National Festival of Young Preachers. Originally published on The Huffington Post.

Let us take a moment to look at what Hebrew Scripture teaches about Sabbath. In Exodus, the longest of the 10 commandments says that we should do all our work in six days but on the seventh we should not do any work, nor should we allow anyone else to work—not our children, not those who serve us, not the resident aliens, not even our livestock and animals. (Exodus 20: 8-11) Everybody gets a day off.

Our scriptures understand it. Our story tells it. But do we imbibe it? Do we speak the language of Sabbath?

"> There is No Rest | Forum for Theological Exploration

There is No Rest

By: Andrew T.  Barnhill
January 14, 2011

Will you pray with me? Merciful God, You hear us. Even in the midst of our business and our preoccupation with anything and everything other than you, you hear us and you love us. May you remind us once again that we are indeed more than our work; that we are indeed of value to you? Oil the hinges of our heart’s doors that they may swing gently and openly to your coming. Amen.

They are not much younger than me. In many ways, they are at the same place in their journeys. But they always have lots of questions nonetheless. One of the great joys of being at Duke University is serving as a graduate resident for members of the undergraduate student body. Among my duties (dispensing rock salt to melt ice on a snowy weekend, solving conflicts with roommates) is an opportunity to help these students make sense of where they are going, and who they are becoming.

But sometimes it is not so easy. You see, we have a tendency to think that who we are is defined by what we do and how far we get. The idea that we are valuable outside of our work is especially foreign to a generation of hyper-competitive millenials, seeking desperately to reach the pinnacle of career success. Right here. Right now.

But it often isn’t one more line on a resume or even one more interview sound bite that is most needed. Sometimes it is rest. Moses and Aaron knew that. Our story of Pharaoh and the brick-making is a story of a clash between the culture of constant work and a culture of worship.

Do you know the story? It is one we often forget. We go to Exodus looking for liberation and the Promised Land, but we often forget the bricks. Let’s take a step back so we can remind each other once again of the story of God. For we are living a story of God’s people.

Here we are at Exodus 5 where Moses and Aaron begin to organize the Israelite workers; it was like an early version of the AFL-CIO. But their lobbying was more like a demand and it wasn’t to a legislative assistant in an outer office somewhere—it was to the Pharaoh himself. They said, “Hey, the Lord has said let the people go, so they can worship him in the wilderness. Let them go and Sabbath together.” Pharaoh didn’t get it. Much like the sweatshops of the modern era, Pharaoh just wasn’t having it. His workers were going to work. So Pharaoh laughed off the request, saying, “Who is this Lord? I don’t know him, why should I let them go.” But that wasn’t all he did. You know how sometimes somebody says something that just makes you so mad, you want to do something just out of spite? Well, that is what Pharaoh did.

Do you want to hear what happens next? Well, Pharaoh goes to the overseers in charge of his workers and says, “Change of plans. Stop giving the people straw with which to make bricks. Make them get their own straw. And by the way, keep the quota the same. They are lazy, that’s why they are calling out to go into the wilderness and worship their god.” So the overseers run back and deliver the news, beating the workers when they don’t make their quota. For the Israelite workers, there is no rest.

Does this story sound familiar? And not because you’ve probably heard it at least once in Sunday School? But does it sound familiar because the story of the Israelite workers is our story?

For the $7 an hour worker with three children at home, there is no rest.

For the Manhattan Investment Banker with the worries of aggravated baby boomers up in arms over dwindling portfolios, there is no rest.

For the overburdened caregiver pressed between her own sanity and the needs of her aging relative, there is no rest.

So busy answering emails and responding to text messages that we can’t even stop to eat, we instead drive while eating, texting, reading, and making other plans.

“Bricks without straw” is the false notion that people can find health without equal access to adequate healthcare. “Bricks without straw” is the notion that people can live stable lives without adequate pay. “Bricks without straw” is the notion that people can lead happy lives without dignity and equality. “Bricks without straw” is the notion that people can lead lives of meaning without rest.

This reality did not cause our problems. But its existence makes solving them that much harder. Sometimes we need to stop.

Self-Storage units are now a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States. The cable television show, “Hoarders”, details the lives of people who are struggling to escape homes packed from floor to ceiling with stuff acquired, and never thrown away. And that should come as no surprise. For some reason or another, we like our stuff. And we do not like to give anything up—our purchases, our trash, or, yes, even our time. We refuse to displace our agency and we refuse to stop. But sometimes we need to do just that. We need to rest.

There is an ancient rabbinic tradition that says if we learn to celebrate the Sabbath properly and fully even once, the Messiah will come. This is a striking view because it somehow argues that Sabbath is the fulfillment or the completion of a religious life that is fully tuned to the ways of God. It makes sense then to look at Sabbath observance as one of the most reliable and authentic signs of faith.

Let us take a moment to look at what Hebrew Scripture teaches about Sabbath. In Exodus, the longest of the 10 commandments says that we should do all our work in six days but on the seventh we should not do any work, nor should we allow anyone else to work—not our children, not those who serve us, not the resident aliens, not even our livestock and animals. (Exodus 20: 8-11) Everybody gets a day off.

