“What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families. Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage. Then when you pray, God will answer. You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’ If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins, If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight. I will always show you where to go. I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places— firm muscles, strong bones. You’ll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry. You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again. If you watch your step on the Sabbath and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, If you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy, God’s holy day as a celebration, If you honor it by refusing ‘business as usual,’ making money, running here and there— Then you’ll be free to enjoy God! Oh, I’ll make you ride high and soar above it all. I’ll make you feast on the inheritance of your ancestor Jacob.” Yes! God says so! Isaiah 58: 9-14
In the 1970s a woman named Marabel Morgan wrote a best seller called The Total Woman in which she encouraged women to shift from the growing feminist movement into the shape of a submissive Christian wife. It was Morgan’s advice that a woman greeting her husband at the door wearing nothing but Saran Wrap and lipstick could save a floundering marriage that made her book a best seller.
Week before last I went to the Academy for Spiritual Formation at San Damiano Retreat Center in Danville. The Academy is a program of the Upper Room ministry of the United Methodist Church, and it’s eight weeks spread over two years. As I was driving to San Damiano, I asked myself. “Why am I doing this?” It isn’t convenient to be away for a week every quarter and it’s expensive and do I really need to learn new spiritual practices? I’d fallen into that manhole of thinking that thinking about Jesus is the same thing as following Him.
This last session of the Academy was about the Rule of St. Benedict. Benedict was an abbot and founder of the monastery at Monte Casino in the sixth century who wrote the Rule for the monks of his order; both to guide them in Christian living and to give a rhythm to their days. The Rule was adopted by thousands of religious communities in the following centuries and it’s still used today. The week at the Academy follows a monastic rhythm; the day begins with contemplative prayer, followed by morning worship. After breakfast we gather for a lecture by a guest faculty member, followed by a time of silence and reflection, and then we gather together for communal reflection. Following lunch we have another lecture, followed by a time of silence and reflection, and then gather for communal reflection. Before dinner there is worship and Communion, and after dinner we meet in small covenant groups to listen – mostly in silence – to each other share how we’ve encountered God in any of what’s happened in the day. And then worship at the end of the day is followed by the Great Silence that doesn’t end until morning worship. The rhythm of each day is the same, and I discovered that I love it. I’m a noisy person, not always outwardly noisy but inwardly noisy; I have what Buddhists call “monkey mind” that’s pretty constantly worrying, ruminating, second-guessing, or swinging from branch to branch. In the silence of the Academy I’ve learned to be still. I’ve learned to be with God in silence. And I’ve learned that my soul craves silence. My soul craves rhythm.
Our Jewish siblings observe a rhythm that isn’t part of the surrounding culture. It’s one of the Ten Commandments that’s largely ignored. It’s the longest of the Commandments (apparently God felt most strongly about this one, at least at the time.) “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but God rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
Last week Michael made reference to the Blue Laws that existed in our country almost from its inception. Blue Laws strictly enforced what activities were allowed on Sundays, especially concerning commerce. Blue Laws were restrictions, like a cultural corset, making a rigid shape to the week. In contrast to this shape, Sabbath creates a rhythm in time. Most of the quotes on the front of the bulletin are from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic book, The Sabbath. Rabbi Heschel was one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century. Rabbi Heschel writes, “Labor is a craft, but perfect rest is an art. It is the result of body, mind, and imagination. The seventh day [Sabbath] is a palace in time which we build.”
You might be wondering what Marable Morgan and Saran Wrap have in common with the Sabbath. It’s a stretch I admit. Morgan’s view of Christian womanhood as sexy and submissive is a kind of rigid behavioral and theological corset, but observing Sabbath is an invitation to experience a different rhythm and to build a week around the rhythm of God. I’m not implying that Saran Wrap and lipstick aren’t an enticing costume for people of any gender, nor am I implying that Sabbath is an optional observance for Jews. I am advocating Sabbath as a Christian spiritual practice, not just a Jewish one. We were created in the image of God, and God took a day of rest, and called that time sacred.
Author and theologian Frederick Beuchner writes, “To love God is to do about the same thing that you would do for anyone else, and that is to [spend time with] each other.” God makes it clear that one of the conditions of relationship with God is caring for the needs of others. So God offers us a rhythm of mutual love and concern for all creation. “If you get rid of unfair practices… If you are generous with the hungry … [Then] your lives will begin to glow in the darkness… [Then] I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places… You’ll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry. If you watch your step on the Sabbath and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, If you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy, God’s holy day as a celebration, If you honor it by refusing ‘business as usual,’ making money, running here and there— Then you’ll be free to enjoy God!”
