20 February 2011

Christian Practices VI: Forgiveness

Below is the sermon from Sunday (Feb. 20). We celebrated the baptism of one of the youth. Where you would normally find the name of the youth I have substituted the generic N for the youth's name.

Going the Extra Mile

Christian Practices VI: Forgiveness

text: “…go also the second mile.” (Matthew 5:41)

Matthew 5:38-48

This morning shortly before noon N begins a new life, and we too begin, again, with him. This morning N will walk into the waters to be baptized; our ultimate symbol (but never more than a symbol) of his decision to follow Jesus. Over the last few weeks N and I have met for several sessions for his baptism class. Yes, if you want to be baptized you have to attend sessions and you have to be of proper age 12 or 13, or the age when you don’t whine after your parents put some kind of new green vegetable on your plate for dinner. Each pastor has his or her own feeling on this – mine is baptism that baptism is our version of a confirmation class, we are re-creating the promises our parents and our church made when we were dedicated. After these few sessions I can say with upmost confidence that N is ready, maybe even more than any other person I’ve baptized. Why? Because he asks questions, serious questions, deep questions. Baptism is not an ascent to ideas but the greatest act of protest you and I can undertake. Protest – because the world aint right, because we aint right! With our baptism we are saying yes to the way of Jesus and no to the way, or direction, of the world here and now.

N as a Christian in the western world, as a Christian in this postmodern world you will need three things to make it: One, the finest bible on the market. You got it, the NRSV New Interpreter’s Study Bible; it’s the best on the market. Ask your questions when you read it and do not give a second thought to orthodoxy or hersey – in the end they don’t matter anyway. Read the contents of this book like old Abe Lincoln: aloud. Notice its rhythms, its worldviews, its peculiarities, its idioms, its bizarreness. Two, you will need to the ability to forgive and to nurture deep reservoirs of forgiveness. Forgiveness more than any other practice or virtue will define your Christianity, your decision to follow God in this world. More on this in a moment. And lastly, N you’re going to need to develop an all consuming love for classic country music! You’ll need to embrace the twang of Loretta Lynn, the lonesome sound of Hank Williams, the harmony of Lester Flat and Earl Scruggs, the nasal sideburns of George Jones, the guttural backbeat of Waylon Jennings, without a doubt the genius of Johnny Cash, the ingenuity of the Carter Family, along with the humor/irony of John Prine and how about a sweet helpin’ of Emmylou Harris. Stories of heartbreak and redemption, sin and salvation, separation and reconciliation, winning and losing, lying and truthing, and then some. Trust me…you’ll need ‘em and don’t let anyone tell you different.

I given you the Bible off my shelf, and I can now give you a classic country mixed tape (even if you don’t know what that is) but the ability and capacity to forgive…well that’s our job as a congregation to teach and model for you and for you to teach and model to us the way of forgiveness. Trust me on this one too…aint no one going to teach you how to do this. If we can accomplish this task together and if you can carry the Good Book with you, and if you can sing along with classic country song, then you’ll make it and we’ll make in this world as followers of Jesus the Christ.

I have waited for a good bit before revealing this simple fact, forgiveness like the other Christian practices we have explored lately are not alternatives or maybes of our religion instead they are requirements for the faithful. Christianity has plenty of room for differing beliefs (for the record there are 280 differing Protestant bodies in North America of that number 83 are different kinds of Baptists), at minimum all you have to confess is that Jesus is Lord, that’s it nothing more, nothing less. But practices we cannot take for granted or overlook! From the simple confession Jesus is Lord flows a way of life calling for the practice of forgiveness, honoring the body, observing the Sabbath, singing our lives, saying yes and saying no, discernment, and next Sunday testimony. This list is neither exhaustive nor unabridged instead it is representative of a long list of practices that have emerged from two millennia of distillative experiences of Christianity.

Lists or requirements may cause your Baptist bones to ache and recoil, you may grimace at the thought of non-negociables. Then let us tease out an analogy. Whey I talk to jazz musicians or music historians in the city I always inquire if there are specific any New Orleans hymns. They ponder it for a moment then say no. Instead of a repertoire or body of New Orleans hymns there is the New Orleans jazz approach to hymns. So when you hear requirements replace it with approach. Think of Christian practices as an approach to Christianity.

