Tuesday, December 31, 2013

That shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality

The seventh day of Christmas comes on the cusp of the secular new year. Here is a quote from Sydney Carter:

I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality.

One of my favorite Christmas carols plays with the image of Jesus dancing:

1. Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
 I would my true love did so chance
 To see the legend of my play,
 To call my true love to my dance;

Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
 This have I done for my true love1

2. Then was I born of a virgin pure,2
 Of her I took fleshly substance
 Thus was I knit to man's nature
 To call my true love to my dance.


3. In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
 So very poor, this was my chance
 Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass
 To call my true love to my dance.


And Sydney Carter himself wrote this familiar song of Jesus, the ‘Lord of the Dance’:


And here is one more song the plays with the image:


May your  2014 be full of the Dance.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The undefeated heart of weakness

In the Incarnation God comes to us in humility and simplicity searching for an answering gaze. For the sixth day of Christmas, here is a poem by J. V. Taylor:
Let not my humble presence affront and stumble
 your hardened hearts that have not known my ways
 nor seen my tracks converge to this uniqueness.
 Mine is the strength of the hills that endure and crumble,
 bleeding slow fertile dust to the valley floor.
 I am the fire in the leaf that crisps and falls
 and rots into the roots of the rioting trees.
 I am the mystery, rising, surfacing
 out of the seas into these infant eyes
 that offer openness only and the unfocusing
 search for an answering gaze. O recognize,
 I am the undefeated heart of weakness.
 Kneel and adore, fall down to pour your praise:
 you cannot lie so low as I have been always.
“Christmas Venite”, A Christmas Sequence and Other Poems (Oxford: The Amate Press 1989) p.15.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish

On the fifth day of Christmas, something from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them, of which they are afraid deep down in their souls, from which they shy away. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Scandal of Christmas

The fourth day of Christmas is the Feast of Holy Innocents which reminds us that the world into which Jesus was born was marked by violence and injustice. Those who, like Herod, had power and privilege took advantage of those who had neither. And they would tolerate no threat to that power and privilege.

Sadly, the world is still marked by violence and injustice. The weak and poor are still taken advantage of by those with power and privilege. The innocent are still slaughtered.

The scandal of Christmas is not the virgin birth but that God’s redemptive work defies the Herods of this world – not just kings and presidents, but anyone who clings to power and privilege at the expense of love.
– Charles Moore, The Scandal of Christmas

Friday, December 27, 2013

God's way of being human

For the third day of Christmas here is a portion of Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby's Christmas sermon:

God's way of being human shows us what being human means. According to the gospel of Jesus Christ to be human means being vulnerable, not safe. Our pride is humbled by God needing swaddling. Our wisdom is confounded by the foolishness of God's baby cries. Love is demonstrated not by grasping power but by lowering yourself so you can raise the fallen.  The humility of God provokes us to seek to awaken what is best, in every person we meet, every group that we encounter.

God's vulnerability is seen in overwhelming self giving. When as individuals or societies we grab for power, compete for resources and neglect the weakest and most vulnerable amongst us we neglect Christ himself. Where people are measured in their worth only by what they can produce, what economic value they have, then Christ is denied and our own humanity corrupted.

The great ikons of Christ for us are all those of vulnerability; a baby, a man dying abandoned on a cross, bread and wine that can be crushed and spilt. Yet from the  vulnerability we get life complete, eternal.
The full sermon can be found here.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ye who now will bless the poor

The second day of Christmas is the Feast of St. Stephen. One of my favorite Christmas carols is Good King Wenceslas which is set on this feast day. It reflects what it means to live out the implications of the Incarnate God coming to us among the poor and humble.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,

shall yourselves find blessing.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

God with an umbilical cord

Merry Christmas! The consumer Christmas season ends today. But, on the church calendar Christmas season begins today. As I have done the last couple of years, I will post a quote each of the twelve days of Christmas expressing some aspect of the joy and wonder of the Incarnation. For the first day of Christmas there is this reflection by mid-wife, Lois Williams which I received via email at the beginning of Advent:
It was mid-December and I was driving to a birth in the Pocono Mountains. It was late and light snow was falling. I searched for a radio station and found one playing Christmas carols. As is my habit on the way to a birth, I began to pray for a smooth, uncomplicated labor and a healthy baby.

