Sunday, June 3, 2018

Phil Kniss: The hardest gift to receive

“Sabbath, summer, and other gifts of God”
Mark 2:23-3:6; Deuteronomy 5:12-15

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Not sure what baggage you bring along
to a discussion about observing the Sabbath,
but I have a little baggage.

My baggage, when I unpack it,
is about what I may or may not do on Sunday.
And my baggage includes some worry,
not just over what’s right or wrong to do on a Sunday,
but over what other people will think
when they see me doing something on a Sunday.

Picking tomatoes from the garden? Probably okay.
Pulling weeds? Ehhh…
Mowing the yard? Oh my! Definitely not!
And if I’m going to work,
best be indoor work, with curtains closed.
Sorry, it’s how I was brought up!

Actually, I’m exaggerating a bit.
I don’t have many hang-ups about those particulars anymore.
And most people I know don’t, either.

But hangups aside,
I think we—that is, almost all of us—get Sabbath mostly wrong.
We don’t think often enough, and deeply enough, about Sabbath
and how to incorporate it in our lives as a discipline.
A joyful discipline, but a discipline nonetheless.

I hope this morning to help us move the pendulum.
We have swung from a legalistic and almost oppressive view,
which is quite unfortunate,
to a dismissive and almost non-existent view,
which is even more unfortunate.

I want us to reclaim the challenging practice of Sabbath,
as a gracious gift from a loving God.
Yes. A practice as gift.

We start with the last verse of our Deuteronomy 5 reading,
which should make any of us with baggage about Sabbath,
sit up, and take notice, and ask, “What…?”

Let me read it again.
“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”

Hear that? I am a God who delivers and frees people.
Therefore . . . because of that reason . . . observe the Sabbath Day.
God lays out the details of Sabbath as a follow up
to the greatest act of deliverance in the history of God’s people!

I don’t think I ever got that message growing up.
The list of required and prohibited behaviors
was just not explained to me this way—
that the whole reason we have Sabbath,
is because God wants us free from anything oppressive.

So . . . as we begin to rethink, re-evaluate Sabbath,
maybe our first line of inquiry should be,
“What is oppressing us these days?”

What kind of Exodus are we in need of,
for which God may be asking us
to lean more strongly into the practice of Sabbath?
And how might the practice of Sabbath be the exact kind of gift
that our delivering God wants us to experience?

So let’s talk a bit about our typical 21st-century American lives,
and how it might impact the way we look at Sabbath.
Many of us, in the church, have come to see Sabbath, or Sunday,
through the lens of overfilled, overdistracted, overstressed lives.

And yes, I know that Sunday and Sabbath aren’t the same thing.
Some people say that’s part of the problem,
that we have demoted Sabbath,
and ignore it too easily.
But whatever the day for Sabbath,
I don’t think the call and the gift are any less important.

I like Walter Brueggemann’s definition of Sabbath.
This renowned Old Testament scholar who’s written volumes,
defines Sabbath in two words—work stoppage.
Work stoppage!

We can’t get around that fact.
Nor do we want to.
The gift of being able to rest on one out of seven days,
was a gift given in the Creation story itself.
God rested.
And that rest signified something important, for God and us.
This is good.
This is enough.
And it will continue without my striving.

God designed things to run,
without God controlling every detail.
If God can rest, just be present with creation, and enjoy it,
maybe we can, too.

By sitting down and doing nothing on the seventh day—
save enjoying what already was—
God was signaling to us human creatures
that we are also created to work,
and then to stop working and enjoy what is,
before we return to work again.

So what does “work stoppage” mean . . . to you? . . . to me?

Well, what did it mean in the biblical economy?
In an ancient agrarian economy,
there was no concept of 5-day work weeks and 8-hour days,
nobody could even imagine a life like ours.
To them, work equaled survival.
You began to work when there was enough light to see by,
and you stopped work when it got too dark to see,
and about all you could do was sleep.

Stopping work for one complete cycle,
a full day of sunlight,
meant an active choice not to produce more,
but to accept what was, as enough.
It was an act of radical trust.
It was a leap of faith—
to put that daylight in God’s hands, and let go.

