03 February 2008


Genesis 1:1-2:4a, "So God blessed the seventh day . . .

I have to tell you that I've never really considered building my own house. My wife and I lived in apartments in Richmond, Virginia, then on moving to Savannah, Georgia where she was associate pastor at a church, there was a parsonage. The idea of owning a home didn't really occur to us as United Methodists. Most churches still have parsonages. But besides all that, the thought of building a place where I would live hasn't been a fantasy of mine since I built a treehouse with a boy named Marshall in the pecan tree in our front yard in Dublin. Building homes is not exactly in my skill set.

Of course I didn't really think that farming was either. My father had farmed most of his life, since he was five years old as he would tell it. Corn, soybeans, peanuts, wheat and pigs, aggravating and smelly pigs, all of these together inhabited the 90 acres around our home. My father worked hard, but then there was always Sunday. Sunday was the day that you did not work. It was also the day that he would not let anyone fish on the little one acre pond on the land. It was because it was Sunday. Now granted, we still went out to eat after church at whatever place had the cheapest “country cookin'” at that time. I went to the movies. We did things, but just didn't work. You don't work on Sunday. Oh yeah, and you don't fish either. Of course being raised Baptist though, you certainly did go to church.

And that was Sunday. And that is what comes to mind and maybe to yours when we consider Sabbath . . . this piece about worship . . . and not working. And even though the text that I read, sounds like liturgy, words that would be used in worship, and in fact we believe that it was used in worship, to think that all of this points to how we should worship on Sabbath, well that would be wrong. Just wrong.

You see, there is no mandate to worship on Sabbath; but there is a mandate to stop, to rest, to not do. And that's what we do on the seventh day, we rest, right? Tell me if I'm getting anywhere close to your experience of Sabbath.

It is Sunday (our Sabbath right?) and you are slowly waking after a wonderful rest. There are no demands; there are no obligations. As you are ready, you wander into the kitchen to find plentiful food, fruit and pastry, or maybe biscuits, eggs, and grits. You see the sun streaming through the blinds. You hear the slight song of a bird from your window . . . “cuckoo cuckoo”. And as you settle into your favorite chair, it seems to envelop you with warmth and comfort. Remote control in hand, you press play as you think to yourself, “That's it. I'm done.”

Am I close?

But then the alarm goes off for the fourth time. And bleary-eyed you crawl out of bed wondering if the church bulletins are done or if you remembered to defrost something for lunch or if that really bratty fifth grade boy is going to be in the Sunday School class or if you are going to be able to bite your tongue at the meeting or maybe, just maybe it would be better to loose that tongue one time on . . . this may be our usual Sunday morning. And multiply that difficulty times two, three, or four, depending on how many children live in your home.

It doesn't feel like rest. And there is a wide gulf between our experience of Sabbath and our desire for rest, for re-ordering, for remembering the goodness that God gives us. We live in another land like exiles, alienated from God, alienated from a natural cycle of work and rest, from striving and trust.

Walter Brueggemann writes that the audience for this text is a people who were literally in exile. He writes that this was a time when the people of Israel were taken from their land and their homes by the Babylonians. Many were killed. Many died along the way. And those that survived the trip to Babylon were then slaves in a foreign land. These were folks who would have felt as if their whole world had just fallen apart. Just as many of us who gather in our churches feel strangely close to falling apart.

Like us, there were times when they would have seen no hope in this world, no goodness at all . . . and so they gathered for worship. But when you feel such disorder, you gather to have faith in the God who at the beginning brought order to what was without form, out of the nothingness, out of the emptiness. The people in that day and age gathered so that they would remember that this God would again bring order; God will again bring light, will again bring a solid foundation of dry land on which we can all stand and feel secure. And then God will bring plenty . . . plenty of fish and birds, plenty of animals . . . and then finally . . . maybe after some time because none of this happens immediately or right away . . . finally the people will again feel human, will feel themselves, that after hearing it six times, that God saw that “it was good”, that after all of that these people in exile can trust again in the goodness of God. And knowing all of the goodness that God brings, and that God is the one who brings such goodness, then we can all follow God into a blessed rest on that seventh day.

But contrary to our ideas about Sabbath being a time of worship, Brueggemann writes that instead, true to the text, it was a time of rest. In his words, “[Sabbath] was an act which announced their faith in this God and a rejection of all other gods, religions, and world-views. The celebration of a day of rest was, then, the announcement of trust in this God who is confident enough to rest. It was then and is now an assertion that life does not depend upon our feverish activity of self-securing, but that there can be a pause in which life is given to us simply as a gift.”

Yet you and I know that more often, we worry about the ushers, or the Sunday School teachers, or who is angry with whom, or what in the world that youth minister is doing, and budgets and meetings. And I remember from my time as the pastor of a small, rural church that I even worried about making sure that the heat had been turned on in the winter. I would rush here and there, making sure my robe was ready, communion bread was ready (check), adult orders of worship (check), children's worship bulletins (check), and then the service started and it was not until the time where we would share a corporate prayer that things would stop. And they stopped because we made them stop. Because at this church we had a moment of silence prior to our time of prayer together. I often asked the members to take a deep breath, to know that God loved them as we approached that time of prayer. And for me, it would easily be the first time I stopped to observe myself, the church, to really know where I was in time and space and to feel God's presence. It was in the silence and that deep breath.

It's not that I wasn't breathing before that moment. Of course I was. I was just too busy to notice.

You see sometimes even a simple deep breath is Sabbath. It is a time when we stop. We no longer strive or work. And there is a profound humility in that. We are a part of something, but we are not the thing itself. We stop working because we trust that God provides. We know that God has given good things to us before and that God will do so again. We also remember that God's work in not our work. We are a part of God's work, but it is not all us, church members or clergy.

Sabbath is stopping for some moment every day to rest, to stop striving, to trust to remember God's goodness. It is stopping once a week to be relish the goodness of God's creation. And that doesn't mean a day off to catch up on the laundry. And it means so much more than attending services at your church where sometimes we find ourselves feeling alienated, resentful of all the responsibility and we are once again exiles from God's order, from the goodness of God's creation.

It will take the support of clergy to encourage Sabbath. And some of you who are clergy will have a hard time telling that person in your congregation that you can always count on, you know the one in your mind, you will have a hard time telling that person to stop, to rest . . . because they help you. But also those of us who are members of congregations who will also have to allow times of rest for our clergy. We must allow them to work towards trusting that even as the head of a church, they are not in charge of God's work in that place. God is.

And it is about trust. I remember this older couple at the church that I served in Effingham County. They used to say, “Don't no one trust God like an old farmer. They have to trust him for rain and sun and for everything.” And maybe that is what my father was doing when he would stop working on Sunday. I'm not quite sure about the fishing part. Yet in the end, I do a little farming, if a big vegetable garden in the backyard counts. I still like getting in the dirt, feeling the tender young plants, weeding and pruning and then trusting in the harvest.

But I can't say I've built much of anything since that treehouse though. It just isn't what I do. I'll gladly let that be someone else's part. Maybe I can nail a few boards, perhaps hang a door. I am not a master builder; I am a worker. Those are words that I first found in a quote that was given to me as I left an internship at Catholic Charities in Richmond. The quote is from Archbishop Oscar Romero, one who worked for justice in El Salvador prior to his assassination in 1980. It is one of my most favorite quotes.

It reads:
"It helps now and then, to step back and take the long view. The kingdom is not only
beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our
lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's
work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the
kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No
prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection, no
pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church's
mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water
seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay
foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that
produces effects far beyond our capability. We cannot do everything, and
there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do
something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a
beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to
enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the
difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not
master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not
our own."

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