Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 3, 2017
“Exhale and Release”
Matthew 16: 21-28 – NRSV
“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
The Cross and Self-Denial
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of God, and will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Here we are, gathered on Labor Day weekend, the last hurrah of summer – the last long summer weekend to lounge on the beach or laze at a backyard barbeque with family and friends. Of course, we know that hundreds of thousands of people are not resting this weekend but sitting in shelters, still trying to save people caught in the waters of Hurricane Harvey – those allowed home are mucking out their houses in the sweltering heat and filling the curb with all of their possessions. As we think about having fun this weekend, they should be close to our heart
The theme of rest and relaxation is important in the practice of Christian faith: to honor the idea of Sabbath – a day of rest set aside by the Creator who worked six days and declared the seventh holy. A healthy balance of work and rest.
And yet, you’ve likely heard of the Protestant Work Ethic, believing that time not spent working is wasteful and does not give glory to God. In fact, the saying goes, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”
But in Jane Vennard’s beautiful book Fully Awake and Truly Alive, she advises that “busyness and fatigue can cloud our judgment, and we are liable to say or do things we regret.”
The famous monk Thomas Merton went even further and expressed a concern that “to allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many [things]…is to succumb to violence.” How? Far beyond regret and clouded judgment, it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
Wayne Muller, noted writer on Sabbath, said “If we forget to rest we will work too hard and forget our more tender mercies.”
The Genesis story of creation is the foundation of Sabbath. But the same story in the Book of Exodus adds three little words. “In six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God rested… and was refreshed.” As Jane Vennard writes, “In Hebrew, the word usually translated ‘refreshed’ here literally means ‘and God exhaled.’” God let out a breath. And just as we cannot inhale without also exhaling, she said, “We cannot create unless we rest.” When we rest, we can create.
Sometimes people will claim they are too busy to worship – considered just another in a variety of activities from which to choose, instead of central to keeping our lives balanced. But worship is more than a choice. It is what gives our lives balance. Beyond rest, it is that act of refreshment - exhaling.
(Exhale) It lifts the veil of our own self-importance.
(Exhale) Gathering in community reminds us to practice gratitude.
(Exhale) As we listen to the prayer requests of our fellow congregants, worship gives us perspective to our problems. (Exhale)
Very little else in this world is genuinely concerned with our spirit and our soul except to offer promises that usually involve buying something to make us happier. And more beautiful. And wealthier. And a whole litany of the superficial. Even if we don’t buy into that, even if we are immune to such temptation, we are constantly surrounded by that message. Worship is a little like taking a shower to remove all the muck and grime of greed and violence that sticks to us during the week. And in that context, remember, worship is a counter-cultural expression.
Because what did Jesus say? “For what will it profit [you] if [you] gain the whole world but forfeit [your] life?” “What kind of deal is it to get every thing you want but lose your self?”
It’s a different and vitally important message for our kids to absorb. Impressionable kids are especially vulnerable to their constant exposure to radioactive consumption and self-centeredness.
Earlier I said that worship helps to give our lives balance. But Jane makes a very interesting point: when we hear the word balance we may think of equality – an equal portion of one thing and another. But absolute balance is not possible. What we really need is a rhythm. And Sabbath is about rhythm. Worship is about rhythm – the ebb and flow of our week. Rest and relaxation is about rhythm. A day off every week. The opportunity for regular vacation. Times for study, for beauty, for inspiration… To rest and exhale. (Exhale)
But for whom? How does a minimum wage worker at Walmart or McDonalds or any of the others take time for rest? Actually, more like a worker at Walmart and McDonalds. How many people would work full time if they could but can’t so they work multiple jobs – how do they get a break? When do they get to rest but still pay their rent?
Social gospel preachers almost 150 years ago asked similar questions. Notable preachers such as Washington Gladden. Gladden was minister at First Congregational Church in Columbus, Ohio, and considered one of the earliest and most prominent of what became known as the Social Gospel movement.
