Sabbath Day Thoughts — “The Unexpected Neighbor” Luke 10:25-37
Louella Fletcher could really tell a story, and she had been spinning them all afternoon. Bob said a prayer and bid her goodbye. Louella walked with him out to the porch. As the sun had dropped, afternoon flurries had intensified into huge, fast-falling flakes. A smooth blanket of snow surrounded the house, and Bob’s Subaru was shrouded in white.
“Say, Bob,” Louella said, holding onto his arm, “Maybe you should have dinner with us and spend the night. We’re awful remote, and I don’t like the look of this.”
Bob thought about Marge and Paul back home, waiting dinner for him. He remembered his meeting, first thing in the morning. “Thanks, Louella, but I’ll be ok. I’ve got all-wheel drive.”
Louella looked as if she was on the edge of another story or a word of warning, but she shrugged and gave Bob a hug, “You take care now, pastor. Be safe.”
Bob inched along, wipers thumping, defroster rushing, headlights barely making a dent in the snowy darkness. He hesitated at the pointy corner where the main road swept to the right and the seasonal road climbed to the left. The main road was likely to be better driving, but the seasonal road shaved a good ten miles off what was proving to be a long, slow trip. “O, what the hay,” Bob said, “I imagine the Subaru and I can handle a seasonal road.” The car slowly toiled up, up, up, to the top of Hotchkiss Hill.
At the summit, Bob felt a surge of relief that soon shifted to concern. He had never noticed how sharp the descent was, no switchbacks, no guardrails, and certainly no lights way out here. Feeling like a kid on a carnival ride, all fear, butterflies, and acid reflux, he steered the car onward. About half-way down the slope, building speed, deepening snow, and an unfortunate tap on the breaks got the rear end of the Subaru slaloming back and forth. “Sweet Jesus!” Bob prayed as the car spun out of control, down into the dark, headlights flashing past huge trees. With a grinding thump, the Subaru scooted off the road and into a ditch. The rear end settled against a big white pine with a bone-jarring crack. The wipers stopped, the defroster fell silent, and the headlights went dark.
Bob thanked the Lord he was still alive and fished out his cellphone. His joy at the digital glow gave way to disappointment—no signal. Bob fished a headlamp, two handwarmers, and a granola bar out of the glovebox. He opened the warmers, gave them a shake, and slipped them into his gloves. He strapped on the headlamp over his hat. Then, he turned up the collar on his coat and stepped out into more than a foot of snow. The temperature was dropping and the wind was picking up. He debated turning back to Louella’s, but if the Subaru couldn’t handle the snowy track, then his boots surely wouldn’t. It was miles and miles to town, but if he was lucky, someone might come along and help.
Petey Freudenberg was on his way home from a day of meetings at the DEC. The ranger was more at home in the woods than in an office. He resented days like this, hours spent listening to policy wonks who wouldn’t know a mink from a fisher. As Petey’s headlights swept the darkness ahead, he glumly thought that this would be the last day he could get away with taking the shortcut on the seasonal road. It would be impassable in a matter of hours.
Not too far from the bottom of Hotchkiss Hill, Petey saw the willow-the-wisp of a headlamp, dancing along the shoulder. “Durned yuppies,” he muttered under his breath, “Come up here from the city and think they’ll have a little fun snowshoeing through a blizzard.” This imbecile took the prize, even gave him a big wave and a yell before Petey dropped the truck into low and surged off up the hill and into the night.
By the time Rhonda LaMott came along in her rig, Bob’s headlamp had failed, first growing slowly dimmer and then blinking out entirely. His trail boots really weren’t meant for this sort of weather and his feet were wet and numb. He brushed the snow from his coat and hat and ducked his head against the weather.
Rhonda had just finished plowing at the QuikMart. Folks had been resistant to a woman clearing snow—said it wasn’t ladylike. But Rhonda was good and incredibly dependable. She was headed home for the evening, but she would be back in town first thing to clear away the drifts. Rhonda was thinking about hot chocolate when she caught a glimpse of something moving on the shoulder. It was big and lumbering through the snow. A moose? A man?
