Sabbath, sabbaticals, mourning and renewal...

NOTE: We just got home from band practice - three FULL hours of working on wooden and electric music for our Sunday, August 17th gig for the Berkshire Environmental Action Team - and it was a gas! I am SO grateful for my band of musical magicians who are vulnerable, committed and so compassionate. I love them beyond words and they feed my soul. So, all day long my worship notes have been lost in the ether net and no matter what I tried I couldn't find them. So, we sat down, had a glass of red wine and tried a bunch of things and all of a sudden: voila - they returned. This is the close of my summer series re: Sabbath and it sets up a year long emphasis on sabbatical. Please come join us for worship if you are in town this Sunday: and without a doubt come on up to the house for the 3 pm gig!


The brightest and most compassionate people I know understand that perhaps the only thing we ALL share in church… is a sense of loss: There isn’t a person here today who has not known death – or heart break. You would be a liar if you told me you had never known shame or grief. And every one of us has been bewildered and perplexed while looking upon the staggering suffering that runs rampant in our world.

Whether it is the suicide of Brother Robin Williams or the revolting and vicious execution of Yazidi women and children by ISIS guerillas in Iraq, we know what that emotional punch to our solar plexus feels like and it hurts. It hurts like hell. And that’s why the people of wisdom teach us that the fundamental truth we all share is a sense of loss.

Fr. Richard Rohr of the Center for Contemplation and Action in Albuquerque, NM teaches that because we all suffer and know the pain of loss, what we do with our pain matters:  it matters to our neighbors and it matters to our families, it matters to our economy and our politics and it matters to our soul. So, he continues, we either learn to transform our pain or we will transmit it. And transforming our pain is at the core of our Christian spirituality.

+  What else is Jesus teaching the world from the Cross when in agony he cries out:  Father, forgive them for then know not what they do?

+ Notice he doesn’t say: God damn these wicked sinners – look what they’ve done to me by piercing my hands and my side and hanging me out in the sun to suffocate as a common criminal?  Nor does he say: Give me drugs to take away all of this pain – I can’t face it – and I don’t deserve it. No, he takes all the pain the world can give him – holds it inside so that he doesn’t push it out on innocent people – and asks God’s grace to transform it so that the pain of evil and sin is NOT transmitted to others.

It is a beautiful but terrifying thing Jesus shows us. Father Rohr writes that our pain has something to teach us – we probably won’t like it – and we will resist holding on to it because it hurts so much. But we must hold on to our pain until it teaches us its lesson: Don’t get rid of your pain until you’ve learned its lessons:

(For) when you hold the pain consciously and trust fully, you are in a very special liminal space. This is a great teaching moment where you have the possibility of breaking through to a deeper level of faith and consciousness. Hold the pain of being human until God transforms you through it – don’t pass it on and transmit it to others - and you will be an instrument of transformation (and peace) for others.

Do you remember the Prayer of St. Francis?  It begins:  Make me an instrument of your peace…

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
Where there is hatred, let me sow love; 
where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony; where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; 
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

When we commit ourselves to the journey of letting God transform our pain into peace and compassion so that we don’t transmit it and dump it all over the world, we become active, honest, broken and grace-filled followers of Jesus. How did he put it in this morning’s gospel reading: “Listen and under-stand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person… but what comes out of their mouth.” And when the Lord’s disciples said, “Oh come on, will you explain this to us,” I sense that in exasperation Jesus told them:
Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Peterson’s reworking of this text is much less subtle and probably closer to the spirit in which Jesus spoke it – it is certainly closer to the Greek in the Bible. Listen carefully to the way Jesus replies to Peter’s question, “Can you put your mysteries into simple talk?” Christ responds:

Are you being willfully stupid, too? Don’t you know that anything that is swallowed works its way through the intestines and is finally defecated? But what comes out of the mouth gets its start in the heart. It’s from the heart that we vomit up evil arguments, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, lies, and cussing. That’s what pollutes. Eating or not eating certain foods, washing or not washing your hands—that’s neither here nor there-what pollutes ourselves and our world is what we do!

Precious little ambiguity there, right? And let’s be equally clear about the specific actions that Jesus names in his rant:  covetousness, murder, adultery, theft, false witness and slander. Do these sound at all familiar to you? They are the remaining six commandments of the Lord given to Moses on Mt. Sinai – the ones that come after honoring and keeping the Sabbath – the ones that have to do with loving our neighbor and caring for the common good.

·   You shall not murder - neither shall you commit adultery - neither shall you steal - neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor – nor shall you covet your neighbor’s wife or desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Now I don’t know about you but I am blown away by how often Jesus teaches his first disciples – and by implication you and me, too – that Sabbath keeping is not only one of the ancient commandments, but that it is the key to right living and right thinking. Without it, it is much harder for God to transform our pain by grace and love, and we wind up transmitting our wounds in ways that defile us and hurt our neighbors.

