My last sermon for a two whole seasons...

What I had hoped to say at worship... oh well. I give thanks to God for this day and all the goodness we shared. There was some gentle kidding today that I have mentioned "I am going to sabbatical" a LOT over the past year. And at first I was thinking, "Well, yes, I've probably overstated the case." But then it hit me: it is so very, very important to help all of us respect the boundaries of this sabbatical. It is a retreat for us - not a vacation - it is time away in the wilderness for reflection. So, because respecting these clear boundaries is often complicated for people in a church, I have been extra vigilant over this past year - and there are still folks who just don't get it. Alas... here is what I had written to say and I think it still rings true. Now, we are truly ONWARD into Sabbatical 2015!

My deepest hope for you, the congregation and leadership of First Church, all of the time, but
especially during the next four months of our shared sabbatical, is that you would rest:  rest in the grace of God, rest from worry and fretting about our finances, rest in the promise of the Sabbath that teaches us that God really is in charge and rest from the usual work we share that is so important but also so draining.  I’m not very good at always practicing what I preach about this resting thing – but it is clear to me the time has come for me to practice and embrace it more thoroughly deep within – and I sense that is true for us as a congregation, too.

As the prayer/song we just shared says:  Deep within, I the Lord your God will plant a new spirit within you – and become your strength. Notice what this prayer doesn’t say – such is one time tested path to real spiritual wisdom, you know – listening to the via negativa – what isn’t said.  And this prayer song taken from the prophet Jeremiah doesn’t say that God will give us more work to do, it doesn’t say that the new spirit written on our hearts will leave the work of justice and compassion up to us alone and it doesn’t say that we have to figure it all out all by ourselves all at once.

Rather the promise is that if we return – that is, change our direction and come back into community and trust – God will become our strength.  The Spirit of the Lord will both spiritually and physically refresh us from the inside out – and hope will be restored within and among us.

When I asked Church Council to join me in applying for a Lily Foundation grant so that I might take a sabbatical for the first time in my ministry, the old ghosts of previous sabbaticals decided to pay us a visit and inform our conversation that night. The good and holy ghosts said out loud that First Church had a proud and long honored history of pastoral sabbaticals. Indeed, I was reminded that my contract made provision for sabbatical rest as a part of an extensive, venerated tradition.

In the same room with those holy ghosts, however, were some other spirits – the spirit of fear and frustration, the spirit of anxiety and fatigue -  for no sooner had our sabbatical tradition been articulated and celebrated than the stories began.
And the stories I heard that night – and have heard often in the two years we’ve been working and planning for this experience – included two broad themes that helped me understand why THIS sabbatical had to be different:

First I heard people speak of cherishing the pastor who left them behind for study and renewal.  This included both my immediate predecessor as well as those who preceded him. There was unanimity in the room about how important sabbatical time was for both clergy and spouse – and there was not one iota of resentment present at all. But in the very next breath, I how tiring it was for the lay leadership to be without the settled pastor for an extended season. I heard strong and respected souls speak of their own frustration and anxiety: we were holding on by our fingernails was the chorus repeated over and over that first night.  Not because it wasn’t the right thing to do, but rather because when the preacher is away some people stopped attending Sunday worship. Others quit contributing to the financial well-being of the church. A few had to shoulder the burden that often falls upon the pastor to carry.  And a few others decided that with the pastor away, it was time for the church mice to play. Believe me when I tell you, there were holy ghosts in the room that night along with some spirits of fear and frustration.

Second, after we listened to what the spirits of the past had to tell us, I also heard our leadership say that they wanted and needed this time of sabbatical to be different. Now, when people tell stories there are always multiple levels of truth, right? There is the obvious literal narrative, there are the emotions just below the surface, there are value judgments implied but rarely made explicit and there is a hidden hope that needs to be teased out into the light if a new experience is going to become reality. Two stories shared that night are illustrative. The first had to do with the marching orders that the pastor gave to the congregation – things to be addressed, worked on and accomplished while he was away – and as it was told, these marching orders were extensive. No one said just what was supposed to happen – and to this day I still don’t know the details – just that it was decreed that during this sabbatical the congregation needed to do some serious work.  The second had to do with how little of that work actually took place while the pastor was away. There was a lot of nervous laughter about this – and a bit of frustration, too – because it was clear that there was some disappointment involved after the sabbaticals were over.

Now I tell you these stories not to disparage or denigrate anyone involved in the past. I have too much respect for all involved to be that shallow or small-minded.  No, I recall these experiential stories of First Church around sabbatical to make a point the Lilly Foundation insisted upon in our grant application. THIS sabbatical experience is to be shared. It is NOT the pastor going away for a time of rest and renewal – although that is essential and believe me that will happen – rather this is to be a time when the congregation also participates in a season of rest and renewal, too. Those who awarded us nearly $50,000 were quick to quote St. Paul in his letter to the Romans:  Do NOT conform any longer to the patterns of this world, but rather be transformed by the renewal of your minds. (Romans 12)  So from the outset, there was not simply an implementation team for the pastor’s sabbatical, there was a planning team that spent more than a year talking, writing, discerning, challenging and finally applying for a shared sabbatical grant.  Conceptually this sabbatical has been planned cooperatively.  

