Honor Sabbath: “Return with Gladness”
Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
Rev. Emily Wilmesherr
Decatur Presbyterian Church
January 22, 2023
Do you have a holy place or space? Think about a place that you feel connected to God, at peace, you feel you can rest and recharge. These are thin places where the moment we enter them, we become aware of the Holy Spirit’s presence and we expect to experience the holy. Oftentimes these are retreats, camps, or conferences, moments of Sabbath that are for a specific purpose and length of time.
In October, I participated in a Sabbath moment like these when I attended the Credo Conference for first call pastors. It is a program designed to support the wellness of pastors as they navigate their first call, by providing support emotionally, spiritually, physically, mentally, and financially. My Credo Sabbath was held at a secluded conference center in Richmond, Virginia which was a beautiful place to be in the fall. Leading up to the week, I planned to be fully present in that space, I was deeply longing to nurture my own spiritual life and encounter the Divine. So I took steps before leaving, to make sure that space was ready. I created “away” messages on my email and phone, told those closest to me that I would be out of pocket for a week, and during the very long drive began to let go of the things I had left undone.
The week was a holy and restful one. I had time to sleep, think clearly, focus on my present needs, worship, let others lead and guide me, I had minimal responsibilities. I spent time in fellowship with new friends, I left my phone in my room, I didn’t spend time on my computer, took walks, and I ate my meals mindfully. At the end of the week, I was ready to see my family but I was not ready to leave this mountaintop experience. The daily rhythms I participated in were just about perfect. I didn’t have responsibilities competing for my time and energy, I was able to be fully present with those around me, God, and myself.. The reality is that this form of rest and renewal is only sustainable for a finite period of time. It is inevitable that one must return to our normal routine of meal planning, caring for family, house cleaning, work, paying bills, and participating in real life.
Have you had these experiences? You go away for a few days, a weekend, or a week to recharge and you find it hard and almost sad to return to normal life. It is easy to participate in and descend into Sabbath when you can temporarily set aside your responsibilities and the rhythms of your busy life to be in a place or space that you experience as holy. A place that nurtures slowing down and being present with God. But it’s harder to do this week in and week out.
The rhythm of work during the week and rest of the weekends are not universal and even though we can expect it each week, we are always surprised by Monday’s inevitable return. How many people love Mondays? Yeah, that’s what I thought, not too many of you. Mondays are universally difficult. There are memes and sayings all over the internet, on t-shirts, and coffee mugs about how difficult it is for the weekend to be over and for one to return to work or weekday life. Things like “I’d like a Monday sized coffee please!”, “Mondays have been ruining fun since… forever.” There is even one with an image of a grumpy cat that reads “Of course it’s Monday, does this look like my Friday face?” It is hard to return to the mundane tasks after a few days off, and it can be especially difficult to return with gladness.
Part of the rhythm of Sabbath is an end and a return to daily life. This is what theologian Karl Barth calls “descending with gladness.” Meaning that we descend from the mountaintop encounter with God, feeling refreshed and renewed to participate in the world with eyes, mind, and heart reoriented towards God. This is not a naive or Pollyanna view of life, where joy is forced or we just say it because it’s the right thing, while hiding our struggles deep inside. This is a return to our daily lives having been filled with joy and transformed, having expected a peace and joy that we can only experience when we have had an encounter with the Divine. We are called to this kind of Sabbath practice continually, not just for a week or two out of the year when we go to a holy place but each week.
Last week, I began a new rhythm in my week. I took Friday morning to go to my favorite coffee shop early in the morning. I reflected on my week, gave thanks for the moments of joy, I confessed where I missed opportunities to love or notice those around me, and looked forward to the week to come, making time for play, rest, and fellowship. This was Sabbath.This filled me up with peace, joy, and gladness to re-enter my daily tasks and responsibilities. It reconnected me to God and to myself. That is what Sabbath was created for, to connect you back with God, connect you with others, and to reconnect you to the deepest parts of yourself. When we make the glad descent, we take the joy of Sabbath with us, and it urges us to show God’s love and mercy throughout our week because we have experienced the presence of God personally.
The Bible gives us many examples of the meaning and evolution of Sabbath practices. It begins with God, after creating the entire universe, setting aside time for holy rest. God later institutionalized Sabbath in the Ten Commandments, instructing the Israelites and all who lived among them to refrain from work on the seventh day of the week. In the New Testament, Jesus further unpacks the true meaning and purpose of Sabbath as a time of celebration and liberation. There are 5 different stories in the gospels that tell us about how Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath and religious leaders criticized him for working on the Sabbath. We also see examples of Jesus practicing rest, getting away from people to be with God. Jesus shows us the importance of resting, of stepping away from the work to commune with God.
In the scripture today, we don’t get a lot of information about the woman that Jesus heals, but we do get a little. Jesus meets this woman in the synagogue which means that she is a part of a worshiping community. He calls her “daughter of Abraham” so we know that she is Jewish. Based on the text, it appears that Jesus approached the woman, not the other way around. She had been crippled for 18 long years and on this day, she is healed. We can’t know her weekly attendance at worship or her intention for returning week after week, but it seems that she wasn’t going in hopes of being healed, she was practicing Sabbath. She was going through the rhythm of her week. After being healed she praises God. Can you imagine the joy that erupted in the crowd that day?
