Saturday, June 15, 2013

Song for a Sabbath Day

Psalm 92
June 16, 2013
Sabbatical Beginning
William G. Carter

A Psalm. A Song for the Sabbath Day.

It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; 
to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, 
to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre. 
For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy. 

How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep! 
The dullard cannot know, the stupid cannot understand this: 
though the wicked sprout like grass and all evildoers flourish,
they are doomed to destruction forever,  but you, O Lord, are on high forever. 
For your enemies, O Lord, for your enemies shall perish; all evildoers shall be scattered. 

But you have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox; you have poured over me fresh oil. 
My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies; my ears have heard the doom of my evil assailants. 

The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. 
They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. 
In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap, 
showing that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

    Yesterday at the breakfast table, it was suggested that I stand to announce, “I have begun the sabbatical early. There is no sermon today.” Oh, that would be too easy. And I’m still on the clock until the benediction.

    So what do I wish to say before then? I want to say a lot of things. You should know that; I have been here a long time.  

     I will say thank you. Thank you for coming to worship. I never take that for granted. Week after week, many of you are here. You know that the Christian life is sustained by ritual and routine. We do the same things week after week, and that makes a difference. The person who blows in here, expects a quick one-time fix, car still running, is going to be disappointed. Not because we are not witnessing to the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are. But it takes a while for the good news of God to sink in. It takes repeated exposure to the announcement that God so loves each one of us so much that God wishes to salvage the world. This will not sink in unless we hear the words over and over. And I thank all of you who keep coming back to hear it. Never let laziness nor neglect creep in.

    I want to say thank you for the Session and the Deacons, those marvelous people who serve this church by their leadership. Some of them flip good pancakes, some of them watch over our mission work. They share the leadership work with me, and just because I slip away for a brief sabbatical, the work is well-grounded and widely shared. Our church is in good shape because of their concern to make the Gospel real. Nothing is going to fall apart, because everything is held in God’s hands. Everything! No worries, if we leave it all in God’s hands.

    I want to say thank you, in particular, to the church staff. They work so hard that they will not even notice I’m missing. I thank the Worship/Music/Arts committee for setting up the entire next year’s worship services; they know what my sermon titles will be on next January 19 and March 23. We like to plan ahead together. And the Adult Education planning team is set to go for the fall; I return to teach one of the three weekly classes that begin in September; my class will be a Bible study. The first sessions are scheduled and you are required to come.

    I want to say thank you to the Rev. Roger Griffith. My good friend comes out of his busy retirement to replace me for the next three months. You will hear him pray at the end of the service, you may hear him play his bass guitar if you encourage him as you encourage me, and by the end of the summer, I know he will be your good friend. No worries; Roger that!

    I want to thank my family. They are going to see far too much of me this summer, so be sure to pray for them.

    And I want to thank whoever composed the Psalm that we heard this morning, Psalm 92. We don’t have a clue who that is. But an editor has left chocolate fingerprints at the top of the age. After the Psalm was composed, the editor added a few words in Hebrew as a matter of description. This is “a Song for the Sabbath Day.” No other Psalm gets that description. No other Psalm is pinned to a particular day of the week, much less the Sabbath.

    You can hum the first stanza of the Psalm. It sounds of singing, music, and melody. The Sabbath is not intended to be silent. No, it’s a time for joyful noise, for declaring the saving grace of God by day and night. We declare with our lips and strum our stringed instruments. It’s all there in the first stanza: to say thanks, to sing praises. Sabbath is music that gladdens our hearts and sets us free to sing.

    The second stanza reminds us that our singing is contested. God makes us a musical world, but some folks don’t seem to pick up the tune. Mostly they are of two types. The poet calls one group “The Evildoers.” They sprout up like weeds and seem for a time to get their own wicked way. The Evildoers announce with their deeds that they have no need for God. Oh no, they are a world unto themselves. They stomp along and think that whatever they do will last forever. The Eternal God looks at them and groans.

    Then there’s the other group that cannot sing.  The Psalmist simply calls them “stupid.” The Hebrew word is translated “dullard” or “dolt.” These are the people who just don’t get it. This has nothing to do with their intelligence; it’s something far worse. God puts a rainbow in front of them, and they look down at their watches. God. God gives them a world of intricate design, and they think it’s flat. God creates whales that leap, sparrows that sing, seas that split in two, and they yawn. The Hebrew Bible smirks at such people and calls them fools.

