United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

“A Date with God”

June 2, 2024

Rev. Rebecca Migliore


        I remember a Sunday from my childhood.  We had been staying at Ocean Grove (for the week?  For the weekend?) and it was Sunday morning, our last day.  We were up early, it was a beautiful day, and we decided to go for a walk on the beach.  If we were true to form, my brother and I were probably running in and out of the surf, while my parents ambled along.

     All of a sudden, there was this man, running toward us, hands waving, shouting.  It was a policeman, shooing us off the beach.  Why?  Because Ocean Grove was very intent on following its blue laws.  You couldn’t do certain things on Sunday—and one of those things was to be on the beach.  Sheepishly, we headed for our car and home.

I’ve never forgotten that incident.  And it came to mind when I read about honoring the Sabbath in Deuteronomy’s account of the giving of the 10 commandments, and when I read about Jesus pushing against what the religious authorities had decided to forbid on the Sabbath, since it meant working.  If you are younger than I am you might not have run into this cultural experience, unless you tried to go to the mall in Passaic county on a Sunday. 

    Nowadays, Sunday morning is no longer sacred.  Youth sports activities are routinely scheduled on Sunday morning—and now at least once a year so is an NFL football game played in London.  As we come to worship, we see scores of people on the golf course just across the road.  The supermarkets are open.  The movie theaters are open.  Only some restaurants are closed on Sundays (for religious reasons).  And you might hear the argument that if we are supposed to have a day of rest, a day of not working, ourselves and our servants  and our animals, there have to be “fun” things to do!  I’m not going to try to relitigate that argument.  Obviously, it has been decided.

    Today, I’d like us to spend just a moment thinking about what was intended to honor the Sabbath.  And I decided to call it, “A Date with God.”  I know there are some couples who have date night.  I know there are some families who try to hold onto dinner together (at least a couple days a week).  I know there are many churches that have an annual picnic, and there are companies that have “mandatory” retreats with your working group.  All these “dates” are for a similar purpose—spending time together with those you love, or worship with, or work with—time that has no purpose other than sharing of one’s self.

    The Sabbath day is like that.    We may have focused on that “no work” thing (it does take up most of the commandment).  We may have missed the important part—The Sabbath is a day “to the Lord,” a day for the Lord, a date with God.  A time to put aside all those other things that crowd our minds and our hearts, and “be still and know that I am God.”  A time to find gratitude for all the blessings of this life.  A time to look on the world around us, and the people around us, and, like God in the creation story, see how beautiful it is, how lucky we are, and say “it is good.” 

    In our world we don’t do that often enough.  We get caught up in the most recent atrocities, we get angry at the latest aggressions, we shake our heads at the latest insane story, we sigh at how tired we are, and how bleak the future looks, and how much better it was, at least in our selective memories.  We have convinced ourselves that Sabbath really means no responsibilities, playtime, our time.  And nothing and no one ought to get in our way. 

    In a weird way, it is the exact opposite of what the religious authorities of Jesus’ time were doing.  They were legislating what you could and couldn’t do on Sabbath.  They were making sure that no one disobeyed this most important commandment.  All were to honor God by spending the day with family, with Scripture, in reverent rest.  And I think Jesus would have the same critique of both sides of this coin—the restrictive legalism of enforcing “rest,” and the wide open insistence of “it’s all about me.”

         Jesus says, you are missing the point.  It about a date with God, spending time with the Holy One.  The One who made us, the One who rescued us from bondage, the One who chose us, the One whose steadfast love endures forever.

    Now I’m not advocating for us to go back to a time when nothing but worship happened on Sunday.  That is not the world we live in.  But I am suggesting that we find time in our week to have Sabbath, have a date with God.  I know that might seem overwhelming.  It might seem boring.  It might make you wonder, what do you do on a date with God?  Well, let’s look at the two stories Mark paints of Jesus during one Sabbath.

