For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard (Exodus 23:10-11).
It seems like a new spin on an old idea, but it’s been around as long as the Bible. The charge is subtle, but challenging. Sabbath isn’t simply a day of worship and rest, it’s an inclusive commitment to the well-being of others.
As Christians we do a reasonably good job with the first part of this commitment: seeing human need like hunger and homelessness, and recognizing our biblical responsibility to act. But, as a church, we continue to fumble through the second part of this: the idea that we are appointed to be good stewards of creation. These verses — like many others — point to a clear mandate to be attentive caregivers to the natural world.
What’s even more striking about this passage is that in a handful of words it acknowledges God’s blessings that provide for us, and asserts a responsibility to also use those blessings to care for other people and creation. Thousands of years before there was a term for it, the Bible established this broader concept of Sabbath to realize sustainability.
Sustainability is an approach to the material aspects of our lives, which recognizes the value of other people and living things, present and future, and that our collective needs are intimately tied to our shared environment.
Not only does this expansive practice of Sabbath help the church be more environmentally sustainable, but it contributes to sustaining the church as a religious body. In an era in which pews are clearing at an alarming rate, dedication to God’s work for creation and our fellow human beings demonstrates to our communities what we stand for as Lutherans. This work is visible proof that the church remains aware, concerned and ready to solve problems. In turn, this opens the door to share the gospel and to attract and retain active members.
Putting this notion of Sabbath into practice requires an understanding of how our modern way of life differs from that of the Old Testament. Most of our church buildings aren’t situated on farm fields. Your congregation probably isn’t growing a lot of grapes or olives either. But that’s not really the point of this Scripture passage.
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© 2015 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers