Sabbath and the Idolatry of Being Busy

The following was preached as a sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on July 19, 2015. 

Mark 6:30-32

6:30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.

6:31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

6:32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.

We are all busy.

Would you agree with that statement? And even if you don’t agree with the “all”, would you at least agree with it in regards to your own life? Are you busy? And do you sometimes feel as if you don’t have a minute to spare, as if the hours and days of your life are so over-scheduled that you have no control over them, as if you can never get to the end of your to-do list?

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

It does to me. I keep my calendar on my phone, and before I schedule anything I have to check it. And I have in my mind a list of things I would like to do if only I were not so busy. I promise myself I’ll get around to them someday, when I’m less busy, but of course that time never comes around.

I even start many of my phone calls and emails with this apology: “I’m so sorry for my delay, I’ve been really busy.” And that never feels particularly good to say. But at the same time, I know that sometimes, in some twisted way, that busy-ness is almost a source of pride.

Because, part of me believes that if I’m busy, I’m important. If I’m busy, I’m not lazy. If I’m busy, my life matters.

My Puritan ancestors, with their strong work ethic, would be proud.

But the thing is, I’m not so sure I should be.

This morning’s reading comes from the Gospel of Mark. It’s a story of how the disciples all came and gathered around Jesus, and they told him all about what they had been doing. Scripture tells us that they were coming and going and not even eating. They were saying to him “look at how many we have taught, and look at all we have done”.

So, what they were really saying to him was this: look at how busy we have been.

And Jesus, this is how he responds; he doesn’t hand out awards, or raises, or corner offices. He doesn’t make one the senior disciple. He doesn’t even say “good job”. Instead, he says this: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Wouldn’t you have loved to have seen their faces just then? Because I’ll bet they were disappointed. I’ll bet they’d been gearing up for the biggest pat on the back ever, and all they got was “yeah, you need to take a break”. Jesus, didn’t seem to care about whether they were busy or not.

It’s almost like he was saying you couldn’t work your way to salvation, or something.

Of course, that’s what our faith tells us. We don’t earn salvation by working hard. We don’t earn God’s love by being busy. We get those things anyway solely because of this reason: God loves us, and God gives us grace.

IMG_6067In response we are called to live lives of gratitude to God. That means that whatever we are doing in our lives is supposed to be a sort of “thank you” to God for the grace we’ve already received. We’re asked to live not busy lives, but good lives. Lives that glorify God.

So, where did we get our wires crossed? When did good and meaningful lives come to mean over-scheduled and stressed out ones? When did our worth somehow become tied to the fullness of our calendars? And when did we ever get the idea that this is what God wants from us? Because Jesus makes it pretty clear what he thinks his disciples need most, and it’s not an 80-hour workweek.

But that’s the culture that we live in. One where a spare minute is wasteful, and everything comes down to billable hours. And one where even our kids are over-scheduled. One where they have to sacrifice sit-down family meals or play time or, yes, even church on Sunday in favor of travel sports teams or Mandarin lessons or oboe practice.

And for so many of our kids they do this all not because they truly love the sport or the language or the music, because the adults in their life want them to have a good life. A worthy life.

A life in which they can have children of their own. Who will miss their own family dinners, and go to their own practices and lessons instead.

I’m not preaching this because I am blameless here. Because, I confess, this has been a hard lesson for me to learn. In my first few years of parish ministry I worked 70 hour weeks. I took less than half my vacation time, and even then it was usually to do things like officiate a friend’s wedding or bury one of my relatives.

Because I wanted to be a good pastor. And I was willing to kill myself to do it. It took my Dad, one of the hardest working people I know, saying “you need to slow your life down” before I realized that maybe, just maybe, I could do just that.

I still struggle with workaholism. I always will, I think. But now I look out for it. And when I find myself writing my sermons on Saturday afternoon because I’ve been too busy to work on them all week, for instance, that’s a cue to me that something is wrong. And that’s a sign that something is wrong spiritually in me too.

Because the reality is this: our busy-ness, our need to do more, to work harder, can be an idol. And idols never deserve the worship we give to them.

It’s right there in the Ten Commandments. Three times in fact. Have no other God’s than me. Don’t make false idols for yourself. And remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy.

I happen to think those are all pretty good rules for life, but if you are not a rule person, and if you don’t want to listen to that, then listen to Jesus. Listen to him saying “stop…come away for a little while”.