As the carols played in the background, I prayed aloud, “Please, Lord, let the baby be born without any cord complications; let the placenta come out without difficulty; please, no extra bleeding…”

As I prayed, the words of the carols and my thoughts about the very real process of childbirth merged in my mind. I found myself imagining the birth of Jesus, his tiny head squeezing through Mary’s birth canal, his fragile body still warm from Mary’s, the way he must have “rooted” at her breast, the umbilical cord reaching from his body back up inside his mother, connecting his life to hers. God with an umbilical cord. I pulled over to the side of the road as my eyes filled with tears.

God with an umbilical cord. That is the Incarnation. That is Christmas. Our Christmas cards are so unlike real childbirth. Mary is clothed, serene. She looks as if she never even broke into a sweat. The infant Jesus appears to be about 6 months old. There is no blood. No placenta. No umbilical cord. None of the pain of Incarnation.

But God really did make his way into the world by squeezing through the narrow doorway of a woman’s bones. And when we can pause in wonder and worship of that fact, we have come close to comprehending the real meaning of Christmas.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

“I could not rest until I found a church like that”

Frederick Buechner was a guest lecturer at Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL in the fall of 1985. While doing so, he attended St. Barnabas. He later wrote about his time here:

I also found myself going to an extraordinary church or, with my rather dim experience of churches back home, one that was extraordinary at least to me. Its name was Saint Barnabas, and it was located in a small town nearby called Glen Ellyn. It was described to me as an evangelical high Episcopal church, and that seemed so wonderfully anomalous that what took me there first was pure curiosity. What kept taking me back Sunday after Sunday, however, was something else again. Part of the service was chanted at Saint Barnabas, and I discovered that when a prayer or a psalm or a passage from the Gospels is sung, you hear it in a new way. Words wear thin after a while, especially religious words. We have spoken them and listened to them so often that after a while we hardly even hear them anymore. As writer, preacher, teacher I have spent so much of my life dealing with words that I find I get fed up with them. I get fed up especially with my own words and the sound of my own voice endlessly speaking them. What the chanting words did was to remind me that worship is more than words and then in a way to give words back to me again. It reminded me that words are not only meaning but music and magic and power. The chanting italicized them, made poetry of their prose. It helped me hear the holiness in them and in all of us as we chanted them.

. . . .

They also used incense at Saint Barnabas. They censed the open pages of the Gospel before they read from it, and even in the midst of a midwestern October heat wave, the church was suddenly filled with Christmas. The hushed fragrance of it, the thin haze of it, seemed to say that it is not just to our minds that God seeks to make himself known, because, whatever we may think, we are much more than just our minds, but to our sense of touch and taste too, to our seeing and hearing and smelling the air whether it is incense that the air is laden with or burning leaves or baking bread or honest human sweat. “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” says the 34th Psalm, and it is not just being metaphorical.

. . . .

And I remember too that the last time I attended a service there, there were real tears running down my cheeks at the realization that the chances were I would probably never find myself there again. When I got home, I thought I could not rest until I found a church like that.
Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets,
(New York: Harper San Francisco, 1991), p. 82-86

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Reading" St. Barnabas V

This is the last in the series of reflections on the symbolism built into the worship space of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

Sanctus Light & Tabernacle
The Sanctus Light, or Presence Lamp, which hangs behind the altar, burns when there is any "reserved sacrament" near the altar. The Reserved Sacrament is Bread and/or Wine which has been blessed, but not consumed, at Holy Eucharist. The Bread is also called the “Host” from the Latin hostia which means victim.

