Back in 1996 the musical “Rent” opened on Broadway. It turned out to be a monster hit that stayed on Broadway for 12 years. It opens with what became the biggest hit song to come out of that musical called “Seasons of Love”, where the composer of that song finds out how many minutes there are in a year and incorporates that into the song, and then asks the question “How do you measure a year?”, which translates into my mind as “How do you know when you have lived those minutes well?” The song proposes various ideas and then the playwright and composer, Jonathan Larson, who grew up in a Jewish home, lands on the very Jewish idea that the best use of those minutes is to love. As you know, it’s also a very Christian idea. I bet you know the song. It starts like this:
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes. Five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear. five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes. How do you measure, Measure a year?
The great tragedy of the musical “Rent” was that Jonathan Larson died before he could see his own play open on Broadway. He saw the dress rehearsal the night before and then died shortly thereafter of a ruptured aorta. His premature death illustrates the point he was making in the song, which is that we have limited time on earth and that we would do well to spend that time in love before its too late and we don’t have another chance.
I remember hearing the song sung for the first time, and what struck me was that there, in the public square, at the heart of Broadway, the center of the American art world, they were dealing publicly with what I regard as a deeply religious issue and a deeply human issue: the stewardship of time, how best to manage the limited time we have been given. Psalm 90 teaches us to count our days, while Jonathan Larson helps us count the minutes
Today we look at God’s gift of time: the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years we receive from God. The amount of time we receive varies greatly between us. God never says how much time each of us will receive, and the challenge for us as Christian stewards of our time is to be the best stewards of our time, not knowing exactly how much time we have.
There are two scriptures that give us major guidance about the stewardship of time. The most important one is from the Hebrew law, “Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy” and one from the apostle Paul, where he says in Ephesians “make the most of the time.”
First, the Sabbath. Sabbath is the English translation of the Hebrew word “Shabbat”, meaning stop or cease or desist. In my active imagination I like to think of Sabbath as God once a week lowering down from heaven a stop sign in front of each of our faces.
The fourth commandment is God saying to the Israelites, and now to us by the Spirit: one day a week stop, stop working, stop what you usually do the other six days a week, and make sure that not just you but your whole family has a Sabbath, and all of your animals, and all your employees, and even the non-Israelites among you, the immigrants and the refugees. Make sure everyone has a Sabbath, not just you. Sabbath is God’s gift for everyone in the world.
The reason given for the Sabbath in the first presentation of the ten commandments in Exodus 20 is the Genesis creation story that tells us God created all that there is over six days and rested the seventh day. If God, our creator, takes a Sabbath, so should we, since we are all made in the image of God.
In the second presentation of the ten commandments in Deuteronomy 5, the reason given for the Sabbath was the Exodus story that says the Israelites spent 400 years in Egyptian slavery without a day off, and that was no kind of life. Taking a Sabbath reminds us that we are not slaves to anyone or anything on earth, but people who have been liberated by God for a new kind of life.
Devout Jews have been remarkably committed to keeping the Sabbath ever since Moses presented the ten commandments to the Israelites during their interim/transitional time in the Sinai, and right up to the present day. Keeping the sabbath is for a Jew a practical expression of one’s love for God. Sabbath-keeping is an integral part of Jewish identity. When you talk to devout Jewish people or read books or articles on Jewish practice of the Sabbath, you learn that Jewish families often mark the start of Sabbath with a Sabbath prayer and by lighting a candle in their home at sunset on Friday night and keeping it burning until sunset on Saturday, when it is extinguished with a Sabbath-ending prayer.
During that 24 hours of Sabbath, devout Jews often attend worship together at the synagogue or temple, invite friends and family over to their homes to enjoy a pre-prepared meal, adults talk, children play games, older people take naps, couples make love, families go out into nature. Their weeks are divided into three parts: three days looking forward to Sabbath, one day keeping the Sabbath and three days reflecting back on how wonderful it was. For Jews who believe in an afterlife, sabbath is a weekly preview of the Paradise to come.
Christians over the years have had divided opinions over what to do about Sabbath. Some say we need to take it as seriously as our Jewish neighbors. It is, after all, one of the ten commandments. It is given by the same God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Others see it as an ancient relic of our Jewish heritage that is no longer applicable under the new covenant of Christ, a law usurped by the gospel, except as a day for coming to church and worshiping.
And yet we live in a time when so many of us complain about how busy we are, and complain about how little time we have to do the things we think are most important. Could it be that Sabbath in our day is God’s answer to our modern-day complaints about the scarcity of time?
Jesus once said to religious leaders of his time who accused him of breaking the Sabbath, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” Which is to say that Sabbath is God’s gift to us, not another institution we serve and become enslaved to. Why would we turn down a divine gift?
