Wednesday, October 01, 2008

A Call to Sabbath

This month marks my return to local church ministry after a 10 week sabbatical provided by the Sustaining Urban Pastoral Excellence Program at Boston University. This past July, I slipped off the radar and hid myself away for a time of intentional rest, reflection and concentration.

Life before sabbatical for me was hectic to say the least. I sped through life at full throttle, juggling responsibilities and scampering from meeting to meeting...pastoring, consulting, teaching, counseling, preaching….and oh, yeah, that dissertation thing. In the midst of it all, it seemed normal. Isn’t this how life is supposed to be? Yet, once the sabbatical began, I was forced to step back and be still.



Suddenly as, I sat alone at my desk that first sabbatical morning, I felt tired, really tired…no take that back…absolutely exhausted. The lyrics from one of my favorite Ani DiFranco songs came to mind as a perfect description of how I had been living: “Are you weary as water, like a faucet left dripping…”

These lyrics from Ani Difranco’s song Swing, resonated with me. I was as weary as water! While I had been looking forward to this sabbatical, I now realized how desperately I needed it. If I didn’t do something soon, this tap was going to run out of water.

I needed Sabbath.

Sabbatical is word mostly associated with the academy as a time for professors to concentrate on their own research and writing. And while it is true that I used this time to work on my dissertation, the Sabbath I found, the Sabbath I needed, meant something much more.

Shabbat—the Sabbath—appears first in the creation story. "And on the seventh day God finished the work and rested, blessing and hallowing the seventh day.” While God practiced Sabbath from the very beginning it took humanity a little longer to catch on. It is not until the middle of Exodus that Shabbat or sabbath is finally articulated in a way that the people understand. God gives the command in a form of operant conditioning of sorts.

After bringing the people out of Egyptian slavery into the wilderness, God sends the people manna, commanding them to gather enough each morning for that day alone. Anxious and mistrustful after wandering in the desert, they gather more than they need, but it rots. On the sixth day, however, they are told to gather enough to last for two days. Miraculously, the extra food does not rot, and those who still can't believe, those who go out on the seventh morning to get more find nothing. God is teaching them to keep the Sabbath, even before Moses receives the commandments on Sinai.

When those commandments come, the Sabbath commandment is the longest and in some ways the most complicated. Unlike the other commandments, the command for sabbath shows up in two different forms. Both versions demand the same action—work on six days, rest on one—but each gives a different reason.

In the first, God calls for rest as a way to help people live into God's own cosmic rest in the creation. In the second, God calls for rest as a means of liberation, freeing all workers native and foreign, laborer and boss, slave and master, human and animal. Here the command to "observe" the Sabbath day is intimately connected to the experience of a people newly released from bondage. Slaves cannot take a day off; free people can. The command to observe sabbath is a command to remember their own liberation and to seek the liberation of others. As they rest, so also do they insure that all others rest...even the animals in the field!

Together, these two explanations of the Sabbath commandment summarize the most fundamental stories and beliefs of the Hebrew scriptures: creation and exodus, made in God’s image and liberated from captivity. One story emphasizes holiness; the other, social justice.

Sabbath is not only rest, it is reflection for renewed action in the world. A time of holiness, of being set apart, and a time for justice, of creating shalom for the world. From the very beginning Sabbath is not just rest for rest’s sake, but an intentional time that both celebrates holiness and calls for justice.

In Buddhist thought there is a related truth expressed about the two fundamental directions of meditation: calm and insight. While not the same as our Judeo-Christian concept of sabbath, the Buddhist understanding of meditation has much to teach us. Buddhist teacher, Ayya Khema, distinguishes between calm and insight as dual parts of meditation. She writes,

“Both directions, calm and insight, need to be practiced in order to obtain the results meditation can bring. Most people want calm. But that is not what meditation is designed to do – it’s a means to an end, Calm is the means. Insight is the end. The means are essential and necessary, but they must never be confused with the end. Unless we know the direction we’re going, it’s highly unlikely we’ll get to our destination.” (Being Nobody, Going Nowhere)

For Khema, calm and insight must accompany one another…they are inextricably linked. Without calm, there is no insight and without true insight, there can be no real calm. This distinction helps us in our own consideration of Sabbath practice. Sabbath must express both of the Divine commandments….for rest or clam, and for justice or insight. By looking at Sabbath in this way, we begin to see that it is not merely one day set apart from the rest, but rather can be a rich new way of living and being in the world. Sabbath does not have to be time limited, but can become a way of life.

In the Gospel; reading for today, we see Jesus practicing and expanding this notion of Sabbath with the disciples. Although it is not the day of Sabbath itself, Jesus calls the disciples away. Their lives to date (particularly as recounted in the fast paced action of the Markan narrative) have been hectic to say the least….switching careers, leaving their families, healing, teaching, preaching, casting out demons…phew. Makes our lives seem like a breeze compared to this.

