Here’s a reading from Exodus:
“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” (vv. 20:8-11).
I remember once standing in the elevator lobby of a hotel with a friend who was Roman Catholic. The hotel had upwards of fifty floors and business was bustling on this particular Friday evening. It was a big hotel and there were eight elevators, all very busy. As we waited for a ride to the restaurant on the top floor, I noticed a group of four gentlemen in dark suits standing in front of one of the elevators. Upon closer inspection, I saw that they were all wearing kippahs (skull caps) and tzitzits (prayer shawls) marking them as observant Jews. A minute or so went by and the door in front of the men opened— (ding!) going up! The men got on, and I moved to follow them, but my friend put out a hand to restrain me. “Not that one,” he said, quietly. I was confused… and concerned that my friend might harbor some prejudice against Jewish people. After the elevator door had closed, he leaned closer and said, “That’s the Sabbath elevator. It’s set to stop at every floor, going up and down, so that passengers won’t have to push any buttons (i.e., perform work) on the Sabbath.” And so it was. Who knew? Isn’t it funny how we humans are always trying to come up with temporal solutions to perceived problems imposed upon us by God’s Holy word?
For many years, I noticed members of an Orthodox Jewish congregation near my home in Atlanta walking between their homes and the synagogue on Friday evenings, winter and summer, rain or shine. Most Orthodox Jews believe that operating a motor vehicle is a type of “work,” which is prohibited on the Sabbath. Whole families would make the trek, and the distance some had to travel was a couple of miles in each direction. As I watched the streams of faithful moving along the route, I thought that the walk, itself, looked like a lot of work. Especially for those leading toddlers and pushing baby strollers and carrying diaper bags. And, in fact, carrying anything outside of one’s private domain on the Sabbath is prohibited work under an Orthodox interpretation of Hebrew law. And that’s why there are “eruvs.” Some of y’all have heard me talk about eruvs before. Others, however, may be wondering: “What the heck’s an eruv?” I will tell you.
Eruvs, or more correctly eruvim, are “technical boundaries” made of wire or cord or sometimes even colored, plastic tape, that bind neighborhoods in the vicinity of a synagogue together, one to another, into a “private domain” so that people may travel between their homes and places of worship on the Sabbath while carrying certain items that they might need, such as prayer books, medicine, food… babies… and other things that are needful for health and to promote community. If you ever find yourself on the edge of an eruv, you might see the boundary wires strung from the tops of utility poles, marking the space. Eruvim can be permanent or temporary. One can even construct an eruv around one’s campsite in the woods. Smaller permanent eruvim might only encompass three or four square miles. They can be much larger, however; a large part of the island of Manhattan is contained within a single eruv.
It seems kind of crazy, doesn’t it: the extent to which we will sometimes go to justify ourselves in our own eyes, in light of God’s holy ordinances. The command is so simple and straightforward: “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.” “Work for six days and rest on the seventh. I did it,” said God, “and I want you to do it too. It’s the way creation came to be. That’s the way it was always supposed to be… before the fall. Sabbath is holy… you will find me there, just as I was in the Garden. Come be with me.”
And then someone, somewhere felt the need to take God’s holy prescription for us to take time to be with him (remember, the word atonement really means to be “at-oned” with God) and turn it into a proscription, creating Sabbath elevator protocols and technical boundaries within which we can do the things we think we need to do without technically crossing the line into misbehavior. I don’t want to be overly critical of my brothers and sisters who are doing their best to be faithful, observant Jews. The practice of Judaism contains much that I find rich, meaningful and foundational to my own faith. And I’m pretty sure that we Christians have our own, legalistic “blind spots…” don’t we? So, I’m not here to judge anybody. That’s not my job. That’s none of our jobs. If observing rules and regulations tied to a particular religious tradition helps people become more aware of God’s movement and purpose in their lives, and more “at-one” with God, then I’m all for it. I wonder, though, if in our tendency to base our duty to God in proscriptive terms (all of the “thou shalt nots”), we run the risk of repeating the error of the leader of the synagogue in today’s Gospel story. Think about it: what better day than God’s sabbath to cure the sick and the lame? What better way to help advance the coming of God’s kingdom? “Sure,” said Jesus, “you’ve created all kinds of loopholes and exceptions to God’s sabbath ordinance for taking care of your own business —but how about taking care of God’s business? What are you doing about that?” And the leader of the synagogue and his cronies really didn’t have a comeback for that.
I often meet people who tell me that they believe in God… even though they don’t attend church regularly. They’ll hang their heads and give me that sideways look that says, in essence, “Please, don’t judge me.” Maybe it’s the collar, I don’t know…. In any case, I tell them it’s OK, and that God doesn’t take roll at the door of the Parish Nave. Church is a gift, not an obligation. I give them a few seconds to let that sink in, and then add that I believe God speaks to different people in different ways, and that what’s most important is for us to listen and respond to what God is saying to us. Church can be a good place to do that… when people are gathered together to share communal sabbath. But attending church is not the only way—and Sunday is not the only day—on which to observe sabbath. I’ve known folks who are regularly in the pews on Sunday and who, I suspect, haven’t engaged in any real sabbath time in years. It’s their loss. Sabbath happens when we step back from our daily strivings and remember that, despite all of our posturing to the contrary, we’re not in charge of the Universe. God is, and God will work through us to bring about the Kingdom, if we’ll allow it. When was the last time you did that? I mean really did that? Laid aside all of your strivings for a whole day and put yourself entirely at God’s disposal? How about for a half-a-day? An hour? That’s what’s required by the Commandment, after all: putting oneself entirely at God’s disposal for one day in seven. It’s not easy, is it? Maybe that’s why we establish sabbath elevator protocols and eruvim within which we can operate pretty-much normally on the Sabbath. At least we’ve got a shot at maintaining that level of discipline. But does that really constitute sabbath behavior?
The good news is that God is a lot more loving and forgiving than we will ever be. The better news is that God has a plan and a purpose for each of us that will lead to salvation and eternal life if we’ll just listen, and give in. And the best news is that we can start right now. This minute. Give yourself over to God’s sabbath. Let it wash over you and fill you with the peace that passes all understanding. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do. But the reward will be greater than anything you could ever ask for or imagine.