Friday, August 30, 2013

Give it a rest!

"Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy" says the No. 3 commandment in God's almighty top ten list. This commandment has been used as the authority behind state laws that keep shops closed or prohibit the sale of alcohol. Even here in the Village our pool hall, snack bar and book store (nearly all the places you can spend money in the Village) are closed on Sunday – the day much of the western world has set aside as Sabbath day.
     Of course, if you talk with any pastor or church worker—or village registration, staffing or housekeeping this summer—you'll find that Sunday is anything but a Sabbath. Already this commandment is being pulled and stretched with regards to how it is lived out in our everyday lives.
     I thought little of God's law and gift of Sabbath until one weekend a few years ago. A year-and-a-half into my life as a young, clueless mother, I was working at a church in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and received in my church mailbox a brochure for a retreat for young adult church workers.  The entire retreat was called "Sabbath."  It was held at a monastery in Winnipeg, Canada – three days of quiet, rest, renewal, worship and sessions for spiritual direction with a sister who was gifted in such counsel.
     It would be my first time away from my little one, who had for month after month been quite sick.  I handed her off to her loving grandparents and crossed the border into rest and Sabbath. The monastery was beautiful and quiet, just as the brochure promised. During my first morning there I was to meet with Sister Helen for spiritual direction. Sister Helen met with me in a cozy little room to discuss my joys and fears, to hear about my professional work and work as a mother. She asked about my family and the relationships; she asked about my heartache and my touchstone. After this lengthy and important conversation, Sister Helen offered counsel for a focus during the retreat. I knew this was coming. A few of the other retreat participants had been advised to honor Sabbath in different ways:  by spend time walking the labyrinth, taking a vow of silence for a day, fasting from food or honoring Sabbath by offering rest to another through serving food during the meals.
     Sister Helen, a woman who exuded wisdom and strength, gave me my Sabbath focus: sleep. Sister Helen suggested I take a nap every day, maybe two! I was unimpressed and a little offended. Did she not think I was capable of profound reflection? Was I not spiritual enough to be found walking the labyrinth for an entire afternoon? Maybe she thought I was too unsteady to serve food to the people of the retreat? I wanted to leave the monastery aglow with new insights, bubbling with Sabbath-filled energy and stories of epiphanies. How was any of that going to happen if I spent my time sleeping while everyone else was off discovering new religious depth?
     I asked my question of the wise Sister and told her I would feel embarrassed to be napping during this meaningful retreat time. Sister Helen, great with age and tender of heart, leaned towards me and said, "Elizabeth, give it a rest. Sabbath is God's gift and grace to you. How can you possibly take in anything this time has to offer when you clearly need physical respite?" She explained to me that the main consideration when guiding someone toward their Sabbath retreat was considering what they had an excess of in their lives: for someone who's mouth was always moving, a day of silence; for someone who spent their days in theory and abstract thinking, a day of tangible work, like peeling potatoes. The sister finally connected the dots for me when she said that whatever was so consuming to any individual was certainly moving them away from the God of gift and grace.  Sister Helen surmised I had an excess of awake and busy hours which I used to maintain a sense of self-sufficiency, so I needed to understand the permission of grace to fall deep into Sabbath.
     I have carried Sister Helen's counsel with me ever since. She took the commandment, the law of Sabbath, the identifying of excess and what is present in our lives that pushes God aside—she took all this and set it in the loving hands of God,  who gifts us every day we have life.  "Give it a rest," and in that rest there is freedom to trust in God's presence and provision, to be attentive to God's work of healing and liberating and creating a new day—all as gift.
     Tonight we heard of another woman seeking rest and renewal and met a man who offered just that. (Luke 13:10-17) She came to church bowed and broken in her body.  The man saw her, called her over, laid hands upon her and cured her disease. It was a beautiful, caring gesture that liberated this woman from what had certainly consumed her life, and she was freed to praise God on that Sabbath day.
     As beautiful and caring a gesture as it was, it broke the standards of what Sabbath was to the leaders of that religious institution. To heal, or do any work on the Sabbath was a violation of God's holy law. Jesus, the man who brought healing to the young woman, responded to the church leaders, calling them hypocrites for being willing to tend to their animals while ignoring women who clearly needed care.
     I brought to my Sabbath retreat a tight definition of what I thought Sabbath should entail: reflection, learning, growing, become wiser—a whole list of hopes that placed the emphasis on myself and the new heights I may be able to achieve through Sabbath. The religious leaders that scolded Jesus brought a similar tight definition to Sabbath, with focus on what we religious people should or should not do. Yet in the commandment of honoring the Sabbath, it is actually God who is busy offering the gift, the insight, the permission to rest fully in God's presence.  What freedom in such a gift, a time set aside when we are already enough, because God has made us holy and so we keep the Sabbath holy by being and by being with God.
     If you were meeting with Sister Helen tonight, what Sabbath direction would she be pointing you in? What keeps you from trusting and resting in God's presence, from what do you need to "give it a rest"?
     Or maybe the gospel story is one you identify with—with the woman who entered the worship space literally bent over. Jesus saw you, called you, laid hands on you and cured you. What would be healed that you might be freed up to praise God and be a part of the work of Christ to heal and liberate others?
     There are many ways to understand the gift and law of Sabbath. It is law in that we are commanded to remember the day and keep it holy. Martin Luther has a lot to say on how we might actually honor this law. Luther writes: "What is meant by 'keeping the day of rest holy'? Nothing else than devoting it to holy words, holy works and holy living. The day itself does not need to be made holy, for it was created holy.  But God wants it to be holy for you. How does such sanctifying take place? Not when we sit behind the stove and retreat from hard work, or place a garland on our head and dress up in our best clothes, but, as has been said, when we make use of God's Word and exercise ourselves in it." (Martin Luther's Large Catechism, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN.  P. 398, 400)
      When Luther writes "God wants it to be holy for you," this law is transformed into a gospel promise. Just as Jesus, with full understanding of the law of God, still saw and healed a woman in the worship space, he transformed the understanding of Sabbath law into an encounter that enabled a woman to be free, healed and able to stand in the public place and praise God. The woman, now healed, experienced the Sabbath gift of God.
     God wants the marking and setting aside of Sabbath to be holy for you—pure gift.  It could mean a nap or two in the afternoon, identifying what in your life is excessively consuming—that which separates self from God. Give it a rest, lay whatever keeps you bent over into the hands of our loving God, who brings you this law of Sabbath and, through Christ, offers it as gift—from the Creator to the creature, from the healer to the sick. You, as a holy child of God, are enough to remember the Sabbath, and you will keep it holy.
     May all our Sabbaths be so honoring that we engage in the liberating and healing work of Christ so that all people who are weighed down with heavy burdens may stand tall again to praise our God.  Amen.

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