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On Faith: Claim your Sabbath

For denominations that use the Revised Common Lectionary to select their weekly Bible readings for their worship — Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of selected readings with each year focusing primarily on one Gospel account — this past week's reading came from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 2. It told of Jesus and his disciples' encounter with the Pharisees over the disciples breaking the Jewish Sabbath laws by "traveling and working" — they plucked and ate grain in the field — on the Sabbath.

The Pharisees (Jewish teachers of the law) challenge Jesus for this obvious breaking of the law. Jesus' response to their challenge is to quote the scriptures of the time when King David and his men ate the bread that was consecrated and only was to be eaten by the priests. He concluded his words to the Pharisees by saying: "The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."

Jesus is challenging a wide variety of issues here. There is the purpose of the Sabbath. There is the Pharisee's vision of the Sabbath law and their growing opposition to Jesus. There are the realities of daily living with hunger, shelter and other needs. And there is Jesus' authority as "Son of Man" over the Sabbath as well.

So, how does this story from the Gospel of Mark speak to us in the 21st century? Do we hear it as an ancient story from a time and place far, far removed from us? After all, the agricultural laws and traditions of first century Israel do not concern us today. And a religious, legal, cultural and societal debate between religious leaders and an itinerant preacher from over 2,000 years ago is not of pressing importance for us today.

So then, how do we relate to this story? What message is there for us that will make a difference in our lives?

I would suggest that the issue is about Sabbath for us. We live in a culture where we do not have any real sense of Sabbath in our rhythm of life. The purpose of Sabbath was to ensure the rhythm of work and rest. The example comes from the creation story in Genesis, Chapter 1.

After six days of creating, of God's divine work of creation, God rested on the seventh day. So after six days of daily work, the seventh day was commanded by God to be a day of Sabbath, of rest. And to make it work a whole list of laws describing what one could do and not do came to into being. And traveling over a certain distance, plucking grain in a field, were both seen to be "work" and so, were deemed to be unlawful to do on the Sabbath.

There was a time, not long ago that we had laws governing our Sabbath (Sunday). They were called "Blue Laws." They were designed to restrict some activities on Sunday for religious reasons. Stores were not open, work was not to be done, some specific types of merchandise could not be sold — you still usually can't buy a car on Sunday. The purpose was to preserve the sense of Sabbath and promote greater participation in religious and family oriented activities.

So how do you claim your Sabbath? Is there structured time for rest and restoration in your life? Is there time for faithful reflection? Sabbath is important. We must remember that it is an important gift for us: "The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath."

"On Faith" is a weekly column in the News-Chronicle written by area religious leaders.