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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College in Holland, MI.

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Hope College, Holland, MI


The Sabbath as a Lesson on Rest and Work (A Sermon on Exodus 20:8-11)

January 26, 2014

"Here we go again, a message about slowing down when what I really need to do is speed up."[1] This may not be your first thought upon hearing "The Sabbath as a Lesson on Rest and Work" as the sermon title, but it might be for the neighbor sitting to your left or right. The dependable churchgoer whose commitments as of late feel more like bondage than blessing. Begrudgingly, they have awaken to the notion that they belong to the 10% of people doing 90% of the work. Burdened by impending college applications and advanced placement exams, not to mention the unremitting campaign for popularity, to the high school student the concept of rest is incomputable. They have been judged by perceptions, percentiles, and parental expectation as long as they can remember. And then, of course, there is the mom or dad, the husband or wife, the single person -- trying to keep their head above water thinking that if they just work hard enough and long enough that upward mobility will be achieved or sustained. They would love a TV timeout from life's unforgiving broadcast, a break to "woosah" and get dizzy walking a labyrinth or to let Calgon take them away into bath salt bliss, but there aren't enough hours in the day for all of that jazz. Someone has to climb the mountain of financial security and play the game of life to win.

I understand. A lot of people have an air of entitlement these days, a lackadaisical "blah" approach to life and the responsibility that it requires. They hardly commit to anything worthwhile, not to mention work. Gosh-darn slackers! Guilty of what the early church called acedia or sloth, these men and women, boys and girls are cogs in the assembly line of efficiency. I understand. But while this depiction is accurate, the majority of people that I encounter on our capitalistic soil don't struggle with taking it easy, hoping for handouts, or else yawning through each day's demands. It is, in fact, the exact opposite. We make ourselves out to be gods, creating heavens with false bottoms and hells that feel deceptively cool to the touch. Trying desperately to save ourselves, we lose ourselves and somewhere along the way can no longer see, feel, or hear God.

This morning's excerpt from the 10 Commandments is pretty clear about the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, which for us is Sunday. "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath,"[2] so we know that embracing the concept is more important to God than the particular day that we celebrate it.[3] But still, the Sabbath is foreign to of us who represent a critical mass of technophiles, active retirees, and anxious realists. If nothing else, the Sabbath is intended to be a work stoppage, a command -- from God, mind you -- to cease and desist. To put down the tools of our respective trade and slowly back away with hands in plain view. It is a directive to withdraw from running ourselves ragged, in order to regularly relearn to be human beings, rather than human doings. The Sabbath is one measly day out of seven -- again, in whichever way works best for your rhythms and responsibilities -- in which we enthusiastically pursue respite from the world and renewed relationship with God. It is the antithesis of work, scheduled rest for weary souls. "The Sabbath is an invitation to enter delight."[4] At its core the Sabbath begs this question, "Do you accept that God knows what you need better than you do?" An affirmative response dictates setting aside one day in seven, not as a rigid vacation, but a time to better know God. It is a time for us and those in our care to rest. But that isn't the whole story because you can rest -- worship, take a nap, read a book, do Pilates -- and still get it wrong.

Unplugging from the world with the Sabbath, as a means for the created to honor their Creator is important. But we are also told in verse nine, "Six days you shall labor and do all your work." So it isn't as if work is unimportant. There is no denying that work is intended to fill a sizable portion of our week, whether that's in an office or at a baby-changing table. Conceptually, though, we could rest with intense passion and divine purpose on our Sabbath only to then work like mules the remainder of the week, feeling that we have fulfilled the letter of spiritual law. However we do it, work is a nonnegotiable element of adulthood. If we want to eat, and I presume we all do -- then we must toil through thorns and thistles[5] to put superfood on the table. That said, the frustration God has with the sluggard is the same that God has with the workaholic, who there are more of. One counselor describes addiction as "a banquet in the grave."[6] Make no mistake about it, whatever keeps us from the Sabbath is just that. The New Yorker recently ran an article that said, "Overwork has become a credential of prosperity."[7] We work the way that we do -- excessively, without appropriate boundaries -- because we see it as a means of survival, yes, but also a path to affluence.

