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.

No comments: