A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on the Sterling Town Common, Sterling, MA
June 23, 2019
God has no other hands but ours’, so we need to put them to good use. And sometimes we need to just admire them. Isaac asked me to paint his fingernails purple the other day, so I did. Now he just stares at them multiple times a day, admiring those delicate bones just above the knuckles, delicate as bird’s wings. That’s a God pause—taking time just to admire the beauty of creation.
Today I anointed the called to care team’s hands for ministry. Most often there won’t be much they can say or do to alleviate the suffering they encounter. Their job will simply be to hold a hand in silence. So those hands I anointed this morning are precious gifts of grace capable of great healing when there are no words.
Hands are some of the best things God has ever done.
God made your hands delicate and still strong, capable of kneading dough, holding a heavy head at the end of a terrible day, or scratching a hard to reach place. God made hands that can type letters to the editor, hold a steering wheel, grasp and lift barbells, lay pipe. God made hands that can paint, play the piano, hold a baby, chop wood and vegetables, hammer a nail, sew needle point, perform heart surgery, and pet a cat’s warm fur.
God made hands capable of touching, of caressing, of holding, of healing.
Look at your hands for a moment.
These hands need to rest. These hands need to stop texting on a tiny bright screen, and hold the chubby hand of a toddler on the rail trail. These hands need to stop typing emails and start digging deep into the dark earth, making things grow. These hands need to stop scrubbing toilets and floors and start lazily skimming the surface of the water as you read a trashy novel on a float somewhere.
These hands need rest.
I used to hate going to my family’s lake house on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. We piled into the way back of my father’s Ford station wagon to go there a few times a summer, often with my cousins.
It was a beautiful place—two cabins right on the lake in a cove not far from Alton Bay and Mount Major. There was a dock for boats and a rock to swim to, and a large lawn that some people might have parties and barbecues on. We had a canoe and a row boat, never a speed boat. A true Yankee, my Grandfather built both cabins himself with his own two hands, and continued to work on them for the rest of his life. After my Grandfather died, my Grammy owned it.
Grammy was a rather cross old farmer from Ludlow, Vermont, and like my grandfather, she had no idea how to relax or have fun. And so when we went to the lake as kids (the way I remember it anyway), we spent the entire time doing chores. We scrubbed vegetables and shucked corn. We did endless dishes in the sink. We washed windows and scraped paint. We bailed out the row boat and raked. If we ran out of things to do, Grammy would tell us kids to pick up sticks in the yard. I couldn’t imagine why sticks needed to be picked up from their natural habitat, so I found this activity to be confounding busy work. I didn’t see “Grammy’s lake” as a vacation when we went there, but a job.
I don’t relate much to my Grandmother’s work ethic. My house is dirty, I haven’t washed a window since I was a kid, my garden is full of weeds, I still can’t make a pie crust without getting angry, I have never changed a tire or worked a farm tilling fields. My hands are as soft as a baby’s bottom.
And yet, I have a confession to make on the eve of my five week vacation and study leave. I have been over-functioning in this ministry to the point that I have failed at times to invite your engagement. I’ve been working long hours, saying yes to too much, doing too much on my own, losing a ton of sleep, eating less than healthfully, and all but ignoring my family. I have been depressed, cranky and resentful at times. I have occasionally lost sight of who I am and whose I am.
And I have had interventions by congregants, and colleagues and family members and friends saying: Try exercise. Make sure you take your days off. Do yoga. Enlist help. Shut down your computer and bring your kids on a hike. Take a vacation.
And I give all kinds of excuses why I can’t. I am the only person who can do this thing. If I give it to someone else, they won’t do it right. The world cannot function unless I am posting something inspirational on Facebook five times a day, I’m sure of it. Sure, I can book meetings and visits and softball games and kids’ concerts back to back and still write a board report and a sermon and a funeral today. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
Does this sound familiar? It is pure hubris.
And that’s why stopping is one of the ten commandments.
“Idle hands are the devil’s toolbox.” That’s what my grandmother used to say. In other words, if you’re not working with those hands, you’re getting yourself into trouble. But God says that working hands that never lay idle are the devil’s tool box.
In addition to such crucial commandments as not killing or stealing, God declares all humans must have a day of rest to live healthy and moral lives. Sabbath, or shabbat means, quite simply, “ceasing.” Stop. Rest. Recharge.
Keep the sabbath holy, God demands.
On that day no one in your household may do any work.
For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth,
the sea, and everything in them;
but on the seventh day he rested.
That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.
God doesn’t insist we rest because God is some kind of self-care guru. God doesn’t insist we rest because God wants us to sip margaritas on a beach in Mexico, or get purple mani-pedis. God insists we rest so we remember an important truth: the world is perfectly capable of going on without you in it. Nothing hinges on you.
Rev. Walter Brueggemann wrote a book titled Sabbath as Resistance, and he says: Sabbath is not simply the pause that refreshes. It is the pause that transforms…
That divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made clear (a) that God is not a workaholic, (b) that God is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and (c) that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.
If the world can go on while God rests, it can certainly keep going while you do. Do not fall into the trap of thinking you are necessary to the work of creation on your own.
TAKE TIME OFF. Lay your hands down.
My friend Claire came across these gems from Rev. Donna Schaper who charges us with these Sabbath practices, whether we are taking a day off, or a vacation, or a sabbatical:
Lose the guilt early. Rest is a gift from God. When you don’t rest, you more than risk idolatrous behavior. You get too tired to think, much less act.
Find out if you really know how to do nothing. You may not….
Imagine yourself an escapee from the prison of the dominant narrative: “You are what you do.” “If you don’t do it, no one else will.” “Hard work is the route to justice.” Imagine another narrative: “I lift heavy things lightly.” “The Spirit thinks I am precious.” “I am here to enjoy Spirit.” “I am here to relax.”
Bask in the renewable energy of a large narrative. You are a creature. You are not in charge of the universe. You are enough. You are all right. You are the child of a kind parent. You don’t run on power supplied at a cost by a utility company. You are not an extractive resource, like oil. Like solar and wind, you are a renewing resource. There is energy enough for you – and it is free. And finally, Rev. Schaper advises:
Don’t worry about whether you can maintain any of these habits when you are back at your job. Don’t think much about the end time. Treasure the now time. Work is work; play is play. Sabbath is Sabbath. There are six other days in the week, also divine.
Hands were some of the best things God had ever done.
I want to invite you into a space of quiet and peace, to ground yourself by noticing your contact with chair and and the ground, by sitting straight, by becoming aware of your breathing.
Look at your idle hands. They've been through a lot, those hands...they have strengths, scars, beauty...I invite you to remember that it is your hands that do the work of love in the world.
These hands may hold another's hands.
These hands may sign cards of consolation and congratulation.
These hands may patiently teach, quilt works of beauty or write words urging peace.
These hands may bathe children, feed elders, nurse the ill, work the earth, organize communities.
These hands clasp in prayer, open in release, grasp in solidarity, clench in righteous anger.
These hands need rest. These hands need holding. These hands need to remember that they aren’t the only hands.
These hands are God's hands, your hands, our hands; a great mystery of flesh and intention, a great potential of embodied love.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org