Sermon: Timeout

Texts: Exodus 20:8-11; Luke 12:22-31

Date: March 3, 2019

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church


          Any of you who have been parents or teachers use “Time Out” as a disciplinary tool?  We did, occasionally, when our girls were little.  If they were driving us crazy, or doing something destructive, or in intractable conflict with each other, they would have to have a Time Out.  “Sit here and be quiet and think about what you’ve done—I’ll tell you when you can get up again.”  Little kids vibrating with energy or rage don’t appreciate Time Out.  I remember a friend of mine, parent to a high strung girl subject to occasional tantrums, used to give herself a time out when the storm was raging; she’d lock herself in the bathroom for a while until her daughter exhausted herself.  In their family, that made more sense than trying to put a tornado in a chair.  Neither mother nor daughter enjoyed those Time Outs. 

          As we consider the last word in this creativity worship series, “Rest,” it’s kind of ironic that people have often thought of the Sabbath as some kind of Time Out forced upon them.  Most American Christians in the 17th and 18th centuries kept the Sabbath with grim determination as rule-followers afraid of displeasing an angry God.  I grew up reading the Little House on the Prairie books, and the portrayals of the Sabbath in both the Ingalls household and the Wilder household were memorable in their dourness.  Almanzo recalled this from his childhood Sundays: First, he must stay awake for a two-hour sermon and keep his eyes on the pastor, because Father will know if he doesn’t. Second, during the afternoon he does “nothing at all” while his mother reads the Bible in the dining room. “Almanzo just sat. He had to. He was not allowed to do anything else, for Sunday was not a day for working or playing. It was a day for going to church and for sitting still.”  Sounds like a miserable Time Out.  I adored the story of Sabbath mischief Laura’s Pa told her about her grandfather in Little House in the Big Woods.  As a boy, he and his brothers had finished making a new sled just as the sun was setting on a Saturday night, the beginning of the Sabbath.  It was killing them to just sit still and read the catechism, the only thing they were allowed to do.  But then father fell asleep, and the brothers snuck out to try their new sled down the snowy hill that went past the front door of the house.  They were just going to go down the hill silently once and get back into the parlor before their dad woke up.   However, on their way down, they accidentally picked up a pig strolling out of the woods at just the wrong moment.  The pig squealed all the way down hill, right past the door — and there was their father watching them speed by.  Father said nothing as the boys put away the sled and returned to their places; whupping them on a Sunday would have been considered work.  But they got it bright and early Monday morning.  You can’t look the other way while boys disrespect the Sabbath, right?  You might get a permanent Time Out in Hell if you’re not careful.

          I don’t think any of us would want to return to those grim, legalistic observations of Sabbath, those Rest-Or-Else!-Time-Out traditions.  Yet we might acknowledge that we are missing something good if we have no Sabbath tradition at all.  We don’t subscribe to the angry Father God who punishes everyone with a Time Out one day a week, a day for sitting still and reading the Bible and memorizing the catechism and eating cold food.  But a Sabbath rest was meant to be a gift.  Imagine a loving God saying tenderly: I’m giving you a Time Out.  One full day a week, you should cease all your striving and enjoy life.  Remember that life is a gift in itself.  Enjoy the Creator and the Creation.  Rest.  The world will go on spinning without your anxious toil.  It went on spinning without God’s toil on the seventh day of creation; it will probably get along without your efforts 24/7. 

          I have an issue of a scholarly journal all about the Sabbath in the Bible.  One article points out that the Sabbath commandment is the longest one in the Ten Commandments.  It’s the prohibition on work that has caused a long and continuous argument among Jewish and Christian people of faith; how to define work, where are the limits, when everyone’s got to live another day.  This was a helpful general definition that our Hebrew forebears settled on: “Work is whatever requires changing the natural, material world.  All week long, human beings wrestle with the natural world, tilling and hammering and carrying and burning.  On the Sabbath, however, observant Jews let it be.  They celebrate the created world as it is and dwell within it in peace and gratitude.”[1]  Taking a rest reminds everyone that they are not the ones ultimately making the world turn after all, no matter how important they might be.  People can forget that.

          Keeping some kind of Sabbath has become less achievable in these days of electric light and internet.  The world used to get dark, and people often ceased working and slept when it was dark in prior generations.  The work day used to end at 5 or 6 p.m., and people used to go home and not work for a while in prior generations.  There used to be places you could go where you were out of reach of the boss and the business.  Not so much anymore.  Pastor and blogger Rick Morley put together an infographic on remembering the Sabbath day, sharing these factoids drawn from news sources: “40% of Americans check their work email on vacation.  50% check it in bed.  38% at the dinner table.” [Source: NBC News]  “Even when we’re out of the office, we’re still working—enough that we voluntarily work a day of overtime each week.” [Source: L.A. Times]  “40% of Americans get less than the recommended amount of sleep.” [Source: Gallup]  Morley’s graphic goes on to say, “So, with all this extra productivity, we must be happier, right?” What do you think?  These snapshots of American life follow: “1 in 10 Americans take an antidepressant.  Among women in their 40’s and 50’s: 1 in 4.” [Source: New York Times]  “40% of American adults suffer from some form of anxiety disorder.” [Source: ADAA][2] 

