BE STILL: SABBATH AND STEWARDSHIP
TEXT: Psalm 46
In a staff meeting back a few weeks ago, we were discussing what a lot of churches are discussing these days...financial difficulties. In our congregation people have been out of work, or in jobs well below their potential, for several years. Money is tight in many households. After years of surplus, the church is also facing lean times and tensions are on the rise. So we were processing all of that at staff meeting, trying to find our way through. Then Judith, our Lay Minister, spoke up.
"I think it is because people are afraid," she said. "Fear is all around us. The political campaigns are filled with fear messages. Each one predicts utter disaster if the other one wins and both claim the other is lying. Now there is fear of rigged elections. And it's not just politics," she continued. "We're afraid of more hurricanes, afraid of a draft and another terrorist attack. We're afraid of losing our standard of living and our jobs, our health and our pension...it's fear, fear, fear everywhere you look, and I want to just run out in the middle of it all and shout, 'Stop!!'"
Later, I thought about that exchange. We had started with a financial stewardship issue, and ended with almost a literal scream for Sabbath...for stopping the craziness and taking a deep breath in order to see what is real and what is not. And I began to think that maybe the two things...Sabbath and Stewardship...were related.
The end of Psalm 46 reminds us to: "Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge." The Hebrew word for "be still" in that Psalm is the word for Sabbath, so I want us to sit back, take a deep breath, and think for a moment about what we might learn and how our lives might change, if we could actually be still. Be still and know...what would we come to know...about God, about ourselves, about our relationship to our world?
Now, first let me make a confession...not that this is news to you. I am a wretched Sabbath keeper. I took 6 weeks of release time this summer in Scotland...and I spent it preaching. I came home on the last day of August, and since then have taken exactly two days off. I absolutely know that I am preaching to myself here. But I let you hear me preach to myself, because I have this feeling that I'm not the only one with the problem.
Pastors have always had this issue, but more and more I see it in other places. We're on this treadmill...hamsters in a wheel--running fast and getting nowhere. No matter what you do for a living, jobs seem to be demanding more with less. The Hebrew slaves making bricks without straw comes to mind. Nobody drops the quota that you have to produce, but there are fewer resources to work with. More and more people are working long hours, weekend hours, and are stretched too thin.
And it's not just at work. Often the only family time is what you get in the car as a child goes to soccer practice, piano lessons, dance classes or gymnastics. We all celebrated Ahna McCusker's accomplishment a few weeks ago, but what does it mean that the state record holder for the 5k run is only four years old? The only people I know personally who are being still are those who are too depressed to get out of bed! The concept of Sabbath is in shambles.
We cannot call ourselves faithful people of God, if we do not keep the Sabbath in a way that is meaningful. It's one of the Ten Commandments: "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy." But the law about Sabbath is not there to make our lives more difficult. Only by keeping Sabbath can we receive what God has intended for us. There's no point in getting abundant life if we've got no time to enjoy it. People ask me sometimes if I wouldn't like an eighth day in the week. No! I'm too tired from the seven I've got!
Now you could call me a workaholic and you would be partly right. But you wouldn't be completely right. There is a personal dimension to Sabbath but there is also a corporate one...a systemic one. Sabbath, both in Scripture and in our lives, is a justice issue. Because we no longer have Sabbath laws in our country, only the privileged have the opportunity for rest. That's why the Biblical Sabbath laws made provision that on the Sabbath servants and slaves were not to work either...not even the animals were to be forced to work. The endless cycle of earning and gaining more and more came to a complete halt for a whole day...for everybody. They even had to stop tilling the land every few years to give the earth itself a break, and that year anything that grew up from the old seed was to be free for the taking.
When someone is working three jobs to put food on the table, those of us who get paid for vacation time shouldn't say, "Tsk, tsk, you need to take more time for yourself." They need a society who will guarantee that no one has to choose between a place to live and a day off, not a lecture from me. When we demand that stores be open at 3 am for our convenience, we are demanding that someone work at 3 am. When we open the plant on Saturdays to increase profit margins, someone who had no voice in that decision now has to come in on Saturdays.
Most of the time people say to me, "I'm worried about you...you get no rest. You need to take more time for yourself." That doesn't feel good to me. I will never forget the day that Silvia Marshall put it differently. She said to me, "I'm worried about you...you get no rest. We need to do something about that." She recognized the justice component of Sabbath. It is not only what we do for ourselves, but it is how we structure our lives in community together...it is what we do for each other.
