The Sabbath was made for us.
What a radical concept.
The Creator of the cosmos made everything that was made, in six days, and on the seventh day, the Creator, God the Father, chose to rest. Why? Come to that, why did God choose to make people? Remember your Baltimore Catechism? Why did God make us? God made us to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.
God created us because it pleased God to have human company with whom God could live in creation. God is a relational being. And like any good father, God is showing us, His beloved children: this is the Way.
Here in the first reading (Deuteronomy 5:12-15), we find a portion of the Ten Commandments. This is, yes, a rerun – not fresh from Mount Sinai but in Deuteronomy, a word that means “second law.” Here we rediscover the teachings as we learn and grow in our relationship with God. And today’s reading focuses on keeping the Sabbath. That is central, fundamental, a core belief – a core belief being one that resides in the cor, the couer, the cardium. The heart.
Why is sabbath keeping so vital, so necessary for living, that God himself sets us an example?
We often think of sabbath keeping as oppressive, a list of rules designed to make Sunday about ninety-six hours long and impossibly boring. We might suspect that grown-ups designed the Sabbath so that children would look forward to returning to school on Monday.
This is not, I don’t think, how the people of Deuteronomy thought of the
Sabbath. To these people, so close to the exodus, the law that God gave to Moses for them, that law was life. And near the top of the list was this: remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
To keep a sabbath is as necessary to being alive in God and with God as breathing, respiration, inspiration. To keep a sabbath is critical to being a person created by God and created for God’s good pleasure and company. We are not alive in God unless we are treating commandments as how to be alive.
We often take pride in not taking a break. When I was in college, I made the saying, “I can rest when I’m dead” sort of a personal motto. But now? Now that I’m a lot older and maybe a little wiser? I depend on having a sabbath day each week. When that happens, the effect is what God intends. It is life-giving. It fills me up for the week to come and nourishes me.
It’s no accident that God sets us an example by taking a day of rest. Psalm eighty-one (1-10) tells us the same thing: I relieved your shoulder of the burden. In at least one translation, we hear: “This is laid down for Israel; O Israel, if you would only listen.” The Sabbath is life-giving. God intends it for our benefit. Paul in Second Corinthians (4:5-12) says this: “Since we have such a hope we are bold to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. … Death is at work in us but life in you.”
Hear that: Life is at work in you. There is in us life, vital and holy, living and sacred.
Physical existence requires only air, water, and nourishment. A plant can survive if it has those elements. But even a plant needs something more. For us humans, physical existence requires certain elements, air and water and nourishment. For us to move beyond simple existence, to move toward actual life, vital and holy, living and sacred, we need more: we need God; we need relationships; we need rest. Not just the sleep that allows our cells to do their work: rest. Vital and holy, living and sacred. Rest that gives life.
Back to those plants. To survive, plants need air, water, and light. And they need one more thing. Plants need rest. They need nightly cycles of rest – and they need seasons of dormancy. “Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light,” the poet writes. So it is with us, whom God created.
God relieved his people’s shoulders of a burden when he gave them the law, and as soon as God established in the commandments that they should worship only God, and no more of the golden calf, comes this life-giving commandment: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
And so to the Gospel reading for the day, in which the authorities object to Jesus violating Jewish custom and practice by laboring on the Sabbath – that would be picking grain – and healing on the Sabbath: also work.
And here is the response of Jesus of Nazareth, the Teacher, the traveling rabbi, the observant Jewish male who also happens to be the Son of God and God in human form: The Sabbath is made for us, not we for the Sabbath – so that the Son of Man is Lord even over the Sabbath.
What does this mean? The Son of Man. This Son of Man has lordship, authority, direction, even over the day that God commanded God’s people to set aside for rest. Because Jesus knows, Jesus has the authority of God to un-derstand: Deep in our roots – to keep the light – is our need for rest.
Anne Lamott, my favorite accidental theologian, writes of being persuaded to take a cruise with some good friends. For the first day or two, she is too self-conscious of her aging body to put on a swimsuit and sit on the deck in the sun, or even in the shade. But then, gradually, she discovers the secret to wearing a swimsuit after age 40:
I felt safe with the people around me now. This sense of safety suddenly made it clear to me that, looking at us, God saw not walruses but babies: radiant and befuddled, all these hearts at temporary rest. When you rest, you watch your breath, and it fills your lungs and holds you up, like water wings, like my father in the deep end of the rec center pool.
Rest. As vital to us as the air we breathe, the spirit that dwells in us, the Father who holds us up, the Son who walks with us. Rest. Amen.
 The Baltimore Catechism 1, 1891, in the public domain.
 Theodore Roethke, “The Stony Garden,” from his notebooks, 1949-52.
 Anne Lamott, “Cruise Ship,” in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.