September 10, 2017
I’ve started the count-down to my sabbatical. Nine days from now I’ll start with a week at an Ignatian retreat house on the coast of Massachusetts where I’ll be immersed in silence and imaginative prayer and beach walks.
I’m super excited, and also very aware of how much I need this time, although I’m going to miss this place, and all of you, a lot. But as excited as I am, and as much as I know I need this time away, as it gets closer, I’ve discovered that I feel a little sheepish talking about my sabbatical, especially with people outside the church world. This open time in front of me is such a rare and wonderful thing. How is it possible that I not only have the best job but also am part of a profession in which sabbatical time is built-in and understood?
So as people ask me what I’ll be doing during my sabbatical, I’ve been feeling this pressure to have something really impressive to announce. Surely during this time I should be Accomplishing specific things and Learning important things and Getting Holier. So for about a year I’ve been collecting ideas for what I could do during sabbatical. My options are a little bit limited by virtue of my having three kids, taking the 4-months-in-Europe idea off the table. And so I’ve been researching do-able places to go, things to learn, books to read. I’ve had lists going on my phone, on my computer, on scraps of paper on the side of my bed. I don’t want to waste a minute!
Finally, a couple weeks ago I put all of these notes together and tried to organize them. What emerged was a 10 page single space document now living imposingly on my computer titled “Sabbatical”. It is organized - with 8 sections, and many more subsections, so there’s that. But it is, admittedly, ridiculous in scope.
There are so many ways I want to deepen my faith - I have a list of at least ten different prayer practices I want to spend time with and all kinds of books in addition to retreat time.
And there are so many things I want to learn - some church-related and some not, like getting back to my Spanish and piano-playing.
And there are so many people and places I want to visit while I have weekends open, friendships that have been neglected for much too long.
And there are so many pieces of myself I want to improve - get in shape, be a more patient parent, build more regular date nights into my marriage.
My sabbatical hasn’t even begun and already I’m a little frantic about how little time I have to get through my list. The days will be so short and they’ll pass so quickly! Already I’m confronted, and disheartened, by the impossibility of accomplishing all of these wonderful things.
Oddly, it was only when I started thinking through our reading from Romans for today that I realized that, thankfully, while all the things on my list are good and worthy, Accomplishing specific things and Learning important things and Getting Holier are maybe not the real point of sabbatical.
Today, from Paul’s letter to the Romans, we hear Paul breezing through some of the 10 commandments and explaining that they can all be summed up with one word — love.
These are not just rules for the sake of having rules or keeping us in line or even making community work well. These are, as we say in the Godly Play classroom, “the 10 Best Ways to Live” - they are God’s gifts to us that can help us live into love of God, love of self, and love of neighbor.
Walter Brueggeman (Bible interpreter and ordained UCC minister) writes about how each of the 10 commandments are counter-cultural, kingdom-reversing commandments in their own way. They are forms of resistance; to Pharaoh at the time — inviting people not to be seduced and deceived by Pharaoh and his way of living. And, when we take them seriously, they continue to be forms of resistance to all the worldly powers of our own day. But maybe the most potent form of resistance in our time - as we are surrounded by untold opportunities vying for our time, our money, our loyalty, our love - is the 4th commandment of the ten:
“Thou shalt remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.”
We are commanded to make time for Sabbath.
This regular, set-aside time where we rest instead of work, give thanks for creation rather than consume it, deepen our relationships rather than take them for granted — this time assures us that our worth is not established by our productivity, our wealth, our consumerism, our busyness, or our exceptionalism in the world. Instead, our worth is found in God’s love for us and in our love for God and all of God’s creation. Living into sabbath requires a completely alternative imagination.
Now, I don’t know how many of you are good at Sabbath. But I am terrible at it.
I generally do pretty well with the other commandments (although my dad would definitely be able to tell stories of plenty of my dishonoring parents from my teenage years, and I have my moments of putting other [metaphorical] god’s before God).
But that Sabbath commandment? I break that 4th one all the time.
“I’m much too busy for down time,” I self-importantly imagine. (Even though God managed to find downtime while creating the world, and Moses managed it while freeing his people from slavery.)
Truth be told, it’s not that I don’t have time for Sabbath, it’s that I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to plan my life to include it. And when I do find open time, I tend to mindlessly fritter it away. And even though I can sometimes look back and see that Sabbath time was there, I very rarely appreciate it in the moment.
I’m not sure how I missed the obvious, but only this week did it occur to me that the root of the word “sabbatical” comes from the word “sabbath.” The time when God rested after creating all things and calling them good. The time that God commands us to set apart to rest and to enjoy the gifts of God’s creation. My 10 page list is well and good, but maybe what most needs my focus is that 4th commandment. I need to practice remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy, and in doing so, learning to rest in God’s love for me and open myself to more fully living into that love in the world.
While Paul doesn’t use the word “Sabbath” in this piece of the letter we read today, I think the purpose of Sabbath is what the second part of the reading is all about: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” It’s even more explicit in the modern Message translation: “Make sure that you don’t get so absorbed and exhausted in taking care of all your day-by-day obligations that you lose track of the time and doze off, oblivious to God…. Be awake to what God is doing!”
I hope that over the next four months I have some adventures and learn some new things and solidify my spiritual practice and come back here renewed and ready for more good ministry among you. And I hope that this Church and all of you will benefit from my time away. But even more than all of that, I hope that I will learn to immerse myself in Sabbath so that I become more awake to what God is doing. At the end of the day, that will be more experiment than Accomplishment, more art than Learning, more love than Holiness. Amen.