Walking at the Speed of Love - Practicing Sabbath.


Busy day? Alongside chat about the weather it is probably one of the most common forms of painful small talk that we like to employ. Have we ever stopped to wonder why anyone would care about this? Why do they want to know if we are busy or not? But it seems we all want to know, we’re all obsessed with asking each other: busy day?

It’s as if this is the mark of the life well lived. If you’re busy then you must be doing it right!

I have had fun lately at the supermarket checkout trying different answers with this question. Instead of saying, “Oh yeah you know how it is, very busy” I have been saying something like “Oh not really, I’ve practically done nothing all day, it’s been great.” Just the look on people’s faces is worth it. The range is from quiet jealousy to disbelief.

Why do we care so much about being busy?

How has being “busy” become so trendy?

We can value busyness for lots of different reasons:

If we are busy enough we can avoid facing difficult facts. Often when life is tough we might keep busy to avoid facing reality.

We also keep busy because in a sense it feels as if it justifies our worth. Being busy can make us feel important and as if we are contributing something.

We might keep busy to keep out of trouble:

There is an old English saying, “Idle hands are the devil’s playthings.”

But my hunch is this: part of our obsession with busyness in the 21st century is a result of consumer culture, what one journalist calls “turbo-capitalism.”[1] Its’ this worldview which commodifies everything and understands everything in terms of economic value. Busyness is to do with our understanding of time and we often talk about time in such economic terms.

We talk about spending time, investing time, wasting time.

Time is often seen as a commodity that we just don’t have enough of. The clock is ticking and time functions as a kind of relentless master. Ever since the industrial revolution we have viewed time in a clockwork and calendar manner. We have talked about time management, productivity, efficiency. These are all highly valued in our modern way of thinking.

I have a colour co-ordinated calendar. It’s great. My calendar is my friend. I love being organized, I pride myself on being on time…most of the time.

But what is the cost of all of this? What does this way of thinking about time emphasize? Do we ever stop to think about it?

In his book entitled “In Praise of Slow” Carl Honore says:

“These days we exist to serve the economy, rather than the other way round. Long hours on the job are making us unproductive, error-prone, unhappy and ill. Doctor’s offices are swamped with people suffering from conditions brought on by stress: insomnia, migraines, hypertension, asthma and gastrointestinal trouble, to name but a few. The current work culture is also undermining our mental health.”[2]

I think that this observation is accurate. So many people I talk to mention how tired they are, how busy they are and how full their schedules are.

The big question for me is: What is the good news of Christianity in light of this reality? Does the Gospel address this major problem?

At times I would say religion has added to the problem. Churches are good at giving people more to jam in their schedules. Various groups, rosters and all kinds of things can just add more to our already full plate.

Protestant Christianity has also given us a work-ethic that is on one hand admirable but on the other not so healthy. Biblically speaking it is only one half of the story.

So, what’s the other half? What is the good news in a busy world?

We find the first hint right at the beginning of the Christian story. In the Creation poem at the start of the Bible, God creates the world, God works, and then on the seventh day, God rests.

Genesis 2 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

Why on earth would God rest?

Even a basic understanding of God’s power leads me to assume it wasn’t because God was tired.

In our busy and driven world this is quite something to contemplate – God resting. What’s that about?

Even more thought, God set aside this day for people to join him in resting.

In Exodus 20 we hear about the people of God being given the day of Sabbath, a day of rest to celebrate.

As we journey through Lent as a community here at St John’s we are looking at six spiritual practices which re-invigorate our relationship with God. Today, if you haven’t guessed already we are going to take a look at the practice of Sabbath and why it is so central to a healthy spirituality, especially in our busy and stressed out 21st century lives.

So, what is Sabbath?

“Sabbath” is the English translation of common Hebrew word meaning “stopping/stoppage/cessation.” Quite simply, the Sabbath is the day for stopping.[3]

Sabbath is one day a week to stop work. It is a time to cease production and to rest.

It’s worth noting too that the Sabbath is included in the ten commandments. This isn’t a gentle suggestion from God, rather the people of God are called to keep this in obedience to the way of life God has given them in response to his love.

The background to this commandment in Exodus sets the scene as to why it was so important for the Jewish people to keep Sabbath.

In the history books of the Bible, in the story of Exodus, God delivers the people of Israel from slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt. Pharaoh is the hard task master of the slaves and they have to work endlessly for his grandiose projects. We hear that Pharaoh “ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field.” (Ex 1:14)

The people were treated as cogs in the system, their only values was seen as what they could produce.

And then the story of Exodus tells us how God rescues them.

God leads the Jews out of slavery and then God gives them commandments to live by – the ten commandments – and one of these commandments is this: to “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.”

God commands them to take a break.

God knows they need it. Not just because they are weary but because if they don’t they will hold on to their old way of life.

He knows that after slavery they have to learn a new way of life, a way of life that is in rhythm with who he made them to be in the first place.

The Jews had been formed by their time in Egypt by the systems of Pharaoh.

Walter Brueggemann has written an excellent book on this called: “Sabbath as Resistance.”

He says this: “If one is a slave, one has anxiety about the brick quotas. If one is a Pharaoh, one is anxious about the food monopoly….” The gods of Egypt and Pharaoh are gods who “demand endless produce and who authorize endless systems of production that are, in principle, insatiable.”

Applying this to our context he says:

“In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.”

The point is that God isn’t interested in commodity like Pharaoh. Yahweh, the God of Israel is interested in relationship. The Sabbath makes it clear that God is not a workaholic, God is not anxious about creation and that the ongoing sustenance of creation doesn’t depend on endless work.

Sabbath is a reminder to the Jews who were rescued from Egypt and to us that life is a gift, that God sustains all of life, and that he delights in relationship. Sabbath is a day to just be and more than that it is a day to be with the Lord.

Sabbath reminds us that God’s time is different to our own.

Japan is a country known for its busyness and workaholism.

In fact, in Japan they have a word – karoshi – which means “death by overwork.” In the year 2001 the Japanese government reported a record 143 victims of karoshi.[4]

Considering this it is wonderful that one of the best reflections I could find on the difference between God’s time and our own is written by a Japanese theologian, Kosuke Koyama. He says this:

“God walks slowly because he is love. If he is not love he would have gone much faster. Love has its speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It is ‘slow’ yet it is Lord over all other speeds since it is the speed of love. It goes on in the depth of our life, whether we notice it or not, at three miles an hour. It is the speed we walk and therefore the speed the love of God walks.”[5]

I love that idea of the “speed of love.” I am sure you know from experience that love takes time. It can’t be rushed.

Friendships develop over years and countless cups of coffee, nurturing children with love takes time (and patience), a good marriage requires time spent face to face.

God has gifted us time to be experienced in this way.

The practice of Sabbath, of taking one day a week to rest in relationship with God and with others is a gift God gives us to reminds us of who we really are. We are his beloved creation.

He knows us and loves us before we are born (Ps 138, Jer 1).

Nothing we do, nothing we can produce can make him love us more.

Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew is so deeply ironic because the teachers of the Jewish law, the Pharisees completely miss this.

They have turned Sabbath into a kind of performance.

Jesus does something good and life-giving on the Sabbath. He feeds and heals and all the Pharisees can see is him breaking the rules.

Whenever any of the commandments of Scripture are severed from relationship with God they cease to make any sense. Every imperative in Scripture is meaningless without the relationship behind it. The Sabbath doesn’t exist for its own sake but rather to deepen relationship with the God who took the time to create us because He is love.

Sabbath has been a hugely life-giving practice for me and my family. On Friday nights we have a special meal, light a candle and say a prayer. Then we ditch social media and our phones and until dinner the next day we go for walks, hang out with friends, read books, pray, and just delight in our relationships with God and each other.

It doesn’t matter what day it is – the point is that the day exists weekly for us so we can enter into rest with God. Commonly people pray and play. They read Scripture or a devotional work, do things they love, enjoy creation, eat, sleep, and for the married the Rabbi’s encourage lovemaking on the Eve of the Sabbath, so there you go!

There are lots of good books on Sabbath and finding ways to practice it in your household, but the main point is the invitation to actually do it.

I’ll be honest I struggle with it sometimes – there is always more to do, but there always will be more to do. “If we refuse to rest until we are finished we will never rest until we die.”[6]

Taking time to pause and celebrate the Sabbath will be a challenge for us. In a restless culture being restful is countercultural. However this is nothing new.

The prophet Amos had some scathing words for the rich and powerful business people of his day who ignored God’s commands. In Amos chapter 8 we find this:

Amos 8:4-5

4 Hear this, you that trample on the needy,

and bring to ruin the poor of the land,

5 saying, “When will the new moon be over

so that we may sell grain;

and the sabbath,

so that we may offer wheat for sale?

and in vs 11

The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,

when I will send a famine on the land;

not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,

but of hearing the words of the Lord.

12 They shall wander from sea to sea,

and from north to east;

they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,

but they shall not find it.

The logical consequence of ignoring the Sabbath and refusing to acknowledge God is a judgement whereby God’s presence is sought but not found. In self-reliance and arrogance the people Amos criticises are those who go their own way without God and distance themselves from his presence.

So this Lent, may we learn to walk with God at the speed of love. Let’s ditch busyness and take up the practice of Sabbath. Amen.

[1]Carl Honore “In Praise of Slow”

[2] Carl Honore, In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed (London: Orion, 2005), 5.

[3] Stuart, D. K. (2006). Exodus (Vol. 2, pp. 458–459). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers

[4] Carl Honore, In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed (London: Orion, 2005), 6.

[5] Kosuke Koyama, Three Mile an Hour God: Biblical Reflections (New York: Orbis, 1979), 7

[6] Quote from Wayne Muller in Sabbath.

Josh Taylor