(WHY SABBATH? PART I)
I am sure he stands in a tuxedo in front of a hushed audience in some grand setting and plays beautiful songs. I never hear those songs. I am not sure I’ve ever heard any whole song from beginning to end. I hear the scales. Up and down, over and over and over again. I hear snippets of things– sliding between tricky notes- replayed, replayed and replayed. I hear the drills.
Owen recently joined a swim team, and I watched him begin to learn drills. For 90 minutes his first night he swam laps with the other swimmers, while the coach corrected their form. The goal is to learn the patterns of strokes and breathing so well that it will become second nature – they will be able to do it without thinking about it.
These musicians and swimmers are developing muscle memory.
Muscle memory is a fascinating thing. Repeating a movement over time creates long-term memory for a task, until it can be done without conscious effort at all. This amazing thing means we can walk and talk at the same time, we can ride bikes while navigating to our destination or noticing our surroundings, and type emails without having to think about where each letter is and choose every time to push it.
But it takes repeated practice for a movement to become muscle memory. When we are first learning something we are awkward and slow, stiff and easily interrupted. It requires intense, or at least focused, concentration.
Have you ever thrown a pot on a wheel? Every point of it has to be broken down for you – how do you center the clay on the wheel to even get started? That’s two or three classes right there. How do you sit? How do you hold your back? Every fine point is consciously taught and learned. The right amount of pressure, where to put your fingers, the heels of your hands, your elbows and shoulders. But true artists, and the teacher in front of you- drop a blob of clay down on the wheel and deftly push and pull until a beautiful pot emerges.
It turns out that our Creator understands how we are wired.
Our texts today come from two places.
The first is the Sabbath command in the Exodus version of the ten commandments.
If you recall, when the ten commandments were given, the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for four hundred years. All they had known, for generations and generations, was slavery. Someone else dictating their life’s value and purpose. Holding to the stories of your God and faith, your identity is one thing behind closed doors and tucked away at home, but every day out there, your life was for making bricks for Pharaoh. You work. Healthy and strong, you work. Sick or old? You’re expendable. A baby? – future worker in the making.
Your existence in this society is based on what you produce for the empire. That is how your hours and value are measured, every hour, day in, day out, for 16 generations. Talk about muscle memory.
So when God delivers the Israelites out of Egypt, flooding into the wilderness across the red sea, the Pharaoh’s army washed away beneath its waves, when God began leading them to what would be home, the Promised Land, there was some work to do. There were things to unlearn and some new muscle memory to form.
Slavery they understood. Freedom was a different matter altogether.
The ten commandments –the ten words – are a powerful description of what life looks like with God in charge instead of Pharaoh. Here is how free people live, God says. I am going to teach you. To lay it out carefully and give you fine tip pointers on each movement because you are going to be practicing this and I want you to get it right and not have to unlearn it again.
You belong to me- I am your God.
You do not belong to the empire. Your life is not measured by what you produce. I will not be ranking and sorting you by what you can do for me. Instead of constantly seeking to work hard and continue to meet the expectations and approval of those over you, so that your individual lives are valuable enough to preserve, know this: your lives are already infinitely valuable to me. I love you all – young, old, healthy, sick, strong, weak; you are all my children.
I want to teach you to live from gratitude and love, instead of fear and self protection. So here are the rules you should consciously follow, practice these and you will begin relearning how it’s all supposed to work.
The longest and most unusual commandment among them– the hinge command between the ones that deal with how we relate to God and the ones that deal with how we relate to other people – is this Sabbath command. You rest. Stop everything. Put down all your work, and simply be. You and your children and your animals and the people just passing through – once a week, you STOP working.
I can’t imagine there were stopping days for slaves in Ancient Egypt. This must have been the strangest and most foreign thing. Don’t work? How will we measure our worth, protect our lives? If we aren’t working, what should we be doing?
And even more mindblowing than this command to stop, is why you should stop. Because God stops. Do you think the Pharaoh stopped? Clocked out for a few hours? Absolute power and authority is dangerous and requires vigilance. Heavy is the head that wears the crown; despots sleep with one eye open.
But God is so secure in what God had made, that God steps back, looks at it all, calls it good, and rests. God takes time to enjoy this incredible thing that is life, in all its beauty and intricacy. And since you are not, in fact, a beast of burden, but rather a being made in God’s own image, you should STOP too. You should rest too.
You should step down from your throne, away from your desk, out of your driver’s seat, and be in the world. A person, connected to other people. A creature, alongside all these creatures that live under the sun and sleep under the moon along with you.
Trusting your place in God and the universe around you is secure, you should enjoy this life you are part of, celebrate it, take it in, and rest.
But here’s what’s so great about God’s process with the Israelites – these people who had to work non-stop and scrape together their existence, who learned to depend on themselves for their well-being because no higher authority in the empire was going to be looking out for them - God said, Don’t hunt, don’t gather or farm. Don’t work for your survival. Instead, every morning, I will provide food for you. Manna– which in Hebrew literally means ‘What is it?” – will fall from heaven while you rest, while you are sleeping safely under my protection – and when you wake, you are to gather only what you need for today. Because there will be more tomorrow.
And they hear what God says, and it sounds really good.