Because what we all need is a little sabbath. If you want to think of that in the strictly one day a week sense you can, because for centuries people kept a sabbath day each week. Christians generally did so on Sunday, the day of Resurrection, and our Jewish brothers and sisters, for many millennia more than us, have seen the wisdom of a Sabbath from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown.

One of my favorite memories from living near the Orthodox Jewish community in Atlanta was seeing the shops shut down on Friday evenings, and then watching the faithful walking to temple, and walking back home where they would eat meals together and celebrate the sabbath. There’s a reason why Jewish sages have long said that “sabbath is like a taste of heaven on earth”.

So right now you might be saying, that’s great, but I can’t give up one day out of my week. If I do that, I’ll be busier than ever the other six!

Maybe. But I tend to think our busy-ness is a choice. And I think that setting aside sabbath time might actually teach us an important lesson. It might make us look at our obligations and appointments and think a little more clearly about what is essential and what is not.

Because the reality is that making time for sabbath means that we have to do some spiritual discernment. We have to make choices about our priorities. And we have to decide what we will worship. Because when we give time to something, in a small way we are worshipping it.

But if you still say, I can’t do it, try this: try an hour. Try one hour when you will take sabbath. Try one hour when you will set aside all work, all obligations, and all busy-ness. And instead, do the thing your soul is calling you to do. Take that walk with your kids. Go to the beach with your spouse. Do something to rest yourself, and quiet your soul, and to connect with God.

And when you’ve done it for a while, you might even find that you can’t afford to not take a sabbath. Maybe you even need to take more. Because sabbath, paradoxically, makes us more efficient. It helps center us. It rests us. It takes our dull edges, and it sharpens us. And it shows those around us, even our kids, that life is more than being busy. There’s a reason Jesus insisted his disciples take it: he was preparing them for some big roles, and he needed them ready.

And so, here are my questions for you: First, who or what do you really worship? To answer this, take a look at your calendar. Or, look back at your last few weeks, think about how you’ve spent your time. If someone observed it, what would they tell you that you value the most?

And second: Do you want things to keep worshipping those things, or do you want to make a change?

You have to answer that question for yourself, but I can offer this advice: if you are giving your heart and soul and time to something that can never love you back, if you are worshipping at the altar of the false gods of busy-ness or material success or the fear of its loss, you will never be truly happy.

But if you want something better, then I know this guy. And he says that our worth doesn’t come from working ourselves into an early grave. It comes from the one who loved us first, the one who will love us even on our final day. And he’s asking us all to stop, and come away with him, to a place where we can remember what really matters. I’m ready to go there. And I hope you’ll join me. Amen?

Safely through the Waters: A Baptismal Sermon for September 21, 2014

Exodus 14:19-31
14:19 The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them.

14:20 It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

14:21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.

14:22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

14:23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers.

14:24 At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic.

14:25 He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”

14:26 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.”

14:27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea.

14:28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.

14:29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

14:30 Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.

14:31 Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

How many of you have ever seen the movie “The Ten Commandments”? The one with Charlton Heston? It has been years since I have seen it, but I watched a short piece of it this week in order to prepare for this sermon, so if you haven’t seen it or it’s been a long time, don’t worry…I’ll remind you.

Charlton Heston, Moses, is leading the people out of Egypt and to the promised land. And over the last few weeks we’ve heard some of this same story from Exodus. Moses speaks to the Burning Bush, Moses goes and tells Pharaoh “let my people go”, the plagues come, Pharaoh reluctantly agrees, and Moses gets the people ready to move. And so they start on their journey. But they don’t get very far before Pharaoh changes his mind. And Pharaoh and his army take off after Moses and the Israelites.

Finally they all find themselves on the shore of the Red Sea. And water is in front of them, and Pharaoh and his army are behind them, and things look bad. A man yells out to Moses, “Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness? Just to drown in the sea?”

How it probably didn't happen...

How it probably didn’t happen…

Moses steps up and yells, “The Lord of hosts will do battle for us!” And he turns and stretches out his arms and shouts, “Behold God’s mighty hand!” And suddenly there are these really bad 1950’s special effects and the waters peel back on both sides and Moses and the people can see clear across to the other shore. They all look amazed and start shouting “it’s a miracle” and they run through the waters before they close back up again and save them from Pharaoh’s army.

So, that’s the way it happens in the movie. But I’ve always believed that the book is better than the movie. And I think a big part of why books are better than the movies is that they go deeper, they’re more complex, and they tell the story a whole lot better.

