June 19: Sabbath

Scripture Reading (The Message) 1 Kings 19:3-9

3-5 When Elijah saw how things were, he ran for dear life to Beersheba, far in the south of Judah. He left his young servant there and then went on into the desert another day’s journey. He came to a lone broom bush and collapsed in its shade, wanting in the worst way to be done with it all—to just die: “Enough of this, God! Take my life—I’m ready to join my ancestors in the grave!” Exhausted, he fell asleep under the lone broom bush. Suddenly an angel shook him awake and said, “Get up and eat!”

He looked around and, to his surprise, right by his head were a loaf of bread baked on some coals and a jug of water. He ate the meal and went back to sleep.

The angel of God came back, shook him awake again, and said, “Get up and eat some more—you’ve got a long journey ahead of you.”

8-9 He got up, ate and drank his fill, and set out. Nourished by that meal, he walked forty days and nights, all the way to the mountain of God, to Horeb. When he got there, he crawled into a cave and went to sleep.

Then the word of God came to him: “So Elijah, what are you doing here?”

When I read the chosen lectionary Scripture for the day, I was overjoyed at how seamlessly it fit with a need to talk about my upcoming sabbatical. 

Elijah had done a lot, definitely more than just survive through two years of pandemic ministry, but he found himself at a spot when he was exhausted.  He doesn’t feel he has the strength to continue, and exhausted, he falls asleep.  While Elijah is seen as a mythical figure in our faith, this is wonderfully familiar in its humanness. 

There’s times when we all feel that way, and we just need a break.  We forget that Sabbath is built into the creation of the universe: God with the powers of heaven defining and earth shaping, still took one day to step back and admire the beauty of it all and rest.  This was carried forward to when the Ten Commandments were passed down, the Israelite community was instructed by God to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy.  Rest is an integral part of our faith.  It’s what I often forget in my preaching – that I want to get you fired up – to respond to the injustices of the world, to right the wrongs and heal the hearts and do all that work…but Sunday, Sabbath day, is meant for rest.  A sanctuary is meant to be a place of peace or safety.  In all our encouragement of activism, I worry we’ve forgotten that this is where and when you actively plug in and recharge your batteries so you can go back out to the world.  This should be rest, too.  Otherwise, you end up no better than Elijah, collapsing under trees and sleeping in damp caves.

And this is where the reflection turns inward in an uncomfortable way for me, because, it’s tough for me to say that I’m tired.  These have been a long two years, and I’m so grateful for all those that worked tirelessly to make sure we made it to this point, but it’s taken its toll.  Mentally and spiritually and physically I feel like Elijah, as my skin prickles anytime anyone says ‘pivot,’ or ‘projections,’ or ‘wastewater.’  I took some time to think about the best way to recharge myself – I did some reading, and praying, and time literally doing nothing.  And as we entered into this new year when Omicron really took hold, I realized if something like that happens again this fall, I know I’m not ready to handle it.  So I approached the Ministry and Personnel committee and the Executive about some time off, and we explored the possibility of a sabbatical for the three months: July, August and September.

And if you’re already thinking, I wish my job would have let me off for three months – I wish that too.  I wish that we valued not just hard work, but the rest required to sustain that hard work.  I wish that the capitalistic machine that drives our society honoured the sacrifice many of us make just to keep it going.  I wish that sabbaticals, and time off, and self-care were the norm and not a sign of “weakness” or “laziness,” according to some business owners.  The exploitation and the lack of compassion driving that unsustainable system is starting to fall apart because of covid – and it’s not because no one wants to work – it’s because we broke the cycle long enough for people to realize that there’s more to life than just work.

That’s what I truly love about this passage.  Elijah is reminded that there’s more to life that work, even the important work of faith.  For when we reach a point of exhaustion, or despair, this is not an end for God.  In the ending of the week of Creation, God prepares to start again.  In these moments that Elijah feels not ready for anything more, God encourages rests, offers the gift and care, as the beginning and ending of the angel’s ministry is just to ensure Elijah has a snack and a nap.  To make sure Elijah takes care of himself.  There’s something holy in that encouragement. 

You’ve likely had angels like that too.  I’ve seen them flutter around when families experience death – with a flap of a wing, casseroles are dropped off much like the coal-baked-bread, a miracle in the way they arrive unannounced.  Or likewise at a new child’s birth or adoption when a friend drops over to solely to allow the new parents a rest.  As a dear friend once said, there’s nothing in life that can’t be fixed by a nap.  What a sacred gift that God encourages us to not forget: remember the Sabbath day…remember you need the rest.  When people ask me what I’m going to do in my sabbatical time, there’s very few grand plans, but a lot of sleeping and eating. 

In 2006, the United Church of Canada adopted a national policy of allowing for sabbaticals for ministry personnel.  Before this, individual churches had implemented their own practices, but in making it a national policy of the United Church ensured that we were honouring the scriptural reminder of caring for one another.  This was the church we wanted to be.  The policy allows for a break from regular ministry for ministry personnel who have been serving a particular congregation for more than five years as a way for both the minister and the congregation to see each other with new eyes. 

For this is what happens to Elijah.  He discovers a new way of experiencing God, that I too hope happens for to the both of us after these three months, for when I came to SJR six years ago, the church was a different place.  A different time, history, and leadership preceded my arrival and there was a sense of grief-tinged hope in the air.  At that time, unfortunately, pastoral relationships at SJR were not long lasting, and it’s why this might be the first time you’re ever hearing of a sabbatical.  Struggles left everyone exhausted: Olivet from the difficult work of closing their church, SJR from the difficult work of being in relationships that didn’t come to fruition.

And so I’m grateful for all that’s changed: in the ways that we’ve grown together as SJR and Olivet together, in the ways we discovered new experiences of faith, and how God’s not done with either of us yet.  For truly what I would love for us to seek an answer to together in the fall, is the same question that God asks Elijah after his rest.  What are you doing here?  What is our purpose here and now, as we seek to care for congregation and creation together?  What are we called to in the ministry we bring.  For I believe there is great work before us still…thanks be to God.  Amen


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