Then Jesus said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
A Prayer attributed to St. Francis
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
A prayer for humanity
May I be a guard for those who need protection,
A guide for those on the path,
A boat, a raft, a bridge for those who wish to cross the flood,
May I be a lamp in the darkness,
A resting place for the weary,
A healing medicine for all who are sick,
A vase of plenty, a tree of miracles,
And for the boundless multitudes of living beings
May I bring sustenance and awakening,
Enduring like the earth and sky,
Until all beings are freed from sorrow
And all are awakened.
Indian Buddhist sage
(Note: This would not be a bad prayer for religious institutions)
When I started in ordained ministry (clueless young priest as opposed to clueless aging priest), I sought counsel of a rector I respected, asking how to navigate this new life. The advice as I recall had to do not with work but with not working. He said that he was vigilant in making sure he observed Sabbath each week. Obviously, not Sunday, but another day of rest.
He said it was important because on a weekly basis it reminded him that he was not his work. His identity would be found beyond title or job description. I can’t say I heeded his advice very well throughout my career. (Note major eye-rolls from my family as they read this) I was better in some seasons than others. But his advice came to me yesterday when the readings in church focused on the Sabbath.
Observance of the Sabbath is one of the most important religious institutions in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is noted in the opening verses of the Bible, when after God had completed the work of creation, declaring it to be very good, God rested. Apparently, if that kind of down time was good enough for the Holy One, it’s probably good enough for us. The commandment to observe the Sabbath sits near the top of the list of the Ten Commandments. We’re meant to keep it, observe it. How come?
I think it’s because it says something about who we are, and who God is. Maybe that’s true of all religious institutions, customs, liturgies, scriptures, hymnody, clergy. They are not ends in themselves. They are instruments, signs pointing beyond themselves, intended to remind us of God’s identity and our own.
A sign of my age: I remember a time when Sabbath as religious institution had more buy-in in our culture. A day of rest. No shopping. No movies. No soccer practice. (Acolyte scheduling was definitely easier.) No smart phones or lap tops allowing us to work 24/7. Those days are not coming back, but it seems we’ve lost something. Perhaps what we’ve lost is a window into our own identity, a sense of who we are. Perhaps we’ve lost a sense of who God is, a sense discovered when on a regular basis we stop and recognize a higher power. We are reminded that all is grace.
Jesus spent a lot of time challenging religious institutions of his day. On a day when no work was to be done, Jesus performed miracles. He wasn’t supposed to do that. Was he just trying to shake things up? Maybe. But it seems to me he was reminding people what religion and ritual and spiritual practice are all about. They are occasions, woven into the pattern of our lives, to recall something about who God is, and who we are.
More specifically, they are occasions to recall that God is love, and we are called to show that love. All the time. 24/7. In and through and occasionally in spite of the institutions we set up. The Sabbath (like other religious institutions) is meant to serve the cause of God’s mission in the world. Not vice versa.
What Jesus seems to say about God’s identity revealed in the Sabbath is that showing love and working for healing are way more important than following rules or traditions. And as far as our own identity is concerned, we are meant to be ever open to mercy.
This is not to say that the Sabbath is not important. It is to say that it is not an end in itself. It’s an occasion to know God better, as we see something of God’s identity, and our own. If institutions stand in the way of healing and mercy, they become obstacles not instruments. I fear for the obstacles religious people (clergy like me) put in people’s way.
What does your religious observance, your spiritual practice say about who God is, and who you are? What can we do to make our religious communities, our spiritual lives windows of mercy, instruments of peace, conveyors of grace? How can our institutions, our rules and habits, our liturgies reflect what our Presiding Bishop repeats: If it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God?
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