Sabbaths of Burden and Delight
26 July 2015
This is a transcript of a talk I gave in my local Mormon congregation today. The leadership asked three of us to speak on the subject of the Sabbath, how we might cultivate positive feelings toward it, and how we severally try to do so in our own homes.
When you think of the Sabbath, what comes to mind? On the one hand, maybe you think of all the things you shouldn’t do. You shouldn’t work. You shouldn’t play. You shouldn’t sleep too much or eat too much. And of course you should never be wicked. On the other hand, maybe you think of all the things you should do. You should get up early, read your scriptures, attend Church meetings, pay tithing, fill Church callings, attend Church firesides, and above all be righteous. Or maybe you think of all the things that others think you should and shouldn’t do. And you feel the importance of social responsibility like others feel the importance of divine commandment. Either way, for religious or social reasons, perhaps we sometimes think of the Sabbath strictly as law that requires obedience and sacrifice.
Of course, there are passages of scripture that could, in themselves, encourage us to think of the Sabbath that way. For example, the first explicit references to the Sabbath are in the book of Exodus. In chapter 16, Moses tells the people not to gather or prepare food on the Sabbath. In chapter 20, God commands them not to do any work at all on the Sabbath. And in chapters 31 and 35, to emphasize the commandment, God tells them to kill anyone who works on the Sabbath.
That’s harsh, but there are also passages of scripture that would encourage us to think differently. The earliest example, perhaps foreshadowing Jesus, is in the first chapter of the book of Isaiah, where he writes in the voice of God with remarkably poignant words:
“… Sabbaths and convocations — I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.”
Why would God not listen to the people? Why this uncomfortable divine expression of hatred? Isaiah continues to write in the voice of God:
“Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
But none of this means Isaiah would have the people reject the Sabbath. No. It seems, rather, that he would have them reframe it – or begin to understand it a bit differently. In Isaiah 58, he writes:
“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord …”
Note how Isaiah uses the words “delight” and “joy” to describe the Sabbath, in combination with echoes of traditional duty toward something greater than the self.
The New Testament elaborates and expands on this different understanding. Its first explicit reference to the Sabbath is in Matthew 12, which corresponds to Mark 2-3 and Luke 6. In these chapters, Jesus heals on the Sabbath, and his disciples pick corn on the Sabbath. Both actions offend some of their fellow Jews, who accuse them of breaking commandments. Jesus responds by reminding the accusers of stories from the Bible about exceptions to Sabbath rules and the importance of mercy, and he concludes by remarking that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Or, in other words, needs are more important than rules. Needs are even the purpose of rules like the Sabbath. So if the Sabbath hurts more than helps then we’re using it the wrong way.
Elsewhere, the New Testament contrasts these different understandings of the Sabbath. In Matthew 23, Jesus says his accusers “bind heavy burdens” on others. And in Matthew 11, he says:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Note how Jesus uses the words “rest,” “gentle,” “easy,” and “light” to describe the way he invites us to live. Appreciating this, Paul encourages us to apply Jesus’ invitation to the Sabbath specifically. In Colossians 2, he says:
“God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.”
But this isn’t an invitation to reject all the rules. To the contrary, Jesus gives us more rules. The first and greatest, he says, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart.” And he gives us a “new commandment,” that we “love one another.” These rules, he explains, summarize all the others. And they do so in a way that orients us toward rules in a new way, with a new feeling. As the first epistle of John puts it, “this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.”
Coming forward to modern scripture, we find more encouragement to orient ourselves toward the Sabbath in the new way. Joseph Smith writes, in D&C 59:
“But remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord. And on this day thou shalt do none other thing, only let thy food be prepared with singleness of heart that thy fasting may be perfect, or, in other words, that thy joy may be full. Verily, this is fasting and prayer, or in other words, rejoicing and prayer.”
Again note how Joseph uses the words “joy” and “rejoicing” to describe the purpose of the Sabbath. Think back to the words Jesus used: “rest,” “gentle,” “easy,” and “light.” And recall Isaiah’s words, “joy” and “delight.”
When we think of the Sabbath, do these words come to mind? Are the feelings they describe foreign to us? Or are they familiar? Is our practice of the Sabbath, or our imagination of it, something that we and our families would describe with delight?
To close, I’d like to share with you some of the ways my family and I try to make the Sabbath a delight in our own home. Doing this, I want to be mindful of Paul’s concern, that we not get distracted by detailed rules. The goal, as Jesus put it, is to ensure that the Sabbath works for us, rather than the other way around. What works for my family might not work for yours, and that’s okay. Maybe our example can help you decide what not to do.
In that spirit, here’s a typical Sabbath at the Cannon home. It starts on Saturday evening. We generally try to be home and in bed no later than midnight, so we have plenty of time to sleep. Nothing’s a delight when you and your children are both cranky the next day.
Sunday morning is usually individual time. We find simple things to prepare and eat for breakfast: whether it’s cereal, fruit, sandwiches, leftovers, or whatever’s available. And we make time to study, usually with the intent to share our ideas. Maybe it’s for presentation or discussion at Church. Or maybe it’s for sharing on social media or blogs. Either way, we seem to study most and best when we plan to share what we learn.
As a family, we attend Church meetings and try to do the work required by our respective Church callings. The goal is to participate with neighbors in helping each other. Sometimes it’s leading discussion or asking thoughtful questions in a meeting. Sometimes it’s preparing bread and water for the Sacrament, or serving it to the congregation. Sometimes it’s visiting neighbors who are unable to attend Church meetings, or just to get to know them better. Whatever the case may be, we feel a duty to contribute, and a satisfaction when we see how our efforts combine with others’ to make our neighborhood a little better. We also try to limit the amount of time we spend in meetings, making them effective and efficient, so we can spend more time in our home, with our family, and with more friends.
Depending on our schedule for the day, my boys and I sometimes like to play computer games that encourage collaboration and creativity. One of our favorites is a game called Civilization. Playing together, we get to create and explore new worlds, organize nations and economies, cultivate religions with prophets and missionaries, and engage in diplomacy with each other.
One of the most important events of our Sabbath happens in the evening, when we visit or invite extended family for dinner. The dinners aren’t elaborate, but they usually require a level of work that exemplifies service and genuine care. During the meal, we update each other on how our families are doing, and we usually end up discussing religion or politics. Afterwards, we sometimes play board games like Ticket to Ride. And then we go our separate ways.
Around 8pm, we start wrapping up our day. That usually includes prayer as a family. Then, if it’s a school night, my boys prepare for bed. Otherwise, there’s more individual time. Then we sleep.
Personally, when I think of the Sabbath, a collage of relations between family and religion and heritage comes to mind. I’ve known Sabbath burdens and their relief. On the Sabbath, I’ve sometimes felt alienated, and other times I’ve felt connected in ways nothing short of sublime. I feel deeply grateful for the work and teachings of Jesus, and how his Gospel has encouraged and oriented me to think of the Sabbath and religion generally, not as a burden, but as a powerful practice that can and should motivate us to raise each other together, beyond present notions of death and hell.