About fifty yards past it, Rhonda slowed to a standstill and eyed her rearview mirror. A woman on her own in the middle of the Hotchkiss bog wasn’t safe. She checked her door locks and peered into the dark. Whatever it was, it was bellowing now and running in her direction. “Jeezum Crow!” Rhonda cursed. With her heart rising into her throat, Rhoda slid the rig into gear and sent up a shower of snow as she floored it, not daring to look back.
Now Bob was really worried. His boots squelched with melted snow. At this rate, he might have to walk all night to make it to civilization. He quickened his pace, fished the granola bar from his pocket, and took an incredibly stale bite. At the top of a rise, Bob paused and patted his breast pocket for his phone. He never did find out if he was back in range. Bob turned out every pocket with the sickening realization that his cell must have fallen out when he ran after the plow. He squinted back down the road and cursed his stupidity. In Bob’s overactive imagination, he saw headlines, “Local pastor freezes to death in November blizzard” or “Winter storm claims victim” or “Local church mourns pastor.”
About a half mile down the road, Bob stopped, pushed his hat up, and cupped his hands behind his ears to listen. There it was—jingling, like Santa’s sleigh or something else, something that told him that he was out in the middle of a full-fledged snow emergency: tire chains. He strained his eyes in the dark and glimpsed two dim beams, slowly growing brighter behind him. He heard the chugga, chugga, chugga of a big diesel engine. It was now or never. Bob took a deep breath and stepped out in the middle of the road with his hands up.
Bob had never met Chester Perkins, but he had heard stories. No one was certain exactly where Chester lived, but he was definitely off the grid. Some said he was an anti-social hermit. Others thought he was related to Big Foot. Everyone agreed that he smelled bad. Chester had seen the reflective gleam of a tail light in an empty car in the ditch at the bottom of Hotchkiss Hill, and he’d been prowling up the seasonal road in his rusted-out F-350 ever since. Maybe someone hadn’t had the good sense to stay put and wait out the storm. Chester thought about the three toes he had lost to frostbite in the big storm of ‘93. Some poor fool might need help.
The F-350 creaked to a stop about a foot away from Bob, who wasn’t certain which would be worse, getting run over or dying from exposure. Chester opened the truck door and shouted through the gap, “What are you waiting for? Get in!” While Bob’s numb hands fumbled for a grip on the passenger door, Chester kicked it wide open. He reached out a strong arm and hauled Bob up onto the bench seat.
Bob didn’t know what the source of the odor was, but it smelled bad in the truck, like dead things, body odor, and bean burritos. As Bob gagged and struggled into the seat belt, Chester passed a jar. “Drink that up, son.” Something fiery and potent, maybe moonshine, blazed down Bob’s throat and kindled warmth in his chest.
Chester pointed to Bob’s sodden boots. “Get those off,” he ordered and then passed Bob a furry pelt that looked suspiciously like it had come from a large dog. “Wrap your feet in this.” Bob did, his feet looking white and waxy in the dashboard light.
“Alright then, eat this.” Chester handed Bob a tough, salty chunk of jerky. Bob briefly wondered what sort of meat it could be but figured it was safe when Chester broke off a big hunk and began gnawing on some himself.
Chester dropped the truck into first and they crept toward town. “Where to?” he wanted to know.
“If you could take me to the manse at the Presbyterian Church, I’d be so grateful,” Bob answered, still finding it hard to believe that he just might make it out of this alive. They rode on for a few miles in silence.
Chester gave Bob a sidelong glance, “Man of God, huh? I never been to church.” Bob wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Certainly, if Chester had ever come to church, it would have been an unforgettable occasion.
With a sweep of his arm that took in the wind, snow, night, forest, darkness, Chester said, “This is my god.”
Bob nodded, thinking that Chester’s god had almost gotten the better of him that evening.