The reserved Sacrament is kept in the wooden Tabernacle suspended beneath the Sanctus Light.
In our sacramental understanding, God uses physical objects as means of conveying grace. The bread and wine, once consecrated at the Eucharist, continue to be active agents of grace and are worthy to be reserved and venerated.
It is customary to bow reverently when passing by the Reserved Host as an acknowledgement of the presence of the Holy Gift.

Stained Glass Windows
St. Barnabas has two stained glass windows. Like the Baptismal Font, Altar, and Processional Cross, these were designed by liturgical artist, Richard Caemmerer.
The stained glass window behind the altar is the Pentecost Window. This window depicts the flame of the Holy Spirit and the flames that danced above the heads of the disciples in the Upper room on the first day of Pentecost. May that same Spirit enflame the community that worships here.
The stained glass window at the entrance is the Resurrection Window. This window conveys a sense of dynamic upward sweep that culminates in a crown, signifying that Jesus Christ is risen as Lord of lords and King of kings. It reminds us that every Sunday is an Easter celebration of the resurrection, the foundation of our faith and hope. May it encourage us to live as resurrection people.

Monday, November 25, 2013

"Reading" St. Barnabas IV

Another in a series of posts identifying some of the symbolism in the worship space of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Like the Baptismal Font, the altar was designed by Richard Caemmerer. It is the focal point
of our worship space representing the centrality of worship at St. Barnabas. Those who were here at the building’s groundbreaking tell us that the first spade of dirt was turned where the altar was to be. Unlike many churches, St. Barnabas intentionally has one altar and one main cross (the processional cross) emphasizing our unity around the one sacrifice of Christ.

The theme of eight recurs around the altar. The railing has eight sides, and the brick foundation of the altar is three tiers with eight sides each. This reminds us again that as we receive the Sacrament we are incorporated into the promise of the eighth day and new creation.

The Lantern
Above the altar is the "Lantern", a circular, lit, white pointed ceiling drawing our eyes upwards to “the things that are above” (Colossians 3:2). The white circle, with its two rings of light, represent the purity, light, and eternity of heaven.

Below the lantern is an uneven circle of wood representing the world as we know it – uneven and broken by sin. Sixteen wooden beams (8X2) radiate from that uneven circle making it into a symbol of the Crown of Thorns Jesus wore at his Passion in which he identified with and transformed the brokenness, suffering, and sin of this world.

Processional Cross
The St. Barnabas processional cross stands next to the altar reminding us that the Eucharist is a participation in the one sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  The cross was also designed by Richard Caemmerer.

On the horizontal arms of the cross are the Greek letters, Alpha and Omega (the equivalent of A and Z), reminding us that Christ is first and last, the beginning and the end. (Revelation 1:8)

At the top of the cross is the Chi-Rho, an ancient Christian symbol made of the first two Greek letters in "Christ" – ‘X’ and ‘P’ (rho, or ‘r’ in Greek) - superimposed on each other.

At the bottom is another ancient symbol, a Christ monogram. It is a combination of the ‘I’ (iota) and the ‘X’ (chi), the first letters of Jesus Christ in Greek.

In the center of the cross is the body of Jesus – the corpus (body). The presence of the corpus makes this a crucifix. It is a reminder that in the incarnation, God came to us enfleshed as a human body. In the Passion, Jesus shared in real bodily suffering; and in his resurrection, Christ rose bodily from the grave conquering death and establishing the promise of new creation.

The placement of the cross next to the altar signifies that the Eucharist is always a participation in the one sacrifice offered by Jesus. And it reminds us that we can bring all our needs to the foot of the cross and that we are called ourselves to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

"Reading"St. Barnabas V

Saturday, November 23, 2013

"Reading" St. Barnabas III

This is the third in a series of post looking at the symbolism in the worship space of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, IL.
Circular Seating
The seating is circular reminding us that God calls us into community where we are bound to one another. The pew design – open at the ends – underscores our mutual connection. We sit together such that we see one another even as we direct our attention toward the altar. Thus, we hope to discern the body of Christ both in the bread and wine of Eucharist and in the members of the gathered body of Christ.
This arrangement reinforces the fact that Christian worship is inherently communal. It is neither entertainment nor the activity primarily of the clergy. It is performed by everyone gathered. Liturgy means the work of and for the people.  The word is Greek, a compound of the word for people (laos)
and the word for work (ergon). It was not originally associated with worship, but with any work undertaken or paid for by private citizens for the benefit of the people.  In the New Testament, Christ is said to perform a liturgy:  “Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry [the Greek word here is litourgia], and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises.” (Hebrews 8:6). Christ’s life of obedience, death on the cross, and resurrection is the Christian liturgy. It is public work done for the benefit of the people. Our service of worship is a “making present” and participation – together – in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In worship, we appropriate Christ’s liturgy as our own and are shaped by it. Our worship space encourages that shaping.

The pulpit mirrors the design of the altar rail, reminding us that the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist are fundamentally one liturgy. The pulpit repeats the theme of the eighth day and new creation. Of necessity, the pulpit is only half of an octagon, but it suggests the whole. It was designed by Fr. Matt Gunter in consultation with the Saint Barnabas Liturgy Commission.

The design of the pulpit reflects the importance of scripture in our common life. Attached to the front of the pulpit is a stand for the Gospel book, which is left open during the sermon, showing our intention to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. The two candles on the pulpit symbolize the light of Christ and our hope that his Word will illuminate our hearts.

"Reading"St. Barnabas IV

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Reading" St. Barnabas II

Continuing the series on the worship space of St. Barnabas, Glen Ellyn, IL where I have been the rector since January, 2000.

The Lion’s Head

Just inside the main doors, on the wall to the right, is a lion’s head. The lion is the classic symbol for St. Mark and is a reminder that St. Mark, Glen Ellyn was instrumental in the founding of St. Barnabas. Around the lion’s head is a reference to Acts 15:36-39 which refers to Mark’s companionship with Barnabas in mission. It recognizes that our congregation is part of a web of other congregations and that to be a Christian is to be part of a larger community and a longer story.
It also calls to mind Revelation 5:5, "Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed.” 

The lion will make many at St. Barnabas think of C. S. Lewis’ Aslan.

 Eight Days a Week

One of the distinctive and pervasive symbols in the worship space at St. Barnabas is the number eight. Eight walls enclose the space and the octagon recurs in other places. For Christians, eight has symbolized the conviction that new creation has begun through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because it is the day of resurrection, Sunday became understood as not just the first day of the week, but also as the first day of the New Creation. As such, Sunday became known as the “eighth day”. In an early Christian text that was not included in the Bible, we read,

. . . when giving rest to all things, I shall make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world. Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead.

– Epistle of Barnabas, 15:8 (c. 100 A.D.)

Thus, worship on Sunday is a present invitation to enter into the new creation in Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17). It is also a call to live in expectation of the new creation promised by God and inaugurated by Jesus. (cf. Isaiah 65:17-19, 22-25; Revelation 21:1-5)

Baptismal Font

The Baptismal Font, designed by liturgical artist, Richard Caemmerer, is one of three focal points, the other two being the altar and the pulpit. It is octagonal, symbolizing that through baptism we enter the eighth day and the beginning of the new creation.

However, the base of the font is a cross, reminding us that the Church’s one foundation is the cross of Jesus and in baptism we are summoned to take up our cross and follow him.
The baptismal font is placed at the center of the entrance to the worship space. This reminds us that “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ's Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God” (BCP, p. 858). In the water of Baptism “we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit” (BCP, p.306). It is therefore customary to dip a finger or two in the water and cross oneself when entering or leaving as a reminder of our own baptism

Paschal Candle

The Paschal Candle stands near the Baptismal Font, except during Easter season when it is near the Altar. Paschal, derived from the Jewish Passover, is the classic term for Easter. The candle is lit when there is a baptism and reminds us that in baptism we have new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Light of the world. May the light of Christ gloriously rising dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

“Reading” St. Barnabas

For fourteen years I have had a love affair with the worship space of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Glen Ellyn, IL where I have had the honor of serving as rector. It is an unusually successful combination of contemporary and classic design. Though that design is deliberately simple, there is an abundance of symbolism “written” into the very structure. And there are other symbolic features as well. Recently, I completed a brief booklet explaining some of those feature. I’d like to share that here in a series of posts. Here is the beginning:

“Reading” St. Barnabas

What does it mean to “read” a church? Historically, churches have been designed not only for utility, but also for the edification of those who gather for worship. The earliest churches had paintings on the walls. Eventually there were also icons, stained glass windows, statues, banners, etc. But even the design and structure of most churches have been intended to inform the faith and worship of those who gather.

This is true of the worship space of St. Barnabas. Built in 1964, it was designed by architects Buderus & Sunshine. It received the top award “for excellence in religious architecture” given by the American Society for Church Architecture.

Our worship space is rich with symbolism. What follows is an explanation of some of that symbolism. Given the nature of symbolism, you will likely see other meanings. If you see them, rejoice and be edified.

Red Doors

It is customary, especially in Episcopal Churches, to paint the doors red. The reason for this is obscure. There are several proposed explanations. The most mundane is that once upon a time painting the doors of a building red signified that the mortgage had been paid in full. Red doors also remind us of the Passover in which God commanded the Hebrews to mark their doors with sacrificial lamb’s blood to protect them from his judgment on the firstborn in the land of Egypt. For Christians this symbolizes the blood of Jesus “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).

Red is liturgically significant. It represents the blood of the martyrs calling us to lives of self-sacrificial love and discipleship and faithful witness (martus in Greek) to the good news of Jesus Christ. Red also represents the fire of the Holy Spirit. When we enter the church we place our lives in the sphere of the gift-giving Spirit who births the church and us as its members, who comforts, strengthens, challenges, refines, and transforms us. Red also reminds us that we are about to hear the Scriptures, inspired by the Holy Spirit, read and proclaimed.

Jerusalem Cross

The windows of the doors leading into our worship space are etched with the Jerusalem Cross. This cross was first used as a coat of arms for the Latin Kingdom in Jerusalem during the Crusades. These remind us that the Church and its members have at times succumbed to the temptation of fear, power, and violence in ways that are unfaithful to the glad tidings of peace promised at the birth of the Prince of Peace. Thus, we are reminded that repentance is a basic Christian practice and humility a basic Christian virtue.

Still, the Jerusalem cross is a positive symbol: The larger central cross stands for the person of Christ and the four smaller crosses are the four Gospels proclaimed to the four corners of the earth, beginning in Jerusalem. Together, they symbolize our focus on Christ and our commitment to proclaiming his good news to the world. As we enter the worship space, they also remind us of the heavenly Jerusalem that is our hope and the worship in that City in which our worship participates.

"Reading" St. Barnabas II

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Summary of the Gospel

“The God of Israel, the creator of the world, has acted (astoundingly) to rescue a lost and broken world through the death and resurrection of Jesus; the full scope of that rescue is not yet apparent, but God has created a community of witnesses to this good news, the church. While awaiting the grand conclusion of the story, the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is called to reenact the loving obedience of Jesus Christ and thus to serve as a sign of God’s redemptive purposes for the world.”
– Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, page 193

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Art of Co-operating with Grace

MartinThornton (1915–1986) was an influential Anglican priest, spiritual director, and author. He was an advocate of ascetical or, “applied theology,” which he saw as a body of knowledge and practice that leads the Church and individual Christians to “the Vision of God.” I have found his writing a tonic to the self-indulgent, spiritual sloth to which I am prone and with which I suspect many American Christian have become comfortable. Here are some quotes from his book on English Spirituality: 

