Text of a sermon delivered at Saskatoon Unitarians January 26, 2020
Rev. Karen Fraser Gitlitz
Our theme today is sabbath keeping: the deliberate choice to interrupt the daily flow of activities with something different – whether your days are chock full of events and commitments or not. Sabbath keeping is both a practice, an action that builds strength through repetition, and a symbolic choice, a reminder that we are not ruled by the events that surround us even though they may at times feel like they consume us.
Sabbath time moves us from doing into being.
Many religious and spiritual traditions offer advice on this movement. Almost any activity, done mindfully, can shift us from doing to being. It’s a very individual experience. For some, the traditional contemplative activities work well – meditation, prayer, reading scripture, doing yoga, pouring yourself a nice cup of hot tea, a Sunday afternoon walk with family. Others find themselves brought into the present moment by what Chögyam Trungpa calls meditation in action: time spent mindfully in the garden, or running, playing music with a group or playing soccer.
What are the ways that you use to move from a mindset of doing to one of being? When life is an endless list of things to do, commitments to be fulfilled, little people who need to be taken places, how to keep yourself in the present moment, present to yourself and present to those around you.
What activities work for you? What repeated practices call you into the present moment?
I invite you to turn to a neighbour and share one thought – you have one minute each. You will know it is time to come back when you hear the bell.
Sermon, part 1
Whatever we are balancing in our lives — whether it is work and family; or family and friends; or work, family, friends, caring for children, and caring for a parent – I’ve never noticed a moment in myself or others when everything is in a perfectly satisfactory balance — if such a moment is even possible.
I think this is because balance is like the bottom point on the pendulum swing – it’s just a moment we pass through. We notice the balance point only when the pendulum has swung well past it and we’re well on our way to the other side.
In the riot of events and circumstances (chosen or not) that is life, sabbath is something different. It’s a deliberate stepping out of the daily patterns of our relationships, to see more clearly the swinging back and forth of the pendulum — to notice whatever it is that we need to notice. Then we step back into our lives — because sabbath time has a fixed ending, bringing back with us whatever insights we gained.
The ordering of our days and lives into months is common to many human societies. The seven-day week came from the Babylonians, who rounded down the 29.5 days of the lunar cycle to 28 days, with four seven-day weeks.
But conceptually, the week with its sabbath day of rest comes from the Hebrew Bible and Jewish culture. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, are collectively called the Torah and they contain many of the stories, laws and poetry that are central to Jewish life.
The Torah also contains many references to the sabbath or the seventh portion. In Genesis, God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh day, blessing it because it was the day God rested:
“So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” (Genesis 2:3).
There are references in Exodus and Numbers as to how people should behave on the sabbath, especially how they should not work on this day of rest.
There are also references in Leviticus to the importance of the sabbath for the land — “you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard” (Leviticus 25:4).
I appreciate this attention to detail. Especially as it clarifies that the sabbath applies not just to the educated men who would have studied the texts, but also to the people they might not otherwise think about. Exodus 16:23 says that there should be no baking or boiling. This is women’s work, so it is clear that women as well as men should have a day of rest from their labours.
Sabbath is also meant to benefit people of all classes: the seventh year of letting the land lie fallow offers regeneration not just to the land, but to the poor, who are released from their labour for others, and given the opportunity to eat whatever the fallow land produces. (Exodus 23:10-11).
However it worked in practice, in theory the sabbath applied to all beings, to all animate life — to the orchards and fields, to poor and wealthy, and to all genders.
The underlying message of sabbath is gratitude. There is enough. There is enough time to spend time with your family. Enough food that you do not need to rush frantically here and there every day of your adult life.
Sabbath is also an invitation to trust. Life does not come down to our actions alone. (What a radical thought that is!). It does not all come down to our own actions. We can — for a moment — for a small seventh portion of our lives, simply rest together and be, saying this is good. This is enough.
Most spiritual traditions have something to say about the balance between being and doing. As the old joke goes, we are human beings not human doings…. not that you’d know it by looking at us. And this is, I think, the brilliance of sabbath — it assumes that we are busy most of the time. We have children to raise and work to do, and it is in our nature to get immersed in these tasks — it’s not a bad thing, much that is useful and beautiful comes out of this immersion.
And, we can also get stuck, staying in one way of doing things, far longer than is useful. Years can pass, without our noticing.
Sabbath is an opportunity to notice. What we notice can sometimes surprise us.
Let us pause for a moment, to listen to one person’s noticing.
I invite you into a time of meditation and contemplation following these words:
For a new beginning, by John O’Donohue.
In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promise that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening:
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
Musical Response “The Point of Arrival” by Carrie Newcomer
Available here: https://youtu.be/lYL-_DE0jvU
Sermon, part 2
In the mid-20th century, two Christians did some noticing of their own.
British psychiatrist Frank Lake and Swiss theologian Emil Brunner were curious — why do some people burn out and others don’t?
It seemed to have nothing to do with how hard individuals were working or how much time they dedicated to other activities. All of the people in their studies made greater or lesser attempts to care for themselves.
Lake and Brunner picked a group of missionaries and decided to look more closely at their lives. They identified four aspects of effort: achievement, significance, sustenance, and acceptance.