I’ve only got this week and next Sunday to entice, wrangle, tempt, beg, and yes guilt you into a small group during Lent so you can experiment with one of these Christian practices. Allow me a moment to provide some possibilities: the discernment group may meet at someone’s home over wine and cheese to talk about how they are experiencing what God is calling them to do. (May I suggest a box of wine, not only is it cheaper and can provide enough for a small gathering but it is also the more ecological choice.) The saying yes and saying no group may simply email back and forth how they said no to some things so they could say yes to God. The singing group may join around a piano and sing all of those blood and guts Baptist classics, or maybe you will learn some new hymns, or maybe you will get together and plan what hymns you want sung at your funeral. The observing the Sabbath group may meet together for Sunday supper, or go visit our shut-ins, or play a game of kickball or spend a few hours playing and having fun at Rock-n-Bowl. The honoring the body group may meet for yoga at Audubon Park (I know instructors who would love this). And the forgiveness group may sit down somewhere and honestly share why they are unwilling or incapable of forgiveness, how difficult it is to forgive. Why? Because when we gather on Easter morn and sing Alleluia let us sing it with purpose and meaning because all of us will have a new and deeper appreciation of why God’s mighty act of raising Jesus is transforming us and our world. I believe we are going to change the world through these practices and let us not settle for anything less.

I invite everyone here to make a fist as tight as you can, then press this tight fist onto your knees, all the while gnashing your teeth. Now release your fist, place your hands palms up on your knees and exhale that is forgiveness. Imagine a balloon falling to the ground then exploding when it hits a blade of grass, that is forgiveness. Imagine a hug that you fall and sink into while you sob uncontrollably in the arms of another, that is forgiveness.

Forgiveness is never fast, never easy, and never without consequences. N, rest assured some people will wilt with appreciation when you forgive them but most wont give a damn. They will take advantage of you, will walk all over you, and take advantage of your forgiving spirit. Forgive anyway. Forgiveness, when it is beautiful and proper is a two way street but most times it is a wrong way on a one way street. Forgive anyway. It is our job to help you learn how to deal with an unaccepting world, with a sarcastic and self-serving world. It is our job to help you see past the current circumstances and develop a deep sense of Christian hope; it is our job to help you forgive anyway. Trust me you and all of us will change the world with our forgiveness.

We have to model for you the capacity to keep forgiving even though the world is replete with examples. In the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement America had a chance not only for forgiveness for its original sin of slavery but true transformation for race relations, the American church had a chance to offer genuine Christian metanoia but it didn’t, it failed. And we are living with the consequences, we are left waiting for another chance. Amidst all of the beatings, brutality, killing, derogatory behavior, racism, ugly actions, and unabashed sin that took place during the Civil Rights Movement there are scant and almost non-existent examples of perpetrators seeking forgiveness.

In the summer of 1961 John Lewis, a 21 year old civil rights activist and Baptist minister got off a bus in Rock Hill, SC and attempted to enter the “Whites Only” door to the bus terminal. At that moment the mob unleashed their violence onto Lewis and the others. 50 years later Elwin Wilson looked at a photograph of the event and realized that the man he was beating with all of his might was John Lewis. 50 years later Elwin Wilson found John Lewis and apologized. The story on NPR recorded Lewis’s recollection of the conversation this way,

"I said to him, 'I forgive you.' I don't have any ill feelings, any bitterness, any malice. He gave me a hug. I hugged him back. He cried a little, and I cried." "Well, it was a moment of grace, a moment of forgiveness and a moment of reconciliation, and that's what the movement, that's what the struggle was all about," Lewis says.

Wilson says he found the Lord and realized he was wrong.

"If I can just get one person not to hate, it's worth it," Wilson says.

The forgiveness of Lewis and the repentance of Wilson is an amazing story but here is the kicker. Rock Hill is a city of 70,000 residents and only one has sought forgiveness. I am sure there are plenty of pews packed on Sunday mornings of folk who were a part of that mob or who were the silent majority that approved of their action, silence is an act. N it is my prayer that through your life you are the forgiving one, that we are the forgiving community, N it is my prayer that you are the one who seeks forgiveness, that we are the seekers of forgiveness, N it is my prayer that you are the one who brings the word of peace, that we are the peacemakers, N it is my prayer that you are the one who offers transformation, the community that offers transformation.

