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Sermons at First Parish Church

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Our first reading is excerpted from chapters 1 and 2 of the book of Genesis.

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

[Finally,] the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had done. So god blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work he had done in creation.

Our second reading this morning is the poem “Callas Lilies,” by Lynn Ungar.

Consider the lilies of the field,
The blue banks of callas opening
Into acres of sky along the road.
Would the longing to lie down
And be washed by that beauty
Abate if you knew their usefulness,
How the natives ground their bulbs
For flour, how the settlers’ hogs
Uprooted them, grunting in gleeful
Oblivion as the flowers fell?

And you — what of your rushed and
Useful life? Imagine setting it all down —
Papers, plans, appointments, everything —
Leaving only a note: “Gone
To the fields to be lovely. Be back
When I’m through with blooming.”

Even now, unneeded and uneaten,
The camas lilies gaze out above the grass
From their tender blue eyes.
Even in sleep your life will shine.

And It Was Good

Sunday, May 11, 2008
Rev. Sue Phillips
First Parish Church of Groton

The God of the Genesis story took six days to create heaven and earth and everything in between. He created Night and Day, Sky and Earth, Land and Water. And he saw that it was good. He created plants, the sun and moon, and animals. He created man and woman. And he paused and considered everything He had made, and again saw that it was good. And then, on the seventh day, God finished all of his work, and rested. He blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it, because he rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

All of us probably know this story, or think we know it. But perhaps you haven’t heard a newer version of the Creation story, perhaps less well known than the first. It goes like this…

In the beginning, the Unitarian Universalists felt a formless void where talking should be, and they said “let there be meetings.” And there were meetings. They saw that the meetings were good, and separated time into that leading up to meetings and that following meetings. And there were meetings, and more meetings, the first day.

And then the UUs said “let there be people to come to meetings,” so they created lay people. They invited lay people to come to meetings, thus separating them from normal people. And it was so. They called the lay people “congregation.” And so it came to be that there was the congregation, and everyone else, the second day.

And the UUs said, “let the people be gathered together at one time, and let that time be set apart.” And it was so. The UUs called the people together in meetings, and named them “committees” and made them write mission statements, and there were meetings, and committees to attend them, the third day.

And the UUs said, “let there be a place to separate the children from the non-children; and let them meet together only some of the time.” And the UUs were not sure that it was good. So there was a service for all ages, the fourth day.

And the UUs said, “let the congregation bring forth swarms of living creatures who like to oversee things and help decide things.” So they created a committee to coordinate other committees and question their mission statements. And it was so. The UUs called the committee the Board of Trustees, and saw that it was good. The UUs blessed them saying “be fruitful and spend long hours making decisions.” And there was the Board, and revised mission statements, the fifth day.

Then the UUs created the Minister, and said “create worship that pleases everyone, according to your best judgment, but also ours, and let the joys and sorrows be brief. Let the sermon have dominion over the prelude, and the opening words, the prayer and the postlude.” So the minister created the sermon in her image, in the image of the minister she created it; from words and more words she created it. The minister blessed the sermon, and said to it: “I have given you everything I have, all of my waking hours and many hours when I should have been sleeping.” The minister said “See, I have given you every good idea I ever had, and many more besides; you have consumed all of my words, and a few of someone else’s.” And it was so. The UUs and the minister saw everything they had made, and indeed, it was pretty good. And there was a sermon, and very little sleep, the sixth day.

Thus the committees and their meetings were finished, the Board and the mission statements, and all the multitudes of children and non-children were there. And so it came to pass that on the seventh day, when everyone else was resting, the Board and Committees, the minister, the musician, the DRE and all the UUs continued the work that they had done, and worked harder on that day than any other. So they lamented the seventh day, even while hallowing it for other people, because on it they collapsed from all the work that they had done in creation…

Do you remember the part last Sunday, in the Teacher Appreciation part of the Beltane service, when Denise asked all of our religious educators - teachers, volunteers, committee members — to stand up around the sanctuary, and then a lot of our children joined them? Well, if we added everyone else who volunteers here at church to that circle, all of you who make sure there are flowers up here, or who serve coffee at coffee hour, or write cards to grieving church members, or go to meetings… if all of us stood up, well, there’d be no one left in the pews. And just right now I am not entirely counting this as a good thing. Because my point is that we Unitarian Universalists are a BUSY people. And we’re not so good at resting, even on the seventh day of the week. Maybe even especially on the seventh day of the week.

