Tuesday, March 6, 2007

What Time Is Sabbath Time?

What do the following have in common?

1. Choosing to spend the better part of Sunday morning in church
2. Choosing to spend the better part of Sunday morning recovering from the-week-that-was with the New York Times, a double latte, and WFCR in the background

Could it be that both are examples of how we long for the experience of Sabbath rest?

But, you might ask, what is there of Sabbath in that second scenario? Rest, yes, but Sabbath rest?

Confession time: that second choice is sometimes my first choice when I’m on vacation. You, too? Sure, I’ll feel a pang or two of regret that I’m not finding a church nearby, to worship God and join the people of God. And I’ll pay attention to that pang. Diana and I may keep silence together that morning. I may read and pray the office of Morning Prayer, a way of being with the wider Church in spirit though not body. I’ll find ways to acknowledge that this is the Lord’s Day over and above the other six, the day when the Church recalls and revels in our Lord’s resurrection, a little Easter, the first day of the new week.

My computer capitalizes the s in Sabbath, whether I want it to or not. This seventh day of rest after six days full of creating is the ancient pattern sketched in the Book of Genesis, God setting the example by relaxing with heaven’s equivalent of a good newspaper, a rich cup of Fair Trade, and divine strings in the background. And for Jews, who hold the patent on Shabat, the seventh day is sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work he had done in creation.” Hallowed, because on it God rested. Much is made in the Hebrew scriptures of obeying God, honoring God, imitating God by not working on the Sabbath. The point, of course, is not to encourage idleness, but to clear away a wide sweet space for hearing God’s word, singing God’s praise, gathering as a people of prayer, a people constituted by worship rekindling in them their sense of belonging to God and to each other.

Last Sunday, we recited the Ten Commandments, our custom on the first Sunday in Lent. Number 4 is “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” Our Prayer Book Catechism, interpreting the commandments for modern ears, says that this means “…to set aside regular times for worship, prayer, and the study of God’s ways.” The Lord’s Day isn’t even mentioned.

That’s an intriguing leap, isn’t it? Suggesting that Sabbath time is portable, can be any time, is a quality of time, has about it certain intentions, and is kept by certain actions. Those are, again, worship, prayer, and the study of God’s ways. This Lent, those acations should be sounding familiar: they are three of the five holy habits or paths to spiritual wholeness being explored in our lunch conversations following this service. Today, Celia Twomey and Diana Elvin will lead that conversation about Sabbath time, and you are invited to come first for some of the best soup in town. Reservations are not required: last week, about 40 came, and places are set for about 50, so the math is in your favor.

And, actually, that little aside is more germane to our subject today than it might sound. The math is in our favor. God is the source of abundance, both the fullness of creation and the overflowing cup of Christ’s new creation. We have a place at this table, and at the lunch table downstairs, set in the wilderness of our week, set to feed us in spirit and truth, set to inspire and train us to feed the hungry (whatever day it may be, and whatever the hunger). “There is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” “So, from the beginning, the fight we were winning…” “For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind…” The math is in our favor, shorthand for the good news that Sabbath time causes us to hear, and feel, and extend to our world.

So, back to those two scenes I sketched at the beginning. You’ve chosen to spend Sunday morning reading the Times or the Globe. Which section puts you in touch with any sense whatsoever that the math might be in your favor? The international news? The Metro section? Let’s not even go to the Business section, not this week. Your java high has kicked in, and you opt for something light-- so you thumb through, and there’s Paris Hilton in her latest escapade… So how has this effort at Sabbath rest improved your worldview?

Let’s ask that same question of our other scene, spending the better part of Sunday morning in church. Eight o’clockers, by the way, pride themselves at having figured out how to have it both ways. But then there are lots of us, on both sides of the choir screen, who make a morning of it, setting up the food tables that support our fellowship, rehearsing the anthem, being with our children, packing and delivering meals… You might say that these folks are working overtime to help God provide our abundance. You might say they’re very much the opposite of the second-cup-feet-up-sports-section-cat-in-the-lap set.

How does this Sabbath effort improve their worldview?

We need to care about that. We need to make sure that our members who come to church and work so that the math does work in our favor taste the sweet side of Sabbath rest. We need to pay attention to the Mary-Martha dynamics among us. Putting that bluntly, a healthy Sabbath for a congregation requires everyone taking turns at all that it takes to keep Sabbath together—for it’s a dirty little secret that it takes work. We need to give Sabbath to one another.

Having said that, I’ll quickly add how delighted I am to be planning a study leave this summer. Combining vacation with the overdue second half of a study leave (the first half came in 2003), I’ll be in jeans and not in my office from mid-July to mid-September. By then, I hope to know more about Sabbath time than I do now.

But I do know that I won’t get Sabbath time by its being given to me. I will get it by taking it, making it, keeping it. Those verbs are puzzling, since they don’t sound very praiseworthy, do they?

But just as my own expectations are what shape my uses of time and energy in working, so also my own expectations will shape my getting of Sabbath. No celebrity team of make-over experts is going to swoop in and reorder my priorities for how to use that wide sweet space that will be swept open in those nine weeks that will be my good fortune this summer.

And darned if that isn’t true about today, and every day. It’s up to each of us to choose to keep Sabbath time. Lent highlights this truth, and shines it like a spotlight on each day of the season. It’s not a season for perfecting a plan. It’s a season for learning how to lay hold on moments, even small windows of time, for the Sabbath-keeping actions of prayer, study, worship, and a yet wider range of action (and inaction) that help renew a sense of who and whose we are, that rekindle the awareness of deep belonging.

On Ash Wednesday, my homilies focused on the words of an Anglican divine who said that compassion is momentary love. Compassion is ignited within a moment, may be received within a moment. Sabbath time, too, by its nature is momentary. Nine weeks is lovely, but nine minutes can also be lovely. Reaching for either, using either, may be understood as an act of compassion towards oneself. Yearning for Sabbath rest is a recognition that the truth about ourselves, and the truth about God, requires a different and deeper engagement than those ways by which we actively (and often reactively) fill our days (and often our nights).

Last week, those of us who use the Book of Common Prayer’s table of daily Bible readings listened to the Letter to the Hebrews. We heard a rabbinic sermon, a riff on Psalm 95 and a reflection on the story of how fear gripped the Hebrew people when they were right on the edge of crossing over to the promised land. They had sent spies to assess the obstacles that lay ahead, and their report paralyzed the people. Joshua was pointing towards Canaan with his outstretched staff, but the people said “No way, can’t do it. We’d prefer the bondage we knew in Egypt to the dangers we don’t know ahead.”

Then it was, says the author of the letter, that God lost patience with the timid, whom he had brought out from Egypt with a mighty hand. “They shall not enter my rest,” he swore.

“Don’t be like them,” exhorts the author. Know that God is greater than your fears. Know that God’s power is made perfect in your weakness.

And those are the knowings gained only by Sabbath rest. Not by working harder, nor even by working smarter, but by being still and knowing God.