I gave this brief sermon, more of a meditation really, on Samford’s University Ministries Breathe Retreat. The Breathe Retreat takes place at a stressful point in the spring semester at Samford, aiming to give students a respite in the midst of the craze of community life. It consists of a lengthy period of total silence, artistic reflection, and worship. This sermon came during a make-your-own worship service we did at the end of the retreat. Students at the retreat were responsible for the given elements of the service and they had the night to come up with what that element would look like. I had the message, and this is what I came up with. Each Breathe Retreat has a spiritual discipline as its theme and subject, and this year it was the practice of rest, or sabbath.
Given in Springville, AL in February 2013.
Do you remember the first time you got in a hammock? How old were you? How tall were you? Was it easy or was it hard? The first few times you got into a hammock seem to be a profound experience to me. There is a lot involved in your first hammock experience. Someone else has to set up the hammock for you or maybe they help you set it up. At least, perhaps, you had to adhere to some sort of instruction manual. Even if not, that hammock concept came about long before you got there and you had to figure it out. Hammocks look odd when you’re not using them. Even when you set it up right and take a look at it before you use it, it looks odd — it’s this stretched piece of cloth suspended between two poles, two trees, two somethings. It doesn’t look like it’s meant to hold much of anything. The label says 400 lbs, but you’re just not 400 lbs sure — Do you believe it, you know, just looking at the thing? Will it hold you up? Do you believe it? Do you trust it? It’s a risk thing, getting into a hammock for the first time — or even the first few times. Sometimes the thing just seems set up too high; it’s too lofty for what you want. People assure you that it’s supposed to look like that but you don’t quite buy it just yet.
So you try and get in. It’s perplexing. There’s this point where your butt is just not high enough to plop yourself in even when you’re standing on your toes — you have to make a little jump and now it’s got to hold you and all the momentum you’ve got. Or maybe you’ll try that upside down flip thing — now that’s a risk there. You know in that jump you might fall, it’s a risky commitment. You might get hurt in some unanticipated and unpleasant way — you could get hurt … but that’s OK. Otherwise, you’d never get in the hammock. So you’re in, but it’s weird. It’s not quite what you expect. It’s not sturdy — it’s rocking back and forth, to and fro, wavering in the breeze. You’re up with nothing but air between you and the hard unforgiving ground. Then, one of two things happens. Either you get to the point where you can settle in and you feel the rest and lean into gentle slumber or you’re restless in the motion, the unexpected instability that is only now apparent … but in either case, it will be over soon. It will be over soon and you’re not ready to get out yet — ’cause getting out is just as harrowing as getting in!
Getting back out requires effort and overcoming just a little bit of fear. It’s a risk too! It’s re-entry into normal life in an abrupt and often uncomfortable way. You’re just as likely to get hurt getting out as getting into a hammock. But whether you like it or not, whether you’re ready or not, your time in the hammock is going to end. But once it’s over, you can do it again. And every time it gets a little easier, a little more enjoyable, and a little more appealing. Bits of the fear, doubt, anxiety, and clumsy frustration never go away — the risk of messing up and getting hurt is always there, after all — but that’s OK. That’s part of using a hammock.
Now, I was at a conference over Jan-Term and I heard an author I like give a six minute speech on hunting with his dog. He’s a spiritual guy, and I’m certain there was some level of depth to his little parable, I’m sure he wasn’t wasting our time — but for the life of me, I still can’t figure out what he was talking about. So, in case you were wondering, I wasn’t talking about hammocks. I was talking about Sabbath.
Sabbath is like using a hammock, especially at first. You’re using something that’s been set up for you, a day built into the order of the kosmos, rest that is a necessary part of the nature of things. You don’t choose whether or not your body needs rest — it is only your choice how much rest and what kind of rest you give yourself. Sabbath may even seem too lofty a goal, a bar set a little too high for us unsaintly people here — and it looks odd, it looks weird. Sabbath is an affront to our modern sensibilities, our rhythms, our priorities.Sabbath requires risk — practicing Sabbath requires us to reorient our lives, it requires us to choose things at the expense of other things; it requires not just intellectual belief, but trust. It, like any serious practice or relationship requires a leap — it’s not something you just enter into. But it will hold you up, the label that says “holds up to 400 lbs” is a reliable one.
That doesn’t mean you won’t get hurt or trip up. An early attempt at Sabbath of mine resulted in a week knocked off kilter that was actually more stressful than restful. Barbara Brown Taylor says that even if done right, Sabbath can leave us sick in withdrawals from our productivity, business, and hurry — but in the end there is something more rewarding in it. While you’re in Sabbath, it’s not what you expect. It’s sometimes unstable, sometimes worrisome, but it’s worth it. But at some point you come out of it, and that transition can be abrupt and painful, but it’s good. And whether you like it or not, whether you’re ready or not, Sabbath ends … but the good news is that it’s coming around again.
Now, if you’re a really astute observer and listener, you’ll know that I’m not really talking about Sabbath either. Sabbath is a small representation of faith. Our faith did not begin and nor does it end with us. Our faith is risky, and we can get hurt. Our faith seems too lofty sometimes and when we’re in the swaying hammock of faith, it’s not always what we expect. There’s doubt, pain, and frustration — and that’s OK, it’s all part of faith. There are ups and downs and it all requires overcoming a little bit — or a lot — of fear. But the good news is that faith doesn’t depend on us. Faith exists apart from what we have faith in, and the God in whom we have faith, who created the Sabbath, and sustains all things in that hammock experience, that God is there, that God is here, God is good, and God will be with you. Amen.