So let me outline for you the three broad areas that you are invited to participate in – and
please note that this is NOT a marching order. We will have to write a summary of our experiences for the Lilly Foundation at the conclusion of the sabbatical, but there is almost nothing in what we have planned that requires or expects you to DO anything. This is to be a season of being, not doing – an extended encounter with Sabbath rest – a shared sabbatical. And here is what our team came up with:

First, starting May 1 and running through the middle of September, our music director, Carlton Maaia II, will move into a full time ministry.  He will be the source of continuity during my absence. And he will be working to make sure three things happen:  1) Worship continues to be creative and rich.  2) Our planned jazz for the journey trips to Tanglewood are satisfying. And 3) that a variety of experiential learning about jazz, music and liturgy takes place throughout the summer.

Now let me speak specifically about the Tanglewood trips:  we have two trips planned – and sign-up sheets for them both – and each concert has been under-written by the Lilly Grant. If you can pay for yourself, or a portion of the ticket, that ‘s great; but if you cannot, there is to be no barrier to your participation. Just sign up – and away we go. Each Sunday before the concert, Carlton will hold a “preview” event during which the artist’s music will be introduced, various insights given and questions answered. For example, Diana Krall is touring to promote a new collection of songs that come from the NEW American songbook born of the 60s and 70s.  She is taking tunes like “California Dreamin’” and others and reinterpreting them much like the jazz artists of the 40s and 50s did with Broadway show tunes. So, there will be some preparation – then the concert – followed by a debriefing and discussion the following Sunday after worship. The same thing will happen for the Wynton Marsalis show in July.  This part of the sabbatical is about fun – about being open to new insights in a gentle and relaxed way – and about taking in the beauty of God’s creation, too.

Second, during the first three Sundays in May we will have some guest preachers. And if you are here you will experience three new insights about how the Holy Spirit is calling us into the deeper work of inter-faith and ecumenical relationships both in Pittsfield and abroad.  The first preacher is Joyce Sohl from the Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville, TN.  She coordin-ates the jazz liturgy experience that Cartlon continues to resource – a new way of doing jazz vespers – designed for people of all or no faith traditions. The second week Fr. John Salatino, the presiding priest at St. Mark’s Roman Catholic Church will bring the message – and I am thrilled to be making this connection with our Catholic sisters and brothers. And for the third week of May, my friend and colleague, Rabbi David Weiner of Knesset Israel will be in the pulpit – or wherever he chooses to speak from.  To me his presence symbolizes an important part of the sabbatical:  being open to what the spirit of God is saying in the real world regardless of our spiritual tradition.

And third, from Pentecost Sunday – or Memorial Day – through Labor Day my friend and colleague Bob Kyte will be here to lead worship and support our pastoral ministries.  Some of you know Bob from when he was the pastor in either Lenox or in Dalton. He and his wife, Stefie, love the Berkshires – and love First Church – and will bring that love and long history of pastoral sensitivity to you during my absence.

THAT is the heart of the congregation’s sabbatical: No marching orders – no expectations save showing up – and no demands and no tests, ok?  This is to be a time NOT to start new programs or make new demands on our interim staff, but rather to rest and let the Spirit speak to you from deep within.  In the gospel reading from St. Matthew, some of the disciples of Jesus were angry when a woman crashed the men-only party in the house of Simon the Leper and poured an alabaster jar of perfumed oil over the Lord’s head. 

“We could have used the proceeds of that oil to care for the poor,” some complained. To which Jesus replied:  My friends, you will ALWAYS have time and need to care for the poor and broken.  But you must also learn to take time out for rest and renewal.  As an Orthodox Jew, Jesus celebrated Sabbath in his soul. Which is why he went on to say about the woman: Wherever my story is told, what she has done for me will be told in remembrance of her.  Did you hear that?  Did you get it? There is an essential place in the ministry of Jesus for compassion AND Sabbath rest – action and beauty – engagement and extended retreat.  This is to be our time for beauty and rest and Sabbath.  For when we are rested and awakened to God’s beauty even in the midst of pain and suffering, then we, too can live as those who share mercy not mere religion.

The prophetic poet of Israel’s exile, Isaiah, said that once upon a time he believed that God’s will was best done by rigidly enforcing certain rules and rituals. It brought order and certitude to his life.  But after his time in exile, after living through suffering and fear, he had a change of heart and came to sense that the essence of Torah was Sabbath:  blessed is the one who keeps Sabbath, not profaning it, who holds it fast and honors it with their whole being. Like Jesus he never stop being an Orthodox Jew after exile – he kept and maintained his commitment to holy living by observing the Law for the rest of his life – but he had a new realization:  from  deep within the sacred wisdom of Sabbath nourishes our ability to share both justice and compassion.

      And we know this because once Isaiah had excluded foreigners and eunuchs from his welcome circle, but now – after exile - he senses that God is calling all the outcasts to the mountain of shalom:  for now the house of the Lord shall be called a house of prayer for ALL people saith the Lord God who gathers up the outcasts of Israel. There will never be a time when we don’t have work to do – the poor and outcast will always be among us – but without trusting and resting in God’s Sabbath promise  we will probably miss our deepest calling.  So take a moment now to practice resting as we share this hauntingly beautiful song “Sanctuary.” I wanted to hear this one last time before we departed – and I think it captures the essence of God’s Sabbath promise to us all…


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