In 1876, the forty-year-old Gladden published a book called Working People and Their Employers. It was an early social gospel manifesto. The dreadful effects of rapid industrialization in the cities were on the rise resulting in terrible conditions for workers. In his book he attacked a kind of Social Darwinism that advocated a laissez-faire economy where “the fit” survived and the “unfit” died off, resulting in “ultimate progress.”
It’s a contemporary argument to “It’s their own fault if they’re poor.” It’s classic Ayn Rand – still the heart of what makes many hearts tick with glee in Congress.
As things got only worse for workers, in 1908, 28 Christian denominations came together to form the Federal Council of Churches and adopted a “Social Creed.” There were 14 points, all of which addressed “practical industrial problems.” Among them there were three that I find of particular interest:
What I find notable is that their concern was not just for worker safety and just wages but the concept of Sabbath for lower wage workers to achieve “the highest human life.” Who even talks like that anymore?
The stage for such a creed had been building for years. Myron Reed was a well-known social gospel preacher here in Denver at First Congregational Church. His popular sermons were published every Monday morning in the Rocky Mountain News. In 1886, he advocated that as the city of Denver grew it develop into a more cooperative place than the dog-eat-dog cities back East. “He hoped to create a community in which the principles of the Sermon on the Mount would prevail and result in a ‘comfortable life for everyone.’”
By ‘comfortable life,’ Reed expressly meant that each person should have food, clothing, shelter, and time for recreation and thinking.” Sabbath. With that idea, many churches constructed around the turn of the 20th century also built gymnasiums for local residents to enjoy, including the church I served in Cleveland. It built a gymnasium and lockers in 1914. Neighbors could join the gym for an annual fee of 25 cents.
One more thing about Reed. Among his concerns, he demanded justice for Native Americans, women's suffrage, and “assistance for the poor without mandating any moral criteria.” A rebuttal to admirers of Ayn Rand then and now.
Sabbath is about rest, refreshment. (Exhale) And one more thing. In the Book of Exodus, Sabbath is about liberation. It is rooted in Israel’s freedom from slavery in Egypt. Sabbath represents a kind of release from slavery.
The fourth of the Ten Commandments tells us to keep the Sabbath holy. It says, “You shall not do any work.” But it says more than that. It goes on to say to include – “you, your son or your daughter, AND your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien residents in your towns. It’s not just that we get ours. My time off to rest and recreate. The commandment commands the same for everyone else over whom we may have influence or control.
Therefore, Sabbath isn’t just about resting from work. It’s not just about being refreshed. It is claiming release from slavery. Imagine what that might mean… What holds us captive? To what are we enslaved? Schedules? Expectations? Busyness? To what could we declare – “I claim Sabbath!” From screens, checking work emails at home, scheduling play dates… other ideas?
Most of us are fortunate enough to pursue both work and rest. We can choose. We may fail to keep Sabbath, but it’s our choice. We can if we wish. But I come back on this Labor Day weekend to ask social justice loving Christians: What about those who can’t?
Church denominations today are still concerned about worker justice. But today’s concerns are not primarily industrial but our service economy that depends on poverty wages. And what that does for families. At just our last General Synod, we advocated a $15 minimum wage, but we said nothing about workers needing time to think. We voted to stand alongside farm workers by supporting a boycott of Wendy’s. A previous boycott of Taco Bell forced their hand into paying 1 cent more per pound of tomatoes. But, in all of that, there has been nothing stated about workers “enjoying the highest human life.” We may need to expand our concerns.
A friend of mine is now the pastor of Washington Gladden’s church in Columbus. Tim’s favorite Gladden story is about the conflict between striking miners and Mr. Jeffrey, the mine owner and also a member of his congregation.
Gladden believed our Christian vocation is to use our influence to speak on behalf of the marginalized. He regularly preached fervent sermons on a wide variety of topics including clean water, clean milk, and cheaper trolley fares. One week he decided he must take a stand on behalf of striking miners. The night before, Gladden went to Mr. Jeffrey’s house and told him in advance about his sermon.
