A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian in Boise on July 26, 2014.
A friend shared this quote with me a few weeks ago, and it really stuck with me:
Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week. ~ Alice Walker
My Sabbath activity tomorrow will involve reading In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, the book of essays from which this quote is taken. I won’t speak to what Ms Walker meant when she wrote those words.
When I read the quote, though, it reminded me of the balance we need in life. We aren’t called to always live in Sabbath, as if every day is a vacation. We are also not called to never live in Sabbath, as if rest will never come.
The work we do on the other 6 days of the week is important. God created the earth in six days, no matter how you interpret the length of divine days, and rested on the seventh.
And is it the gift of rest on the one day of the week that equips us for the six days of work.
At it’s best, there is celebration and joy in Sabbath, as seen in the proverbial “thank god it’s Friday” or in the immortal words of 80’s hair band Loverboy, “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend”.
These sentiments require, I believe, the balance, the tension, between periods of work and periods of rest.
I think sometimes, we forget to seek balance in our lives, to the detriment of our own health and to the detriment of the people we love.
As I was planning this service, this Prodigal Son story kept coming to mind. I wasn’t sure why, at first. It is not about Sabbath, on the surface of it. It is one of Jesus’ 3 illustrations in Luke 15 about things being lost and found.
Initially, I think I was drawn to the celebration at the end of the story, the food trucks they brought in when the prodigal son came home.
But this week at my clergy Bible study group, my colleagues helped me name why this text chose itself for tonight. (Thank you Ken and Meggan!)
It is all about Sabbath. Sabbath done badly. And Sabbath denied.
The prodigal younger brother asks for his share of the inheritance NOW, even though his father is still very much alive. He wants his Sabbath rest before he has worked for it.
At the least, we recognize the younger brother is a bit of a jerk at this point in the story.
The father agrees to his demands and divides his property between the two brothers.
And the younger brother takes his lifetime supply of rest, relaxation, dissolute living, and pig food stealing in one fell swoop.
As we read through the text, we see clearly how it hurts him. He’s poor, starving, and filled with regret. Others are hurt by his behavior too.
A number of years ago, on a study leave trip with a group of church nerds, and we all saw this painting hanging on the wall. At the same time, we all said, “the prodigal mother!” The artist may not have intended that, but no matter. We clearly identified her.
Because the prodigal’s parents are left at home, waiting by the phone, checking their email, hoping for some news from their son, hoping he is still alive. They can neither work through their anger or their worry with him, because he is beyond the horizon, beyond the rhythm of their daily life.
The older brother is left to receive the focus of their attention and their worry. He has to bear witness to their pain, caused directly by his foolish younger brother, and he can do nothing to fix their pain, other than be the best, most faithful and dutiful son he knows how to be.
The younger brother’s insistence on all Sabbath, all the time, is not sustainable, not healthy, and hurt everyone around him.
He is not the only one with a Sabbath imbalance, however. His brother, for whom I confess I feel sympathy, also misses the gift of Sabbath.
He’s out working in the field, and he hears a party.
Party? Music? Dancing?
What the heck? What day of the week is it? Doesn’t matter, momma says no play, this is a work day.
Every day is a work day, for the older brother. In his interaction with his father, you can get a glimpse of it. “For all these years, I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command. You you have never given me even a young goat so I might celebrate with my friends!”
Technically, of course, that’s only partly correct. The father had divided his property at the beginning of the story, giving the elder son half of everything, presumably far more than a young goat.
The elder son had it all. But in the focus of working each and every day, and of seeing his life as nothing but work, duty, and stress, he forgot about Sabbath.
Even as he’s complaining to his dad, I want to question him. “What friends? Where? Behind the tractor? When did you ever want to celebrate? You work every day, all day. You want to celebrate? Celebrate now! Invite your friends now!”
The father answers him, “son. You are always with me, we have the time, and all that is mine is yours. We had to celebrate NOW because NOW is when your brother has returned. He’s alive! We thought he was dead. Yes, there will be time for the hard work of reconciliation and restoration. This is not that time. This is the time for feasting and celebration.”
The time to celebrate is now.
I want to pause here and invite us into a time of confession. I will confess to you that I am more likely to be the older brother. While it isn’t that I work all the time, the deeply ingrained protestant work ethic in me wants to tell me my only value is in working.
My star word this year was “pleasure”. I’m still trying to figure that out. It doesn’t seem an appropriate word to me, honestly. Which, of course, is probably why it found me.
And when my older brother tendencies are too pronounced, I get crabby and frustrated. I don’t take joy in my work. I am not charitable to the people I love.
This past week has been a great work week for me. Want to know why? Because I just returned from 2 weeks of Sabbath vacation. I re-set my levels, re-charged my batteries. I noticed how much joy I felt in all my work. I noticed how little things did not even come close to bothering me.
Weekly Sabbath observation helps keep my inner older brother at peace. So I confess to you my apology for times when my inner older brother was on full display, leaving you to deal with any churlish or short tempered behavior.
We get our lives out of order. We want to claim all goodness and pleasure for ourselves, right now, denying the needs and concerns of others.
Or we deny the blessings God intends for us altogether, pretending we are not worthy of love and joy, hoping that if we keep working endlessly harder, God will, some day, love us.
(At this point in the service, people were invited to write down a confession on the piece of fabric in your bulletin, with the provided markers).
Here are some prompts for the confession.
1. Have you violated Sabbath like the younger brother, thinking that every day is about you, your pleasure, and your desires? Has your selfishness hurt people you love?
2. Have you violated Sabbath like the older brother, thinking that no day is about you, your pleasure, and your desires? Have you saved all of your better days for some day in the future? Has your selfishness hurt people you love?
Our other scripture passage is the 23rd Psalm, read in a hybrid of New Revised, New King James, and the Message translations. Listen to God’s word to us:
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall chase me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
In his Sabbath book, Wayne Muller writes:
“This is the psalm we sing when people have died. This is the psalm we save for death, because in the world of progress, you do not rest in green pastures, you do not lie beside still waters, there is no time. Never in this life, only in the next. Only when we get to the promised land.”
He tells us that “Sabbath challenges the theology of progress by reminding us that we are already, and always, on sacred ground. The gifts of grace and delight are present and abundant; the time to live and love and give thanks and rest and delight is now, this moment, this day…We do not have miles to go before we sleep…We are already home.”
This is what the Father tried to tell the elder son.
Yes, work is important. But not more important than being led by still waters.
Yes, work is important. But so is lying down in green pastures.
Yes, work is important, but not more important than coming to the table, where reconciliation happens, where resurrection life is celebrated, where we are anointed with oil and our cup overflows.
Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week.
What the father understood, and both sons missed in their ways, is Sabbath is not disconnected from the rest of the week.
The psalmist reminds us that the mercy of God is abundant. So abundant that it overflows. It cannot be contained, or saved for later. It is here for us right now.
In God’s mercy, we are washed clean. We are forgiven, we are set free.
In the love of Jesus Christ, we are loved forever.
In the waters of baptism we are set free to let go what is old and broken,
to live a new life in the resurrection, and to follow together a joyful way, after Jesus Christ, our loving Savior.
(At this point, people were invited to come to the font with their confession, and rinse them clean in the waters of our baptism).
As it is washed clean, it might leave a shadow.
Our lives are like that too.
God’s grace cleans us for new living, and God’s grace remains, but it does not erase the consequences of what we have done or who we were.
Come to the water. Be cleansed. The time for God’s grace is now.