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Trampling the Sabbath

Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, Aug 25

The fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 58: 9b- 14
Luke 13: 10-17

Last night was genuinely cool. Even without a calendar, I think we’d know that it’s the last week of August. Summer is turning to fall. Schools are starting up. Halloween candy is being piled on supermarket shelves. Wait a minute! Where did the summer go? When were we supposed to rest, and relax, and rejuvenate? As the weather changes from summer’s humidity to a fresh, cool, fall breeze, today’s reading from Isaiah rings out loud and clear: Have we – yet again -- trampled this annual Sabbath?

Now, I don’t presume that you find yourself in the same situation. Or maybe you do. In our family, with Linda working at UMass Dartmouth, her summer ends after the third week in July. Student Life staff begin arriving back on campus for training and planning in preparation for the arrival and orientation of thousands of students on campus next weekend.

Also, last June, like many of you who have school-aged children, the beginning of our summer was defined by the school calendar. In our school district last spring, thanks to Hurricane Sandy and Nemo the blizzard, the public schools finally let out on June 27, which left our family with precisely three weeks between one school year and the next. Summer seemed short before it even began.

Until I met Linda, I didn’t really appreciate all of the August prep work that education administration requires, and I’m sure that some of you know this well. One of her colleagues found something on facebook this week that sums up the perspective of those who work in student affairs.
Lawyers representing [college personnel administrators] filed a class action lawsuit against the month of August … [alleging] that August willfully creates a hostile work environment at all colleges and universities by requiring staff to work longer hours in preparation for the beginning of the school year.
August. It’s supposed to be pure summer – at least in the northern hemisphere. Around the world, especially in Europe, there are places that close down for the whole month of August. Rest, recovery, relaxation. Sabbath. A continuous weekend. Or week-end, as they say in Downton Abbey. Perhaps you remember one night at dinner, when they’re all dressed in their tuxes and full-length dresses, eating amongst china and silver and candeabras. Cousin Matthew mentioned that he’d been offered a job at a law firm, which concerned Lord Grantham because he was counting on Matthew’s help around the estate. Matthew says, “Well, there’s always the week-end.” And then Lady Violet (played by Maggie Smith) gets this confused look on her face, like she’s never heard the term before, and delivers what has become a classic line: “What is a week-end?”

There are two groups of people who don’t know what a weekend is: those who have never worked, and those who never get a day off. The whole creation story in Genesis (there are two … but the one with the seven days) points to the creation of the rhythm of the week. After six days of work creating the world, God rested. And so the Sabbath was instituted: after working six days, we are to take one day of rest. The Labor movement in the 19th century in this country protected workers from 24/7 work weeks. Massachusetts employment law demands that employees have at least 24 consecutive hours off after six days’ work. So, whether we’re talking about a weekly Sabbath or an annual Sabbath, taking time off is important, according to the government and to God.

Whether we work hard or play hard, in one way or another, summer is a time for rest, a time for recovery and for rejuvenation. If you come to the end of the summer, and you haven’t had that chance for relaxation, you’re not in a good place to begin September. Summer is a time for recuperating from the activity of the spring and a time for gearing up for the fall to come. Or maybe in your life, you have a different rhythm. Your season of summer is not July and August, but another month. Farmers will work hard all summer, but then take time off in the fall, after the harvest.

Whenever you summer is, somewhere in the midst of that time off, there is a moment when we stop recovering from the past and start preparing ourselves for the future, a time when the recuperating ends and the new year begins. Whenever that moment comes, it seems that both processes are crucial to our continued well-being.

It seems that the essential elements of life are like this aspect of summer. Sleeping, breathing, eating, and conversing all involve some kind of recovery from the events of the past and then preparation for the future. We sleep because we are tired at the end of a day, but also so that we are rested for the next day. We eat because we are hungry, but also to provide our bodies with energy for the hours to come. Our conversations with friends and family give us the chance to catch up on past events and to share in future plans. In all of these, balance is essential; it's not good to feel that we're always trying to catch up, nor is it healthy, I would contend, to be always over-prepared for everything. What we need to acknowledge is that it is the same process that both replenishes us and readies us; it is a constant process that underlies our very existence.

For many religious people, summer is also a time for revival: Church camp, Methodist camp meeting, Vacation Bible School -- a time to re-connect with our faith. Historically, after the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the Puritans and the southern colonies by the Anglicans, the intensity of religious commitment gave way to practical concerns of life in a growing society. The third generation immigrants did not share the strength of religious conviction that had led their parents and grandparents across the Atlantic. But in the early eighteenth century, religious activity intensified as the intellectual theology of the Puritans was challenged by an emotional spark of German Pietism, of emotional access to the spirit in the soul. Revivalists such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield preached to large crowds of people concerning the need for the personal experience of religious conversion.