Maybe it was the moonshine, or the warmth of the animal skin on his feet, or the chugging of the truck that did it. Bob’s head fell to his chest, and the next thing he knew, they were in town, parked in front of the manse. Every light in the house was on, and Bob could see into the kitchen, where Marge looked like she was shouting into the telephone.
Bob pulled on his boots and turned to Chester, “I think you saved my life. How can I ever repay you?”
“No trouble,” Chester answered, “but it wouldn’t hurt if you promised to never do that again.”
“I promise, I really do,” Bob answered, shaking Chester’s grimy hand and knowing the grace of miraculous second chances and improbable saviors.
Chester chugged off into the night while Bob waved from the top step. Marge opened the front door, “Thank God! You’re home, Bob! We’ve been worried sick. Who was that?”
Bob reached an arm around Marge and watched as taillights disappeared at the end of the block. “Marge, that was a neighbor, a true-blue neighbor. Thank God, indeed.”
Here are some Adirondack spring beauties for all you folks who are tired of shoveling snow. These photos were taken on Lyon Mountain in May.
“I will be like the dew to the people of Israel. They will blossom like flowers. They will be firmly rooted like cedars from Lebanon. They will be like growing branches. They will be beautiful like olive trees. They will be fragrant like cedars from Lebanon.” — Hosea 14:5-6
Sabbath Day Thoughts: “A New Earth” Isaiah 65:17-25
When it comes to climate change, the Adirondacks may not be at the top of our list of regions most impacted by our warming earth.
We are more likely to think of island nations like the Maldives, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean that rises only 2.4 meters above sea level at its high point. As sea level rises with the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, the Maldives are in peril. In 2015, the charismatic young President of the Maldives drew world attention to his nation’s plight by holding his first cabinet meeting underwater. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), by 2010, sea levels will potentially rise 100 centimeters, covering almost the entire nation.
When it comes to climate change, we think of polar bears, the poster-child for the impact of global warming on our animal species. Climate projections anticipate that, before mid-century, we could have a nearly ice-free Arctic in the summer. Polar bears rely heavily on sea ice for traveling, hunting, mating, resting, and in some areas, for dens where cubs are birthed and nurtured. Studies have linked the demise of sea ice with a 40% decline in the number of polar bears in northeast Alaska and Canada. Will the bears survive a warming Arctic?
In the lower forty-eight states, we tend to think of the south when it comes to the impact of global warming. Our warmer, wetter world has caused a surge in powerful tropical storms that have pounded the Gulf states and beyond. Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana in August, second only to Hurricane Katrina as the most damaging and intense hurricane to hit the U.S., with maximum winds of 150 mph. As Ida moved north, so did its destructive power. The storm caused catastrophic flooding across northeastern states. Ida caused $50.1 billion in damages. In the storm’s aftermath, 95 Americans had been killed—33 deaths in Louisiana and 9 more across the southland, 30 in New Jersey, 18 in New York, and 5 in Pennsylvania.
Island nations sinking into the sea, polar bears threatened with extinction, massive storms inflicting heavy property damage and loss of life. This is often the face of climate change on the evening news. Yet we might be surprised to learn that the Adirondacks are being profoundly affected by our warming world.
Researchers at SUNY Plattsburgh report that the Adirondacks are warming at a rate that is twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The global average temperature has increased 1.8 degrees over the past 30 years, but in Lake Placid, that increase has doubled to 3.6 degrees. That means that our fall is longer than it once was. Our spring comes earlier. We have more winter warm-ups. Ask anyone who grew up in Saranac Lake and they will tell you that winter isn’t what it used to be.
