23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 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.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” 3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
5:12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15 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.
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
5 For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6 For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
Years ago, during my senior year of college, something happened that I will never forget. I can remember it as clear as day.
Early on, so much of my college career had been spent living in the music building trying to survive as a music major. Trying to make something of myself as a trumpet player; trying to eek through our dear Alice Hansen’s music history class. I had also surrounded myself with friends and teachers I was constantly trying to impress.
But then, senior year, I went on a J-term abroad trip to Greece and Rome with all these people I had never really met before or spent time with. And it was this wonderfully new and freeing experience in life.
After four-weeks abroad, we get back to St. Olaf and we all go our separate ways, back to the life we had been living. I entered right back into the same stream of things. Into the same narrow grind of school work and trying to impress people.
But then in the middle of February, I’m walking from the music building to the religion department, and across the lawn, I see Laura – a girl from my trip.
And suddenly, this deep and profound joy, that I hadn’t felt for weeks, starts to bubble up in me. We run to each other like fools and give a big embrace. We talked for a few minutes, caught up on each other’s live, and then went on our way.
But right after that, I can remember thinking, “Whoa – what just happened? Where has that Jon been?” Like lungs after using an inhaler, suddenly I felt like I could breathe again. In that moment, it was like I had found myself again. I didn’t realize I had been lost – but in seeing Laura, I felt a joy and a freedom to be myself and I liked the person I was in that moment.
And here’s the thing, Laura and I weren’t that good of friends. We haven’t talked or seen each other for probably 14 years now. But something about her and the people on that trip and getting away from school gave me the freedom and the space to just be myself, in a way I hadn’t felt for years.
Have you ever felt like that? Like you have found yourself? Or you got your life back, even though you didn’t know it had been lost?
Sometimes you’ll hear people say, maybe after a weeklong hike in the boundary water or on a mission trip, “I found myself out there. I found myself in those woods.” Or on that trip.
Like you used to be this kind of person. But then slowly over time, you shifted and changed into this kind of person, and then one day, you wake up, and you don’t recognize the person in the mirror? And suddenly you feel like you need to find yourself again.
Believe it or not, God has felt that way.
In the book of Exodus, God and Moses are talking about the Sabbath day and the third commandment – Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.
Remember in the creation story, God created the heavens and the earth in six days and on the seventh day, God rested. Sabbath. And in that conversation with Moses, it says, “You shall keep the Sabbath as God kept the Sabbath and was refreshed.”
God kept the Sabbath and was refreshed. That word refreshed is an interesting word in Hebrew. It is actually the noun for “self or soul” and this is one of only three times it is used as a verb. Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann says that it is better translated, “God kept the Sabbath and was re-selfed.” God was re-souled.
God kept the Sabbath, and God got God’s self back. God found God’s self by taking Sabbath, by resting, because after all that work of creation – God was depleted. God was worn out. God was pooped. Creation is hard work for God.
And the same is true for us, who are made in the image of God. We get worn out. We get depleted. And, in the process, we can slowly lose ourselves. And so God gives us this amazing gift called the Sabbath. And God commands that we honor it, meaning take Sabbath, because it is good for your life. In fact, in that same conversation between God and Moses, God says if you don’t take the Sabbath, if you don’t rest, it’ll kill you.
So rest, God says. And not just once every four years, but once a week. For a whole day.
That’s what the third commandment is about. Sabbath gives you your depleted life back.
Honoring the Sabbath day isn’t about being forced to go to church. It is about receiving the God-given gift of rest so that you can be restored again for the sake of life. So that you can find yourself again. So that you can find your made-in-the-image-of-God-ness again.
Okay so what is Sabbath then? What does it look like? Again, I’m relying alot on the work of Walter Brueggemann here. I’m quoting him all over the place. He says this, “Sabbath is work stoppage.” It is a day when you refuse to look at your smart phone and check your email. It is a refusal to be identified by productivity. By how much you could can produce and then acquire.
Remember the 10 Commandments were born out of the Jewish experience of slavery in Egypt. Under the boot of Pharaoh. And the theme of Pharoah’s Egypt, “Pharoah’s economy (was), ‘Make bricks. Make more bricks. Make bricks without straw. Make more bricks. Do not take a break. Keep working. Keep producing. Keep making bricks.’”
