In the last months of my mother’s life, I came to understand the essence of balance. It seems that everything – physical, spiritual, emotional – everything keeps coming back to the essence of balance. As our earthly bodies grow older, it becomes more and more difficult to keep our nutrients in balance or to keep our fluid levels in balance. If we have too little fluid, we become dehydrated, a condition that leads to slow and certain death; if we have too much fluid, our hearts becomes congested and fail. If we try to force fluid into our bodies intravenously, our weakened systems cannot easily accommodate. We could say, death – physical death, spiritual death, and emotional death – is about loss of balance.
Similarly, Sabbath is about balance – balance of worship, mission, and rest; balance in honoring God, balance in honoring our neighbor, and, importantly, balance in honoring ourselves as essential elements in God’s Creation.
The fourth of our Ten Commandments addresses the essence of Sabbath: Remember the Sabbath Day, and keep it holy.
This Fourth Commandment is the pivotal commandment – the balancing commandment. Our first three Commandments from the Hebrew text of Exodus 20 address our relationship with God specifically. We shall have no other gods before our God; we shall not make for ourselves idols to be worshipped in the place of our God who is a jealous God; and we shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord our God.
On the other hand, Commandments Five through Ten address very specifically our relationship with our neighbor: We should honor our father and mother; we shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness against our neighbor, or covet our neighbors’ possessions or relationships.
The Fourth Commandment, however, is pivotal in that it guides our response in our relationship with God and guides our response to our neighbor; and, it guides our personal needs for spiritual, emotional, and physical balance.
Remember the Sabbath Day, and keep it holy. Remember the Sabbath Day. How is it that remembering the Sabbath Day and keeping it holy keeps us balanced in our honoring of God, neighbor, and self? Do we honor this balance in our Sabbath Day worship? I hesitate to add, that the commandment says nothing of “worshiping” on the Sabbath. But it is Sabbath as defined by God that leaves time for our worship as well as our acts of mercy, and, importantly, rest from our earthly labors.
It is in keeping Sabbath that our eyes are opened to our need to see the reality of our own personal crippling bondage, opened to our need to draw closer to God for our own healing so that our eyes are opened to the needs of our neighbors around us who are suffering spiritually, physically, and emotionally.
Our Sabbath worship is not an end in itself. The clear message of this Gospel account from Luke is that keeping the Sabbath holy does not include shutting ourselves off from the needs of God’s creation. In fact, as our Sabbath eyes are opened to human need, our acts of mercy are necessary to the keeping of the Sabbath; and, our eyes are opened to the necessity of our own self-care as it relates to our call to mission and the honoring of our appropriate essential place as part of God’s sacred creation.
And, yes, God rested on the seventh day, and he intends for us to take time to rest in his presence – to breathe deeply into our souls the sweet breath of redemption.
Our Gospel account of Jesus’ healing of the crippled woman on the Sabbath includes Jesus’ chastisement by the leaders of synagogue for violating the Fourth Commandment by performing this healing. Did Jesus violate the keeping of the Sabbath by performing this act of mercy that freed this woman from the bondage of infirmity that had plagued her for eighteen years?
Sabbath is a divine gift, as was this gift of healing that Jesus, unsolicited and freely, delivered to this woman in the synagogue; Sabbath observance is not to be seen as a burden. Surely, God intends that we honor the Sabbath with rest from our earthly labors. But we honor the Sabbath on God’s terms, and we cannot keep this day truly holy if, in arrogance or complacency, we misuse or ignore this gift for purely selfish self-serving purposes – unbalancing the scales too much toward our selfish desires.
Tilden Edwards, the author of Sabbath Time tells us that we keep the Sabbath holy by “faithfully maintaining the balance among worship, play, rest, work, community, and ministry. The rhythm of Sabbath and ministry, Edwards says, is a rhythm that God provides to human life for its care, cleaning, and opening to grace.” The way of life for one who remembers the Sabbath is a way of life that is “tested by scripture, tradition, and the fresh movement of the Holy Spirit in our time.”
The Gospel message is that our time is not our own, and we are not to go through life with that mistaken assumption. Sabbath is a way of life – a divine gift from our God who loves us beyond our understanding; we accept this divine gift with even greater intentional graciousness than the graciousness with which we receive other treasured gifts given to us by those who love us.
In remembering the Sabbath Day, we experience the holiness of our relationship with God in concert with our relationship with our neighbor. Sabbath is a way of life – a holy balance that honors God, our neighbor, and our own place in that balance.
As we come as participants in the Holy Communion celebrated by Christ at the Last Supper with his closest disciples, Christ, in the same way, is present with us. We come with our crippled bodies and spirits to be healed by his mercy and, thus, to be the avenue of healing for others. It is the keeping of the way of life of the Sabbath – worship, acts of mercy, and rest. Sabbath is to be “a spring whose restorative water never fails,” to repeat the beautiful words of the prophet Isaiah; our Sabbath is to be the balancing restorative waters of our place in relationship with God and neighbor.