As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. – Luke 19:41-42
Today my thoughts are wrapped up in preparations for this most sacred time of the Christian liturgical year: Holy Week. As I continue to live into my calling I hear ever bolder strains of Jesus’ invitation for us to live in the world differently, to reorient our lives little by little so that we might more fully reflect the beauty with which God created us. We pray “Thy kingdom come” but most of the time what we live is “my kingdom come.” But Jesus doesn’t stop loving us or whispering to our souls that there is a different way. In the text cited above Jesus is entering Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday; he’s grieving the world’s resistance to change. Jesus proclaims a way of peace and radical love for all, a way that finds power and authority rooted in humble service and self-sacrifice instead of in the power of fear and might. It was a crazy word in Jesus’ time, and it seems to be a nearly unfathomable message today. But it’s God’s message in Jesus. And the absurdity of it is that even as we look at it and say “living that way would be the death of… whatever we know”, Jesus is proclaiming this outrageous promise of new life in the resurrection. The good news is always about seeing and living in the world differently. We work differently, we rest differently, we care for our neighbor differently, when we are seeking to walk with God.
Our story of faith has always been rooted in living differently in the world, living in ways that focus us on our relationship with God. In the first chapter of Genesis this different way of being is named even in the final act of creation: 2And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had been doing, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. – Genesis 2:2-3
One of the things that nearly every religious tradition emphasizes is the idea of taking time for God. In our tradition it is taking Sabbath time to deepen our relationship with the divine.
When I was hired as a new minister I listened to my wizened colleagues who encouraged our church to follow the guidelines offered to us by the conference office to implement a Sabbatical plan. As a church we took a leap of faith and implemented the recommended sabbatical policy: “Sabbatical of three months, in addition to vacation, during the sixth year of service, and every sixth year following, per conference guidelines.” Well, I’ve not managed to take that time, I’m a sabbatical and a half behind… Last week the consistory offered their support for my taking some sabbatical time again this summer from June 13th through July 27th to finish up the “half behind.” There are many of you for whom the concept of Sabbatical is new, for others it’s been ten years since we last took this long of a sabbatical. So we have some work to do in order to understand Sabbatical and what it means to all of us.
I draw from some of what I wrote ten years ago as we planned for my first time away: Sabbaticals are recommended as an essential part of keeping clergy attuned to their call and service to God. There is an awareness of the extraordinarily high potential for burnout in the ministry. It is ironic that ministry, as a caring vocation, often does such a poor job of teaching ministers to care for themselves. Even something as simple as having the chance to be a part of a worshipping community instead of always leading worship challenges the pastor to keep Sabbath time. A Sabbatical is an extended Sabbath offered for spiritual renewal, rejuvenation, intellectual growth. Its roots are in God’s vision of Sabbath time.
We all know the command to keep the Sabbath holy. The gifted theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a profound book on Sabbath, poetry of faith. He offers us an image of Sabbath as a cathedral in time. At its foundation Sabbath is intended to be a different way of being than the other six days of the week. Heschel recalls how the ancient rabbis looked at the seventh day of creation and noted that it was not an absence of creation, but something more, something different. For six days God created the heavens and the earth, all of the stuff of the universe. So after six days of creation what did the universe lack? Their answer: Menuha, a Hebrew word that is often simply translated as rest but its connotations are much more powerful, much more positive than mere rest. On the seventh day God created tranquility, serenity, peace and repose. On the seventh day God created a cathedral in time into which we are invited to be with God in glory and praise and prayer. The poetry of our creation story has all of creation culminate in this seventh day. The Sabbath is the finale, the perfection of creation. This was a unique idea in the ancient world just as it is today. Only the Jews worked hard in order to enter into the sanctity of rest with their God. The Egyptian slaves rested only in order to recover to do more work in the following days.
Work to rest, or rest to work, that difference is all the difference in the world. How many of us “keep the Sabbath?” How many of us truly set aside that time to enter into relationship with God as the very goal of the other six days of our week?
Sabbath also means enough, this is the time when we are opened to encounter the fullness of God’s creation. This is not the proclamation that comes in frustration at the end of a hard week, “enough already!” but this is the proclamation of a sufficiency that can only be experienced as the bounty God offered to creation, “ah, it is enough!!”
Isn’t it interesting how we have moved back into the old patterns of Egyptian slavery rushing from one thing to the next always trying to just keep up? As I plan for time away, time with God, I must confess that there is a certain dread that overcomes me. I know how to keep doing what I’m doing; I remember how hard it was last time to find my relationship with God rooted in something other than the day to day work of ministry. I pray that I can once again enter into God’s cathedral-in-time to be restored and reoriented to God.
But the sabbatical is not only for me. A couple of weeks ago one of my dear friends and colleagues told me that his congregation recently named the sabbaticals that he had taken as some of the most formative times for the life of the congregation as well. They were times that the congregation reclaimed their proclamation that they are enough for the faithful walk with God. I never doubt this of you, our congregation is remarkable in its capacity to do ministry and serve God in lots of diverse ways with an abundance of strong leadership. Yet I know that my being away requires others to step up still more. We should see this as a blessing instead of a burden. Find your passion and share it!
My sabbatical plans this time are very simple. I have a stack of books through which I hope to make some progress. But mostly what I’ll be doing is heading west with my daughters to visit some of our nation’s National and State Parks, to drink in nature and family and visit friends. We’ve chosen a camper to tow behind the mini-van, the first home Laura and I will have bought together. Laura will come and join us at some point on the adventure for as much time as she’s allowed.
And then I will return just in time to participate in the adventure with our church children that is Vacation Bible School. During my time away there will be some faces present for worship who will be consistent, as well as a rich variety of ministers and perhaps laity preaching the services. I hope that you are all able to experience these different voices as a rich opportunity to hear God’s word in fresh ways. I hope that you’ll share with me the new things that you learn and perceive through the changes. I’m certainly hoping to do the same with you.
Our lay leadership and visitors in harmony with area clergy will cover pastoral care, hospital visits, emergencies, funerals.
I often hear stories about how Sabbatical proved to be a real blessing for everyone involved, congregation and pastor. It was not undertaken as a struggle or burden but as an opportunity for all involved. It is to embrace the manuha for which God made all of creation.
We will embark on this sabbatical together. That may sound a bit strange as I make plans to be away and you will all be here, but we will do this together. All of us are called to open our eyes to new experiences, new preaching and teaching, new opportunities for people to step up to claim the ministry to which we are each called. I pray that it may be a time when we all are reminded to listen a little more clearly for God’s voice in our lives.