The foolishness of our sabbatical...

NOTE:  TODAY is blizzard land in my neck of the woods and it is stunning. I had been planning on writing from home today given other church demands this week, so this was a double shot of blessing. As our faith community draws closer to Lent - and the close of my "fools for Christ" series - I wanted to wrap it all up with this reflection on our shared sabbatical. So, using the lectionary readings for the Fifth Sunday of Epiphany here are my worship notes for Sunday, February 8, 2015.

There is SO much to celebrate and wrestle with in the lessons assigned for this day:  together they form a theological and ethical cornucopia for a preacher – a spiritual smorgasbord for those with eyes to see and ears to hear – a feast filled with only the finest blessings of grace.  Each of our readings is rich unto themselves:

+  The poet Isaiah sings a song of God’s strength and reassurance in the midst of human travail and the Psalmist backs him up with a chorus of thanks-giving; the apostle Paul improvises creatively on a theme of radical inclusivity so that the evangelist St. Mark can bring it all home with visions of women and men being raised from sick beds while demons flee and festivals are prepared for even those living on the fringes of society.

+  Are you with me? These are stories and songs about real people being restored to the fullness of joy and the vibrancy of hope.  And like I said, individually they stunning, but joined together as a whole – embraced in mutuality like a choir when its cooking or a gumbo after the sausage infuses the onions, tomatoes and peppers with its magic and the garlic saturates the chicken – ooh la la!

+  Alors vous avez quelque chose de sacré qui peut nourrir le monde – then you have something sacred that can nourish the world – n’est pas?

This morning I want to share with you something of the promise, beauty and foolishness of such a sacred feast as it pertains to our upcoming sabbatical. Not just MY sabbatical, mind you, but OUR sabbatical because that is how it has been designed:  it is to be for us a shared feast of rest and renewal – for both pastor and people – a banquet steeped in the foolishness of Christ’s grace and saturated with a spirit of holy playfulness. 

It will be upon us in 82 days (who’s counting?) And as much as I am ready for it to begin, I want you to be ready, too. Ready and excited – ready and engaged – ready and hopeful. Believe me, I’ve heard stories from church council and other lay leaders over the past two years about previous clergy sabbaticals you’ve endured: how you received a set of marching orders to complete while the pastor was away or how wonderful it was for your beloved clergy but how you just held on by your finger tips until his return. 

This sabbatical is to be different. It is to be a shared time of playful renewal for both you and me. And when we wrote the grant to the Lily Foundation for Clergy Renewal, they made certain that an integral part of our planning involved you – the congregation – the community of faith. Because like all of God’s children, you need Sabbath and sabbatical as much as I do. The first lesson from the prophetic poet Isaiah speaks to this truth.

Chapter 40 begins with those agonizingly tender words we proclaim during Advent: Comfort, comfort ye my people, speak of peace thus saith the Lord. Comfort those who sit in darkness mourning under sorrow’s load. And it keeps getting better and better:  Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told to you from the beginning?

The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

In Isaiah’s time this love letter was first shared with those living in the exile and bondage of Babylon. Many had been taken away in chains from the holy city of Jerusalem in 587 BCE and witnessed the destruction of the first Temple. Scholars note that some of these captives were eventually treated reasonably well; those from the royal family of Israel’s King Jehoiachin apparently received food rations and modest housing arrangements.  Others were kept in harsh refugee labor camps.

What’s more, by the time the captives were set free some 70 years later, they knew they would be returning to a city devastated by war. Jerusalem had not been rebuilt but left in ruins by the conquering army: there was no Temple, there were no external gates for safety and the once bountiful fields and vineyards lay now fallow and overrun with bramble.

To say that there was apprehension about this homecoming would be a gross understatement: there was fear and an agonizing sorrow. That is always the case when war refugees return to their former homes. It was true after WW II; it is true in Palestine today, and continues to be true in Afghanistan, Iran, Ukraine and Nigeria. And it is to this fear and sorrow born of broken hearts and war that the Lord speaks a word of comfort. So please notice that God’s comfort in this reading is especially poignant for the elderly of Israel who had endured the camps.

