The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 3, 2018
I wonder if you have heard or use the phrase “play clothes.” Specifically I wonder if you use this phrase with your children, or if you’re a child, for yourself. I wonder if you differentiate between “Sunday clothes” and “play clothes.”
When I was a child, we had strict delineations between parts of our wardrobe; there were the clothes we might wear to school, and there were the clothes we wore to church--our “Sunday best.” Always a jacket and tie, or a little suit, or something that just came out for Sundays or special events.
And then, there was another designation for clothing: play clothes. For you see, after church on Sunday, we’d go visiting. We’d often visit my great grandmother, who lived in the country. And we’d leave right after church and go to her house, about half an hour away, for lunch. But after lunch, we would change out of our “Sunday clothes” and into our “play clothes”--and the afternoon was ours. In our play clothes we could run and play and get dirty and no one minded.
Woe be unto the child who got grass stains on her Sunday best--but in play clothes everything was forgivable. Everything could wash out.
Sunday was always a time for church and family. Shops were closed, many restaurants were closed, and we didn’t mow the lawn or do any sort of work except the kind involving hospitality--cooking meals, bringing people food, having friends over. Maybe there was a pickup softball game in the backyard, but team sports didn’t practice on Sundays. There were no soccer games to go to on Sunday; we just kicked a ball around in the backyard with our cousins.
And if, when we were driving to my great grandmother’s house, we saw a road crew working, or a construction crew making repairs to a building or a bridge, it was unusual. We wondered what had happened. We were sorry they were working on a day off. On the Sabbath.
Because that’s what Sunday was for us. A day off. A day to go to church, to see family, to see friends, to rest and relax.
Jewish families and some Seventh Day Adventists might have Saturday for the Sabbath, but for us it was Sunday. And thanks to the labor movement, both Saturday and Sunday were generally free days. I was urged to finish my homework on Friday so that the weekend would be free for play, for church, and for visiting family. We didn’t work on Sunday.
That’s rapidly changing in our society today. The idea of being free from work, of being “off” work, of taking a break, is almost elusive. I hear again and again from parents with children, from grandparents, about the constant and persistent stream of events that young people are scheduled for--soccer practice, soccer games, dance recitals, school plays, birthday parties--how can one person fit it all in? And so Sundays have become taken up by all these events--practice, sporting events, school meetings. One father I spoke to a few weeks ago lamented how hard it was to come to church with his family. There was always something demanding their time. Do we go to the soccer match or come to church? Will Sarah be penalized for missing tennis practice because she comes to mass on Sunday morning?
I know many of you who work on Sundays--who leave this place to get just a few more hours in the office, to deal with a few more emails, to finish up that report that’s due on Monday morning. The pace is unrelenting.
When is there Sabbath rest? When is there time to stop, to stop work, to stop being busy, to stop and just be. If we take a break, won’t we fall behind as someone else gets ahead? Won’t our children miss out on the extracurricular activities they need to get into college? Won’t our families suffer if we don’t make every event we can? And with this much going on, how can we even justify finding time to stop, to slow down, to come to mass? And yet you have. And here we are, together.
In the gospel lesson today we hear that the Pharisees have criticized Jesus’s followers for picking grain on the Sabbath. Jesus replies that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath… “(Mark 2:27) And as though to drive the point home, Jesus, in another incident, heals a man, in the synagogue, on the Sabbath. The religious Pharisees are enraged. Jesus has broken the laws of the Sabbath.
Now, it’s easy to make light of those laws as Christians. As gentiles, we don’t have the same strict rabbinical rules around the Sabbath. We can drive cars, go to parties, bake a cake, cook a meal.
I recently ordered a light switch cover to keep folks from turning off a light in a particular corner of the parish house that, because I live here and come in and out through that door late at night, I like to leave on. It’s good to have a little bit of light in the darkness of winter, and so I ordered the light switch cover. It arrived, $5 from Amazon, from a manufacturer in Brooklyn. The packaging made it clear that this product could help keep you from accidentally turning off your light switch on the Sabbath!
It’s a great light switch cover, just perfect, and it works just as advertised. And though I’m not worried about the moral implications of turning on and off the lights in this particular corner of the building, I was reminded of the very clear rules around the Sabbath our Jewish sisters and brothers have. The kinds of rules the Pharisees were concerned about. If Jesus is a Jewish teacher, how’s he breaking the laws about the Sabbath? Is it true that Jesus is saying that the rules don’t matter? The Sabbath is made for man, not the other way around! Don’t worry about those pesky rules. Go ahead and turn that light switch off.
