Sunday, August 22, 2021

Phil Kniss: Sabbath: When God savors and smiles

God’s Gift of Sabbath: Receiving God’s Joy
Genesis 1:31-2:3; John 15:9-15

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It’s great to be back here in worship again,
with you, my church family.
I missed you during my sabbatical.
I did have a wonderful time being on a different schedule,
with different rhythms of work and rest.
Even the work I did had a restful vibe.
I rested my pastoral muscles,
let them restore and rebuild,
while I exercised a different set of muscles.

I’m grateful for your gift of time,
granting me this sabbatical,
and I’m grateful for your warm welcome back,
and for the love you show all us pastors.

I also want to give special thanks to pastors Moriah and Paula,
for their faithful and steady leadership in my absence,
for Saloma, Jane, and April, in the office,
and many others — staff and volunteers —
who kept the wheels running.
Not for one minute did I wonder or worry how things were going.
And from what I’ve heard,
my total lack of concern was well-founded.
Things went well.
I already caught bits and pieces of your summer.
Today, you get a few bits and pieces of mine.

And just so you know,
it was not a coincidence,
when I laid out the summer worship themes before I left,
that I scheduled a worship series on Sabbath
to be just starting when I got back from sabbatical.

You can see the obvious connection between
Sabbath and sabbatical, in the words themselves.
Sabbath is, in it pure definition, work stoppage.

Sabbath is something we’re all called to.
Not everyone has the privilege
to take a 3-month sabbatical, of course.
But there are many ways we can all engage
in the spiritual practice of work stoppage.

At the root of Sabbath is faith in God’s provision.
To choose to stop “being productive” is an act of faith.
Faith that we inhabit a grace-filled world of enough.
Faith that the really important work
ultimately belongs to God, and not to us,
and we don’t have to shoulder all the responsibility.

Paula opened this series last Sunday reflecting on Sabbath
as God’s gift of rest,
which brings communion with God and others,
brings freedom from that which binds us,
and thus forms us to be God’s people in the world.

True Sabbath work stoppage is a struggle, I think,
for anyone with a strong work ethic.
And we Anabaptist-Mennonites are known for our work ethic.
Maybe it comes from our theology of practical discipleship,
working out our faith in daily life.
Maybe some of it is purely cultural,
formed in the DNA of the early Mennonites
who were largely people who worked the land.

But I think there is more to it than that.
I think our struggle with Sabbath has a shadow side.
Our work ethic is not the problem.
There is nothing wrong with having a strong work ethic,
as long as we also have a strong rest ethic,
and a strong grace ethic and gift-receiving ethic.

I think the problem is that we feel too responsible for everything.
We don’t want to put our lives in someone else’s hands.
We don’t want to be beholden to someone.
Maybe . . . even . . . to God.
Lurking deep within our commendable work ethic,
is the deadly sin of pride.
The notion that we can fix things . . . ourselves.
That if we just worked a little harder,
a little smarter, a little longer,
then it all comes together . . . shalom happens.

By the way, this is a sermon I need.
I planned it this way, ‘cause I had a hunch I might need to hear this
on my first Sunday back.
If it applies to any of you, as well, that’s icing on the cake.

But in just about every form of personality inventory
I have taken over the years—
Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, DISC, you name it—
I come out as a very responsible individual.
That is, I take on a sense of responsibility not just for myself,
but for the world and people and systems around me.

That’s a good thing when I actually do own the responsibility,
like when it’s in my job description.
It’s less of a good thing in a life of faith,
a life that requires trust in something or someone
beyond my control or responsibility,
a life of self-surrender.

For people like me (and maybe like 1 or 2 of you),
Sabbath goes against the grain.
It’s hard to imagine that the grindstone of my life,
(or for that matter, my family, my church, my world),
will keep right on going if my hand is off the handle.
When there is urgent work to be done,
how dare I take a Sabbath,
or a sabbatical?

This attitude not only robs us God’s gift of rest.
It robs us of God’s gift of joy.
If we can never lay down the heavy burden of responsibility,
we are going to be heavy people.
We will not know joy.

It was a bit of a revelation for me,
as I began to work on this Sabbath series,
that the joy of God had such a prominent place
in the practice of Sabbath.

We don’t dwell that much on joy as a characteristic of God.
We know that God is righteous and just.
God has standards to be met,
has a will,
has expectations,
asks for our obedience and our alignment with God’s will.
But do we also know, and really believe,
that God is full of joy?
that God delights in all of us and in all of creation?
Do we grasp the reality that
when we, and other parts of God’s creation,
live into our created purpose
and participate in the world-as-God-intended-it,
that God beams?
that God takes in a deep breath,
and exhales with a “Yes!” and a big smile, and even laughter?

And, yes, I know, that’s me putting a human face on God.
I’m speaking in metaphors,
exactly like today’s scripture did.
The creation story in Genesis
is stock full of metaphorical pictures of a God we can relate to.
So let’s make the God of Genesis our starting point for Sabbath.

God made all things—
moon and stars,
mountains and oceans,
graceful pink flamingos, and awkward gray armadillos,
and us strange and beautiful and broken human beings.

And after every day of creation,
God looked over everything God had made,
and with a satisfied sigh, savored it, smiled, and said,
“This is good.”

