Our Sabbathical

June 15, 2014: Trinity Sunday & Father’s Day

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, …….

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.                                                                The Book of Genesis 1:1-2:3, NRSV

 


….on the seventh day God finished the work that God had done, and God rested on the seventh day from all the work that had been done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested….

Good morning! Happy Father’s Day! And Happy Trinity Sunday! But most of all, Happy Sabbath Day!…..the day ordained by God, in the beginning, not at the end, but in the beginning. The day that we in this rampantly productive and consumer driven world might do well to take a bit more seriously; at least we who seek to know and love the living God. Because as it says in this morning’s reading from Genesis:

God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested.

GOD rested. We might see this as divine modeling. Setting the example of best practices at the very top. God rested. In the very beginning. Voluntarily. This simple verse in this morning’s reading of the creation narrative tells us a lot about the God we worship and seek to follow. And it tells us a lot about who we are called be; a lot about the terrain of discipleship. So we should listen well. If we want to follow God, we are going to need to learn to rest. Regularly. Because God rested. God Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth….rested. We should take note: our God is not a workaholic. Our God is not obsessed with unending production and creation. Our God must trust that creation will survive without God’s 24/7 oversight and management because, God did indeed take a day off. Completely off. No work accomplished at all…..that is what rest is. Our God must trust that the health and well being of what God has created does not require God’s non-stop activity. Apparently, God’s creation can run quite well on its own. At least while God rests. And so it seems that rest is not only built into creation, it is an integral part thereof. The seventh day in the seven-day cycle. A full portion of rest is not just needed, it is ordained. And if all of creation can run without God for one day, then ……..

And rest is so important to God that it is recalled in the commandments that God delivers to Moses on the mountain of Sinai; the Law of God, the Torah; the ten commandments recounted in Exodus 20:1-17 commands as much. Rest is not just mentioned is passing, it is the fourth commandment; the bridge between the commandments that relate to our relationship with God and the commandments that relate to our relationship with each other. The place where those realms meet is not in our good work but in our holy rest. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, says the Torah. Keep it holy, a word that means set aside for God. The Sabbath is not predicated then on our need for rest, it is predicated on God’s need for rest. The Sabbath is a time set aside for God.

That is to say, we who feel we do not need a break (I’ll just speak for myself), we who have too much to do to rest, we who are too busy serving as God’s hands in the world to take a time out……I think we are not hearing God. We are not fully serving God unless we are setting some time aside for God alone. Unless we are resting. Regularly. Weekly, in fact. For God created the Sabbath as a monument to time.

To observe the Sabbath is to honor time over space, time over production. In his landmark book The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says that time, not space, is the heart of existence.[1] Heschel writes, “ There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue, but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole goal…..The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.”[2]   Time is holy. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy says this morning’s scripture.

Not for nothing, but this is the first time that the word holy is used in our scripture. No thing is endowed with holiness…..none of the creation that God has just created in this morning’s reading is called holy by God. There is no holy place. No holy mountain or river or sanctuary. What God makes holy is time. And so on the Sabbath, says Rabbi Heschel, “we are called….to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”[3]

The word sabbath is at the root of the word sabbatical. And as most of you know, we are about to embark on our first sabbatical together in the fall. Sabbaticals are gifts of time, standard practices in both the academic and ecclesiastical world. And so my letter of agreement with this parish allows some sabbatical time every five years. Three months is the ecclesiastical norm. In the academic world, the sabbatical is intended to be productive. It is the time set aside, not for God, but for research and writing. A time intended to allow scholars the space to learn rather than teach.

The ecclesiastical sabbatical is a bit different, I think. I quite like Heschel’s wording of a time to turn our attention from “the results of creation to the mystery of creation.” A time for time to be paramount. And so I have thought a lot about when and how I/we might spend this discrete gift of time. And as I was thinking about when we might take this sabbatical, I took my cue from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient notion of a sabbatical year for the health and well being of the harvest.

In the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites were instructed to rest the land every seven years. The scripture is clear in Exodus and Leviticus. Instead of planting in the fall for a spring harvest, every seven years they were to leave the land fallow in the autumn, unplanted, rested. Leviticus 25 3-5 reads:

…Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its crop, but during the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD; you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard. ‘Your harvest’s aftergrowth you shall not reap, and your grapes of untrimmed vines you shall not gather; the land shall have a sabbatical .…

If this schmita is observed (the Hebrew word for sabbatical), bountiful harvests could be expected to follow, says the scripture. A rest for the land offers a chance for the minerals and rich nutrients to re-invigorate the soil. The sabbatical year was a part of the plan, a necessary and productive part of the plan to assure abundance. The Sabbath was an important part of the health of creation…..just as it was in the beginning.

And so in this, our seventh year together at St. Paul’s, I chose the fall for our sabbatical in concert with this Hebrew tradition of leaving the land fallow at that time. I also liked very much the idea of a sabbatical in the fall because our first day back together will be the first day of the new liturgical year…..the first Sunday in Advent. And so our sabbatical will start on September 1st (very coincidentally, but not without notice) September 1st happens, this year, to be Labor Day. Or, put-down-your-labor-day, as it will be for me this year. And our sabbatical will end on November 30th which is the first Sunday of the New Year. Labor Day to Advent.

