The Rev. Casey dunsworth

serves as Associate Campus Pastor to the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis

and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network.

Rest for the Wordy—A Sermon on Spelling and Sabbath

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

Here we are, the last Wednesday of classes, the last worship together for this school year. You are, presumably, busy with writing and reading, as usual, and with planning for moving and with logistics for your summer. Let’s take our semi-annual last-week-of-classes deep breaths, shall we? All together now, breathe in….and out. And another one, breathe in….and out. And once more, breathe in….and out. Excellent. Keep breathing.

You may be aware that last week contained an extremely important sporting event, shown live on ESPN in primetime. No, not the NBA Finals, the Scripps National Spelling Bee. You are probably not surprised to know that I watched several hours of the Bee, including those prime time final rounds. I love spelling and I love learning and I love the drama of kid geniuses. I watched these kids—aged 7 to 14—spell words like haecceitas (heck-see-uh-tas), chaudfroid (shoh-frwah), bewusstseinslage (buh-voos-tines-lahga), and paucispiral (poss-iss-piral).

In the end, 14-year-old Karthik Nemmani correctly spelled “koinonia” and won $40,000 and a humongous trophy. It was awesome. Dozens of spellers stood up there one at a time, pretty awkwardly, and—after hearing their word—asked the pronouncer a series of approved questions: the language of origin, to use it in a sentence, any alternate pronunciations, the definition. They hope that one of these answers will clue them in as to how it’s spelled. One kid, Jashun Paluru, showed off his skills by turning the questions around. He asked, more than once, something like “does the word contain the Greek root philo meaning love?” before asking for the language of origin or definition. The commentators—oh yes, there are commentators in the spelling bee—were very impressed.

I’m telling you about this in part because I just wanted to say all those fancy words, and because our reading today came from Deuteronomy, which is a hard word to spell, and is actually a kind of erroneous translation. Deuteronomy is book five of our Bible, the last book of the Pentateuch—from the Greek words penta meaning “five” and teuchos meaning “scrolls”—also known as the Torah. The word Deuteronomy contains the greek word nomos, meaning “law”. It also contains the Greek word deuteros which means “second”. It has been assumed that this is because it is the second book of laws, but it may actually have been because the manuscript that got translated was a copy of the original law scroll, hence, second law. Aren’t you glad you know that? I sure am.

The texts this week from Deuteronomy and from the Gospel According to Mark are both pretty straightforwardly about the Sabbath. In Deuteronomy, we’re on commandment four of ten: “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you” (Deut 5:12). The author goes on to explain just how that is done and why. Six days of the week shall be devoted to work, and the seventh shall be a day of rest.

I am reading a book called Mudhouse Sabbath, by Lauren Winner, a former Orthodox Jewish woman who converted to Christianity, but maintains many of the rituals that ordered her life. She wrote that, “There are, in Judaism, two types of commandments (mitzvot): the mitzvot asei, or the ‘thou shalts,’ and the mitzvot lo ta’aseh, or the ‘thou shalt nots.’ Sabbath observance comprises both. You are commanded, principally, to be joyful and restful on Shabbat, to hold great feasts, sing happy hymns, dress your finest….The cornerstone of Jewish Sabbath observance is the prohibition of work in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5….Over time, the rabbis teased out of the text just what the prohibition on work meant, first identifying thirty-nine categories of activities to be avoided on Shabbat, then fleshing out the implications of those thirty-nine.” [1]

We are not going to go over the thirty-nine categories, but the point of this is that the prohibition of work is not messing around. Anything that seems like it might be work is work. Rest is mandatory.

We squirm a little when we read the rest of this commandment, because it includes mention of enslaved people among those who should not work on the sabbath. But! Think about that! Even enslaved people should cease work one day out of the week. God’s intention is not that one day out of the week people with power will do no work and everyone who works for them will do double work. The day of rest is for everyone. “The fourth commandment is counter culturally egalitarian...and the sabbath comes as a weekly reminder that all are equally valued in God’s economy.” [2] You deserve to do meaningful work, and you deserve to rest, and so does everyone else.