I once served at a Saturday evening wedding, as the officiant, where the maid of honor was Jewish. It was summer, and the days were long. The bride knew that her best friend, the maid of honor, was a religious Jewish woman; she could come to the wedding, a religious service; she wasn’t violating any of the Sabbath restrictions she observed in taking the subway, in walking down the aisle, in witnessing the wedding. But at the end of the service, about seven thirty in the evening, as the bride and groom signed the wedding license, the maid of honor took me aside and said she needed to wait until sundown to sign the civil document, the marriage license, for her friend. As dusk fell everyone packed up and left the church to go to the reception. And the maid of honor and I waited. We walked outside and looked up at the night sky. And she watched. She waited. I called my friends to say I’d be late for dinner. And she waited until she could see three stars -- not an easy task in light-filled Manhattan. When she saw the third star she came inside, we signed the marriage license, and she headed off to the reception. Her Sabbath was over.
Her Sabbath wasn’t about rest, or fun, or relaxation. It wasn’t about an escape from doing something, an escape from work. Her Sabbath was even a little inconvenient, truth be told. Her Sabbath was about none of those things.
Her Sabbath was about God. Keeping God first, even in the midst of a fun social occasion.
She may have been the most religious person at the Christian wedding, because she knew her life, first and foremost, depended on God. Her Sabbath was an act of prayer and praise. And the time we spent waiting was itself a prayer.
In our secular world we may think of “time off” as rest, as relaxation and refreshment. And that’s certainly good; there is no end to the psychological and physiological benefits of taking a break, of getting rest. And I recognize that, as we enter this summer season, that we need breaks. We need rest. We need a time to recharge, to regroup--for our brains and bodies to process what’s been happening, and to prepare us for what’s next.
I hope you get some rest time this summer--some time to be with friends or family or just alone. Some time to think. Some time not to think! To read a good book or catch up on correspondence or just stop what you’re doing, to be thankful for the here and now and not work for what’s coming next.
But I hope you get some Sabbath, too. For what the maid of honor taught me, what the Pharisees are so worried about, what all those Sabbath laws are about, is that Sabbath is about time for God. Sabbath is about stopping what we’re doing and giving God our time. About realizing and naming and enacting that God is first, above all things.
The Pharisees were afraid--they couldn’t see how breaking Sabbath was about God; breaking God’s law, surely, was defying God. But they didn’t realize that God God’s own incarnate Son was there, showing them the truth of the law, showing them what Sabbath can look like.
Sabbath involves stopping to feed the hungry--to heal the sick--because these things look like the love of God enacted. “Imagine a world where love is the way,” Bishop Curry said to Megan and Harry--and to the world watching--at their wedding two weeks ago.
Sabbath involves stopping to give time for ourselves to be fed, for ourselves to heal, to pay attention to our connectedness with God and God’s creation, with one another. Sabbath involves putting God first -- which takes time.
And so we stop what we’re doing. We pray. We come to church. We spend time with one another, putting off for another day the things that have been left undone--not merely to rest--but to be reminded again of our connection with God. To put God first.
When I am trying to make a decision about what to do, about how to spend my time, I often ask myself a question my mother used to ask me: In ten years, in 20 years, will I remember the decision I’m making now? Will the outcome matter in a decade or more? And often that helps me re-align what I’m doing. Spending the time with God will matter in a decade, in a lifetime, forever. Whether I’ve finished the report or made it to the cookout or soccer match--maybe that’ll matter for a year or two, but not for a lifetime.
And that’s what my parents were modeling for us when we were growing up. Leaving church and changing into our “play clothes” wasn’t about rest or leisure or relaxation. It was about relationship. Relationship with God, and with one another. About connecting. About taking time to be fed, to heal. About keeping God first.
In this world where there are so many things that demand our attention, so many places to be, so many things we have to do to keep up, so many things that call out to us--as we enter this summer season when resting and relaxing is raised up culturally to a high standard--I invite us to think about Sabbath. About what it means, and how we do it.
It’s not merely about rest; it’s about connecting with God. About responding to God’s love and abundance.
And I invite us to measure everything we do--all the decisions we make about our time--through the lens of Sabbath.
How does this keep God first?
How am I feeding and healing, being fed, being healed. How is this use of my time praising God?
Let us look for God in our lives, in our work, in our rest, in the world around us. For he is already there, calling out to us in love.