NOTE: Here are today's worship notes closing the five week "Becoming Wise" series.
One of the most vexing – infuriating – creatively challenging – professionally troubling andmorally significant challenges facing North American churches at this moment in time is: how do we enthusiastically embrace the spiritual wisdom and radical compassion of Christ Jesus as Lord while living in a cynical culture simultaneously addicted to fear and in ethical bondage to the idolatry of greed? Whew – that’s a mouthful, I know. And yet for 35 years of parish ministry – and 8 years of community organizing before that – I have had to explore various strategies for living into a loving alternative to the confines of fear and greed that increasingly define my home-land. And as my ministry draws closer to its formal conclusion, it has become clear to me that in 2016 – as opposed to 1968 – ours nation is paradoxically more loving and more hateful than I could ever have imagined when first I was called to serve the Lord in the aftershocks of Dr. King’s assassination. Think about it:
+ Marriage equality is now the law of the land and embedded in the hearts of a super majority of our kin as an essential human right, and, at the same time, candidates for a variety political offices openly advocate hatred and even the possibility that their opponents be brought to death by second amendment gun enthusiasts.
+ We have become a creatively diverse community of peoples racially, ethnically and spiritually, taking the American experiment with equality to new levels of beauty while violence and discrimination wound our sisters and brothers of color with growing intensity.
+ Our economy is stronger while the white, middle class shrinks. We have made a quantum leap in reversing fluorocarbon pollution yet continue to experience climate change tragedies of biblical proportions like that the recent flooding in Louisiana. And America’s fastest growing demographic is interracial children in the land of opportunity even as hate crimes are ascending.
As Krista Tippett so persuasively reminds us, a new Reformation is beginning to take place all around us as we realize that the old economic, religious, educational and political structures are not working. We can’t yet discern what these new forms will be, but they real. “We have riches of knowledge and insight, tools both tangible and spiritual to rise to this challenge…” alongside immense fear and social confusion. It is into this context that once again our ancient tradition invites us to reconsider what it means to practice and honor the Sabbath as holy.
The ancient prophetic poet of Israel, Isaiah, wrote in the 5th century BCE: If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob… Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
Jesus of Nazareth, celebrating the wisdom of his Jewish tradition, put it like this two thousand years ago: Hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
And Walter Brueggemann, 21st century Bible scholar and prophetic teacher in our tradition, said: Sabbath, in the first instance is NOT about worship – it is about work stoppage. It is about withdrawing from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined only by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being. Sabbath, you see, is about caring for our neighbor and making certain we have the time, energy and vision to do so.
So today I want to share with you why I believe it is critical for us – First Church – to reclaim arenewed and reformed commitment to honoring the Sabbath. Last week I listened carefully to how you answered my question about what we are passionate about as a congregation. And, with all due respect and genuine pastoral affection, I must say I wasn’t surprised that many of our replies were tepid. Not bad, of course, and not wrong but more in the vein of harmless generalities than passionate ministries. In fact, while some will disagree, we sounded more like a tender-hearted social club to me than a community of faith shaped and guided by the Cross of Jesus Christ. So, before I leave on vacation later next week, I want to offer you an alternative to see how it resonates with you.
You see, I believe God is working within and among us – and some of us are passionate to respond – but we are so nervous about trusting the Lord for guidance that we slide back into old habits of privilege that prop-up the status quo more than the kingdom of God. Some, of course, don’t really care what happens and others are burned out. But I believe there is a critical mass among – small but eager – who willing to go the extra mile in creativity and commitment – and I’m talking to you today. The great American scientist who fled Nazi Germany, Albert Einstein, once observed that, “We cannot solve our problems with the same mode of thinking that created them in the first place.” So let me first share two insights with you about honoring the Sabbath: one from Isaiah and one from Jesus. And then I will give you three broad themes about doing ministry in this era that I am passionate about.
In the text appointed for today from Isaiah 58, we would do well to recall that it takes place after Israel’s best and brightest have lived for 70 years of exile in Babylon: their grandchildren have returned home to Jerusalem, they have begun to build a fortress wall around the city to protect the new temple and differentiate between who is an insider and outsider, and are hoping to renew lives that celebrate the favor of God’s grace.
But something is going wrong. After experiencing and accepting God’s judgment and their own season of grief in exile, inwardly Israel has embraced the Lord’s forgiveness for their sins but outwardly fear, anger and discord rules the day. They pray along with their priests Psalm 103: As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him… the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments – but something is out of whack. And a careful reading of the prophet tells us two truths that have implications for our own congregational dilemma: First, the people are fasting but God doesn’t appear to notice; and second, there is no sense of compassion active in the community. The wealthy hoard their resources. The Sabbath becomes a forum for commercialization. Those with privilege look out for themselves without passionate concern for the common good.
