II cor. 4:5-12, Psalm 139, Mark 2:23-28

June 1, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

I wonder if the Lord”s Day Act is still on the books in Canada. It must, because I never heard that it was repealed. But how things change! Who would worry nowadays about running out of cash or grocery on Sunday. I remember the mad rush on Fridays to the bank, to the grocery store, and to the beer store, so we had enough to survive the weekend. I remember laughing at an ignorant American tourist who was looking for a grocery store to buy beer on Sunday. In the US, I thought I was in a pagan country in a supermarket on Sunday, to stock up the pantry for the week following. I was staying with a family in the States. That was only in 1968. How have we changed! Is it good or bad that we don”t worry too much about Sundays any more? If we can not turn the clock back to the days of strict observance of the Lord”s Day, how then should we observe Sundays in 1997? According to the ideas found in the Gospels about Sabbath, I can say, in short, that Sunday should be different from other days in order to take care of ourselves. In other words, Sunday is for people.

The idea of Sabbath appeared first in the Bible as the day of rest. In the book of Genesis, God created the world in six days. After six working days, feeling good about what he did, God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it as the day of rest. The word "hallow" means to set aside something as special; in other words, to make it "holy". God is telling us that to rest is good for us and also important enough to be hallowed: to set it aside as a special day. Of course, work is also important. After all, he looked at what he achieved in his work, and said to himself, "That”s good!" Work and rest are both good and mutually dependent. Work will be a torture if it is not broken by intermittent periods of rest. Rest will become unbearable and demeaning without meaningful work. Work enable us to live and rest makes us human. The story of creation puts Sabbath in perspective.

Jewish Sabbath is Saturday, and it begins on Friday night. Jesus was crucified on Friday. It did not seem right to the authorities leaving the body of a criminal who committed blasphemy exposed in public on Sabbath, especially during the Passover. So he was buried on Friday night and rose from death on the third day – Sunday. The Christian Church replaced Sabbath with Sunday to commemorate the day of resurrection. Seventh Day Adventist Church, however, insists that we should still follow the Jewish customs and worship on Saturday. I am saying all this to show that many rules and debates about Sabbath have much too much to do with worship services and the rules of the religious institutions, and little to do with what is good for human being. The true spirit of Sabbath can easily be lost in a maze of religious discussions.

If you go to Jerusalem and stay in any hotel in the Western Jewish sector of the city, you will notice that there are two kinds of elevators. One is for Sabbath and the other for the rest of the week. If you take the Sabbath elevator, you don”t have to touch anything. As soon as you get on it, it opens and closes the door, and stops at every floor automatically. Never take the Sabbath elevator on the week days. It will take forever to get to your room, if you are staying on the twentieth floor. Pushing a button is considered to be a work. So you don”t push a button on Sabbath.

The story is not much different from some of the old Christian customs. Anthony Bailey, who is a United Church missionary from Montreal area now working in Jamaica, told me once how he used to spend Sundays. His father, Frank, was a beloved minister of the United Church in Maxville for a long time until he retired. But he was a strict and old fashioned Christian. He did not allow any entertainment on Sundays at home. They went to church twice on Sundays. And the only TV program allowed on Sunday was "Hymn Sing". I know that many of you, who were raised in strict Christian homes, can tell us many similar stories. I am sure that worshipping God together in a church is good for our soul. I am sure that it is good to have rules of behaviours for Sabbath, so that everybody benefits from the day of rest together. But if those rules should overtake the real spirit of the day, that will go against God”s intention. In other words, the rules regarding Sabbath must not interfere with the pursuit of a genuinely wholesome life. That is what Jesus was trying to tell us in the today”s Gospel story.

Jesus defended those disciples who collected some grains from a field on Sabbath, because they were hungry. He healed a physically handicapped person on Sabbath. Jesus recalled a story of King David who had let his soldiers eat the meat which was offered to God on the alter, because there was nothing else to eat. Only the priests were allowed to eat the offerings under the normal circumstances. His point was to say that the laws were made for people, not the other way around. So in principle, on Sabbath you should take a break from work. But if one is starving and there is no food, one must do something to get food even on Sabbath. If you see a person suffering from illness, you must heal the sufferer even on Sabbath. The whole point of Sabbath is to restore life. So some rules become hindrance to life, it is normal to break such rules to restore life.

You may wonder why we need rules to give ourselves holidays. As a person who grew up in a non-Judeo-Christian-Islamic culture, where a regular holiday traditionally came only twice a month, I like the notion of ”at least a day off in a week” as a norm. Without some kind of rules to put the brakes on, it is difficult for human beings to stop working. Because of greed, some people force others to work as long as possible. It is not only in a story like Dickens” Christmas Carol, there are many stories to tell us that human beings have exploited others everywhere. We, also as a race, suffer from workaholism like Scrooge. It is because we are incapable of looking at ourselves. So work becomes our escape. We often don”t know what to do when there is nothing to do. So we keep on being busy to avoid thinking.

The lesson of Sabbath teaches us that we are valued children of God for no other reason but for a fact that we are human beings. Work is good, fruits of our labour are good. But life is much more than work and rewards of work. When we take a break, we will find more about ourselves which we have not known before. We who come to church believe that by attending the church God will help us find important things about our life, and help us put our daily work into perspective. When I was working in Africa, one of the many lessons I learned about our faith is from the way the Africans looked at each other. They value human being regardless of income or position. No one looks down on a person who has no job, nor was there any sense of shame on the part of a jobless person. An old person who has no education, no money, no job, nor position in society, is revered because he or she is old thus assumed wise.

I am sure you heard me telling you this story before. But I love this story. So allow me to conclude by telling it to you again. One day, I was busy going places on my Land Rover in the mountains of Lesotho. I ran into an old man sitting by the road looking tired. In fact, he looked so weak that he looked sickly. I offered him a ride. He declined the offer and said, "I walked all day and came a long way – five miles. I am sitting here waiting for my spirit to catch up with me." Sunday is for people. It is the day set aside by God to help us recover a sense of what we are. Enjoy it.

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