“Eternity Utters a Day” by Jolie Olivetti – May 29, 2016
“Some keep the Sabbath going to church” by Emily Dickinson.
Some keep the Sabbath going to church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I’m going, all along.
Reading: From Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland
Sometimes I confuse upstate New York with heaven. When I visit my friends at their homestead in Potsdam, New York, it doesn’t matter what day of the week it is.
We have to milk goats, plant seedlings, let the chickens out in the morning and let them back in in the evening, regardless of whether it’s Saturday or Thursday. There’s always a Scrabble game going, there’s always a record playing, there’s always a giant stack of dishes to wash, diapers to change, a kettle on the stove. Things that pay no mind to Wednesdays or Mondays.
I was just there last week and there was a very important chore – we had to play with the baby goat. A frolicksome kid named Celery, it was important to spend quality time with him, letting him tumble on our laps with his floppy ears and gangly legs so that he’d become accustomed to humans.
Every morning in Potsdam we wake up and get busy with the business of living.
We wake up and ask ourselves and each other, “What’s the weather like and what needs to be done?” A nice life, if you can manage it. But we don’t all live on the farm, nor do we all want to live on the farm. Still, the lesson I take from my visits to Potsdam is that the clock and the calendar do not contain the whole story of time.
This sermon is about two things: Sabbath, and Time. I’ll start with time. We’ve probably all had the experience of staring down the clock, counting the hours or counting the days. We wake up with a feeling in our gut, knowing that it’s Monday or it’s the first of the month. Before knowing anything else about the day, we know something about its classification. I’ve sat in classes or had jobs when it seems I’m constantly aware of what time it is, tracking every moment between 2:42 and 2:58. I can accurately guess the time without looking at the clock, as if the chopping up of time has worked its way into my being, as if my subconscious was counting the seconds into minutes.
Sometimes I find myself awake in the middle of the night, and I like to read Pablo Neruda’s poetry whenever I can’t sleep. One particular image always sticks with me, from Neruda’s “Ode to a Watch in the Night.” The poem reads, “the watch kept cutting time with its tiny saw.” Sometimes I feel like I have my hand on the saw, that I am furiously pushing it back and forth through the trunk of the day, spraying sawdust, my life settling all around me, useless at my feet.
This is part of why I love going to Potsdam so much. It’s a reminder that the story of time unfolds not just according to hours and weeks, but also with the sunrise and the sunset, the phases of the moon, the passing of the seasons.
The story of time includes the time we spend taking care of ourselves, of each other, our homes, the land. Time is fluid, as the four-year-old in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story knows, Bela, who sometimes talks about “the day after yesterday.” And who thinks of “yesterday” as a nonspecific past, all the yesterdays merging together to represent what’s come before.
I just listened to this book: I had the CD’s to accompany me on my drive to Potsdam last week. It was a way to avoid hating every second of the six hours in the car. I’m not a big fan of driving, especially not driving alone. So I sailed along the highway, alert and immersed in Lahiri’s tale of relationships, student uprisings in Calcutta, and her profound insights on time.
We have a glorious diversity of ways of understanding time, as Lahiri’s character Gauri knows. Time is so much more than 60 seconds in a minute, 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week. Gauri, the philosopher of time tells us about the Hindu philosophy that the past, present, future all exist simultaneously in God. She tells us about Descartes, who posited that God re-creates the body at each successive moment, so time is a form of sustenance, perpetually giving us life. She observes that the present is a speck that keeps blinking, brightening and diminishing…it is always in flux; in the time it takes to consider it, it slips away.
Caught up in our busy schedules, the many demands on our time, we find ourselves in a wrestling match with time. Regardless of if we’re currently employed, regardless of whether we love our jobs or not, time can still be frightening, an opponent. We find ourselves killing time, wasting time. Locked in this wrestling match, we try to pin time, to squeeze productivity out of it. “Time is money,” we are told. How could that be?
Calendars and clocks do not contain the whole story of time. “Eight Days a Week is not enough to show I care” sing The Beatles. Our love of one another, our love of this life, transcend that incessant saw, the watch in the night that cuts our precious time into tiny fragments. Love is great enough to break the bounds of the week, we need an eighth day for all this love.
The great Jewish scholar, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, emphasizes the distinction between time and space. Heschel’s insights about time and space will help me shift from talking about time to talking about Sabbath: the day of rest.
To Heschel, Space is the human realm. By this he doesn’t mean “space:” planets and stars and stuff. He means the physical world around us, where we build monuments and roads, where we mine granite and gold, where we grow plants and tend goats.
Sabbath, a day to cease crafting and extracting, a day to rest from work, helps us recover our human dignity so that we are not only beasts of burden, so that our lives are not solely defined by toil and the idea that “time is money.” To observe a day in which we seek no profit helps us keep from being too attached to our gains and our losses.
According to Heschel, “Time is God’s gift to the world of space.” Heschel says that Sabbath is: “the answer to the problem of civilization: [we are] not to flee from the realm of space; [rather, we are] to work with the things of space but to be in love with eternity.
Things are our tools; eternity, the Sabbath, is our mate.” Heschel writes, of those who observe the Sabbath: “Even if they dedicate six days of the week to worldly pursuits, their soul is claimed by the seventh day.”
