Turn Aside

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                                                        Sept 3 2017

Exodus 3:1-15

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

The origins of Labour Day in Canada go back to December, 1872 when the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike to call for a 58-hour work week. In response to this unrealistic demand of shortened hours, their boss, George Brown, pressed the police into arresting 24 leaders of the union. This led to other strikes and to the federal government passing the Trade Union Act the next year. Eventually, the labour unions around the world advocated the eight-hour movement: eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation and eight hours for rest.

To my ear, Labour Day celebrates a balance in life between work, rest and play. If we undercut any of these three, we will not be healthy enough to contribute to our families and to our society.

Our Judaeo-Christian tradition teaches us quite a bit about work and rest, feasting and celebrating. We are urged to work hard and to keep the Sabbath. Before I talk about Sabbath rest, let us consider what our Christian tradition says about work.

Proverbs 18:9 reads, “One who is slack in work is close kin to a vandal.” Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters.”

Our Christian faith teaches us to value our work, whether it be paid or volunteer, household tasks or careers, and to work hard at it. Unfortunately, we have also inherited the strict, Calvinist work ethic, which threatens to undo the balance of work and rest. We sometimes brag about how overworked we are, as if overwork is proof of our dedication.

But today, work has also become a dirty word. Some speak of pushing through their work now so that they can finally relax and enjoy retirement later. Yet, if we don’t find the balance between work and rest now, we may not have the health or ability to enjoy life later. But it’s not just about balance. The early Christian mystics teach us how to find enjoyment within our daily work—even in the most mundane task of pealing potatoes. It involves mindfulness. Christine Valters Paintner writes, “If I’m incapable of showing up to work fully present, then I’m not capable of doing so in the rest of my life. If we don’t cultivate contentment in this life, right now, we will never know how to savour life later on.”

Now that’s a challenge. I have found that Sabbath-keeping helps to strengthen our focus and our joy during the rest of our week. Unfortunately, I am one of the worst examples of this—as Sunday Sabbath is not usually a day of rest for me! I try, not always successfully, to set aside a Sat. or a Fri. or the odd evening for Sabbath. If I can preserve regular time for rest and refreshment, I know that I am much better in my relationships at home and at work.

I am also trying to keep mini-Sabbaths—pausing, even for a few moments, throughout the day to notice, to breathe, to simply be. Sabbath-keeping for me means to relax the focus of work and open to the divine mystery. It means to ask where God is in this particular moment of place and time. It means to choose a longer path that might meander a little bit more and take me to surprising places that I would not necessarily choose. It means to turn aside from my daily regiment.

If Moses had not turned aside, he would have missed God’s presence. He was minding his sheep one day when he caught sight of a fire. We all know in western Canada this summer of the danger of fire in dry bush. A good shepherd would have rounded up the sheep and moved quickly away, but Moses paused. He looked again and saw that the fire was neither spreading nor dying out. He decided to leave his sheep and turn aside to look at this unusual sight. Fire was a conventional medium of divine presence in Moses’ time and it caused Moses to open himself to divine mystery. In this visionary experience, Moses heard God telling him to stop and remove his sandals, as the place on which he was standing was holy ground.

When we allow ourselves a step off that treadmill, a “not yet” to pressing demands, we may find ourselves standing on holy ground. It’s a bit humbling to know that God’s presence does not depend on how much we do for God’s kingdom. More often, we need simply to stop and notice the Spirit of God, which is already there awaiting us.

This past summer a largely Indigenous delegation from the Uniting Church in Australia, joined us for worship and led a workshop after the service on the reconciliation process in Australia. They gave us a few gifts, including miniature water holders made out of kelp from Tasmania and a poster with their revised constitution of the Uniting Church, which I have put up on the Outreach bulletin board. In this constitution, it reads, “The First Peoples [of Australia] had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony.” One of the faults of foreign missionaries around the world was an inability to recognize that God’s presence was already there in the new land. The moment they arrived on foreign soil was the moment they stepped onto holy ground.

In our rush to help and to fix things, we may forget that God has already gone before us and that healing may better come through listening and receiving. Some of the most dedicated church members are the ones who find it most difficult to receive. And yet, God’s grace is ultimately about receiving God’s love, not working for it. The Hebrew word Shabbat—which we know as Sabbath, literally means “to cease”—to cease and be still and know God, the great “I am”. God tells Moses, “My name is ‘I am who I am’.” God’s name is the verb of being. God is a verb.

It is in those Sabbath times—when I actually take them—when I can feel the adrenalin-pumped, future-focussed, list-making concerns lighten, become less-demanding. As they diminish in their intensity, they create space for simply being—for both my being and for God’s being. Lynn Unger wrote a poem called Camas Lilies, in which she writes, “Gone to the fields to be lovely, back when I’m through with blooming.”

This Labour Day, may we all take a moment to be God’s lovelies. When we turn aside from our work for a Sabbath’s pause, may we allow our souls to blossom a peace-blue contentment on holy ground.