Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
June 3, 2018
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
The first time I set foot on the campus of Church Divinity School of the Pacific, I was greeted by a rather stately and majestic deer, a young buck who often visits campus and that I have since come to call “Amadaus” (which he seems to like!). Earlier that afternoon, I had wrapped up my work week at VCU, caught a plane to San Francisco and naively rented a car at the airport to drive to campus. Let me point out, that was at 10 p.m. local time when I landed which meant it was 1 a.m. according to my not-quite-adjusted internal clock. Being frugal, I rented a tiny, economy car which I had to drive across the Bay Bridge in breakneck speed traffic and navigate myself in the dark through the East Bay hills to Berkeley. Still white-knuckled from my driving experience, I finally reached campus and stepped my shaky legs out of my car to be greeted by this most ephemeral of surroundings: a lush, floral, palm-tree lined campus mid-way up the Berkeley Hills, bathed in moonlight. At that moment, I was met by this quiet deer, who acknowledged me with a head nod as he sauntered down the road. I had been praying…not just for my safe arrival…but asking for God’s guidance to help me discern whether this program was the right fit for me in my journey toward ordination. In that moment, I instantly knew: this is a thin place. In my anglo-celtic heritage, these thin spaces where it seems that this world and the world beyond touch each other cut through the ordinary to reveal the divine. I knew in that moment that holy space had found me, and my formation there has indeed been a gift not only to my mind, but also to my spirit.
This week, I will return to CDSP for the last of my seminary studies. As I reflected on this week’s lessons while preparing for that return, I began to think about holy time, as well as holy space. For the last four years, in January and June, my low-residency colleagues and I come to campus and devote our every waking hour…and some typical sleeping hours, too…to be present to this process of formation happening within ourselves and with each other. When I am fully living into that holy time in that holy space, it becomes clear that everything I do is in service to call, in service to the God who knows and recognizes us. When I return home, I am living more deeply into an understanding of who I am called to be because of both sacred time, and sacred space.
Young Samuel also learned to recognize the significance of holy time and sacred space: he had been given to God, raised up in the temple of the Lord as a thankful offering from his mother, Hannah, who poured out her soul to God in hopes of a long-awaited child she feared she would never bear. Samuel learned to recognize the voice of the Lord in the silence of the night, breaking through time and space to speak prophetic words to his soul. Encouraged by his mentor, he answered that call: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” His ears and heart were both open to God’s call.
This morning, we also sang together the words of the ancient Psalm, yearning to understand how almighty God can know us, even in the smallest and most hidden of human forms, “such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it.” Then, we heard in today’s Epistle that when the finite nature of these clay jars of our human existence meet the radiant possibility of sacred time and sacred space, we become aware of the light of Christ radiating in us and in each other, each of us divinely known and recognized.
So much listening. So much yearning. So much holy time with God.
But this idea of holy time came into the most clarity for me with today’s Gospel lesson. This summer, one of the courses that I’m taking is at the Jewish seminary, one of the campus partners of CDSP that make up the larger Graduate Theological Union. This course, on the Jewish origins and practice of the Sabbath, involves reading a book by mid-century Jewish scholar and Professor of Social Ethics and Mysticism, Abraham Joshua Heschel. In his book The Sabbath, Heschel describes Judaism as a “religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time” (p. 8). In this book, he presents what he calls the “architecture of time” marked not only by yearly festivals and observances, but also the weekly cadence of meaningful labor, anticipation, and then celebration of the belovedness of the Sabbath. This book has caused me to put aside my own overly basic assumptions of Sabbath as about “not working” and instead, invited me to consider that Sabbath is the gift of God to God’s people, an invitation to an experience of God’s realm meeting our lives, which forms and perfects our souls created in the image and likeness of God. In The Sabbath, Heschel invites us to put away things and doing which serve the material world, and to take up being-in-time as a gift given to us by our Creator. In his own words. “Things created conceal the Creator. It is the dimension of time wherein [we] meet God, wherein [we] become aware that every instant is an act of creation, a Beginning, opening up new roads for ultimate realizations. Time is the presence of God in the world of space, and it is within time that we are able to sense the unity of all beings.” (p. 100)
Now, with this new depth of meaning, perhaps we can revisit this story of Jesus and his disciples on the Sabbath.
Looking only at things and actions, we might simply focus on the harvesting and healing, and think of Jesus as an agent of civil disobedience. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Heschel himself became an interfaith companion to Martin Luther King, Jr. on the march at Selma, realizing that the six days we labor can and should be about working for justice. But this Gospel isn’t a story about work. This is a story about the sacredness of the Sabbath which prepares us to do the work that we are called to do.
Jesus embodies the divine gift of the Sabbath, embracing holy time as a gift to humankind to know our full potential in God, to see the holy and life-giving abundance of nature as a gift to feed our bodies and to view the reclamation of wholeness and healing to the man in the synagogue as an outward manifestation of the divine wholeness Jesus already sees in him. In this Gospel, we are given a glimpse of a thin time: seeing Jesus as wholly of God, wholly participating in the Sabbath as divine time in which the extraordinary potential of the ordinary is revealed: “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” Jesus’ frustration lies in seeing the Sabbath only as about human actions, rather than experiencing the Sabbath as the realm of God.
What are the lessons for us, gathered here today? Christians have adopted this language of Sabbath to think about the sacredness and sanctification of our own week, crowned by the weekly celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, the ultimate victory of life in God over death in body. But, do we truly live into God’s gift of the Sabbath? How do we immerse ourselves in this thin time and this thin space where God who made us yearns to know us fully? Are we focused on the doing of “right behaviors” or on the withered hands and clay pot bodies of ourselves or others? Or, can we see instead the glorious potential of falling unabashedly into the Love of God for all of God’s people, including the unfathomable love that God has for each and every one of us. Imagine, if you will, living into the fullness of belovedness. Imagine the holy food and drink for a holy people nourishing us to see that belovedness in every person we encounter. That, my friends, is transformation. That is the gift of the Sabbath.
As we gather these words and hold them in our hearts; we come to this table together for a feast of abundance. As we extend our imperfect, withered human hands we are received into the wholeness of God’s healing love. The holiness of this day isn’t confined to this space of worship, it is a perfection in time where we walk together with Christ who has died, is risen and will come again. We walk this time with the saints of our past and God’s vision for our future all being held in Christ as a gift of sacred time. Listen like Samuel to the voice of God, and invite the Holy to speak. Open yourself to this Sabbath, this holy gift of time which is given to humankind by God for our benefit. Allow it to transform you into seeing as God sees, catching a glimpse of eternity. Or, as Rabbi Heschel concludes his own Sabbath reflection: “Eternity utters a day.” (p. 101).
Speak Lord. Your servants are listening.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath. Macmillan, 1995
[Original Publication 1951, Farrar, Straus & Giroux]