Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Discipline of Keeping Sabbath--Sermon 3/27/11

The Discipline of Keeping Sabbath

Sabbath is mentioned in the Bible 157 times. In 157 different locations the word Sabbath is used. And anytime something is mentioned this often, we might do well to perk up our ears and listen. The Bible is filled in minute detail with how important Sabbath is—which is very. The Bible can tell us exactly how we should celebrate and remember the Sabbath—which is by resting and turning our hearts toward God. And The Bible can tell us exactly what happened to some people who forgot, or who had no use for the Sabbath—they were struck dead. Need the scriptures be any clearer about Sabbath? Probably not. But do we listen?

On our Lenten journey we are talking about different spiritual disciplines. We have already talked about the importance of turning toward God in reverence and awe, the importance of singing our praises to God, and this morning we will be talking about the discipline of keeping Sabbath. Of course we take our cues from our Jewish ancestors here who begin their Sabbath from the time one could see three stars in the sky on Friday evening until Saturday at dusk. From dusk to dusk observant Jews do no work, including for some orthodox, even the work of tearing toilet paper off the spindle, or pushing buttons on elevators or phones. The rules of the Sabbath could be just as strict in Jesus’s day, and we 21st century Americans for the most part have grown pretty lax about what we can and cannot do on Sundays, the cultural Sabbath for Christians.

This week as I was thinking about Sabbath I was remembering a long standing argument my ex-husband and I used to have. The argument often happened in the spring, on those sunny first Sunday afternoons in late April or early May. In those days when the weather first hits the upper-60s and we realize that winter’s grip has finally and truly been broken. On those days when your fingers itch to get outside and dig in the dirt. Ken and I lived in a small town, in a small brick house right off the main street. And as any pastor of a church in a small conservative town can tell you, there are eyes on you at all times. The argument would often start like this, on that first sunny Sunday of the spring season I would wander out from the bedroom decked out in my old overalls and gardening clogs and say, “Well, I’m headed out to the yard to have a go at the first weeds of the season.” And Ken, who was raised in a more traditionally conservative faith tradition than I was, would get a pained look on his face and say, “But it’s Sunday!” And I would stare back at him, perplexed and confused, or wondering if I was supposed to be proud of him for remembering the days of the week or something. And then every season the same argument would be rehashed. He’d pause and say logically, “You can’t work in the garden on the Sabbath, because what if someone from your congregation comes by and sees you?” To which I often suggested a variety of disguises I could wear, including my Groucho Marx glasses and nose. But, if, heaven forbid they did see me, I would tell Ken, I will just wave at them. At this point in our seasonal debate he would remind me not to be duplicitious and would then explain again why he felt so strongly about this. You see, when Ken was growing up he wasn’t allowed to mow the lawn of the church or parsonage where his parents were pastors on Sunday, he couldn’t mow any lawn on Sunday, and that was incredibly difficult for him, because he had a riding lawn mower, and well, he really, really liked to fly through that grass on a sunny Sunday. But, his parents were sticklers about this, and Ken had decided that there were some Sabbath rules which were inviolable. Some things which were simply struck in stone.

I joke about that argument now, but with ten years of hindsight, I feel a deep sense of regret over that debate. Because I could not articulate my understanding of Sabbath, I could not articulate then what I have come to believe. Sabbath-keeping should draw us toward God, simply put and end of story. And if there are things that draw you into relationship with your creator, and if they rejuvenate your soul, then why could that not be a way of celebrating all of creation? There is a poem called “Welcoming Sabbath” from the New Union Prayer Book which names Sabbath in this way, “On this day we shall not do, but be.”

