The Labor Day Sabbath

RCL Year A, Proper 18

I spent most of last week backpacking with Jim in the Sierras, up near Sonora Pass.  We got up at 4am Monday and drove up the road, stopping only to pick up our permit at the ranger station.  We were on the trail by 10:30, and spent that day walking, finally stopping, exhausted, around 4:30 or 5:00 at a campsite some 10 miles up.  The next day we were walking again by 8:30, and after 6 miles of trail, we headed cross country 5 miles up over a 10,000 foot saddle and then back down the loose scree on the other side to a lake, arriving exhausted at a campsite.  The next morning we started off again at 9:00 and headed down a scrappy little trail going steeply downhill, planning to head out to our car some 14 miles away to escape the swarming mosquitoes that were driving us crazy.  Sometime shortly after lunch, I lost it.  Did I mention I had huge blisters on my feet from boot problems?  Jim suggested we stop and camp and finish the next day like we’d originally planned.  I resisted.  We’re tough.  I’m tough.  I can do long days.  This is nothing.  Go, go, go.  IF we stop now, at only 2pm, what will we do with the afternoon?

But then I wondered:  what would it be like to take it easy in the outdoors?  Other people do it.  They call it ‘layover days.’  I’ve never taken a layover day.  What do you do out there?  Do you pack in a book?  Just sit and stare at the view?  Slap mosquitoes?

There was a time a few years ago when I was reading something about running, and how people who run are often Type A.  I said to Jim, ‘That’s funny, I run, and I’m not really Type A.  Well, maybe a little bit.  What do you think?’  Jim just started laughing.  ‘Of course you’re Type A!’ he said.  I was shocked.

I come by it honestly.  My mom is one who was always controlled by things to be done.  If I sat and read a book, she would be sure to walk by and say something about ‘shouldn’t you be getting your homework done/cleaning your room/doing your chores first?’  as she carried another load of laundry downstairs.  For her, leisure and rest were things you had after everything on your list was crossed off.  And everyone else had to wait too – if we were all ready to leave for a family day out and she hadn’t yet unloaded the dishwasher, then everyone had to wait till she unloaded the dishwasher.  Because who else was going to do it? she would say.

So there I was, Type A Takes on the Wilderness.  This is not the way I want to be.  I used to be more contemplative.  I used to love sitting and doing nothing and staring at the view in silence.  Somewhere along the way I’ve lost this.  Not to blame everything on my kids, but I think parenting has been a part of it.  Every day is a long list of chores and tasks, from the moment we get up till the moment we fall into bed at the end of the day.  It takes a lot of work to push small children through the day and do our own work as well.  And then we go backpacking and it’s the same – get the stuff packed into the pack, hoist it on, walk walk walk, pick a campsite, set up the tent, filter the water, cook the dinner, fall into bed exhausted.

I’m telling this on myself, but I bet some of you know what I’m talking about.  This is our way now.  Go, go, go.  For those of you who are retired, you may have happily escaped this – but I’ve heard from more than one retired person that they feel busier than they did when they were working.  For those of you working, or with kids still at home, you’re stuck in it.  There’s a long list of stuff to be done, and you’re the one who has to do it.  There’s no time to stop.  Keep going, because you’ve got to get all the way to the end.

This weekend is Labor Day weekend – traditionally the last bit of leisure before kicking back into high gear for the fall.  There’s a pro-union bumper sticker that says:  Support Labor – the folks who brought you the weekend.  Working people didn’t used to get time off – it wasn’t part of the culture.  There was the leisure class, and then there were those who worked to keep it all going, and they never got a break.  Now the ‘leisure class’ is the busiest of all, as if being busy is a sign of status.  Time off is quickly disappearing from our culture again, thanks to smartphones and email and expectations of constant availability. But this weekend is just a little different.  We honor workers by taking a day off, having barbecues, hanging out.  It’s paradoxical, but I think it could be exactly what we need.

When we lived in New York I had more exposure to Orthodox Jewish culture and tradition.  One of the things I learned quickly was that if I visited someone in the hospital on a Saturday, I should not get on the Sabbath elevator.  That elevator would stop at every floor, so that a Jew observing the Sabbath would not have to violate their observance by pushing a button.  If you wanted to get to the 11th floor, say, it would take a long time on that elevator.  It sounds a little silly.  But I find a lot to respect about the idea of truly taking the Sabbath.  It’s there in the 10 commandments, after all:  honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  By some extra work and attention to detail, Orthodox families are able to do that, to spend their Friday evenings and Saturdays together, worshiping, resting, breaking bread together, and enjoying each other.  It’s an ideal that in practice has problems – the only way families can observe Sabbath strictly is for the women to do an enormous amount of work on Friday before sundown, and sometimes for a Gentile friend – a goy – to do things for them that they are prohibited from doing, like turning on the heat.  But the ideal is still a good one.  And it’s something that we’ve mostly lost in our Type A culture.

That whole first reading we heard from Exodus is about setting aside time.  It’s the rules for keeping the Passover, the essential feast that reminds the Israelites of God’s action in freeing them from slavery.  The event is so central to who they are and who they understand God to be that they are commanded to remember it throughout the generations.  God is the one who frees and delivers them.  By eating the Passover lamb and retelling the story again, they reconnect with that central fact.  If they don’t set the time aside as a feast, they’ll begin to forget who they are and what God has done for them.  That’s how we humans are.

And that’s the point of Sabbath.  The intention is that we set time aside from the to-do list.  We set the time aside to focus on God and on each other, spending the time in prayer and in companionship with others rather than on our smartphones and career goals.  And we do it not just when everything else is done, when we have a few minutes left over – we structure the rest of our lives so that we can observe Sabbath, making it a priority instead of our own personal work and tasks and ways of filling our time.  We inconvenience ourselves so that we remember that God is the source of our being – not our job, not our friends, not tasks crossed off a list.

It’s the time of year when we need to remember that.  The fall is gearing up.  School has started, vacation is over, meetings and events are accumulating on the calendar.  September is too busy, so we put things off till October.  And then October fills up.  And then it’s November, and the holidays begin.  And before you know it, we’re in January and wondering what happened.  It’s a paradoxical time to remind ourselves to take Sabbath – it’s an easier sell in Lent, or in summertime, when time and intention combine to make things slow down just a little bit.  But it’s just when life feels busiest that we need to take Sabbath.  It’s now most of all that we need to set the time aside to worship God, to pray, to rest, to spend real time with others.  To remember what Jesus says in today’s gospel reading, that where two or three are gathered, there I am in the midst of them.  Here he is.  Settle into his presence.  It will ground you in everything else you do this week.

So I encourage you to make this Labor Day something different.  Think of it as not just the end of the summer, but the beginning of the fall.  Take a day off; take a Sabbath to set the tone for your fall.  Instead of focusing on all the things on your calendar, take time to sit and look at the view.  Pray.  Share a meal with people you love.  And use this as a template for doing things differently this fall, so that in all you do, you remember who you are – God’s children – and what God has done for you.