Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
August 31, 2008
SABBATH, WILDERNESS AND HOME
Texts: Mark 1:35-39; 6:31-32; Matthew 14:13-14; Luke 6:12-13
........How happy and how ready I am to be back with you! By your graciousness as a community of faith I am given every fourth summer a summer sabbatical, time away to rest and study, to pray and ponder, time with family and time alone, time for healing and time for that path of continuing conversion we are all on.
Pat and Annette Hunter began giving to a minister’s sabbatical endowment fund in the 1990's, and their extraordinary generosity lets our ministers plan sabbaticals without worry about where all the money will come from.
A strong and committed staff lets me leave without worry about how you would fare without me. My deep thanks to all.
This sermon is part a report on “What I Did Last Summer” and part reflection on our texts for today. I entitle it Sabbath, Wilderness and Home.
I begin on a personal note. I left on June 1 significantly depleted in mind, body and spirit with its attendant furies of depression and anxiety. So I had things to work on and places I needed God’s help and healing. The depletion I blame on no one but myself. I love my work; it is hard for me to stop working. My overwork is also fed by some neurotic needs and drives I’ll not bore you with.
My condition is also yours as part of American culture, a culture that kills the spirit and hampers the true self and the wholeness it seeks. We all need a time to detox from our culture with its compulsions, addictions and demands.
Such is the meaning of Sabbath in our Jewish and Christian traditions, a regular weekly time to extricate ourselves from the world around us and rest and trust in God. The Hebrew people also built a Sabbath rhythm into its years, making every seventh year a Sabbath year where they let the land go fallow and recover its strength. They lived on the seventh year on what they had produced the previous six.
Sabbath is a spiritual practice where we honor the body, mind and spirit and their need for rest and where we put into practice our confessed trust in God to provide. If this were easy it would not need to be a commandment.
Jesus no doubt observed the Jewish sabbath. He also took times alone, to be by himself with God, “alone with the Alone” as the mystics say.
He began his ministry with forty days alone in the desert where he sought discernment about the nature of his ministry as the son of God. It was a wrestling, fierce spiritual testing, and God gave him what he needed.
Our texts for today show Jesus often going off by himself to a deserted place, or “lonely place” as the RSV translates it. He had an ongoing rhythm of engagement and detachment.
In Mark 1:35-39 we see the pattern. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place.” It was from that place alone with God that he re-entered his public ministry, preaching and casting out evil spirits.
In Luke 6:12-13 we see that on the day before he chose and called his twelve disciples, he went out to a mountain and spent all night in prayer.
In Mark 6:31-32 he called his disciples to do the same: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” And it says, “And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.”
In Matthew 14:13-14 Jesus had just learned about the tragic death of John the Baptist, beheaded by the Roman tetrarch, Herod Antipas. He needed to be away to pray and ponder the meaning of this. Then he returned, saw the needs of the crowd, had compassion on them and healed their sick.
I found one more passage this week, in John’s Gospel (John 6:15). Jesus had just fed the multitude. Amazed by the miracle, the crowd was seized with messianic fever. John writes:
Wilderness is a time not just for rest but for wrestling, a time of deep discernment, for re-centering oneself in God and in our truest self.
It is where we confess we’ve lost our way, where we let go of the props that sustain the fantasies and compulsions of the false self. It’s where we learn that when we are weak, God is strong! And where we are weak God is strong. It’s where we discover the places we are sinner and the places we are graced. It’s where we experience the mercy of God for ourselves and thus learn compassion for others.
It’s where we stop fleeing self and God and turn to the One who is our salvation. And it’s all grace. One of Wendell Berry’s characters, Jayber Crow, says, “ ...yet this feeling had come over me that I had strayed back onto the right path of my life.” 1
As I left on sabbatical I heard Jesus say to me as he said to the disciples, Come away to a deserted place. I made large amounts of space this summer to be alone, to go to deserted places and seek from God what I most needed from God and what God most wanted to give. For at least half of the summer I was disconnected from the normal cultural distractions, T.V., Internet, daily news, places to shop. You know what I mean. Unplugged, so to speak, that I might be more connected to God.
I knew how disconnected I was one day at 5:30 Vespers at Gethsemani Abbey. The monk led us to pray for families affected by the airplane crash in Madrid. I called Cherrie that night and asked what had happened. You know you’re away when a Trappist monk in a monastery delivers the international news.
Thomas Merton wrote much about moving from the false self to the true self. Kathleen Deignon writes of Merton’s quest and ours:
“Contemplative life, therefore, begins with the recovery of one’s natural unity, a reintegration of our compartmentalized, colonized, traumatized, technologically entranced, and workaholic being.... But this is only the preliminary work of salvation, because the deep transcendent self is a divine creature, shy and wild, secret and spontaneous, preferring the silence and humility of a pure heart in which to make its mysterious appearance. This true self ‘must be drawn up like a jewel from the bottom of the sea,’ by a steady work of descent to recover the immortal diamonds in whose every facet is reflected the invisible face of God.”2
How can we here at MPBC find minutes in the day, hours in the week, times during the year when we go to our deserted places and be alone with God and our truest self? This was part of what I pondered away from you this summer.