Jews anticipate Sabbath, it’s said, as a groom anticipates a bride. Sabbath is a time to stop work, yes, but also to delight in the gift of time. “A palace in time,” to quote Rabbi Heschel. Jews are encouraged to read, visit, rest, and make love on the Sabbath. It’s a day to enjoy. Weddings are forbidden on the Sabbath but so are funerals, and sadness itself is forbidden. Sabbath is a celebration, a sacred rhythm, that sets time apart.
The Rule of St. Benedict is also about rhythm, the rhythm of prayer, and work, and community, and rest. One of the pages of notes I took at the Academy is a quadrant of these four things: prayer, work, community, and rest. Are they in balance in my life? And if not how can I make changes to observe – not a grueling work week or a slothful lack of motivation (hypothetically eating potato chips and watching Downton Abbey reruns) but a holy rhythm, like God modeled has for us?
One of our faculty members at this last Academy was Robert Benson, author of A Good Life: Benedict’s Guide to Everyday Joy. He writes, “I once went for a stretch of time some years in which I made a living as a one-person consulting firm that tried to take care of the dozen or so clients it took to keep my head above water and also support the freelancers I worked with who were swimming pretty fast themselves. I ghost-wrote a couple of books in my spare time and had a small publishing imprint as well. I was on the board at the church, taught a Sunday school class, and led about four retreats a year for the congregation, and produced all the promotional material for upcoming events as well. My church life and my community life and my work like were so full and rich and productive that I nearly died from it. Other than the fact that I was tired and worried and sick at heart and depleted and lost and afraid, everything was just fine. It’s clear from Benedict’s Rule that he knew the power of the scriptural reminder that it is in returning[to the rhythm]
and rest [of God] that we shall be saved.” [page 33-34]
Many of us don’t observe that fast-paced or obsessive a work life, but that’s not the point of needing Sabbath. We are commanded and invited to participate in the sacredness of time, in the rhythm of God, in observing a day of rest.
On the way to this last Academy I had whined to myself, “Why do I need to learn another spiritual practice?” (Both a lazy and self-satisfied question, and God forgive me for both.) I needed to learn and practice the rhythm of Sabbath because I need to be in time with God. Otherwise I could be sucked into the vortex of absolute disregard for the sacredness of life that’s being played out in our time. Recently it’s been horrifyingly obvious that America has lost its moral compass. We’re in a storm at sea, and many of us are finding it hard to get our sea legs or our nausea under control. Waves of intolerance and inhumanity and violence are breaking over the ship and there’s no denying that we’re in peril, and without a compass. This is why we learn spiritual practices. Because when society loses its way, and the leaders we look to to make good decisions have jumped ship, we remember in those spiritual practices who we are, and Whose we are. We learn a rhythm that sustains us the midst of a storm.
The 19th century Zionist writer and philosopher Ahad Ha’am wrote, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” More than we keep spiritual practices – among them a day that God commanded us to observe as a sacred time, of rest and comfort and delight – our spiritual practices move us away from apathy, and helpless rage, and despair and into the rhythm of activism and creativity.
We are a people who live in the “already and the not yet” which is how theologians describe the Kingdom of God ushered in in the coming of Jesus Christ, who said, “The Kingdom of God is among you” and “The Kingdom of God is at hand” and “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Spiritual practices, including Sabbath-keeping, open our eyes to the Kingdom of God already here but not yet fulfilled, and teach us to work and create and rest in rhythm with God.
Some of our spiritual practices we might not name as spiritual practices… like meeting to read a book, or walking together, or conversation over coffee, or listening in silence, or singing, or gardening, or volunteering, or voting …. but we need to identify these as practices a helping us move to the rhythm of God. In the beginning… God created all that is, and marveled each day at what God had done, and then created time to celebrate and enjoy all God had done. Practicing Sabbath is a way to learn the rhythm of God. In a time of rest and wonder and gratitude and imagining we can find ways to build and to reveal the Kingdom of God already begun in us, already begun on earth, as it is in God’s dream and design for all creation.
So come away with me to a quiet place… as we learn the rhythm of God. This song, Come Away with Me is our next song. Please stand as you’re able and let’s sing this together. Amen.