As Presbyterians, you might be interested to know that the great church reformer, John Calvin, our spiritual forefather as Presbyterians, believed in keeping Sabbath. Once his preaching and pastoring duties had concluded on Sunday, he was known to go out in the streets of Geneva, Switzerland in the afternoon and sit down in the streets with the kids and play a game with them that was called at the time “Skittles.”
I must confess that I did not take Sabbath seriously until my last year in seminary. My early religious education didn’t have much to say about it.
When I got into seminary, I had so much work to do in seminary that I couldn’t get it done in 7 days, let alone six days. But one day I went to church and heard a really good sermon on keeping the Sabbath, and came home resolved to keep it, whatever the cost. And I found out through practical experience that I could do it. One day of rest and renewal, I found, made me a lot more efficient with my time on the other six days of the week. Sabbath is not primarily about making us more efficient in the world; I am just telling you that it had that practical benefit for me
As your interim pastor, I would encourage you to take a weekly Sabbath. One day a week stop doing what you do five or six days a week, and do the things you don’t get to do the other six days. On your Sabbath, do those things that renew your relationship with God and with others, and rest and renew and restore yourself. Consider turning off all your electronics for a day.
Sunday is an obvious potential Sabbath for many of us, but it doesn’t have to be—it’s a work day for me. Sabbath, in my view, can be any day, really, and it need not be a continuous 24 hour period, but could be broken up into six or 12-hour segments. The culture in which we live, and the work schedule imposed on some of us, I think, demands a certain flexibility when it comes to keeping Sabbath. And since Jesus reminds us that Sabbath is a gift, not a burdensome and unhappy religious obligation, we are free, as he was free in his time, to determine how best to receive and enjoy that divine gift.
Sometimes retired people have asked me how best to keep a sabbath when every day of retirement seems like a Sabbath to them. My advice is figure out what you do six days a week, and one day a week don’t do any of those things. Do something different, something that will renew your relationship with God and with others, and will restore and renew yourself.
To you who still have children at home, I will tell you from personal experience that keeping the sabbath will be different for you compared to what it is when you are an empty nester. I remember that when we had children at home, we called our Friday sabbath, “our special day”, and gave our children our full attention for the day, and took them out to do mostly fun free things that would be of interest to them. All grown up and married and living apart from us now, they both still fondly remember those special days.
Ultimately, a willingness to keep Sabbath comes from a deep faith in God, a faith that knows that God runs the world, not us, which frees us up to let go one day a week and know beyond doubt that the world will be just fine without us.
Now let’s switch over to the apostle Paul, and his guidance about our stewardship of time. Paul writes, “make the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but know what the will of God is. Do not”
I take this as guidance from pastor Paul on what to do with your time the other six days a week. The message from Paul is that there is work to do in the world. There is evil to be overcome, and the will of God to carry out. We learn from Jesus Christ that it is the work of love that overcomes evil in the world, and we learn from Christ that the will of God is to love God with all one’s being and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. “Making the most of the time” means, then, being busy about the work of love.
As I understand the sabbath, one day a week it is perfectly OK with God if we want to waste or squander that day. It’s perfectly OK if we want to day dream all day. It’s perfectly OK to lay in bed all day if you want to. It’s perfectly OK on the sabbath not to be productive, to not accomplish anything. On the Sabbath, you don’t owe anyone anything. Like Jesus, you may choose on the Sabbath to be engaged in the feeding or healing of people, but you’re not obligated to do so. Sabbath is mostly a day for stopping, resting, renewing, refreshing.
But the other six days a week is another story. There is the work of love to be carried out in the world, and we are called by God, as Jesus was in his earthly life in the flesh, to pursue that work. Wasting those days is unthinkable for people of faith. Don’t get drunk with wine, Paul says. Drinking to the point of drunkenness, and sitting around all day in a drunken stupor, is unacceptable stewardship of your time in the Lord’s eyes. It is a waste of your God-given time, and it is living in denial of the great amount of human need that the work of evil has left behind.
Rather, six days a week, go to work to love God, worshiping God, thanking God, praising God, serving God. Go to work to love and support and provide for your spouse and family and yourself. Go to work to love your church and your church family in the particular ways they need. Go to work to love those in your community, meeting them at their point of need. Go to work to love the poor by making sure they have the essentials of life. Go to work to love your neighbors and friends, putting their needs on par with your own. Go to work to love your enemies like Jesus did and taught, doing good to those who hate you, blessing those who curse you, praying for those who abuse you.
How can we be good stewards, faithful managers of God’s gift of time? According to the scriptures, take one day a week to stop, rest, renew, restore. On the other six days a week make the most of the time, by going out to do the work of love, which puts us right back at the beginning:
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes Five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes How do you measure, measure a year? (and then the song asks) How about love? How about love? How about love? Measure in love. (Share love, give love, spread love) Measure in love, (Measure, measure your life in love)