember that they thought that by keeping stern adherence to the purity laws they thought they were keeping the people of Israel safe in various ways. Not only that, they thought that the Messiah would not come until the people were pure enough.
It's not their fault that they didn't realize that the Messiah had come already. Many people don't.
When I was young and had a more free-form life, I, too scorned the Pharisees. I'm sure the Gospel writers made them a bit over the top so that we'd be sure to scorn them.
Now I find myself feeling a bit more sympathetic. It's an essential question: what is the Sabbath for?
Some of us would answer that good Christians need to be in church. But that still doesn't answer the question of why we need to be in church. If church is just one more obligation, particularly one we take on because we think we need to be pure, we have a Pharisee mindset more than a Resurrection mindset.
There are many ways to worship God, and I believe God's happy with what makes us happy. There's something to be said for being out in creation, appreciating God's handiwork, for example. Why gather in a building instead of kayaaking in the Atlantic or watching the sun rise across the mountains?
The answers to this question will be as various as the individuals who gather in the building. But we do know, because of the example of Jesus, that our lives will likely work better if we live them in the midst of good community. At it's best, a gathering in a church building is that good community.
In these days when most people I know are living increasingly frantic lives, I find myself thinking about the Sabbath and the best way to keep it. We can dismiss the Pharisees, but it's important to recognize their lessons for us. We don't want to get so rigid that we make our Sabbath one more kind of duty, obligation, and stress.
But we don't want to be so free-form that we forget to insist on the boundaries that a Sabbath observance can give us. God showed us the importance of rest, from the beginning, with the Creation story that ends in rest. Likewise, Jesus retreats periodically to rest.
We can probably do a better job of rest and retreat. Many of us desperately need to do a better job of rest and retreat. Now might be a good time to adopt an additional spiritual practice that allows us to do that. Maybe we want to declare one day each week to be free of Internet distractions. Maybe we want to reserve Sundays only for church and relaxing with friends and family. Maybe we only want to watch wholesome things on our Sabbath day.
It's good to have boundaries. The Sabbath gives us those boundaries.