Boy, I really know I’m getting old. Yup. I’m getting old and grumpy. I’m starting to miss this guy, Charlie. He was a member of my parish who died last year, and if you looked up “grumpy” in the dictionary you’d see Charlie’s picture. He just couldn’t stand it that things weren’t like they used to be. He was the last guy who still wore a coat and tie to Sunday worship, who still came early for prayer time, who grew indignant when people talked too loud before worship or came to church wearing cut-offs or Eagles jerseys, or—God forbid—came late. Charlie raged when worship assistants didn’t show up for their appointed duties, when altar servers giggled and fidgeted during the sermon, or when announcements went on too long. Charlie just wanted the Sabbath done right, by golly!
And now I’m starting to get just like him. I’m getting annoyed when folks arrive late for worship and when they bring their Dunkin Donuts coffee into the worship space. I can’t believe my eyes when I see young people coming to funerals—funerals, mind you!—in shorts and T-shirts. I’m growing dismayed that summer worship attendance appears to be optional.
Okay. I don’t want to become a Puritan about this. I don’t believe that the Sabbath prohibits both work and recreation as those rather humorless folks in the 17th Century believed. I don’t want to put people in the stocks for missing church or coming late or leaving their used Kleenex in the pew. But just where, I wonder, is the respect for the Lord’s Day and the Lord’s House? When did we become such a nation of slobs?
I know. A rigid rule of Sabbath observance is just the thing Jesus is fighting against in the Gospel lesson for Pentecost 2, Year B (Mark 2:23 – 3:6). In fact, Jesus even gets a little hot under the collar because the Pharisees are more interested in keeping control over the rule book than they are in showing mercy and compassion to the hungry and the disabled. For him, it seems, feeding and healing were the purposes of the Sabbath.
Martin Luther looked at it like this when he wrote his explanation to the third Commandment:
“We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear it and learn it.” (Small Catechism)
Gotta hand it to Luther, he really had a way with words. The two words which jump out at me for making Sabbath observance a feeding and a healing time in Luther’s explanation are “holy” and “gladly.”
“Holy” can mean spiritually perfect or belonging to God, but it also connotes something set apart as being beyond the ordinary. And that’s what I love about Sunday church. It’s not an ordinary time, but a time to take shelter from the ordinary and enter into the extraordinary. That’s why the church has liturgy and vestments and music and a special place in which to enjoy all of these things. That’s why Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel and why Bach composed music for worship and why buildings with majestic architecture have been erected to the glory of God over the centuries.
When I was a grad student at the University of Wisconsin many years ago, I worshiped at a beautiful cathedral-style church called Luther Memorial on University Avenue in Madison. The Senior Pastor at the time was the late Dr. J. Stephen Bremer, one of the loveliest human beings one would ever want to know. I asked him why the ritual at Luther Memorial was so elegant and high church. His answer was that he wanted those who worshipped to have a sense of the “Mystery of God.”
Wow. That’s something. To be able to sit for an hour or so in the wonder of God’s grace. To have at least one hour which is not full of cares or disagreements or the petty minutia of ordinary life, but is set aside—sacred—for being fed with wisdom and healed with the knowledge of forgiveness. To be in a place where love is spoken, food is shared, kindness is taught, sins are washed away, and a community comes together in song—how different that is from all else in our lives. Why would we not embrace this with gladness?
And, let’s face it, we need that difference, that “set-apart-ness.” The ordinary world so often neglects dignity and raises selfishness to an art form. Roseanne Barr tweets racist and Islam-a-phobic rants, our President regularly insults and accuses his opponents, our media news sources grow increasingly more biased, and “negative campaigning” has become the norm in America. We seem to be growing increasingly boorish and even thuggish at times.
We need a place to get away from all of this and be fed with the remembrance of who we are and who God created us to be. We need an extraordinary place, a place set apart and made different, where we can confess our shortcomings, be reminded that we are loved, and renew our respect for others. We need the Sabbath as a time to be fed so we can be feeders, and to be healed so that we can be healers.
If we approach it in the spirit of holiness and gladness, I won’t even complain if you come in your cut-offs.