Too Busy For Sabbath – Isaiah 58.9b-14

Isaiah 58.9b-14

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets to live in. 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; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

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Whenever you get a group of pastors together, competition breaks out whether we want it to or not. So much of what we do take place on Sundays and therefore we never get to see our peers at work. So when we gather for a meeting or a conference, we tend to show off in order to make ourselves feel better.

At Annual Conference this year, the time when all of the United Methodists from Virginia get together to talk about the state of the denomination, I had lunch with a few clergy colleagues and the sizing up started almost immediately. We asked questions like, “What’s the best sermon you preached in the last year?” and “How is God blessing your ministry?” which is code for “How many people do you have in worship?” We listened as each person tried to demonstrate how their work was bearing more fruit than the other people at the table. And as the meal came to its conclusion someone asked, “If you could change one thing about your church without any consequences, what would it be?”

What a great question! The table was strangely silent for a few moments while each of us prepared our answers. I immediately pictured all of you sitting in worship and I started whittling down my list to the number one change.

My first thought was practical: If I could change one thing without consequence I would force everyone to tithe. It would demonstrate our trust that the Lord will provide, it would help us bless others in this community through financial support, and it would help remove a lot of stress from my life. But then I realized that was a selfish change, and frankly one that wouldn’t make me sound very pastoral in front of my peers.

My second thought was simple: If I could change one thing without consequence I would force everyone who sits in the back of the sanctuary to move up to the front of the sanctuary! It would make our church closer, it would create a fuller sense of connection, and it would save me from having to yell all the way to the back of the church. But then I realized that was a selfish change, and frankly one that wouldn’t make me sound very Christian in front of my peers.

So I settled for something like: I would help the church to see that we are all in this together. That we have a responsibility to open our eyes to the community around us and believe that its more about serving them, and less about the church serving us.

The group nodded in silent affirmation. And then we listened to the next answer and the next answer. With each successive response we heard more and more ideas that could reshape the entire identity of the local church. Someone said that she would force her congregation to spend time each week serving the poor. Another said that he would require every person to go on at least one mission trip a year. And so on.

But my friend Drew remained silent. Sitting at the edge of the table he listened intently as each pastor put forth his or her opinion, and I could tell that he was really thinking through his response. And when all of us had finally finished, when we had all laid out our best to impress, we all turned our heads to Drew to hear his answer.

He sighed and said, “I would make everyone rest.”

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The Lord speaks to Isaiah and is perfectly clear: 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.

Today, we are a far cry away from the type of Sabbath observance that took place in the time of the Old Testament. We barely even have a conception of what it means to be sabbatical on a regular basis. For Jews, to this day, the Sabbath happens every week, beginning on Friday night. For 24 hours everything changes. They gather together as families and friends. They remember who they are and whose they are. They experience God in time set apart.

For the Jews, Sabbaths are their greatest cathedrals and the holiest of holies is something that no one can take away. Instead of placing their hope and faith in things like buildings and ministry programs, they believe in the power of time that is different. They remember that the Lord created the world in six days and called each day “good.” But when the Lord came to the seventh day, the day of rest, God called it “holy.” In the holiness of the Jewish Sabbath they discover that time, not a place, but a time of difference makes all the difference.

We, on the other hand, don’t know what the Sabbath is any more. For those of us of the more mature-in-faith persuasion can remember a time with blue laws, when Sundays were different than the other days during the week. There was no going to the super market after church. There was no matinee showing of a movie on Sunday afternoon. No little league sports had games scheduled on the Lord’s Day.

But that time is long gone.

Now Sunday is likely the busiest day of the week. We frantically wake up on Sunday morning and get breakfast going, we wrestle with the kids to get out of bed and get dressed. We plead with them to find some article of clothing not covered in wrinkles. We jam into the car and arrive in the parking lot as the first hymn is being offered. We try to pay attention during worship, but whenever the pastor is foolish enough to call for times of contemplative silence, we can’t help ourselves from listing all of the things we need to get done this afternoon in our head. When worship ends we pile up in our cars and head out for lunch or back to the house to finish all the chores we neglected during the week. And before we know it we have to start working on dinner, we have to berate the children to finish their homework, we have to pack the lunches for Monday morning, and (if we’re lucky) we have time to all sit down in front of the television until our eyes dry up and we head to bed.

How hard is it to do anything these days, and in particular on Sunday? With our frantic and overly programmed schedules we find it harder and harder to find the time to do anything. By way of example, it took us months to figure out a time for our revamped youth group to meet. We debated meeting on Sunday evenings but that interfered with homework and family time. Fridays were out because of football games and other sport activities. Mondays were out because of band performances. Tuesdays we out because Scouts. And so on. It took a frightening amount of time to find the right time for our Youth, and even though we identified 7pm on Wednesday nights as the best time, it still prevents some of our Youth from attending on a regular basis.

And this isn’t just about youth. We adults are just as guilty about over-stuffing our daily lives with activities to the point that when the Sabbath arrives, we need to use it to make up for all the time we lost from Monday through Saturday.