The word “Sabbath” derives from the Hebrew word “Shabbat,” which means, literally, to cease or desist. On Sabbath, one is called to cease from all working, to cease from all worrying, to cease from all the weekly concerns which ensnare us and keep us from focusing our energies on nurturing our souls in God’s grace. The origins of this Sabbath time are found in Genesis 2, where God stops creating and rests, where the action ceases and the blessing occurs. Old Testament scriptures tell us that there are certain things which must not be done on the Sabbath. Things like gathering food, plowing or reaping, kindling fire, or chopping wood. Preparations for most of these things must be done the previous day so that the Levitical laws could be obeyed. In the earlier times, even in the earlier times of some of you in this congregation, Sabbath meant a day when games were not played, when heavy meals were not cooked, when the house was kept in quiet. Sabbath was a day of dread for some children as they had to keep wearing their church clothes and sit quietly. As Barbara Brown Taylor said in her book, An Altar in the World, “for all practical purposes the commandment might as well have read, ‘Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it boring.’ (p. 127). For those who follow this rigid interpretation of Sabbath, mostly it seems to mean, “obey the rules” as if we creations of God are all just timid children.

The New Testament, however, paints a very different picture for us. Jesus, rule-breaker that he was, threw the Pharisees a few curve balls about the Sabbath. Jesus colored outside the lines a bit and recreated for us what the Sabbath ought to be. Throughout his ministry, Jesus used several opportunities to speak, teach, and even (gasp) heal on the Sabbath. The man with the withered hand, a demoniac, a man with an unclean spirit, Simon’s mother-in-law, the bent-over woman, and countless others all benefited from the lax laws that Jesus observed, and the grace he invited about Sabbath keeping. And when Jesus was tested by those same Pharisees and the priests of the law his answer was a jubilant “yes!” He said, “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath!” Jesus gave a joyful affirmation to the Sabbath as celebration, as liberation, as invitation to intimacy with God. The God who smiles down on this Sabbath is a God who is humored by our delight, a God who welcomes whatever attempt we make to connect, at whatever time we can find.

I have become convinced of the need for Sabbath, especially now, as one who uses her Sabbath to preach to you about Sabbath…hmmm…I think that we all need Sabbath in some capacity or another, whatever the day is, for however long we can carve out the space for it, because, friends, life goes by quickly. And we are so, so frenetic. Our culture goes fast. There are 24-hour-news cycles and Facebook updates and Twitter feeds and more information being transmitted to us than we can absorb. Our day-timers are penciled in to the margins and rule our existence. We judge our successfulness on how many hours we spend each week at the office, or on how many widgets we counted. Productivity is our goal. To stop or slow down is guilt-inducing. We keep running around on our little hamster wheels, running and running and running as fast as our little legs can carry us. And so perhaps, to honor the Sabbath the first thing we need to learn how to do is to just say no every once inawhile. Barbara Brown Taylor says it this way, “I know that saying no is a more difficult practice than tithing, praying on a cold stone floor, or visiting a prisoner on death row—because while all of those worthy activities may involve saying no to something else so that I can do them instead, they still amount to doing more instead of less.” (125). Sabbath, the need to have times when we do less, doesn’t jive with our culture. And to tell someone that you’ve penciled in a spot on your calendar to simply come out and play with God could result in some skeptical looks.

Friends, as followers of Christ we have an obligation to say no to the chaos of our lives, and say yes to the one who invites us to rest and relationship with God. There is a purpose for it, an urgent need. And Sabbath is not meant to be some passive activity, but is an active way of reclaiming our lives and bringing ourselves back into right relationship with God. I don’t think it matters when we do it, but I think it matters that we do it.

And so my commission to you in this week is that you say no to the distractions of the world, even if only for an hour or so, and say yes to strengthening your ties with your creator. I wish I had answers for each of you for how you can best renew your spirit in Sabbath space, but I have the sense that it comes for each of us differently. For some it has more to do with digging fingers in loamy soil, and for some it means lying on backs at night watching stars. For some it is a simple as closing one’s eyes and sitting in pure silence for an hour or so, and for others it means losing oneself in a Bach cantata. For some it is feeling your feet pound on pavement as you walk or run into God’s world, and for others it is kneading dough and watching it rise. For some it is that long afternoon nap and the luxury of curling up like a cat in the sun, and for some it is the words on the page that beg to be read. I can’t be you own personal spiritual trainers recommending your Sabbath renewal exercise, but I trust that in your heart is already the answer of what deeply needs to be kindled in you in your own spiritual life.