In fact, Brueggemann says that Sabbath probably did not become an actual Jewish practice until they knew what it was like to lose themselves. To lose their identity. Jews had to be very intentional in maintaining their Jewish identity in an empire which wanted to destroy their Jewish identity by overworking them. Sabbath becomes a visible performance of Jewish identity that protests way of the empire that is all around them.
Sadly, as I think we all can see, we are caught in a similar system of productivity now. If the theme of Pharaoh’s economy was, “Make more bricks”, the theme of our economy is “Make more money. Make more money. Buy more. Be more. Be Better. Be best. Achieve, achieve, achieve.” And as a result, we are living in a time of “systemic violation of Sabbath…” It is the only commandment we sort of brag about breaking.
Ugh. Yeah, I’m just super busy right now. Got no time to rest. Gotta get to the to-do list. I’m super important.
And then because we regularly violate the Sabbath, meaning never stop working, “we operate by and large out of fatigue and over-extendedness, which makes us cranky, inhospitable, and ungenerous.”
Which is what our culture of busyness and commerce economy wants actually. It wants us exhausted because exhausted people make good shoppers and good sports spectators and good Netflix watchers.
Brueggemann says that “Exhausted people do not make for transformers of a community.” Or in other words, “Rested people are dangerous people.” Because rested people have more energy and courage, they just might start to see what’s really going on and change it for good.
That’s what the third commandment is about. It isn’t about the rule to go to church because God is an insecure, ego-centric maniac who demands your worship to feel good about God’s self.
The commandment to take Sabbath is about God’s love for you and your well-being and slowing down and stopping every week to remember that. Sabbath is refusal to live as depleted people. God is not a workaholic and neither should we be. Because, as the Apostle Paul put it today, we are clay jars. We are fragile and we break and we break down. But we also are clay jars that contain a treasure. The light of God. The image of God. Which makes you precious to God and precious to the world.
As people of faith, honoring Sabbath and taking Sabbath is a visual demonstration of our refusal to be identified by our productivity. And refusing to identify other people by their productivity. But rather to let our identity rest in our made-in-the-image-of-God-ness.
Sabbath is a gift of God for the sake of life, not a burden from God for the sake of being rule-followers. It is meant to restore you – to help you find yourself, your life, again.
Which is what our gospel reading was all about. In the gospel reading, Jesus doesn’t actually break the Sabbath law or even improve or correct the Sabbath law. Jesus is a good Jew. He restores the Sabbath to its original purpose. The Pharisees were trying to use the law to trap Jesus. They weren’t concerned about the hunger and the well-being of the disciples, and the wholeness of the man with the withered hand. They were using the Sabbath as a rule, not a life-giver.
But Jesus knew that Sabbath was for the sake of the flourishing of the human. And so he lets the hungry pluck grain and he restores the man with the withered hand just as Rabbinic law would have allowed.
Now some scholars think that the withered hand is a metaphor. Perhaps a metaphor for anything that is depleting your life right now.
Do you have a withered hand? Something that is crippling your life right now? What is your withered hand that needs stretching out and needs healing?
You see, sometimes, when we can slow down, when we just stop trying to produce so many bricks, when we take Sabbath, it can allow us to noticed our withered hands. And not only that, but give us the courage to stretch them out. Meaning shine a light on them. To give them the attention they need to be healed.
“Stretch out your withered hand,” Jesus says. Don’t hide it or hide from it anymore. It’s the only way it can be healed.
Downtown, there is this stunning new piece of art work outside the library. It’s called Waste Deep and it is a metal sculpture of a person who is waste deep. And do you know what the person is doing?
They are stretching out their hand.
The plaque said that the high school students who made this sculpture made is as a message to encourage support for those who are struggling with mental illness in our community. But that it can be interpreted in many ways as a symbol of needing or receiving assistance from caring others.
Dear friends, some of us are waste deep and stretching out our hands. Trying to find ourselves again. Some of us are waste deep in busyness and reaching out for rest. Some of us are waste deep in despair at our boarders, reaching out for our children who have been taken away. Some of us are waste deeply in loneliness reaching out for our relationships that have withered.
If we do not take Sabbath, we will never see those truths in ourselves and in others. And it will crush us. And we will never have the energy or the courage to reach out to each other.
So, remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. In other words, stop working for awhile. Find some real rest. Sacred downtime. It becomes the most important commandment in the Old Testament – because without it our lives wither. Sabbath was made for you and for your neighbor. So that we might be dangerously rested people who can care for each other. It is the way of God.
 Walter Brueggemann