          What does the gospel have to say to this?  “Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying.” “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”  There’s a connection between the anxiety from which so many suffer and the constant, full-tilt striving of ceaseless work and consumption. I think that goes for not just consumption of goods and services, but consumption of news and entertainment.  We are always just one click away from another horrible headline, terrible tweet, inane amusement. There’s a whole class of injuries related to overuse of cell phones now, variations on what is being called “iPhoneitis.”  Working the thumb treadmill is a kind of toil Jesus couldn’t have imagined in his day, but I bet he would have something to say about it today.  It’s another aspect of life that can stir in anxiety with its constant demand for attention. 

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann points out that keeping Sabbath is a practice of resistance in our go-go-go American culture today.  God’s taking a rest on the seventh day of creation was a demonstration against anxiety.  The “divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made clear (a) that YHWH is not a workaholic, (b) that YHWH is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and (c) that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work…God rested on the seventh day.  God did not show up to do more.  God absented himself from the office.  God did not come and check on creation in anxiety to be sure it was all working.”[3]  I so appreciate that last observation, since we are subject to so many temptations to check on creation in anxiety even if we don’t have a great deal of responsibility for how it all unfolds. 
We humans, made in the image of God, were made with a need for rest, recreation, and reconnection built in.  We know we need sleep; one of the cruelest forms of torture is sleep deprivation, which eventually makes everyone go crazy.  We might not notice right away how much we need recreation and reconnection.  Refusing to rest and play–refusing to take a break from anxious production and consumption–doesn’t drive a person to a psychotic breakdown with the swiftness and predictability of Abu-Graib style sleep deprivation.  Yet we know that we are at our best when we have regular habits of rest and recreation.  We can’t wait until the work is finished.  As Wayne Muller has written, “If we only stop when we are finished with all our work, we will never stop—because our work is never completely done.  With every accomplishment there arises a new responsibility…Sabbath dissolves the artificial urgency of our days, because it liberates us from the need to be finished.”[4]  I observed early in my career as a minister that the newly ordained ministers who swiftly burned out were the ones who could not recognize that they had to stop working before the work was finished.  In this fantastic work of ordained ministry the work is never finished; one could have always made one more visit, one more call, taught one more class, organized one more event, polished up the sermon a little more.  It’s never finished.  How fortunate that the Sabbath tradition is sewn into our Scripture and faith tradition.  God created the seven day week with rest built in.  God GAVE us a Time Out.  And if the Sabbath was good enough for God, it’s good for us as well.

          It’s good for creativity to take a break.  Troy Bronsik’s Drawn In book points out that God didn’t stop creating on the seventh day; God just took a rest.  God is back and re-engaged with the creative process after the rest.  The first Sabbath was not God’s retirement.  Nor is our Sabbath practice—whatever form it takes—a permanent departure from work that matters.  What taking a break does is give a little space for creativity to bubble up again.  Bronsik’s book includes a story from the movie industry.  Hume Cronyn relates an incident from working on one of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, saying, “One time we were working on a problem with a scene.  There were lots of things to consider—lighting, staging, pacing, and the like.  We were up very late struggling to find the way to do it.  Finally, when we seemed close to a solution, Hitchcock came in and started telling jokes, silly junior-high-type stuff and got us all lost again.  Later I asked him why, when we were so close to solving the problem, did he choose that moment to get us off track by joking around?  He paused and said something I’ll never forget. He said, ‘You were pushing.  It never comes from pushing.’”[5]

          Sabbath rest is the gift of pausing the pushing.  True creativity and joy doesn’t come from anxiously pushing, pushing, pushing until we drop from exhaustion, worn out by worry.  We become partners in divine creativity when we stop all the pushing—all the plowing and burning and coding and scrubbing and fretting and planning—to rest.  Go outside and listen to the squirrels tell their goofy jokes, breathe in what the trees are breathing out, sing along with the birds.  Stop worrying about whether the whole enterprise will fall apart without your constant effort and without your constant attention. Remember what Jesus asked, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”  Nope.  So let’s take God up on the gracious offer before us, designing it into the every day/every week/ every year pattern of our lives: God is giving us a Time Out.  Thanks be to God.

[1] Bass, Dorothy C. “Christian Formation In and For Sabbath Rest” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology January 2005, p. 29

[3] Bruegemann, Walter Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now quoted in rickmorley.com infographic

[4] Muller, Wayne quoted in  Brosnik, Troy Drawn In: A Creative Process for Artists, Activists, and Jesus Followers Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013, p. 40

[5] Ibid. p. 195


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