Which brings us to the story from the Gospel According to Mark. There are two different stories in here, one where Jesus maybe breaks the rules by quote-unquote harvesting grain on the sabbath, and the other where he heals a man with a withered hand. The religious authorities who are present are very concerned about this man who dares not to break the rules of the sabbath, per se, but to claim that he understands the sabbath more clearly than they do, as he shares in the authority of God. “Jesus is making a bold claim, aligning himself with the creator of the Sabbath.” [2]

When God created the universe, the story goes that God spent six days working and then, on the seventh day, rested. God designed life to include rest. God made our bodies and minds to do all sorts of incredible things; chief among those things is sabbath. “The sabbath represents a time for healing and wholeness of humanity.” [3]

Theologian Diane Chen wrote about these stories from Mark’s Gospel, reminding us that “God’s original day of rest precedes the law that regulates its observance. The sabbath is God’s gift to serve people; people are not to serve the Sabbath. The issue is therefore one of priority, not whether Jesus is playing fast and loose with God’s commandments….if assuaging his disciples’ hunger brings restoration, then the prohibition against reaping is overridden. To do otherwise actually undercuts the true purpose of the Sabbath.” [2] Since the sabbath is for restoration to wholeness, feeding your body is a reasonable thing to do. Jesus’ disciples are hungry, and he feeds them. Since the sabbath is for restoration to wholeness, healing a physical ailment is a reasonable thing to do. This man has a withered hand, and Jesus heals him.

And the man’s withered hand is not only a physical ailment, “it also has social and economic dimensions. His ability to earn a living is hampered by his physical limitations, and his standing in the community is diminished. Jesus wastes no time in healing the man, because even a few hours to the end of Sabbath is too long a wait to restore a person to wholeness.” [2]

I want to be careful here, because physical disability should not be looked at as a problem to be solved. Bodies of all kinds are created in the image of God. Jesus cannot, with the snap of his fingers, reorder the society to not ostracize people with disabilities, nor can he reorder the economy to support this man even though his labor is minimal. People with all types of bodies are beloved of God, and it is us as a society that need restoration in this case, need to be made to understand the wholeness and goodness of people who do not contribute to capitalism. What he does in this story is heal the man’s hand, so he can be embraced by his community. What we can do is embrace every body in the Body of Christ. If everyone is equally valued on the sabbath day, we can move toward equally valuing everyone the other six days of the week.

You may be thinking that this whole understanding of the sabbath as a time for us to restore ourselves and one another to wholeness sound a bit like...work. Providing adequate time and space for all of God’s beloved creatures to rest, relax, and recharge does not require work on the sabbath, but it requires preparation for the sabbath. If the work that we are doing the other six days of the week is good, and just, and righteous, we can spend our sabbath knowing that all is well.

Sometime in the next several days, you will turn in some pretty important work, and then you will be done with school for the quarter. I hope that you are able to spend and least part of this summer resting. If you are going to be working, I hope you are taking care to have some days off and some sabbath, for your body and for your mind. For LEVNeers, I hope you are making good use of your days off, and not cramming too much into your minds and hearts. It’s important that we honor the God who created us by following God’s example of balancing work and rest.

Lauren Winner’s chapter about sabbath contains this great quotation: “‘What happens when we stop working and controlling nature?...When we don’t operate machines or pick flowers or pluck fish from the sea? When we cease interfering in the world, we are acknowledging that it is God’s world.” [1]

That’s the work of sabbath—giving over our own labor, power, and privilege as a reminder that the world and all its creatures are beloved of God. Breathe deeply, rest well. Amen.

_____

[1] Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to Spiritual Discipline, 4-7.

[2] Diane G. Chen, “Proper 4 [9]” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: Year B, 269-274.

[3] Emerson B. Powery, “The Gospel of Mark” in True to Our Native Land, 127.

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