·   That’s the first insight I want to share with you this morningSabbath keeping is absolutely essential for you and me if we are to become instruments of God’s peace. We need time and rest, refreshment and renewal, quiet reflection and grace if our pain and loss is to be transformed by God’s love.That is part of what this whole year and next will be about for us as a congregation as we all prepare for a season of sabbatical.

I didn’t realize it when I started this summer series on Sabbath keeping, but one of the truths I have learned is that we have been given an incredible gift by God in the form of the Lilly grant we just received. Not only does this grant give me a time for deep Sabbath creativity – a season to let my heart sing as the grant application says – but it also provides as way for you – and I mean all of you – to playfully practice some creative Sabbath keeping as a congregation.  In fact, the grant would not have been awarded if there wasn’t a vibrant congregational component.  Too often, you see, clergy sabbaticals are only for the clergy.

·   I’ve talked with many of our lay leaders who’ve been around for a long time and what I heard is that while First Church has a long tradition of providing for clergy renewal and sabbaticals, there isn’t any tradition of simultaneously doing a congregational sabbatical.

·   In fact, the way I get it, often times the leadership felt the church was hanging on by their fingernails when the pastor was away: church participation slumped, things felt like they were grinding to a halt and while the minister was blessed, that blessing didn’t touch the congregation very deeply.

Well, that’s NOT what’s going to happen as we take a full 10 months to prepare for OUR sabbatical:  we have a congregational sabbatical planning team that will be at work to make sure YOU have fun in a creative and faithful way, too while I am away.  And let me tell you who is on that planning team:  David Noyes, Scott Eldridge, Holly Goodrich, Carlton Maaia, Liz Calderon, Sue Kelly, Renee Moretti and James and Ashley Burke.  They are going to make certain that this year of sabbatical makes a difference to YOU as well as me. 

·   Sabbatical keeping in all of its rich radicality is going to be at the heart of faith community over the next few years:  without grace and refreshment from God our pain cannot be transformed.  That’s the first thing I want to share with you.

·   And the second is this:  Sabbath keeping in the biblical tradition – and in our sabbatical planning – is a way for us to keep maturing in the way of God’s grace.  As one scholar said, the second part of today’s gospel shows us that even Jesus had to learn more about God’s kingdom – he had to grow and mature in the radical implications of grace – and it took an unclean woman from Canaan to teach him. David Lose writes what if:

Jesus’ own sense of God’s kingdom is challenged, stretched, and enhanced by his encounter with this fierce and faithful woman. Maybe, that is, Jesus is serious – that is, he believes he was sent only to the Israelites – and the woman takes him on and, in fact, persuades him that something larger is at stake. In this context, her “great faith” isn’t so much an amount, but rather is simply the fact that she just plain holds on. She won’t let Jesus go until she wrests a blessing from him on behalf of her daughter. Moms with sick kids are like that – they won’t let anything get in the way of their taking care of their child. Not unsympathetic doctors or health regulations or lousy insurance, not even a slightly narrow-minded messiah-type.

The gospel of Matthew tells us that the woman said to Jesus: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all…so she knelt before him and pleaded: “Lord, help me.” To which Jesus said: “It would not be fair to take children’s food and throw it to the puppies.” But she persisted telling him: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall under the table.” And with that Jesus realized that her faith was great and said: Let it be done as you have said.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Do you grasp the totally upside-down wisdom revealed in these eight sentences? Not only are we given a story about Jesus resisting sharing God’s grace with a woman, who was also an outsider to Israel, but we’re shown that he had a change of heart and mind because she was so insistent. Three key biblical clues warrant a comment:

·   First is the notion that Jesus, and by implication God, respond to the ups and downs of our lives with ever increasing compassion. Traditional doctrine states that Christ is always divine and perfect even in his humanity and God is always constant and in control.  And I’m not going to argue or subtract truth from doctrine, but rather let me add something to it.  Let me suggest that maybe what Jesus is showing us here is how even God chooses to respond in new ways in the cause of grace. Yes, God set creation in motion, but could it be that part of the divine nature is to also become ever more gracious?

·   Are you with me on that? Could it be that as humans live and life changes and matures, that God also responds to those changes, so that grace grows deeper? 

That’s how I see what’s going on in this story: at first Jesus doesn’t acknowledge this woman – after all she isn’t a part of his community – and his understanding of ministry was grounded in caring for the children of Israel.

She was an outsider – and we know this both because Jesus is now wandering outside of Israel in Tyre and Sidon in what is currently Lebanon and once was Syria – and because he calls her a dog.  A little dog, to be sure, but still a dog which is probably a racial slur – and on one level, this is very troubling. But on another it is very hopeful because not only is Christ’s notion of God’s kingdom expanded, but racial division is overcome in healing.