The Adirondacks sit at the southern edge of the great boreal forest that stretches north across Canada to the Arctic. As our weather warms, that boreal forest will creep north as native plants and trees can’t take the relative heat. It’s already happening. It’s already having a big impact on our wild creatures. The National Audubon Society reports that we are seeing a dramatic decline in our northern boreal birds, like gray jays, Bicknell’s thrush, spruce grouse, and the black-backed woodpecker. We are also seeing a decline in fish. Brook trout, lake trout, salmon, and round whitefish all need cold water to thrive. An EPA report anticipates that brook trout fishing could disappear from the Adirondacks by the year 2100. As the Adirondacks continue to warm, the animals of the boreal forest will migrate north in search of habitat. Can we imagine the park without moose, bobcats, fishers, pine martens, and loons? Unless there is collective action to limit the amount of carbon in our atmosphere, that will be the Adirondack Park that we leave to our children and grandchildren. It’s a sobering possibility.
In our scripture lesson, the Prophet Isaiah shares God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth. The people who first heard Isaiah’s prophecy were likewise living with the impact of their actions upon the good land that God had entrusted to their care. The Israelites had returned home from decades of captivity in Babylon. Their land, which had once flowed with milk and honey, had been devastated by foreign invasion and decades of war. When the Babylonian army had rolled across Israel, they had destroyed everything in their path. Every fortified city from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south had been conquered and flattened. Jerusalem was hardly recognizable: its protective walls breached and pulled down, its homes in ruins, its Temple burned to the ground. The reality was so overwhelming, that people didn’t know where to begin. That may be how we feel about the reality of climate change.
In the midst of the people’s despair, God spoke a vision of hope. God, who had created heaven and earth, would create again, a new world of harmony and abundance. God’s word to the Prophet Isaiah is a sweet and joyous promise of long life, rebuilt homes, fruitful vineyards, simple abundance, and good health. God anticipates a healed relationship between humanity and the holy: before we even begin to pray, God will hear and respond. God anticipates a healed relationship between humanity and all creatures, great and small. All will dwell peaceably, free from harm and the threat of destruction. Isiah’s promise is so sweet, that we hear it and we want it for ourselves. We want it for the generations to come.
It’s a promise that reveals God’s best hope for us. Indeed, in the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos described God’s coming Kingdom as Isaiah did, as a new heaven and a new earth, a new Jerusalem in right relationship with God. Humanity gets things so wrong. The ancient Israelites bring death to the land by exploiting its bounty, oppressing one another, and waging endless wars in pursuit of wealth and national greatness. We, with our unbridled consumption and short-sighted pursuit of prosperity, pump the atmosphere full of greenhouse gases that trap ultraviolet rays and turn up the heat. Our world is suffering. Creation is groaning. And in the middle of the mess that we have made, God dares to dream that things can be different. There can be a fresh start, a new earth.
What might it look like for us to claim Isaiah’s vision, to begin living in ways that give us a foretaste of the coming Kingdom that God will one day bring to completion? Jerry Jenkins, the leading expert on climate change in the Adirondacks, says that we can personally start to mitigate climate change with simple thrift. Don’t buy new stuff: reduce, re-use, recycle.
We can make changes at home. If we dial back the thermostat by two degrees, we can not only reduce our household carbon emissions, but also save as much as 5% on our heating bill. We can turn off un-needed lights. We can replace energy-wasting lightbulbs with high-quality LED bulbs that last a long time, consume less electricity, and save lots of money, year in and year out. We can use native plants in our flower gardens to attract pollinators, like bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
We can change our habits. We can bring our own re-useable bottle or mug wherever we go. We can drive less—plan our trips into town, walk to nearby destinations, or ride our bikes instead of hopping in the car. We can cut down on food waste by eating leftovers. We can eat less meat—those concentrated animal feeding operations, where cattle and pork are warehoused in close proximity and force-fed, are massive emitters of methane, a greenhouse gas.
If we are in a position to make big ticket investments, we can consider purchasing a hybrid car. We could add a solar array to our homes to begin moving off the grid. We could invest in a renewable heat source. Burn wood pellets. Go geo-thermal.
These are simple steps that each of us can embrace. You can give them a try, even if you deny the truth of climate science. What’s to lose? These simple actions are good for us, good for the planet, and they save money. Who doesn’t want to save money?