For them this return would have been heart-breaking because they would recall the Temple’s former glory when they saw it in ruins. They once harvested food from fields now barren and bleak. And they had given birth to families who were now dead or missing or still in exile. To the most vulnerable and fragile refugees, God makes a promise:  You shall RENEW your strength. You who have waited upon the Lord, YOU shall mount up with wings like an eagle, YOU shall run and not be weary, YOU shall walk and not be faint.

That closing metaphor was one the old timers would have remembered with joy: it comes from Exodus – the story of God’s liberation of the people from their oppression – and recalls the celebrations the Lord asked of Israel to mark their freedom.

The Lord called to Moses from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.’

The return to covenant living and all its festivals for the elderly is one of the promises of the passage. For
those of us who are not refugees – or elderly or simply young or middle aged but forgetful and human – this promise is an assurance of pardon. It tells us that we too shall be forgiven and renewed from our sin because that is God’s nature:  All who return to me, says the Lord, all who are weary – all who are faint – all who are exhausted and powerless – you too shall mount up with wings as the eagles.  For “have you not known? Have you not heard? Have you not understood since the beginning of time… that all who are tired and weary, all who are heavy laden shall return to me that I may give them rest?”

+  Our sabbatical is to be a time of rest – an extended season of Sabbath, if you will – a celebration of renewal and returning to the heart of God’s grace.

+  During those four months that Dianne and I are away doing our thing, we’ve planned some truly restful celebrations for you.  There will be two all-church outings to Tanglewood to take in both Dianna Krall in June and Wynton Marsalis in July.  Carlton will lead some preparation conversations for you about these concerts so that you’ll know what to expect and how to get the most out of them.

So as prelude to this sabbatical, I want to give you a taste of what we’ve got cooked up for you.  As my musical colleagues come up into place, let me describe and then ask you to enter into, the creative promise of our shared jazz sabbatical. We’re going to take the beautiful contemporary hymn by David Haas, “Deep Within” – a song about God’s eternal promise to renew and love us from the inside out – and share it with you in three ways.

+  First, we will celebrate the song’s haunting melody: it aches with sacred affectionate, so savor its beauty. Beauty is part of what this sabbatical is all about.

+   Second, we will take that aching even deeper as our vocalists sing and harmonize together. That, too, is part of this sabbatical’s promise: recognizing and sharing our gifts in community.

+  And third, Carlton and I - and maybe the vocalists, too – will improvise on his jazz chart. Improvisation, you see, is the respectful playing with both tradition and spontaneity – it is following where the Spirit calls in the moment – it is totally unpredictable and depends upon everyone working and listening together in new ways. And, that too is part of what this sabbatical is all about.

Let this time in music be a prayer for you. Let it be a feast for your soul if you ache for renewal.  Let it be a home-coming for all who are tired, weary or heavy l
Deep within, I will plant my law, not on stone, but in your heart. 
Follow me; I will bring you back. You will be my own, and I will be your God.

I will give you a new heart, a new spirit within you, for I will be your strength.

Seek my face, and see your God, for I will be your hope.

Return to me, with all your heart, and I will bring you back.


Did you get it?  Did you experience the three parts of beauty, interpretation and improvisation?  Think about that for a moment as I ask the band for their reflections upon what we just shared: what was going on for you?  And what about you in the congregation: what was your experience of this jazz prayer?

One of my hopes for our time in sabbatical together is that we come to trust the promise of God’s rest more deeply and more openly. Our healing, our hope, our continuing renewal and value as a congregation truly rests upon the Lord – who will renew our strength – as we return and rest. That is one commitment. The other is this: I hope that we as a congregation can all learn to become more… playful.  Foolish in our trust of God’s grace and willing to take greater risks in extending that grace to a broken world: that’s my second hope for this shared sabbatical.

