Preaching what we don’t Practice?
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 22, 2010
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the LORD…. Isaiah 58:13-14a
But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” Luke 13:14-16
I confess—this week’s texts have been a real struggle for me. I have started this reflection several times, but each time I end up deleting the words and going back to Isaiah and Luke hoping the texts will speak in new ways. What was it, I wondered, that was keeping me looping around a significant case of writer’s block? Why wouldn’t a few hundred witty and well-crafted words fly effortlessly from finger to page? Every paragraph seemed heavy yet hollow, about as weighty as marshmallow fluff. After the sixth go at it, the reason finally hit me, and it hit me hard.
I heard the words of Jesus speak as plainly to me as to the religious leaders of his day: “You hypocrites! Don’t each of you….” Ouch! The reality is that I am having a hard time reflecting on and writing about these two texts because I am physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. It is difficult to preach what one is not practicing, in this case Sabbath.
Yes, I’m a working pastor. Sunday, or what we Christians consider the Sabbath, is a work day for me. The multiple responsibilities of preparing a Children’s Message (speaking to all of God’s children, regardless of chronological age), working with the Sunday school and Children’s Church teams, and planning for next Sunday’s Rally Day with a new curriculum and approach to family ministry have all taken their toll. Add to that a host of family responsibilities and concerns, and I have let the world rush in and pull my attention and focus in myriad directions. I have, in effect, trampled on the Sabbath, disregarded the fact that God created Sabbath for me, and ignored my need to rest in God. The results not only show up in writer’s block but also in fatigue, grumpiness, lack of sleep, clutter, and inertia. Even my mother noticed how tired and stressed out I look. Today, I took some Sabbath time to refocus, reenergize, and delight in God.
I suspect that I am not alone. Visit the Stewardship of Life Institute website this week, and you’ll find links to two articles about clergy burnout and the importance of Sabbath-keeping. Those of us called to preach, teach, and minister to others are indeed at significant risk for burn-out. We allow the world to be too much with us, consuming our energy and passion in the devilish details of each day. We take our work home, take it to heart, and sometimes even close our eyes at night still clutching it like a millstone around our necks. Hey, who needs regular weight-bearing exercise when you try to carry the weight of your congregation and perhaps the entire world around on your shoulders?
The answer, of course, is we all need regular exercise, enough rest, good nutrition, and most of all a centered, active spiritual life, in order for our preaching and teaching to be in line with our practice. When we try to shoulder the burden alone, we inevitably bend under the weight and curve in ourselves. Curving in upon ourselves (incurvatus in se), or what I like to term “navel gazing,” prevents us from seeing God’s will for us and for the world. We do not see life aright, we cannot take in the big picture, and so in a self-fulfilling prophecy of gloomy-doomy woe-is-me negativity, we spiral inward to be even more out of touch with God’s outstretched hand of grace and healing love.
I see this not only with pastors and other church leaders, but also with congregations. When division and strife rip holes in the fabric of the communities, the tendency is once again to turn inward and try to hang on to whatever is left. Fear provides the weight that curves us inward like blinders on a draft horse as we circle the wagons and refuse to see the hope that is right in front of our eyes. We grasp at whatever vestiges of certitude and right that we can conjure, and we growl and rail against anything that sounds different or uncomfortable. This is the way of the world; it is not consistent with God’s design and desire for all creation, and it is flat out wrong.
Look again at the gospel text. Is it possible that we may also see something of ourselves in the woman crippled in spirit? What cripples and binds us? Could our fear, our struggle for control, and our lack of faith keep us ailing?
Many of you are preparing to celebrate the beginning of a new year of Christian education. Why not place some emphasis on your congregation being a place where all people can take delight in the Lord, find an oasis of Sabbath refreshment, and through Word and Sacrament be strengthened and equipped to do out into even the darkest corners of this beautiful, broken world? Take a few cues from the text and delight in God. Rejoice in the many good things God has done, is doing, and will continue to do. When preaching and practice come into line with the Spirit, amazing things happen. Stand up. Rejoice. Be set free. Be ready to be surprised!
Photo by OakleyOriginals used under a Creative Commons License. Thank you!
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