But not everyone was pleased with this new approach to religion. Ministers of "established" churches looked with disdain at those who led the revivals, as well as with pity on those who attended them and were carried away by the swift current of unreasonable persuasion. In fact, the events of this "Great Awakening" split every one of the major American churches into two sides: those who feared the emotions of the revivals, maintaining that God was to be approached with reason and intellect, and those who, along with Jonathan Edwards, believed that "true religion consists so much in the affections that there can be no true religion without them."

Fifty years later, after the excitement of the Awakening and the American Revolution settled down, a second wave of revivals swept the country. In August of 1801, one of the most famous and successful revivals was held at Cane Ridge, Kentucky. It lasted for a week and attracted tens of thousands of people -- more than a third of the population of the entire state of Kentucky. It was a gathering of preachers and people, an outpouring of a spirit of fellowship and compassion, of dancing, singing, laughing, and praying.

This all led to the great split between what we now know as the Congregational and Unitarian churches. Sometimes when people mix us up with First Parish in Cambridge, I point out that we were one congregation for nearly 200 hundred years, but we split into two congregations in 1829, although we are still getting some of their mail! The disagreement in what is called the Unitarian Controversy was specifically over whether the Trinity was biblical or not, but it was also about whether religion was more of a “head” or “heart” experience. I don’t think that’s been decided by simply establishing two kinds of churches. Instead, we have continued through the centuries of our American religious history, ebbing and flowing, cycling up and down through times of religious intensity and times of comparative calm.

More recently, we experienced what one church historian counts as the "Ninth Great Awakening", which peaked in the early 1980s. Remember the Moral Majority? In those years, we watched as religion received a new kind of attention in the media, as well as in the political process. We heard debates on prayer in schools, physician-assisted suicide, the repeal of the prohibition on doing business on the Christian Sabbath, home-schooling, and abortion.
In every issue, people have responded with sincere and deeply felt beliefs. Throughout it all, we have this pull between the secular and the sacred, between work and rest, between the summer and the school year, between head and heart. That pull is not something new, but something that has been felt throughout time.

Jesus felt it, too. When he arrived at the synagogue to teach, he saw a woman in need of healing. He called her over, laid hands on her, and healed her. The woman was overjoyed, and the synagogue leader was indignant. To him, healing on the Sabbath was wrong. To protect that distinction between work and rest, he felt that he needed to be really precise about what was allowed on the Sabbath. He felt that Jesus was failing to observe the Sabbath. And without honoring the Sabbath, he felt that all of religion was at risk. The rabbis say that is not that Jews keep the Sabbath as much as it is that the Sabbath keeps the Jews.

As a minister, I find it somewhat annoying that the leader of the synagogue defined healing as “work” but not the teaching that Jesus was doing. When Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, the leader wasn’t indignant. In congregations, the congregation and staff are on a different schedule. You come to church on your Sabbath. For us, it’s a work day. We have to prepare worship, find the microphones, set the chairs out. We’ll get our time off later, but not today.
In this context of work and rest and summer’s end, Isaiah’s phrase that we are to “refrain from trampling the Sabbath” really struck me. He could have said not to ignore it, or not to avoid it. But not to trample it? We use that verb when there are crowds of people, like the crowds at those summer revivals, or a crowd at a store, or a crowd getting tickets for a concert. But the trampling part isn’t inherent in the crowds. It’s when the crowd reacts out of a feeling of panic or fear that they risk trampling something or someone.
So when are we at risk for trampling our Sabbath, our rest, our time off? Isaiah makes the point that we need to make sure that we have some time – not so much when we’re not working, but time when we’re not pursuing our own interests. That sounded different to me this time around. So, attending a revival allows us to listen – not for our own self-interest, but to listen for what God is calling us to do and to be. To feel that feeling in our hearts that leads us to follow our passion. Not pursuing our own interests has to do with opening our eyes and looking at others and seeing what they need and what we can offer. Not pursuing our own interests could simply be spending time with a friend and doing what that friend wants to do. As we begin to pay attention to others in the world in a different way, even if only on one day, or in one season, we give ourselves some of that rest that we are seeking.
Whatever we do, whatever ways we find to honor the summer, or to honor the Sabbath, or to honor a day off, remember that God is a part of all of it – in the teaching and the healing, the work and the rest. We need revival gatherings which make possible our acknowledgment of God's presence, and give us a chance to be caught in the spirit of the occasion. The summer lulls also give us a chance to read a book and to think about where God is in our lives, or what we’re doing with our lives, or who we are in the midst of all this. The summer quiet is important; most of the structures which are in place "during the year," or during the fall, winter, and spring, are put aside, giving us a chance to see what is at the essential core of our community.

So don’t think of it so much as summer ending, but as our year shifting into a season with the shorter rhythm of each week, with time for activity and stillness, time for the world and time for ourselves, time for finding those emotional sparks that keep our faith alive. I invite you see the coming fall not as the end of a summer, but to see it in the context of its rhythm within the rest of our year, to look forward to our Re-Gathering Sunday, and to promise yourself to refrain from trampling whatever Sabbath God gives you. Amen.

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