Brothers and Sisters let us commit and recommit ourselves to the ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation. In the waters of N’s baptism may we all recommit our vow to follow Jesus, to practice forgiveness, and to live as if the kingdom of God is here and now. Amen & Amen.

13 February 2011

When Theologians Preached, Museum-Quality Sermons, & Camera Angles

Several years ago I attended a theological circle in Boston, MA. Myself and a room full of retired Baptist preachers. Someone mentioned Paul Tillich and that was all they talked about. I remember rolling my eyes, leaving the room, and thinking these men were stuck in the past with their infatuation with Tillich. (historical note, up to that time I had only read The Courage to Be, and oddly enough loved it). Fast forward a few years but stop before you arrive at the present, stop a few days ago.

At the beginning of the year I decided to read a good number of works by one theologian, I chose Paul Tillich. Why? I am not for sure. I have been struggling with religious language, meaning, and the relation to culture - who would one turn to than Tillich? But what to read and where to start? By chance on Facebook the other day my theology professor was online and started chatting with me. So I asked Dr. Cauthen where to start. He suggested I start by reading Tillich's book of sermons, The Shaking of the Foundations; which I had on my shelf. Last week I picked up STF and could not believe how good his sermons were. I was amazed. I was also instantly envious of all those who gathered in the chapel at Union Seminary and got to hear them live. I don't think I've ever read such rich theological sermons. I have preached my own share of theological sermons, but nothing like those. They are tough but accessible. I find them to be quite inspiring.

I also found my Easter sermon! You Are Accepted a sermon which is also included in the collection American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King, Jr (one of those Library of America editions with the black cover, white lettering, and the red, white, and blue ribbon). No, I am not going to copy the sermon but I am going to write the sermon by spinning off a paragraph or two.

Am I allowed to that? Good question. I will explain myself this way. Shortly after arriving here someone called with boxes of books from the library of the former pastor. I and a member drove out and picked up the collection. There were several Fosdick and Weatherhead books of sermons along with others. I began leafing through the sermons and noticed that a good many of the sermons were outlined, marked up, and noted. The pastor did not copy the sermons but he did use them for organizing his own sermons, for constructing themes, and for laying out series of sermons.

I read books of sermons all the time ( my favorites right now are William Sloane Coffin's). I am sure sentences and phrases invade my sermons from my reading. I do not copy but I am not afraid to use past sermons for inspiration. How else to get better than to read (and preach on a Thursday morning when no one is around) great sermons?

But the question lingers: Do theologians preach today? If so, who?

I spend a good amount of tie thinking about the craft of preaching. The conversation I am sharing today emerged last week while listening to Terri Gross' interview with Rodney Crowell on Fresh Air last week. I suppose I am sold on the idea that preaching matters, that good preaching can bring change and growth. Here is the money quote, for preachers, from the interview:

In 1972, Crowell left East Texas and moved to Nashville to follow his own passion: songwriting. He quickly fell into a musical scene, where he met fellow songwriter Guy Clark, who offered him some sage advice.

"He said, 'Now, look, you can be a star or you can be an artist. You can be an artist and then become a star, but I don't think it works the other way around. But they're both okay. Pick one and get good at it,' " Crowell says. "Well, I knew he was an artist, so I said, 'I want to be an artist.' "

Clark, whose songs have been recorded by Ricky Skaggs, Johnny Cash, Vince Gill and Steve Wariner, then sat Crowell down with some Dylan Thomas poems.

"[Clark] said, 'Listen to how good this is. You have to make your songs this good,' " Crowell says. "And it had a profound effect on me. It took me a while to absorb the information that was being given to me, but eventually it gave me the intent that I wanted to try to write good songs and always strive for timelessness or museum-quality work. I'm not saying I've achieved museum quality, but if you're not swinging for museum quality or timelessness, then why bother?"

Substitute artist with pastor/preacher and good songs for good sermons. Why shouldn't we swing for museum-quality sermons? It does not mean we will achieve them but doesnt those who gather on Sunday morning deserve our best efforts?

While I'm on the topic of Rodney Crowell I have to share the one video, I Couldn't Leave You If I Tried, he shot in my home state, right outside of the town I attended my first year of college: Philippi, WV.

Watch at the 30 second mark. This is a great song but the camera action needs some tinkering.

