Why Can’t I Have a Sabbatical?

Sunday, May 19, 2024
Deuteronomy 5:12-15 & Mark 2:23-28
Rev. Dr. Riley Jensen

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Last week was Troy’s final sermon before beginning his Sabbatical, but lo and behold!  He’s still with us.  What happened?  Did he miss his plane?  Was there an emergency that he needed to attend to?  Or, when it came right down to it, did he realize that he loves us so much that he would rather stay than leave.  Or, is he like one friend of mine who never took a Sabbatical because he was afraid that the congregation would discover that they could do pretty well without him.

Of course, it’s none of the above, because Troy wants us to have the opportunity to commission each other as we enter a period of time that can be transformative for both of us — pastor and congregation , and to prepare us to creatively enter a new period of life together.

Now, we know that this morning is Pentecost Sunday celebrating that day when the Church was created and renewed by the movement of the Holy Spirit.  My words this morning will not be a traditional Pentecost sermon.  Nevertheless, we will still be talking about the renewal of the Church through the movement of the Spirit.

Rather my role this morning is to share with you as one who has benefitted from the concept of a Sabbatical, and seen how it can have a positive impact on pastors and congregations.

For some of you, the concept of a pastoral sabbatical may be new, and you may have a number of questions which I know Troy and the Session have tried to address.  Among them:  how can we manage even for a few months without the leadership of a Sr. Pastor?  Or the fear which is seldom voiced, “Will he come back?”  Whenever, the status quo is disrupted there are fears, and there can also be resentments.

Because you love Troy and see the value of a sabbatical for him, I’m not worried about resentment.  However, as you think about it, you may also ask yourself, “Why can’t I have a Sabbatical?”  I’m here to tell you that is a great question and one that should be addressed.  So, friends, buckle up your seat belts, because I’m here to do some congregational intervention, and hopefully prepare you for the movement of the Spirit in the days ahead.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer.”

While I understand that we are surrounded by academic communities where the concept of a Sabbatical is not all that unusual, we also find ourselves in the heartland of that good Dutch work ethic which preaches that character is built on good hard work and lots of it.  So where did Troy and the Session get the crazy idea that we should give him an extended vacation of several months.  Even though that has not been the regular practice here at First Presbyterian, I had my first Sabbatical early in my ministry with a Sabbatical being part of the terms of Call in all of my churches.  Some Presbyteries require it; others like our Presbytery encourage it.

When I retired after 40 years of congregational ministry, a younger colleague asked me, “How did you do it?  How did you hang in there for so long.”  A big part of the answer was that I had regular sabbaticals.

First, we’ve got to clear up one thing – A Sabbatical is NOT an extended vacation, but rather, an important part of our spirituality.  It is embodied in the core values of our faith that we call the Ten Commandments.  While I suspect that few of us are able to recite all of the Big Ten (especially since there are a couple of versions in the Bible),  “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy” has been drilled into us since Sunday School.

Having begun my ministry in the Pacific Northwest where we were told that the snow on the Cascades was not snow, but letters of transfer which Presbyterians had dropped on the way over, and then having served in the East where church membership was more like a legacy passed from generation to generation, but had little to do with actual church activity — you can imagine my delight upon arriving in Dutch Calvinist West Michigan and finding a place where guilt is still alive and well and where Sabbath is still taken somewhat seriously.

Of course, there have to be the natural disclaimers.  It’s not like it used to be when Sunday meant going to church all day and being permitted to do little else.  And, certainly, when there is a rigidity about anything, there is also a certain amount of hypocrisy built in.

When Pam and I first arrived in West Michigan from the New York area, we wanted to get acquainted with the area so we decided to do some sightseeing on a Sunday afternoon.  We came over to the lakeshore and, of course, were entranced by its beauty.  That evening we found ourselves in Grand Haven and decided to find a place for dinner.

We often enjoy a little wine with our meals, but upon ordering wine, we were met with a look of horror and then the response: “Oh, we don’t serve beer or wine on Sundays.”  And then I thought to myself, “Dummy, you should have known; this is conservative West Michigan.”  But then you could have pushed me over with a toothpick when we were told, “But would you like a mixed drink?”

The fact is that this kind of confusion over Sabbath conduct goes clear back to the New Testament.  In our scripture lesson, Jesus crosses swords  with those protectors of the letter of the law, the Pharisees, over whether hunger and healing trump their very narrow Sabbath interpretation.  Here Jesus teaches that a higher law of love takes precedence when basic human needs hang in the balance.

Actually, Jesus teaching here about Sabbath conduct was not a minority opinion.  Jewish theologian, and Vanderbilt professor of New Testament, Amy Jill Levine argues that Jesus was in the mainstream of Jewish thought at the time which she observes was “a tradition replete with Sabbath joy.”

This Sabbath joy was rooted in two Sabbath traditions In the Torah.  First, the tradition of rest from the work of creation: “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that God had done in creation.”  Secondly, the concept of Sabbath embodied the promise of their deliverance from slavery.

