Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
September 2, 2018
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, CA
You may have noticed that I was not here the second and third weeks in August, and I want to say a huge thank you to Jerry Asheim and Bill Miller for leading worship and preaching during those weeks. Staycations can be great but for this vacation, I was not just up at the parsonage hunkering down. In fact, my family and I were 5500 miles away in Denmark. Many people have asked, why Denmark? Are you Danish? No, we aren’t Danish. But my wife Elizabeth and I made a pact several years ago that when we turned 50 we would each get to pick a place for a big trip. Elizabeth has turned 50 first--which was actually March of last year but this was our first opportunity-- and she chose Denmark. She’s long been a fan of Denmark’s distinctive, spare and innovative design, expressed in art and architecture, and recently has been learning more about the incredible Danish social welfare system and egalitarian culture—willingness to give to the state translates into a safety net of universal healthcare, free higher education for all citizens of the European Union and even some exchange students, and the option of leaving an unfulfilling job and then receiving support for a year to find work that’s more fulfilling. In our US culture where the poor and disenfranchised seem to be getting less and less support, this vision of society is very compelling.
But what has caught the attention of both of us is the Danish concept of hygge. Hygge is a word that has no direct English translation. It is more a feeling than a thing. Often it is rendered as “cozy” in English but this does not do it justice. It is more than just coziness, though I did note that many cafes and restaurants in Denmark provided cuddly throw blankets on the backs of chairs, and I did find that quite cozy. But hygge is an experience—an experience of well-being that is based on relationship, the willingness to put effort into cooperating and appreciating each other, gratitude and simplicity. And light. Ask a Dane what hygge is about and the answer will invariably reference lighting candles. Lots of them. Typically they say between 7 and 15 at a time. The Danes, as others in the European Union, are famous for being more health conscious than we in the States, banning chemicals that are allowed here in everything from soda to shampoo to fertilizer. But when it comes to candles, the warnings that sometimes appear on candles about petroleum based soot or the dangers of candles being left unattended are rejected. No warnings appear on candles in Denmark. It would detract from Hygge. The Danes burn a whopping 13 pounds of candle wax per person per year.
Interest in hygge or the pursuit of hygge has become a big thing in the US and the UK. There’s a hygge book boom on, and hygge has been covered by the New Yorker, the New York Times and a host of other publications. Some say that the reason for this is that when we hear what hygge is, and listen to a hyggeligt scene being described, we realize we don’t have it. We realize that this sense of well-being, relationship, warmth and simplicity has somehow eluded us. We realize that our interactions are more about getting and spending, or competition, or being over and against than they are about putting effort into creating a sense of well-being for everyone.
When was the last time you rested? When was the last time you gathered with dear friends and family in a cozy place and didn’t discuss divisive things or the gathering wasn’t interrupted with some form of individualized media. And if this was relatively recently, when was the time before that? Does this happen for any of us on a regular basis?
It’s always been interesting to me that included along with do not kill and do not steal and do not bear false witness in the 10 commandments is the commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. When we are truly practicing Sabbath, we experience hygge on a weekly basis. Every seven days. At a minimum. And then this regularlity of practice and experience begins to pervade other days as well.
The twentieth century Jewish activist theologian and professor Abraham Joshua Heschel, has written one of the most referenced books on Sabbath. In the introduction, his daughter, Susannah Heschel, also a theologian, writes of the experience of Sabbath she grew up with, “When my father raised his Kiddush cup on Friday evenings, closed his eyes, and chanted the prayer of sanctifying the wine, I always felt a rush of emotion. As he chanted with an old, sacred family melody, he blessed the wine and the Sabbath with his prayer, and I also felt he was blessing my life and that of everyone at the table. I treasured those moments.
Friday evenings in my home were the climax of the week as they are for every religious Jewish family. My mother and I kindled the lights for the Sabbath, and all of a sudden I felt transformed emotionally and physically. After lighting the candles in the dining room, we would walk into the living room, which had windows overlooking the Hudson River, facing west, and we would marvel at the sunset that soon arrived…
[My father insisted that Sabbath does not] represent a rejection of modernity or the secular world—for him, the Sabbath was a complement to building civilization, not a withdrawal from it. [He] defined Judaism as a religion centrally concerned with the holiness of time... It is not in space but in time that we find God’s likeness.”
It is this experience of holiness of time that I think people are seeking when they become attracted to the idea of hygge. When recognized and practiced this experience of time, this Sabbath brings us closer to God.
Work is forbidden on the Sabbath, and it is not only forbidden to light a fire (though it is fine to light it in the moments before the Sabbath begins so that the light of fire and candles contribute to the warmth) but what is also forbidden is the fire of righteous indignation. Susannah Heschel writes, “In our home, certain topics were avoided on the Sabbath—politics, the Holocaust, the war in Vietnam—while others were emphasized. Observing the Sabbath is not only about refraining from work, but about creating menuha, a restfulness that is also a celebration.”
This is of course Labor Day weekend, and tomorrow we as a nation will theoretically pause in our labors and honor that labor with a day off. It is important to do this but it should not be confused with Sabbath. While Labor Day may approximate Sabbath, the point of Sabbath is not a reward, nor a practice that allows us to do more work more efficiently. It is a sacred rhythm and relationship. Abraham Heschel says that in Sabbath, it is not we who long for a day of rest but the Sabbath spirit that is lonely and longs for us.
In Sabbath, there is resurrection as the soul finds new life. In Sabbath the goal is creating a foretaste of paradise. “The Sabbath is a metaphor for paradise and a testimony to God’s presence; in our prayers, we anticipate a messianic era that will be a Sabbath, and each Shabbat prepares us for that experience: “Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath… one will not enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come.”
You may be thinking, YES, all of this sounds great! I am going to practice more Sabbath and maybe explore this hygge thing. And this of course is the paradox. While the practice of Sabbath is at the level of a commandment for us and we so desire it, we don’t practice it regularly. At least not the 24 hour sundown to sundown that is intention of the passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy that give us this proscription.
For me, I know my failure to practice Sabbath has to do with many things, tasks that have a deadline and must be done, tasks I’ve procrastinated, the fullness of all of the things I need to DO. Part of me thinks that Sabbath will materialize without my partnership, and while this can occasionally be true, more often it doesn’t. Susannah Heschel described the hours on Friday before the Sabbath began as a frenzy of activity, her mother shopping and preparing, her father coming home from work two hours early to prepare, “Then suddenly, it was time” Susannah says, “twenty minutes before sunset. Whatever hadn’t been finished in the kitchen we simply left behind as we lit the candles and blessed the arrival of the Sabbath. My father writes, ‘The Sabbath comes like a caress, wiping away fear, sorrow, and somber memories.” It was the entering of a heaven on earth.
For Jews, the messianic hope, the belief and hope that a messiah will come into the world who will usher in a new age of peace, guides and informs action for justice. Indeed, though Abraham Heschel is known on the one hand for a deep understanding for the spiritual and mystical aspects of Judaism, he is also known as an activist, and is the rabbi who is on the side of Martin Luther King, Jr. in many iconic march and protest photographs. He coined the phrase, “I’m praying with my feet.”
So Sabbath was an essential and critical element in Heschel’s practice of justice making. This may be hard for us to take in, because we think of justice making as so much DOING! But for Heschel the BEINGness of Sabbath was the climax, the critical piece of re-creating the world and responding to God’s longing for us to join God in a new heaven and new earth that is eternity.
For Christians, we re-affirm this hope every time we celebrate communion. We proclaim a Sabbath while we receive the elements of bread and juice, which is done of course in community, in relationship, responding to God’s longing for us. And as the body of Christ now on earth, each time we eat of the bread or drink of the cup, we proclaim the Messiah until he comes again and we, too, enter into an eternity of peace, of well-being, and of one-ness with God.
On this weekend on which our culture takes a pause from the DOING and the valuing of efficiency and productivity, the valuing of what is accomplished in space and with things over what is experienced in time, may we rest in the assurance that as we cease our toil and business, our pursuit of profit and progress, God is there waiting to usher us into paradise. Amen.