Sabbath

Matthew 12:1-14

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. 2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”

3 He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. 5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? 6 I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

9 Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10 and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

11 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

It is good to be back with you all today after being away last Sunday. Sonya, the children, and I took a trip to Ohio to see my family and catch up with a few friends. It is really nice sleeping in my parents’ home because when our children get up at 6:15 am, as they usually do, my parents wake up with them and allow us to sleep in a bit.

So we felt rested coming back to Virginia. Sonya noted how helpful it was to take a few days away from work. We even got the chance to go to a professional baseball game while in the Buckeye State, which was fun, even if the hometown team did not come out victorious.

It was also good to see my grandfather, who will turn 95 this fall. He still lives alone, drives, cooks, and cleans. However, this year he decided that he needed help mowing his yard, so he asked his younger brother to help. So my grandfather mows what he can with the riding mower while his brother does the push mowing. I should note that his brother is 81-years-old. So between the two of them, they average out to 88 years on this planet.

My grandfather deserves the rest. We all need rest. And the Bible tells us that we should observe a day of rest, which we often call the Sabbath.

We are gathered this morning on the first day of the week to worship the Lord, to sing praises, to give our tithes and offerings, and to fellowship with one another. Later today many of us will find something a little different to do, different from the things that you might do the other six days of the week. Perhaps you will get out the 9 iron and chase a little white ball, or head to the mountains for some intense, summer-time hiking. Maybe your idea of a great Sunday afternoon is to lie down on the couch, turn on the television, and watch it with your eyes closed. Regardless of what you choose to do today, many Christians believe that Sunday is to be a day of rest, it is our Sabbath.

In Exodus 20:8-10 we find these words from God to Moses: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 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 servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.”

Don’t work, don’t make your children work, don’t make your servants work, don’t make the foreigners work, and while we are at it, don’t make your animals work on the Sabbath. God rested and we should, too.

Jews observe the Sabbath from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday. Christians tend to observe the Sabbath on Sundays, most likely because it is the day of Jesus’ resurrection. I know that some people will disagree with me, but I believe that it does not matter when you take your Sabbath; the important thing is that you do it. Paul writes in Romans 14:5-6, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord.” I take Paul to mean that the actual day of rest/Sabbath is not of the highest importance. Again, what matters is that we take time to rest and worship. (See also Col. 2:16, Gal. 4:10)

Yet like every other teaching in the Bible, we can miss the point of the Sabbath if we just take this teaching at face value without considering the reason that the people were commanded to rest. This is exactly what the Pharisees from the text for this morning did, or failed to do.

The Hebrew Mishna is considered to be the first attempt to write down what is commonly called the “Oral Torah,” which is the teachings of the Jewish community based on the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. It’s kind of like a commentary on the Torah. The Mishna was written between 180-220 CE, or about 150 years after the death of Jesus.

The Mishna gives us a bit of an insight to the teachings of the Jewish Rabbis of Jesus’ day. For instance, the Mishna breaks down the activities that a Jewish person cannot do on the Sabbath by placing various practices into 39 different activities. Some of these activities include planting, reaping, and winnowing. Winnowing is the process of separating the grain of a plant from the chaff, but it is not limited to the actual process of separating grain from chaff. For instance, any act of processing food falls under the category of “winnowing.” Certain Rabbis consider filtering dirty water to make it suitable to drink and removing small bones from fish before eating it to be a form of winnowing, and therefore prohibit it.

Harvesting and winnowing are precisely the activities that concern of the Pharisees in our text for this morning. Jesus and his disciples are walking along and they get hungry. So the disciples pluck a few heads of grain (harvesting), place the heads of the grain between their hands, roll them back and forth, and eat the grain that falls out (winnowing). Remember that the Jewish law allowed for the disciples to take the grain from someone else’s field. This was not an act of thievery, as one might think. The problem is that they are harvesting and winnowing.

But Jesus stands up for his disciples and essentially tells the Pharisees that they are missing the point. Elsewhere Jesus reminds them that the Sabbath was created for human beings, not the other way around.

The Sabbath, the day of rest, is for our own good. This law isn’t there just to be there.

