Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:23-28)
June 3, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
A few years ago The Economist posted a fascinating article entitled “In Search of Lost Time: Why Is Everyone So Busy?” The article begins:
“Our grandchildren”, reckoned John Maynard Keynes in 1930, would work around “three hours a day”—and probably only by choice…Whizzy cars and ever more time-saving tools and appliances guaranteed more speed and less drudgery in all parts of life. Social psychologists began to fret: whatever would people do with all their free time? (December 20, 2014).
Twenty years later in 1950, The Associated Press made this prediction: “Tell your children not to be surprised if the year 2000 finds a 35-hour or even a 20-hour work week fixed by law.” So this morning, in 2018, let me ask you, “How’s your 20 hour work week going?” Technological advances have also created lots of free time for you, right? Not so much…back to The Economist article:
Everybody everywhere seems to be busy. In the corporate world, a “perennial time-scarcity problem” afflicts executives all over the globe, and the matter has only grown more acute in recent years…These feelings are especially profound among working parents. As for all those time-saving gizmos, many people grumble that these bits of wizardry chew up far too much of their days, whether they are moldering in traffic, navigating robotic voice-messaging systems or scything away at e-mail—sometimes all at once (December 20, 2014).
Can you relate? In spite of all these predictions of fewer work hours and all the technological advances and time-saving gadgets, the reality is that we are still pressed for time. And even more significantly, we are overworking ourselves on a pathological level. Several years ago in an article for Forbes magazine writer Melanie Haiken asked: “Would you leave the office at a decent hour if you knew that long hours at your desk could, quite literally, be killing you?” She continued:
Studies in Denmark and England followed completely different groups of workers—with the only common denominator being a high stress factor—and came up with similar results. In England, British civil servants who worked more than ten hours a day were found to be 60 percent more likely to develop heart disease or have a heart attack than people who clock just seven hours a day…Meanwhile, a team following nurses in Denmark discovered that those who rated themselves as feeling “too much” pressure at work had a significantly higher risk of developing angina or myocardial infarction…leading the researchers to point out that stress appears to override everything else (August 23, 2011).
In other words, the combination of being overworked and overstressed is literally deadly. I have presided at many funerals for people who died much younger than they could have because of overwork and overstress. At the funeral receptions, amidst the ubiquitous deviled eggs and chocolate chip cookies and ham biscuits and fruit punch, I hear about what “hard workers” these people were. Being a hard worker is great, but in the hundreds of deathbed visits I have done over the years, not once has anyone ever told me they wished they had worked more. They have shared many regrets with me, particularly about broken relationships in their lives that they wish weren’t broken, but never the regret of not working more.
And yet we pride ourselves on working ourselves to death. In the classic television show The Office Rainn Wilson played the neurotic Dwight Schrute, who prided himself as being a hard worker—so much so that he made a self-promotional poster featuring his picture with his name as an acrostic: “D-Determined, W-Worker, I-Intense, G-Good Worker, H-Hard Worker, and T-Terrific.” We all know people like Dwight Schrute, and sometimes we ourselves are just like him.
When I was in college I heard a preacher once proclaim: “Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on you.” That sounded great to an idealistic and driven twenty-year-old, and for years I did just that—prayed as if everything depended on God and worked as if everything depended on me (and yes, sometimes I still revert to this). But this is not only dangerous and oxymoronic, it is also unbiblical. Scripture tells us, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain…It is vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil” (Psalm 127:1-2).
Along these lines, the scriptures appointed for today are full of good news for the overworked and overstressed, good news for those whose diet often includes “the bread of anxious toil,” good news for those who never seem to have enough time.
In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, Moses, nearing his death, recapitulated to Israel the law of God, including the most overlooked of the Ten Commandments: “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.” Why did God command this? Because God had already done this most important work for Israel: “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). Notice that none of the Ten Commandments has anything to do with work, because most of us overwork ourselves, but the fourth commandment has to do with rest, because most of us do not rest enough.
In today’s gospel lesson Jesus takes this a step further, as Mark wrote:
One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And (Jesus) said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:23-28).
The incident Jesus refers to here is from an Old Testament passage in which David, who had earlier killed Goliath and delivered Israel from the Philistines, was fleeing for his life, because King Saul was out to kill him. David went to Ahimelech the priest and asked for bread, and Ahimelech responded, “I have no ordinary bread at hand, only holy bread” and yet “the priest gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence” (1 Samuel 21:1-6).
In the midst of being over-stressed and overworked, in the midst of the time of his life literally running out, David went to the house of God for bread, and was freely given “the bread of the Presence.” And that is what Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, offers you every week at church in Holy Communion. “The sabbath was made for humankind,” Jesus said, “and not humankind for the sabbath.” Your relationship with God is not a homework assignment (you already have enough homework assignments), your relationship with God is a gift from the Lord of the Sabbath.
On December 8, 1980, John Lennon, who had received much bad press for his recent reclusive lifestyle, was shot and killed outside of his apartment building in Manhattan. A few months later my favorite song from his final album, Double Fantasy, a song entitled “Watching the Wheels” was posthumously released:
People say I’m crazy doing what I’m doing
Well, they give me all kinds of warnings to save me from ruin
When I say that I’m okay, well, they look at me kind of strange
“Surely, you’re not happy now, you no longer play the game”
People say I’m lazy, dreaming my life away
Well, they give me all kinds of advice designed to enlighten me
When I tell them that I’m doing fine watching shadows on the wall
“Don’t you miss the big time, boy. You’re no longer on the ball”
I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go
God’s commandment to remember the sabbath and rest, is an invitation to step off the merry-go-round one day a week, to be reminded that your relationship with God, like your life itself, is a gift, not a homework assignment. When you work yourself to death, you forget that, and you find yourself on a never ending treadmill that goes faster and faster, defies your time-saving gadgets, and leaves you feeling more and more stressed and more and more behind. The sabbath is a reminder that God is the one who keeps the world turning, not you. It is a commandment that offers not only rest, but also a restored perspective.
Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, was born in Bethlehem, which in Hebrew means “House of Bread.” After his miracle of the feeding of the five thousand Jesus proclaimed, “I am the bread of life…I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:35 and 51).
And on Good Friday, Jesus, the Bread of Life and the Lord of the Sabbath, did just that when he gave his flesh for the life of the world on Calvary. In same way God had delivered Israel from centuries of slavery in Egypt with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” Jesus delivered you from slavery to sin and death with his mighty hands nailed to a cross and his outstretched arms reaching out to a world working itself to death. And after his body rested in the tomb on the sabbath, Jesus was raised on Easter Sunday, because the Lord of the Sabbath is also the Resurrection and the Life.
You see, the good news of the gospel is that the most important work in the world, the atoning work of your eternal salvation, has already been done by Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath. And to help you remember that in a tangible way Jesus instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion at the Last Supper—“This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me…This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25).
In other words, you remember the sabbath and keep it holy by remembering the Lord of the Sabbath and his completed saving work for you, by receiving anew the Bread of Life, “the bread of the Presence.”
So even as you climb back onto the merry-go-round, even as you continue to pray as if everything depended on God but work as if everything depended on you, even as you continue to eat “the bread of anxious toil,” remember that the most important work of your eternal salvation has already been done by Jesus Christ.
And Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, even now, beckons you, “Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).