That’s one reason why I wanted the Reverend Bob Kyte to be our sabbatical worship leader and pastor while we’re away. When Carlton and I were in a phone conversation with him last week, we talked about our hopes for this experience. And I said, “I hope and pray that this whole thing will be enveloped in playfulness.” To which there was first a pause and then a big laugh as Bob said, “You know playful is NOT a word that most people would have ever associated with me during my time in ministry.” To which he then quickly added, “But I am NOW.”

Bob gets what we’ve been working on in the blending of music with liturgy – especially but not exclusively jazz – how we’re letting the creativity and beauty of music give us an experience of God’s grace that we don’t have to explain. We can just let it touch us. Feed us and move us from the inside out.  He said to me: “I get what you are trying to do. We live in a time when people don’t respond to lectures in church. A time when linear and rational theology falls on deaf ears. But people’s needs haven’t changed – our crying out for forgiveness or healing or hope hasn’t changed – and you are inviting them to get that blessing through music. Go for it.”

And that’s exactly right:  but what we’re doing is not new; it is just what Paul told us he was doing back in about 50 CE in Corinth. In another lesson for today he writes: “I have become a servant of all so that I might share the good news with them. To Jews I became like a Jew, to those under the law I became as one under the law… to the weak I became weak… indeed I have become all things to all men to share the blessings of the gospel.” Peterson’s reworking brings Paul’s wisdom up to date:

I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!
That is what all the music is all about – offering those who have been shut out of grace by religion a way back into its blessings – using a resource and tool that is all over our culture – music – to share God’s love. Anywhere and everywhere you go today, there is music playing. So why not use it as a playful way of sharing God’s blessings? That’s part of what our sabbatical is all about, too: understanding, experiencing, practicing and playfully playing more music so that we, like Paul, might enter other worlds, experience things from their point of view and discover what we have in common.

+  While we’re away Carlton will be leading a conversation in why we have music in the church. He will lead you in some experiences with different kinds of singing – and different types of listening – and when he does this I hope you bring others with you. This would be a GREAT time – a fun time – to invite somebody with you to church.

+  So many people these days hate and mistrust Christians. They’ve got good reasons, of course, but they are truly apprehensive.  So why not use this summer sabbatical to playfully offer them an alternative? Be courageous in your playfulness like the apostle Paul.

You see, we are all more alike than different. We have obvious differences in race and gender, politics and
body shape, cultural habits and education; but we’re still far more alike than we are different. And that means we have hurts and wounds and hopes and dreams that are more similar than we realize.  That’s why Jesus took his ministry to the far edges of his community – and kept wandering – he knew people yearned for a taste of God’s feast. So rather than wait for them, he brought the good news to their communities so they discovered their place at the table.

Our work with liturgy and music is grounded in that calling, too: it honors what we hold in common and reaches out to offer grace when so many other people and institutions are sharing judgment and fear.  And as you might guess, there’s a prayer song from the jazz catalogue that expresses this perfectly: “All Blues” by Miles Davis.  We’ll bring this message to a close by playing it for you now, but let me call two insights to your attention about this song.

+  First, it is based on a very traditional blues structure. That’s one of the jazz traditions – taking the old, old blues and first honoring it – as Miles Davis does with finesse and verve. And then the tradition asks you to play with it and make it new – that is another jazz commitment – taking something old and making it new – and every time he played, Miles made it new. So listen for how that is realized in this song.

+  And second, Miles didn’t write lyrics for this song. They came about a year later when Oscar Brown, Jr. worked to integrate jazz with the wisdom of the freedom civil rights movement.  Brown took what was established and playfully made it something new, too. So will we…

At the heart of this song is our shared human experience – regardless of race or any other of our significant differences – it is an invitation to the feast of God’s grace.  And that, is what this sabbatical invites us to celebrate.

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