·   The second biblical comment is simply that this woman – like those in ancient Israel who were welcomed by God after the exile in Babylon 600 years before Christ – bowed down and knelt before Jesus. Now what do you know about kneeling? I found the scholarship of Professor Carla Works of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC to be very helpful. She writes:

The author of Matthew uses the action of kneeling as one befitting a king.
The magi, who are also Gentiles, are the first to offer worship to Jesus in this way (Matthew 2:2, 8, 11). The unrepentant slave bows before the king in the parable of unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:), and the mother of James and John kneel before Jesus as a king of a kingdom (Matthew 20:20). For the woman to treat Jesus in this manner is in keeping with her earlier declaration of Jesus as the Son of David. Kneeling is not only a sign of kingship, but also recognition of power. There is a connection between those who kneel before Jesus and the healings that Jesus performs. A leper kneels before Jesus and asks to be made clean (Matt 8:2). A ruler kneels and asks for his daughter’s healing (9:18). At the end of this Gospel, when the resurrected Lord appears, the disciples bow before him, and Jesus says that all authority in heaven and earth is his (28:17-18). Bowing in worship also recalls Jesus’ command to worship only the Lord God (4:9). This woman kneels before one whom she recognizes as having authority not only to sit on the throne of David, but to wield power over evil. (Working Preacher)

Once again a nontraditional person from the margins of society recognizes and names the movement of God’s gracious spirit in the world – and blessings abound

+  And that is the third biblical insight – on that Isaiah celebrated 600 years before Jesus – and one that always challenges the status quo:  she claims a place within the household of faith.  She doesn’t make unreasonable demands – she’s willing to take the crumbs from the table – but she still pushes the envelope in a radical way. I love how Professor Works puts it; this woman: places hope in what others have discarded. This Son of David has so much power that there is enough power for the house of Israel and more than enough left over for her. She is not trying to thwart his mission. She just wants a crumb, recognizing that even a crumb is powerful enough to defeat the demon that has possessed her daughter.

All of which brings me back to my starting place:  we all have known loss, we all have shared pain and our loss and pain CAN be a way into ever greater blessings if we are willing to learn the wisdom of our wounds. And over the 15 years – to say nothing of the past 250 years – there have been wounds and loss in our faith community.  To name a few of those wounds out loud just a few:

·   The economic and social tumult that transformed Pittsfield in the wake of General Electric’s departure.  As a congregation, we lost members and resources to say nothing of stature and influence with this loss.

·   Then there was the injury of my predecessor, the Rev. Dr. Richard Floyd, my colleague and friend. The tragedy of his biking accident not only turned his life upside down and created trauma in his family, but it forever scarred First Church, too. Not intentionally, but naturally as any profound pain always does:  there was hurt and anger, fear and anxiety and a deep loss of confidence in our future born of this loss.

·   And let’s not forget the loss of Lou Steigler after 50+ years of ministry here that went well beyond just music.  He was beloved – and trusted – a source of wisdom and stability – a symbol of tradition. And when it came time for his retirement, many of the long time members of First Church were troubled and afraid. Believe me, the anxiety was palpable.

·   Because, of course, not only was there all the loss I mentioned, but there was also the changes brought about by my ministry.  For the first few years I was here, the jury was still out for some and you made it very clear that only time and commitment would warrant anything more than suspicion. What's more I made it clear that we HAD to add new friends and allies to our core and today over one half of the people who are in worship have been here less than 5 years. That's a LOT of change.

We lost our friend and colleague Vicki Forfa in those early years, we wrestled with the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression and we buried some of this congregation’s saints.  To say it has been a full and demanding – albeit it fruitful and sacred – time of ministry for me would be an understatement. Because, you see, now as I look back after seven years I see more clearly that for five full years we were grieving. It was necessary and vital, it was normal and healthy, but it was grieving.  One of my favorite writes, Jaco Hamman, from South Africa notes that “grief is the normal emotional, spiritual, physical and relational reaction to the experience of loss and change.” 

As I look at our work in anticipation of our share sabbatical, I want to name and own that:  for almost five years we were grieving. And then something changed – I don’t know exactly when or how it occurred – but I would like to name that change as mourning. We moved from grieving to mourning and “in contrast to grief…”

Mourning, is the intentional process of letting go of relationship, dreams, visions and more as the community lives into a new identity after the experience of loss and change. The work of mourning is into about replacement, but rather living through grief… as we move towards renewal and revitalization.

·   I believe our shared sabbatical is one of many signs that we have honored the holy work of mourning… and are moving into a new realm of grace and hope.

·   Like Jesus we have changed – like the woman who claimed her place at the table of grace, we have wrestled with the past and found a new vision – and like the prophet Isaiah we know that the old days are over and a new way of being God’s house of prayer for ALL people is dawning upon us.

So know this, good and faithful people of First Church, this sabbatical year is going to be FUN.  It is going to be playful and creative – it is going to help both you and me go deeper into grace – and it is going to be saturated in Sabbath rest.  What’s more, it is going to ask us – and invite us – and challenge us to:

Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Our year of sabbatical living, beloved, has come – and it begins… NOW!

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