To his credit, Mr. Jeffrey still came to church, as he did every Sunday. He listened to the message that was literally meant for him to hear and that following week settled the long-standing strike. Then, not only did Mr. Jeffrey remain a member of the church and a friend to Gladden, he donated a quarter of a million dollars to build a new church – a sum today that would equal over $5 million.
I love the way Gladden did it. He didn’t blindside Mr. Jeffrey. He engaged him. He taught the principles of the Christian faith and invited him to release the yoke around his worker’s necks. It might not always work. In fact, it might not work more often than it does.
When Myron Reed took a stand on behalf of striking workers in Cripple Creek, he got fired from First Congregational. Too radical. So he went on to found the Broadway Temple. When he died, 6,000 people tried to attend his funeral.
But as reluctant or scared as any of us might be to do the same, to speak like Moses to Pharaoh, like Gladden to Mr. Jeffrey, we have that opportunity in our lives. To whom might we speak? And for whom?
We do have influence. And in some cases, we even have a measure of control over the lives of other people. Maybe as a supervisor at work, asking, did you take your vacation time? Did you take comp time for staying longer? Or as a spouse at home, perhaps sacrificing in some way so that your partner can pursue some passion. With our children, cutting down on scheduled activities and telling them to just go outside and play. With teachers in our schools, asking does this homework help, because it is hindering our family life.
When we seek Sabbath rest and refreshment, let us not forget the other, not-so-small matter of release. And live as free people who are released from whatever holds us back or whomever we hold captive. And return to the rhythm that worship reminds us to seek.
Remember, “If we forget to rest we will work too hard and forget our more tender mercies.” Because, “what will it profit [you] if [you] gain the whole world but forfeit [your] life?”
The Federal Council of Churches
"Social Creed" of 1908
We deem it the duty of all Christian people to concern themselves directly with certain practical industrial problems. To us it seems that the churches must stand --
For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life.
For the right of all men to the opportunity for self-maintenance, a right ever to be wisely and strongly safeguarded against encroachments of every kind.
For the right of workers to some protection against the hardships often resulting from the swift crises of industrial change.
For the principle of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissensions.
For the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational disease, injuries and mortality.
For the abolition of child labor.
For such regulation of the conditions of toil for women as shall safeguard the physical and moral health of the community.
For the suppression of the "sweating system."
For the gradual and reasonable reduction of the hours of labor to the lowest practicable point, and for that degree of leisure for all which is a condition of the highest human life.
For a release from employment one day in seven.
For a living wage as a minimum in every industry, and for the highest wage that each industry can afford.
For the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.
For suitable provision for the old age of the workers and for those incapacitated by injury.
For the abatement of poverty.
To the toilers of America and to those who by organized effort are seeking to lift the crushing burdens of the poor, and to reduce the hardships and uphold the dignity of labor, this Council sends the greeting of human brotherhood and the pledge of sympathy and of help in a cause which belongs to all who follow Christ.
 Jane Vennard, Fully Awake and Truly Alive: Spiritual Practices to Nurture Your Soul,” Skylight Paths Publishing, 2013, chapter 2.
 Exodus 31:17
 Vennard, page 21
 Eugene Peterson, The Message, Matthew 16:6
 Paul Boyer, “Reassessing Washington Gladden,” Ohio History, Kent State University Press, 2009. Social Darwinism is actually a later term applied looking back. The term was first coined in 1877 in Europe and not widely used in the US until the mid-1940s. But it is absolutely the right concept to apply.
 The predecessor body to the current National Council of Churches
 James A. Denton, Rocky Mountain Radical: Myron W. Reed, Christian Socialist, University of New Mexico Press, 1997, p. 4
 Commentary in footnotes on Exodus 20:8-11 in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible
 Exodus 20: 10 - NRSV
 http://wosu.org/2012/broadandhigh/washington-gladden-and-social-justice A PBS special.