Choosing Sabbath: Put It Down

A sermon based on Exodus 20:8-11 and Amos 8:4-8 preached on August 17th, 2014.

Sermon audio 

It was good to go on vacation last week. My mother and her three sisters, some of my cousins and my cousin’s kids rented a log cabin on Keuka Lake in Central New York State. Family were coming in and out throughout the week as their schedules allowed, and I’m sure we broke some capacity rule by having everyone at the cabin at once on Tuesday—there were 17 of us there that day. 

I found out that spending a week at a lake is my ideal vacation. I’d go back every year if I could. I thought I was a beach guy, but I never was a big fan of sand and don’t like how ocean waves throw me around. And who likes a mouthful of salt water? 

As boats and Sea-Doo’s passed us on the lake, they made gentle waves—the kind you’d find in a wave pool that slowly lift you up and bring you back down again. An ocean throws you around. A lake holds you in its calm and steady hands. 

But there was something else I liked about being at Keuka Lake last week—something I had not expected at all. There was no Wi-Fi in sight. No 3G signal either. My iPhone meant nothing during my vacation last week. It was as good as a coaster on a coffee table. For a week, it seemed like a relic from another world—a world in which everyone is hyper-connected and anxious. 

Whenever someone went into town to go shopping, I’d give them my iPhone so it could download all the e-mails and Facebook notifications and text messages that were waiting for me, but for the most part, my phone stayed in its case in the corner of the living room.

At the beginning of the week, I thought not having a working smartphone would cause me problems, but I quickly realized it was an unexpected gift—something I would have never chosen for myself. Having the freedom to walk away from all my devices—my electronic devices, that is—was a great and much needed release. I was forced by the lack of technology at the lake, to unplug from the world, from that never-ending flow of information we are all growing more and more addicted to. My non-functioning iPhone may have been what made my vacation a real vacation.

There was a clock hanging on the porch of our cabin with all the numbers (1-12) fallen down in a heap at the bottom of the clock, and in the middle of the clock was the line, “Who cares? You’re at the lake!” All the things that help us keep time and stay connected don’t matter at the lake. With not a Wi-Fi or a 3G signal to be found, being at Keuka Lake was a weeklong Sabbath from all that keeps me hyper-connected. The disconnection turned out to be a wonderful rest. Something I needed but would have never chosen for myself. 

ϖ 

This week’s forced Sabbath from all things tech made me ask if I really know what rest—true rest—is anymore. With all that typically distracts us and pulls us away from being present in the moment—do any of us really know how to unplug anymore?

Maybe the invitation to Sabbath rest these days has something to do with untethering ourselves from our devices—not only our tech devices, but also from those other devices in our lives—like our habit of always preparing ourselves for what’s up ahead. Like our tendency to be physically present without needing to be mentally or emotionally present. Our tendency towards restlessness—always thinking about what comes next. Constantly living for tomorrow.

Sabbath is that tap on the shoulder—God’s way of telling us that our minds are not where our bodies are. Sabbath is God’s invitation to fix that.

ϖ

The book of Amos is only 9 chapters long, and it’s worth a read. Amos spoke some harsh words to his own people—the people of Israel during a time when the ruling class in the North oppressed the poorer classes in the other regions. Much of what Amos speaks against is quite like this passage.

Here in the 8th chapter, Amos speaks out against the ways the rich have stacked the deck against the poor—rigging their scales—selling smaller quantities while charging more for it and adding filler to each batch of product—and deceiving the poor, as the text says, “with false balances” and “selling garbage as grain”. Some things never change, of course.

These days, we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that most of what is for sale at the grocery store has been tampered with, added to, genetically modified in one way our another, packed with preservatives maybe even to the point where it’s a stretch to even call it food.

Amos goes on to call out the merchants about something else though, and this is what I want to focus on—the part about Sabbath. Amos calls out those who show up to worship and instead of giving their attention to being in God’s presence, they spend their time looking at their watches, asking themselves when the Sabbath will be over so that they can go back to their work. 