William Janeway of the Adirondack Council envisions a day when the Adirondack Park will be “energy neutral.” We’ll preserve our wild beauty and ecological integrity. We’ll be a world-class natural resource and a premier tourism destination. We’ll be a model for the world to see of a “climate-smart, public-private conservation landscape.” The stakes are huge. Our failure to take action could have dire consequences for our children and grandchildren. Jerry Jenkins cautions that if we do not slow the course of human-caused climate change, “We may be the last generation to see the big bogs and the boreal creatures.” Would our children ever forgive us?
May we find in Isaiah’s vision of the new heaven and the new earth the holy will to make a better future for our park and our planet.
–. “Peril and Promise” on Mountain Lakes Journal, May 21, 2019.
Craig, Gewndolyn. “Adirondacks Affected by Warming Climate in a Number of Ways” in The Post Start, October 13, 2018. Accessed online at www.poststar.com.
Foderaro, Lisa. “Savoring Bogs and Moss, Fearing They’ll Vanish as the Adirondacks Warm” in The New York Times, Dec. 11, 2011. Accessed online at www.nytimes.com
Kerlin, Kat. “18 Simple Things You Can Do about Climate Change” in UC Davis: Science and Health. January 8, 2019. Accessed online at www.climatechange.ucdavis.edu
Mann, Brian. “Effects of Climate Change on the Adirondacks” on North Country Public Radio, Feb. 25, 2019. Accessed online at www.ncpr.org
Rivera, Nelson. “Homiletical Perspective on Isaiah 65:17-25” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Johns, Mary Eleanor. “Pastoral Perspective on Isaiah 65:17-25” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
A wet July has made for an explosion of mushrooms. A walk in the woods can dazzle the eye with a bold assortment of mycelial life underfoot. According to Dianna Smith, a New Hampshire-based naturalist and mushroom enthusiast, mushrooms and trees have symbiotic relationships. Trees give mushrooms the sugars that they need to survive while mushrooms release valuable nutrients from the materials they decompose. The mushrooms that we spy along the trail are a bit like flowers, emerging from a vast underground network that has been compared to the Internet (aka the Wood-wide Web). This underlying mycelium can be long-lived and massive. A colony of Armillaria solidipes mushrooms in the Malheur National Forest of Eastern Oregon is believed to be 2,400 years old and spans an estimated 2,200 acres. I’m not sure how old or vast the mycelial network is here in the Adirondacks, but these trailside finds made for a fascinating walk. The heavens may sing the glory of God, but on a warm August day, so can the forest floor.
by Sylvia Plath
Overnight, very Whitely, discreetly, Very quietly
Our toes, our noses Take hold on the loam, Acquire the air.
Nobody sees us, Stops us, betrays us; The small grains make room.
Soft fists insist on Heaving the needles, The leafy bedding,
Even the paving. Our hammers, our rams, Earless and eyeless,
Perfectly voiceless, Widen the crannies, Shoulder through holes. We
Diet on water, On crumbs of shadow, Bland-mannered, asking
Little or nothing. So many of us! So many of us!
We are shelves, we are Tables, we are meek, We are edible,
Nudgers and shovers In spite of ourselves. Our kind multiplies:
We shall by morning Inherit the earth. Our foot’s in the door.
from Sylvia Plath’s first collection: The Colossus and Other Poems, published by Vintage, New York (1998, ed.)
Sabbath Day Thoughts — Genesis 2:1-3 and Mark 6:30-34
This message was shared at the Island Chapel, an ecumenical summer church on an island in Upper Saranac Lake.
Is anyone here on vacation today? Is anyone retired, in that delightful, ongoing state of quasi-vacation? Does anyone wish they were on vacation this morning? We can all affirm the goodness of coming away to a quiet place to rest and renew.