Christian Practices V: Honoring the Body

All That I Am

Christian Practices V: Honoring the Body

text: “…the throne of God.” (Matthew 5:34)

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany – 13.Feb.2011

The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

Truth like love cannot exist solely as a mental exercise, it must be practiced. Truth like love must be consummated. Christianity, like truth, like love, must be part contemplative and part action. Our gospel, part truth, part love, is best when it moves through the mind to the heart. Our gospel, part truth-part love is best practiced as St. Francis implored, preach the gospel, when necessary use words.

He was a dangerous man, that Francis, someone who dared to embody the truth he found or better the Truth that found him. Although his story comes from the 12 century it is a poignant today as ever.

But why are there so few people like Francis? How come we all do not seek to embody our religion? What prevents us from freely acting and living out in our bodies the truth we have found or the Truth that found us?

We have all watched with delight as the people of Egypt gathered for two weeks to demonstrate and demand their freedom. They gathered with their bodies, they put their bodies on the line, their bodies were beaten and bullied. Everyone thought the Egyptians would back away once the crackdown on bodies began but the exact opposite happened. Etched in my mind are the bodies locked arm-in-arm, etched in my mind are the two images from the Church of Two Saints and Liberation Square. At the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria as Coptic Christians worshipped thousands of Muslims gathered around the Cathedral to protect their fellow Egyptians from another suicide bomber; with their bodies the majority extended the religious liberty to the minority. This has been a Western practice born on the shores of Massachusetts Bay. At Liberation Square as Muslims prayed in an act of non-violent civil disobedience, another Western practice, Coptic Christians arm-in-arm formed a human shield between the praying Muslims and the tanks and the thugs. I cannot find another example when a minority sought to offer religious liberty to the majority. Brothers and sisters we witnessed and are witnessing a new frontier of religious liberty, a new view of the human body, and a new non-violent embodiment of religion.

Throughout history there are images of individuals using their bodies to communicate truth; human beings who have honored their bodies in such a way to transcend the ordinary, their testimonies allow us for one moment to climb Jacob’s ladder and look around heaven. Jesus healing the lame, the woman wiping bathing Jesus’s feet with her tears, St. Francis stripping and handing his clothes back to his father in front of the cathedral of Assisi, and the Civil Rights marchers standing with dignity while police held barking German Shepherds only inches from their faces. With their bodies they offered a higher level of existence for humanity. With their bodies they offered the possibility of human flourishing for all. By embodying their Christianity, by honoring their bodies in acts of love, justice, and solidarity they modeled for us another Christian Practice.

This is our fifth installment of a seven part sermon series on Christian Practices; today we center on the discipline of honoring the body. Each practice: discernment, saying yes and saying no, singing our lives, observing the Sabbath, honoring the body, testimony, and forgiveness contributes to a full definition of each other and what it means to practice our faith. All but one, I am willing to be bet sounds fairly doable and even a little enticing. All but one that is, honoring the body. For Baptist especially the issue of the body is a tough issue.

During the season of Lent I asking/challenging/begging/guilting each and every one of you to break up and form into small groups for the sole purpose of exploring and experimenting with one of these seven practices. Perhaps you will meet in the chapel or in someone’s living room to sing hymns, perhaps you will meet in a coffee shop and role play with one another on how to say yes and to say, perhaps you will go for a walk and talk about how you are discerning God’s will, perhaps you will want to organize a kickball game on a Sunday or invite others over for supper to observe the Sabbath, or perhaps you could form a yoga class during Lent to honor your body. I think this one may be the most troubling.

Don’t drink, don’t cuss, don’t chew, don’t go with those who do. Don’t dance, don’t play cards, kids are better seen and not heard, only say amen during worship as a last resort of praise/appreciation and don’t even think about mentioning sex at all.

That’s a muddled Christian view of the boyd. On the one hand we offer the most sensual Christian ritual: full immersion baptism while on the other hand we rarely if ever honor our bodies in worship. On the one hand we have the most beat driven hymnody of any denomination while on the other hand we rarely, if ever, dance, shuffle our feet or tap our toes. A few years ago I accidentally introduced Baptist hymnody to an Eastman School of Music professor. Immediately he went off to find a galvanized trash can so he could bang out the rhythm. On the one hand we have the freest view of communion – jokingly I say our view of the meal is the lowest common denominator, we invite everybody but on the other hand we celebrate this festive meal in the most constrictive manner by sitting down and being served.