Wayne E. Oates was a pioneer in articulating the relationship between theology and psychiatry. His 1971 book, Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts about Work Addiction[8] illustrates that beautifully. He actually coined the term "workaholic,"[9] as he, himself, at one time struggled mightily with its psychosis. Because those under its spell often have perfectionist, "get 'er done" tendencies that hold themselves and others to extreme standards of productivity and work allegiance, they often struggle with it in silence. It is an addiction not easily detectable from the outside, and it is even more challenging to treat, due to the disordered ways that our society views work. By inference in Exodus 20:8-11, this might be why God lays out a countercultural model for healthy work-life balance. Work itself isn't what plagues us. How we work is the problem.[10]

A mere ten days after 9/11, around 5:30pm on September 21, 2001 an F3 tornado, with winds exceeding 200 mph, visited the University of Maryland.[11] My mom had phoned, telling me to watch the news, as there was talk of bad weather heading to College Park, Maryland. Annoyed by the interruption, I told her that I knew nothing of any supposed storm because I was actually hibernating in my room, watching one of my favorite movies, Enemy of the State. But no sooner than I tried to switch to the news, the phone went dead: "Hello. H-e-l-l-o..." Then these eerie sounds, roars and howls started coming from outside, as if Mother Nature was really upset about something. All I heard was glass shattering and car alarms going off, and then it happened. My campus apartment building moved. There on the fourth floor, it literally felt like the entire building was dancing, swaying at least, and that was enough for me. I bolted for my closet. I had just become a Christian maybe 12 months prior, so I wasn't sure what to make of all this inclement raucous. After what seemed like an eternity, I found chaos outside of my window: cars flipped upside down, some piled on top of one another, others barely recognizable as vehicles at all. Down the street it looked like Zeus, Paul Bunyan, and King Kong had been slam dancing along University Boulevard. Buildings were collapsed, and huge chunks of land and trees had been pushed out of the way -- we're talking Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea. It was epic and devastating, and even more than ten years later I remember the experience vividly.

Seismic shifts are like that. Life's tectonic plates are always active, as God challenges our value systems. They represent lessons that we need to learn in order to "be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves."[12] The move from working to resting is an issue of the heart. Understood properly, the Sabbath doesn't diminish our work, but frames it correctly, making us aware of our need for self-care, and making us accountable for how and when we commune with, or have date nights with God. There is a time to work and a time to rest. But work is not rest, and rest is not work, and we, people of faith, are duty-bound to heed God's ruling on the matter. If we are ever going to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, we must refrain from overwork. But not just that; we must also set special time aside, ideally one full day in seven however we can, to commune with God and rest, and make practical strides to not view work -- whatever it may be -- as our primary comfort. Christians have been loosed from the pains of idolatry and self-reliance. This is why in 1563 faithful reformers penned The Heidelberg Catechism, reminding us that our only comfort in life and in death is that we are not our own, but belong -- body and soul -- to our faithful savior, Jesus Christ.


[1] This sermon was preached by yours truly, the Rev. James Ellis III, on January 26, 2014 at Brambleton Presbyterian Church in Brambleton, VA where the Rev. Elizabeth Brookens-Sturman is pastor.
[2] Mark 2:27.
[3] See MaryAnn McKibben-Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family's Experiment with Holy Time (St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2012).
[4] Dan Allender, Sabbath: The Ancient Practices (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009), 4.
[5] 2 Thessalonians 3:10, Genesis 3.
[6] See Edward T. Welch, Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave: Finding hope in the Power of the Gospel (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001).
[7] James Surowiecki, "The Cult of Overwork," The New Yorker, January 27, 2014.
[8] See Wayne E. Oates, Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts about Work Addiction (New York: World Publishing, 1971).
[9] Douglas Martin, "Wayne E. Oates, 82, Is Dead; Coined the Term 'Workaholic'," The New York Times, October 26, 1999.
[10] R. Paul Stevens, The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000).
[11] See Michael Dresser, Alec MacGillis, "Tornado Kills Two UM Students," Baltimore Sun, September 21, 2001.
[12] James 1:22.


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