When it comes to vacation destinations, the Adirondacks are about as good as it gets. We love the cool evenings when the magic carpet of the Milky Way stretches across the night sky and the sleeping is good. We delight in the clear waters, whether we take a skinny-dip, test our favorite fishing hole, or explore the back country in the kayak. We rejoice in the mountains: the thrill of downhill skiing, the accomplishment of climbing the 46, the alpenglow of summits set ablaze by the last rays of the setting sun.
I have read that the American use of the word “vacation” derives from the Adirondacks. The English go “on holiday,” but here in the states we “take vacations.” In the 19th century, residents of New York City and Boston vacated their hot, urban homes for the cool splendor of the Adirondacks. All that vacating coined the term vacation. Take a look out the window. Apart from the rain, it doesn’t get much better than this.
In our reading from Mark’s gospel, the disciples could have used an Adirondack getaway. Jesus had entrusted them with his power and authority. Then, he had sent them out in pairs, with meager resources, to minister to the villages of the Galilean countryside. Their mission had been even more successful than their best hopes. As they returned to Jesus, they told stories of sermons preached and prayers shared. They talked about miracles worked. The lame had walked. Blind eyes had found sight. Those troubled by oppressive spirits had found peace. There was great rejoicing.
Yet as Jesus listened to his friends, he saw the need for rest. They had been going flat-out for weeks now. Their voices were shot. They were sleep deprived. They were beginning to get on one another’s nerves. They couldn’t concentrate, and they weren’t making good decisions. The crowds pursued them. Longing for wholeness and healing, everyone wanted time with Jesus and his friends. It was so frantic that they couldn’t eat or attend to their bodies or hear themselves think.
Jesus knew exactly what was needed. He stopped his friends mid-story and said, “Come away with me to a quiet place and rest awhile.” Then, Jesus stood up and invited them to follow him. They walked down to the breakwater, climbed into the boat, cast off, and hoisted the sail.
We are all familiar with the toll that overwork and chronic busyness can take. Science tells us that it effects our bodies. Our stress level rises, increasing our heartrate and blood pressure. Our bodies are flooded with the stress hormone cortisol which makes us ready to fight or flee and piles on the belly flat. We are at increased risk for heart attack, diabetes, and stroke. Our brains don’t work as well when we are work-weary and stressed out. It’s hard to focus. Our creativity and resourcefulness plummet. It becomes difficult to make wise choices. Our feelings can be on edge. We are more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression. It’s easy to cry or lose our cool and blow up. Does any of this sound familiar?
To be whole and healthy people, we need vacation; we need rest. In fact, time set apart, free from work, is an essential part of God’s plan for creation. It’s right there in Genesis, in the foundational story of Judaism and Christianity. God spent six days creating everything. God launched the Big Bang and coalesced the stars and planets, shaped the continents and gathered the seas. God coaxed life out of the raw material of God’s very self, jellyfish and blackflies, elephants, octopi, and corgis. God brought humankind into being with the awareness of God and the task of caring for creation. Then, as the crowning achievement of creation, God chose to rest, not because God was weary—we are talking about God here—but because it was right and fitting to have a day set apart to savor and delight and be.
This keeping of sabbath is echoed in the fourth commandment, “Remember the sabbath day—to keep it holy.” Our sabbath rest honors God’s work in creation. It reorients us and reminds us who is really the boss. For Christians, our sabbath days and sabbatical times remind us that God creates and re-creates us. The sabbath is the day of resurrection, a celebration of the new life we find in Jesus, who called himself the Lord of the Sabbath. Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann teaches that when we enter into this intentional practice of observing sabbath and taking rest, we choose to participate in the tranquility of God. We return to the foundational rhythm that God ordained in the structure of creation. We live into the image of God in which we were made.
The science supports the scripture. Times of rest restore us and make us healthier people. All those critical numbers that shoot up with work-stress fall with rest. Blood pressure, heart rate, cortisone levels, all drop. Our brains function better. In fact, the spontaneous activity of a rested brain can suddenly solve problems that we thought were impossible. Our ability to concentrate is renewed. Even our emotional health finds healing and new possibility. Dr. Sarah Mednick, in her TED Talk “Give it Up for the Down State” says that the GDP would grow, businesses would thrive, and workers would be happier, healthier, and more productive if we incorporated more sabbath rest into our lives. An ideal work week would feature an intense Monday-Tuesday, a Wednesday half-day with an afternoon of rest, and a busy Thursday-Friday, followed by weekend downtime. Sign me up!
