Sabbath 2 – Heaven – By Dave Holmes

Read all the sermons in this Sabbath series:

Scripture – Deuteronomy 5: 12-15

Last week, I made the slightly odd and somewhat presumptuous suggestion that Sabbath practice might be a leverage point for us – that it might be something where a relatively small amount of effort yields a significant result in terms of societal health.  An odd statement for a commandment so widely ignored.

Something else I think I said last week:  Sabbath is a day to live as if, as Jesus said, “the Kin-dom of God is at hand,” that is, right close.  Sabbath is a day to practice heaven, as it were – to live as if the Lord’s Prayer has come true, and that the kingdom of God has come on earth, as it is in heaven.

But if the Sabbath is a day to practice heaven, what do you suppose heaven is like?  What are we supposed to practice?

A story. 

Once upon a time, a man died.  Somewhat to his surprise, there was no St. Peter, no judgment.  He found himself lying on a recliner by a pool, with palm trees waving overhead.  Beside him stood a butler.  “Welcome!” said the butler.  “Anything I can get you?”  “Um…” the man replied, at a loss.  “What can I have?”  “Anything you want,” replied the butler.  Well, the man started out slow.  He ordered a margarita. 

But gradually, he discovered that no matter what he asked for, the butler brought it, no questions asked.  So the man indulged his every fantasy.  It was great!  For a while.  But everything gets normal eventually, and the man found himself ready for the holiday to end.  So he asked the butler for something meaningful to do.  “Ah,” said the butler.  “There is nothing, really, for you to do.  It’s all taken care of.”  “But I need some sense of purpose!”  the man complained.  The butler shrugged his shoulders.  “But,” the man said again, “if I don’t have something important to do, I might just as well be in hell!”  The butler’s eyes widened.  “And where, sir, did you think you were?”

Really – what do you think heaven is?  It doesn’t make sense that something that is not good for us here somehow becomes good for us there – assuming, which I don’t, that “heaven” is a place to which we might go.

So what’s heaven?  What are we supposed to practice, on Sabbath?

The commandment from Deuteronomy is pretty explicit.  We are to practice rest.  But the reason for rest is different from the Leviticus commandment.  In Leviticus, we rest on Sabbath because God rested after the work of creation.  In Deuteronomy, we rest because we remember what it was like to be a slave.  And so, pointedly, everyone rests on Sabbath.  Dad rests, and so does Mom.  For that matter, so do the kids.  And slaves.  And visitors.  For this one day, one day every week, effectively, everyone becomes equal.  For this one day a week, even the slaves get to rest, they don’t have tasks to do, people ordering them around.  For this one day, they get to experience freedom and rest.

We think of heaven as “the world as it should be,” as opposed to what we’re living in the midst of right now, the world as it is.  We spend six days in the world as it is, but on Sabbath, we practice “the world as it should be.”  Six days earth, one day heaven.  Six days slavery, one day freedom.

So far so good.  But there’s a trap here, too.  Here in the colonial West, we tend to think of “the world as it should be” as a future thing, towards which we are working.  We live by a theology of progress, by which we, like Donald Trump, denigrate the present and look forward to the future.  The world as it is is bad, a mess.  Only in the future will we find greatness.

I can’t say it any better – or more disturbingly – than Wayne Muller, in his book on Sabbath:

If the promised land is the good and perfect place, then where we are right now must be an imperfect place, a defective place.  If the future is sacred, then the present is profane.  Every day we are alive, every day we are not yet in paradise is a problem – our daily life is an obstacle in our way, it is another day short of the end time.  Today – because it is not yet perfect – is always a bad day.

This means we have to work hard and long and never, ever rest because our main task is to get the hell out of here… 

But… every time we finally reach the future, it vanishes into the present.  This perplexing tendency of the future to keep eluding us does not, of course, teach us to be more present, but rather to accelerate faster… So we despoil our nest, we ruin our air and soil, because it is all dispensible, we will not be here long, because here is no good, it is not where we are going, where we are going is good and holy and free and pure and perfect and it is not here and we are on our way and do not stop us do not get in our way or we will have to mow you down kill you ruin your country burn down your village to save it. Muller:  Sabbath pp. 78-9

Ouch.  Is this us?

