Exodus 20:8-11, Mark 2:27-28
Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Saying No
How many of you have read the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder? I have to admit I didn’t love them when I was a child, but I really loved them when I read them as an adult, and so I’ve been excited to finally read Caroline: Little House Revisited by Sarah Miller, which came out a couple of years ago. I’m only part way through, but a scene early on in the book struck me when I was thinking about how we keep Sabbath and preparing for worship today. The Ingalls family - Caroline and Charles Ingalls - and their two daughters, Mary and Laura, are heading west in their covered wagon. Along the way, they encounter lots of terrible weather, and of course, many Sabbath days - many Sundays. And on one day described in the book, those things collide - terrible, storming weather with pouring rain, and a Sabbath day. And so the family - particularly Caroline and the girls - cannot leave the wagon. But they also feel, to keep the Sabbath, that they can’t do much of anything else either. They can’t do any work, but their understanding of Sabbath also means they can’t play games, engage in frivolous activities on a day meant for worship, prayer, and holy rest. And so they sit there, and they sit there. Can you imagine being trapped in a small covered wagon with your family for the day and just - sitting still, all day?
I had the Ingalls family on my mind as I studied our two texts for today. The first passage comes from the Ten Commandments, where the practice of keeping Sabbath, a day of rest, is encoded into the law of God’s people, as they get ready to live into the land that God has promised them. The commandment says, “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.” Nobody - not even slaves or animals or foreign visitors - no one is to work on the Sabbath. Why? Because God, after the work of creation, took a day of rest, and then decided in turn to bless the seventh day and set it apart as holy.
Our second short reading is from Mark’s gospel. Here’s the context: Jesus and his disciples are walking through cornfields on the Sabbath day. They’re hungry. And so on their way, some of the disciples take some corn to eat. The Pharisees - I’m not sure where they’ve been while this happens - hiding in the cornfields? Following Jesus? - they question Jesus. “Why are you disciples doing something unlawful on the Sabbath?” See, the Pharisees were experts in the law of Moses. They studied the law carefully and worked hard to figure out how to interpret the law, how to put it into action in everyday life. Over generations, understandings of the law by religious scholars added up, and so the Pharisees not only knew the original law, but they also knew how scholars over the years understood the law. And sometimes, these understandings, these interpretations became nearly as important as the original law.
In some ways, the Pharisees were doing the very same work we do when we read the scripture and try to understand what it means. We know the Bible is not always crystal clear to us at first read. We have to study it, and test it out, and try to understand what it is saying to us. The Pharisees did the same. And then they tried to be very faithful to following what they - and their predecessors - said about how the law of Moses should be understood. So when it came to keeping Sabbath, the Pharisees, and many in the Jewish community, had an extensive understanding of what it meant to “Keep the Sabbath holy.” After all, without extra interpretation, the words from Exodus can be a little vague. We’re to rest from work - but what counts as work? Are there any exceptions?
So when the Pharisees sees Jesus and his disciples eating from the field, they see more than just a snack. They see people harvesting food. And for a farming-based culture, you better believe that the work of farming - planting and tending and harvesting - was considered work. And God told us to rest from work on the Sabbath to make it holy. Is it ok, then, to break the Sabbath “just a little,” to do just a little work? The Pharisees didn’t think so, especially if it was just so things could be more convenient for us. Keep the Sabbath holy, unless it is inconvenient - and then just do what you want. No, the Pharisees felt it was important that we follow God’s law as closely as possible. That’s not exactly a bad thing, is it?
Still, they always found themselves on the other side of arguments with Jesus. They frustrated each other to no end. And that’s because Jesus kept telling them that they were repeatedly coming to the wrong conclusions in their interpretations of the law, following the letter but missing the heart and spirit of what God intended. I imagine that was pretty hard to hear. Jesus reminds the Pharisees that even the beloved and revered King David broke some Sabbath rules, eating the special bread reserved only for priests when he and his companions were hungry and on the run from King Saul. And then Jesus concludes, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath. The Son of Man (that’s a description Jesus uses for himself sometimes) is lord even of the Sabbath.”
The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath. What does that mean? I think it means that the Sabbath is a gift from God to us. And like with any gift given to us by the Creator of the Universe, we should treasure it and make good use of it, and let it be the blessing for us that God intends gifts to be. I think that means that on the one hand, we shouldn’t make so many rules about “keeping Sabbath” that what was meant to be a gift and a blessing turns into a burden that we hate. And on the other hand, we shouldn’t ignore the gift of Sabbath as if it is something we don’t need or care about. If we constantly find ourselves too busy for Sabbath rest, we’re kind of missing the point. God’s gift is rest. God gives us permission - commands us in fact - to take a break. To stop. Literally to “cease and desist” from the regular rhythms that claim all the rest of our time. Sabbath time is a gift from God for us. God won’t make us open the gift. But God’s gifts are always good, and good for us.
Peter Schuurman, who wrote the article that inspired this sermon series writes that we can think of keeping Sabbath as the spiritual discipline of saying no. He says, “The spiritual discipline of saying no often means saying no to more … saying no in order to open space for God. In fact every no is a yes and every yes is a no. A no to more activity can be a yes to prayer … Saying no is harder than saying yes … The fourth commandment[, the commandment of Sabbath rest], has become the one most easily dismissed, the one that seems almost frivolous in its impracticality ... Sabbath is a big NO … Sabbath is saying no to business as usual and deliberately creating regular moments of rest, recreation, and reflection that celebrate God's abundance and grace so that when the hard winds of adversity blow down your door and sweep through your hallways, you will be able to remember, picture, and believe that Sabbath peace is real, possible, and even bound to be our future, for we live into an eternal Sabbath.” (“Everyday Jesus Spirituality,” Reformed Worship 130, pg 8.) Keeping Sabbath is learning how to say no to our usual routine so that we give time and space for God to break in, time for us to revel in God’s love and grace, time for us to hear God’s voice.