    Because, you see, our lives are about God. God gives us breath, first to receive, then to exhale in praise. God surrounds us with wonders, glorious gifts of sense and sound, some of them with saving power. Yet it’s possible to ignore all of this. The Evildoers go their own way, indifferent to God’s holy purposes. And the Stupid Dolts – well, maybe I shouldn’t dismiss them so quickly. Ten years ago on my honeymoon, my wife and I went to the Canadian Rockies. It was too much beauty to take in. By the fifth day or so, I remember distinctly saying, “Ho hum, another 10,000 foot high mountain. No big deal.” Any sense of wonder was shut down; that was my sin.

    So Psalm 92 is our Song for the Sabbath Day. Sabbath is the time we take to shrug off our neglect, to open our hearts to God’s holy extravagance. It’s the time we take to move ourselves out of the supposed center of the universe and to let God rule gently and firmly, especially over those situations that we cannot control.

    That points us to the last stanza of the psalm. I love the three verbs: flourish, grow, planted. The well-balanced life is compared to three trees.

  • The righteous flourish like a palm tree. Ever see the lushness of a tropical palm? They are so full of life they have to be trimmed so they can flourish even more.
  • The righteous grow like the cedars of Lebanon. These cedars were the legendary trees of antiquity. They grew tall and straight, were reported to have medicinal powers, and were cut for the great temple of Solomon.
  • Then there is the tree laden with fruit, described as still productive in its old age. Old age in the time of this Psalm, by the way, was somewhere after fifty. If you were fifty, you were old – but you could still be productive, still green, still full of sap, and still pointing to the Lord, the source of all life.
    So this Psalm pushes us to ask ourselves what it will take to flourish, to grow, to stay planted and to remain productive. These are the Sabbath tasks, the Sabbatical tasks. The poet of Psalm 92 believes that Sabbath rest  makes room for us to flourish and be fruitful.

     Now you’re not going to hear that from the Evildoers or the Dullards, especially in our culture.  We live in driven times, with 24-7 accessibility and demand. How many times have you heard it? I called you on your cell phone, why didn’t you answer?

    Or the retired person will say, “I am busier now than when I was working.” Well, what is that about? If it is about flourishing, growing, staying planted and productive -- good for you. That is the blessing of God!

    But should we fall into the obsessions and addictions of our culture, we need the word that God speaks in the Ten Commandments: “Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy . . . Remember you were slaves in Egypt, and God brought you out of there.” That is why we rest from labor – to show that we belong to God, and not to our labor. It is proof of our freedom from slavery.

    This is especially important if we enjoy our work. Some of us have that blessing; I love the work that I do, and I love the people that I work around. Most days, I can’t wait to get to it. Most nights, I have a hard time shutting down. It’s a blessing to love your work. But God invites us to take Sabbath, so that we can realign our loves. We take the time to love God more than our work.

    The truth of the matter is, as good as our work can be, it can wear us out. I remember the week, some fifteen months ago. It was a good week, it was a long week, it was the week that I first considered taking this sabbatical. In the middle of the week, I was called upon to do the funeral for a three-year-old boy who fell out of a high-rise window in Scranton. The family’s church did not have a pastor, so I was called. The father of the child was serving a prison term, and would be accompanied by well-armed guards.

    He arrived late, due to highway construction. When he hobbled down the church aisle in leg-irons, he waved to his family and friends with a big smile. Then it hit him where he was, and what we were doing, and he fell apart. It was a tough day, for him, for everybody. I had the privilege of leading them through it, and then I went home to stare at the walls for a while. But I didn’t have long, because the next day was Maundy Thursday and I needed to write that sermon and a few others after it. The really hard work was doing it with a smile. Sometimes hard work just goes with the territory.

    All of us know this. Everybody has demands in the work that they do. To stay focused, to keep going, to still believe there is a sun in the sky, we need to keep the Sabbath. The Sabbath is time, time that is full of spaciousness. As John Calvin once wrote, Sabbath is time to rest from our work so that God can work in us. Or in the words of Psalm 92, “To stay green and full of sap.”

    Isn’t that what we want? To get through life alive! For our souls to be free to sing! To know deep in our bones that God is the Rock upon which we stand! To keep doing the work God gives us to do with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love!

    You see, God is concerned for our well-being. God gave us these lives and wants us to flourish. That’s why Sabbath was not given as an obligation, but as a gift. It is commanded of us because we forget how good God is, but it is always a gift --- a gift of time for us to rest from what consumes us, to receive the Spirit that God wants us to have.

    As I take some Sabbath time this summer, I invite you to do the same. What is it that is going to keep you green and full of sap? Or in the words of the Lilly Endowment that provides funding for this particular sabbatical, “What is it that makes your soul sing?” Aye, there is a worthy question. And I hope it nips your heels for the next three months until you are overflowing with the joy of God.

    May this day be for you such a time of blessed Sabbath that you wish to repeat it over and over. And may God make you to flourish, body and soul, in the time while we are apart. I love you and I will see you in September.

 (c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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