Whatever it is, heaven is not the future, that we must strain and force into the present.  Heaven is not the end of the road, the pinnacle of progress.  On the Sabbath, we do not pretend that this today is somehow the tomorrow of our dreams.

Since we’re on the topic of justice – and I know I’m hopping around here a bit, and I hope I’m still making sense – since we’re on the topic of justice there’s another brilliant chapter in Wayne Muller’s book called “Doing good badly.”

We colonial Christians really love to do good.  We really want to make a difference, we really want to, as I think we normally put it, “help people.”  So when problems arise, we want to move as quickly as we possibly can from problem to solution.  Trouble is, it‘s not really a solution to the problem that is in focus, it is the relief of our pain.  We just want the pain to go away, as quickly as possible.

The twin towers fell to terrorist acts, and our hearts were ripped out.  Do something, was the demand of the nation – so there was war in Afghanistan and Iraq.  And now, 15 years later, things are so much worse, aren’t they?  Did the hasty stroke fall astray?

Back in the 80’s, I think, well-meaning people noticed that a lot of mentally ill people were living in institutions.  Some of those institutions weren’t so nice.  We felt guilty, cruel even.  Wouldn’t it be better, we thought, if we returned those people back to the communities, to be cared for by their families and neighbors?  Wouldn’t life be so much better?   But we didn’t think that those people were in institutions in the first place because their families wouldn’t, or couldn’t, take care of them.  And now many of those people are on the streets or in homeless shelters.  Better?

There is so much haste in our helping that our solutions end up creating a whole new set of problems.

Heaven is not a holiday.  It is not the future.  And it’s not just making the pain go away.  What’s heaven?  How do we practice heaven?

The rabbis taught me to ask the question, “What would be a perfect day?”  What would be a perfect day, not only for you, but for you and everyone around you?   What would be a perfect day, thinking about today‘s repercussions six generations into the future?  If Jesus was right, and the Kin-dom of God is at hand, right here among us, how do we reach out and touch it on the Sabbath day?

One of the images of heaven is the heavenly banquet.  So Sabbath begins with a feast, a meal.  A  Jewish day begins at sundown, so after all the frantic preparations for Sabbath are done, and the family and guests are all sitting at table, the mother lights the two Sabbath candles and everyone exhales.  Now it is Sabbath.  Now we are all here, with our favorite foods.  We will eat and no one needs to clean up until later, when the Sabbath Is over.  We can just be together here, and enjoy this.

Most Sabbaths include a meal, a ritual of the heavenly banquet.  When we did our Sabbath experiment at Robert McClure, folks often went out to eat in groups on Sundays, after worship.  It was a dilemma, actually, because that means someone has to work.  But we decided that was okay, as long as we tipped really well.

At the Bell Tower in Winnipeg, families needing food hampers gather, along with volunteers and community people and musicians and church folks, all together, to share a meal.  No one really needs to know who is who.  It ritualizes the heavenly banquet, at which the last are the first and the greatest are the least.

Hillhurst has lunch after every Sunday worship.  All together, church folks and visitors and any street people who have found out there is free food.  A ritual of the heavenly banquet.  In some ways, a perfect day.

Another thing lots of people do on Sabbath is get out into the wilderness.  There is just some quality of perfection when you are out there by Fish Creek, with the chickadees, or breathing in the pine smell of the mountains.  Or put the two together and go on a picnic!

Heaven is not the future, it is not pain-free, it is not a holiday.  It is justice, but it is a quality of the present, a heavenly now, a heavenly here, a heavenly us.  We don‘t make it happen as much as we enter in.

The whole wide world is waiting to sing the song of Shabbat.

And I am also waiting to sing the song of Shabbat…


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