In my childhood quest to not just read about Laura Ingalls Wilder, but to BE Laura Ingalls Wilder I can remember days I tried to observe the Sabbath Ingalls style. Not later Ingalls-style, when Laura was a teenager and allowed to go on carriage rides with her beau, Almanzo Wilder, but early Ingalls-style, Little House the Big Woods-style.
(Read from book)
On Sundays Mary and Laura must not run or shout or be noisy in their play. Mary could not sew on her nine-patch quilt, and Laura could not knit on the tiny mittens she was making for Baby Carrie. They might look quietly at their paper dolls, but they must not make anything new for them. They were not allowed to sew on doll clothes, not even with pins.They must sit quietly and listen while Ma read Bible stories to them, or stories about lions and tigers and white bears from Pa’s big green book, The Wonders of the Animal World. They might look at pictures, and they might hold their rag dolls nicely and talk to them. But there was nothing else they could do.[i]
Or if I was feeling particularly ambitious, I’d try for Grandpa Ingalls’ Sabbath observance.
(Read from book)
When your Grandpa was a boy, Laura, Sunday did not begin on Sunday morning, as it does now. It began at sundown on Saturday night. Then everyone stopped every kind of work or play. Supper was solemn. After supper, Grandpa’s father read aloud a chapter of the Bible, while everyone sat straight and still in his chair. Then they all knelt down, and their father said a long prayer. When he said, ‘Amen,’ they got up from their knees and each took a candle and went to bed. They must go straight to bed, with no playing, laughing, or even talking.
Sunday morning they ate a cold breakfast, because nothing could be cooked on Sunday. Then they all dressed in their best
clothes and walked to church. They walked, because hitching up the horses was work, and no work could be done on Sunday.
They must walk slowly and solemnly, looking straight ahead. They must not joke or laugh or even smile. Grandpa and his two brothers walked ahead and their father and mother walked behind them.
When church was over, they walked slowly home. They might talk on the way, but they must not talk loudly and they must never laugh or smile. At home they ate a cold dinner which had been cooked the day before. Then all the long afternoon they must sit in a row on a bench and study their catechism, until at last the sun went down and Sunday was over.[ii]
Now THAT was some serious Sabbath. I didn’t last too long at any of my attempts, when like Laura, I just couldn’t stand it any longer and had to play. Thankfully, my Sabbath-breaking didn’t end with a stern lecture from Pa, but the relieved looks of my parents who had no idea what had gotten into me in the first place.
People have been trying to figure out what constitutes a holy Sabbath just about since the commandment was first given. The debate we heard about in Luke’s gospel wasn’t an account of some bully Pharisees picking on the new young preacher around Galilee. In fact, their decision to engage Jesus in theological debate was a sign of respect. It meant they saw him as a good teacher, as one who was knowledgeable in the Scriptures and the Law, as one who could possibly even help them sharpen their own understanding. The practice of studying the Law was a holy practice by which the whole community received blessing as they came closer to discerning the will of God for their lives. The Pharisees get a bad name in the Christian tradition, but they were really an extremely faithful group, trying to extend the Temple holiness codes to daily life, trying to encourage people to live their faith not just at festivals and sacrifices, but day in and day out.
And Sabbath was a good one to debate. The origin command came simply, first referenced in Moses’s explanation
of the manna that would come from heaven, “Tomorrow is a day of solemn, rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord.” (Exodus
16:23) “Six days you shall gather [manna]; but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.” (v. 26). Not too much later the Sabbath observance is codified when it is included as the fourth commandment in the first ten commandments given by God, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” (Exodus 20:8-11).
Here the Sabbath is a sign of Israel’s humanity and utter dependence on God. Resting is completely counter-intuitive in a nomadic, subsistence culture. The Israelites didn’t have pantries full of canned goods to whip out when hunting and gathering wasn’t allowed. Their food, even when not divinely provided like manna from heaven, was purchased at the grocery store with a shelf life of weeks on end. Not working ordinarily meant not eating, especially when they were wandering in the wilderness for forty years. Sabbath was a stark reminder of who they were as children of God,
utterly dependent on their divine mother to provide the milk they needed to survive, and whose they were as children of God, the God who even rested, putting a beginning and an ending on the time for work, resting and delighting in creation.
In another early understanding of the Sabbath commandment, the one from Deuteronomy, another meaning is attached to Sabbath. “Remember,” Moses speaks for God, “that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:15) Now in addition to spiritual and physical reasons, one that brings rest and renewal to the Israelites, their animals, their slaves, and the aliens among the, the Sabbath is also an economic statement and reminder of God’s deliverance. The Israelites had been slaves, forced to work day in and day out at an earthly king’s will. Now they were free people; the Sabbath was a sign of their freedom. They didn’t HAVE to work under the same conditions as they did as slaves, and on top of that neither should anyone or anything else in their midst. Sabbath was the gift of freedom.