Finding time for a weekly day of sabbath or an afternoon of rest or a weeklong vacation isn’t always easy. We think we are indispensable. If we don’t do the work, who will? We aren’t crazy about giving up control. We find it hard to walk away. In fact, most Americans do not take the vacation time that they are allotted. I suspect that when Jesus called the disciples to come away, there were some foot-draggers. They looked back, wishing they could heal one more leper. They were afraid they would lose the direction of that killer sermon they were planning to preach. But when we refuse to rest, we deny the sovereignty of God, we reject the example set for us in creation, and we do our world a disservice as our gifts are dimmed and diminished by the fatigue and impairment that come with stress and overwork.
I hope I have made my case about the importance of rest. I also hope that your sabbath time includes some intentional God-time. Sing a song of rejoicing for the lotus that rises from the mucky lake bottom to bless your paddle. Take Jesus along on your trail walk. Tell him all your troubles and thank him for sabbath. Commune with God on the mountaintop, savoring the mystery and magic of the world spread out at your feet. Go to church. Every vacation, every rest, every time apart is an opportunity to be re-created in the hands of the ultimate Creator.
As I close, I’d like to return to Mark’s gospel. The way Mark tells it, it doesn’t sound like the disciples got much rest. They got in the boat. They crossed over. They found crowds of hurting people waiting on the other side. But I did a little research. If you have a favorable wind, sailing from Capernaum to the Gentile coast of the Decapolis takes a good six hours, longer if the winds are variable, longer still if you have calm. That means the disciples had a whole day of sailing with Jesus. How good would that be? They soaked in the quiet. They allowed the horizon to delight their eyes. Peter relaxed at the tiller and allowed his mind to roam. James and John stopped bickering. Andrew threw in a line and caught dinner for everyone. They all began to breathe with the rhythm of the breeze and the waves. At some point they realized that it wasn’t just Jesus in the boat with them. At one point, they knew that they were somehow sailing on, with, and into God. Someone sang a doxology of rejoicing, thankful for the wholeness that is found when we come away and rest awhile with the Lord. Amen.
Thompson, Marjorie. Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.
Bryant, Robert A. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2009.
Hasel, Gerhard. “Sabbath” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Cherry, Heather. “The Benefits of Resting and How to Unplug in a Busy World” in Forbes Magazine, Jan. 15, 2021. Accessed online at Forbes.com.
Mednick, Sara. “Give It Up for the Down State” in TEDx Talks, June 4, 2013.
all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals,
which is a burden and reproach for you.
At that time I will deal
with all who oppressed you.
I will rescue the lame;
I will gather the exiles.
I will give them praise and honor
in every land where they have suffered shame.
At that time I will gather you;
at that time I will bring you home.
I will give you honor and praise
among all the peoples of the earth
when I restore your fortunes
before your very eyes,” says the Lord.
Playground. That word may evoke a swirl of memories: the first time you braved the slide, the creaking of the swing set as you pumped your legs in pursuit of altitude, the bone-jarring thump of the teeter-totter when your friend dismounted and you plummeted earthward. A number of years ago, I did community organizing in a hard-hit, diverse community. The playground spoke volumes about the marginal status of the community and its people. Seats were missing from the swings. Plastic horses had been stripped from the toddler rides, leaving behind sharp springs, rising up from cracked blacktop like a curious and dangerous crop. Hypodermic needles lurked beneath the slide. I never saw a child play there. Nowadays, I live just a few blocks away from a newly refurbished neighborhood park. Mornings might find young mothers parked on the benches, scrolling through social media feeds while their wee ones explore. Evenings welcome teens for pick-up basketball, shirts against skins, trash talk flying.