    First there is this story about the disciples eating grain.  I mean, they are out on the road.  They don’t seem to be staying with anyone and they are hungry.  They are walking through a field of grain, and they reach out and take some of the grain to eat.  Now there was a policy of allowing people who were itinerant, or poor, to follow those who were reaping in the field, they could pick up what was left over.  This doesn’t seem to be the case.  So maybe the religious authorities were saying they were stealing (against a commandment).  Or maybe they were being charged with “working”—getting their food, for you were supposed to have prepared enough food on the day before Sabbath, so you wouldn’t have to “work” to do it that day.

    Jesus responds with this argument.  We were hungry, the grain was there.  Why shouldn’t we eat?  David (the great king) did the same, and he even did worse!  He ate the bread of the Presence which only the priests can eat.  Sabbath is a time for appreciating the good things of the earth, especially when it is needed to nurture our bodies.  I can imagine Jesus thinking we are taking moments of Sabbath when we sit down at a leisurely meal, whenever we realize the wonder of common things, and lift up praises to God.

    And then comes the second story.  Where they have entered the synagogue, a place where one was called to think about our relationship with God.

       And here comes a man with a withered hand.  The religious authorities, the disciples, even the crowds, know what is going to happen next.  Jesus has been healing people all over the countryside.  But wasn’t that “work” under some definitions?  “Come forward”  “Come and see”  “Come.” 

      And now Jesus asks the question—What exactly is the purpose of your laws on work?  Is it so that we can be closer to God?  And what does that?  To do good or do harm?  To save life or to kill?  And everyone was silent.  No wonder Jesus got angry.  They weren’t willing to engage in vigorous discussion on this theological point (which I’m sure would be an appropriate use of time on the Sabbath).  They weren’t willing to say what everyone knew to be the answer—of course, we should do good on the Sabbath.  We should save life if we can.  Which leads to exactly what happened—Jesus healed the man’s hand.

     So Mark is pushing us to consider what it is to honor Sabbath.  Consider that we can find Sabbath in the everyday things of life.  Consider that we can find Sabbath in good actions (even as John Lewis would have said, “good trouble”).  There is one more thing I would like us to consider.  And that comes from the Psalms—that famous verse, “be still and know that I am God.”  For one of the things that can be the best thing we do on any date is listen to the other.

    In recent years, stories of the taking of indigenous children from their homes and their tribes and placed into group homes, often run by religious institutions has surfaced in the US and in Canada.  There was this belief that it was for their own good—a horribly misguided and devastingly damaging belief.  People have begun to share the shocking stories of what happened, their anger, and their grief. 

    The Grace Presbyterian Church in Calgary, Alberta had some connection to those responsible for some of these atrocities—or at least the indigenous community felt so.

      And so, one morning the pastor arrived at the church and found the front doors splashed with red paint (a symbol of the blood on the church’s symbolic hands).  Immediately, the grapevine started to buzz.  The first thing to do—remove the paint!  And then register a complaint.  The pastor raised his hand and said, “No.  That’s not what we are going to do.”

    And he got a chair, and took it outside, and sat on the top of the steps and waited.  And the next day, he was out there sitting on the steps waiting.  He waited until someone came to talk about why there was red paint on the doors of the church.  And he invited them and their friends to come inside, so that he and those of the church might listen to their stories.  And only then did he ask: What should we do with the red paint?

    And now the answer became clear.  It couldn’t be removed.  It was a symbol of their responsibility, of their shame, of their shared grief.  Then someone suggested, why don’t we ask some of our indigenous friends to paint a mural, incorporating the red paint, not taking it away, but allowing it to be surrounded by other colors, by a new picture, the hope for a better future together.

    This is what I envision when I hear “be still and know that I am God.”  Sabbath includes time when we are willing to wait for God to speak—in dream, or vision, or urging, or brainstorm.  It might come to us individually, or as a group.  It is rarely the status quo.  And it rarely shows up if we try to take control. 

   So, this week, find time to have a date with God.  Take pleasure in ordinary things.  Give thanks for the ability to do good.  And stop a moment to listen.  That is what Sabbath is truly about.


 May it be so.