Learning Sabbath Lessons

DEACON-ninja-Black-front.jpgI have a favorite sweatshirt that I often wear. It’s a black hoodie and on the front is printed: Deacon, because full-time multitasking ninja is not a real title.

My twitter profile describes me in this way: High-tech supply chain journalist, deacon, and mother…almost never in that order.

And I will confess to you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, that my vacation account at work is maxed out because I’ve neglected to use the hours.

It is an interesting hallmark of how God seems to work in my life (and perhaps God’s sense of humor) that today’s readings focus almost exclusively on the question of how to balance work and sabbath. I am clearly no expert.

However, I am working on doing better. Last week, I was in Hawaii with a group of women friends. And I managed to keep my work time down to just a couple of hours a day. (I know that a REAL vacation would be a total break from work, but I’m still evolving as a human being.)

Early in the week, knowing that I would be writing this sermon after I got back, I read through the readings so that I could carry them with me during my trip. As I read them, I remember thinking “I wonder if my thinking about sabbath on vacation is actually work?” I also remember thinking that nothing in the world is very straight forward and easy.

I tell you all this because I know that I am not alone. Especially here in this place and this time, busyness is considered a mark of success and extreme busyness makes you admirable. Even more, we see taking sabbath time as, at best, a sign of weakness, and at worst a waste of valuable time that could be spent getting things done.

Part of the challenge is that, as a culture and a community, we’ve lost touch with the meaning of sabbath. In the Jewish community, it remains as a practice. When I lived in New York, for example, my babysitter was an Orthodox jewish woman and she and her husband lived in our house. I left part of the kitchen and the pantry to her so she could keep Kosher. And they observed the Sabbath. It was a great arrangement for both of us. I didn’t have the challenge of finding someone who could care for my daughter on Sunday’s and she was able to have Friday’s and Saturdays off to prepare for and observe Sabbath time.

Since this observance of sabbath was unfamiliar to me, I asked a lot of questions. I found out that it was a time set apart that was without work. Their definition of work, though, was broadened to forbid creation of any kind…not of fire for cooking, or switching on a light or driving a car or answering a phone. Instead, it was a time for family and friends, for study of scripture and prayer. Often, we got into the details of keeping sabbath time holy. 

Different communities and different rabbis, define the constraints of the sabbath different. For example, it is generally agreed that a human emergency takes precedence over the sabbath law. The question remains, though, what is an emergency? Illness or deathly illness? Hunger or starvation? It really depends on the rabbi who is asked.

There’s a similar tension in our readings this morning. In Deuteronomy, we read “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.” The focus is on the law and obedience to that law.

Then we turn to the Gospel and there is a shift. When the religious authorities confront Jesus about his disciples picking grain on the sabbath, an activity that was clearly work. Jesus points to David who fed his companions the bread of the Presence. He was clearly pointing toward the parallel of humanitarian intent in both instances. Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”  He underlines this truth by healing a man with a withered hand.

seven-32141_640In its essence, then, sabbath is a gift from God. Bible teacher and writer Margaret Feinberg in her book Wonderstruck said it this way: “On the Sabbath, the world rests firmly in the palms of God. Neither the stars nor the birds fall from the sky. But unlike the other days of creation, the entry is missing the closing refrain, ‘And there was evening and there was morning the [insert the numeral] day.’ All other days close with the same chorus, except the seventh. Why? Maybe because God is inviting us to enter rest and reminding us that the invitation has no expiration date.”

What if we apply that lens to understanding sabbath? What if it is a gift from God, this time reserved to rest from creating and instead thinking about the creator? What if healing is implicitly part of Sabbath as it is in the Gospel story today?

As I went through my week in Hawaii, I applied a sabbath  lens to those days and hours. I want to share a little of what I saw. Each morning, I slept until I woke up (no alarm ringing in my ears)  and then we gathered in the kitchen. Someone cooked breakfast, someone else made coffee, while a third person set the table on the lanai. Whoever hadn’t taken a job washed the dishes after the meal. We all felt like they were being waited on hand and foot and felt like we had outlets to demonstrate love and regard for each other. The Sabbath lesson: God gives us community to allow us to experience both caring and being cared for.

One morning early, I went to the beach to snorkel with one of my companions. The fish, all blue and gold and white, all the colors of the rainbow, were amazing. The coral was beautiful. It was a mysterious and silent world. The Sabbath lesson: God gives us creation both as a gift and responsibility. Next month, i’ll be going to our Episcopal National Convention and i’ve been asked to follow all of the legislation around care of creation. These hours confirmed in me how important that work will be.

IMG_5674That was not the only wildlife I saw. We visited a beach late in the afternoon because we had heard that its as where green sea turtles often gather to sleep.  When we got there, we saw at least thirty turtles on the beach. We stood and watched for a long time. The turtles were coming to the beach one by one. As I watched, a wave would come in carrying a turtle onto the beach. It was fascinating because as the wave lifted the turtle, it would begin to paddle its flippers. When the wave went out, it would sit quietly waiting for the next wave. The Sabbath lesson: Sometimes it’s better to work with the tide than against it. Or perhaps the lesson is timing is everything.

In the afternoons, we would sit together and talk… we talked about current events and we told stories about our lives. We talked about climate change and the current political climate. We talked about parenting. We talked about marriage. We talked about grief and loss. We talked about how we’ve been broken and how we’ve been healed. We took turns telling and listening. It was real conversation about real things. I felt my connection with these people strengthening. We didn’t agree about , everything, and we didn’t avoid hard topics. But we listened a lot. The Sabbath lesson: In a world torn apart by debate, true conversation is a great healer.

unnamedOn Sunday, we visited a church called Trinity by the Sea. The service was held outdoors. Some of it was in Hawaiian. The blowing of a conch shell started and ended the service. We said familiar prayers and shared in communion. We brought bottled water to donate to their homeless ministry of handing out a thirst quenching gift during the heat of the day. The Sabbath lesson: We are one church and yet we are all called to our own work… work that comes out of who we are as a community.

I could tell a hundred more stories… because God speaks to us in so many ways. These were my Sabbath lessons…and they told me things that I needed to hear. The time got me in touch with what is important to me, pointing me toward those things in my life that are healing and life giving, and that draw me most quickly to God.  Whatever the Sabbath lesson that we are offered, the intent of sabbath, the promise of time spent waiting for God, remains the same.

Spiritual director Wayne Muller said it this way: “Like a path through the forest, Sabbath creates a marker for ourselves so if we are lost we can find our way back to our center.”

Theologian Walter Brueggemann said that Sabbath is the celebration of life beyond and outside productivity.

Minister and author Eugene Peterson added that Sabbath is that uncluttered time and space in which we can distance ourselves from our own activities enough to see what God is doing.

I agree with all of them. And here is what I would add: Sabbath allows us to know more about God, more about each other, and more about ourselves as the people that God made us to be. It’s the healing and life giving touch of Christ on our souls. What better gift could we want? Why would we ever turn that down?

This sermon was preached by the Rev. Hailey McKeefry Delmas at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in San Carlos on June 3, 2018.


One Comment Add yours

  1. james M Forbes says:

    Power, honesty and love throughout this sermon, Hailey.

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