I love how the The Voice Bible translates these moments.
You heard it earlier.
“Then God surveyed everything He had made,
savoring its beauty and appreciating its goodness.
Evening gave way to morning. That was day six.”

At the heart of our practice of Sabbath
is the realization that God delights in us,
and finds joy in all creation.
When we, or any other part of creation,
live into our created purpose,
we make God’s day.

God feels. God is passionate.
At least, that’s what the Bible says.
So if we ever talk about the wrath of God,
we better be talking even more about the joy of God.

We find God’s joy throughout the Old and New Testaments,
not just the creation story.

We read two other examples this morning.
There are many more.

In Psalm 16, the singer-songwriter exulted,
“You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”

In one of Jesus’ speeches to his disciples in John 15, he said,
“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you
and that your joy may be complete.”

My season of Sabbath got a head start during the pandemic,
when Irene and I got into the habit of taking Sunday afternoon hikes,
after our work week ended.
We immersed ourselves in nature,
all around the Shenandoah Valley.
So it wasn’t a stretch to keep it up during my sabbatical.
In these last three months I hiked 18 different trails
in 6 different states,
and biked seven different rail-trails.

Now what’s going on when you and I get out in the natural world?
We often make the comment,
“I meet God out in nature.”
I believe that’s true, but we often say that,
with only a vague idea of what we mean,
that something more or less spiritual is going on.
We usually mean something along the line of,
“I find peace and beauty out there.
and peace and beauty are God things,
So I meet God there.”

But let me try to be more precise theologically.
And maybe your own thoughts can be more specific
next time you appreciate a sunset or see a scarlet tanager.

If our faith tradition confesses, which it does,
that God created and sustains and loves this whole world
and everything in it,
and that God finds deep joy when God’s creatures
live into their created purpose,
then what’s really happening when you stop and observe
and savor and delight in something in the natural world?

You are . . . literally . . .  sharing in God’s joy.
When you delight in creation, God delights in your delight!
And your joy is God’s joy, and God’s joy is your joy.
There is communion of joy, and that is a gift of God.

This can be true anywhere, not just in a remote forest.
It happened to me on my sabbatical
with a rainbow over the local grain elevator,
petunias in a sidewalk flower bed,
strawberries from our neighbor’s garden,
a sunrise outside our bedroom window,
plants we bought at Lowes,
neighborhood children delighting in a pick-up truck,
enjoying music in the shadow of chimney rocks,
a fascinating tree,
a simple wooden structure that fits its environment,
beach sunrises . . . and sunsets,
two out of a million seagulls, in flight,
mountaintop views that stretched for miles,
and being close enough to spot
a dragonfly on the eye of an alligator,
watch a roseate spoonbill go fishing,
or stare down a swallow on a farm fence,
marveling at the power of water to cut a gorge in the earth,
seeing that gorge and river from a distance,
and up close on a rafting trip with my two brothers,
and up closer, and closer, and closer.

You know,
Obviously, I wasn’t thinking in those lofty terms
when I encountered all these scenes you just saw,
certainly not while I was running the rapids.
But I realize now, without a doubt,
I was immersed in God’s joy at those moments.
Whether I delighted at a beautiful landscape
or an intricate insect
or a child’s laughter
or skillfully-played music
or was feeling the power of water . . .
that delight I had was shared equally by the Creator.
God saw my own smile,
and breathed it in, savored the moment with me,
and smiled with me.
I am sure of it,
as sure as those pictures that remind me of those moments.
That is the God we worship,
a God who is full of joy,
anytime and anywhere there is some part of God’s creation
fulfilling its purpose.

This is a transformative idea for me.
If God sees creation and all creatures that way,
why shouldn’t I?
It gives me a different lens through which to view our broken world.
When we allow our joy and God’s joy to merge in this way,
we will see the world differently.

Even badly damaged parts of God’s creation,
parts we ourselves have damaged,
even those parts can exhibit glimmers of the goodness
God created, and can elicit a smile from God.
Even badly broken people in this world,
people who harm themselves and others,
people who wreak havoc at any level of society,
even they, on occasion, are capable of a truly human act,
and if, even for a moment,
they do something they were created to do,
God savors that moment, and smiles.

It doesn’t mean we smile and look away
from the evil they do and ignore it.
But it does mean that our actions and attitudes
toward creation, and toward other people, even our enemies,
will be tinged with love,
and with the joy that comes from God.

Easier said than done, of course,
but we will be strengthened in our task
the more we practice Sabbath,
and open our eyes and heart and senses
to the things that bring God joy.

Let us confess our need of God’s help in doing just that.
Join me in the prayer of confession printed in your bulletin.

one  We confess we are often weighed down 
                with burdens of work, of duty, of obligation.
                We sometimes assume responsibility 
                for work that is yours, O God.
all Open our hearts to receive your joy.
one In our lives of worry and restlessness,
                we allow anxiety to blind us to the joy and beauty
                that spangles our world in plain sight.
all Open our eyes to see your smile.
one In our neglect of Sabbath rest, our senses are dulled,
                and we miss opportunities 
                to fill ourselves at your table of delight.
all Open our senses to savor your feast of joy.
one This we pray in faith and in hope. Fill us with your joy. Amen.

—Phil Kniss, August 22, 2021

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