One of the deceptive dangers of privilege in any generation is that we think we can walk away from a problem and it won’t matter because our life doesn’t change. But that is short sighted and illusionary deceptiony because what wounds one eventually wounds us all. White America walked away from attending to race hatred for 50 years after passing a variety of laws in the 1960s only to be shocked two years ago at the horror that people of color still endure daily when social media documented murder and cruelty run amuck at the hands of some law enforcement agents in Black, Latino and Asian neighborhoods.
The same could be said of climate change – we were able to look the other way, dispute the hard facts of science and exist in privileged indifference – until the floods came or the heat baked once productive soil into dust. Our spiritual tradition, you see, teaches that we were made for community and caring: when we wound or ignore some, all of us bear the consequences in time. So Isaiah, called by the Lord, must awaken God’s privileged people, call out their self-centered addictions and urge them to become passionately reconnected to the common good: This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families. Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. If you watch your step on the Sabbath and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, if you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy, God’s holy day as a celebration, then you will be free.
Sabbath, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, is practicing trust: we trust God to be incharge for 24 hours – learning that the Lord’s ways are greater than our ways. Then, when we are rested – having practiced letting go of control for a full day and night – then there is the possibility that we might trust God’s love to take up more spacer in our hearts and activities for the rest of the week. But this is impossible just by thinking about Sabbath rest – or talking about justice and compassion – they must be practiced with a passionate intensity that changes habits, hearts and homes.
And that is what Jesus was doing in the second lesson related to Sabbath keeping. He was not taking on Judaism or suggesting a better way with Christianity; Jesus was passionately reminding both the scholars and the crowd that compassion and work stoppage are at the core of Sabbath. The Tanakh of Israel, the code of sacred law, enjoins work on the Sabbath, yes; but never defines what constitutes work. Do you grasp that nuance? What Jesus is actually asking here is what good the embodied values of our religious tradition if they don’t set people free? That’s a great question for us, too: What does it matter if we are the oldest congregation in Pittsfield if our presence doesn’t help set people free?
In Luke’s gospel, there are five times when Jesus brings healing to a person on the Sabbath: So let us be clear: Jesus is not anti-Semitic nor superseding his own faith tradition. In fact, all of his healing on the Sabbath – the demoniac in Capernaum, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law in Galilee, the man with a withered hand, the woman crippled for 18 years and the man with dropsy or arthritis who was cured outside the home of a Pharisee – are acceptable in Jewish law. The Law of Judaism proclaims “Pikuach nefesh” –saving a life – always overrides any other Sabbath obligation. And the fact that the crowd cheers Jesus at the close of our lesson suggests that they too find no violation of halakhah – Jewish ethical regulations. This story asks us to wrestle with whether or not our understanding of tradition is liberating and about human freedom or keeping people locked out of love and hope because of an obsession with tradition? Sr. Simone Campbell, whom some of know as the face of the “Nuns on the Bus,” puts it like this: God asks us to ask ourselves, “Am I responding to this moment or situation with generosity or selfishness? Am I responding in a way that builds up people around me, that builds me up, that is respectful of who I am?” Or am I tearing things down with cynicism? That is precisely what Jesus asks, too.
Those who practice and honor the Sabbath know that Sabbath is about saving life in all its forms – starting with rest – but moving into justice, freedom and compassion, too. Now, just as we know religious zealots in our day who advocate hatred and cruelty in the name of God, this text tells us that this problem has been around forever. It happened in the time of Moses, it hadn’t gone away for the prophet Isaiah and Jesus had to take it on during his ministry. And if that was true for the founders, it is not likely that we’re going to escape its poison in our generation either, right?
So pay careful attention to the fact that in this story the word faith was never mentioned in connection with freedom: No reminder that your faith has made you well – or by faith we see God’s grace as through a glass darkly – not at all. There is simply a sense of needing to love this woman back into wholeness and sharing love with her in humility. This strikes me as an authentically pro-life commitment that is not truncated by narrow ideological or political limitations. Sr. Joan Chittister once said: "I do not believe that just because you're opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don't? Because you don't want any tax money to go there. That's not pro-life. That's pro-birth. And we need a much broader conversation on what the morality of a true pro-life ethic is all about” if we’re serious about following Jesus.
