The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Lord of the Sabbath: A Sermon on Deut 5:12-15; 2 Cor. 4: 5-12; Mark 22: 3-6

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

We live, in case you haven’t noticed, in unsettled times.

We’re all living in an era where there’s constantly too much to do, working longer hours with more projects.

Or hourly workers, who have to cobble together several jobs to put together a living wage. Minimum wage workers in big box stores, but college professors, too.

I know an adjunct professor who managed to pay the rent on her little Jersey City basement flat by teaching at three different colleges, in three different boroughs of New York City. She’d get home, and pick up a novel, unable to read it, because the page would blur.

She told me that she was one of the lucky ones—she was making rent, unlike one of her colleagues who had to sleep in her car.

And let’s not mention politics and the twenty-four hour news cycle.

OK, we have to. Sorry.

But the Friday night news dump has become such a reliable flood of shock and outrage that you can get so worked up that getting a good night’s sleep is out of the question.

We want to be educated voters. We want to be efficient, hard-working members of our booming economy, each of us chasing Gatsby’s green light, the symbol of having arrived, of success.

And so, for all of our abundance, American workers are the most overworked in the developed world. Maybe it’s a secularized version of the Protestant work ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism described by Max Weber—trying to overcome the fear that we are unworthy by achieving spectacular concrete success in our callings.

Which would explain the McMansion, at least.

We even work to hard at distracting ourselves, at amusement.

Pop culture is popping all around us. Blink, and you’ll miss the new Star Wars film—what are we up to now? Solo's come, but has it gone yet?-- or The Death of Stalin in the arthouse, or the newest, bingeable TV show.

We want to be in the loop—to get everybody’s cultural references, to impress with being current. The Crown is so last year, and now we’re past Vanessa Kirby's sympathetic romantic Princess Margaret. Now we're watching Harriet Walter's icy, cruel Princess Margaret, while Benedict Cumberbatch's recovering addict tries to find a little kindness in himself. Patrick Melrose, not Melrose Place.

The Blacklist is passé, but Billions is still cool, I think. Right? [1]

It’s all a little like Brave New World, where fun was compulsory, and if you don’t enjoy yourself hard enough—well, maybe you just need more.

This is what Henry Higgins meant in My Fair Lady when he yearns to be free from “humanity’s mad, inhuman noise.”

And that’s just the up side. The luxury problems. The fortunate ones whose distractions are relatively benign.

I haven’t mentioned the burn out that people who care for stricken family members have to shake off, the fatigue of caring for a spouse or a child who just doesn’t seem to get better, and yet who you can’t give up on. Those caregivers who are a little more depleted, day after day, a little more exhausted, a little more depressed. And yet who still push on, out of kindness, out of loyalty. Most of all, out of love.

I’ve seen that in surprising places. In my pre-ordination training, making rounds at New York Presbyterian Hospital. On sick calls. Long ago, in visiting a relative who had had a stroke years before, and whose wife kept on loving him, kept on coaxing him to eat, to talk, to stay rooted in his own life. I think her love bought him a decade. But at a price—her own fatigue and exhaustion.

We live in a world that expects us to always be on the move, hustling.

We live in a world where sometimes we need to keep pouring out love, caring for those who need us, despite the strain.

And—you might be surprised to know—that’s always been the case.

Paul, in today’s reading from Second Corinthians certainly seems to be flagging. He writes:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair. Persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;

Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, he concludes, but life in you.”
Remember, too, that it is Paul who takes pride in earning his living while he evangelizes, on not taking support from the communities he visits. He describes himself and his companions as “your slaves, for Jesus’s sake.” He’s almost American in his work ethic!

But on reading this passage for today, I thought of a point well made made by the American cultural critic, Elizabeth Sandifer.

“The heart of classic tragedy,” she writes, “is generally that the hero is put into a position where their virtues become flaws. Othello, a brilliant soldier known for his decisiveness, is put into a position where the one thing he needs to do is slow down and think; Hamlet, a thoughtful and meticulous scholar, finds himself in one where delaying constantly makes things worse.”