You see, there is a utilitarian as well as a theological aspect to this Sabbath command.  Theologically, never ever forget that you have been delivered from slavery.  Slavery in the land of Egypt meant unrelenting work, 24/7.   No days off!  No leisure time!  Certainly no 40 hour weeks!  And absolutely no child labor laws.  A world without Sabbath is a grey world without bright colors.  It is a depressed world with no joy.  It is a world of unrelenting pain and suffering where survival is the highest good, and where human beings are valued only for what they can produce.  Sabbath then is the joyful reminder that we are no longer slaves to that kind of life.

But there is also a very practical aspect to this Sabbath commandment.  Because God rested, we should rest.  What an amazing revelation!  Even God needs a day off once in a while.  I think that a big part of our problem with this commandment is that we have bought into a cultural message which equates rest with laziness.  I have ministerial colleagues who brag about not taking a day off.  They often are the same ones who complain about the unreasonable expectations of their congregations.

I have come to believe that the essence of Sabbath living has less to do with what we do or don’t do on one day of the week than how we live every day in relationship with God. And, frankly that takes practice and perspective because it means seeing the world in a different way.

Steven Covey, the well known management guru has a chart which illustrates the ways in which most of us use our time.  He divides his chart into a grid of 4 quadrants. 

 First,  there is the “Not Urgent/Not Important” quadrant.  Here we take time for meaningless relaxation, playing video games, fiddling with our smart phones.  While some call this wasted time, as long as it doesn’t become addictive, all of us give some time to the trivial.

Then there is the “Urgent/Not Important” area.  Here I think of the phrase: “Poor planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on my part.” But sometimes we do get sucked into solving other people’s trivial problems.

The quadrant of the “Urgent/Important” is where pastors and many of us live.  This is the Crisis Quadrant.   I often say, “Woe to the person who doesn’t believe that God is in the surprises.”  Very few of us can execute a well-planned day without encountering  a number of surprises along the way.  The Bible talks about these times as encountering “Angels unaware.”

Covey’s final quadrant, what I call The Sabbath Quadrant. Is titled, “Not Urgent/Important”. 

In order to start getting at what that means, I love this cartoon that has two men sitting on a bench.  The one says to the other, “My wife asked me what I was doing today.” “What did you tell her?” Responded the other. I told her “Nothing”.  She said, “But you did that yesterday!” “Well, I’m not finished yet.”

You see, in this quadrant of “Not Urgent/Important” is where we take time to discern the movement of the Spirit among us. This is where we take time to be and not to do.   This is when we pray, and discern, and reflect.  This, my friends, is why our pastor needs a sabbatical  and why Sabbath time needs to be part of all of our lives.

So, why can’t I have a sabbatical?  Well, we can have a sabbatical, and we need to have a sabbatical.  The truth is that the opportunity to take a few months away for study, prayer, and reflection is probably not in the cards for most of us, but we are commanded as a condition of our humanity to build in some soul time every day, and certainly every week.  You see, when we take time to reconnect with the One who created us and loves us, not for what we do but for who we are, then we are freed from slavery to that which restricts and confines us and are enabled to approach our lives with new strength, and new energy to be all that God created us to be.  

However, as we consider the meaning of Sabbath and Sabbaticals, there is also something larger at stake for us a congregation.  For this is not just Troy’s Sabbatical, it is also our Sabbatical.  It can become a time for moving away from some of our regular routines to creatively explore new ways of being church.  We will be helped in that endeavor by hearing new voices from the pulpit, voices that will challenge and encourage us to think of our mission in new ways, and as we read together Ruth Haley Barton’s book, “Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.”

You see, a sabbatical is about renewal: because this is Troy’s Sabbatical, we may miss the key point that this is really about the renewal of the church.  Our renewal is intricately tied to Troy’s renewal.  In the May issue of The Tidings, Troy reminded us of Dallas Willard’s prescription for the renewal of the church as he quoted from his book “Divine Conspiracy” where Willard says:

“I can state without wavering that the single greatest need of the church today is the restoration of ministers….They need to be taken out of circulation for a sufficiently long time to re-vision and re-structure their lives in communion with Jesus and his kingdom.”  To which I say: “Right on”.

Frankly, this time may be a bit uncomfortable for us because that is what happens when we move away from the status quo.  This is what happens when the winds of the Spirit blow upon us.  This time will be uncomfortable because we will find ourselves in the “Important but Not Urgent” quadrant where prayer, reflection and creativity will be the dominant values.  Make no mistake — it will be hard work both for us and Troy, but the rewards can be immense when we come back together to share our learnings and approach our mission with new energy.

This is the call of the Sabbatical and why it will be an important spiritual journey for both Troy and us.  May God bless us both as we journey apart so that we can journey together to accomplish great things for the kingdom.  May it be so!