Video for July 27th, 2023
Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video. This is the last one until September. I think a break is a good thing.
The Bible doesn’t have much of a concept of holidays. In a poor agrarian society, the thought of going away for a few weeks break would have been inconceivable. That’s true for most people for most of history and for a significant proportion of our contemporaries. But it does have a lot to say about sabbath. Many people today work like nutcases and then have an expensive holiday to unwind and re-charge. Its unsurprising that the benefits of that pattern dissipate pretty quickly after coming back. The sabbath is one of the greatest gifts our Jewish forbears in faith have bequeathed to us. It was one of their great national characteristics. In Israel a few years ago, I was invited to the traditional Friday evening Shabbat meal at a house in Jerusalem. It is a family and community event. It is framed in comforting familiar ritual and sets the scene for 24 hours of rest and restoration: physical, emotional and spiritual. The old testament commands not just that personal rhythm but even for the earth itself. In Leviticus 25: 4, they are told to give the land a sabbath rest every seventh year. Every seven sabbath cycles on the 50th year not only is the land to be given a rest but a great celebration – the Jubilee, was given to restore property to its family owners and free captives. It was a system that recognised the rich always get richer and the poor get poorer, and that once that is established social divisions become entrenched. It is unlikely, sadly, that such radical wealth distribution was ever really enacted. As an agronomist during times of agricultural surpluses 30 years ago (remember butter mountains and wine lakes!) an enforced fallow period, set aside, reminded us how such fallow periods benefitted yields the year following.
“Wayne Muller said, “If we do not allow for a rhythm of rest in our overly busy lives, illness becomes our sabbath. Our heart attacks and accidents create sabbath for us.” Sabbath is not necessarily the same as Sunday or a day off. The key is in what you do with it. It can be a sanctuary in time as Ruth Haley Barton described it. To stop is honour the limits of our humanness. We have physical limits of strength and energy and they have to be regularly re-charged if we are not to burn ourselves out.
At a licencing service earlier this week, we read from Luke’s account of his visit to Mary and Martha’s house. Martha is the driven activist, running about the house to prepare meals and be a great host. Mary is the quiet contemplative sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to his every word. Jesus’ response to Martha’s complaint that her sister isn’t helping is not a critique of her servant heartedness per se, merely its motivation. Without Martha Jesus doesn’t get fed, but without Mary work can spiral down into frantic activism: running around, overwhelmed with busyness, but not achieving very much.
I wonder if Martha is clinging on to a sense of her own indispensability. Had she paused for a moment, her self-sufficiency might have been pierced; her activist hardness melted and she might have been ushered in to a place of trust. As the graveyards of England are full of indispensable people.” A rhythm of sabbath can help us move from rest to delight to gratitude and finally to worship. But setting that rhythm requires work. It needs us to organise our time to keep our work bounded in the other six days. In the 24 hour period itself we don’t work. I think that ideally includes electronic devices and social media. I say that rather hypocritically, as I’m rubbish at turning them off. Perhaps we should be circumspect about buying and selling and ideally take a break from worry. Sabbath should be a time for resting the body, replenishing the Spirit and restoring the soul. A time of slowing down to have time for others, and most importantly, time for God.
I hope you all have a really good summer. Even if you aren’t going away, it could be a time when the demands of others are lower, to practice a sabbath rhythm yourself. We are all far less indispensable than we might think.