In this passage, the disciples have just returned from their first mission. Weary and worn, the disciples are led away to rest. “Come away and rest.” Jesus knows, these tired souls needed some rest. However, this calm does not last. The moment the disciples return, they are once again confronted with the endless needs of the world, here, embodied by the throngs of people waiting on the shore. A Sabbath thwarted? Perhaps, not. Remember that Sabbath integrates divine rest and divine justice.

This story in Mark can be interpreted as a parallel to the first instructions about Sabbath. The connection is made strikingly clear after the disciples return. Do you know the story that flows immediately? What happens? The feeding of the five thousand. Exactly. A miraculous feeding. Remind you of anything else?

You see the needs of the world will never go away. The list of things to do in our lives will never be complete. Yet, we can and must seek calm in the midst of the demands life brings us. This is the lesson of Sabbath. Without calm, without insight, we do nothing more than run through life without reflection, without mindfulness, without direction. Surely, life is about more than simply checking off a list of things to do, isn’t it?

In this passage, Mark is illustrating and highlighting Sabbath in a new way that breaks the time limited boundary of a weekly ritual. It is not just a legalistic or routine observance of one day each week. No, Mark points out the urgency and necessity of Sabbath that fuses the exodus commandments for holiness and justice, calm and insight.

It leads me to wonder how our own practices of Sabbath measure up. Think for a moment about our own schedules of rest. In my pre-sabbatical life, I would have told you I did rest. I did take Sabbath. I would have cited sleeping in, going to the movies, watching TV, playing with the dogs. And, while all of those things are fine and good (and I did continue to do them in post sabbatical life), they were for the most part mindless. Afterwards I was still as tired as before, only now I had wasted another perfectly good hour. I took Sabbath literally, legalistically. I sat down and removed myself from making or doing. Technically Sabbath. But not at all in the sabbatical Spirit. I may have had a moment of calm, but I did nothing to cultivate insight.

When we rest, are we really taking Sabbath?

So, here I am post-sabbatical and life, well life is still just as hectic…if not a little more so….the landscape of the shore has not changed since I left, but I have. The difference is learning to live Sabbath everyday…not just in those lazy moments of watching endless episodes of LOST or coveting the fashions on Project Runway. No, now after living and breathing a Sabbath for 10 weeks, life after sabbatical means integrating time for intentional clam (not just inactivity) and intentional insight (not just writing papers for papers’ sake).

It is this integration of calm and insight into the fabric of my days that will make all the difference as I strive toward my own goals at church, at home and in the work I do. Having focus enables me to move through the billion and one to-do list with less anxiety and more purpose. It allows me to concentrate and be less worried about the small stuff. I don’t have to do all the things on my check list today. With calm, insight and direction I can take them as they come and remain mindful of the Sabbath life in the middle of the chaotic busy-ness that has characterized my life for, well, longer than I want to admit.

This type of Sabbath life, however, is not merely an individual practice. It impacts, shapes and forms our life together as we gather each Sunday to take Sabbath together….to wed in worship holiness and justice, calm and insight. As a congregation, this September we will celebrate our sixth year of ministry and begin to move into our seventh year as mission dedicated to proclaiming God’s love with all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight persons.

Our seventh year.

Hmm….that sounds familiar. In the Sabbath laws divinely ordained at Sinai the seventh year is the year designated for Sabbath. Coincidence? I wonder.

As we enter this seventh year of ministry it is time for us as a congregation to take Sabbath to cultivate calm and seek insight so that we might be renewed for action in the world. And we need it, don’t we? As a mission we often ground our identity in the work we do on behalf of and for the church, but we seldom take time in our haste to change the world to seriously reflect about who we are, what we are called to do and why. These questions should provide the foundation of our ministry and provide the sustenance and strength for us to continue to be in ministry to the church and world. Without time to think, to step away, to reflect and revision, we as a congregation will find our taps too have run dry,

And so in the coming weeks and months through worship, I am going to invite you as a congregation and community into a process of Sabbath as a deep commitment to both calm and insight, holiness and justice so that at the end of our seventh year we as a congregation will be able to ask the three essential questions posed by another famous rabbi so long ago. Rabbi Hillel asked:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?"
"If I am only for myself, what am I?" and
"If not now -- when?"

The song, Swing, by Ani begins with this description of pre-sabbatical life, but the song itself expresses a hope to something more, something different, a new way of living and loving…Swing the groove round here the chorus implores….Swing the groove round. There is hope to break free from the monotonous circles of our routine and hectic lives to seek more, to cultivate calm and gain insight. Together let’s swing the groove round that we as a congregation might wed holiness and justice, calm and insight.

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