Sabbath Wisdom

By Jane Lancaster Patterson

If you were reading or watching the news in June 2018, I think that one image has probably seared itself into your heart and mind: the image of a toddler being separated from her mother at our southern border. That image and a number: 1,995 children separated from their parents in six weeks, between April 19 and May 31, 2018.

For people whose religious visual imagination has been shaped by a seemingly endless number of images of one particular mother and her child (Mary and Jesus, who were also, according to the Gospel of Matthew, refugees in Egypt during the reign of Herod), to us, these counter-images of young children being separated from their mothers were distressing. They call into question who we have become as a nation, and who we are in particular, we who give up our at-home Sundays to be here in God’s house. I don’t even know where to begin to do something effective.

And then Jesus steps into our midst this morning and says, “The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” The kingdom of God is apparently not about effort, brains, effectiveness. I have a little experience with something like that, at least as regards gardening. The area of San Antonio where I live consists of a very thin layer of soil over limestone bedrock. To dig into our soil requires a pick. I’m not that big, but I wield a mean pick, and I’ve managed to dig up an area big enough and deep enough for an herb garden.

There were several areas in our yard that I thought would be perfect for Mountain Laurels, but I don’t have the strength to dig a hole big enough for a five-gallon pot. On my daily walks, I started surreptitiously gathering seeds from under our neighbors’ Mountain Laurels and just tossing them in the vague direction of the areas where I thought they would look good, if they took hold. Time passed. I slept and rose night and day, and those seeds did take hold and sprout, I knew not how.

So … what is the real wisdom that lies beneath Jesus’ parables today?

Because I teach New Testament in a seminary, I get to spend a lot of time with Jesus. I think we’re so used to thinking of Jesus as completely extraordinary, from the moment of his very first breath, that we fail to notice the spiritual disciplines that shape his identity in an ongoing way. He knows his Scriptures backward and forward, he takes time for prayer even in the middle of the night, he feasts and he fasts … and he keeps the Sabbath.

The more I spend time with Jesus, the more I see him as the very embodiment of Sabbath wisdom, and his preaching of the kingdom of God as an invitation into this wisdom, into a space of delight and joy, of fruitfulness and connection, a place where justice and compassion and mercy can begin to take hold, sprouting and growing, we know not how. It may sound weird to talk about the importance of the Sabbath for Jesus, because he seems to have argued with other rabbis all the time about how to keep the Sabbath. But he doesn’t argue with them at all about whether to keep it.

I’ve already admitted to being a lazy gardener, so I might as well admit that I am also a really terrible Sabbath-keeper as measured by any norms of devout Sabbath-keeping. But even the small level of practice I’ve done has taught me more than all my days of errand-running and last-minute work on to-do lists all added together. So I want to share a little of what I’ve learned, and then come back to our parables for today, the man with his seeds and the gigantic mustard bush.

To “keep” the Sabbath means to guard it, to guard it not only from others who might want to infringe upon it, but from our reluctance to stop doing and making. Sabbath-keeping is a tradition of the Jewish people that goes back thousands of years. For most of that time Jews have not been under home rule — they have been under some other nation’s power, and even so, even when they were far from home, they made a kind of temple for God out of time, out of the rhythm of the week. They have guarded that day with their lives. Jesus, too, guarded that day. So what is so important about the Sabbath?

At its heart, the Sabbath is about a no and a yes. No to any kind of work. And yes to doing whatever allows us to stand back and give thanks. Our model is in the creation story, when God stops working and looks back over everything done in the six days and sees how beautiful it all is. It’s as simple and as difficult as that. You can complicate the Sabbath: Is it okay to carry a sweater across a room? to carry keys? to turn on electric lights? to cook food? to take an elevator? But at its best, the Sabbath is just stopping and looking. The power of it grows over time.

I learned some of the best things about Sabbath-keeping from Lauren Winner in her book Mudhouse Sabbath, and from reading the blogs that turned up when I did a Google search on hip young Jewish woman sabbath. I don’t have what you could really call a practice of Sabbath, but I do have some experiences of it. Sadly, I have learned that some of the things many of us think would be perfectly delightful and appropriate for the Sabbath (getting a massage, putting in a garden) actually get in the way of the core learnings, which are these: we are not the center of the universe; and the world is complete as it is; it does not need us and our labor to reach completion.

The Sabbath is not a way to get the rest you deny yourself most of the week. God didn’t rest on the sixth day because the other days were so exhausting. According to Genesis, the other days were pretty exhilarating. Every day God sees how good the next part of the creation is, and blesses it. Sabbath-keeping isn’t about getting the rest we need so that we can go back at it the following week; rather, the Sabbath calls into question our habit of working to exhaustion, and our expectation that everyone else will do the same or the world will grind to a halt.

The Sabbath isn’t about getting around to some of the things we love to do and create, as good as those things are. If left to my own devices, my choice for the Sabbath would be to garden, to knit, to paint. But Lauren Winner convinced me that if I did these things, I would be depriving myself of the greatest gift that the Sabbath has to give: the whole world itself, in its beauty. What we do on the Sabbath is receive the world as something wholly complete without our lifting a finger. The world that has been given to us is alive, intricate, lovely, intimate, awesome. On the Sabbath all we do is receive the gift of this world, and in doing so, we drop back into our rightful place as human beings. On the Sabbath we put down the mammoth lie that we are all-powerful and all-necessary to the smooth functioning of the world, and we simply receive.