This muddled view should come as no surprise.

At the center of Christianity is the doctrine of the incarnation – that God in Jesus Christ became flesh, that God in Jesus Christ passed through the birth canal and crossed the threshold from womb to life. And it should come as no surprise that Baptists have not exactly done a good job of expressing clear teaching on this issue. The late Dale Moody, one time stalwart of theology and biblical studies at Southern Seminary once remarked that Baptists are muddleheaded Apollinarians. Say what? Our theology of the incarnation has yet to fully embrace the fully human and fully God dual nature of Jesus. Instead in practice we communicate that Jesus had a human body but a divine head. If this has been our heritage then no wonder we have the thoughts and prohibitions we do about our bodies.

Then no wonder Pentecostals are the fastest growing branch of Christianity. No wonder that many people my age and younger are turning towards alternative – but formal – forms of Christianity. No wonder many of you here, myself included, are here and not where you grew up. Better to be in New Orleans free and open about who you are than be back home and be someone you are not. No wonder that the very vices Baptists have sought to repress emerge with a vengeance in the forms of tragic addiction. I know, I know correlation does not equal causation but in my brief 36 years and in your years we have all seen the religious impetus.

At least once a week I try to entice one of my friends or colleagues to move to New Orleans. I tell them just by living here, eating the food, and walking the streets you get the equivalent of a PhD in Theology, Sociology, Music, and Gastronomy. Although it should come as no surprise, living here has forced me to change my theology. For theology is not like a plastic flower always green and bright it is a living, growing, and changing organism. This city is helping me live a free life, the real change came last year. 364 days ago I experienced one of the greatest days of my life.

It began with the Jazz service, continued with a mid afternoon parade, then wondering around an uptown neighborhood with a friend for a couple of hours going in and out of homes along the way playing ping pong, eating chicken, and picking up an adult beverage or two, in between parades some kids and I, around our ladders, fashioned together a huge jump rope made of broken beads and began double dutching, then another parade, then a huge neutral ground pot luck dinner, passed football with people across Napoleon, then night parades, when our neighbor reigned as king of Bacchus I screamed I’m open and with my non-preaching hand even I caught a pass, which was subsequently lost an hour or two later when a bass drum baton almost knocked me unconscious as I pulled one my progeny to safety.

That day I felt alive, free, fully human. I laughed, screamed, feasted, played, cried, felt the rhythms of the marching bands as they passed. I was surrounded by people I didn’t know or barely knew and was not anxious. I was exhausted, completely drained and yet fully alive and energized. That day was the turning point in my theology of the incarnation. God became human, God created us in God’s image, God gave us these bodies so that we may live and live abundantly, that we may live in community with one another, love one another, strive to make justice a reality, and heal one another with our bodies.

That day for the first time in my life I felt the embodiment of my Christianity with the rhythms of life. There in that mess of people, beer, beads, food, ladders, and music I realized our bodies are not our enemies. They are God’s gift to us.

Now may be the appropriate time in the sermon to ask yourself what has this got to do with the portion of the sermon on the mount that we read from for the gospel lesson? Take the gospel lesson and the teaching therein and peel them away and what do you have? Or better yet hold the page sideways and see if can imagine the three dimensional roots of this story – like the majestic Live Oaks there is an equal amount of roots under the soil to the amount of branches above. In this passage Jesus is teaching in a creative and didactic way the organic relationship between thoughts and actions. If an individual or congregation, or society can change the way they think then they can the way they act; and if they can change the was they act then they can change the way they think. We all know that we can not change each other, as much as we would like to, we can only change one another and the way we interact with one another.

So what if you and I began to change the way we thought about our bodies, about the incarnation, about the incarnation of our Christianity, about honoring our bodies. Imagine the new and healthier world. Imagine a church where we seek the healing of our own bodies and those in our lives, where sex and sexuality were not taboos but subjects worthy of conversations, where sex and sexuality are not words causing us to blush or feel shame but as honest speech about who I am or who you are as a human being in this body. Imagine if we were honest about the limitations of our bodies. Imagine if we honored our bodies in such a way that we aged together in support of one another attentive to our aching sciatica nerves, failing eyes, and uncooperative memories?

