We Belong to God

Passage: Mark 2:23-27; Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:8-11
Date: May 21, 2017
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

When and what are you doing when you have a deep sense of love and connection?

I was nine years old, living in rural East Tennessee, surrounded by the deep green shade of trees of the Cherokee National Forest. It was a warm summer day. I was resting in the soft grass on my back, looking at the clouds slowly passing by in giant puffs of white. My arms were stretched out, and Nero, our sweet puppy (mostly black Lab) lay beside me, with his chin on my arm and sighed. I experienced the powerful feeling that we belonged together, with the earth, with God. In the vast beauty, I was both so small and so grand. This experience comes to my mind when I think of what it means to “honor the Sabbath.”

When we pause, in the “ Sabbath sense,” we get the wider perspective on things, namely, that we belong to God, who loves us, no matter what. And we are part of the whole, and holy.

Being too busy is the way of life in this culture. Our technology exacerbates the problem. I have a love/hate relationship with my smartphone. Mostly, I love the way I keep connected to others through texts, phone calls, social media, and e-mails. I use it for playing music; watching movies and TV shows; learning Italian and Spanish; using it for translation; reading news and books; writing poetry, grocery lists, notes, and sermons; and taking and keeping photos! But, far too often, this same phone becomes a distraction and something that distances me from others and myself. It becomes an easy escape taking me away from my true self. Technology can make us feel overwhelmed. Rather than connecting, paradoxically, it can make us feel lonelier, and the world, broken.

Writer Anne Lamott nailed it: “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes. . . including you.”

Observing a pause in our lives, a Sabbath, is not simply self-care, good mental and emotional maintenance, it is necessary to remember our very reason for being alive: that we are made in the image of God, to love and be loved. Without the regular discipline of pausing to simply “be,” we all too quickly fall into patterns that separate and isolate. We act as though we can and should have control of everything. We fear that if we lose control, or if we mess up, we won’t be loved. We live as functional atheists, without trust in God. We live without connection to others, and to the world, and to our deepest selves.

Another hazard of the fast pace and information glut we get from social media is feeling anxiety. Alaina Smith, our wise program staff assistant at Westminster, reminded me this week that anxiety comes from thinking about the future or the past and not being in the present. Alaina practices the discipline of reserving one day a month as a free day, with nothing scheduled. And note that word, discipline (same root as disciple). Because going deep in any spiritual practice requires limits. “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” The law, the limits, and boundaries are necessary for our safety and growth.

The ancient tradition of the Sabbath came to us through law in the Hebrew scripture. At times, the law has been enforced with rigidity. Remember the movie “Footloose”—about the little town with no dancing and extreme judgment, and the judgmental, controlling minister? Though sometimes communities enforce Sabbath as a repressive, legalistic burden, that misses the point. Hasidic Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi said this:

“There is a disease rampant—a chronic, low-grade depression that never knows how to smack its lips and say, “It’s good to be alive!” . . . All the nostalgia we experience is a yearning for the Sabbath—to come home to the good Mother—one’s being—a homecoming with the body to the body: to eating, resting, singing, loving—resting in the bosom of Abraham . . . The Sabbath is long and full when one knows how to be beyond doing.”

Honoring Sabbath is not a painful duty that we need to squeeze into our busy lives—it’s good news and a joyful invitation to love. But I confess to you now that in a few weeks I’ll have some long stretches of unstructured time, I’m a little nervous about it.

On June 15, after my second set of seven years at Westminster, I’ll begin a three-month sabbatical from work. What will I do with that time? Some of the time, I’m going to be visiting other churches and communities that are drawing people in their 20s and 30s so that I can bring back to our ministry some insight about how we can further extend our welcome to that generation. I’ll also be traveling with my sons to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico and singing. And I’ll be going to Tuscany for a workshop with writer David Whyte. I expect this all to be fun and uplifting. But the first thing I will do is to set out Sabbath time, in which I have nothing scheduled—an hour daily; a day, weekly; and maybe even a weekend in each of the three months. It’s a tall order. But the first step to making it happen is to say it to you! (Now you can hold me accountable!)

We belong. The reason I began this sermon with the story of Sabbath with my dog is that in Sabbath-time, we are reminded that we belong to God and so does the rest of creation. In a moment, I’ll close with a poem by Wendell Berry. Following the poem, let us pause, in quiet, together. Don’t worry about the next hymn. Michael Barnes is going to play the introduction and give us plenty of time to find our pages. What we are invited to do is to close our eyes, breathe deeply, and to remember the Sabbath day and God’s love.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
― Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things,” The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry