Visited by Sabbath
Texts: Exodus 20:1-2, 8-10; Deuteronomy 5:12-15;
Oddly enough, during this quarantined time, I have lost sight of Sabbath. How is that possible? In typical times, I am often going in a thousand different directions, but in these Alice in Wonderland days, mostly, I am just going from one room to the next. So, how could I have lost sight of Sabbath?
As a child, I knew exactly when and where to find Sabbath. Sabbath meant putting on a dress shirt, a clip-on bow tie, and sitting on wooden pews with no cushions. It was also responsible for long, boring talks by the man in a flowing black robe who wore an upside-down white V from his neck. I never knew why.
Sabbath hung around long after I escaped from church. Once home and quickly out of Sunday clothes, I was ready to head to the woods for an intense, non-violent game of war. Instead, my dad would make us pile into the car to visit grandma. Why? Because Sabbath said so. I wanted to at least play some cards or a board game or go to a movie, but I had to sit around and visit with people. Why? Because Sabbath said so. I already had read the Bible in church all morning, why did I need to read it in the afternoon? Why? You guessed it. Because Sabbath said so. Throughout my childhood, I never lost sight of Sabbath.
As a teenager, I started to treat Sabbath like the Tooth Fairy, another parental invention, in this case, to calm wiggly children in church and make them shine their shoes once a week. I decided that if Sabbath did not really exist, then why bother with all the fuss? Why keep following all those arcane rules? Who needs Sabbath anyway?
In college, I proclaimed my liberty from Sabbath and felt all the better for it. I said to myself, “Let those uptight adults and shoe-tortured children have Sabbath tell them what to do and when to do it and keep them walking in claustrophobic church cadence.” Not me. I was done with Sabbath and said hello to a whole new world.
I was free at last. I could sleep late on Sunday mornings or hit the local all-you-can eat breakfast buffet to the absolute horror of the owner. I could head to the basketball court or the golf course or take a trip with some buddies to Virginia Beach. I would smile with smug delight on Sundays when a few of my more pious classmates dressed in tortuous coat and tie headed off to worship, while I was sipping some orange juice and reading the Sunday funnies. When back home, I would still head off with my parents for their Sabbath silliness, always feeling a little sorry for them that they did not see the phoniness in this Sabbath business.
So, you can imagine my great surprise when as a young college student Sabbath came looking for me. Sabbath looked exactly like a friend of mine, a dead ringer, in fact. Sabbath said, “Tomorrow morning, I’m heading over to the Williamsburg Presbyterian Church. Why don’t you come along?” Something in Sabbath’s voice made me curious, wondering if there really was a Sabbath beyond the church trappings and petty rule traditions that have accumulated over time. So, that Sunday morning, I put on a pair of shoes that required no shining, my favorite pair of jeans, found the one shirt that was still clean at the end of the weekend, and walked with Sabbath into that colonial sanctuary.
After that, Sabbath started to show up in the strangest places and at the most peculiar times. I often ran into Sabbath on Monday nights when a group of us tutored kids at risk of failing out of school. Sabbath sometimes stopped by my library carrel late in the day to invite me to an evensong service at Bruton Parish Episcopal Church. Over the next couple of years at Union Seminary, Sabbath and I sat for long hours together learning Hebrew and Greek, studying Scripture, learning theology, and debating ethics.
I have never been happier to see Sabbath show up than in that MCV operating room on July 3, 1980 when Jennell was giving birth to our firstborn child, Erin. She arrived at the most inopportune time. We were packing our stuff, trying to get ready to move our life’s belongings to Wilmington, N.C. where I would begin my ordained ministry at the Bethany Presbyterian Church.
I had so much to do and I couldn’t get my mind off all of the details. The day that Erin was born, Sabbath took me out in the hall and told me that I could worry about moving and church responsibilities later, but for now, to take time to revel in the pure joy of God’s creative work. Almost forty years later, it is still some of the best advice that Sabbath has ever given to me.
Ironically, soon after being ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, things began to change. As a freshly minted Seminary graduate, I found myself treating Sabbath the same way I had seen Sabbath treated as a child – as a Tyrant, the great Rules Enforcer to keep folks towing the religious line, making sure they came to church on Sunday, gave generously, and read their Bibles religiously.
I had to search for Sabbath, sometimes even on Sundays, sometimes even in a sanctuary full of people listening to me talk about Sabbath! In truth, I didn’t search too hard, because I didn’t have the time. I was consumed with all the details of being a paid Christian. Had the hospital visits been made? Had the stewardship letter been written? Had the bulletin information been proofed? Had the Session minutes been edited? Had the conversation been had with the parents of two teenagers who skipped class on Sunday to visit the local coffee hangout? Had the paper been prepared for presentation at Presbytery? Had the commentaries been read for the sermon on Sunday? All the while, Sabbath was nowhere in sight.
Thankfully, Sabbath is not easily put off and comes looking for us even when we are not looking for Sabbath. When my dad developed congestive heart failure, Sabbath rode with me in the ambulance over 15 times in the last year of his life. Sabbath taught me to hold onto those holy hours – even in the hospital. Sabbath would sit there with my dad when I had to go home. Sabbath and I grew close again during that last year of my ministry in Newport News, but when I headed to a new ministry in Alexandria, I lost sight of Sabbath again. I had way too much to do to have any time left for Sabbath.
I knew that when I accepted a call to a church in Atlanta that Sabbath and I would be close again. And, just as I had hoped, Sabbath was waiting for me when I walked into Central on my first day. But it did not take long before I was headed in a thousand directions and Sabbath was nowhere in sight.
I was certain that leaving the relentless pressures of serving large congregations would mean that Sabbath and I would become fast friends on my arrival at Cove. Sabbath and I would take time each day to pray, to reach out to the lonely and neglected, to insist that there is no justice for any until there is justice for all. At Cove, at long last, I would finally have the time to devote to Sabbath.
Well, I suspect you know where the story goes. Soon, I found new ways to keep busy but not keep Sabbath. Then the pandemic hit. And, instead of opening the door and welcoming Sabbath in, I did just the opposite. There were sermons to tape and Zoom meetings to hold, Bible studies to prepare and phone calls to be made.
Then, as if out of nowhere, while I was writing this sermon, Sabbath just pulled up a chair next to me and asked, “Gary, how are you doing?” “How can I help you find God in these troubling times?” I asked Sabbath, “So, where have you been?” Sabbath leaned back in the chair and said, “Gary, been here all along. You were just too busy to notice.”
Whenever you and I are on the other side of this global calamity, I pray that I will notice Sabbath standing beside us, not to lecture us on what to we have done or left undone so much as to lead us into the loving embrace of a forgiving and grace-filled God.
In the meantime, Sabbath is welcome to move in right now.
(I am indebted to the late Dr. Fred Craddock for the idea of personifying “Sabbath” from his masterful sermon years ago when he personified “Doxology.”)