In fact, the biblical idea of the Sabbath is even larger than everyone getting a day-off. Israel’s scriptures command that the land be given a Sabbath—a year of rest every seventh year (Lev. 25:1-7). Every seventh year, all debts are to be forgiven. (Deut. 15:1-11). The idea of Sabbath is even written into Israel’s creation accounts. “God rested on the seventh day from all the work he had done.” (Genesis 2:2)

Our scriptures understand it. Our story tells it. But do we imbibe it? Do we speak the language of Sabbath? If you were to walk into a certain Christmas shop in the State of Washington, you might be drawn in by the unique, yet all too familiar words in front of you. There is a small sign on the door that reads: “Christmas Spoken Here.”

What a nice phrase: “Christmas spoken here.” Wonder if we altered the phrase just a bit, to read, Sabbath Spoken here. What would it mean if we put up such a sign in our churches? In our hearts? In our communities?

It would mean that the language of Sabbath has become our grammar, our language of existence. The principle of Sabbath is a theological and a political statement. It is a statement that we are not finally defined by our work. We are not defined finally by our output or our productivity or our utility. Every being, has a value independent of their use. The universe is not finally defined by its functionality or development or productivity. It has inherent value and a right to be in and of itself. This is the truth of Sabbath—we are created for joy and love. Others are created for joy and love. The earth is created for joy and love.

Let me pause here for a moment. So many times we want a God and a Christianity that comes to us in our work. Most of us really don’t believe that we have a value greater than what we do from 8 to 6 every day. But Sabbath connects us to a God who loves us even in those hours when we feel unaccomplished. Sabbath commands us to a God who loves us even when we don’t feel like we have any value at all.

The Sabbath reminds us to step away from the world for a moment, to enter a deserted place. When I lived in England, it was easier to find an analogy. During my time at Oxford, my fellow students and teachers would stop for tea each day, never letting a day go by without the ritual. Such a few moments take us away from our work, away from the drudgery of what we are doing.

Jesus knew that.

In Mark 1:35-39, we hear it. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place.” It was from that place alone with God that Jesus re-launched his public service.

In Luke’s Gospel, we see that on the day before he chose and called his twelve disciples, Jesus went out to a mountain to Sabbath.

But it is also about stillness. T.S. Eliot writes, “I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you ... Which shall be the darkness of God.” Sabbath is a time not just for rest, but for wrestling; a time of deep discernment, for re-centering oneself in God and in our truest self. It is where we confess we’ve lost our way, where we let go of the props that sustain the fantasies and compulsions of the false. It is how we bring ourselves back home.

When George Schultz was Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, he had a ritual test for every ambassador that returned from his first visit back to Washington. He would spin the globe in his office and ask the Ambassador to put a finger on his country. When his good friend and former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield returned from Japan, he put him through the same routine. But this time, Ambassador Mansfield put his finger on the United States and said, “That’s my country.” Schultz is fond of telling that story as a way of reminding us all that wherever we go we are not to forget to look after the welfare and interests of the true country to which we belong. But that story is important to us today, because it reminds us that wherever we go, Sabbath can bring us back to God.

In Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott tells the story of a little 7-year old girl who was lost and couldn’t find her home. She walked up and down the street with tears streaming down her face. She was lost. A police officer saw her, stopped and asked her what was wrong. “I can’t find my way home,” she said. I’m lost.” The officer said, “Get in the police car.”

Eventually, they came to a building, and the little girl’s face lit up. “That’s my church. You can let me out right here.” The officer said, “Oh no, I shouldn’t let you out here.” She said, “O yes. It’s safe. That’s my church, and I can always find my way home from here.”

Places of faith ground us; they center us. Almost as if we are floundering beneath the water trying to poke our heads above, observance of Sabbath brings us back to center, brings us back home. According to the Psalmist, our offering of Sabbath is not a forced or commanded response. It is rather a natural and spontaneous follow-up to God’s goodness and work during the week. “For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy.”

Thomas Merton lived much of his life as a monk at a Monastery in Kentucky. Here Merton prayed, taught, and wrote about his search for God. In one of his memorable experiences, he tells of coming here to Louisville, where he had a revelation. He describes it this way: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of renewal. In the Sabbath, we are not faced with lostness and emptiness, but with found-ness and renewal.

Here in Louisville, much like Merton saw it, we live in alienating times. Our nation is troubled by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our public schools, even here in Louisville, are in crisis. There is a growing division between the upper class and the lower class. There is a growing division between those who think all people should have equal rights and those who think we are moving too far to the left. Once more, faith is often misused and misunderstood, both by those who adhere to it and those who do not. But to quote Jon Stewart, “We live now in hard times, not end times.”

It is our intention in the story of God to construct a new story of radical love, to govern by the practice of Sabbath in a world in which there is no rest. It is our intention to reorder ourselves to where there is no distinction between rich and poor, male and female, black and white; to reorder ourselves in the spirit of the Sabbath. It is a daring act of ethical imagination that we might stop to rest. It is an act Pharaoh just did not understand. It is a daring act that all creation might, for but a few hours, surrender their work to make themselves whole once again. It is an act Pharaoh just did not understand. It is a daring act that just might be enough to restore our sanity, resurrect our unity and reignite our love.


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