“What does it mean to keep the Sabbath during a lockdown?”
Since Wednesday, which was Ash Wednesday, we have been in the season of Lent. For many followers of Jesus, Lent has historically been a period of about 40 days of prayerful remembrance of the time Jesus spent in the desert, just before he began his public ministry. Because those 40 days also lead up to Good Friday, they tend to be a sombre time, life in the shadow of the cross.
In some churches I’ve served, we would have a service in which we did the imposition of ashes, the sign of the cross on each person’s forehead, as a sign of penitence, with the quiet whisper of the haunting words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The phrase cannot help but remind us of what we hear at the graveside. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Many of us grew up with, or at least have heard of the custom of giving something up for Lent. Some of my Catholic friends talk about being told that since Jesus gave up his life, the least they can do is give up chocolate, or tobacco, or alcohol for the duration.
The day before Ash Wednesday is Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. We also call it Pancake Tuesday, from the old custom of using up the richer food ingredients in the kitchen, like butter, adn eggs, and syrup, before moving to simpler, less celebratory food for the 6 weeks of Lent.
It may seem strange this year to talk about a time of voluntary deprivation, since many of us may feel like we are already giving up a lot for Covid. Those of us who are sticking with the protocols, have given up eating out, travelling, having friends and family over, going to the gym. We keep our distance from people, and can’t even see faces because of the masks, except on screens.
So what sense does it make to talk about giving up even more, for Lent? Maybe none, if we think of it only in terms of making a sacrifice, to prove we are worthy of something. That kind of giving up maybe isn’t really the point because we might be doing it mostly to make it seem like we are doing the proper religious things.
When I read the gospel stories about Jesus, I see someone who did not interest himself all that much in the outward appearance of being faithful. He was far more concerned about what was in people’s hearts. Jesus had little patience for those who would enforce religious rules for their own sake, without showing any care for the actual people involved.
One story we heard today is a good example- Jesus and his friends were on the road, travelling from one village to another. They were hungry, and they were poor, and even if they had the funds, there were no roadside restaurants where they could buy food.
Jesus’ friends knew there was a religious rule and custom that said that when a crop had been harvested, anything not bundled and put up for storage, anything remaining in the field, was to be left for the poor, the widows and orphans, and strangers who had no land of their own. Jesus’ friends took grain and worked it in their palms to get the kernels, to get some meagre sustenance.
It happened there were Pharisees, kind of religious by-law enforcement officers, who saw what they were up to, and called them on it. Technically, they were harvesting, doing work on the Sabbath, which was against their religious laws.
The Pharisees were educated, which was a sign of privilege. They were employed, which tells us about their wealth and status. They held positions of respect and authority. They watched poor, itinerant peasants scrounging a rough, unappetizing meal, and rather than saying, “Come home with us and we will fix you something decent to eat.”, they said, “Why are you doing that, breaking a Sabbath rule?”
The answer is obvious, to anyone who has ever been hungry, or felt responsible to feed a hungry loved one.
Jesus taught, with his words and his actions, that what God hopes and longs for is that our words, and our actions, will be rooted in, and governed by love and compassion.
I don’t know if the Pharisees in the story meant to be mean. Maybe they’d just fallen into unhealthy, unhelpful habits. Maybe they were kind of operating on automatic pilot, acting without thinking, or feeling. Maybe they forgot to take a prayerful pause, and imagine what it would be like for them, if they were far from home, and were hungry, and had no other option, but to eat raw grain.
Maybe, at the end of the day, at least one of the Pharisees went home, and when they were laying down to sleep, reviewing the events of their day, a little voice broke through the restlessness in their heart, and said, “You know the Rabbi Jesus had a point. An empty belly trumps some rule about Sabbath observance.”
We may recognize that quiet moment at the end of the day, when we have to live within our own skin, and lay down, and try to rest. When we wonder, “Have I loved well today? Have I helped anyone? If I died tonight, and was called to account for my life, what would the events of this day, say about the state of my soul?”
Lent has traditionally been a time to take an honest look at ourselves, in light of the teachings of Jesus, and look for ways to do better. To let go of what no longer serves. To develop new, better habits of thinking, and doing, if the old ones do more harm than good.
Lent is a time to consider who we are meant to be, and what we are here for, in this life. That’s still worth doing, maybe even more important to do, in this strange year we have been having.
Lately our learning times have been about spiritual practices from the life of Jesus, that can be of help to us during the Pandemic. Today I am thinking about what it means to keep the Sabbath.
For a lot of us, the word Sabbath brings to mind going to the church building. We gather, greet our friends and neighbours, shake hands, or embrace, or at least smile across the room. We find our place in a pew, and prepare ourselves to pray, and sing, and open our hearts and minds to God’s presence with us in our faith community. Do you remember that? Do you miss that?
Our county has moved from grey to red, but we are going to hold off for a while, and see how things go, before we make plans to return to Sunday mornings in the building. Our worship team will continue, for the time being, meeting in the sanctuary on Thursday afternoons to record our worship videos. If you’d like to attend a recording session, let us know, and we can save you a seat. Under the current rules we have room for at least 25 people to attend. Call the church, or send us an email if you’d like to have the in person worship experience. We know that won’t work for everyone.
If you are not attending church in the way we are used to, by coming to the building, how do you celebrate the Sabbath? I hear from some folks that they “go to church” in their living room, or at the breakfast table, with a warm morning beverage. They may still be in pyjamas when they turn on the laptop, or tablet, and watch the Youtube video. Some have told me they like to get out their hymn book, and sing along when Larry plays the unsung hymns.
I’ve also heard some folks like to play our Youtube video on their phone, and listen to it like a podcast, as they do their morning walk. I like that idea.
I hope the worship videos we produce are a helpful part of your Sabbath observance. There are other things you can do, to mark some time as special. You could light a candle, and sit quietly, and read scripture. Psalms are great for this. Some people like to sing their favourite hymns, which become a channel through which their prayers, feelings, and deeper thoughts can flow.
You can open a blank notebook, and write a letter to God. Tell God about your day, your week. Write down your words of thanks, your questions, your worries. Write down the names of people, and the concerns that are the focus of your prayers.
Some people like to draw, or weave, or knit their prayers. Some carve them in wood, or mold them in clay. Some mix them into the food they prepare for others to enjoy. It won’t be long before some will be planting their prayers with the seeds in starter pots.
However you do it, do it. Set aside time to be with God, to remember who you are, and who you are meant to be. Amen