We had been talking about Sabbath for a few weeks in Alpha & Omega, our afternoon youth gathering on Sundays, before I challenged our youth to take a Sabbath day for themselves. One day with no work. Simple as that. One whole day with no performing or producing for other people. No labor, just rest.
A few more weeks after that challenge, only one of these folks had taken me up on it! When I asked if anyone had observed the Sabbath, one of you raised your hand and said, “I did.”
“What was it like?” I asked. I was a little surprised that any of you had tried such a counter-intuitive thing like Sabbath. After all, it’s very different than anything the world tells us about work and rest.
Our youth who had practiced a Sabbath day spoke about it in glowing terms. They had connected with other people. They had felt joy and peace. They even volunteered that they had felt the impact of Sabbath for the rest of the week!
What you said has stuck with me ever since: “I felt better every day.”
The experience had been so different from your regular life! And it had paid off for the whole week.
But I haven’t forgotten what happened next either. I asked if this was an experience that our youth would like to have every week, they struggled to answer. “It would be hard,” they said.
“I would have to give up so much.”
Most of us in this sanctuary would respond the same way to the gift of Sabbath, with a mixture of gratitude and, frankly, fear. It’s precisely this gift of Sabbath rest that comes to my mind when I read Psalm 84, as our youth just did for you.
Historically, Psalm 84 adopts the voice of a pilgrim to the Temple in Jerusalem, that physical dwelling place of God. The psalmist speaks of one “in whose heart are the highways of Zion” and who has endured the arid valley of Baca. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, though, invites us to think of more than the Temple as the dwelling place of God.
In his book on the Sabbath, Rabbi Heschel points out that while “there is much enthusiasm for the idea that God is present in the universe,” that this “idea is taken to mean [God’s] presence in space rather than in time.” He reminds us of the act that closes the first creation story in Genesis where God builds “a palace in time.” The Sabbath is, Heschel says, “an opportunity to mend our tattered lives,” a reminder of the world to come, and that it is “joy, holiness, and rest.”
A single day of rest in God, one might say, is better than a thousand elsewhere as Psalm 84 says.
Talking with our youth has given new meaning to that famous expression from Psalm 84. One of the first things we did when we started talking about Sabbath was keep a ‘time diary’ for a week. I asked them, for one week, to keep track of how they spent every hour of every day. I was prepared for some fairly labor-intensive results, but what they reported to me still managed to shock.
Most of these young people were working the equivalent of almost two full-time jobs. The average time they spent working —(that is, performing or producing for others in some capacity, paid or unpaid [usually unpaid])—the average time they spent working was 74 hours per week. One of us reported working 93 hours that week. The next week, some youth reported working even more than the week before—even more than 93 hours!
On top of that, our youth reported an average of 52 hours of sleep each week, which is less than 8 hours per night. Teenagers really need 9. They barely rested at all. The only one who had a substantial amount of rest and sleep was currently on a two-week break from school because they’re on a year-round schedule. And during their two weeks off, they slept an average of 11 and a half hours each night. The youth were positively exhausted all the time.
And considering that, it was no longer surprising how dramatic a Sabbath day had changed the demeanor of the one youth who actually observed it. One day of Sabbath was worth thousands elsewhere! Each week felt like a thousand days when they were working so much.
I’m sure this reality of work sounds familiar to most of you, as well. Parents and adults aren’t much different than kids in this respect. In an Atlantic article called “Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore,” Judith Schulevitz points out that there are lots of reasons for this phenomenon. Where we used to share relatively similar rhythms in American society, “our weeks are now shaped by the unpredictable dictates of our employers.” Nearly 1 in 5 Americans hold jobs that don’t have any predictability concerning their hours—seasonal jobs, rotating shifts, gig jobs like Uber or Postmates. Increasingly, algorithms determined the maximum number of people needed at any given hour to maximize productivity at the expense of workers. The norm for the so-called middle class involves two income earners who are on-call at all times for their employer. Now friends don’t see each other, spouses work opposite shifts, and even parents don’t see their children. That reality crosses generational boundaries too: it’s the reason grandparents see less of their children and grandchildren, it’s the reason many older generations feel such high levels of loneliness.
The fourth commandment does not set the firm, strict, and predictable boundaries on our time; instead, the whims of the employer (or worse, ‘the market’) choose when we work and when we don’t. Rest has become a commodity, a resource in service of work. We take the weekend (if we have one) to recharge and get ready for another week of ceaseless labor. We take paid time off (if we have it), but we have to keep our phones at our sides ready to be called back at any moment. Even when a lucky one of us gets away with an actual vacation, we have to work twice as hard when we get back to make up for the lost productivity from our so-called respite.