In her meditations on the twelve months of the year may i have this dance, Joyce Rupp suggests that July is the playground of God. Adirondackers might be inclined to agree. Hummingbirds hover in the garden, sipping nectar, bickering at the feeder, competing for sugar water. Fawns rise up on feeble legs to follow their mothers. They nurse, tails wagging with joy, like puppies. The cat sits on the screened porch, singing a throaty song to the birds outside and dreaming of the mischief that could be had if the door were left ajar. People get playful. They hike mountains to savor the view from the summit. They paddle canoes amid water lilies, hearts jumping at the slap of a beaver tail. If July is God’s playground, then we are all-in. All of creation—the two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, the finned, the feathery, the slithery—plays, delights, and rejoices in the goodness that is all around.
Have you ever thought what God might do on a playground—or what might inspire God to delight and rejoice like a child in Legoland? The Prophet Zephaniah invites us to imagine God singing and rejoicing over us. It’s right there in Zeph. 3:17, “The Lord your God is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; God will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will rejoice over you with loud singing.” A different translation of verse seventeen puts it this way, “God will rejoice over you with happy song . . . God will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival.” Picture that.
When Zephaniah wrote those words, the Israelites didn’t have much to celebrate. In the early days of the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BCE), before the king grew up and enacted reform, violence and corruption were rife. Justice was sold to the highest bidder. The widow and orphan hungered. False gods were worshipped in hilltop shrines. Indeed, for three and a half chapters Zephaniah’s word of the Lord imparts a blistering tongue-lashing for a people who have lost their moral center. It hardly sounds like a day in the park—or on the playground. Yet God holds out hope for the people, the promise of the coming day when holy judgment will end, enemies will be turned away, and the disaster we seem hellbent on making will be averted.
It’s a paradox. We get things so wrong, and yet we are beloved and deserving of celebration and delight. It’s the truth proclaimed by Jesus. When Jesus told Zephaniah’s story, he described a son who treated his father as if he were as good as dead. After debasing himself in a profligate life, the son decided to try his luck with the father again—perhaps out of self-interest, perhaps in remorse. When the prodigal got within sight of home, he saw his father running down the road, tunic hitched up, legs flailing, a dust cloud in his wake. The lost son was welcomed, with hugs and tears and great rejoicing. In the party that followed, we can imagine the loud singing and the joyous dancing. Even so, God sings and dances over you. How good is that?
In an Adirondack summer, it is easy to imagine God singing and dancing in creation. Those raspberry sunsets are like celestial fireworks. The flowers shimmy on the verge in the morning breeze. Waves driven by the wind send whitecaps to rush your boat toward shore. The drama of a thunderstorm ignites the night and rattles the window panes. It’s a sensational, dazzling, sensory overload of a playground out there. In the midst of it, God sings and dances over us, delighting in us, simply because we are her children – in all our beauty, in all our frailty. She sure can throw a party. Let’s get out there on the playground and celebrate. Thanks be to God.
“The Playground of God”
by Joyce Rupp
“If I could share my treasures with you
I would constantly send you blessings
from the depths and beauty of each day.
I would seal your smile with sunshine;
I would leaf your walk of life
with the tenderest of greens
and the deepest of autumns.
I would catch at least three rainbows,
and set a seagull on each one
to sail you constant hellos
from the heart of the Transcendent.
I would whisper wonderings
from silent nooks of mountain tops
and the humming heart of the sea.
I would call for the deer
and all the tender animals
to run with you in happiness.
I would ask each tree
in her most majestic mood
to cover you with constant care.
I would breeze in billowy clouds
to share their rainy wanderings
when you need to feel washed new.
I would take you by the hand
and hold your heart near mine,
to let you hear the constant love
bounding forth from me.
and most of all
I would join my heart with yours
and have you share the path of love
that God has caused and carved
in the shadows of my soul.”
Rupp, Joyce. may i have this dance? Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1992, 2007.