Something is a little off here about our failure to observe Sabbath rest. So let’s return for a moment to the original creation story, which teaches us that even God himself rested after six days of labor. The great Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel remarks upon how incredible it is that this story has survived human history. The “mythical mind” to which the Genesis story was revealed was oriented in space, not time. In the collective mind of ancient Judaism, we would have expected God to stop after His creation and sanctify a holy place to build a sanctuary — a Temple to creation and the Creator. But that’s not what happened. God created not a place, but a time. A time to reflect on what He had created, and to rest after the labor. The story teaches that what we create becomes meaningful to us only once we stop creating, and start reflecting about why we did so [1].

God is thought by most religions to dwell in space. From the Temples at Delphi to the Temple in Jerusalem, to Buddhist shrines in Thailand and the Ka’aba in Mecca, humans have built sanctuaries in which God is thought to dwell. Even Emerson and Thoreau gave God a place to inhabit. That this place was as large as nature itself does not hide their underlying belief that God resides somehow in space, in place, rather than time. In almost every faith, the Creator has become bound to a particular land, an image, a shrine, a sanctuary. God is thought to “reside in space rather than in time, in nature rather than in history; as if God herself were a thing.

Heschel makes a bold assertion that I beg you to consider: if our sense of the holy becomes conflated with places, and concrete spaces — even those as lovely as this sanctuary — if it becomes wrapped up with iconic things, then the divine itself becomes a thing. And here’s the really scary part — as human history has evolved, we have in turn come to worship things.

Not coincidentally, our culture has become amazingly good at producing things. And its goal is to continue producing better things that, ironically, are supposed to save time. In the 1950s magazines and newspapers were obsessed with what people were going to do with all of the leisure time freed up by dishwashers and washing machines and electric irons. “Thanks to automation and the proliferation of miraculous labor-saving devices,” “experts [in the 1950s] confidently predicted that we would all be working thirty-hour weeks… and we would be overwhelmed by the sheer weight of so much leisure time.” [2]

This concern seems laughable now, doesn’t it? And that was before the advent of computers. The frightening reality is that computers and other technology haven’t saved time at all. We simply get more done. The time we save is reserved not for rest, but for more work. So we are busier than ever before. We have conquered space at the expense of time. “Instead of taking the benefits of (new technology) in the form of time, we converted the benefits into cash.” [3] We have traded our time for money.

And in this currency, exhaustion becomes a badge of honor that tells the world how successful we are. We fill up our time with one more task, one more phone call or email, one more trip to the gym. Our fatigue and overwhelmed-ness shows us what good use we are making of our lives, how important and essential we are. But somewhere inside, we also know that we are simply not our best selves when we are busy. When we’re crazy busy, everything we do seems to feel like an obligation. We walk around protecting ourselves from one more thing to do even though we can’t figure out what to give up.

Without rest, in what one writer calls “the trance of overwork,” we respond to everything from a kind of survival mode, where we must constantly defend ourselves. Even a small stone in the road can be a deadly threat to a motorcycle at high speed. Our lives are often like that. When we’re moving too fast, everything “seems more urgent that it really is, and we react with sloppy desperation.” [4] The Chinese pictograph for “busy” is composed of two characters, -heart and -killing. Busyness destroys “our inner capacity for peace… (and) it destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the inner wisdom that makes work fruitful.” [5]

The dangers of this dynamic go far beyond mere exhaustion. Our production-oriented Sabbath-ignoring culture has spawned an existential problem. We have become so focused on things, on producing and buying things, that we have come to equate reality with “that which the senses (spell) out for us.” And so we attend “to what the eyes perceive, to what the fingers touch. Reality to us is thinghood, consisting of substances that occupy space.” We have become blind “to all reality that fails to identify itself as a thing… As a result, we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time… which has become” what Heschel calls “a slick monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.” [6]

We have come to fear rest. Before it can slip away, we “kill” it. How many of us know the feeling of fear when we have unstructured hours before us? How many of us fear the emptiness inside that we confront when we are still enough to notice? This is one of our fears of quiet. That if we stop and listen, we will hear this emptiness.