Sabbath invites us to consider a different world—a world that revolves around rest rather than work. Some rabbis say that the two commandments for Sabbath in the Torah are different for precisely this reason. In one, you remember the Sabbath, and the other you keep the Sabbath. That is, you spend the first few days of the week remembering the Sabbath you just had and you spend the last few days of the week preparing for the next one. Our lives should revolve around the Sabbath, not the workweek.
Part of what makes this so hard are the lies that the world tells us about work and rest. When we talked about Sabbath and work in Alpha & Omega, an odd pattern started to emerge. Our youth didn’t even necessarily want Sabbath when they heard about it. A few of them, including someone who worked 93 hours that week, said, “But fun work isn’t work, right?” I heard in that remark the perverse adage, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” The world tells us that we should find satisfaction, joy, peace, and beauty in our work. All of these things are what we are supposed to find in Sabbath—in God!—not in our labor.
How do we know that? A day in the dwelling place of God is different from a day anywhere else! One day there is better than a thousand elsewhere, yes, but it also looks different. Consider the birds, as Jesus once said. Psalm 84 describes the house of God as being a place where
Even the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest for herself,
Where she may lay her young at your altars, O LORD of hosts.
The insignificant sparrow, to say nothing of the human, isn’t a commodity or a nuisance, but a guest in the house of God. In the Sabbath we find release from being treated as a resource, as a pack animal, an employee. In the Sabbath, we get treated as we are—beloved creations of God. The rest of the world has no use for such things once their work has been used up.
Wendell Berry remarks that our society finds it impossible to value anything purely because of its belovedness. “It is impossible,” he says, “to give an accurate economic value to the goodness of good work, much less to the goodness of an unspoiled forest or prairie or desert, or to the goodness of pure sunlight or water or air.” The harmony and delight of Psalm 84 has no economic value, so in our society it doesn’t need to exist. Sabbath has no monetary value, so in our society it doesn’t need to exist.
It is at exactly this juncture where the church can, and must, step in.
In Minneapolis, almost a decade ago, Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church was about to die. Maybe 30 people showed up in a sanctuary that used to seat 300. They had enough money to last two more years if they were careful. So, under the leadership of their pastor, Rev. Kara Root, they did something radical—and very biblical. As a community, they started observing Sabbath together.
Two Sundays a month, they worship as usual. On the other two Sundays, they host an abbreviated contemplative service on Saturday nights. The following Sunday is a community Sabbath. Everyone takes a rest from work, obligations, and even formal worship. Parishioners got more sleep than they had in years, they started doing things together for the sake of being together, and really, truly resting.
What happened next? Six years later, they tripled their active membership. The church’s finances improved alongside the improvement of people’s lives. They birthed a new children’s ministry and became stewards of great gifts to neighborhood ministries. Things aren’t perfect and it’s not like they transformed into a megachurch, but that’s not the goal either. Their people have found the grace and joy of Sabbath for themselves.
It's really hard to accept the gift of Sabbath, though. As our youth pointed out, you have to give up a great deal even for a single day of rest. . Sometimes that is as simple as giving up some non-essential commitments. Play fewer sports, attend fewer events, or spend less money. But for others, that sacrifice is greater. To obtain a day full of rest, they might have to sacrifice work hours, income, and even material needs. Again, that’s where we can step in as communities of faith and make Sabbath possible for one another.
Psalm 84 confesses that a life with rest in God is better than life elsewhere. The psalmist is bold enough so say that they would “rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.” But what about when becoming the doorkeeper in the house of God requires you to work less, make less money, and maybe go without?
One of the most beneficial things you can do when helping someone under financial or other pressure is to ask them if they have time to rest—and if they don’t, help them get time to rest! Maybe that means picking up some work at home for them OR even helping them out financially so they don’t have to work as much! Calculate the money somebody makes working on the Sabbath and give it them as a gift so they can rest. That’s the gift God has given us that we can share with one another.
One of our youth figured this out when they tried to practice Sabbath. When they tried to practice Sabbath on their own, everyone else in the house kept getting in the way! They learned that Sabbath was a communal practice, something they couldn’t just do by themselves. Everyone in the house had to buy in, not just them.
That’s exactly the roll that we can play in each other’s lives—we band together and make Sabbath possible for each other!
Sabbath takes a whole community trusting God. For some, they need to trust God instead of their labor. Do less. Rest more. For others, they need a community they can trust to provide what they need. When we all trust God together, we can build that kind of church. We can build alternative economies that let us rest in God rather than collapse from exhaustion.
Psalm 84 ends with the beatitude, ”O LORD of hosts, Happy is everyone who trusts in you.” A world exists where we are not ceaseless laborers, cogs in the market machine, and a single day in that world is worth a thousand elsewhere. Because in that world, we trust and rest in God and become who we were truly meant to be—not just laborers, but beloved children of God.
 Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath.
 Judith Schulevitz, “Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore,” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/11/why-dont-i-see-you-anymore/598336/