Friday, November 22, 2019

Another old sermon

The 'children's sabbath' is in October every year. I forgot all about it this year--I'm older and forgetful. So here's an old sermon about it.


          Today’s lesson from Genesis tells the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel.  All through the night, Jacob holds on for dear life in his wrestling match. As dawn breaks, the angel damages Jacob’s hip, but still Jacob will not let go. He demands a blessing from his enemy and adversary, instead he gets a new name. Jacob becomes known from that day and forever as ISRAEL.
          And besides a new name, Jacob—now known as ISRAEL—will always walk with a limp.
          A new name—a new lease on life, a new identity, a new start—none of that comes cheap or easy.  To be born again requires a death. A new name brings with it a limp.
          When my children were very small—Josh was 6 or 7 and Mimi was 3 or 4—we would end many of our days with a wrestling match in our living room at 612 Chapel Street in New Haven. We lived in a huge house that had lots of room for wrestling and we took advantage of the space.  I would always be Andre the Giant and Josh and Mimi would be Spaghetti and Meatball. Josh was Spaghetti because he was long and lean and Mimi, who has grown into a beautiful woman, was Meatball because she was short and round as a child.  And we would wrestle for an hour or so, until I was gasping for breath and the children were worn out and ready for bed.  Often, because they were so energetic and I was so much bigger than them, one or the other of them would get hurt—they would get a limp. But they wouldn’t stop. The wrestling itself was worth the pain it inadvertently caused.

          One more story before I try to make some sense of all this. And the story is this—it is one of my earliest memories, perhaps my earliest memory.  My father and mother and I were out in the yard of my Uncle Russell’s house. My father was lying down in the grass with me when a stranger came running across the yard toward us. My father leaped up and ran toward him. The two men—my father and the stranger—grabbed each other and wrestled. I wasn’t yet two years old, but the image of the two men struggling terrified me. I started crying and my mother rushed to pick me up. But she was crying too, just like me, and my father and the stranger fell onto the ground, wrapped in mortal combat. I clung to my mother in great fear.
          It wasn’t combat at all, I was seeing. And my mother’s tears were tears of joy, not fear. The stranger who was wrestling with my father was my Uncle Del who had been away for a long time. And they weren’t wrestling at all—they were embracing, but the exuberance of their hug caused them to rock back and forth and then fall on the ground.
          Today is the Children’s Sabbath.  For years now, we at St. John’s have celebrated this Sunday of the year as the Children’s Sabbath.  And never before has observing a Sabbath for Children been so important, so vital, so necessary, so appropriate, so needed….
          The English word Sabbath  is derived from the Hebrew noun Shabbot and it means, literally, REST.  The Sabbath is the “day of rest.” It is the day reserved for God and God alone. Orthodox Jews refrain from any “work” at all on Shabbot—they do not drive cars or operate machinery or cook or even turn on light switches. The food for Shabbot must be cooked before sunset. The lights must be left on. The family must walk to the synagogue for the prayers. The day belongs to God and God alone.
          The Children’s Sabbath is meant to reflect that commitment to God.  This day must belong to the children and to God—to the children and God alone.
          There are a multitude of children we are called to remember this day. The children of our world are not responsible for the crises that surround us. Today we must find a pray that  all  children find REST from the weariness of the world.
          When thousands died on September 11 it left a multitude of children without a mother or father or both.  The  September 11 orphans need  rest from their mourning and loss—a time for God to heal them and open our hearts to them.
          There are tens of thousands of children living in poverty and war in Afghanistan.  Those children are not responsible for the decades of fighting or the numbing poverty of that land.  They need rest from their senseless suffering—a time for God to strengthen them and open our hearts to them.
          Hundreds of thousands of Muslim children living in the West—in our nation, in our community—are suffering ridicule and violence merely because of their ethnicity and faith. They need rest from their torment—a time for God to guard them and open our hearts to them.
          The events of the past 6 weeks haunt the dreams of millions of children in this country—their world has been invaded by violence they’ve not known before. They need rest from their fears—a time for God to comfort them and open our hearts to them.
          Our culture romanticizes childhood in a remarkable and dangerous way. We tend to think of the years of childhood as simple and carefree and happy. For the most part—and for most children—that is not true.  For the most part, CHILDHOOD IS A NIGHTMARE.  Children have no power, no control—children are innocent victims of a Grown Up World. 
          Children did not pilot airplanes into buildings.
          Children do not make war and cause poverty.
          Children do not abuse and neglect adults.
          The night terror of children is all our doing—the result of the actions and decisions of adults.
          CHILDHOOD IS A NIGHTMARE. That is why fairy tales speak so powerfully to children. In fairy tales there is a struggle between Good and Evil. In fairy tales, the weak and defenseless triumph over Monsters and Giants and Ogres.
          (You know, don’t you, who the Monsters and Giants and Ogres are?  They are the “big people”—the adults who have absolute control over children…the adults who create the terror of children’s nightmares.)
          Sabbath is a time for “rest”, a time that belongs to God alone—and to God’s precious children.
          This holy Shabbot—this holy Children’s Sabbath—speaks to the “big people”, to the Monsters and Giants and Ogres, to the ADULTS of the world. And this holy, sacred time that belongs to God and to children calls us to open our hearts to the children in our family, in our church, in our community, in our world.  They are OUR RESPONSIBILITY.  It is our “job”, our sacred duty to teach the children to ‘WRESTLE’. 
          Spaghetti and Meatball ALWAYS defeated the awesome Andre the Giant. Just like in Fairy Tales, Josh and Mimi ALWAYS won, against all odds.
          That is part of what we must teach our children—that God is on the side of the underdog, the weak, the powerless. And we must teach them that the Cross of Christ is the ultimate example of how POWERLESSNESS wins out in the end.
          We must teach our children that wrestling with God will give us both “new name” and a limp. That life is confusing and painful, but that God is finally on our side and that God will not only guard us from harm, God will give us new life.
          And we must teach our children that what sometimes looks like conflict and wrestling might just be a dance of joy. We must teach our children that true maturity is being able to live with ambiguity and confusion.

          This is the Children’s Sabbath. Today belongs to God and the Children alone.  And EVERY DAY must be the Sabbath of the Children. They are our only True Gift to the Future. We must wrestle with them and dance with them and hold them ever close.  As if our very lives depended on it.  Because our very lives DO depend on that.  Our lives truly depend on wrestling with and dancing with and holding our children close.
          That MATTERS MOST. And it may be all that matters.

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.