Opening Words from 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.
We’re here to keep the Sabbath in the sanctuary; if we listen carefully we may hear the chorister outside these windows; if we look carefully we’ll notice the cathedral of green into which we’re nestled; if we meditate effectively we’ll notice the inner peace that comes on its own accord, and instead of going to heaven at last we hope to catch a glimpse of it here and now.
Sermon: Savoring the Summer Sabbath Season
To savor is to taste with pleasure; to enjoy or relish; to appreciate fully…to be ‘in the moment,’ to be awake and aware; to pay attention.
Psalm 34 says, ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good,’ which I translate, ‘O taste and see that Life is good.’
Denise Levertov put it into a poem: O Taste and See,
The world is
not with us enough
O taste and see
the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,
grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform
into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being
hungry, and plucking
Summer is the season for ‘plucking the fruit’ of the spirit, of savoring some Sabbath moments, especially out-of-doors Sabbath moments with a choir of birds calling to us to pay attention and a cathedral of pines and spruce, of maples and birches, of ocean-side walks or hikes in the woods.
One of the famous ten commandments says that we should ‘Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.’
It’s a strange commandment, really. God says, “I hereby order you to be good to yourself, to rest, to enjoy, to savor.”
McDonald’s borrowed it to sell more Big Macs saying: “You deserve a break today!” The McDonald’s message isn’t about savoring, however, it’s about indulging. There’s a big difference. You don’t savor a Big Mac – you may savor the first bite – then you simply indulge in it. You savor a single strawberry. You savor a moment.
The Sabbath commandment says that you should spend six days working and on the seventh day you stop working, you stop trying to make more money, to produce more products, to grow more corn…you stop so that you can savor Creation. It’s as if God is saying, “Hey kids, look at what I made for you!”
But that wouldn’t sound very God-like, so Moses said it in the form of a commandment: remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
Walt Whitman’s signature poem, Song of Myself, is a Sabbath poem, divided into 52 chapters. Listen to a few lines, again:
I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass. …
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
The Sabbath is first and foremost a time to stop – to stop trying – to stop trying to figure it all out and to simply be in the world…to stop and to pay attention to what’s going on all around you and in you.
‘Have you practiced so long to learn to read,” he asks and then says, ‘stop this day and night with me.’
He’s not suggesting that you give up reading, he’s warning against being overly dependent on information in books for and substituting information for wisdom – information is in the books, on the internet, you can Google it. But there’s something inside you that you can ‘filter from your self.’
The Ten Commandments were written by human beings like you and me, as were the Bible, The Koran, The Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching and the Gettysburg Address. But those gems and millions of others came from a deep place, and inspired place, a sacred place deep within the human psyche and spirit.
Look again at the story of the Good Samaritan. What did the good Samaritan do that the priest and Levite in the parable failed to do? The first thing he did was to pay attention, to stop!
Whitman says: ‘Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.”
Stop, and get in touch with the deeper part of yourself; stop and you might sense the source of inspiration, whether you can express it or not, whether you can compose a poem to express or, or a painting to portray it, or a song to sing it.
That’s the invitation from Whitman. He says, “Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best, Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice…”
Then he does an interesting thing – he introduces himself. In the first edition of his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, he does not put his name on the cover – it isn’t until you are well into Song of Myself that the introduction is made. He writes:
“Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them, No more modest than immodest….
I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.”
The poet Denise Levertove says it in a poem she titled Witness:
WITNESS Denise Levertov
Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
that witnessing presence.
The Sabbath is simply ‘that witnessing presence.’ To be a witness is to observe and report – give a first-hand account; to be able to say “I was present…I saw it with my own eyes…I heard it with my own ears. Here is my testimonial, this is my experience.”
The poets are simply witnesses. The theologians at their best are poets; the artists are at their best theologians, helping us to see this amazing Creation in which we live and move and have our spiritual (as well as physical) Being.
Sabbath moments may ‘just happen,’ without any intention to make them happen by simply being open to those moments.
For example, William Wordsworth wrote a poem he called “The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind: an autobiographical poem” and he describes the process… which began with an intention stroll in Lake Country, hoping for the inspiration he was seeking.
He arrived at a favorite spot, sat down and began to write, but nothing came; he tried three times to begin then he realized, intuitively, that he had to stop trying – he later said he needed ‘some Sabbath time,’ some silence…what he called ‘a deliberate holiday,’ and in the poem that finally came he writes that he realized “…must not bend the Sabbath of that time.”
He writes about ‘spots of time’ that are out of ‘usual time,’ and says about them, “Our minds are nourished and invisibly repaired.”
