Salt and sabbatical

This Sunday’s readings include James’ admonition to pray for one another, and Jesus’ cryptic blessing of salt.


Pray for one another. Have salt in yourselves – that is, be true, and steadfast – and be at peace with one another.

One of the greatest gifts, arguably, that Jesus gave his disciples was the creation of a community of faith, of confession, of forgiveness, of the mutual covenant of prayer. They had been arguing about greatness. They had been worried about conformity. They had been concerned, gravely, by Jesus’ predictions of his own death, and confused by his hints of resurrection.

Jesus exhorted them to be at peace with one another, and to stay true to the mutual covenant between themselves and their God which continues to be the basis of our life together: the salt of the covenant, the seasoning of faith, the peace which passes understanding and allows strangers to become members of one body with one another.

Pray for one another. Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.

As almost all of you know, after today I will be on sabbatical for two months, until December, taking time to retreat and pray, to write and to listen for God’s Spirit in the silence of solitude.

I am hyper-aware that I am leaving at the end of a week which has been hard for many women and not a few men, because of the way that personal trauma has been visited upon our public life. For those whose background memories of private pain have been called forward, there has been little respite. For those who struggle to understand how such trauma can live in the base of the skull, and the pit of the stomach, and the lead weights that lodge in the bottoms of the feet, hidden and mute for days or for decades, there has been bewilderment. The two categories are not mutually exclusive, either, leaving almost no one unaffected by the mood of the news of the week. If your trauma needs more help than you manage with prayer, I encourage you to seek professional solace.

For while righteous anger is a fire that burns like salt, clean and hot, rage can wreak havoc like a wildfire. While godly grief cries out to heaven, despair can drown us with its tears. While the stubborn love of the cross stands firm, the obstinacy of oppression is blind to resurrection.

So pray for one another. Pray ardently for one another. Have salt in yourselves, for salt cleanses wounds and promotes healing.

I promise to continue to pray for you while I am away, and I confess my need for your prayers. But James advises the church not only to pray for one another, to sing for one another, but also to confess to one another, to convert one another. So here is my pre-sabbatical confession:

When God set aside the seventh day for rest and renewal, and the seventh year for the remission of debts and the restoration of liberty, the setting free of souls and the refreshment of spirits, God did so knowing that we have a tendency, left to our own devices, to become so involved in the workings of the world that without a reminder every now and again, we are inclined to think that we make the world work, and that it revolves around us. Taking a step back from that illusion feels dangerous, even irresponsible; but that in itself is a symptom of the delusion that makes us idols instead of images of God. Sabbath rest is a radical recognition of all of the ways in which we are not God, and in which God depends less upon us than we do upon our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. The Sabbath reluctance to do anything productive is a profound act of faith.

I am not very good at it. Like most of you, I was raised implicitly or explicitly to believe that my worth is wrapped up in my usefulness to other people, and my value is measured by my work product, whether as a woman, as a mother, as a priest, as a writer, as a worker in the economic ant farm that surrounds us.

But that is the theology of Thomas the Tank Engine, who longs only to hear the Fat Controller call him “a useful little engine.” It is not the theology found in the Bible nor in the Word of God, Jesus the Christ, who celebrates the meek and the helpless, the poor in spirit and the hopeless, the errant and the outcast, the ungodlike.

I confess my need to abandon the illusion of omnipotence. Only with God are all things possible, and even so, not everything is probable. I am not God, who neither slumbers nor sleeps, and I confess my need for rest.

Be gentle with yourselves. Discern what is necessary and needed of you, and where you might simply be striving for the approval of the Fat Controller, who is not God; for God’s love is not dependent upon our usefulness.

I confess my need to give up the fantasy of God-like omniscience – of the knowledge of all things, in all places and at all times. This is not an invitation to ignorance nor a retreat from information – but it is a retreat from information overload. I do not need to take the pulse of the planet minute by minute. I am not its surgeon, nor its saviour. I need to listen more closely for the pulse of prayer, the voice of God calling in the wilderness. I plan to mute my social media feeds, and to disarm my phone; to balance my thirst for up-to-the-moment information and analysis with the long, slow quest for wisdom, and unchangeable truth.

I invite you, if it is helpful to your blood pressure and brain space, to consider rededicating a portion of the time you spend listening to the opinions of pundits and redirecting your attention to God: through scripture, through prayer, through the simplicity of silence; whether it’s replacing the morning news channel with sacred music, or turning off Twitter notifications and installing a daily office app instead. For what does it benefit a person to see the whole picture if they lose sight of God?

I confess my need to curb my desire for God-like omnipresence – for the ability to be in more places at once than is truly humanly possible. When I am away, I will be away. I will try not to bridge the ocean between here and there. That will be hard, because I will miss you. But part of my sabbatical journey is pilgrimage, and to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and hear them echo, I will need to try to be fully present to the places where his heartbeat still echoes, through the dust of the desert and the waters of the River Jordan.

I invite you to be fully present here: to be alert and awake to the community and its call, to the opportunities to hear the voice of Jesus speaking through his creature, the church, this community of faith.

I thank you for the gift of this sabbatical. I ask for your prayers that I will use it wisely and to the glory of God, and I covenant to pray for you. I pray that our mutual acts of Sabbath – the rededication of time back toward God, who is the only true Creator; our Provider, and our Rest – we might find some balance in a world whose equilibrium is often doubtful, and whose spin is frequently erratic.

Have salt in yourselves, the seasoning of God; rest in peace with one another; and may the God who only is good and great bless you and keep you until we meet again.

Amen.

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