The title of my sermon is lifted directly from Heschel: “Eternity Utters a Day.” I love this phrase. It’s perplexing to think of the relationship between a single day of the week and all eternity, but it reminds of those moments when I recognize that I am part of the larger story of time. I am part of eternity. On the Sabbath, resting from work, devoting ourselves to study and prayer, Heschel argues that we can catch glimpses of eternity, we can perceive, ever fleetingly, how we are caught up in this gift called time. Our present pulses with incomprehensible holiness, every day of the week. But we may need to step away from all the noise and stress in order to perceive it. We deserve to rest even if we don’t have a job, we need a break even if we love our jobs.
Where does this tradition come from? Why devote the seventh day to rest? According to the account of creation found in Genesis, it’s because that’s what God did! According to Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth, the land and the sea, all the creatures of the waters, earth and sky, during the first six days. The scripture reads, “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that God had done in creation.” As a humanist, I might be getting my theological wires crossed in this statement I’m about to make, but I’m here to say, if even the omnipotent creator being, ultimate reality itself… if even God needs to take a break after a busy week, then I can too. Like Heschel says, “Even if I dedicate six days of the week to worldly pursuits, my soul is claimed by the seventh day.”
OK. If you’re like me, you might have a small question about which day of the week we’re talking about here. Would you bear with me while I count the days of the week? **** So if the 7th day is Saturday, why are we here on Sundays? Are we observing Sabbath by coming to church?
Early Christians were a Jewish sect, and they sought to distinguish themselves from other Jews in many ways, including by shifting their holy day from the 7th day to the 1st day. Also, according to Christian tradition, Jesus’ resurrection took place on the first day of the week, so Christians celebrate the Lord’s Day on Sundays and all that the resurrection represents, that is, the promise of eternal life and triumph over sin. Some Christians continue to think of Sunday as “Sabbath” — whether it’s about rest from work or about celebrating the resurrection. Thus, since Unitarianism and Universalism both used to be Christian denominations, here we are on Sundays.
Incidentally, all week, as I’ve been writing this sermon, there’s been a song about Sundays on repeat at my house. Adam’s been listening to an album by a group of jazz, hip hop, and neo soul musicians. The one song we really can’t get enough of is called “Sunday Candy” by Chance the Rapper. It’s an ode to his grandmother, and it’s one of the sweetest songs you’ve ever heard in your life. He sings his grandmother’s praises – for the nurture and sustenance she provides, for her fine matching hat and shoes, for being the president of his fan club. “I am the thesis of her prayers,” he raps. And: “I got a future so I’m singing for my grandma.”
His grandma is what Sundays are all about. If he wants to see her, he better bring his butt to church, Cause she’s there in the pew, tiring out the choir from singing the Lord’s praises. His grandma is also a prophet! The song goes: You better come on in this house/
Cause it’s gonna rain/Rain down Zion, / It’s gonna rain [Zion – meaning freedom, the promised land]. His grandma also takes communion, Commemorating the body and blood of Christ: You gotta move slowly / Take and eat my body like it’s holy / I’ve been waiting for you for the whole week / I’ve been praying for you, you’re my Sunday candy.
In this song, Sundays are for family, love, and singing God’s praises. Sundays are about the promise of freedom, and triumph over evil, Sundays are about gratitude for the future that our elders have secured for us, Sundays are about Grandma.
So this has been my soundtrack for my week of Sabbath sermon writing. This song is a reminder that Sunday is a very special day, a very holy day, a day to connect with what really matters. A day that infuses the rest of our week with meaning, with love and care. And here, at this church, we come together each week for Sunday services, singing together, worshipping together, checking in with each other, showing each other love. We, too, observe a special day on Sundays, setting aside time for the holy.
We all get in a staring contest with the clock sometimes, and sometimes it’s perfectly justifiable. We can’t help it, when we’re counting down the hours till vacation, when we’re awaiting news about a sick friend. We all have our reasons at times for when time feels like a burden, when we worry we have wasted it, or when the hours drag in agony.
Sometimes we’re dragging the saw across the day, the clock snipping away the hours like a tiny pair of scissors.
But still, we have been given this gift of time. We have love great enough for an eighth day, and then some. And like the Jews, who are commanded to keep the Sabbath holy, or like the Christians, celebrating the saving grace of Jesus Christ, we, too can observe holiness in time. We can take a break from work, a sacred rest that helps us resist the endless commodification of time. We can bring the lessons of Sabbath into the rest of the week: We have dignity, we are full of praise, we belong to each other, we are part of what’s holy.
“Today” by William Stafford
The ordinary miracles begin. Somewhere
a signal arrives: “Now,” and the rays
come down. A tomorrow has come. Open
your hands, lift them: morning rings
all the doorbells; porches are cells for prayer.
Religion has touched your throat. Not the same now,
you could close your eyes and go on full of light.
And it is already begun, the chord
that will shiver glass, the song full of time
bending above us. Outside, a sign:
a bird intervenes; the wings tell the air,
“Be warm.” No one is out there, but a giant
has passed through town, widening streets, touching
the ground, shouldering away the stars.