On a cold, gray morning in 1982, a small group of Anglican clergy gathered at the home of the Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral for a simple service of Holy Communion. The celebrant was Elizabeth Canham, who I just learned lives in Black Mountain. A native Brit, Elizabeth had moved to the States for the purpose of becoming an ordained Episcopal priest. The Church of England wasn’t yet ordaining women.
The months prior to Canham’s return home had been joyous…and feverish–preparations for ordination, receiving friends who’d crossed the Atlantic to share the occasion, dealing with media representatives who treated her ordination as a cause celebre. Canham writes of the experience, “It had been a breathless time of excitement, hope, and fulfillment.” She had returned to England, she said, for what she thought would be a rest. Instead, she’d been inundated with invitations, requests, meetings, and interviews.
Of the gathering at the Dean’s home that gray morning, Elizabeth writes: “The clergymen offered me affirmation and hope for a more inclusive Church of England…Then one of them, rector of a nearby parish, asked if I had some time to spare following the service. Anxious to respond to the needs of others and to further the ‘cause,’ I said yes.
“Later that morning we walked through the London streets and into the crypt of his centuries-old church. We passed through to a small, sparsely furnished worship space. A plain altar, cross, and muted light drew me into a quiet space, and my friend sat down beside me.
“Expecting my friend to ask for something I waited, tense, ready to respond. Instead the silence grew, and I began to sense a loving, prayerful presence as this priest wordlessly invited me into a resting place. When I realized that he was not asking me to provide something but to receive a gift, tears began to flow. In this period of intense activity I had forgotten to stop, to wait, and to be open to the renewing power of restful presence, the Sabbath time with which the Creator gifted humankind at the beginning of all things.” (Heart Whispers, 99-100.)
Sabbath rest. Stopping…to be still, to be present to ourselves, to be present with each other, to breathe in God’s love, to be.
Sometimes, we forget, don’t we? So immersed are we in doing the crucial work of acting the world into wellbeing–righting wrongs, protesting injustices, dismantling oppressive social systems–so immersed are we in doing the crucial work of acting the world into wellbeing, of, in Elizabeth’s words, “furthering the ‘cause,’” we often forget to rest. And sometimes, it’s not that we forget to rest; it’s that we downplay the importance of resting. We sometimes see resting as a weakness, or even as a sign of disloyalty to the movement.
It’s like the first session of the “Just Mercy” class week before last. In the class we’re looking at mass incarceration, which is among the gravest manifestations of racism in our country. As each of us in the class named why we had come to the class, one person said, “I’m looking for hope.” To which I responded, “No! We’ve got to face the facts of racism and the injustice of our criminal justice system. Until we face the facts, nothing will be helped, nothing will be healed, there will be no hope!” Okay. It wasn’t my most pastoral moment ever.
There’s just so much that feels broken these days, isn’t there? And the rate at which things break in the world seems to have sped up exponentially. The massacre of Muslims in New Zealand. The inland oceans created by flooding in Mozambique and our own country’s Midwest. The rampant corruption afoot among some politicians. Parents trying to buy their kids admission into Ivy League schools, the ongoing gentrification in our own city… Our go-to response for all of this is to get out there and DO something! To write letters, to march, to protest, to advocate. We’re activists! That’s what following Jesus is all about!
Yes, that’s true. But what else did Jesus do? He regularly stepped away for rest and prayer. Jesus practiced contemplative action…action grounded in and sustained by prayer.
We’ve done a pretty good job on Wednesdays this Lent, of breathing in God’s love in a brief time of quiet prayer at noon, then going out on the Mercy Walks.
In worship, though, we haven’t been quite as balanced. In worship, things have been intense…looking at the injustice of exclusion of LGBTQ people from churches 3 weeks ago, and delving into the injustices of white privilege and racism the last two Sundays. Y’all, that’s some heavy stuff. And, like the pastor said, It’s vital that people of faith face these hard facts…
But it’s equally important on occasion to take a break, to allow ourselves to rest in the loving embrace of God, to laugh and sing and enjoy each other’s company. Saving the world is important, but if we forget what we’re saving it for, what have we gained?
So, today, I offer not a word of challenge, but one of grace…an invitation simply to be in each other’s company…an invitation to rest in God’s love, to breathe in everything that will heal you, that will heal us as a community. The invitation is to pause and reconnect with the delight of being human and the delight of being part of this community of humans.
To help in this process of simply being and delighting in that being, I’m going to give you two gifts today. The first is a shorter sermon. You’re welcome. 🙂 The second is a second reading of today’s Psalm. We’re going to hear the Psalm in a process called lectio divina, divine reading. Ellenor will read the Psalm 3 times with brief pauses between each reading. The invitation is simply to let the words wash over you. If a word catches your imagination, sit with it, see what it might be saying to you. Or don’t listen at all. Simply be in this space, with these people. Simply be. Ellenor?
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you;
My flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
Sing: “There Is a Balm in Gilead”