This is the proposal that I submitted for 2015 Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture that was accepted. I will be presenting the full paper in November.
On October 6, 1965, the Dodgers selected Sandy Koufax, their best pitcher, to pitch the first game of the World Series. As the Cy Young recipient, it was only natural for the game’s best pitcher to take the mound for the first game of the fall classic. However, October 6 also marked the start of Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths for Jews. Koufax famously, and for some infamously, refused to start that first game due to his faith, ultimately a game that the Dodgers lost. In Koufax’s case, sports competed against Sabbath and lost.
Koufax’s stance is remarkable simply because it is so unusual. In many cases, when sports are scheduled during the “holy hours” of Sunday morning or Wednesday night, the athlete chooses to compete to the detriment of church attendance. Not a week goes by in which a myriad of athletes skip church for practice or a game. The same is true for fans that choose to tailgate before kick-off rather than participate in worship. Churches across America, née the world, experience the prioritization of sports over ekklesia. On many a Sunday, in sports versus Sabbath, sports win.
For many, sports offer the opposite of Sabbath rest. The athlete’s calendar is filled with clinics, private lessons, practices, and games. Weekdays are filled with preparation for weekend games. Tournaments consume the weekends. Even when the focus is on one sport, the athlete is expected to play or practice year-round. For too many athletes, sports become all-encompassing. Rest is absent. Sabbath is ignored.
But rest doesn’t have to be absent for the athlete. In fact, sports can, and perhaps should be, a source of rest. Rest does not have to be the absence of activity. The author of Hebrews, from 3:12 to 4:13, equates rest with both the entering of the promise land by the Israelites and those who will experience eternal life. The rest Israel experienced in the Promised Land was not absent of activity. Nor will those who live in the new Heavens and new Earth experience inactivity. Therefore, Sabbath rest does not need to be equated with inactivity. Instead, it is possible to participate in leisurely activity while experiencing Sabbath rest.
To understand this premise, a return to the foundation of the Sabbath is a must. In Genesis 2:2, having worked for six days, God rested on the seventh day. Whatever the Sabbath became by the time of the incarnation, it started as rest. To Sabbath is to rest. Since rest is not necessarily the absence of activity, it is possible for the playing of a sport to be restful. Sports can contribute to rest and as a result, sports and Sabbath do not have to be opponents.
This paper seeks to recapture the nature of sports as leisure. Leisure is a Christian practice because leisure and Sabbath can have the same purpose. Sabbath rest need not be the absence of activity. Leisure, by definition, is active. It is doing something. This paper argues for sports as Sabbath based on the idea that rest can be filled with leisurely activity. However, this certainly does not mean that all sports are restful. Instead, this paper will advocate for families to reduce participation in sports at the point that it is no longer restful.