The Christian goal is the Vision of God and nothing less will ever do: however long the journey, however remote the end may seem, our eyes must be constantly fixed upon it. We must take comfort in the fact that so long as we progress, however slowly, all is well, but progress is meaningless without a destination. All our methods, disciplines, Rules, fasts, mortifications, etc. are pointless unless we move toward our final glory in heaven, where, as St. Augustine teaches, we shall see God and love God and praise God and rest in God. (p. 22-23)

Ascetical theology is Christian doctrine interpreted and applied by a teacher of prayer together with the mental and physical disciplines which nurture and support it. The experience of the Church, codified by her saints and doctors, assures us that this total discipline is necessary as means to an end. Fasting, mortification, and so on are needed, but they do not constitute ascetical theology, they are subsidiary parts of it. Or we may say with John of the Cross that ascetical theology consists in those methods and disciplines which dispose the soul to receive the motions of the Holy Ghost: it is the art of co-operating with grace.

Needless to say, when we speak of teaching prayer, we mean that total spirituality which controls the whole of human life, that which includes not only liturgical and formal private prayer but also habitual recollection colouring and inspiring every minute and every action of a lifetime. To the Christian, then, ascetical theology is the key to the art of living as fully, creatively, and indeed joyfully, as [humanity] is capable. (p. 24-25)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Refrain from Trampling the Sabbath

A sermon on Isaiah 58:9b-14 & Luke 13:10-17

I have a couple of fund raising ideas I’d like to run pass you this morning. What do you think of this? I have a niece who is a very good dancer – very good. One of the kinds of dance she does is tap dancing. I think it would be great to have her come and perform here at St. Barnabas. We can sell tickets and raise money. The best venue would probably be right here in the worship space. But, I was wondering where might be the best place for her to dance so everyone can see her and especially her feet. It seems the obvious platform is right over there [motion toward the altar which is made of dark granite]. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? We’d take the Fair Linen off, of course. I can see many of you have a problem with that. Raise your hand if you don’t like this idea. I see.

Well, then, how about this? Every other year, the Outreach Commission sells crafts and jewelry from Kenya to raise funds for the Africa Team Ministry to assist victims of AIDS. I’m thinking that next time we do that we should have the tables of merchandise around the outside of the altar railing [the railing at St. Barnabas in circular]. And whoever is collecting the money can stand behind the altar using it as a counter with the cash box and everything. Who has a problem with that? I see.

You people are so disagreeable, it is making me thirsty [I pull out from the pulpit a bottle of 7–UP and a chalice and make like I am going to pour the soda pop into the chalice]. What?

OK, so you’ve got some scruples about how we treat some spaces and things. How about these? Does it bother you to . . .

Work on Sunday?

Buy stuff on Sunday?

Run errands on Sunday?

Curious, isn’t it? We understand the sacredness of some spaces and some things that have been consecrated for set apart for holy use, but we have largely forgotten the idea of sacred time which is fundamental to both Judaism and Christianity.

There might not be any more telling sign of the Church’s capitulation to secular culture than the fact that outside of sometimes coming to church on Sunday mornings, most American Christians behave on Sunday pretty much like everyone else. Secularism says that all days are the same, one following another in a pointless sequence. That we often live as though we agree is a problem. I’ve become convinced that this is a more serious problem than we have come to think.

It certainly sounds pretty serious in this morning’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah:

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests,
or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the LORD,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth
(Isaiah 58:13 – 14a)

“Refrain from trampling the sabbath.” Wow! Like, “Refrain from tap dancing on the altar.”

In the Old Testament

·         The sabbath is coded into creation – God created the Sabbath and ‘rested’ contemplating what he had done in all its goodness.

·         The sabbath was a great leveler. Whether you were the king or the poorest peasant, on the sabbath you were equal in dignity and obligation.

·         Relatedly, keeping sabbath was a matter of justice. Slaves and servants could not be made to work. On the sabbath there were no masters or no slaves, no employers or employees. Even animals and the fields got to rest without human interference.

