Sunday, Sabbath, and the Weekend: Managing Time in a Global World

Ancient Testimony - Isaiah 12:3

October 24, 2010

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

So why do cabbies honk?  To make the light.  Why do cabbies want to make the light?  To save time, so they can make more money?  Why do cabbies want to make more money?  So they can get home and rest.

We work to rest and rest so we can work.  There is a connection.  It comes from the beginning of time, when God rested on the 7th day.  When you and I don’t rest or keep a Sabbath, essentially a separation of one kind of time from the other—honking time from resting time—we violate the ontology of creation.  Boy, that is a big word.  Ontology, from ontos, the way things are made.  Ontology is about time and space and how both were made.  I used to have a cat named Ontos, and believe me, she had attitude.

This ontology of rest and work is part of our myth of creation.  When we only work and don’t rest, we violate the ontology or ontos of creation.  We betray the way we are made and the way the universe is made.  That is probably what sets up the false morality that we “should” rest or slow down or keep a Sabbath.  Many people approach Sabbath with a foundational guilt: I should but I don’t.  Today, I want to teach about the other history of Sabbath, the one beyond the ontology, and make just one point.  You may keep Sabbath.  Not you must but you may keep Sabbath.

The great theologian of Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel, taught us that Jews did not come to the cultural habit of Saturdays until after the Diaspora.  After the Diaspora, when Jews were spread across the Middle East and beyond, they needed a way to stay together as a people.  So they developed habits, like sabbath-keeping.  They eventually came up with 253 rules for keeping Sabbath—some eating rules, some rules about dishes, but all rules.  Without setting up an anti-Jewish theme, as in Jesus was better than the Jews, it is important for me to tell you that keeping Sabbath is a historically relative matter.  Jesus came along after the keeping of Sabbath was rigidified.  You can do this; you can’t do that.  You can eat that; you can’t eat that.  The Sabbath goy, the one who bought for you on Saturdays in New York, is a direct descendent of this failed attempt to make Sabbath observance one thing, with just the right kind of behavior permitted.  Jesus came along and got into one tiff after another with his own family.  What, can you pick corn on the Sabbath?  Yes, said Jesus, and why not?  There is something more important, more ontological, and more basic to the keeping of Sabbath.  Be careful of rules.  They rigidify what is actually relative.

We live in a culture whose main problem is time famine.  We are starved for time.  Because of the ambiguous gift of Jesus—that we don’t need rules or culture to keep habit—we can now buy liquor on Sundays.  We can also work all the time, anywhere, anytime, in a 7-11 Eucharistic allied and economically starving culture.

If I take the route of the relativity of sabbath-keeping—and its simultaneous importance—I end up telling you that you may keep Sabbath.  Let me show you how; I’ll have to do a history lesson to help us get to our freedom.  This history lesson is by way of telling you that we have long relativized just about everything.  Today we need to re-relativize sabbath-keeping—from a must to a may, from a day full and long to a practice wide and deep—but first we have to remember how long in coming the time famine really is.  To change the practice away from sabbath-keeping as a full day of must do’s into a spiritual habit of may do’s, takes a little historical moxie.  For Sabbath as may do, we, now, need to understand our own historical, economic, and cultural moment better than we do.

Here come five historical pieces of information, which hopefully will shake you up and in to the 21st century.  The first comes from Mr. Mickley, who lived down the road from me in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  After college, I farmed with a few of the usual hippie suspects.  We lived on an apple orchard owned by Hope Morgan.  She was the only woman farmer within miles, employed the usual migrant workers to pick, and was considered an eccentric.  Hope was about sixty at this time, we were in our twenties, and Mr. Mickley was eighty.  Every day, he sat on his porch from about 4:00 p.m. until about 5:00, at which time he had his supper.  He worked from 6:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., thinking that a well-designed eight-hour day was just about right for his business, which was also apples.  If you wanted to, you could sit with him just about every day.  He would say the same thing every day, as a man born in 1880, whose family had farmed the same land for several generations.  What he said was this: first they complained about how fast the horse went, then they complained about how fast the buggy went, now I get to sit here and complain about how fast the cars go.  Mr. Mickley saw the early speed-up.  He never saw a computer.  Certainly not an Apple computer.  He didn’t like social change; he just marked it.  And the cultural economy let him complain but didn’t change his behaviors.  And like those in our Modern Testimony, Mr. Mickley had a spring to which he went every afternoon.

Second example.  Like Mr. Mickley, my own father knew about historical change but he didn’t have to change with it.  Donald Osterhoudt, my father, came home from his factory job, just about every day I knew him, from 12:00 to 1:00 and ate a sandwich and took a nap and smoked a couple of cigarettes.  He worked from 7:00 to 4:00, again an eight-hour day (less lunch), which allowed him a regular lunch hour and time to watch TV, play softball, and have a little time at his own version of a spring, which was usually a beer.  His time was certainly not his own but his schedule was.