Because Mabel Palmer, via the chaplain Rev. Stephens, asked me to I now lead a worship service at Poydras Home every second Thursday from 10:30 to 11:00am. Recall the sermon on saying yes and saying no, are you going to say no to Mabel Palmer? You are all invited to help me out, this week I sang in three keys while leading the Doxology. I read scripture, pray with and for them, and deliver a brief message. This week, however, I changed my approach. I went with questions, specifically questions about bodies. I figured a group of 20 80-90 years olds were experts on their bodies. I asked them when they look into the mirror what do they see? Do they see someone who has lived 32,000 days or ten year old? They said we see a much younger person, we don’t recognize the person in the mirror. Then I asked an unprepared question if you could would you change anything about your body? They all said no. After all these years, they wouldn’t change a thing.

Their bodies are limited, each day brings new aches and pains…and they wouldn’t change a thing. Those in the twilight of life were done struggling they were honoring their bodies by acceptance and even embracing their bodies.

We need their voices to be heard about our bodies and about embodying our Christianity but they also need our voices and other voices. In December I entered the front door of Poydras only to find a sign that said please use side entrance. I found the door and walked into the dining room and found a room full of the residents, and toddlers, it seemed like thousands of them in pajamas with teddy bears and singing Raffi songs. I looked at Rev. Stephens and asked what in the world was he thinking? I can’t follow toddlers in pajamas with teddy bears singing Raffi, but I had to! During the service all of those gathered were glowing with wonder at the bodies they had just watched. Bodies without limitations, endless energy and complete freedom.

Somewhere between those stories is the good news of the Christian practice of honoring the body. Somewhere between here and Cairo and Galilee is a view of our embodied truth and love. Somewhere in the midst of the gospel is the courage to be, to be the person made in the image of God. Somewhere in this body of ours is a song, specifically the song of William Grant Still the 20th century composer originally from Woodville, MS, All that I Am

All that I am,

All I ever can be,

I owe to You, Lord,

For you have molded me.

All that I have,

All that I call mine,

I owe to You, Lord,

For all things are Thine.

Brothers and Sisters let us accept the invitation to live out, to embody our faith. Let us accept the invitation for the renewal of our minds so that when we look in the mirror we see the image of God, so that when we visit someone from 9 to 90 we are seeing the image again, so that when we greet one another with the peace we are imitating the creative acts of God to heal and restore the image of God within us. You and I have these bodies, they are God’s gift to us let us accept them, let us honor them. Amen and Amen.

06 February 2011


Christian Practices IIII
Observing the Sabbath: Sunday Morning Coming Down
Isaiah 58:1-10; Psalm 112; Matthew 5:13-20
text: “I did not come to abolish but fulfill.” (Mt 5:17)
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – 6.February.2011
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

Mainline, sophisticated churches like this usually define the Christian worship on the Sabbath as such: One Faith, One Lord, One Hour. No where in holy scripture or Christian history is an hour prescribed as the criterion for worship on the Sabbath. Instead worship is to be an all day event with gathered worship as one part of it. I am not advocating for day long worship services but I am advocating for a new appreciation for what takes place on Sundays. I take as my text this morning the 17 verse of the 5th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew: Jesus did not come to abolish the law (torah) but to fulfill it. Jesus did not come to abolish Sabbath but to fulfill it.

A few weeks ago a gentleman and his wife attended a Sunday morning service as a mini-reunion. They had worshipped here back in the 60s and 70s but had since moved to Manhattan and subsequently moved their membership to Riverside Church in NYC (which by the way tickles my soul in all kinds of ways to think that when people move from here they move their membership to Riverside). Anyway, the gentleman commented how nice it was to be back and the feeling of energy and excitement in the sanctuary. He then commenced to tell me about why he made SCABC his church home. He said in the 60s you never wanted to sleep in on Sunday mornings for you were afraid you may miss something: whether it was Avery’s sermons, or the musical selections, or maybe the conversation afterwards. You could always trust that something worthwhile would be said, heard, or shared. I suppose that is why the church could get away with the heading, “the difference is worth the distance.” The gentleman then gave an example. On the Sunday after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated the sancturary had a larger than usual crowd, the service started with silence and remained silent for a good time then Mona Bond stood up and sang a cappella, We Shall Overcome.

