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Helena, Montana

The Sacred Obligation to do Nothing

 

Led by Joyce Kronholm

When I was a child, going to church was always a given. Our family attended the Evangelical United Brethren Church on Broadwater Avenue in Billings. It’s still there, only now it’s part of the United Methodist Church.

Sunday was family time in those days. We had lots of family nearby – grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. We’d have a big dinner, usually fried chicken, and there were homemade pies for dessert. We cousins would play outside if it was good weather. After dinner the men would sit around and visit in the living room. The women would do the cooking and cleaning and putting away. Stores were closed on Sundays then, so there was no shopping. We’d read the comics together, play games, work crossword puzzles, read a book. If you’re of my generation, you may have similar memories of your childhood.

We don’t have that laid back time anymore on Sunday. We don’t stop to rest, to slow down. It is extraordinarily difficult to have quiet time. Families are more scattered. If you have kids, you may spend your weekends dashing around the state to soccer meets or basketball tournaments. We can shop 12 hours a day every day if we want. With cell phones and computers, we don’t have to bring our work home – it’s already there, waiting for us. We are relentlessly busy, to the point that some people don’t even know what it is to experience peace and contentment.

Which brings us to that rather archaic term called the Sabbath. And in discussing this, I’m drawing broadly from a 2010 sermon by UU minister Craig Scott, who is now retired but at the time served the UU Fellowship of Tuolumne (too-AH-lum-ee) County in California.

What does it mean when we speak of the Sabbath? We know that many religious traditions have some concept of a Sabbath, a special time, different from the rest of the week.

Practicing Jews observe “Shabbat” from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. This is a time to put aside everyday concerns.  You don’t drive a car, or clear up some leftover business, or check your email. Shopping for food is forbidden. And so is cooking it, so your meal is prepared in advance. But Shabbat is not meant to be a time of deprivation, but one of pleasure. Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote: “Shabbat is a different rhythm, a rhythm of calm, peace, rest, joy, pleasure, sound, wonder, amazement and celebration.”

For Christians, of course, Sunday was traditionally set aside as the Sabbath. That meant a worship service, but also a day of quiet and rest. Over the years, people have created many ways of celebrating Sabbath on their own: gathering with friends and family, shopping for and preparing a meal of good, healthy food. For some, it’s a day for the arts — painting and sculpting, singing, dancing, playing music. Here in Montana, many people see a retreat to the wilderness as a form of Sabbath observance. The list goes on and on of things that can provide a profound sense of restoration and reflection.

 

When Jesus needed a respite he went to the mountains to pray. For some of us, prayer might be the practice that helps to restore us. For others, maybe not. I believe meditation is a very helpful practice. It is for me. Sitting quietly, paying attention to our breathing, noticing our thoughts and letting go.

And the concept of the Sabbath is hardly unique to Judaism and Christianity.

Muslims are called to worship five times every day – a practice known as salat.  When the call to prayer is heard, Muslims stop whatever they are doing in order to worship. When Bill and I were in Istanbul a few years ago, we watched the faithful hurry to wash stations in response to the call, to cleanse themselves before prayer. But like everywhere else in modern society, we saw many more simply continue their shopping.

At Plum Village, a Buddhist meditation center in the southern France, monks ring a gong at random times during the day. This is the signal for all the residents to pause in whatever they are doing for the space of three breaths – and to use this pause to get back to center, to focus, to experience their connection to all living things.

Sabbath is something more than just time off, more than just not working, although taking that time off is important. It is a time in which we listen to our deeper voices. It’s a time in which we appreciate what is beautiful, and nourishing, and true. It’s a time when we are mindful of those things that sustain us and heal us. And Sabbath should be a time to celebrate, a time of pleasure, joy, wonder, and amazement.

In his book “Sabbath,” author Wayne Muller describes how important this is to our own health and to the world’s well-being as well. I want to share with you some of his words:

“Sabbath honors the necessary wisdom of dormancy. If certain plant species, for example, do not lie dormant for winter, they will not bear fruit in the spring …

“We, too, must have a period in which we lie fallow, and restore our souls. In Sabbath time we remember to celebrate what is beautiful and sacred; we light candles, sing songs, tell stories, eat, nap, and make love. It is time to let our work, our animals, our lands lie fallow, to be nourished and refreshed. Within this sanctuary, we become available to the insights and blessings of deep mindfulness that arise only in stillness and time. …

“Sabbath is more than the absence of work; it is not just a day off, when we catch up on television or errands. It is the presence of something that arises when we consecrate a period of time to listen to what is most deeply beautiful, nourishing, or true. It is time consecrated with our attention, our mindfulness, honoring those quiet forces of grace or spirit that sustain and heal us.” End quote.

I suppose now is the time when I explain to you how you can do this, how you can carve time out of your busy day to meditate, to rest, to contemplate. I’m sorry, but I have no answer. I have trouble doing this myself.

 

 

The message today is not how, but on how essential it is. You go to the health club to work out, because you know it is essential to have the life you want. You eat healthy foods because you know if you do not your life will suffer sooner or later. And you practice a Sabbath, a time of quiet renewal, for the same reason. There is no penalty for failing to do so. But in the long run, you will be depriving yourself.

But when you find those moments that lend themselves to reflection and meditation, there is a handy tool to help you find a focus. The tool is called gratitude, and it helps us put the modern world, and the worries and fears that haunt our day to day, in perspective. In the words of Lao-Tzu (laud-zhuh), the poet and philosopher of ancient China:

Be content with what you have;

Rejoice in the way things are.

When you realize there is nothing lacking,

The whole world belongs to you.

 

Shalom, and amen