But take heart: the quiet that awaits us in times of rest “has nothing to do with our value or our worth. All life has emptiness as its core… without that emptiness, we are unable to give birth to music, love, or kindness…Emptiness is the pregnant void out of which all creation springs. [7]

Our spiritual life begins to decay when we fail to sense the grandeur of what is eternal in time. We must remember “that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.” [8] Honoring the moment that lends significance to things is the essence of Sabbath. It is where we remember that what we create becomes meaningful to us only once we stop creating, and start thinking about why we did so. [9] Sabbath is the time where we can meet the Holy, where we sense the process of Creation rather than the things which are the results of creation.

We live in the world of space, of what we humans have created. We live in a world of things, and to escape this world entirely would be impossible even if we wanted to. We drive on roads and we check our e-mail and we cover ourselves in clothing. We cannot escape the world of space. But we can learn to sanctify time. Abraham Heschel identifies this as humanity’s essential religious task. “All week long,” he writes,

We are called upon to sanctify life through employing things of space. On the Sabbath it is given us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time. Even when the soul is seared, even when no prayer can come out of our tightened throats, the clean, silent rest of the Sabbath leads us to a realm of endless peace, or to the beginning of an awareness of what eternity means. [10]

Heschel refers to the Sabbath as a single day of the week. But Sabbath can be any sanctified time — a moment, an afternoon, even a whole summer. Sabbath is any moment that we use to cultivate those precious human qualities that grow only in time. Kindness, humility, courage, groundedness, generosity. Our “spirits are naturally generous; the instant we are filled, our first impulse is to be useful, to be kind, to give something away.” [11]

In our reading this morning the poet Lynn Ungar writes:

And you — what of your rushed and
Useful life? Imagine setting it all down —
Papers, plans, appointments, everything —
Leaving only a note: “Gone
To the fields to be lovely. Be back
When I’m through with blooming.”

In just a matter of days, Elea returns from her sabbatical. We don’t know yet whether she is “through with blooming.” But because you have given her the gift of this sabbatical time, Elea will have learned a thing or two about Sabbath time. She will have something valuable to teach us about rest when she returns. It will be good to see her, won’t it?

For some of you, Elea’s return will feel like a chance to get back to your normal church routine, and that will be reassuring and comforting. But there will also be an opportunity during this time — an incredible spiritual opportunity — to carry the spirit of sabbatical with you as a community into the coming months. Remember that the word ~sabbatical comes from Latin and Greek words meaning “of the Sabbath.” In Mosaic law, every seventh year the land was to remain untilled and debtors and slaves released. In the coming days this church community has a chance to choose a new way, in which fertile spiritual land is always allowed to remain fallow, and no one is held bondage to busyness: not you, and not your minister.

May we throw out that new creation story, the one with all the meetings, and mission statements, and sermons and even ministers. May we all learn to nurture the Sabbath here, and in our own busy hearts. As our time together draws to a close, I leave you with my fondest hopes that a deep sense of holy rest and abundant goodness will rest gently upon this house for a very long time to come.

[1]   Judith Shulevitz, "Bring Back the Sabbath," New York Times Sunday Magazine, March 2, 2003.
[2]   Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives, (New York: Bantam), 1999, p. 99.
[3]   Muller, p. 100.
[4]   Muller, p. 5.
[5]   Thomas Merton, quoted in Muller, ibid.
[6]   Heschel, p. 5.
[7]   Muller, pp. 50-51.
[8]   Heschel, p. 6.
[9]   Judith Shulevitz, "Bring Back the Sabbath," New York Times Sunday Magazine, March 2, 2003.
[10]  Heschel, p. 101.
[11]  Muller, p. 11.

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