Meditations on Labor and Leisure

Several reflections on Sabbath keeping

by Ken Sehested

#1: Sabbath House mission

Written as a steering committee member shaping the mission statement
of a new retreat center, with particular reference to serving
the needs of perenially over-extended clergy

Mission statement draft: The mission of the Sabbath House is to explore the contemporary implications of "sabbath-keeping" in the jubilee tradition in Scripture.

Background: The jubilee tradition—stated most explicitly in Leviticus 25 and reaffirmed by Jesus in his inaugural sermon (Luke 4:18-19) as the touchstone of his vocation—is a vision linking rest and renewal: renewal not just in the solitary individual but within the human community, with creation itself, paralleling the renewal of our relations with God. The vision of jubilee moves toward the salvation and liberation of both human and humus, both earth and earthling, and involves the release of prisoners, the cancellation of debt, the restoration of the land. Its work is tikkun olam, the repair of the world.

But this vision, this movement, this labor, indeed this struggle, is rooted in sabbath-keeping, in rest, in worship and adoration. That is to say, in trust that what was begun in creation will be accomplished in recreation; in confidence of that coming day when lion and lamb will lie together, the valleys mountains will be brought low and valleys lifted up, when all shall sit 'neath their fig and vine tree and none shall make them afraid, when every tear will be dried and death shall be no more, when creation itself will be freed from its bondage to decay.

The disciplines of sabbath-keeping involves the constant need to realign our sights on God's purposes in the world, to keep our eyes on the prize.

We believe that all forms of brokenness, violence and dysfunction involve the ever-growing spirals of disharmony in the earth and reflect our disharmony with God. Within the earth, these fractures include the unequal distribution of wealth, the unjust relations between men and women and people of different racial/ethnic backgrounds, as well as the plundering of earth's resources.

We believe that the social vision of the promised year of jubilee, while not to be replicated in its details, still serves as a powerful metaphor and mandate for social, economic, political and ecological transformation.

And yet we also believe that such transformation is rooted not in human will power. We are not engineers of the coming Reign of God, but its parables and witnesses. And it is in developing the habits of sabbath-keeping that we reenter redemptive relationship with God and with all God's creation.

If the purpose of the Sabbath House is simply to provide time and space to allow clergy to recuperate from the wearying effects of congregational leadership, then we will have failed in our mission. Even worse, we will have become complicit in a pattern of institutional pathology: binding up broken spirits and exhausted imaginations in order to send them back into a system ordained for failure (or vocational compromise). The exorbitant demands placed on congregational leaders (clergy and laity alike)—much like the pressures exerted on “nuclear families” in modern Western culture—are relentlessly out of balance. The mission of the Sabbath House must be more than allowing clergy an escape to catch up on sleep and on reading. A vision of sabbath-keeping must be articulated as a critique of accepted patterns of congregational life.

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#2: Sabbath practice sanctifies and celebrates a certain kind of labor
Commentary for a clergy peer group retreat

From time to time I find myself in an impertinent, impious mood. And the following meditation surfaced during one recent episode.

It’s not clear to me that God gives a rip if I get enough rest, take a day off each week, find enough “down” time, meditate/pray/lectio on a regular basis, or get all the love I deserve.

I suspect that personalizing God in this way borders on heresy and plays into the hands of our shopping-network culture, turning “spirituality” into yet one more consumptive option. Bored with creation, we attempt to leech directly onto the Divine.

Surely sabbath practice will address the too-hurried habits of life characteristic of a market-driven society. But focusing on sabbath as leisure overshadows the social contract which gives it meaning, namely, the “jubilee” injunctions given the newly-freed Hebrew slaves, whose practices (release from debt, overthrow of “private” property rights, manumission of slaves, rest for the land itself) were the confirming marks of true piety. Sabbath practice sanctifies and celebrates a certain kind of labor.

Jesus himself, who personalized God most radically as “Abba,” culminated his personal mission statement by proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:20)—a direct reference to the year of jubilee (see esp. Deuteronomy 15), the projected 50-year cycle of economic restructuring for ancient Israel and, for Jesus, an eschatological metaphor for the coming Empire of God.

Disappointed as I am to admit it, it’s not about me. Reluctant as I am to say it, Israel’s Yahweh and Jesus’ Abba seems obsessed not with the state of my solitary soul but with the redemptive completion of creation, a process which inevitably includes bruising, even bloody confrontation with enduring impulses to domination, revenge and violence.

I can participate in this struggle, this “war of the lamb,” or not. Either way, the bounty to be won is not available for hoarding; and my participation confers no privilege.


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#3: Sabbath as labor rooted in trust rather than lust

Yes, our calling entails work—hard work—stretching forward for our high calling in Christ Jesus. But this isn’t a contest to see who can get the most merit badges before time is called. And you don’t get time-and-a-half for extra labor.

Yes, this vocation is tiring, sometimes tedious, costly and occasionally dangerous. But selling all, picking up the cross, “hating” your mother and father, is powered by delight rather than demand, is being pulled forward, is being seduced not by lust but my trust. God is not the Terminator. The Spirit does not push and shove.

Come the end of any given day, you may be frazzled; or endure fretful sleep; or tolerate tendonitis of the heart from having it wretched in too many directions. But the sum total is more like “God, that was great!” than it’s like “I don’t know how much more I can take.”

Practicing sabbath is more like contentment than time off. Contemplative life is contented life. The worst fate is to wake up and discover that God wasn’t keeping score. Only you were doing that.

It’s true—contentment has many imitators: recognition, ovation, approval rating. But do you really want a building or boulevard or baby named for your sake? Or a bibliography devoted to your stamina?

Tragedy is awakening to the fact that you stayed away from the party because you thought your raise was at stake—only to learn that bonuses were passed out around the banquet table. And you stayed away to get your stellar sales report finished.

Tragedy is when you wake up and say, in that immortal line from a Deanna Carter song, “Did I Shave My Legs For This!?”

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