I began the summer alone in the mountains of North Carolina studying, planning my preaching and teaching schedule for the year, and hiking. Hiking was an almost daily activity this summer. Hiking, walking, jogging. I hiked in the mountains of North Carolina, up and down hills in Spain and along the Mediterranean. I hiked on the rugged and beautiful Island of Iona off the coast of Scotland, along trails in northern Minnesota, and on trails and country roads around Gethsemani Abbey in central Kentucky. Walking and hiking set up in me a rhythm of rest and replenishment. As I walk, I think and pray and write poems and hum hymns, and ponder our life together in Christ at MPBC. I also take in the gifts of creation and let God minister to me through the beauty of the world. It is a way of being present to the moment and what God gives us in that moment. One short poem I read this summer has the title, “Pure Joy.” It’s by Joe Zarantonello.
I tried to live more “present” to the moment, with fewer opinions, this summer.
I hiked up Grandfather Mountain, and off the Blue Ridge Parkway. One day a grouse suddenly crossed my path, danced and fluttered its one-legged dance and then fluttered away into the woods on the opposite side of the path. Later I read that she was probably distracting me from her babies. Walking across a mountain meadow, I came across a horse who followed me, then began to lick my arms, my face, my legs, like a shaman sent from God into the meadow to deliver or pronounce healing. It felt like a dream.
In Spain in a river delta we suddenly saw a flock of wild flamingos flying in formation above us, shining in the sun, pink, white and rose-gold.
On Iona I hiked the rugged wild terrain, the bogs, the hills, the coast. One day near the end of a hike I reached the north beach and saw a large black round stone with a seat cut into its surface that just fit my body and back. I sat, gazed on the Scottish sea and began this poem. As I walked back to my room, its rhythm matched my walking:
Iona, North Beach
I found a seat of stone and sun
to give my body rest and warm.
It lay upon the Scottish beach;
I looked out far as eye could reach.
It came from time more aged than Man
sheared by ice and smoothed by sand.
But it was shaped as made for me
with restful back and sculpted seat.
O Christ of mercy, Christ so kind
Help me up, there’s much to mind!
“No stop and sink into my stone,”
said he, then came and sat by me.
Though tired I did not want to rest.
“Take time, take time,” he said, then left.
And so I looked and praised the day:
The gulls, the wind, the sky at play.
O Christ, the rock, the mercy seat,
The sudden guest, the respite sweet,
You slowed my pace, my manic stride,
Your glory showed in shining tide.
I spent wonderful family time with Cherrie and David and Ann, in New York City, and Greensboro and the South Carolina coast, the most time together in many years.
I spent time in the library at Union Theological Seminary in New York City where I went to school and reconnected with my favorite professor there, Lou Martyn. I took a train to New Haven to see him and we talked about Jesus and Paul.
The trip to Iona was a personal pilgrimage. It’s a sacred place I’ve now visited six times. As I prayed in the ancient abbey I found myself saying to Christ, “I renew my vows to you as a follower and a pastor.” It was also a renewal of vows to all I hold dear, Cherrie, my family, you my church, and my dearest friends.
After Iona I went to a Writer’s Workshop in Collegeville, Minnesota. Eleven other writers and I along with our teacher, a poet named Michael Dennis Browne, talked, wrote and worked together on the sacred ministry of writing. The workshop was called “Believing in Writing: Poetry, Prose and Prayer.”
I did not know beforehand how much prayer would be part of it. We were next to St. John’s Abbey, a famous Benedictine abbey. I joined the monks in prayer twice a day. It was a powerful experience to read and chant the Psalms with them. They read the Psalms slowly, leaving surprising space between the words and phrases and lines, spaces which let the words sink and echo in your soul.
While there I had a break-through on what I hope will be my next book. I wrote the introduction and planned the table of contents. I’m entitling it for the time being: “Tracking Jesus, and Being Tracked.”
My last turn of the sabbatical journey led me to the Trappist Monastery Thomas Merton made famous in his writings, Gethsemani Abbey. The monks there devote their lives to prayer, work and silence. Merton writes:
Trappist silence is an all pervading
thing that seeps into the very stones
of the place and saturates the men
who live there.
I found this to be true. I lived in a small one-room cabin down the road from the abbey. It was named Wellspring and I found out why as I sat at its little desk. There in a picture frame were these words from Proverbs:
More than all else,
keep watch over your heart,
are the wellsprings
I worshipped with the monks two to three times a day. They themselves pray in the abbey seven times a day: 3:15 a.m., 5:45 a.m., 7:30 a.m., 12:15 p.m., 2:15 p.m., 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. I skipped a few of those.
One of the things the monks there do is bake their famous Bourbon Fruit Cake. I brought one back for you to taste at TalkBack. Don’t worry about the Kentucky Bourbon in it. I think all the devil in it has been cooked out.
After five days at Gethsemani I drove to Nashville, Tennessee, to Vanderbilt Divinity School, where I studied in the theological library for four days. My mind had been deeply enriched by summer reading, and the time at Vanderbilt let me finish up some of the study I set out to do. When I counted the books I read this summer I was surprised to count over thirty. If you are interested in what I read I’ll list the books as part of my written sabbatic report to you.
This summer has been such a gift to me, and I return home to you refreshed in mind, body and spirit and with renewed zeal to lead you as senior minister.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous Buddhist monk, in his book, Living Buddha, Living Christ writes:
It is a kind of luxury to be a monk or nun, to be able to sit quietly and look deeply into the nature of suffering and the way out.... If monks and nuns do not cherish their time of practice, they will have nothing to offer the world.3
I have cherished the time away. I have looked as deeply as I could and pondered how God is at work and can be at work in me and in us. I have rested in God and received much from God. With thankfulness of heart I return home to you.
1Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow.
2In Thomas Merton, Book of Hours, ed. Kathleen Deignon (Notre Dame: Sorin Books, 2007), p. 25.
3Living Buddha, Living Christ.