Achievement is the doing, the visible action, the external activities
Significance is the internal meaning-making — how we decide to attribute meaning
Sustenance is the receptive time, it is what we take in, what gives us strength and renews our spirit
Acceptance is our understanding of who we are — it is the source of our self-worth.
All of the people in their study exhibited evidence of each of these processes at one time or another.
What Lake and Brunner noticed is that what mattered was the order in which people engaged with them.
For some, the cycle moves from achievement to significance, to sustenance to acceptance and then back to achievement. Achievement is the driver in this cycle. Achievement is the source of significance or meaning, and one receives sustenance from bringing meaningful work to a level of satisfaction. From this satisfaction comes acceptance of who we are.
The other way of living the cycle starts with acceptance. Whether you define yourself as a child of god or a child of the universe — One’s understanding of oneself in the web of life is the place to begin. This understanding is a source of strength, it is a sustaining belief in hard times. Being able to sustain oneself in hard times is in itself a form of meaning-making and from this meaning comes the basis of action and achievement.
In the Christian language of Lake and Brunner, the first cycle, the cycle that begins with achievement, is called the cycle of works. Operating exclusively from this cycle leads to burnout — practitioners of this cycle are reliant on successful actions to create the feelings of satisfaction and significance. As we all know in life, some of our work is going to be successful and some of it is not.
The other cycle is called the cycle of grace or cycle of acceptance, because it starts with acceptance. It starts with our being, not our doing. It is an internal compass and is not reliant on external feedback.
Of course, we are all capable of operating the cycle in both directions. There is nothing wrong in taking satisfaction in one’s achievements. What becomes problematic is if we forget, or don’t know, that this is not the only source of significance and satisfaction available to us. If we forget that this is not the only way to build self-worth and satisfaction, we can run into trouble if we meet with failure, as defined by ourselves or others. We can give others the power over our own self-worth if we let others define what success looks like.
Also problematic is shutting out sustenance all together — getting caught in an endless cycle of trying to achieve without ever getting to significance, sustenance, or acceptance.
The only way we can know how we are moving through this cycle at any given time is to take some time away, to track it.
As a community, we had an opportunity for some noticing and tracking this fall, when Mary Wellemeyer joined us to facilitate our re-start workshop.
Attend to who you are right now, she said. Notice who you are becoming. Do not be afraid of the cracks, when they are noticed and tended to, they can become places of beauty. Like a piece of kintsugi pottery, joined back together by seams of gold. In that moment of noticing, we were invited to look at our actions from a reflective place, a sabbath pause. Out of that moment came insights – we hope! – some acceptance about who we are and what matters to us.
Ministers take sabbaticals because ministry, like many life tasks, can become all-consuming. First of all, there can be no complete success, because there will always be more that can be done. It is up to the minister to say “I am done for this day” and find their peace with that ending. Second, there are some very odd expectations in ministry. We are meant to live our lives together, and that often means that the minister spends time that is both work and play with the congregation, working on Saturdays and Sundays when many people have their time off. It is a fulfilling life, it is a life with great joy and great privilege, but it is not a life that is easy to step back from.
Congregations offer sabbaticals because congregations recognize that if ministers are to continue to offer meaningful contributions with a sense of joy, they need time away, time to renew and reconnect with their sense of self and what sustains them. Ministers need time to figure out who they are right now — as opposed to who they were four or seven years ago.
The wisdom of our tradition says that ministers need to take time to reflect and integrate their experiences, otherwise they do not continue to learn and grow. No one wants someone who, when presented with the same topic seven years apart says exactly the same thing, in the same way, having learned nothing of life in between. Least of all the minister themselves.
For a congregation and a minister to have a successful long term ministry together, both need to be able to change and grow. The relationship itself needs to be able to shift. You might be thinking at this point that this is not unlike a marriage. Although the relationship between a congregation and a minister is unique, it is like a marriage in this way, that there is more room for each to be themselves when they take some time to be apart. When they follow the advice of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke who said that love consists of this: two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other.
Everyone must have the time for reflection that allows them the ability to find something new in themselves.
Sabbatical allows the minister time to step out of the dance, to view the pendulum from afar, to walk up to the balcony to view the larger pattern from a a distance. To see the beauty in the pattern, and to feel grateful for it. To look at who we are, and what we have done together and to say – with real feeling – this is good. This is enough.
May we all find time in our lives for this reflection.
Amen, blessed be.
Chögyam Trungpa Meditation in Action: 40th Anniversary Edition (Shambhala Publications, 2010).
Or read this transcript of a talk given by the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa, which contains a beautiful, concise account of Buddhism and a discussion of meditation meditation in action:
John O’Donohue’s “For a new beginning” is published in John O’Donohue To Bless The Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (Doubleday, 2008).
For some examples of kintsugi pottery, including the pieces that the Rev. Mary Wellemeyer shared with us during the Sunday service on November 24, 2019, see “Kintsugi: the art of precious scars” by Stefano Carnazzi on Lifegate:
Lake and Brunner’s work was shared with me by a colleague, the Rev. Elizabeth Stevens. Some information is available on the internet, here: http://lovelifegivingwater.com/identity/understanding-the-cycle-of-grace/