Sabbath isn’t meant to restrain but set people free. While rules around the Sabbath helped to create rhythm and set aside holy time each week, it ended up putting the rules ahead of extending mercy and compassion to others. However, when they get in the way of a child of God experiencing wholeness and goodness, we need to reevaluate what we are doing and why. This is what Jesus was pointing out that day. The woman was not experiencing wholeness and had experienced this pain for so long, why should she wait any more to be healed? Sabbath is a gift and a covenant of grace in which God invites us into. Being created in the Divine image, we are designed to be deeply connected to our Creator. God created the day of rest so that we could commune in God’s holy presence and to commune with one another. Practicing Sabbath brings us back to this beautiful relationship.
One of the regular ways we create Sabbath is through worship together on Sunday mornings. Time spent with God and one another should move us back into the world with joy, compassion, peace, and justice. The church gathers to be scattered, this is a holy rhythm. We have holy rhythms in the order of worship that help to re-orient us: we gather, confess, read scripture, affirm what we believe, give back what God has generously given to us, and we are sent out. Every week you can expect this when you come to worship. Rhythms and routines help us when we have become distracted and overwhelmed. These parts of our service are comforting and if we lean into that rhythm of worship, we expect to encounter God.
For the Church, Sundays have been the day chosen as Sabbath, the Lord’s Day because it was Sunday when Jesus rose from the dead. However, Sundays are not always a possible day of rest for all people and that is ok. Join in communal worship on Sundays when you can but do not let your other responsibilities keep you from practicing Sabbath on any day. Whatever day or time you choose to set apart, to lay aside your daily rhythms and embrace holy rhythms, I encourage you to let the joy you experienced fill you up and sustain you throughout the week.
No matter what happens during your week, hold on to the promise that there is another Sabbath only 6 days. Friday night and Saturday, the Decatur Presbyterian Church elders, pastors and come staff gathered for a retreat that focused on evangelism. When we took the Vital Congregations survey last fall, we discovered that this church is really good at caring relationships but struggles some with evangelism. We named the ways that we are caring for people well and how we could lean into that gift from God while connecting with people who are not yet here. We talked about how evangelism is not just the job of one person or committee within the church but the responsibility of all those who gather here. One of the healthy habits of evangelism is radical welcome so we talked about how the whole church could practice this with those who enter DPC as well as those who are not yet a part of a faith community. We spent time yesterday driving and walking around the community to notice. While many of us live in Decatur and see the city and people daily, often we are too busy to really take notice of who and what we see.
In the book 8 Habits of Evangelism it describes radical welcome in this way: “it is the spiritual ability to see the will of God to create, foster, make room for and be an active participant in beloved community that calls us outside of our proclivity to fear and into the brave loving strength of togetherness. It is the difference between inviting visitors in your home and welcoming family. One is temporal and the other is belonging.”
I see radical welcome in our scripture today from Jesus. As a crowd of people were gathered for worship, Jesus noticed the woman. He didn’t ignore her to only engage with those who were well, but he invited the crippled woman to come and be healed. He noticed her presence and gave her a name. Here is where the rituals and laws could have stood in the way but Jesus chose to heal her on that day so that she could walk away in gladness, sharing this joy with others. So that she would walk away having experienced the deep love of God in a real and tangible way. The whole community felt it. It said the crowd joined her in praising God.
What is it that honoring the Sabbath and racial welcome have in common? What does it mean to you for someone to notice you, call you by name, smile at you, check in on you, and encourage you in the week ahead? Speaking from personal experience and from some of the experiences of our elders yesterday, it means more than words can express. What a gift it is to come to Sabbath worship to praise our God who designed us for community, to confess where we have fallen short, receive forgiveness, claim what we believe so that we might go out into the world to share the love of Jesus with all those we meet throughout the week.
I would like to end by giving you a little assignment. When you see people in worship that you do not recognize instead of letting fear, pride, or busy schedules get in the way, I invite you to be a part of someone else’s descent with gladness. Slow down and be present with one another, knowing that God too is there using that interaction to fill your souls with the joy of Sabbath.
It is a joy to gather together in worship on this Sabbath day. As you leave today, seek out someone you do not know, someone whose name you can’t quite remember, or someone who has been on your heart this week. Stop and be with one another. Part of the Sabbath is coming together in community. Remember that wherever 2 or more are gathered God is there. May you go from this place refilled, recharge, and ready to share the love and mercy of God with those you encounter. May you have the courage to slow down today and throughout your week so that you might notice God’s gentle nudges and hear God’s voice to work towards justice and wholeness for all. When the week gets difficult and exhausting, remember that Sabbath is coming again and rest in that rhythm.
Go in the name of God our Creator, Jesus our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit our Sustainer.
Rev. Emily Wilmesherr
January 22, 2023