In closing, let me offer you these words as we each contemplate what Sabbath means for us personally and corporately, words from the theologian Renita Weems. She writes, “The Lord’s day allows us to bring our souls, our emotions, our senses, our vision, and even our bodies back to God so that God might remember our tattered broken selves and put our priorities back in order.” I couldn’t have said it better. My hope for each of us, indeed, for this body of Christ which is Peace United Church of Christ, is that we can offer to God our tattered and broken selves on this particular day of rest so that we might renew our vision and dream God’s dreams. For Sabbath is not about the rules and regulations, not about the laws and restrictions, but about the call to deepen your faith, and to come out and play with the one who delights in our creation.

May it be so.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Spiritual Discipline of Waking Up--Sermon 3/13/11

The Spiritual Discipline of Waking Up

And so we have begun our Lenten journey together. We will be walking through these longer spring days and allowing the light to lead us. Historically, the early church fathers called people to fast during the Lenten season, giving up one’s portion of meat or fish to give to the poor. It was a way to remember the generosity of Christ’s all-inclusive love and care for those in need, but somehow throughout the centuries the focus was more on the fast and the idea of self-sacrifice. The focus was on deprivation and not on grace. This is a shame, I believe, for I don’t believe God wants any of us to suffer, just as I don’t believe he wanted his own son to suffer on the cross. Instead, I believe that those who first adopted the practice of Lent in about the 4th century had it right. Let’s choose to do something in these six weeks that helps those in need, or let’s choose to do something that calls us into deeper discipleship. Rather than simply refraining from something which we know in our heart of hearts we will simply revert to doing again in six weeks, thankful that the six weeks is over, let’s add a new dimension to this Lenten season and grow into our faith in ways that shape us for the journey throughout the rest of life.

During the next six weeks of Lent I invite you on a journey of finding the sacred in the ordinary, of allowing yourself to be drawn deeper into your faith, of recognizing that our faith is a deep pool of grace that we have the chance to dive into in each moment. During the next six weeks of Lent we will be exploring scriptural examples of holy disciplines, and the thoughts of homiletics professor and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Altars in the World, which is what we will be studying in our Tuesday evening Lenten book group as well. We will explore all sorts of spiritual disciplines—some as simple as walking, connecting with nature, and observing Sabbath and some as messy as being part of community, physical labor, and finding vocation. And it is my fervent prayer that our Lenten season may be one not of depravation, but one of growth and focus. And so it only seems right that we begin this morning with the first discipline, that of waking up to the sacred in our midst.

This morning’s scripture is jam packed with juicy details and strange nocturnal imaginings. The main character of the story, Jacob was still a young man. And as we pick up the story in the twenty-eight chapter of Genesis he had just left Beer Sheba, on the run because his “whole screwy family had finally imploded.” (Taylor, p 2). Jacob’s father was a classic Hospice candidate, dying a slow death, and hungry to pass his wisdom and blessing on to his sons so that he could die in peace. But, Jacob had colluded with his mother to steal the birthright and blessing from his twin brother, Esau. And as sometimes happens in deeply dysfunctional families, Esau had flown into a rage and Jacob quickly realized that there was no way for him to keep his life and remain with his family of origin. Jacob really was sort of a scoundrel at this point; he hadn’t exactly been honest and upright in the whole inheritance thing. But, he is not the first person, nor will he be the last who falls short of God’s hopes and then is still called by God. It is refreshing, actually, that those of us who have made mistakes have Jacob as a model. For if rascally Jacob can find the divine, than surely we can as well.

Jacob’s advance into the wilderness and away from the wrath of his brother led him into a desolate place, and as it was dark and there was no where else for him to go, he made a bed under the night sky with only a stone for a pillow. And that’s when the dreaming began—the dream of the angels traveling up and down the ladder. But perhaps more than this bizarre image was the power of the words which were spoken, the words of God saying, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Even scoundrels like Jacob are not abandoned by God.