But then they gather extra anyway, because, who knows what tomorrow brings? And old habits die hard. But when they wake up they find the extra manna they gathered rotten and smelly and crawling with maggots. So not only is day-old manna inedible, it’s completely pointless to try to plan ahead or store up extras.
They are in TRUST training school.
Every day. God provides.
Wake up rested, gather your food for the day, go to bed without a crumb leftover.
Repeat the next day.
Except there is a fascinating exception to this pattern – Sabbath days. On those days, they are to gather extra the day before and save it up. On Sabbath days no manna will fall – because God rests, and no manna is to be collected- because the people rest. And the manna from yesterday is enough for today, and it stays fresh and sweet and doesn’t go bad.
And so they start doing this pattern. Trudge through the wilderness. Gather manna for six days. Gather extra the sixth. Rest the seventh. Repeat.
Drills. Practice. Building muscle memory.
I read that when a pianist hears a well-trained piece of music, her fingers are often involuntarily triggered as though they are playing it right now. Her concentration and deliberate choice is bypassed and her body simply responds.
Muscle memory internalizes complex actions, the notes of a song, or movements of a stroke, or pressure of your hands on the clay, and when it does, the practiced musician or swimmer or potter is able to focus on other aspects of the act- the meaning they are trying to convey through their work, the speed and power they are contributing to the race, the beauty and detail they are imparting to their piece.
This is what God is after.
Just like a saxophone player doesn’t practice scales so he will be really good at scales, God is not teaching them how to rest so that they will be really good at resting.
Resting teaches them to trust.
If they get good at this pattern, so that it becomes part of them, their attention becomes directed not on survival, production, looking out for themselves, or defending against others.
Instead they are able to take up the role God has called them to – to be stewards of creation, and bearers of blessing for the world. To know God and be God’s people – caring for each other and the stranger among them, tending the world around them.
The rest is a way to remember who they belong to, so they can begin to see what their meaning is, where the beauty is, how to join in fully.
But it is going to take drills. So so many drills. 40 years of them, actually.
Gather manna for six days. Gather extra the sixth. Rest the seventh. Repeat.
Wander the wilderness guided by a cloud in the day and pillar of fire at night.
Gather, gather extra, rest, repeat.
Practice these commandments, these new perimeters God had given you – which all boil down to these: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Repeat.
You could spend a lifetime – and may of them did – learning these two things. But if you are practicing it over and over again, it might become muscle memory. It might change the way you see the world. You might actually, neuroscientists now know, rewire your brain.
When we say we are a congregation that practices Sabbath, it doesn’t just mean that twice a month we meet on Saturdays instead of Sundays.
That pattern is one drill.
Like playing scales and swimming laps, it is designed to get something deep into us so we don’t have to think about it, it just is part of us.
But it takes repeated practice for a movement to become muscle memory. So, work-addicted people in a 24-7 culture of competition, pressure and anxiety trying to do “Sabbath”? Oh my word is it hard! When we are first learning something we are awkward and slow, stiff and easily interrupted. It requires intense, or at least focused, concentration. Chores call out and Facebook beckons, the next urgent distraction and pressing requirement bombard us. Things encroach and we want to turn aside to them in a second. Over and over we are distracted and drawn into doing- because that is what we are used to doing. We have to actively work at not working.
But over time, it gets easier. Like the scales.
But this drill is not merely so we know the drill better.
We don’t rest because we want to get better at resting- though certainly that will happen too.
We rest because God rests.
We rest because our lives are centered on a non-anxious creator and lover of the whole universe who made us, and loves us, and calls us, and who gives us everything we need to join God in caring for the world and each other.
Resting teaches us to trust.
It trains us to orient our being toward the one who loves us.
So when we say we are a congregation that practices Sabbath, we mean:
We belong to God instead of the empire. In other words, our life together is defined by trust instead of anxiety, generosity instead of stockpiling.
We open our doors to as much of the community as we can fit and say, this space is not ours for us, it’s ours to share and take care of so you can use it and find respite and sanctuary here.
Because we belong to God and all that we have is a gift from God.
Because we belong to God and all that we have is a gift from God.
We look every month at what money came in, and regardless of what our bills are, we take 10% of that, and then we look around us at the world for people and places bringing life and hope on a shoestring and a prayer, and we mail them that money.
Because we belong to God who provides for our needs and asks us to care for the world.
We invite our children to lead us, and we share with each other when things are hard or messy in our lives, and we try new things even when we might fail.
Because we belong to God and we have nothing to fear and nothing to prove.
In live and in death, we belong to God.
Being a congregation that practices Sabbath means Trusting the One to whom we belong.
It means we are doing the drills so that faith, not fear, becomes second nature, and our attention can be directed to the meaning, and the beauty, and our participation in the big picture.
When the Pharisees, forty eight generations after their ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, ask Jesus which is the greatest commandment – and Jesus answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,” – he is saying this: practice belonging to God.
Do the work of remembering – with your thoughts and your body and your feelings and your time and your money and your ambition and your gifts and your everything – that you are not a possession of the empire.
You are a child of God. Orient your being toward the one who loves you.
Sabbath is practice orienting our being back toward the One who loves us.
It is because this one we belong to loves us that we can rest.
Work, rest, repeat. And let trusting God become muscle memory.
Work, rest, repeat. And let trusting God become muscle memory.