One of the challenges that I face when it comes to Sabbath rest is considering what is and what is not acceptable to do on my day of rest. I run into problems when I look at other people, which is pretty often, like every Sunday. I see people, Christians even, doing things on Sunday that I would never do. And I find myself saying things like, “Humph! And you call yourself a Christian?!”

But I know that there are things that I do on Sunday that many others would call into question. Before we had children, we would often go out to eat on Sunday after church. No, I’m not working, but I am making my “manservant” or “maidservant” work, and that is just as clearly prohibited in Exodus 20 as any other act of labor. I don’t have a problem running to the grocery store, which is getting a bit closer to work for me, but is again clearly making another person work. However, I do have boundaries. I’ll go to the hardware store and buy a box of screws, but I refuse to actually turn the screw when I get home. Yeah, I’m a little bit legalistic.

The point that I am trying to make is that it really isn’t our place to judge what is and is not appropriate for another person to do on their Sabbath. We can get so legalistic that we begin making rules about how far someone can walk, whether or not they can cook, or even whether or not they can push buttons on an elevator or alarm clock, as some have. The point is that we are called to take time each week to observe some kind of Sabbath rest because we all need it.

I find at least three different reasons — beyond “God commanded it” — for why we should observe the Sabbath, regardless of what day or the details of what one can and cannot do. 1. The Sabbath is a time for corporate worship. 2. The Sabbath is a time to step away from the rat race. 3. The Sabbath is a time to prepare (physically, mentally, and emotionally) to do the work God has call us to do.

1. The Sabbath provides an opportunity for corporate worship. I want to emphasize the word corporate because we can, and hopefully do, some kind of private worship throughout the week. This could include things like prayer, study, and service. All are good things that we should be doing often, not just one day a week. But at least once each week it is good to come together for a corporate worship service.

The Apostle Paul uses the metaphor of a “body” to describe the church. Each person serves a different role, much like an eye, foot, or hand serves a different purpose in an actual human body. Sure, a body can get by without one of these parts, but when we start missing more and more parts, the entire body suffers.

We clearly benefit by coming together for worship. We come together to discuss the scriptures, because we are able to come to a better understanding when we draw from one another’s wisdom and experience. We come together for prayer, lifting one another up and helping one another as we go along, and keeping one another accountable. And we come together for fellowship because we were created as communal beings. Acts 2:42 sums it up well when speaking of the early church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

2. We observe the Sabbath to step away from the rat race. In his book Living the Sabbath Norman Wirzba discusses how our society has moved toward an ethos of busy-ness and the accumulation of things. He writes:

Many of us submit to daily schedules that keep us moving at a soul-blistering, exhaustion-inducing pace, and we agree to ever-lengthening to-do lists that invariably leave us stretched or stressed to the breaking point. To be sure, we have a lot to show for our efforts in the extensive resumes we compile, mountains of stuff we store in our basements, garages, and off-site self-storage lockers. But despite our many career accomplishments and consumer acquisitions, we are not satisfied or at peace. We are forever hounded by the worry that we do not yet have quite enough, or that what we have is not the latest, fastest, or most fashionable best, and fear that we will be perceived as slackers.

The ritual of taking a weekly Sabbath, a break from all of that busy-ness, may be the first step toward regaining our sanity and appreciating the gift of life that God has given to us.

I remember very clearly being about 10, maybe 12-years-old, and my dad hiring a new hired hand to work on the family farm. The nature of a dairy farm requires that someone must work on the Sabbath. The cows need milked twice a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. The new hired man knew this when he was hired and he did not have a problem with it. He knew that he would be required to milk the cows every-other Sunday.

One Sunday I was sitting in the house with my family, resting, relaxing, probably watching television. My father heard something, and he thought he knew what it was. He stepped outside and his suspicion was confirmed. The new hired man was hauling manure.

My father ran out to the field to tell the worker that on Sundays he was not expected to do more than the bare minimum. Yes, feed the animals, milk the cows, but the remainder of the day was a day of rest even when it wasn’t his official Sunday off.

I was a little surprised by this. The hired man was not a religious person. He did not attend church. And he was paid a salary, not an hourly rate. It was to my father’s benefit to get as many hours possible out of this worker, so why not let him work as many hours as he could?