As I sit down after entering the sanctuary I spend a good amount of time looking at you. I’m not looking at who is here and who is not here; I’m looking at your soul, I’m looking at your body language, I’m looking at your level of comfort. I’m not reading your mind, who can? I’m reading the text of your life that you are revealing to me. Why? Because I wonder why you are here. I’ve only been at this “gig”as a pastor for only 10 years but in the 500+ worship services I have led I’ve never looked at someone and read what they were revealing to me and not found a deep answer. There is always present the hope and expectation that one note of song will sync with the need of your soul, the hope and expectation that one sentence of scripture or one sentence of a sermon or one sentence in a prayer will be what you need to make it through the week, that someone will embrace you in a way with a hug, or a kiss, or maybe just an acknowledgement that you are a human being, that somewhere all tangled up in the desires, impetus, and convictions of your being here there is the hope that you may just leave a better person than when you entered, that you may just leave a little more healed a little more whole than when you entered, that you may just leave with a foretaste of the kingdom of God than when you entered.

All of these desires and expectations are Sabbath desires and Sabbath expectations and Sabbath hopes. This is a desire we all yearn and grope for. It is in the lyrics to songs: Lionel Richie’s, Easy Like Sunday Morning or as a local hipster t-shirt company prints (Breesy Like Sunday Morning), Kris Kristofferson’s, Sunday Morning Coming Down, The Duke’s, Duke Ellington that is, Come Sunday He’ll give peace and comfort/to every troubled mind/Come Sunday, oh come Sunday/That’s the day, and most assuredly in the butter melting sultry voice of Etta James’ A Sunday Kind of Love. On the screen look to Babbette’s Feast or the Andy Griffith Show episode when they try to re-form the Sunday afternoon band. Think about the comfort of a Sunday supper of fried chicken, or pot roast, or warmed up gumbo. Or picture the peddler in the children’s book Caps for Sale when he wakes up from his nap feeling well rested? These too are Sabbath yearnings, gropings, desires, hopes, & expectations.

We may look beautiful and handsome, we may even come across as having it all together, but underneath our coverings we are hurting, pained, and wounded. We have said things that we wished we could take back, we have been the recipients of words that we wished had never entered our ears, we have abused creation and been abused by others, in our need for love we have alienated others and in our desire for reconciliation we have had doors slammed in our faces. We are human beings – creatures with social, physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual needs. The work or action of being a human being is never over. We are relational creatures constantly in need of interaction. To keep healthy relations going it takes work, hard and difficult work. We need the Sabbath to help us, to heal us, to be the voice who says stop, stop the madness, stop for one moment and look at what you are doing to yourself, to others, to creation.

The healing and resting gift of the Sabbath comes to us from another realm of nature. It is anti-thetical and counter-intuitive to our way of understanding the nature and experience of life in a hyper-capitalistic laissez-faire economy. We are products of the Protestant work ethic – a terrible theological understanding that idle hands (and minds) are the devil’s tools, therefore we must work our way to grace and heaven – which is exactly the opposite of the theology of the Protestant Reformation – we do not work our way into heaven but are graced into the hands of God by God’s grace.

If you were to give an account of your time here in worship or during a Sabbath what would you say you did: I sang, I prayed, I drank coffee, I laughed, I cried, I said hello to a stranger, I kissed a beautiful woman on the cheek, I was called a cup of sugar by a gregarious southern gentleman, I listened, I took a nap, I fidgeted in my seat, I doodled, I was quiet, I read, & etc. An economist or a measurer of productivity would say you did nothing – and that kind of nothing is exactly the point: a rest, a healing, a moment of praise, a moment of prayer, a moment of silence. The intentional recognition that we are not servants of whistle, clock, or bell, that we are not measured by the sum of our production. But rather that we are human beings, children of the Living God and what we need more than anything is to spend one day, 1/7th of our lives to remind ourselves that we are so.

We demarcate time based on the birth of Christ. But the confusion of time began not at Christ’s birth but at his resurrection. No one expected Jesus to be raised on Sunday morning – the day after the Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath then as now began on Friday at sundown and ended at sundown on Saturday. No one expected anything to happen on Sunday morning but that was the time God so chose. Thus creating a conundrum for early Christians and holy time observers. The Early church stated that the celebration of the resurrection surpassed previous Sabbath observances, thus the new creation of First Day or Lord’s Day observance/celebration on Sunday, a mini-Easter each and every Sunday became the new standard; Sun rise on Sunday to Sun rise on Monday.

