Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.â€‹
My sermon from 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (June 3, 2018) on Deuteronomy 5:12-15. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.
So what can you say when the words don’t come?
As a manuscript preacher, I write down every word that I plan to say in my sermon. So it’s bit scary when the clock hits midnight on Sunday morning and I have a blank page. This usually doesn’t happen but for some reason, until a few hours ago, the words for today didn’t come.
Now, if I spend some time thinking about why this happened, it’s probably because I just ran out of words. Much of my time over the last week was spent giving words to the different things going on here at the church. Some of those words you’ll hear in our special congregational meeting right after the service. And others were spent helping to organize the New Jersey Synod Event at the upcoming ELCA Youth Gathering later this month. I also had a long email chain floating with various members of the Upper Pascack Valley Clergy Group as we made plans to meet and talk about our upcoming schedule. And since we’re nearing the end of our programming year here at church, there’s still emails to write about our special Sunday School Walkathon next week, prep for Graduates’ Sunday, Blessing of the Animals Sunday, and gearing up for another fun Vacation Bible School. When you take these different events, throw in the normal pastoral contacts, the Genesis Garden, the Tri-boro Food pantry, the prayers, phone calls and time spent with all the other churchy stuff that we do, together as a community, as we live out our faith – it’s sort of amazing how many words get said in this place before our worship on Sunday even begins.
Yet what probably pushed me over the edge this week was my time yesterday at the New Jersey Synod office near Trenton. As a member of the New Jersey Synod Candidacy Committee, I’m a part of the team that journeys with people as they become the next pastors and deacons in our church. Everything we do in the Candidacy process is, I feel, holy, and amazing, and also …completely draining. Before the meeting, I spend hours reading essays, applications, internship evaluations, and psychological profiles. Then, at the meeting itself, there’s always a pre-interview part where the team prepares themselves for the people we’re about to meet. And then we talk with each candidate for over an hour, discovering what they’ve learned, how they’ve grown, where they failed, and how their relationship with Jesus has shifted as they become the leaders God wants them to be. It’s really a blessing to be part of this process. And it’s awesome to see all the different kinds of people who know that Jesus matters; who knows that this church matters; and who want to serve and lead and be a part of what God is already doing in the world. But by the end of the day, after six long interviews and six tough and faithfilled decisions, the candidates and the committee are usually spiritually and emotionally wiped out by the end of the day. We end using a lot of words in a small amount of time to help shape and shepherd the next leaders of the church. So when the meeting is over, im home and the house is quiet – by the time 12:01 am on Sunday morning rolls around – there feels like there’s no more words left to say.
So what do you say when the words don’t seem to come?
Now I know that we all have moments when we feel like we’ve run out of words. But there are other times when we don’t even know where our words should start. We might have a friend or a family member who is hurting and in crisis. When we see them, our throat basically closes up because we know there’s nothing we can say to make their situation better. And there are moments when we are the ones who are hurting and we feel surrounded by too many people giving us words they think will help us but end up being words that are meaningless and Emory. There are moments in our lives when the sheer amount of work we do, be it for our jobs, our families, our homes, our church, and our friends – there are moments when we will use up all the words we could possibly share. And there are still other moments when there are no words that will bring to us, and to others, the peace we need.
And it’s in those moments when, maybe, it’s the act of living in the Sabbath that becomes the only thing we could possibly say.
We tend to, I think, focus on the Sabbath as a day of rest because Exodus 20 and Genesis 1 is where the Sabbath is intimately connected to God’s prior creative act. God created the world in six days and then, like every good project manager, God needed a break once the initial work was done. The Sabbath becomes this moment of time set apart as a divine mini-weekend. It becomes a place where we rest; where we recharge as a way to prepare ourselves for the next day, the 8th day, when the week restarts and we, like God, head back to work. But this connection to creation isn’t the focus we hear in today’s reading from Deuteronomy. The Sabbath isn’t only a moment where we rest, mimicking an all-powerful God who, for some reason, needed to take a break. Rather, the Sabbath is rooted in a freedom that was denied to the Israelites for generations as they served as slaves in Egypt. They didn’t get a break so God gave them one. And then God commanded that this Sabbath is also an invitation for all the people around us to get a break as well. The people we expect to serve us, to help us so that we can relax and recharge – every single one of them, whether they’re the busboy at your favorite restaurant, a masseuse at a Korean Day Spa, or even just a family member – everyone stops together. Everyone is invited to live as if all their necessary work is already done. Instead, all people get to just be – and live with and in the God who loved, and served, and did everything to make them free.
It’s in our nature to turn the Sabbath into a kind of rest designed to only help us do the work we do the other six days of the week. It’s harder, I think, to imagine the Sabbath as a moment in time where we, regardless of our job, regardless of our abilities, and regardless of our social status, where we, together, just get to be with the God who has done all work needed to love us; hold us; and keep us close. Our words, sometimes, can trap us into thinking we need to speak in this moment and every moment. When the words don’t come, we assume that means something’s wrong. But maybe that’s the moment when we need to stop speaking and instead put ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors into God’s Sabbath. And when we do that, we’ll see that it’s okay to not have all the words. It’s okay to sometimes not know what to say. And it’s okay to do that one thing all of us can do: we can sit with each other and just be. Because when the 8th day finally rolls around, who we meet and see there is the God who has already rolled the stone away. This Jesus has already been with us, there in every possible moment, including the ones when no sinkage word could ever undo the hurt we’ve felt, caused, or participated in. Our words won’t always be enough. But God’s Word is. And it’s through your baptism, through your faith, and through your relationship with Jesus Christ that end up moving you into a sabbath of just being where everything, and everyone, is whole, free, and loved.