When will the Sabbath be over so we may offer wheat for sale?

these temple worshippers are saying to themselves.

Their bodies are at church but their minds are at the shop. They’re sitting in their pew not paying a bit of attention to worshipping God or to practicing Sabbath rest because they’re already planning for what’s coming tomorrow. These merchants that Amos are speaking against are multitasking. Their bodies may be resting but their heads are full of to-do lists for tomorrow. For them, Sabbath has become an empty practice—a meaningless pause in their week, a day of restless anticipation of whatever tomorrow might bring. Even while on Sabbath, they’re multitasking. Even though invited by God to rest, their minds are restless.

ϖ

Of course, none of us have this problem. None of us have ever made a grocery list, a to-do list, or a honey-do list during a sermon. Ever. Of course every time we show up to worship, our minds are laser-focused only on what God might say to us. When we practice Sabbath, we’re always able to forget about what tomorrow may bring. It never even occurs to us!

We should be kind to ourselves and to each other when it comes to this. God has invited us to practice Sabbath—a Sabbath of body and mind—in part because it’s something we need but would have never chosen for ourselves.

Rest does not come easy—either because all of our tasks are impossible to physically get away from or because they’re too daunting to mentally escape from. And unfortunately, not everyone can escape from everything by running off to a lake for a week.

I preach Sabbath not because I’m good at it but because I need to hear about the benefits of it for myself and make space within my life to practice it. The same is true for you, I suppose.

ϖ

Sometimes, we need to just put it down. Sometimes, we need to actually make an effort to walk away from all that distracts us. As odd as it sounds, most of the time, we need to make an effort to get some rest.

That’s what Sabbath has always been about—a conscious walking away from all that regularly consumes our lives, all those things or people that constantly demand our attention. Sabbath means making a choice to cut ourselves off from the world for time and recouping and reclaiming some semblance of ourselves—to remember that we aren’t made for 24/7 multitasking.

We are made instead for single-minded devotion to God. That is why we are here—“to glorify God and enjoy God forever,” as one of our most important confessions of faith states.

ϖ

Walking away from work is harder today than it ever has been before, and a big part of that is the smartphones and tablets and computers that we have so much access to.

At the beginning of my vacation I was worried about going without a Wi-Fi or 3G signal. I was worried about being so disconnected from everything. How messed up is that?

At the lake, I was forced to disconnect. It was a Sabbath by circumstance. But still I benefitted from it. Here though, in Barboursville, at home where the Wi-Fi and the 3G are plentiful, where we are surrounded by a feast of other distractions—we have to make the choice to walk away. Here, Sabbath is an effort. So, what can we do to make resting and disconnecting from work and other distractions easier? What can we do to make reconnecting with each other easier? 

The answers to those questions are more practical than we think. Here’s a list of suggestions:

  1.  First is hanging up the phone. – There’s actually a word for anti-social phone use: “Phubbing.” Have a time everyday when you stack all the cellphones in the house in a pile—face-down. One on top of the other. Then go outside to play, or break out a board game or a deck of cards. The first one who touches their phone needs to do an extra chore next week.
  2. Make dinner together and then eat it around the kitchen table with one another. Same rules about smartphones apply.
  3. Do the same thing when you go out to eat. Stack your phones in the center of the table. The first one to touch their phone pays the bill.
  4. Unplug your Wi-Fi. Create your own tech Sabbath.Make a family trip to the bookstore. There are books made of paper there. Everybody gets to choose one to take home and read.
  5. Go out for a walk around the neighborhood. Say hello to everyone along the way.
  6. Ignore your calendars.
  7. Take your watches off your wrists and the clocks off the wall. Just for a day. Live by your own time.
  8. Stop using your smartphones as your alarm clocks.

There are tons more creative ways, but the point is choosing them. Make an effort to walk away, shut it off, put it down, unplug whatever it is. Disconnect yourself from the productivity machine we talked about weeks ago. Whatever you need to—make an effort to Choose Sabbath.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful.

Alleluia! Amen.

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