Little Altars Everywhere

A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
May 9, 2010

“After Jesus healed the son of the official in Capernaum, there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids– blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.” John 5:1-9

Much of our understanding of the Christian Sabbath comes from two places: nostalgia and Judaism.

Nostalgic memories – either from personal experience, or television shows such as “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Leave It to Beaver” present a charming picture of Sundays.

Stores were closed; professional sports were not broadcast on television; and twelve-year-olds were not bound to a schedule of homework, lessons and activities that would break Donald Trump.

Following church and Mom’s roast beef dinner, the family piled into the Buick for a ride in the countryside, perhaps stopping for ice cream treats, or to visit relatives nearby. In the back seat, Sally and Billy competed in games of “I spy a cow.” Mom hummed softly to herself — probably a hymn sung at church that morning, and Dad smiled and took deep breaths of good country air.

Those of us who lived it to some degree may truly long for the simplicity and charm of those long-ago Sundays. They seem almost impossibly uncomplicated.

Of course, nostalgia does have a way of sanitizing memory (in my case, editing out the family fights at the Sunday dinner table; the boredom of being dragged to Grandma’s every single week until you were sixteen years old; my brother and I in the back seat of the car, struggling to see the farm animals through the cloud of my dad’s cigarette smoke).

The second reference point for our understanding of the Sabbath is what we know of Jewish tradition. Orthodox Jews do no work at all on the Sabbath — not even driving a car or turning on a light switch. On Saturday mornings, I often see them walking to synagogue down the hill on Fairview Ave., as I zoom by on my urgent way to the Mall of America or somewhere equally commercial.

Conservative Jews begin the Sabbath (or “Shabbat) with a formal Friday evening meal; the best linen and china is brought out; the woman of the house lights the candles when everyone is gathered at the table; there is roast chicken, challah bread, wine, and prayers bidding good-bye to one week and welcoming the next. I am openly jealous of this tradition every time I see people at Breadsmith on Fridays, buying beautiful braided egg bread for Friday night Shabbat.

Except for going to church, Sundays are pretty much like any other day for most for us. You can do almost anything on Sunday you would any other day except get your mail, buy liquor, or shop for a car. Today, the culture, not the church, calls the shots about Sundays — which is a good thing since the culture is increasingly diverse. For Christians, the Sabbath is Sunday; for Jews, Saturday; for Muslims, Friday.

I have a range of feelings about the Sabbath. Of course, I go to church, but I also feel a longing for some additional ritual, formality and tradition that I can’t quite describe.

Scripture says that the Sabbath should be a day of rest. The root of this belief is the fourth commandment: “Honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” which Israel interpreted as “do no work,” for even God rested on the Sabbath after creating the world.

So, does “Sabbath” have anything realistic to offer us now, or has it gone the way of polygamy and temple sacrifice?

After Jesus heals the lame man in today’s Gospel, it gives the authorities one more chance to guilt him for not keeping Jewish law. Evidently, they considered healing “work”.
I don’t want to guilt you with some kind of mandate to remake your Sundays. Force yourself to rest! Bring all that running around to a standstill! Spend the day reading the Bible! What I do want to do is offer some ways to think about what the Sabbath might become in your own life.

First, I think that the Sabbath is about recovery, about regaining a measure of sanity that may be lost during the week. There are at least two things I do that do not promote sanity.

Most mornings, I listen to accounts of hurricanes, earthquakes and terrorist attacks that have occurred overnight in every part of the world; I look at pictures of emaciated children and sad seagulls coated with oil; I read accounts of three Twin Cities murders, and car crashes killing two teenagers. And this is all before eight o’clock!

I serve myself up this plate of horror because as I get ready for work, I have “Good Morning America” playing in the background, and I glance through the newspaper during breakfast.

It takes a toll. I’ve stopped my subscriptions to Time and Newsweek because I can’t absorb more gut-wrenching information about things I can’t do anything about. I can’t just turn it all off because I want to be an informed person! But there is a cumulative effect on the spirit.

Secondly I seem to spend a lot of my time doing what I will call “maintaining my goods.” I am forever sorting through closets, reorganizing the basement, cleaning out the garage, “simplifying” my lifestyle, even as I bring home more purchases most weekends.

Consider this: “Adjusting for inflation, Unite States citizens spend more than twice as much for material good and services as they did fifty years ago; we buy homes almost three times larger than we did following World War II ,and fill them with twice as many things; we work longer hours; more of us hold multiple jobs and we now live to the full what some decades ago was proclaimed as ‘the gospel of consumerism.’” (1)

After all, we do fill a whole gymnasium with goods here twice a year…

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the most insightful writer I have found on the Sabbath, says this: “We need the Sabbath in order to survive civilization… We need learn how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.” (2)

Heschel says that sanity demands we take regular breaks from acquisitiveness – that is, the relentless search to gather more things, more experiences, and more information and add them to our bulging storerooms. The Taoist Lao Tzu makes this distinction:

“In pursuit of knowledge
every day something is acquired.
In pursuit of wisdom,
Every day something is dropped.
” (3)

What might you drop or stop or unplug for one day a week that would make it easier for you to live in the world the rest of the time? Karl Barth said that “a being is free only when it can determine and limit its activity.”

Besides being a day of recovery, the sabbath should be a day of consecration. Consecration is the act of setting something apart and acknowledging it a holy or sacred.

There are many examples. Jesus didn’t do mass healings. In today’s lesson, he sets the man apart, and then heals him. The church itself is consecrated and set apart for worship. We consecrate bishops, setting their lives apart for a holy purpose. Each Sunday, we take bread and wine and set them apart, then consecrate them to be an outward and visible sign of God’s presence and love.

And as we move from this place after church, there are literally, hundreds of “little altars everywhere” (4), that is, opportunities for us to pay attention, to notice one of the specific wonders of creation, of each other, and of our lives and set it apart and, in so doing, really see it. There are little altars everywhere at which we can praise God, thanking God for his gifts of lilacs and love; lasagna and Labrodors. A Sabbath Eve prayer warns us: “Days pass and years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.” The Sabbath is about noticing miracles.

A story about setting apart and consecration from one writer: “A woman looks out her window one morning and sees a disheveled man sleeping on the park bench across the street. She says, “I made a bag lunch just like the one I would give my son for school: sandwich, apple, a couple of cookies, a juice box. I took it over to the man when he woke up. What he did next I will never forget. He sat up straight on the bench and carefully spread out one of the paper napkins lining it up square on the seat. Then he slowly unpacked the bag and laid out each item on the napkin. He could not have been more ceremonial if he had been dining in a fine restaurant. When I think of “consecration” that is the image that comes to me.” (5)

This particular Sabbath, we “consecrate” mothers; we set them apart and acknowledge the holiness of their roles. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first national Mother’s Day in 1914, and subsequently it morphed into a day embraced by florists and merchant of all stripes — and that’s fine.

In so many ways, I am proud to be a mother but never more so than when I learned about the first Mother’s Day. It was not a day for children to honor their mothers, but a day when mothers took action on behalf of their children.

In 1870, the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe, issued this declaration:

“Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly: Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace… “

May the blessings of this history and the mothers in your own lives bless and heal you on this Sabbath Day.

Amen.

1. Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., “An Invitation to the Sabbath,” 2009; pcusa.org
2. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Sabbath, 1954.
3, Cited in Wayne Mueller, Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, 1999.m
4. A phrase taken from the title of the book Little Altars Everywhere: Secret of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells
5. Mueller, op.cit

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