We live our lives at a frenzied pace
dictated not by a need for survival,
but by a distorted drive to “succeed,”
to win out above the other,
to “not miss out” on anything,
where every possibility or potential must be explored—
in this kind of life, what is our equivalent to “work stoppage.”

If our life’s work is a frenzied, clawing effort to find meaning,
if we are continually striving to prove ourselves worthy,
then what, really, is “work stoppage”?

We work on our jobs only a few hours,
compared with our biblical counterparts,
and other pre-modern agrarian societies.
But when we’re not on the clock, so to speak,
many of us keep working,
trying to find what we are looking for.
We fill our remaining hours with all kinds of distracting activities—
activities designed either
to give meaning to our lives that we don’t already have,
or hide pain in our lives that we do have, and want to avoid.
The frenzied pace that extra-curriculars insert into our lives,
effectively shield us from either facing the big void,
or having to sit in darkness for a while.

So our work is a different kind than our ancient biblical forebears,
but it is still work, I would argue.
It is still not Sabbath.
It is still not resting in a deep trust and delight,
as God designed, and demonstrated.

No, we aren’t slaves in Egypt, literally,
but we are oppressed by forced labor,
by our own desperate need to find worth, to escape the dark,
to win the rat-race.

And we will know nothing of Sabbath,
until we experience a genuine “work stoppage” in every sense,
until we find rest and peace and a sense of enough,
until we decide we are not responsible to make everything happen,
until we can look on our life work,
and trust a loving, delivering God to fill in the gaps.

Even much of what we think constitutes rest and recreation,
is not actually “work stoppage.”
Our non-work pursuit may be some worthwhile hobby,
or sports, or even the arts.
But if our joy in that activity is not a pure joy,
that releases control of the outcome,
that trusts in the goodness of God and others,
then, sorry to say, you haven’t stopped working.

What gives us the idea that going to a youth soccer match on Sunday—
putting excess pressure on our kids to win,
yelling insults at the refs,
harboring resentment toward the coach and other parents,
when my kid doesn’t get the break—
what makes us think that is any kind of Sabbath?

And what makes us think that after a crazy busy week,
crashing from exhaustion on the sofa Sunday afternoon
vegging out on football and nachos
while absorbing literally hundreds of frantic ads
promising a better life,
while surfing Facebook and finding that your friends
travel to happy and beautiful places you can’t afford,
or spout off stupid and ill-informed political ideas
that make you want to puke—
what makes us think that is any kind of Sabbath?

You see, when we get hung up on defining “work”
as being on the clock, or engaging in physical chores,
then we mis-identify the gift of Sabbath.

Sabbath is freeing ourselves of oppression.
It is freedom from the slavery of distractions and anxieties
that we never have enough,
or that we never are enough.

If you think God is more pleased with you on Sunday
if you lay on the sofa with cheesy nachos and slick commercials,
and get all emotionally invested in your team’s victory . . .
than if you go mow your yard (without earbuds and a podcast),
and engage in the practice of gratitude and presence and prayer,
then I’m sorry to say you misunderstand God.
Go mow your yard this afternoon.

This is your pastor giving you permission.
Go mow your yard . . . if . . .
if you can do so while being attentive to the gifts of God,
like your physical body in motion getting exercise,
like the created world you are interacting with,
like your prayerful mind which you can choose to be open
to whatever thoughts the Spirit might bring your way.

But if you mow on Sunday
Sunday is your last best chance in an overfilled week,
to get some unpleasant chores done.
And you mow it while distracting yourself with anxious thoughts,
and a political podcast . . .
Then, I won’t be a Pharisee and get all offended about it,
I’ll just say, 
you might be turning down a gift God has for you.

Work on the Sabbath is not about how much you move your body.
It’s about how much you are striving to make things happen,
as opposed to accepting God’s gift of rest, trust,
being satisfied with enough,
being present with God, present with yourself,
and with others, and with the world.

The Pharisees in Jesus’ day, as we heard in Mark chapter 2 and 3,
did get all offended when they mis-defined work
when the disciples plucked some grain to eat as they traveled,
and when Jesus healed a disfigured man.
They forgot that Sabbath was not about
following a physical activity checklist,
but was an active choice to be present
with each other and with God,
to be attentive and compassionate.

Sabbath is a gift to us from God!
Let’s not waste it!

I was listening to a podcast driving home from Ohio last week—
it was a Monday! and it wasn’t about politics!
It was the TED Radio Hour,
about distraction and the art of paying attention.
The speaker was Tristan Harris,
who runs the Center for Humane Technology.
He’s concerned, from an entirely secular and psychological basis,
about addiction to technology,
and the constant distractions we have.

He says the way we use our smart phones
lead to an “all-or-nothing relationship with technology.”
I quote,
“You’re either on and you’re connected and distracted all the time,
or you’re off but then you’re wondering,
am I missing something important?
In other words, you’re either distracted
or you have a fear of missing out.”

There, without knowing it, he is identifying
the main reason we have trouble with Sabbath—fear.
The fear of missing out.
The fear of not producing enough to satisfy our desires.
The fear of not earning enough,
not doing enough,
not being enough.

Another speaker on the same podcast was Manoush Zomorodi,
a tech journalist and author,
and she made a case for putting ourselves in a space
where our mind can rest and go into a default mode,
where we invite our minds to get bored, to wander, to daydream.
When do we purposely take time to do that?
It’s at those moments, she said, and I quote, that
“we connect disparate ideas,
we solve some of our most nagging problems . . .
we look back at our lives.
We take note of the big moments.
We create a personal narrative . . .
we set goals.”
But no. Instead of giving ourselves those moments,
we chill out on the couch,
while updating a Google Doc or replying to email,
or perusing the pretty lives of our friends.
She cited a study claiming
the average person checks email 74 times a day
and switches tasks on their computer 566 times a day.
Maybe our Sabbath should include a screen sabbath.

I grew up thinking daydreaming . . . was a kind of distraction.
Maybe, instead . . . to daydream is to have a clear open mind,
and distraction keeps us from being good daydreamers.
I like that idea!

When Irene and I traveled to Israel-Palestine six years ago,
we spent one weekend in a home stay
with an Orthodox Jewish family,
and got to experience a real Sabbath.
At a particular time as the sun set on Friday evening,
the TV screen was covered with a cloth,
all electronic devices were powered off,
the mother of the family
had all her food dishes finished,
and on very low heat on the stove,
the father of the house put away his cigarettes and lighter,
the car stayed in the garage.
And for 24 hours we did nothing, except,
walk down the street to worship at the synagogue,
sit around the table at a joyous Shabbat meal,
sit on the back porch with them
when another family stopped to visit,
watch their children splash in the family pool,
go to a nearby park to swing, slide, and climb,
walk down the street and visit other families,
and eat more leftovers.
The air was still, since no cars or trucks were running at all,
anywhere in the vicinity.

No, that’s not realistic—for our whole society to shut down,
the way an Orthodox Jewish town can.

But where and how
might we communally, not just individually, but communally,
practice Sabbath,
practice “work stoppage,”
practice rest and trust and freedom from anxiety?

It strikes me that this summer season, for us as a church community,
gives us some opportunities for that.
We can rest from whatever anxiety might tempt us,
as ordinary places and rhythms of church life get interrupted.
We can choose to not cover our anxiety with striving,
or feel a need to manufacture an experience.
We can receive this absence of permanence as a gift,
and look for joy in the moment,
look for opportunities to experience grace and enough,
even without what we usually have around us.

I’ve talked for a while.
You’ve listened for a while.
It’s been good.
But it’s enough.
Time for some rest.
There’s a gift God has for us to receive.
Let’s open ourselves to it.

If you will, lay your open palms out in front of you,
in the receiving position.
Maybe close your eyes,
whatever helps your mind to be open and clear
and free of distraction.

I just give you one question to ponder,
“In what area of your life are you filled with anxiety,
overcome by some oppressive fear or worry,
or some other kind of overwork and overstriving?
Can you receive the gift of Sabbath rest that God offers you?
And what does that gift look like for you right now?”

Let your mind go where the Spirit takes it,
while we listen to our musicians offer us a gift.

—Phil Kniss, June 3, 2018

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