So the questions the Pharisees ask Jesus are not questions that come out of the blue. Is plucking grain to eat breaking the Sabbath because it is the work of farmers or servants? Should not arrangements for food been made ahead of time to properly observe God’s commandment? And, yes, the rabbis agree that saving a life from certain death is permissible on the Sabbath, but a man with a withered hand? It was probably withered the day before, maybe even years before. It would be withered tomorrow. It wasn’t life-threatening in the most literal sense. It sounds harsh to question whether he should be healed on the Sabbath, but the Pharisees were just trying to help the Jewish people keep God’s commandments as faithfully as possible.
And so was Jesus, but they went about the same task in two very different ways. While the Pharisees tried to determine the exact letter of the law, the exact meaning to get it all exactly right, adding minutiae on top of the already detailed commandments to make sure every act of every day was covered by the sovereignty of God, Jesus went about his work another way. Instead of adding rules on top of rules to answer every possible questions or situation, he covered the law with one basic criteria – What will save life? Not just keep death at bay, but save life. Enrich living. Dwell in the Breath of Life. Abide in the living community.
That’s what the Sabbath was all about from the beginning. What will save the life of people who have a tendency to take matters into their own hand? Rest from matters at all. What will save the life of people whose work has been punishment, whose lives have been enslaved? Freedom from toil and bondage to the master of work. What will save the life of those who find themselves to be masters now, instead of slaves? The reminder that all people are worthy of rest and wholeness. Therefore, what will save the life of one whose withered hand, whose withered heart, whose withered and weary soul prevents them from living completely? Healing. Healing and restoration.
However, how we keep the Sabbath is rarely the discussion anymore in most of our circles. We don’t talk much about whether you should cook your meals on Saturday so you don’t have to do that work on Sunday. We don’t debate whether the Sabbath starts on Saturday at Sunday or 12:01 am on Sunday morning. In fact, I doubt most of us, myself included, have even used the word Sabbath in any recent memory. We talk about days off or weekends, but that’s not the same thing. Our days off and our weekends are a break in our usual routine, but for most of us they probably aren’t Sabbath. They are days to catch up. They are days for work around the house instead of work at our jobs or out in the community. They may be times for running our kids to soccer or hockey or birthday parties, but that’s not necessarily the same thing as Sabbath.
I know this not because I am a wonderful Sabbath-keeper. I know this because we are all still tired. I know this because we talk about needing a vacation from our vacations. I know this because we look and sound and act like we are weary, too weary to delight in life, too weary to rest with friends without anxiety about the state of cleanliness in our houses, too weary to have a casual afternoon with family or neighbors, too weary sometimes to bring ourselves to worship in the beloved community of God. I know that we are not paying attention to Sabbath because we are looking in a lot of different directions , to a lot of different things - - a pedicure, a movie, a self-help book, a relationship, a computer, a drink - - to bring us wholeness, to bring us life, and while some of these things can even be a part of Sabbath, they aren’t Sabbath. And they certainly aren’t the Lord of Sabbath. I know that we’re not seeking Sabbath practices in our lives because we are searching for life.
So what does Sabbath look like in the 21st century? Times have certainly changed since Moses brought the commandments of God to the Israelites in the wilderness. Times have certainly changed since Jesus and the Pharisees debated what is lawful about two thousand years ago. Times have even changed since Grandpa Ingalls was a little boy in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. Times have changed, economies have changed, transportation has changed, schedules have changed, but what hasn’t changed is this basic element of creation in the image of God. We have been given the gift of Sabbath.
We have been given the gift of a day of rest and renewal. We have been given the gift of time to not be in charge and to no have someone in charge of us, anyone other than the Lord of Life. We have been given the gift of community and worship and feasting and fellowship. We have been given the gift of healing.
When writing about trying to recover a 21st century practice of Sabbath, Dorothy Bass suggested this:
After worship, what many of us need most is timed with loved ones – not useful time, for planning next week’s schedules, but time
“wasted” on the pleasure of being together, perhaps while sharing our enjoyment of art, nature, or athletics. For others, and for all of us at certain points in our lives, hours of solitude beckon, hours for sleep, reading, reflection, walking, and prayer. In addition, we might explore the long tradition of visiting the homebound or inviting lonely ones to our table on the Christian Sabbath, when the joy these occasions bring can be experiences apart from the pressures of other appointments.[iii]
A friend of mine whose congregation observes Sabbath Sundays twice a month, times when the community of faith doesn’t even meet on Sunday morning, but worships Saturday even to welcome a time of Sabbath, wrote this even just this morning: “dog cuddling, jammie wearing, family board gaming, hockey playing, Pinocchio at the Children's Theater watching, and more family board gaming. A Sabbath Sunday line up the kids can get behind.”
Sabbath will look different for each of us, but what it is for all of us is a gift from God. A gift for saving our lives.
[i]Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House in the Big Woods. Harper Trophy: New York. 2004, p. 84-45
[ii]Ibid. p. 87-79.
[iii]Bass, Dorothy C. editor. Practicing our Faith. “Keeping Sabbath,” Jossey-Bass:San Francisco. p. 87.