Sermon Remix: Sabbath as Relinquishing Control

How do people answer the question “How are you?”

“Fine”, or “good,” Am I right?

After that, what do you think the next most popular answer is?

I think it’s busy.

It’s almost like a reflex. How are you? Busy. The thing about busy as an answer (and I’m just as guilty of this as anyone) is that it doesn’t say very much at all. One can be busy and content, or busy and devastated. Busy tells others that we’re doing a lot, but it doesn’t tell them what we’re doing or why we’re doing it.

Today we’re talking about Sabbath as relinquishing control.

Have you ever met a busy person who seems to have all of the time in the world… just for you? Have you ever met someone for whom time seems to multiply? They seem to be manufacturing time, these people. Where do they find the time? How do they do everything they do? I think Mark Buchanan in his book The Rest of God has it right. He argues that there’s an irony to time, that the more we try to keep time and hang on to it, the less time we actually have. The more we give away, the more we have. He writes:

Hoarding is only wasting. Keeping turns into losing. And so the world of the stingy shrinks. Skinflints, locked into a mind of scarcity, find that the world dwindles down to meet their withered expectations. Because they are convinced there isn’t enough, there never is. This all relates to Sabbath-keeping. Generous people have more time. That’s the irony: those who sanctify time and who give time away — who treat time as a gift and not a possession — have time in abundance. Contrariwise, those who guard every minute, resent every interruption, ration every moment, never have enough. They’re always late, always behind, always scrambling, always driven. There is, of course, a place for wise management of our days and weeks and years. But management can quickly turn in to rigidity. We hold time so tight we crush it, like a flower closed in the fist. We thought we were protecting it, but all we did was destroy it.

Writer Annie Dillard says it much more succinctly when she says “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” When we spend our days savoring pancakes with our grandchildren or when we spend our days listening, really listening to our friends and neighbors, we practice sabbath. I love to tell the story of Bruce, a mentor from college who refused to pick up the ringing phone when we were having a conversation. When I asked if he needed to get it, he said “I’m talking to you.” Time multiplies when we give it away. When we let go of having to do every little thing, we find time we never knew we had.

We live in the age of “multi-tasking” — we think we can do more than one thing at the same time, like watch TV and knit a sweater, or talk on the phone and do the dishes, or listen to a sermon and send text messages. (I’m kidding on that last one. Clearly no one does that, right?) Research suggests that multitasking is a myth, though. Our brains can’t multitask, we can only switch our attention, sometimes very rapidly, from one thing to another. The irony of multitasking is that it takes us twice as long to get tasks done when we multitask and the time we thought we were saving we were actually losing.

To practice Sabbath as relinquishing control is to consider that maybe we can’t fix every problem we think we can. This is a challenging message for a lot of us, especially if we’re achievement driven and want to succeed in the world. We want to fix things, build things, make things better. We believe that if we work harder and put forth more effort more things will be fixed, the things we build will be stronger and taller and all that is wrong in the world will be resolved. Maybe, but the scripture reminds us this is not always so: For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under the sun. To practice Sabbath is to recognize that not all problems are fixable, not all things are under our control. Sometimes we must simply rest.

A writer friend recently quoted someone who said “Honoring Sabbath means letting go of our treasured illusions of being indispensable.”  (I think this person is the original source). We are important, certainly, but we have choices about how to spend our time, and the answer is not always send one more email or go to one more meeting.

I love Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” and I may have quoted it before from this pulpit, but it’s just so good, and so appropriate to this topic: 

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

When we practice sabbath we recognize that everything, including us, dies, and way too soon. The way we spend our time matters. If we’re not careful, we’ll blink and 100 years will be behind us.

I’ve been focusing most of this message on the need to slow down and relinquish control when we feel like there is too much to do and not enough time, but I want to shift our attention a little bit to the opposite struggle: what to do when we have too much time, but not enough purpose. There are stages in life and people connected to us who are feeling this. People who are being crushed under the weight of too much time: stay at home parents who are trying to find meaning and purpose while staying at home with small babies and children who can’t engage in meaningful conversation, people whose illnesses require them to sit in chairs, or even lie down in bed for hours, days, weeks, months at a time, people who are in the last years of life and have no children, or parents, or relatives or friends. For some, time is an ocean, and they’re drowning. I’ve got some specific people in my mind who fit this description. They’re people who are connected to this congregation, but they are, somehow, on the very margins. I visit them from time to time, but not nearly as much as I wish I could. One of the things I love about Northwood is how well we take care of one another. I talked about this last week: If someone is in need, there’s often a whole crowd of people to help fill that need. I’ve felt a growing, gnawing sense that I should simply bring this need to you, then, in the hopes that we might be able to help these folks who are drowning under an ocean of time. I’ve worried about it, though, because everyone I know in our congregation is already so busy. Yet, as I think about this idea that time multiplies when we give it away, I feel compelled to throw it out there and see what happens. I’m thinking of five or six people on the borders of our community who could use a regular visitor, maybe an hour or two every other week. It’s not something that everyone has a calling to do, so please, don’t feel guilty if you don’t feel a calling to this. (I mean it! It would be an utter sermon fail if someone came away from a sermon about Sabbath feeling like he or she needed to do more!) But I do trust that there are a few of us out here who do feel a calling to give some time away to someone. If you think this might be you, please pray about it and we can have coffee and talk about who the people are and what their specific needs might be. We could go on our first visit together. 

In the same spirit, if you’re drowning in time and feeling overwhelmed by it and lonely, please let someone know so you aren’t suffering in silence. Being lonely is nothing to be ashamed of, and our church can (and will) help.

Time. It’s not ours. It never was. It belongs to God. Yesterday Samuel wanted some pecans and I was opening them with a nutcracker. It was a huge mess. I happened to be talking to a friend on Skype while this whole scene was unfolding and she said “Yeah, pecans are tricky, it’s almost like you have to crack them just enough to open them, but not so much that you crush them.” Sort of like time, I think. We want to save it and give it away, but the balance is so hard to come by, so we let it go and we ask God for wisdom and help. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of us all. Amen.