And that is where we turn the corner to stewardship. "Be still and know that I am God." Stewardship begins in that Sabbath moment--in the moment that we are still enough to recognize that God is God and we are not. The world has not stopped, because we are not the one turning it. "Be still and know that I am God...not you"...says that still, small voice. "The earth is mine and all that is in it. I am the one who carries the burden for it...take it off of your shoulders, it was not meant for you to bear. I am the owner," says God, "the CEO. You are the workers. I run the company and I have guaranteed that everybody gets a day off. I'll keep the place running."
Stewardship, you see, is not only about money. Stewardship is about our relationship to all of God's creation and God's gifts. It is the recognition that God gave us some authority and responsibility in this world, but God did not hand over deed and title. It still all belongs to God and we are charged with the task of managing it according to God's direction.
It is terribly hard to remember that if we never get the time to be still-to have Sabbath. I know that, at least for myself, I get so caught up in the hamster wheel that I stop seeing God's blessings. But when I manage to be still and turn my mind toward God, I suddenly come to see all the gifts around me.
I was hurrying home from doing a workshop in Brockton, Mass. on Columbus Day weekend. My mind was two days ahead of me, and the car was racing along 95...route 95, not 95 mph! Suddenly the traffic slowed, and I was jerked back to the present moment to slow the car and deal with the situation. I could hardly be called "still," but even just slowing down that much took my breath away. I looked out the window. While I was being so busy, God had been painting the trees. That is the weekend that all of America comes to New England to see, and I was whizzing by, not even appreciating the gift. Unless I experience the gift of creation, I am not likely to take seriously my charge of looking after it with care and respect. And I won't see the gift of creation unless I stop--unless I am still and can remember who is really running the show.
I think Judith was right that fear is the reason we are often poor stewards. We feared we would not have enough time, and so Sabbath went out the window. And with no time for Sabbath, there was no time to reflect on God and God's gifts. With no time to reflect on God and God's gifts, we lost our sense of gratitude and increased our fear that we had to provide everything for ourselves or there would not be enough. We came to believe that we were the refuge and strength for our families, for our churches, for our jobs, and we took God's job and made it our own.
And so I say to myself and I say to you, "Stop!" Be still and know...be still and remember that God is in control. Be still and look at the incredible gifts all around you. Is it really true that God has not given you enough? Have you ever really asked God how God would like you to use your time? Have you ever stopped to ask God how God would like you to use your income? Have you stopped to ask God what purpose God had in giving you the home that you have, the business you run, or how God was planning to use you in the job where you find yourself?
Stewardship is the general recognition that we do not own this world or anything in it. In terms of our possessions, we are all paupers. Even Bill Gates owns absolutely nothing. We are stewards, trustees of God's possessions and we are to use everything in accordance with God's wishes. How do we know those wishes? Glad you asked.
God's general wishes are laid out in Scripture. Regarding our time, spend one day in 7 in a restful focus on God, and work to create a society where that is possible for all. Regarding our money, give 10% of your income...off the top...to God's work, and then give above and beyond that to those in need so that no one goes without. Regarding our family and friends, treat others as you would have them treat you. Regarding your enemies, love and pray for them. Regarding your body, treat it as the temple of the Holy Spirit. Regarding your home, welcome the stranger. Regarding the earth, tend the garden and give rest to the land. Regarding the animals, extend the Sabbath to them as well, and do not deny them the fruit of their labors. Those are the general principles of Scripture. We start there and then we tweak the details with God in prayer.
"Be still and know that I am God." I challenge you to take at least half an hour this week to stop...get away from others, shut off your cell phone, turn off the computer, be alone and uninterrupted. Or if you can't do that...drive more slowly. Be still and turn your heart toward God. Pray and think about what areas of your life might change if you remembered that God was in control. What did God intend for you to do with your income? With your time? With your life? With your property? Pray and ask.
We need to do that as individuals and then we need to do it as a church. The church, too, can become too busy and too fearful. Stop. Be still and know that I am God. How does our church evidence that knowledge? Would someone looking over our accounts here at St. John's know that we trust God? How do we decide what to do with the resources God has given to us to manage? Does God play a role? We have this tendency to talk about "God's house" on Sundays but by meeting time on Monday night, it often turns into "my church."
It all begins with Sabbath...with taking time apart to pray and to focus on God...to remember who and whose we are. Stop the running, stop the fear, stop the insanity...stop. Be still and know that I am God. Amen.
(c)2004 Anne Robertson
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