We fill our lives with activities and programs because we are so desperate to find meaning in our lives. We assume that we must have something to do in order to make good on the time we’ve got. We use our busyness to feel confident that we are not wasting time. We go and go and go, and without Sabbath we fail to be who God is calling us to be.

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For six days every week we live under the tyranny of to-dos and the empire of expectations, for six days every week we try to dominate our duties and lasso our lives. Can you imagine what your life would feel like if, on the Sabbath, you gave up the temptation to control every moment? Can you picture how it would look to treat our time as the gift that it really is?

John Wesley was fond of telling a story about a young Christian who was extremely committed to observing the Sabbath. On one Saturday evening, as the sun was preparing to set, the young man sat down at his kitchen table and began shining his shoes for worship the next morning. He shined and shined, but ran out of polish and had to start looking through the house until he found another container. And as he prepared to start polishing the second shoe he looked out the window and discovered that the sun had set and evening had started. So he put his shoes away, one perfectly shined and the other scratched and dirty. And the next morning at church he wore those two seemingly different shoes for everyone to see, because he would not “work” on the Sabbath.

Is that the kind of Sabbath that God calls us to observe? Is it strict obedience to a principle, no matter what, that will make us ride upon the heights of the earth?

Observing the Sabbath is less about avoiding certain behaviors and more about being intentional about what we do with the time God gives us. It is far too easy to fill our Sundays with menial work that was neglected during the week. There is too great a temptation to use the Lord’s Day to serve our own interests. Many of us would consider ourselves too busy for Sabbath.

The Sabbath is supposed to be about joy! It’s not about sitting in a stuffy room listening to a preacher telling you that you’re a sinner and you need to repent. It’s not about neglecting to serve others in need. It’s not a legalistic absolute.

The Sabbath is a time apart, a time of thankfulness and joy. It is the one day a week we are called to break free from the oppression of our stifling work. It is a time to gather with the family of God to give thanks for all that we have. We are called to fill our Sabbaths with the kind of behaviors and activities that give us the strength to face the other days of the week. It is a time of rest. It is a time of holiness. It is a time where we can use recreation for our re-creation.

Creation is not an act that happened once, long ago, in the past. The act of bringing the world into existence is a continuous process. We rest once a week, because every week is a repeat of God’s creative and imaginative work. We rest because God rested. Every Sabbath is an opportunity to be recreated by the Spirit to be who God is calling us to be.

If we refrain from abusing the Sabbath, from using it as another day to get everything done; if we call the Sabbath a joy and if we honor it, not to serve our own interests; then we shall take delight in the Lord. We shall be able to faithfully sing, “it is well with my soul.” We shall be fed with the heritage of all who have come before us, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Amen.

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Reality Check – Sermon on Psalm 4

Psalm 4

Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer. How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him. When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord. There are many who say, “O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!” You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound. I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.

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He was resting in the bed when I entered the room. Like many people suffering from a terminal illness, the living room had been reimagined as a bedroom with medical equipment spread throughout the space. The older man’s son stood next to me, trying not to cry while he watched his dad sleeping in the bed. The son gently nudged his father to wake up and introduced me as the young seminary intern. He then left us alone.

After his son left the room, the older man sat up from his bed with a smile that left me feeling disoriented. I could see his physical discomfort, but there was a sense of joy and peace that emanated from his whole person to anyone around. Unsure how to begin our conversation, I just sat there trying to come up with something, when he interrupted my thoughts by saying, “Taylor, this cancer has been the best thing that ever happened to me.

Rev. Willie Mac Tribble was dying of a brain tumor. He had spent the majority of his life serving as a United Methodist Pastor in the North Georgia Conference. He had pastored 10 different churches during his 40-year career, but now he was stuck in his living room talking to a young seminarian about his life and ministry. Though simple movements sent lightning bolts of pain throughout his body, and he was nearing the end of his life, he claimed that his suffering had been a blessing.

Psalm 4 is often overlooked in the life of faithfulness, but it conveys the depth of what it means to rely on the Lord and have the right perspective. Upon first inspection we might label it as an evening psalm, something to be prayed before our heads hit the pillows: I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety. It sounds like a prayer that we hope the leaders of our community would utter up to God recognizing they have endured shame for the betterment of the people. It is selfless, hopeful, and faithful. 

Yet, this psalm is not just for a particular set of people with a specific set of problems, but it is a psalm for all of us, worthy to be prayed throughout our lives.

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Psalm 4 begins by addressing the Lord:

God, when I start praying, please listen and answer me. I know that you are the Lord of my life, and you are with me in all things, but I need you presence now.

In the past you provided for me when I was in need. You placed words on my tongue when I was speaking, you sent the right people into my life when I was lonely, and you provided food from the earth when I was hungry. So Lord, be gracious yet again and listen to me as I pray.

The psalmist then moves to address the people who no longer trust God:

How long will all you people fall short of you potential? Why do you continue to love words that puff up, that make you sound better than you are, that inflate your ego and self-perception? How long will you believe all the lies that surround you? Why are you so transfixed by the rumors and drama? Remember this: the Lord has set us apart to be a holy people who pursue holiness. The Lord listens when we call to him. 

