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[Chalice] How in these times can we keep the Sabbath? [Chalice]

Presented May 3, 2020, by Rev. Barbara Pescan


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?

Reunion (by Barbara Pescan)

(At last...) One of the old ones stood up
into the morning light
and spoke to those who had come
back to the river.

---Now we have come again to this place.
My life apart from you
is not as strong.

I have danced and
I have told the stories
at my own fire, and
I have sung well, to all eight directions.

But when I am with you,
my friends,
I know better
who it is in me
that sings.


Do you have memories of Sundays when you were a child? Sundays must seem endless to kids when they are eager to be back at school with their friends. I have gotten rid of most of my albums over time, and saved only the pictures I most love. I turned up one a couple of weeks ago. It is a photograph of my sister Melanie and my cousin Diana. It is Easter Sunday and they are dressed in their finest church clothes - Mel must be around six or so and Diana a couple of years younger.

There they are, dressed up and beaming, Easter baskets hanging off their arms, smiling, beaming into the camera, Mel is wearing a hat, it's on a little cockeyed. I love seeing their kid selves. Then I began thinking of Sundays when I was a kid, at about the same age as my sister in the photo. Getting all dressed up, even wearing little white gloves. Going to church with my parents, to the little Romanian Baptist Church in Akron, Ohio. Sunday school was in the furnace room down in the basement. While my parents listened to the service upstairs, our teacher, Mary Nanashe told us bible stories by the furnace.

What do you remember about going to religious services when you were a child? I remember No Stores were open on Sunday. Everything was closed, not just liquor stores - big grocery stores, department stores, car dealerships... There might have been a store where you could get milk and bread, but nothing else was open. Commerce stopped.

The word, Sabbath, comes from an old Hebrew word, shavat, which means "to cease or to desist." And, on the seventh day, God rested. The fourth commandment of the ten commandments Moses received from God on Mount Sinai was Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. The commandment to the Hebrews was to rest from their labors on the seventh day, as God had rested after creating the world.

Whether you keep the Sabbath on Sunday or on Saturday was discussed over the first few centuries of the Christian era. That was true about many elements of canon scripture and practice developing over those first centuries.

According to some scholars, Sunday was decided on as the Sabbath because Jesus arose from death on that day. And others say the decision was influenced by pagan and political considerations. The day may have changed as a way for early Jewish Christians to distinguish themselves from other Jews - that would be one of the political considerations.

Fast forward again to the time of my childhood as Sabbath was practiced by certain Christians. My closest family were mostly Baptists, beginning as Romanian Baptists and, as they married and moved away from that insular community, Southern Baptists. On Sundays, my aunts' and uncles' families were especially Baptist. They were especially middle class. Sundays were a celebration, mostly for the men, as I recall. The family would come home from church and have a big meal. The meal was made by, served, and cleaned up after by the women. The men might continue to talk about what the minister had preached. The kids would quietly listen, or help mom in the kitchen. Only later did sports on television take the place of Sunday afternoon conversation. And, taking seriously the commandment to rest on the Sabbath, there was also napping.

It was very different from the early years of America. Puritan preachers would hold forth for hours on Sunday mornings. Puritans are our Unitarian religious forebears. People had go to church on Sunday mornings, and again during the week in the evening (those who did not attend church might serve some time in the stocks if they were not in church on Sunday). People would go to church and sit for a sermon that was two hours of hellfire and the damnation of sinners - and the list of sins was very long. It took many years before the two-hour sermon found its way out of our congregations. It is attributed to Mark Twain, although I have also heard it attributed to Rev. Olympia Brown, a nineteenth century Universalist minister, that Few sinners are saved after the first twenty minutes.

Some of us keep the Sabbath by attending church, even now, virtually. Previously we honored the Sabbath, and we will again, by gathering among our friends to hear music, to appreciate the flowers, to rest beside each other to listen to the joys and concerns of the community, to be uplifted in our spirits, or stirred to action by the words of someone who has thought on these things, to share the smell of coffee and tea, and the tastes of pastries, to touch or be touched for comfort, and to express gratitude for each other, and to encourage each other to help people be their better selves, so we might heal each other and the earth and ourselves.