So, here, I would suggest, Paul. His virtues—his need to prove himself a true apostle, to atone for his complicity in the death of St. Stephen, and in the persecution of Christians before his conversion, earnestness, persistence, endurance, a doggedness that won’t let him rest—all of these are leading him toward exhaustion.

Because nobody is called to live a death-in-life. Not even Paul.

He’s lost sight of the words of Jesus, as reported in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus invites us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

And that’s perfectly consistent with today’s reading from Leviticus.

We are told that “God made it a decree in Joseph, when he went out over the land of Egypt. I hear a voice I had not known: I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket. In distress you called, and I rescued you.”

We’re not meant to prove our worth by imitating the ants as perpetual work machines, and we’re certainly not meant to so lose ourselves in the work, in the roles we play, that we go on and on until we shatter. We are not just expected to rest, we’re required to.

That’s why we are reminded today in Leviticus that the Sabbath is not an option; it’s a law. A statute for Israel. An ordinance of the God of Jacob.

And, like the Pharisees in today’s Gospel, we have the knack for turning things that are meant to be good for us, healthy for us, into burdens.

So often, we turn Sabbath-time into a chore—if we take vacation at all. It’s not the same as time to do the projects at home that we can’t get to because of our busy work lives.

And it’s not compelled fun.

Anything—even the Sabbath—can be made into an idol, abused. Look at today’s Gospel, where Jesus so offends the Pharisees that they join with their enemies, the Herodians, to conspire to kill him.


Because he healed someone on the Sabbath. He didn’t observe the ban on all work on that set aside day of the week.

Jesus’s answer is so self-evidently true that it’s hard to understand why the Pharisees aren’t satisfied with it: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

It’s not a law meant to oppress, it’s a law meant to create space for everyone, whatever their place in society, to breathe. It’s valuable because we need to rest, to step back and regain perspective. To just be.

To recharge and revitalize.

It’s easy to lose sight of that. In fact, William Ralph Inge, in his book Christian Mysticism, points out that religious doctrines—like the need for a Sabbath—start as fresh, life-enhancing insights taught by the person who has the flash of awareness, but as they are passed on again and again, they tend to decay from insight into rules, losing their connection to the values they serve. What was once a fresh idea becomes rigid, fixed, and with no obvious point other than obedience.

That’s what’s happened to the Pharisees here. They have forgotten the underlying purpose of the Sabbath and are enforcing a rigid rule the purpose of which is forgotten. It’s a test of conformity, nothing more.

Whereas the apostles, happily munching grain as they stroll through the fields with Jesus, enjoying their friendship and fellowship, have the right idea. That's sabbath done right.

So make time in your life for yourselves. Cultivate a space where you can be you, a time when you can push aside your cares, and enjoy what makes you happy. Because there’s always more work and worry, but that’s not what life is for.

It’s what we work for, those moments with friends, with loved ones, even with just ourselves and whatever it is that centers you.

Cheaper By the Dozen, a memoir about the family of the first efficiency experts, engineers Frank Gilbreth and his wife Lillian Moller Gilbreth, was written by two of their twelve children. The book ends this way:
Someone once asked Dad: "But what do you want to save time for? What are you going to do with it?" 
"For work, if you love that best," said Dad. "For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure." He looked over the top of his pince-nez. "For mumblety-peg, if that's where your heart lies."
Only you can find your own Sabbath. I’d suggest you get on it, if you haven’t already. It’s wherever your heart lies.

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

[1] After the service, a departing parishioner kindly assured me that Billions is still delicious. I am relieved to hear it.


Anonymous said...

Educational, Erudite, and moving. You are gifted old friend. In fact, one of my treasures will be meeting with you once again this summer.


Anglocat said...

It will be one for me as well, mon ami!