Don Schuessler shared with me a devotion from The Upper Room that came up this week that fits perfectly with this idea - saying no to some things to say yes to God’s thing. Timothy Sandridge shares, “During the Sunday morning worship time at my last youth retreat, I asked three people from the audience to stand in the front. I then asked them to arrange themselves from the busiest to the least busy person. The busiest person had to hold two giant boxes. The next held a stack of books, and the last held nothing. I then told them they had to catch a ball that I would toss them. I tossed the ball to each person, and only two out of the three caught it. I explained that the ball represented opportunities from God and that if we are too busy, then we won’t be able to catch what God is tossing to us.
“That afternoon, when I got home after the retreat, I realized how busy I was myself. Between school, Boy Scouts, band, choir, friends, and church, my arms were pretty full. We have control over much of the busyness of our lives. When we free up some space, we allow God to give us rest and are able to gladly receive the opportunities for loving service that God sends our way.” (“Free Up Space,” The Upper Room, https://www.upperroom.org/devotionals/en-2020-01-23) Are you making time and space in your life to receive what God wants to give you?
Last year, I read a book called Saying No to Say Yes: Everyday Boundaries and Pastoral Excellence, by David C. Olsen and Nancy G. Devor. I think it has some good advice not just for pastors, but for all of us. They talk about how learning to say no sometimes leaves us room to focus on our true purpose, our real vision and God’s real vision for our lives. They write about New York Times columnist David Brooks, who wrote a column called “The Leadership Revival.” Brooks noted that we’re inspired by people like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. How do we follow in their footsteps? Brooks says we do that, in part, by learning to say no. He writes, “Close off your options. [We] live in a beckoning world. [We] have an array of opportunities. [We] naturally want to keep all [our] options open. The shrewd strategists tell [us] to make a series of tepid commitments to see what pans out. Hedge your bets. Play it smart.” (As quoted by Olsen/Devor, 79-80) But when we do that, Olsen and Devor note, we “spread ourselves too thin and dissipate our energy, unable to communicate our initial inspiration.” Our bias should be toward focus: “to say ‘no’ to some of the innumerable requests filling our days in order to say ‘yes’ to what we truly value.” Only when we learn to do that can we put our full energy behind any cause. Brooks wrote, “Only the masters of renunciation leave an imprint, only those who can say a hundred Nos for the sake of an overwhelming Yes.” (80)
I wonder what other paths Jesus could have traveled. I wonder what other ways to fill his short days walking this earth Jesus turned aside from so he could continue to say yes to God’s path. I wonder when Jesus had to say no - things that would have been harmful or destructive, sure, but also “no” even to good things, joy-giving things sometimes - so that he could stay focused on the best thing - saying yes to God.
And what about us? Sabbath isn’t meant to be a rule-laden punishment that keeps us sitting still under a covered wagon all day, miserable every moment. Why would God want that for us? No, Sabbath is for us, a gift. A gift of no. I’m going to say no right now to the regular, seemingly relentless rhythms of life - for a day, for a season, for this new chapter of life, and say yes to God. What do you think you need to say no to, in order to say yes to God more fully? Where and to what do we say No - to things that lead us away from God, always! - and sometimes even to good things that keep us from God’s best thing? As disciples of Jesus, we wrestle with these questions throughout our lives, so that we can continually say Yes to God with our whole hearts. Amen.
As I said, I really resonated with The Upper Room devotional that Don called to my attention. Sometimes - like we all do - sometimes I’ve been carrying two big boxes, and so I haven’t been ready to respond to the thing - the opportunity, the hope, the call, the vision, the future - that God is longing to throw my way.
I’ve been feeling like God is calling me in a new direction, and to say Yes to God, I have to say No to some other things. I have to set down some big boxes, even though those boxes contain some things I love, things that have brought me great joy. At the end of June, I will be finishing my time as the pastor here in Gouverneur. I am applying to go back to school - again - to pursue a PhD that will help me prepare to shift my focus to teaching in the field of Christian Ethics. I’m not sure exactly what form that teaching career might take, but I know that I need to go back to school in order to open up that pathway. I know more school might sound surprising since I already have a doctoral degree, and I can talk to you about that in more detail outside of worship, but suffice it to say that my Doctor of Ministry was meant for clergy who serve in the local church, but I’ll need a degree geared toward working academically. I’m in the process now of waiting to hear if I’ve been accepted to school this coming fall. I will share with you more details about my possible plans as they unfold.
This isn’t a path forward I’ve chosen without weighing it carefully. It’s not a path I’ve chosen without considerable grief for the things I will have to “put down” in order to be available for school. I love being your pastor, and I love you. My years of ministry with you have been a rewarding blessing in my life. If things weren’t going well, if I didn’t feel loved and supported by you, it would be easy to say it was time to go. But I have felt supported, encouraged, and affirmed by you since I first met with the joint First UMC and North Gouverneur SPRC nearly four years ago. And I will continue to value and count on your strength in the coming months as we head into this season of transition.
In the next weeks, our District Superintendent Mike Weeden will meet with our Staff Parish Relations Committee, to talk about the process of receiving a new pastor. As soon as they are able, the SPRC will announce to you who will be coming to serve and minister alongside you starting in July. I hope you will join me in praying for the DS and the SPRC as they go about this work.
God never stops calling us! And so we’re always engaged in the hard work of figuring out how to respond. Together, and with the help of God, I think we can help each other be strong enough to say no to 24/7 business as usual, and yes to whatever God has in store.
And now let us go forth in peace. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all, now and forever. Amen.