But the story continues. Ushered in to the holy of a dream, Jacob chooses to trust that the vision was from God. It would have been easy to write off those angels traveling up and down that ladder as the remnants of that funky left over beef jerky the night before, or to discount the dream as the wild nighttime ramblings of a busy mind. But Jacob wakes a believer. And more, commemorates his revelation by creating a stone pillar and pouring precious, expensive oil on it and declaring it a holy place.

Barbara Brown Taylor describes it this way, “Even if Jacob could never find the exact place where the feet of that heavenly ladder came to earth—even if he could never find a single angel footprint in the sand—his life was changed for good. Having woken up to God, he would never be able to go back to sleep again.” (Taylor, p. 4).

And so I believe our first Lenten discipline must be to wake up to God, to wake up to the divine which lurks all around us. Too often in our world we have demarked the sacred and the profane. We draw a line in the sand between what can be holy—church, well-behaved children, butterflies, rainbows, teaching the world to sing and what we would see as mundane—a common streetcorner, a piece of trash blowing next to the highway, the woman in front of us in line at Walmart. By creating the designations in our heads, the labels of where we plan to see or not see God, we but on spiritual blinders and we forget to look for evidence of our creator. There are ways that our ideas and definitions of what is sacred keep us from holding God’s creation at arm’s length.

Throughout scripture we see God show up in any number of guises…God is found under shady oak trees, on riverbanks, at the top of mountains, and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up in whirlwinds, starry skies, burning bushes and perfect strangers, (Taylor, p 13) and so who are we to define where God would and wouldn’t be now?
When I turned thirty-four, and after Robert and I had been married for three years, the yearning for me to have a baby was palpable. I mistakenly assumed that now that the time was right for me to conceive, that now that our universe was at rights, that it would be a simple process to have a child. I was wrong. I was heartbreakingly wrong. And month after month would pass with mourning, and rage, and a sense of loss I could barely contain. We did the round of doctors visits, and met with fertility folks, and investigated reproductive technology options. And after two years of trying, I was miserable. One day during that time, I wandered into a little store on my lunch hour and found a basket full of stones with the word “hope” etched on them. I practically snarled in derision and anger, the irony of that word an insult to my raging sense of injustice, but I still bought all eight of them. And then I found myself putting them everywhere that I could see them. By my phone at work, on the windowsill above the kitchen sink, next to my bed where they would be the first thing for me to see in the morning. It was the only way that I could hold my prayer and my intention tangibly. The only way that I could wake myself up to the reality that there was a world of sacred hope that was still beckoning me. I could not control the outcome of our infertililty. And I could not make a baby magically appear in our lives. But, I could remind myself to rest in hope, and I could remind myself that God was hoping along with me. By placing those stones in my daily path, I was, unintentionally, creating my own sacred altars. Crying out to a God who promises us that all will be well, and that we are not abandoned, whatever the outcome, whatever the path.

Barbara Brown Taylor talks of her own waking up in this way, “I can set a little altar in the world or in my heart. I can stop what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome that place is. I can flag one more gate to heaven—one more patch of ordinary earth with ladder marks on it—where the divine traffic is heavy when I notice it and even when I do not. I can see it for once, instead of walking right past it, maybe even setting a stone or saying a blessing before I move on to where I am due next.”

This morning during the final hymn I will be wandering among you passing out smooth stones, smooth stones to create altars of your own. Altars to place somewhere in your home, or to carry with you and rub your fingers across. Altars which are meant to draw your intention to God’s presence. When you see these stones, remember the sacredness of the one who told Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” Use these stones as reminders, lest you forget, that God promises the same to us. In short, allow these stones to invite you to wake up!

I want to close this morning with a poem by the Persian poet, Rumi.
The breeze of dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
Where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

On this first step in our Lenten journey may we walk with intention across that threshold where we meet our God, and may we know that “the earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.” (Taylor, p 15).