Third example.  Melissa Fay Greene, author of The Temple Bombing—the story of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, who was a partner with King in the civil rights movement—tried really hard to write a history of Rothchild’s congregation.  In it, she tells her own story, especially the parts that had to do with Mrs. Rothschild’s constant questioning of everything Greene said.  Rabbi Rothschild arrived in Atlanta on a hot day in July of 1946.  Greene found herself spending a lot of time in the library researching what that day was like.  Today, the Hartsfield Jackson International Airport is enormous, but she discovered that at that time it was just a little brick building sitting out in a field.  A large African-American woman dressed as a mammy sat on a bale of hay and welcomed visitors.  Greene, the author, loved doing this research and wrote eloquently about what she thought the Rabbi’s entry was like: “There was a hot wind blowing across a thousand acres of cropland from the sizzling Atlantic beyond.”  She was proud of her false sentence describing that day.  When she showed it to Mrs. Rothschild, the Rabbi’s wife was silent for a long time.  Greene assumed she was just overwhelmed with emotion at her prose and her story.  “I’ve really nailed it this time,” she thought.  Then Mrs. Rothschild said, “Melissa, is this book non-fiction?”  Yes, it is, she responded.  “Melissa, he took the train.”  Greene had done what we call a serious anachronism, extrapolating backwards from her own present-day world.  In 1946 people didn’t fly anywhere unless it was an emergency.  What Greene had done was commit the error of “Presentism.”  When we think about Sabbath, and keeping it the way people used to keep it, we can be guilty of the same thing.  Like Mr. Mickley, we can be comfortably unaware of the realities of the move from horses to buggies to cars to airplanes.  These historical speed-ups matter to the spiritual practice of sabbath-keeping.  If you still think you need to keep it the ways Jews did in Diaspora or your parents did on the farm, you are probably setting yourself up for spiritual failure.  You risk being a spiritual anachronism.

Two final historical examples.  The first comes from Jill Lepore’s article on the history of sex education in the current New Yorker.  She begins the piece with a story about asking her father what an ejaculation is, having come across the term in some book she was quietly reading of an afternoon.  The father, dutifully, explained.  That was the era of dutiful explanation.  She concludes the piece sitting with her young son in this century.  The child is reading something unrelated, and pops the question, “Mom, do you have to use a conundrum when having oral sex?”

My point here is that indeed you do have to use a conundrum to do just about anything, including keeping a good Shabbat.

Finally, at a stoop sale in Brooklyn yesterday, I picked up a book written in 1959 called a Greenwich Village Guide.  The last page ad tells us that we may eat at the oldest village landmark, the Albert French Restaurant at 42 East 11th Street.  There, for $2.35, we can have all-you-can-eat sirloin or ham or shrimp, complete with potato, salad, desert, and coffee.  This meal is served from noon until 2:00 a.m.  By the way, even the migrant workers Hope employed in the orchard got a lunch hour.  How do I know?  My dogs often stole their bag lunches.

These five examples encourage us not to take much time being stuck in any one time.  From Mr. Mickley’s porch to my father’s lunch hour, through an historian’s embarrassment at getting it wrong, even after serious study, bypassing into the history of sexual education, and coming home to our own neighborhood, we get the point.  Things change.  Times change.  And when they change, they change us.  I know we all know this or think we know this. 

If we really did know, though, why would we not keep Sabbath differently?  Why would we think we should keep it rather than thinking that we may keep it?  Why would we allow ourselves to be so ontologically bereft and historically determined?  What kind of people are plausibly the richest in the world and so deep in a time famine?  Have you ever heard a really good black preacher non-apologize for how long he or she is going to preach?  They will often start, “I take my time.”  Why don’t we take our time?  (Don’t worry; I am ending this soon.)

One more example, which comes from watching baseball the last couple of nights.  Baseball, of course, is the slow food of sports.  One of the ads that kept coming up was filled with people in all kinds of gorgeous places talking on their cell phones.  Driving great cars or motorcycles, picking out food at a French market, eating a meal: they are all not there.  They are talking on their phones.  Then the ad says, “It is time for a phone to save us from our phones.”  It is an ad for something called a Windows Phone, coming soon.  It is time for a May Sabbath from a Must Sabbath.  Perhaps there is an app?  Which, by the way, I think would be a great idea: a sabbath-keeping app that reminded you to go mediate somewhere or touch a bowl of water on your desk.

If you wanted to give yourself ontological permission to keep a Sabbath and to take your time, here’s how you could do it: you could ritualize your life.  You could do email for a while in the morning and a while in the afternoon.  You could find a place, like the Highline or a bowl of water, and touch it, even if only in a picture.  You could always eat lunch and always eat dinner.  You could pray in the time you saved from being online or picking up take-out.  You could both care and not care about your own honking and your own work.*  You could use your cell phone in a similar ritualized way: only at 4:30, not every time the thing honks.  I have no idea what ritual is right for you, in your historical, economic, and cultural circumstances.  What I do know is that you have the spiritual right, born for you in the creation of the world, to both rest and work.  You don’t have to honk all the time to find some peace.  You could find a place, like a spring or a bowl of water, which you maintained.  Sometimes you could even fill up your jug there.  Like so many other things, these freedoms are up to us, as we get each other to help us go to places that are renewing.  When the letter comes, saying, “You have been invited to retire,” you say, “Oh, thank you, but I already have.”

Katie, my daughter, and I are taking the train up to Montreal tomorrow to see the leaves.  We laughed our heads off when we saw the New Yorker cartoon that said, “You must see the fall foliage.  You must carve a pumpkin.”  Not really.  We may see the fall foliage.

Heschel called Sabbath the queen of time.  You and the queen might want to get together, for ten minutes every couple of hours.  You will be glad—and you will live not in presentism but in eternity, which is here, now, flowing.  You may rest.  That is the key.  Once you know that, you find a way.




*T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, “Teach us to care and not to care.”



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