When life is full of disappointment and regret, when you feel like nothing is going your way and the floor is crumbling underneath, when you experience loneliness and fear, do not sin. Instead of venting and taking out your frustrations on other people, ponder your circumstances and be silent. Give up the things that are tearing you down, and put your trust in the Lord. 

Too many people only believe and keep faith when everything is going right in their lives. They only praise the Lord when they are successful, and the minute something becomes derailed they blame the Lord first before looking at themselves. Too many prayers are based upon: “Lord, if you do this for me, I will turn my life around, or I’ll start going to church.”

We are at the peak of our faithfulness when we recognize the gladness the Lord has placed in our hearts more than when all the material things of life abounded. We do well to recognize the Lord’s blessing in all things and trust that God is with us. Because it is only with a deep trust and confidence in the Lord that we can sleep in peace, for the Lord is the one who brings us comfort in our rest.

Why are all of us here this morning? I count it as nothing short of a miracle that God continues to gather people together every week for worship. But the fact that people choose to spend their time doing something like this will always surprise me. With all the competing narratives in our world, we decided to come here to participate in an ancient practice of letting the Lord reorient our lives.

Why are we here? Perhaps the best answer to that question is this: we want to hear something true. All of us are constantly bombarded by the facts of the life, and the subsequent denial of those facts. We wake up feeling sore and then we watch a commercial about a cream that can make all of our pain go away. We struggle through relationship after relationship and then we get invited to an online dating service that promises to find us a companion for life. We wrestle with children who neglect to pay attention at home and school, and a friend tells us about the magic pill that will calm our children, and make them into who they are supposed to be.

And then we come to church and we hear the truth. We learn about our sinfulness and how we need to be better. But through the church there are no cheap fixes, there’s no pill or simple prayer that can turn everything around. Discovering our sinfulness and seeking holiness requires a lifetime of work.

Yet, here we are. I have to believe that even though the life of discipleship is remarkably difficult, we are here because we believe it is worth it. We are here because we hear the words of Psalm 4 and we know that it is speaking something new and truthful into our very lives on this very day.

Church, at its best, is the arena of reality checks. Whether we want to admit it or not, this is the time when we face the truth: The unrighteous often flourish, and the faithful are usually ridiculed and ignored. In fact, godliness tends to make suffering inevitable. Psalm 4 speaks to the deep truth of what it means to follow Christ: if we really act like the Christians we claim to be, we will be persecuted for our discipleship.

So here is the deep reality check of Psalm 4: True happiness and faithfulness is often found in the least likely of places. We imagine that the wealthy and powerful are joyful but what they have cannot make them happy and sleep in peace. It never ceases to amaze me, but I regularly discover happiness in places I would never imagine: hospitals and funerals. The people who are in the midst of pain and suffering are somehow renewing their own lives. They are the ones who are proving that they can face life’s harshness and still stand fast. There is an inner glow in the heart of a disciple who can show such faith in the midst of something so tragic.

Taylor” he said, “this cancer has been the best thing that ever happened to me. For the first time in years people have been anxious to come visit with me. For decades I served as a pastor and was surrounded by people, but since I retired I have never been so lonely in my life. Yet now, my sons and daughter, who used to just call once in awhile, have been driving to see me on a regular basis. I’ve had old confirmands and church members from past seek me out since my diagnosis. Friends from long ago have reached out through letters, phone calls, and even visits. I am ashamed that, for the first time in my life, I am thankful for living at all.

Mac’s faith was not grounded in simple and straightforward theological claims, but was instead rekindled by the recognition of how blessed his life really was. It is so sad that it often takes a profound loss or an unwavering diagnosis to make us appreciate what we have, but for Mac it made all the difference. He recognized the true gladness in his heart, even in the midst of suffering, because God’s love was being poured down upon him during the final days of his life. He could only claim his cancer as the best thing to happen, because he understood that death is not the end, and that God will take care of us when we die.

This room is full of sinners and maybe that’s exactly why we are here. While the world tells us to forget our mistakes and press forward, the church calls us to look upon our short-comings and repent. While we seek to find fulfillment in relationships and passions, the church challenges us to remember that only the Lord can provide wholeness. While we strive to ignore that annoying co-worker, and push off our children’s problems onto someone else, the church tells us to love one another and take responsibility.

This is one of the only places left that actually challenges us with the truth. 

I stand at the front door every Sunday and I see all the sinners gather for worship. I see the broken relationships, the arguments between friends, the bad blood that continues to boil over, the resentments and frustrations, the prejudices and failures. And we stand and sit, we praise and pray, and then the chief sinner of us all gets to stand at the front and talk about what God is still doing in our lives.

My friends, we can’t wait for something bad to happen before we begin to appreciate what we have. If we base our happiness around material success, then we will never feel truly fulfilled. If Psalm 4 is speaking something to us today, it’s to start giving thanks for what we have, and seeking out those whom God has placed in our lives.

But if we’re not at that point, then we can at least begin with prayer. Maybe like the psalmist we can commune with the Lord before we go to sleep, or perhaps we can go to God the moment we awake in the morning. It does not matter how we pray, but that we pray in the first place because prayer leads to trust, a trust in the Lord that even when we die, it will not be the end. Amen.

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