To savor the summer Sabbath you could do worse than read Whitman’s poem, Song of Myself, again. Now you’ll notice that it’s divided into 52 chapters representing the 52 weeks of the year, which means 52 Sabbaths.
In his poem Whitman is a witness, pointing out what he has seen and heard, what he has experienced, either first hand or as a response to that which others have reported.
For example, in chapter ten he writes that he ‘saw the marriage of a trapper’ to a young Native American woman, and he describes her: “She had long eyelashes…her head was bare…her coarse straight locks descended upon her voluptuous limbs and reached to her feet.”
In truth he was describing a painting by Alfred Jacob Miller called The Trapper’s Bride In other words, he is able to notice – to pay attention to – not only what he experiences first hand, but he’s able to pay attention to what is depicted by the artist.
Or he uses his own imagination, as he did in the poem’s story about the runaway slave. The passage says:
‘The runaway slave came to my house and stopped outside, I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile…I saw him limpsey and weak, and I went where he sat on a long, and led him in and assured him, and brought water and filled a tub for his sweated body and bruised feet, and gave him a room that entered from my own and gave him some coarse clean clothes and remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness…’
Whitman was living and writing in Brooklyn, but he imagined the scene and felt the compassion that inspired the runaway slave passage.
The basic idea of the Sabbath isn’t so much to stop working but to take time to pay attention to what’s going on all around you, and to get in touch with what’s going on deep down inside of you, like the feelings of care and compassion you feel when you read about the suffering of so many in Haiti, or the destruction from the oil spilling in the Gulf and what Robert Weston calls ‘a time of soul searching,’ a time ‘to sift the true from the false in the things of doubt, to sort and probe our own tendencies of thought…to think what we have been and what we are and still yet have to become.’
That’s Sabbath talk, and to savor the Sabbath is to notice the smallest things. Whitman mentions the pismire, the ant, and he says, ‘a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of imaginations.’ He points to a single spear of summer grass: ‘I loafe and invite my soul, observing a spear of summer grass.’
Savoring the summer Sabbath may take you outside and it may take you to a good book, especially one you’ve read before and savored. You could do worse than reading Thoreau’s Walden – it’s not only about his observations of the pond and wood life, but it’s about the inner life, as well. Or the Old Man and the Sea, or Travels With Charlie, or Huckleberry Finn, which will make you smile, and a smile fits the Sabbath nicely.
Laughter is a Sabbath moment. It takes the edge off all the serious concerns of life and puts things in perspective, which is what the Sabbath is intended to do.
G. K. Chesterton understood the need for humor. That’s why he said, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”
Chesterton is also the one who said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”
We need to lighten up. Art Linkletter knew that, which is why he listened carefully to kids, who, he said, say the darndest things.
Mother’s know how to listen to them, too. One mother said, “I was driving with my three young children one warm summer evening when a woman in the convertible ahead of us stood up and waved. She was stark naked! As I was reeling from the shock, I heard my 5-year-old shout from the back seat, ‘Mom, that lady isn’t wearing a seat belt!’
Another mother was trying hard to get the ketchup out of the bottle and while she was struggling the phone rang so she asked her 4-year-old daughter to answer the phone. ‘Mommy can’t come to the phone to talk to you right now. She’s hitting the bottle.’
A police officer reports an incident – she said, “It was the end of the day when I parked my police van in front of the station. As I gathered my equipment, my K-9 partner, Jake, was barking, and I saw a little boy staring in at me. ‘Is that a dog you got back there?’ he asked. ‘It sure is,’ I replied.
Puzzled, the boy looked at me and then towards the back of the van. Finally he said, ‘What’d he do?’
Another mother tells about her little boy opening the big old family Bible. He was fascinated as he fingered through the old pages. Suddenly, something fell out of the Bible. He picked up the object and looked at it. What he saw was an old leaf that had been pressed in between the pages.
‘Mama, look what I found,’ the boy called out. ‘What have you got there, dear?’ With astonishment in the young boy’s voice, he answered, ‘I think it’s Adam’s underwear!’
There’s always a touch of wisdom in humor. There’s not a lot of humor in Whitman’s poems, but there’s a lot of wisdom.
In an interview Whitman is reported to have said, “The devil in artists is to keep pegging away at a thing after it is all done – pegging away at it done, till it is undone.”
More than one person has made the same observation about the clergy and the art of the sermon…the devil in sermon makers is to ‘keep pegging away at one after it is all done…till it is undone.”
Let me close this one, then, with chapter 52 of Whitman’s Song of Myself. He writes:
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yaws over the roofs of the world…
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.