·         There was no buying or selling on the sabbath

·         The sabbath was a reminder that God is in control and you are not. Lauren Winner has written, “When we cease interfering in the world we are acknowledging that it is God’s world.”

·         The sabbath was also reminder of liberation. In Deuteronomy 5, the sabbath is connected to God's deliverance of the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt.

·         Early on, for reasons we don’t have time to go into, the Church shifted its observance of sabbath from Saturday to Sunday (See: Eight Days a Week). I will just say that given that it was on a Sunday that Jesus rose from the tomb liberating us from the bondage of sin and death and inaugurating a new creation, it makes sense.

And it makes sense that we not treat this day just like any other.

In Exodus 20:8 – part of the Ten Commandments whose authority we still claim to recognize – we hear, "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy." Keep it holy, set apart. Like a chalice. Like the altar.

Jesus does not contradict this basic Old Testament revelation. He reorients it. He asserts that the sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. It is not a day to obsess about many detailed rules. Certainly not a day to obsess about whether your neighbor is doing it right – no “pointing of the finger” like the synagogue ruler in this morning’s gospel.

It is a day when it is good to do good like Jesus did. And it is a day when we can be liberated from the burdens we bear like Jesus liberated the bent over woman.

Some of the early teachers of the Church interpreted this gospel passage metaphorically in ways that are instructive when thinking of the Sabbath:

St. Augustine suggested that the woman represents humanity that has bent itself over looking at the world and temporal concerns rather than looking up to God. The result is crippled souls.

Augustine’s mentor, St. Ambrose, likened the woman to people who are weighed down with the burdens of this life – money, family, work, school, etc. Worry over these matters weighs people down.  We all know the feeling, “It feels like a giant weight on my shoulders.”

Maryann McKibben-Dana, in her book Sabbath in the Suburbs, describes this well, "Life felt like a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle with 600 pieces."  She was caught up in a frenetic suburban existence –a relentless list of work, errands, carpool, dishes, email, bills, yardwork, etc., etc., etc.

Weighed down, with our eyes on our own temporal concerns, serving our own interests, and pursuing our own affairs without interruption will bend our spirits and make it more difficult to see God.

If we really want to be counter-cultural, if we really want to resist the secularization of the church, if we really want to “ride upon the heights of the earth”, if we want to stand up straight, one place we should start is by reclaiming the liberating discipline of keeping Sabbath.

That discipline might well take various shapes. Given the realities of the society in which we live it might be truly difficult for some, if not impossible, to dedicate all of Sunday. But, I doubt that there are many here for whom that is the case. For almost all of us it would require a kind of commitment, discipline, and planning that we are not used to. So take baby steps if you need to. But here are some ideas to refrain from trampling on the Sabbath:

·         Attend worship. Be here on Sunday morning.

·         Refrain from paid employment,

·         Refrain from commercial activity – no buying, no selling

·         Refrain from running errands – pursuing your own affairs

·         Refrain from the Internet – This is one I have found particularly difficult, but also one that I have come to value. I dare you to try it. And that means your iPhone as well.

·         Refrain from watching the News – turn off CNN. Turn off Fox. Turn off MSNBC. The usual madness of the world will go on whether or not you witness it or worry about it. Remember, the world is in God’s hands.

But keeping Sabbath is not just about refraining from some things, important as that is. It is also about investing in other things – investing in things that matter.

·         Invest time in relationships

·         Take a nap – some rabbis have suggested that if you are married, you might do more than nap.

·         Celebrate creation – go for a walk in the woods

·         Do things that refresh your spirit

·         Meditate on God’s goodness and give thanks

·         Reflect on the past week – did you tend to things that really matter? Pray for the week ahead

·         Feast – Sunday is not a fast day. Enjoy some good food.

·         Invest in intentional acts of kindness.

·         Rest. Be refreshed.

Saint Augustine famously wrote in Confessions, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

If we want to rest in God, why not start by “refraining from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing our own interests on God’s holy day.”