If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.
-Jesus, in the 12th chapter of Matthew
This conflict is a bit obscure. The gist of it is that harvesting grains was a violation of Sabbath law- you can’t go out and reap crops on the day set aside for worship. Jesus’ disciples are walking through some grainfields picking individual heads of grain, which doesn’t technically qualify as harvesting. On the Sabbath, you can’t use a knife to harvest or stockpile food the way you would when collecting garden produce to preserve, but it’s fine to go outside and eat stuff that happens to be there.
In other words, it would violate the Sabbath if you picked baskets of tomatoes to can. Tossing a cherry tomato in your mouth, though, is not a problem. Simply feeding yourself does not qualify as work.
Fair enough, but why would anyone care about this?
Let’s start by clearing up one potential objection. It isn’t clear, from the story, whether or not the grain in question belonged to the disciples who were eating it. That’s not the problem.
If the disciples happened to be eating grain from other people’s fields, that wasn’t a violation of any kind of law. It wasn’t considered theft. You couldn’t go in and seriously harvest food that other people were growing, but if you were hungry, you could eat some.
We would tend to think of this as a matter of private property. If I’m growing carrots in my yard, those carrots are, well, mine. They’re on land that I have legal use of, grown from seed that I bought, and you have no right to them.
In Biblical ethics, though, private property doesn’t exist. The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof. Everything belongs to God, who allows us here as tenants. Not as individual tenants, each with our own particular lease- it’s more like one shared lease, one that we become party to on the occasion of our birth. Furthermore, our first responsibility as tenants of the land is to make sure that all the other tenants are taken care of.
So, probably the disciples were eating someone else’s grain. The sort of people who like strict interpretations of the law so much that they’re willing to follow other people through fields watching for mistakes weren’t calling them on that.
No, the question here is work. On the Sabbath, you cannot work. God spent six days creating the world, and designated the seventh day for rest. If you’re not more important than God Almighty, then you should rest on the seventh day too.
It turns out, though, that an awful lot of things qualify as work. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy is a complicated commandment.
Let’s say, for instance, that you’re planning to celebrate a traditional Sabbath. This means that you cannot cook, or bake, so all your food will have to be harvested and prepared ahead of time. The Sabbath begins as soon as the sun goes down on Friday night, so if you want to have a hot dinner on Friday, start sometime in the afternoon.
If you want hot food on the Sabbath, things get more complicated. You can keep things warm in the oven, but you can’t cook, so be careful there. A crockpot will be a useful investment.
You’re also not allowed to start a fire. Initially, this might seem like it just prohibits campfires, but think about how an internal combustion engine works. Think about what happens when you turn on a lightbulb. Think about the tiny spark that is produced when you complete the electrical circuit that turns on your laptop, or your cellphone, or your television.
Also: travel is forbidden, beyond certain limits. Certain items cannot be carried between public and private domains. You can’t write more than two letters, or fix anything, or go fishing, or participate in any sort of commerce.
Obviously, not everyone observes the Sabbath this way. The thing that I find striking about strict observance, though, is the amount of preparation that goes into it. If you can’t toss a roast in the oven, and you can’t turn on your phone to check the weather, and you can’t take the hulls off walnuts, and you can’t do laundry, and you can’t open or close an umbrella, then you’re going to have to put an awful lot of thought into how the Sabbath is going to work.
Take the umbrella, for instance. You aren’t allowed to build or demolish anything on the Sabbath, which includes setting up a tent. An umbrella is a sort of tent, if you think about it- you build it by opening it, and demolish it by closing it. So, if it’s going to rain and you know you’ll be going out, then you’d have to open the umbrella on the night before.
In other words, you’d have to be prepared.
Craig and I have a Seventh Day Adventist friend who, as a normal part of her life, cooks ahead on Fridays rather than working in the kitchen on Saturdays. It’s difficult for me not to think of that as a hassle, but for her, this is freeing. She has, built into her schedule, one day in seven in which she does very little in the kitchen. This, for her, is a blessing.
If you wanted to celebrate the Sabbath this way, you’d have to think through a whole day’s worth of activities. For instance: are you going to want to have the lights on in the kitchen on Saturday? Make sure you don’t turn them off on Friday night, then. Don’t think you’ll be making a quick to Kroger for chips and salsa, either; that’s participating in commerce, so you’ll have to have them on hand or do without.
This is going to require a awful lot of forethought, particularly when it comes to remembering the chips and salsa. Don’t most things that are important require forethought, though?
I mean, we see it all the time with big goals. Say that you wake up tomorrow and realize a deep-seated desire to become an architect, or to create an award winning quilt, or to hike the Adirondack Trail. Step-by-step, right? You’re going to have to research the best kind of lightweight pack, or invest in some drawing classes, or start learning how to sew.
You’re going to have to put in your time. You’re going to have to prepare.
We see this on the small scale, too. Most cooks know the pain of starting a recipe and then, with ingredients scattered all over the counter, realizing that someone used the last of the canned tomatoes and didn’t buy more. If someone (who was definitely not me, found guilty last night while working on this very sermon) had just thought to write “canned tomatoes” on the grocery list that someone’s husband took down to Kroger, then some couple’s Indian lentils would have had tomato in it as God intended.