I say that this is “our” sabbatical, because it is. It is a time of rest not just for me, but for us. It is a time when we as a community will take a break from our visioning and forward movement, a sabbatical for the full field of our dreams. A break from the new initiatives and opportunities that are ever presenting themselves for our immediate attention. And it has felt very healthy and relieving to be able to say: we will take that up after our sabbatical. I am already feeling somewhat rested with that freedom. The anticipation of the Sabbath is very freeing.

So what will we be doing on our sabbatical, you might ask? And I have been thinking a lot about that. What will I be doing without this, while you are doing this without me? And I must admit that at first I think I missed the boat. In fact, think I almost sank the boat. Because I thought, excellent, I will have three months to do all the things that I love, but have not had the time to do since I have been your priest. And at the top of that list, of course, is spending time with horses. I miss that more that I can say. And I miss what I learn from horses that helps me to be a better priest. And so I thought, horses are what I will do with our sabbatical.

I will ride horses…..in spiritual places! How great will that be?! The perfect sabbatical, worthy maybe even of an article in Christian Century or the like….not to mention how envious such an adventurous sabbatical would make my colleagues! Who could top it?!

And so I set about lining up trips to exotic and spiritual places. I found one that offered a climb up Machu Pichu on horseback. Great! And a two week ride through Jordan, through the Holy Land, on horseback. Forget sitting on those bus tours through the Holy Land that my friends take on their lame sabbaticals, I will ride in Jesus’ footsteps. Perfect! And….and…..and, it did not take me long to realize that……I did not even have enough energy to plan these trips, let alone take them. Not to mention the fact that this incredible itinerary took all most all of the sabbath out of my sabbatical. When would I rest? The only unscheduled time would be in the airport, between missed connections.

And I realized that what I need is not more activity, not more adventure, but less; not more of what I love to do, but more rest to serve as punctuation for that love. Because drawing the line between work and not-work is confusing when you love your work. When it does not feel like work, it is hard to put it down. And the work of riding horses all over the spiritual world feels very close to the same sort of work that I am doing here and now. The prospect fills me with the same energy and passion that I feel for this ministry. I love horses like I love this ministry. And so I realized that what I need is not more of what I love to do, but more of myself, healthy and rested, with which to do it. It was an optical illusion that what I need to replenish myself is another kind of activity; that maybe I will be refreshed for this work that I love by doing another sort of work that I love. But that is utter poppycock. What I need is some down time, to return myself to health and wholeness ; to replenish my energy and reset my vision; to refresh my reserves for this ministry that I so dearly love. And so, I think do you.

And so I think that our sabbatical time will truly be Sabbath time, at least for me. In the middle of the three months, I do have one three week retreat planned. At the end of September I will spend about 10 days on the island of Iona in Scotland. I will spend my days in the rhythm of worship at the abbey, and walking and resting in the solitude of that holy place. Then I will spend the second part of my time away visiting the monastic ruins on the west coast of Ireland, yes, on horseback. And then I will return on October 18th to rest here at home, where I belong.

This sabbatical is not a vacation. It is not a time to vacate. Quite the opposite. It is a time to rest more deeply into ourselves and our ministries. It is a time to sit with our creation just as it is; to revel in what we have created and refresh ourselves for the journey ahead. It is a time to renew and re-find our true selves, to revive our nefesh, which is the Hebrew word for life-force. On the seventh day, God rested God’s nefesh in order to fully recover the potency and potential of God’s own self.

I want to be perfectly clear that I am not taking this sabbatical because I need it, although I do. Because, let’s face it, I am fairly sure that I am not the only person in this place who needs a sabbatical, who needs a rest. I am guessing that more than a few of us are equally due for a breather; are equally in need of a break; would equally welcome some time off. So I am not taking this sabbatical because I need it….any more than some of you might need it. I am taking this sabbatical because you are offering it. I am taking it because you are giving it. Because the thing about Sabbath time is that we live in a world where a sabbatical cannot be taken…..it can only be given. As the seventh day was freely given in our creation story. At the beginning. The Sabbath is God’s gift, just as this sabbatical is yours.

Even though in the end, it will benefit the whole community; it will be a refreshment of our shared mission and ministry. It is a gift that is good for everyone. But it is a gift, nonetheless. A rare gift of an alternative way of being in the world, as Walter Bruegemann says in his new book, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No To the Culture of Now.[4] Offering such Sabbath time is the offering of an alternative existence; an existence that follows God’s own lead. Your gift is a very radical gift.

And so I am more than grateful for your generosity of this radical offering. And I will spend every day of the upcoming three months clinging mercifully to nothing more or less than sheer gratitude; gratitude for this fabulous endowment of time that will offer me nothing more or less than a return to myself for the work of this beloved community. And I hope that this beloved community will do the same.

I want to leave you with a poem from one of my favorite poets, Naomi Shahib Nye. It reminds me of my/our purpose.

It’s called Famous.

 

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,

which knew it would inherit the earth

before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds

watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom

is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,

more famous than the dress shoe,

which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it

and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

 I want to be famous to shuffling men

who smile while crossing streets,

sticky children in grocery lines,

famous as the one who smiled back.

 I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,

or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,

but because it never forgot what it could do.

 

May we emerge from this sabbatical, together, refreshed and re-invigorated, to do what we can do.

Amen.

 

© June, 2014 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

 

 

[Famous” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Portland, Oregon: Far Corner Books, 1995).

Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye.]

 

 

 

 

[1] The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1951) pg. 3

[2] The Sabbath, pp. 3,6

[3] The Sabbath. Pg. 10

[4] Sabbath As Resistance: Saying No To The Culture of Now, Walter Bruegemann, 2014.

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