Sermon Archives

Sunday, June 3, 2018
The 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 4, Year B)
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
On Sabbath

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

Every summer, the French countryside and alps turn into a spectacle of human strength and limits as cyclists from around the world arrive for the grandest of grand tours, the Tour de France.  And while scenes of the massive pelaton or the solitary break-away rider may come quickly to mind, perhaps the most iconic image of the Tour is actually of the spent rider.  Whether the day’s ride ends in a sprint finish or a grueling beyond-category mountain summit, I suspect we’ve all seen the image of complete and utter exhaustion as a rider gives every last ounce of strength and energy in the final mile, only to collapse into the arms of his coaches just meters beyond the finish line.  These feats of human fitness who have just raced over 100 miles are so completely spent that they can’t even stand.

Then, for the next 18 hours or so, they and their teams will do everything in possible – cool down rides, massages, nutrient rich drinks and meals, good sleep, detailed course study, warm up rides and perfectly tuned bikes – to prepare for the next race, and the next and the next, until after 21 segments and 2,200 miles, the Tour is complete.

For the best teams, each of these 18 hour periods from race end to race start is a period of scientifically calculated recuperation, with the sole purpose of preparing the rider and team for the next 100 miles.

Now, while we may not be racing through the alps, we know in our own ways what it is like to come to the end of our day and week, exhausted, completely spent by all that has consumed us in the preceding day and week, with little left to give, either to ourselves or to others.  We have our own races to run and our own mountains to climb – parenthood and marriage, work and school and graduation, illness and aging, all of which bring us to the limits of our strength, be it physical or emotional or spiritual.  And like the elite races of the Tour de France, we, too, need those same tools of recuperation to prepare us for the next day which is coming quickly – time to rest from the day, health meals and good sleep, exercise and disciplines of preparation and study, time to connect with family and loved ones, and prayer to connect us back to God . . . all with the intent of helping us to recuperate from the day that is past and to prepare for the day to come. 

Over time, we have come to understand that such recuperation is the purpose of Sabbath – period of R&R and preparation so that we will have the time and energy to get through the day or week or year to come. 

There’s a shadow side to this however – if the purpose of our Sabbath is to prepare us for what’s to come, Sabbath time simply becomes another form of work, another part of the daily grind.  It’s what leads to work taking over home and seeping into weekends.  Checking our email, making a to do list at the dinner table, preparing the coming day while we lie down in bed, is a natural part of preparing for the work to come.

But that’s not Sabbath. 

In his seminal book simply titled Sabbath, Abraham Heschel, reminds us, that Sabbath is not, actually, about simple recuperation for the work that we are doing or preparation for what’s to come.  Sabbath is something entirely different – fundamentally unrelated to what is occupying our time and energy. 

For Heschel, Sabbath is about restoring us to who we are, re-grounding us in who we are called to be, re-connecting us, if you will, with the very purpose of our being, so that the day or week or year to come may be more authentically spent fulfilling our purpose as children of God.  Such time is entirely distinct from the tasks and work of daily life, and focused instead on the unique identity that we bear.

Seen in this light, the remarkable confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees recounted today by Mark begins to make sense.  If the Sabbath is about following the law, it becomes another task and obligation among the ordinary tasks of life.  Clearly Jesus sees it differently.  As he asks the man with the withered hand to stretch out his hand, he proclaims that the Sabbath is fundamentally about being – becoming again, if needed – who we are called to be. 

So then, what then does it mean to keep the Sabbath today?  In part it means that we must take time to reconnect with the purpose of our own being; time to remember just who we are in the world as partners and parents, workers and overseers. 

As Christians, however, such Sabbath also demands that we take time to remember who we are and who we are called to be as children of God.  And for that there is no better expression or experience than our time at the foot of the altar of God. 

In those sacred moments as we approach the altar to receive again the most precious body and blood of Christ broken and outpoured, we are invited to remember who we are.  As we quietly kneel down and extend our hands, we are invited to remember that we, all of us together, the richest among us and the poorest, the strongest and the weakest, have need.  We have a need for love and redemption that is unfillable either by our selves – our own needs – or by the world and others; we all have a common need for the love of God which God alone can fill.

As the bread of life is gently placed in our palm, we are reminded as well of the very personal love that God has for us individually.  All of that love that we proclaim, day after day, Sunday upon Sunday, is meant for you personally.  When we speak of God loving the world even unto death, we mean as well, that God loves you unto death.

But it doesn’t stop there.  We are reminded that that same love that is so wonderfully proclaimed to each of us personally and individually, is in fact offered to the person to our left and to our right, the person who knelt in that same spot just moments ago and to a stranger that waits still to come.  We are invited to see that this love, so wonderful offered and proclaimed for you, is not solely ours, but for all.

And then, perhaps most remarkable, we are invited to see that this – this bread and this wine, this body of Christ, and this very love of God – is who we are meant to become in the world.  The same mercy and love that is extended to us, is meant to so fill us that pours forth from us as well, to the person on our left and our right, and the stranger who will come into our lives for only a moment. 

Friends, as we think of Sabbath, even more as we practice it in our lives – weekly together, but even daily at home – I pray that it becomes for us more than preparation for all that consumes; may it rather restore us as children of God and light for the world.