I think that’s when I started to realize that a day of rest was more than just a chance to watch more television, play catch, or go for a bike ride with the family. It is also a chance to step back from the economic rat race and say that there are some things in life more important than the bottom line of a financial report. Or to draw from my example and put it in a way that will be remembered, the Sabbath provides us with an opportunity to say “There will be time to take care of this crap tomorrow. Today is a day of rest.”

3. The final reason or category for observing the Sabbath is to prepare us for our ministry that is yet to come. The Bible tells us that Jesus often left the disciples and the crowds behind to go to a “quiet place” to connect with God. One example comes early in Luke’s gospel, even before Jesus has called all of his disciples. Each of the synoptic gospels tell of Jesus taking time — 40 days to be exact — in the wilderness to fast and pray, presumably about his ministry as he prepares to go public. And if Jesus needs some time to rest and pray, surely we do as well.

One of the reasons that I wanted to talk about the Sabbath today is as an introduction to an opportunity that is coming my way. On Tuesday I will mark the completion of my 8th year as the pastor of Staunton Mennonite Church. What you all were thinking when you hired a 26-year-old seminary student as your pastor, I may never know. But I’m glad that you did. Thanks for taking a chance on an unproven young man with little experience.

Over the last eight years I have preached over 350 sermons, performed a number of weddings, baptisms, and funerals, dedicated babies, and visited you in your homes and in the hospitals. And I consider it a blessing to be your pastor.

Our denomination suggests that a congregation grants their pastor a Sabbatical leave after their third year of ministry. We might have missed that one by a bit, but I also have not been employed full-time, so you are exempt from that guideline. But the church council has been kind enough to grant me a study leave this fall; I’ll be gone from the middle of September until the beginning of December.

During this time I will not be sitting at home watching television or playing solitaire on the computer. This is not a perpetual Sabbath day. A Sabbatical is meant to be a time for the pastor to become a better pastor, to be exposed to new ideas, new ministries, and a new vision. So I will be enrolled as a full-time student at Union Presbyterian Seminary for the fall semester. As many of you know, I have been adding some credit hours to my transcript over the last few years. With these credit hours already completed, I can knock out another degree in one full-time semester in the fall, one class in the spring and summer, and a sizable thesis project, which I can work on from home.

Having this extra degree will do a number of things for me. It will add a few more letters after my name and maximize the education credits used to calculate my salary J . But what it will hopefully do more than anything else is prepare me for future ministry.

Do not think for one second that I am doing this to prepare me for ministry in another location. As was mentioned in our church council meeting, this Sabbatical is a way to prepare me for my next eight years of ministry at Staunton Mennonite.

In my absence you will be treated to some of the best preaching you have ever heard in this building. I have lined up people with a credential list a mile long. You will hear from people with their doctorates, including one who did his doctoral studies at a small Presbyterian school in Princeton, New Jersey. You will hear from the Athletic Director at Eastern Mennonite University as well as an assistant professor of Spanish, who has been published in a number of Mennonite periodicals, has a book called Meditations on the Beatitudes, and his second book is scheduled to be released soon.There are plans to have a missionary share with us, as well as to hear from the director of advancement at Virginia Mennonite Missions. You probably won’t be ready for me to come back in December!

However, this study break for me means more work for you. In my absence, I need someone to step up and help with visitation. I need someone or several people who will visit the members of this church that cannot get out on a regular basis and to visit people when they go into the hospital. I need someone to help with administrative duties, like making the bulletin and contacting worship and song leaders before each Sunday’s service. And I hope that I can get a few from our congregation to give a brief sermon or homily in my absence as well.

All of these things will hopefully help us to continue to develop a strong sense of leadership among the laity of this congregation. And I hope that we can continue to refine our vision for this congregation.

Eight years ago when I began at this church, we had one person in the congregation under the age of 18. We made a commitment then to try to minister to young families and fill our nursery, which was empty every week. Today, we have 19 children, ranging from 16-years-old to 16-months-old. We have busted out walls to accommodate for all of the young children. The question for us to begin pondering is What is God calling us to do next?

I hope that we can all get rested up, because I’m sure God has something great in store for us. As I step aside for a few weeks, I hope that I can come back to this church well rested and ready to bring us forward into the vision that God has for us.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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