Christians have not incorporated Sabbath restrictions – no to somethings so we can say yes to others –into their practices: such as reading, yes (because it is enjoyment); writing, no (because it is work). There was a time when blue laws legislated Sabbath restrictions but in this multi-faith society we cannot and should not advocate their return. But the need for Sabbath is still present. Jesus gave us a firm call to love and to save our neighbor and creation. But how are we going to do so it if we never stop for a moment, if we never pause to catch our breath, if we never cease to ponder our motivations, if we never yield to God’s healing, if we never slow down to be blessed, if we never take a break to be in awe of the world around us? That is the gift of Sabbath once a week our inner clocks are re-oriented from the control of space to the experience of time.

This city is full of do-gooding people with large hearts and tons of good will but I can easily see that in a couple of years, if not already, many are going to burn out, give up, become frustrated with the lack of progress and move onto to other mundane existences. But what if one of our missions as a church was to offer Sabbath practices? I offer that we as a congregation have a tremendous opportunity if we too can be a part of the rebuilding of the city by modeling and witnessing to a way of life that pauses, wonders, awes, laughs, cries, naps, feasts together. It is going to take even more human hours of sweat and muscle, of creativity and plans, of will power and determination to rebuild this church and city but let us do it without killing ourselves along the way!

This is the fourth installment in the sermon series on Christian Practices. It is my hope that the Christian practices can act as a midwife to aide us in our journey towards birth and re-birth both as a church and as individuals; and what more appropriate time for this type of undertaking than Lent. During the season of Lent (40 days from March 9, Ash Wednesday to April 23, Holy Saturday) I am asking/challenging all of us to form small groups each dedicated to one of the seven practices: discernment, saying yes and saying no, singing our lives, observing the Sabbath, forgiveness, testimony, and honoring our bodies for the expressed purposed of experimenting with these variations of Christian disciplines. Each practice cannot be fully covered or fully defined. But together in small groups experimenting with the disciplines we can begin to share with one another the gifts of these practices. In small groups we can flesh out what it means to observe these practices in 2011 in New Orleans. You do not need expert leaders, for none of us are experts at these practices. We only need a few facilitators to get the groups up and running. Furthermore, I have study guides for everyone!

You can have any room in this building and feel free to take up residence outside this building at a coffee shop, a living room, or publick house. Rather than give up chocolate or the news try on a new Christian practice in a defined time with no strings attached. Simply try it for 40 days and see what happens, see if you surprise yourself, see if you are surprised by others, see if you are surprised by God, or better yet surprise God with your practices.

One point, the group that decides they want to explore observing the Sabbath will not be allowed to meet on Sunday. Instead you will have to meet at some other time so that you can observe the Sabbath. Perhaps you will want to ask a member or members to Temple Sinai or Touro Synagogue to talk with about what it means to them to celebrate and observe Sabbath. One thing you will find out is that it is work to prepare for the Sabbath, you will have to spend a good part of the previous day preparing for a day of rest. Kind of like jamming two weeks worth of work the week before you take a week of vacation. But once you get the hang of it you realize what a wonderful experience Sabbath rest and enjoyment are.

I am going to suggest that you begin new Sabbath practices starting today: go home and take a nap, take a walk in the park or around your neighborhood, get out your hymnal and sing some hymns around the piano, invite a friend or neighbor over for dinner or at least a glass of wine, or invite someone over to watch the game, play a game as John Calvin suggested, or make love with your spouse, as Calvin suggested also.

And during the next week or so I suggest that you find a copy of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. Like all Heschel books you read it because not solely for the words on the page and because you are reading Heschel! Read the book and you will early on find this passage:
The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments. In a religious experience, for example, it is not a thing that imposes itself on man but a spiritual presence. What is retained in the soul is the moment of insight rather than the place where the act came to pass. A moment of insight is a fortune, transporting us beyond the confines of measured time. Spiritual life begins to decay when we fail to sense the grandeur of what is eternal in time.

I want us all to expect the grandeur of what is eternal time on Sunday, on our Sabbath. I want us all to experience God’s love, God’s grace, God’s healing touch. Let us and all of creation experience God’s gift of redemption in time, eternity in a day, a sacred moment where heaven and earth meet, where righteousness and peace kiss, where life is not abolished but fulfilled. Amen and Amen.