Works Cited
Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Harper One Press, 2009.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Aglow--Sermon 3/6/11


As a church, this morning, we gather with Christians across the world on this Sunday in remembrance of the Transfiguration. On this last Sunday before the Lenten season begins we remember that trek Jesus took which led to a mountain top revelation. While in New Orleans this week, the Mardi Gras festival will come alive with the attaining of beads and wearing of masks and assorted debauchery, and early this week on Shrove Tuesday thousands upon thousands will gorge themselves on pancakes and other assorted sweets as a final hurrah before they get down to the business of fasting, this Sundays meaning often gets left in the dust. While pre-Lenten overconsumption and madcap shenanigans play prominently in our religious psyche for the next three or four days, our secular world will likely neglect the story of the Transfiguration, leaving it in the dust of antiquity. There are times, I think, when our post-modern world seems to think it has outgrown this quaint story of metamorphosis and transformation. This story where Jesus shines with an almost eerie light and communes with the prophets of old. One wonders if we haven’t dismissed this story for it is hard for our 21st century minds to adopt the visions of those four disciples who traveled with Jesus that day. Hard for us to imagine what occurred on that mountain top two thousand and something years ago. We are too rational, too skeptical to wrap our heads around whatever it was that happened on that hill in the middle east. We question whether the sacred could truly burst into the ordinary with such force.

We all know the story. Accounts of it are listed not just in the gospel of Matthew, but in the gospels of Mark and Luke as well, and the perspectives of each writer are all very similar. Obviously it was a story that “made the cut” into the final version of the Bible and so the early church believed in making sure the account was told. And, yes, there probably was a bit of a political agenda to the sharing of the experience as well. The writer of Matthew was adamant about trying to convince a Jewish audience that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. And so what better way for the authority of Jesus to be conveyed than by making sure it was known that he kept company with Moses and Elijah? And then to have God pronounce again the words first declared at the baptism of Jesus, “This is my Son, the beloved.” Well, it is a pretty spectacular moment, filled with all the lights and wonder we have come to expect from a majestic God. And surely the disciples who saw it were stunned too, for they knelt in silent awe and fear. And their only response was to want to build monuments to the moment, to capture it for all time. Too much light, too much of the sacred can leave us awestruck and speechless I believe, or leave us yearning to somehow control the encounter by wanting to freeze it in our memory.

When the holy comes knocking, aren’t we often, like the disciples reluctant to accept it for what it is? Afraid of what it might mean? And how it might change us? And wanting to somehow capture it, rather than allowing it to capture us?

William Willimon, a United Methodist pastor and homiletics professor names the importance of the transfiguration in this way, “For a brief shining moment on the migration to Jerusalem and the cross, God gave the disciples what they needed to believe.” And perhaps that is the truest message of the transfiguration experience, that there are times when we see the divine clearly, and with stunning clarity and there is a sense of the ineffable which gives us reason to continue to believe, even if we cannot explain what happened. There are those transformative moments when the veil between heaven and earth is thin, and the sacred pierces our soul and hurts our eyes, and we have to hold on to those, to protect them and allow their memory to lead us when days are dim.

I may feel a special affinity for this story this week for a reason. As many of you know, I spent three days this past week on retreat. And while I was not on a mountain top in the desert in Israel, I was in my own netherworld in the hills of Michigan. I have stayed at GilChrist retreat center in the woods outside of Three Rivers for more than ten years on various excursions. Each hermitage, a one room cabin, of which there are ten on the land has its own flavor and feel. And because I was late in making reservations this season, I ended up in a new cabin, and for someone who isn’t keen on change this was not a welcome transition. I was housed in a place not nestled in the heart of the valley in woods where I felt safe and protected, but instead atop the highest hill in the area. My little aerie was called “Hawk’s Nest” and there were times when I looked out the window and literally thought I was going to tumble forward, because I was perched so high and could see so far. It was my own personal mountain, right in the heart of Michigan.

Being away on a retreat allows the world to slip away in bits and pieces, and allows for a clarity of vision. I pondered often as I planned for our Lenten season in the silence what it means for the sacred and profane to cross paths, for the mountain-top experience to immerse itself in the daily world. I wondered what the transfiguration would look like to our modern eyes. What it would take for us to see Christ in dazzling form in this time and place.

On my first evening away I was feeling especially raw. Silence, I’ve found, can do that. A few hours in the wilderness has the power to unnerve me and shake loose all the chaos and craziness of my mind. Buddhists who meditate regularly like to call this “monkey mind,” which makes perfect sense to me. A mentor of mine, a wise woman and pastor named Louie, once told me that in the first hours of retreat the only thing one can do is allow one’s mind to go blank…to stare out the window and let yourself soak into the landscape. And so after unpacking, I simply sat in the rocking chair and slipped into the quiet as I watched woodpeckers and robins and bluejays dart between the trees and onto my deck to gingerly feed from the birdfeeder not six feet from my window. But my monkey mind was not drifting into studied meditation on the transfiguration, or into disciplined prayer, but was instead dwelling on this friend, Louie. For Louie died tragically in a car accident two years ago, and it is a grief which still is quite raw for me. And a grief I push away in my day to day life.

One of the things I was remembering about my friend was her love of bold color. She grew up in Africa and she basked in the warm sun, in seeing the batik prints of the Nigerian villagers. Louie’s philosophy was “the brighter the better” and so when I picked out gifts for her I always veered toward the red spectrum. This has morphed into a ritual of sorts since her death of pausing when I see a cardinal, honoring those reds that Louie loved, and stopping short in my path and holding her memory and wisdom near me.

All afternoon on Tuesday I worked in my little hill-top nest. I read. I wrote. And that night after thinking about the message that Jesus gave on that mountain, after he revealed to the disciples the light which radiated from him, I stopped and reflected again on Louie and the gaping hole her death has left in this world of the light that was extinguished for me on the cold December day when she was killed. I put my laptop aside, and got out my journal and began to write about her and the legacy she left, and then, suddenly something caught my eye. And I share this story with all the conviction of a woman who has never really been all that convinced of “ooh-wah” signs from God. Despite the title of “reverend” in front of my name and that certificate claiming I have a masters in divinity I still tend to lead with my head. But this occurance I cannot deny. For there on the deck outside my patio doors alit a bright red cardinal, almost iridescent in the last blues and pinks of the dusk sky. And I held my breath as it turned and cocked its head at me, watching. It was the only cardinal I had seen all day. Indeed, the only cardinal I saw from my window after that.

And for this reason, the story of the transfiguration came alive anew, and I could almost imagine the shimmer of the face of the Christ aglow. For in that time and place on that mountain the holy and the ordinary had somehow found its way into the human world to those disciples. And while we may not understand it, we may not be able to wrap our brains around the details of it, there was power in it. And we can, and do, in our own way have our own little wee tiny mini-transfiguration moments which call us into places of holy awe. There are still times when we stumble into those thin places where the instersection of the sacred and divine meet. And there are still fleeting glimpses and signs in our lives where we know that something surely more than just coincidence and logical linear fact are at work.

And so I have to ask, “Does it matter if Jesus really appeared to those disciples? If there were indeed Moses and Elijah, alive and in the flesh, all actually communing with Jesus? Does it matter if heaven and earth truly and factually met in those moments so that radiant and blinding light was cast around?” Perhaps instead of seeking the science of it the answer lies in what we allow ourselves to believe. Perhaps the answer lies more in how we allow the story to change us. Perhaps the wisdom of the transfiguration is in how we allow ourselves to trust in the blinding light that shone from the face of Christ our teacher. And how we allow that light to reveal itself in our daily life even now.

In her book, “Home by Another Way” Barbara Brown Taylor says, “There is no shortage of epiphanies in this world. Those of us who have not yet glimpsed the brightness of the Lord may still behold his glory, reflected all around us.” And so as we discipline ourselves to journey with Christ again in this Lenten season, I invite you to immerse yourself in the light of the mystery of the one who shone dazzling white for all, and scan the horizon for your own cardinals. For we are awash in the glory of God, may we have the eyes to see the glow.