Preparation. It matters. Should it matter less when we are preparing to meet with God?
So, let me ask you a question: how did you prepare for worship this morning?
Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice reminds us that in worship we enter with reverence into communion with God and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. It advises us, therefore, to come to meeting for worship with heart and mind prepared. How did you prepare your heart and your mind for this experience?
Look, I don’t think that as Christian Quakers in the 21st century, we need to be worried about whether or not turning on a light bulb is, technically speaking, lighting a fire and therefore banned on the Sabbath. I know that other people find deep meaning in those practices, and I want to be respectful of that, but I’m not going to feel guilty about heading home this afternoon and microwaving some lunch. The Sabbath is on Saturday anyhow, so any Sabbath-breaking sin of mine was committed yesterday. Today, my lazy microwaving is blameless.
I am still struck, though, by the families who intentionally welcome in their day of rest and worship and community. I am struck by the way that it deepens their worship, by how a simple ritual like throwing food in a crock pot the night before makes it easier for them to take one day and remind themselves of who and whose they really are.
Friends, I don’t know if you realize this: what each of you, individually, do with your souls during the week determines, to some extent, the deepness of our shared worship. If you come with your hearts and minds prepared, then we are more likely to recognize Christ among us.
That’s the point of all these Sabbath laws. I don’t think you need to try to shoehorn your life into these particular rules. I mean, imagine asking Moses, the great conveyer and teacher of the Law, to tell me whether or not Craig and I can watch Lost on Netflix today. Imagine Moses’ head catching on fire like the burning bush as he tries to figure out what I’m talking about. The particulars of these rules are not for us.
One takeaway here, though, is that human beings need to prepare for corporate worship. We need that awareness, throughout the week, that something special is going to happen when we gather together. We need to plan for it. We need to prepare.
If you are a human being, then this takeaway is for you.
So. Did you prepare for worship this morning?
I don’t mean for that to be a shaming question. I’m not saying that if you didn’t prepare your heart and mind for worship, then you don’t belong here. Maybe you went through the past six days without giving a single thought to matters of eternal weight. No matter, in a sense. You are welcome here.
However: you will find Christ more easily, on a Sunday morning, if you have also been looking for Christ throughout the week. You will be more centered, as we enter our time of waiting worship, if you have practiced centering yourself throughout the week. You will hear the voice of God more clearly, in this time and place, if you have been listening all week long.
You may not need to remember the Sabbath just as our religious ancestors did, but you do need to remember. And what’s more, we need you to remember. The people gathered in this meetinghouse, today, need you to be prepared.
I mean, think about what happens here. People share announcements about things that are important to them. We affirm our faith together through song. We offer up the blessings and the trials of our lives in prayer. We ritually donate toward our shared goals. We talk about the Bible. We sit quietly and wait together for the Maker of the Universe to make the holy self known.
That’s just what we do in this one hour. That’s not including the sacramental conversations that come after the service, the ones where you ask each other how you’re really doing. That’s not including the incredible amount of work that our musicians put in, as they show up before the service and rehearse. That’s not including the diligent labor of our Sunday School teachers, either.
We’re doing big things, in these few hours. It is worth your while to be prepared.
So. I am not much for telling you what to do. Let me paint for you, though, a few pictures of preparation for worship:
-I know parents of a young child who, as the child is heading to bed, take a few moments to pray over the various graces and roadblocks of the day. The blueberry muffins were good, thanks be to God, but Jack took your dumptruck, and we pray for God to empower us forgive him for this sin, amen. They practice giving all these things over to God.
-I know a woman for whom writing is sacred. 500 words a day is the goal. She makes her tea and carries it off to her writing room, where she bears witness to God by writing about the everyday on sacred terms. She makes a habit of paying attention, and is therefore ready for corporate worship when it comes.
-I know a large family that considers breakfast to be their sacred time. They read a Scripture passage, they share their worries about the day, and they talk about living lives that are faithful to Christ. When they go to church, they are not surprised by the content of the service.
-I know a man who keeps a prayer notebook. Everyday, he diligently prays for his own family, for his church family, and for people around the globe whom he may never have met. When he comes to church on Sunday, he is prepared to worshipfully engage with people whose lives are different from his own.
Maybe none of those paths are for you. That’s the problem with Quakerism, I guess- no one is going to tell you what the right answer is. You have to seek that out for yourself.
I want you to know, though, that if you were to develop a spiritual practice of some sort – whether it would be a friendship thing, for those of you who find meaning there, or a family-wide thing, for those of you raising children; or a partner thing, for couples who aren’t raising children right now; or an individual thing, for those of you who are single; if you were to develop a spiritual practice, the effects of that practice would be felt throughout this meeting.
What we are doing here, this morning, is sacred. This work of worship, it requires your full attention- right now, but also all week long.
So, where did you see Christ this week? How did you prepare your hearts and minds, this week, before coming to church this morning? How might you prepare your hearts and minds, next week?