Monday, August 22, 2016

Oneg Shabbat

Be silent.
Be still.
before your God.
Say nothing.
Ask nothing.
Be silent.
Be still.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God knows.
God understands.
God loves you
with an enormous love,
and only wants
to look upon you
with that love.

This poem, Let your God Love You by the English writer Edwina Gateley, is a beautiful reminder of why we are here; of why we set aside one day each week to come into God’s presence in the company of God’s people.  It reminds us how this day is an oneg shabbat – Hebrew for a “delightful Sabbath”.

The image of this glorious possibility comes to us from today’s reading from Isaiah: “If you call the Sabbath a delight…”  The “if” hints at conditions.  Isaiah’s prophetic message about the Sabbath contains plenty of “ifs”.  Each if points to something the people should be doing, but are not.  Some historical background will help us understand the passage a little better.

This reading comes from a time after the exiles have been freed from Babylon and returned to Jerusalem.  They have set themselves to rebuilding the walls of city under the leadership of Nehemiah and to rebuilding the Temple under the direction of Ezra.  The work is hard and rift with challenges.  Still, progress is being made.  It was a time of great pride and optimism.  There is something very satisfying about seeing the work of your hands produce something tangible, something necessary, and something significant on a daily basis. 

From the perspective of politics and economics things look good.  But prophets like Isaiah focus on the spiritual and in this realm, in his estimation, something is lacking.  By all outward appearances things are fine.  People are attentive to the Sabbath.  They fast.  They pray.  They follow the rules for a proper observance of the day.  What, then, is the problem?  What is Isaiah harping about?

Perhaps you will like this little piece called No Excuse Sunday (author unknown):

To make it possible for everyone to attend church next Sunday, we are going to have a special “No Excuse Sunday”.

Cots will be placed in the foyer for those who say, “Sunday is my only day to sleep in.”

There will be a special section with lounge chairs who feel our pews are too hard.

Eye drops will be available for those with tired eyes from watching T.V. late Saturday night.

We will have steel helmets for those who say “The roof would cave in if I ever came to church.”

Blankets will be furnished for those who think the church is too cold and fans for those who say it is too hot.

Score cards will be available for those who wish to list the hypocrites present.

Relatives and friends will be in attendance for those who can’t go to church and cook dinner, too.

We will distribute “Stamp Out Stewardship” buttons for those who feel the church is always asking for money.

One section will be devoted to trees and grass for those who like to seek God in nature.

Doctors and nurses will be in attendance for those who plan to be sick on Sunday.

The sanctuary will be decorated with both Christmas poinsettias and Easter lilies for those who never have seen the church without them.

We will provide hearing aids for those who can’t hear the preacher and cotton for those who say he is to loud.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I enjoy seeing the pews full as much as anyone, but being here and keeping an oneg shabbat are not one in the same.  The churches in Isaiah’s day were packed, but full does not necessarily mean following.

How far from following are the people of Isaiah’s day?  Listen to the prophet’s message contained in the verses just prior to today’s reading:

Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.

Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.

Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

The outward signs are all there, Isaiah says, but they ring hollow.  Each person is focused on self-alone.  In the prophet’s eyes they are not in right relationship with one another.  They quarrel and fight.  They are indifferent to the plight of the hungry and apathetic about those who are not being treated fairly by the system.  They don’t pay their workers what they are worth. 

Speaking for God, Isaiah holds up the prerequisite for an oneg shabbat:

Is not this the fast that I choose: 
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

If you do this, if you carry oneg shabbat into every aspect of your life, then, says Isaiah, we as a people will be a light in the darkness; gloom will be replaced with the brightness of the mid-day sun.  Focus on one another, Isaiah says, and God will provide for us and make us strong.  Our walls and our Temple will be rebuilt and will stand for generations to come.

Given the words of Isaiah, today’s gospel reading has a parable-like quality to it.  Yes, Jesus sets aside the Sabbath to worship, but it never comes at the expense of human compassion.  The…

God loves you
with an enormous love,
and only wants
to look upon you
with that love...

is an invitation to embrace God’s love so that you can embody God’s love in your relationships with others. 

Jesus does this when he notices one of the most unnoticeable people in the community, a woman bent over and crippled.  He tells her she is set free from her ailment and lays his hands on her.  With this, eighteen years of suffering comes to an end.  The leader of the synagogue, a person who surely would have been at home worshipping with the people of Isaiah’s day, becomes indignant because Jesus healed a person on the Sabbath; something he considered to be “work”, which was forbidden on this day.  Jesus, through his words and deeds, demonstrates how compassion is an integral feature of the Sabbath, not a desecration of it.

Some Jewish synagogues in our day give the name Oneg Shabbat to their fellowship hour after the service.  It is a time to delight in the company of others.  There is an old story about Bernie, a weekly attender at synagogue who told anyone who would listen he did not believe in God.  One day a new, young rabbi came to the synagogue and engaged Bernie in a conversation about faith.  “I don’t believe in God,” Bernie told him.  “If you want to talk with a person who believes in God, go over there and talk to Herman.  He comes here every week to be with God.”  “Well,” the rabbi asked, “why do you come every week if you don’t believe in God?”  “I come,” Bernie said, “to be with my friend Herman.” 

While not exactly an exemplar of the faith, I think Isaiah and Jesus would applaud Bernie and lift up his example for others to consider.  Yes, God desires you to come here seeking the deep, healing, renewing experience Edwina Gateley describes in her poem Let your God Love You.  Surely the unnamed woman in today’s gospel reading experienced God’s incredible love first hand that day in the synagogue.  But Isaiah reminds us to look around as we approach God.  Who is here?  Who is with you?  Who is outside the door?  Whose lives have you touched this week?  Did your touch replicate the touch you seek to receive from God in this place, at this time?  Delight in this Sabbath day and live it throughout the week.