The hardest, but most significant, part of Sabbath-keeping for me is the proscription against creating anything — no knitting, no painting, no gardening. I love to do these things, and I find God in them, but they mess with the deeper awareness that everything is a gift, that I was put here not to work, but to give thanks. The creation is done. Just say thank you.

And here’s the hardest thing of all: the Sabbath is also not about “me time.” It isn’t about bubble baths and massages. True Sabbath-keeping moves our little selves out of the center of our consciousness, and moves the rest of the world into our field of vision. Like all animals, we should rest. And as humans we should make time for activities we really enjoy, and for taking care of our bodies. But these activities are not Sabbath. Sabbath-keeping is for radical gratitude. What helps put you in that place of bone-deep gratitude? A walk in the woods? A leisurely car ride like my grandparents used to take? Eating popsicles with your children?

Now I think I have an idea of what you’re thinking right now, because I’ve talked about Sabbath-keeping with our students, so I know the tendency to think that our employers or professors or other people we are obligated to are preventing us from keeping the Sabbath. But anyone who has Googled hip young Jewish woman sabbath knows that this is not the case. The sad truth is that no one is going to give you the Sabbath. No one is going to make it easy for you. Once you start trying to make space for the Sabbath, it reorients your whole week, because everything you’ve been doing either has to get done in six days or be dropped. Sabbath-keeping is a great tool for figuring out what is really important because you cannot get it all done in six days.

But you can be more alive than you have ever been. In her memoir, Stranger in the Midst, Nan Fink writes:

On Friday afternoon, at the very last minute, we’d rush home, stopping at the grocery to pick up supplies. Flying into the kitchen, we’d cook ahead for the next twenty-four hours. Soup and salad, baked chicken, yams and applesauce for dinner, and vegetable cholent or lasagna for the next day’s lunch. Sometimes I’d think how strange it was to be in such a frenzy to ready for a day of rest.

Shabbat preparations had their own rhythm, and once the table was set and house straightened, the pace began to slow. “It’s your turn first in the shower,” I’d call to Michael. “Okay, but it’s getting late,” he’d answer, concerned about starting Shabbat at sunset.

[After my shower] when I joined Michael and his son for the lighting of the candles, the whole house seemed transformed. Papers and books were neatly piled, flowers stood in a vase on the table, and the golden light of the setting sun filled the room.

Shabbat is like nothing else. Time as we know it does not exist for these twenty-four hours, and the worries of the week soon fall away. A feeling of joy appears. The smallest object, a leaf or a spoon, shimmers in a soft light, and the heart opens. Shabbat is a meditation of unbelievable beauty.

When Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God, when he speaks of a world that is not earned, but given, he is inviting us into a way of life that is shaped by Sabbath wisdom, slowly deepening week after week. The clarity of the Sabbath teaches us that the kingdom of God is not ours to build, but ours to receive. The level of justice that God is imagining, the depth of mercy that God sees us capable of — these are things that elude us in the rush of the everyday. The kingdom isn’t subject to being built with human activity because it doesn’t belong to us. It is wholly God’s. We can foster its conditions, we can work in harmony with it, but we cannot redouble our efforts to force it to appear. Indeed, it is already here for those who stop to welcome it.

The kingdom of God arises of its own when we stand back, when we take our rightful place with all of our neighbors and realize that our lives together in this world are sheer gift. That woman on the border reaching out to her daughter — they are gifts, not burdens. How can we receive them as such? What does wisdom teach us? Run the film backward, see the woman worrying about taking care of her daughter even before the child is born. How far back do you have to go to keep her away from that border crossing?

A lot of the time I find myself despairing over the impossibility of our figuring out how to respond to the serious challenges of our day in a way that honors the God we worship. I catch myself thinking that justice is not going to come in our time, that peace and freedom for all are not going to come without a superhuman amount of effort and imagination and perseverance and strategizing.

But this morning I’m beginning to wonder if we’d do better to think of the ground of our country as something like the ground I have in my yard — alkaline soil, full of stones, baking under the sun. The reason I felt pretty confident about tossing some Mountain Laurel seeds into that unlikely situation was that I know that Mountain Laurels are native to my neighborhood. What I think Jesus is saying to us today is that justice, the kingdom of God, is native to our world, native to our nation. The world was made for justice and peace and freedom, and it was made this way long before we existed.

What if we are not even the ones who plant the seeds? What if our hearts are that unpromising limestone bedrock into which God is tossing seeds of justice and compassion and mercy, seeds of the love of God and love of neighbor, our hearts being (according to God) their native ground?

That intense image of the mother and daughter may somehow be a seed of the Kingdom. What will we do with it, as the people of God? Perhaps we will have the courage and forbearance to put down both our burdens and our self-importance, to stand back and ask God to show us what real security looks like, for us and for them. Perhaps, by our guarding the Sabbath, seeds like that will send their roots down into our hearts and their stems up. Flourishing, they might send forth wise and strong branches, even places for strangers to make their nests, we know not how. God knows.

Thanks be to God for the alternation of rest and work; for seeds of wisdom and clarity; and for all that is so much bigger than ourselves that we do not control, and do not make, and do not know. May your kingdom come. Amen.

The Rev. Jane Patterson, PhD, is associate professor of New Testament at Seminary of the Southwest and serves the Diocese of West Texas as missioner for adult formation.


Online Archives