And THAT, beloved, is where my passionate sense of calling for our congregationcomes into focus: I ache for us to be radically pro-life in public like Jesus whose first sermon called for caring for the poor, setting free all who are imprisoned and sharing resources so that everyone tasted the goodness of God’s love. Everyone: Jew and Gentile, Christian and Muslim, Buddhist and atheist – male and female – adult and child – gay, straight and transgendered, animal, mineral, air and water – everyone and everything. I yearn for First Church to live as a community in solidarity with everyone who yearns to be free. That advocates for peace and justice in our community and world – never out of a shallow political agenda – but always out of a sense of love, tenderness and commitment to Sabbath. Out of the spirit of the Lord who anointed Jesus – and all people – so that we come to know and trust that we are God’s beloved. Out of our deep formation in prayer, service and sharing. Out of a calling grounded in God’s kingdom being done on earth as it is already being done in heaven. So here are three manifestations of this passionate ministry that touch my heart.
+ First, we have a unique constellation of artists here – men, women and children who are not just musicians (although we have more talented music makers among us than many places) – but also dancers, poets, actors, visual artists, sculptors, cooks and more. We also have profound relationships with artists and movers and shakers throughout this community – people of many faiths and no faith – who care for the common welfare of all as sisters and brothers. So why not harness these gifts in a passionate way to build common ground and hope? Why not dedicate ourselves to documenting an alternative to hate and fear through bold acts of beauty shared for the well-being of all? Why not create artistic expressions of Sabbath freedom so that we might move beyond cynicism into celebration? We could do that – we could use this place to be a showcase of artistic hope for the whole Berkshires – if we were called with passionate about it. I have a dream that we could create a travelling showcase for God’s grace where for 45 minutes we share stories, music, images and poetry while some of our great cooks prepare a feast. And then sit down to break bread together and practice deep listening and storytelling so that we come to know one another and trust one another and stand-up for one another when their backs are up against the wall. That’s one way aspect of a passionate presence in Pittsfield that is unique and essential for the healing of our broken community.
+ A second involves grounding our presence in Pittsfield in Sabbath rest. Our generation has lost touch with awe and reverence. We no longer know how to grieve and then move back into lives of holy trust. Too many are trapped in depression or cynicism. Fundamentally because all we really know is how to work and fret and distract ourselves from the haunting anxiety of our age with chemicals, cheap sex and entertainment. But our tradition is steeped in prayer and play, contemplation and creativity, feasting and fasting, laughter, tears, hope and carrying one another’s burdens beyond our alienated addiction to work and business metrics. Like Isaiah said: Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. If you watch your step on the Sabbath and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, if you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy, God’s holy day as a celebration, then you will be free. Everywhere I go I hear people talking about their hurts, wounds, fears and anxieties. We have the resources to become a small center of healing alternatives for our wounded culture if we honor the Sabbath, practice our spiritual disciplines and share them with joy. So what’s holding us back?
And then there is our calling to be an Open and Affirming community: Pittsfield has a superabundance of charity centers from St. Joseph’s Kitchen to the Food Bank – and they are all needed and necessary – but we don’t need to become another. What Pittsfield doesn’t have is a playful, compassionate justice church that celebrates diversity, advocates and organizes for the poor and cuts across all divisions to honor human dignity in the real world. Three years ago I gave a lot of time to helping bring BIO to birth – Berkshire Interfaith Organizing – and a few of you including our moderator, Lauryn, did vital work in the early days, too. Well, BIO needs our help – and the Berkshires need a force for creative, practical justice making beyond slogans and the ups and downs of our emotions - so, like Rabbi Hillel once asked, I wonder: “If not now, tell me when?”
Three objectives that I am passionate about: focusing our artistic blessings on behalf ofcommon ground, nourishing our spiritual disciplines in a playful, joyful manner – including Sabbath keeping – and deepening our ONA commitment into disciplined acts of social justice with BIO. No harmless generalities here –no disembodied, abstract theology either – just kingdom oriented hospitality and bold acts of beauty as antidotes to the cynicism, brokenness and despair. Twenty first century people don’t need 19th century theology and 20th century piety in 2016: we need God’s eternal love embodied in real people we can trust. I just finished reading what the president of the American Booksellers Association has concluded about independent books stores. Betsey Burton has discovered that America’s independent bookstores are more than the sum of their books. “They provide safe havens, centers of community, where people go to see friends or strangers who are interesting meet to talk. But they are also places of refuge from fear and cynicism.”
Burton recalls that on the morning of September 11: “…her bookstore was mobbed by people not buying books but looking for a place of support, empathy and community because – and listen to this with care – because her bookstore was more inclusive that our churches, more communal than cultural events and more intimate than a bar.”
One of my spiritual mentors, Jean Vanier of the L’Arche Community, explains that people of love must learn to love what is real – not what was in the past, not what we expect or desire the future to be, and not what our fantasies or fears suggest, but what is real right now. For when we bring God’s love to bear on reality, then Isaiah becomes true for our generation: Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. If you watch your step on the Sabbath and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, if you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy, God’s holy day as a celebration, then you will be free. May it be so within and among us, for God’s sake – and ours as well.