Enjoy your summer! Welcome to summer! The school signs all over town proclaim the season we are just beginning. And in church we recognize it too. It is green time, ordinary time as it is known in some denominations, and officially the season after Pentecost. Generally this time of the year for many, brings less responsibility, and more relaxation. Life, like the seasons, is rhythmic, often described with the metaphor of the ocean. The water comes in and goes out, ebbs and flows, over and over. With each ending there is a new beginning, and with each beginning is an ending. It continues on and on. Summer is a time to experience God’s creation in different ways and to explore parts of the world, God’s world, we don’t ordinarily see. Over the past few weeks I have listened to various people’s plans for these months with the accompanying expectations of delight. Each person or family has different ideas for what they will do, but the anticipation of a happy, less stressful time is the same.
One of my favorite columnists is Mary Schmich who writes for the Chicago Tribune. In my opinion she has the insight to see deep truth in ordinary situations. Some years back she wrote about the season of summer and how it had changed for her since leaving the academic year. She realized that she had let the delights of summer pass her by, remaining focused on work and deadlines which caused her to stay inside during the daylight hours. So, at the beginning of the next summer she made a to-do list of things she wanted to experience during that time. They were simple things as I recall, taking 15 minutes to smell new-mown grass, going to the beach in the early morning on her way to work, eating some cotton candy, and so on.
Last summer the question she posed in her column for herself and her readers was, “How would you spend your time if you knew this was the last summer you would ever have?”
As it happened, a reader who had terminal cancer really did know that summer of 2017 would be her last and she shared with Mary what she planned to do during that time. Then in early September the reader told Mary what she had actually done. It was an ordinary seeming list—to go to the farmer’s market each week and smell the wonderful produce, to sit out on her porch and watch the sun go down, to have time at the lake with her family. She reported that even on those days when she felt weak and nauseous, she managed to take in the delight that summer holds.
This summer, Mary has posed a challenge to herself and her readers. She is focusing on one thing rather than an entire list, and that is to take a walk outside each day without her cell phone or any electronic device! This idea came about because of a chance encounter Mary had with a 2 year old child and his father in a Chicago park. The child was doing as small children do, and exploring his world. He smelled the grass, pulled some of it out and tried to offer it to his father. The father was so intent on his phone that he missed that. Next the child started twirling in the sun, enjoying the light as it played on his hands. Again he pulled on his father’s leg to have him see, and again the father missed it. This continued with several interactions and Mary pondered on what we adults miss that children do not, of the beauty and fascination in the outside world. So that is how her summer of 2018 challenge came about.
She makes a point that even when adults’ summer is not the same as the “no school” delight of childhood, the season still has much to offer if we consciously choose to pay attention to it.
Two of this morning’s lessons refer to the Sabbath, the practice of taking a regular time of rest, traditionally one day a week. One of the two main purposes of the Sabbath is to enjoy and find pleasure in God’s creation. This green season, especially in an academic community such as Champaign/Urbana lends itself to doing this.
God gives the direction about the Sabbath in what we know as the Ten Commandments. These are written in two different books of the Old Testament. The first list is in the book of Exodus, and in it we are told to “remember” the Sabbath day. The second time, in the book of Deuteronomy, what we heard this morning, says we are to “observe” the Sabbath day. Although it is a slight difference, to remember versus to observe, the motivation behind the two versions is worth noting. In Exodus we remember that God in creating the world took a time of rest and we humans are to model our behavior after His. The story of Creation in Genesis ends with these words, “God saw everything he had made and indeed it was very good.” Having a set time of rest from work and busyness and responsibility allows us to know the goodness of all that God has made.
In the Deuteronomy version read this morning, to observe the Sabbath, the motivation behind the Sabbath is to recall that God brought the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt to freedom. In other words, observe the Sabbath because you can! You have the freedom, provided by God, to do that. We as Christians can take that a step further in that our freedom is the redemption given to us by the risen Christ. We have been freed from our bondage to sin by Christ’s redeeming work. In Exodus we remember God our creator and in Deuteronomy we observe the redemption provided by God to make us free. Sabbath rest and right relationship with God is available to all. We have the freedom, given by God, to choose this. Observing a Sabbath reminds us that we belong to God, not to our work or to the money we earn from our work.
The purpose of the Sabbath is two-fold. The first is to experience the beauty of God’s world, to have the time to notice it and to remember that we belong to that creation. The other purpose of Sabbath is to recognize the holiness of this God-given life we have. Part of Sabbath is to offer thanks to God, to praise and worship God for the beauty of this world, His world, and to be able to recognize, appreciate, and give thanks for the gifts we have received.
In the gospel today we see contrasted the hardness of heart, the human legalism that so often creeps into our world, versus the compassion and joy that God has for all human beings. Jesus seems to be deliberately provoking conflict with the established hierarchy. The practice of keeping the Sabbath was, and for some still is, deeply connected to Jewish identity.
Today’s story, as well as many others in the gospel, was meant to startle and to unsettle the ones listening. Jesus questions human authority and these rules as being a too narrow picture of God. Instead Jesus offers a new relationship between the people and God. Jesus says that the Sabbath was meant for human beings to have time to be able to enjoy and recognize God’s good world as intended, rather than the rules about what could and could not be done on that day. Plucking grain to fulfill human hunger and restoring an injured man to wholeness are examples of responding to human need. Jesus shakes up the Pharisees world and offers challenge to their status quo in pointing this out. And their response is to plot to get rid of him, this threat to their established way of life.
In his actions in this lesson today, Jesus offers a different vision of life and a new understanding of who God is. So really this gospel is not a lesson about the Sabbath but rather about our relationship with God and what God desires from us. It is not so much a following of laws but rather an attitude of thanksgiving for all that God has given us and done for us. God is not confined to the rules about Him or to our own limited way of perceiving God.
We are reminded through these lessons that we belong to God, not to the world around us. Unfortunately it is a part of human nature that while we might remember that at this very moment, we will most likely soon forget that.
Or perhaps not forget it totally; it just gets pushed back into the recesses of our memories. This is where the place of Sabbath time helps us to return that to the front of our minds. God made the Sabbath for humankind to help us know him and love him. Sabbath belongs to human beings, not the reverse. We need help to retain the truth that we belong to God, the God who has created us, who has redeemed us and who sustains us. All the time. It is in times of rest and reflection that realization comes back to us. While all of life is holy, we humans need regular reminders of that holiness.
In my lifetime I have seen changes in how our society keeps the Sabbath. For most of my growing up there were “blue laws” where nothing was open on a Sunday. Then there was a relaxing of those laws so stores were open only on Sunday afternoon and no liquor could be sold. And now for most businesses Sunday is no different than any other day of the week. Our culture no longer provides us with a structure for a common time of rest and praising God. This is something we have to consciously choose for ourselves. We know we need these regular reminders and now it is now up to us to take them; the world around us won’t do it for us.
So, welcome to green time, welcome to summer!
Perhaps you may choose to take a walk each day without your phone, but whatever is on your list, may this season contain Sabbath time for us all. May we each find joy in the creation and the many gifts that God has given us; AND may we use this precious and holy time to offer thanks to God and provide a space for growth in our relationship with Him.
Thanks be to God for his glorious gospel.