The Bible is no exception. The passage we read today from Exodus tells us about a people who are hopeful enough to start out on a journey, but realistic enough to be scared. They have left behind all the knew, which wasn’t good, but was a whole lot better than this new reality where they are in the wilderness and facing certain death. So it’s understandable that they were starting to wonder why they ever followed this Moses guy anyway.

I’m sure that if I were there, I’d be doubting all of this too. And I’d be wondering whether it might be better to give up hope and to just go back to what I’d always known. Because hope can be dangerous sometimes. It can put us in situations we never dreamed of, and it can make us wonder why we ever dared to think we could do something new.

That’s what was happening that day as they stood on the banks of the water. The loss of hope, the triumph of doubt, the fear. They were all there.

In the movie version, that all only lasts a few seconds. Moses turns around and parts the waters and it is so breathtakingly awesome that doubt vanishes just like that. And the people crossed over. And they knew, for at least a little while anyway, that God was with them. How could they doubt after seeing something like that?

But have you ever wondered whether that was how it really happened?

Rabbis have a tradition of Scripture study called “Midrash”. It’s a way of taking a particular story from the Biblical text and thinking about and wondering over the meaning, including those things that are left unspoken. And there’s this wonderful tradition about this text which, in my mind at least, is ten times better than the movie.

In this interpretation, there is a man who is mentioned in the Book of Exodus who is named “Nahshon”. And when Moses calls on God to part the Red Sea, as this version of the story goes, it doesn’t automatically part. Instead, everyone stands there wondering why nothing is happening. But then, Nahshon steps out into the water. First one step. Then another. The water gets up to his ankles, up to his knees, up to his hips and shoulders. And finally, when it is up to his nose, the water finally parts.

I like that telling of the story. Because I believe that God could have parted those waters in one fell swoop, and that the Israelites could have seen the shore and known that they were going to be safe from the get go. But I believe that sometimes God asks us to show a little bit of faith, and a little bit of commitment.

Sometimes God wants us to be a Nahshon and so God lets us get nose-deep in the waters. And that’s not because God is toying with us, or being sadistic. That’s because God is preparing us for something better. God is using our faith and our hope to shape us, and to teach us that our actions, our responses, matter too.

The name “Naschon” is sometimes used to mean “an initiator”. That’s what he did that day. He took the initiative and started the crossing. And there are some who push this text even further and say that even after he got nose-deep, and even after the sea started to part, it was a gradual process. The people took one step, and a little more of the sea parted. And then another, and it parted more. And another, and another, trusting that if they just took the next right step, God would show them the next place after that. And eventually, God would lead them to dry ground.

When you think about it, that’s what the journey of faith is like. We don’t get to see the end. We don’t get to see dry land on our first step. But sometimes we get to see just enough to see the next right step. And we step out in faith believing that God won’t leave us stranded, and that the waters will not overpower us. We step out believing that God will make a way.

Today in worship we are baptizing a child we know. And this church knows her story, and her parents have given me permission to say a little about it here today.

On the day this child was born, the parents she would come to know weren’t there. Neither were her brothers and sisters. She had not yet met this family. But God was there. And God was with her in the deep waters, carrying her safely towards the shore.

One day when she was 16 months old that child wound up here in Exeter, at a new home, and everyone thought it would only be for a little while. This was a foster care placement, and they believed that one day it would be time to bless her on the rest of her journey and send her onward.

They took that first step, not just her foster parents, but the whole family together, to welcome a child into their home and to love her. But step by step, day by day, it became clear what God was calling them to do next. And when it became clear that this child wasn’t going anywhere, they took that next step out in faith too. And what God showed us once through Moses, another adoptee, God is showing us now through her. God parted the waters, and God made a way.

And so, today her parents bring their daughter, and her brothers and sisters bring their sister, to the water. They are bringing her to the font. And today as a congregation we baptize her.
And in baptism this is what we are saying: this child belongs to God, and she has all the days of her life. And in baptism she is entrusted to her family, and to all of us now, to help her to learn how to step out in faith until she can do it for herself.

We are going to teach her how to be a Naschon. We are going to teach her how to be an initiator. We are going to teach her how to turn to God even when hope seems foolish, and to trust that the same God who brought her family together, will continue to carry her through the waters. We are going to teach her to step out in faith. And she is going to teach us too.

And so in the waters of baptism today we are responding to what God has already initiated, and we are wading in, and saying we will walk with her on this journey. And so now, let’s gather at the edge of the water. And let’s wade in together. Because I truly believe that if we make a start, God will make a way. Moses and Naschon and and this beloved child we baptize today have taught us that much. Amen.