Lacking, for now, the place that holds all of that on so many past Sundays, so many past Sabbaths, we may still keep the Sabbath-

To cease from work
To BE rather than DO
To inhabit the day, and let it inhabit you
With the expectation of gratitude entering your being
To hear the question as it is meant for your life:
What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
To create a space, an opening, into which the holy may enter
To cease our endless chattering,
To quiet the drunken monkey in our skull cage so we may hear
The depth of it all singing to us in all our intelligence,
with our agnostic doubts, and our atheist certainties.
To honor the Sabbath and keep it holy is to pay attention to the depth of things. It is to notice and allow yourself to be changed by what you see and hear, what you touch and what touches you. To honor the Sabbath is to open your rest to deeper knowing.

Why do that? The poets know why and they find a thousand ways of saying it. Rilke asked and answered the question this way in "The Ninth Elegy".

Why, when this span of life might be fleeted away
as laurel, a little darker than all
the surrounding green, with tiny waves on the border
of every leaf (like the smile of a wind) ---oh, why
have to be human, and, shunning Destiny,
long for Destiny? . . . .

. . . . Not because happiness really
Exists, that premature profit of imminent loss.
Not out of curiosity, not just to practise the heart,
That could still be there in laurel. . . . .
But because being here amounts to so much, because all
this Here and Now, so fleeting, seems to require us and strangely
concerns us. Us the most fleeting of all. Just once,
everything, only for once. Once and no more. And we, too,
once . And never again. But this
having been once, though only once,
having been once on earth---can it ever be cancelled?

When I lived in Berkeley where I went to seminary, I listened to KPFA, a lefty radio station in the Bay Area. One day they broadcast a phone call between one of the on air personalities and another one who had been on leave while his wife had a baby. Chris Welch, the woman on the radio asked her friend, What was it like? And the guy on the phone paused for a second, and he said, I don't know what to say. I was there with my wife. And the midwife was there. There were three of us in the room. And, then, there were four.

When I pay attention, what I experience is not all sweet and pretty. Likely as not what may hit me between my eyes, or upside my head, is a news story or a photograph of some until that moment unimaginable suffering. That photo of three year old Alan Kurdi, drowned in the Mediterranean and lying dead on that beach. Or some fetid injustice, like the video of a policeman beating a black child. Or something like the work of these nurses and doctors and CPNs and EMTs in New York who sit on the floor in a hospital corridor at the end of a shift, or the middle of a shift, sit on the floor and cry.

It is too simple to only call them heroes. Yes, they are, but they're also shell-shocked and will be for a long time. And I need to know that. And I need to remember what I learned from an Army Chaplain colleague of mine, which is this: going forward from their time on the front line of this pandemic they will need trauma counseling, they may certainly have PTSD, and they may certainly have what soldiers returning from a war zone experience, which is moral injury.

The reason I need to pay attention to this is to be a witness. Just in case I am needed, some day, to tell a little of what I know about this part of the story of these times of pandemic. The suffering of healers who cannot heal.

This is the edge we humans live on. There were three of us in the room, and, mirabile dictu, then there were four. There were two of us in the room, and then there was one. We are in our mother's womb, and then we are here. We are here, and then we're not. I can't focus on it all the time. But I can pay attention. I can be a witness. Because, the truth is I am aware that, at 74-1/2 years old, it's going to look like this: It's take my meds, wear my mask, wash my chapped hands, and dumb luck from here on out.

We aren't amazed nearly often enough. You probably cannot make amazement happen. Amazement is a lot to ask of any given Sunday, or any other day you take as Sabbath. But, you can loosen the soil, you can pay attention. You can let yourself rest in it all. It's a present you can give yourself. You can give yourself the present. The intention to pay attention matters. So you don't miss any of this. So you do not miss the absolute importance of your presence in all of this. So you can rest and appreciate what you have created in this life. And so you can experience the presence of it all in you.

....Because being here amounts to so much, because all
this Here and Now, so fleeting seems to require us and strangely concerns us. Us the most fleeting of all. Just once,
everything, only for once. Once and no more. And we, too,
once. And never again But this
having been once though only once
having been once on earth---can it ever be cancelled?

Amen and blessed be.

I offer you this benediction, first, from Arundhati Roy:

"Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. "We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it."

And last, from the poet, Adrienne Rich:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age,
Perversely, with no extraordinary power,
Reconstitute the world.

And may you know happiness and the source of happiness. And blessings, manifold and diverse. Amen.

©2020 Rev. Barbara Pescan

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Pescan, Rev. Barbara 2020. How in these times can we keep the Sabbath?, /talks/20200503.htm (accessed May 30, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
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