Celebration of the Life of the Rev. Pauli Murray
12 June 2001
Hear these words from the book of Genesis:
So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God he created them, male and female she created them. God saw everything he had made, and indeed it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that she had done, and rested on the seventh day from all the work that had been done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
Tonight I want to talk about Sabbath.
I love the idea of Sabbath and have actively sought to reclaim it as part of our Judeo-Christian tradition. The notion of honoring the Sabbath—that time of release from work and worry, that sacred time that allows for worship, rest, play, and the building of relationships—this taking time out, be it a few minutes each day, a day each week, or a few months out of the year is as old as, well, the Ten Commandments: Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Creating Sabbath time in the midst of our hectic lives allows us to really honor our physical, spiritual, and psychic need to slow down and to be attentive and truly present to God, ourselves, and those we love. In honoring the Sabbath, we move into a space that allows us to be more open, loving, and giving—and yes, more effective and productive too. In the process we gain the feeling of being more in sync with the rhythms of life.
Sabbath time is incredibly important. It is incredibly important for those of us—which means all of us if we really honor our baptismal covenant—because it provides some grace time to step back and reflect and let go from all our work of righting wrongs, fighting injustice, overturning systems of oppression.
Jesus, our model for righting wrongs, fighting injustice, and overturning systems of oppression took Sabbath time regularly. He was forever getting away for rest, reflection, and prayer. So Sabbath is to be commended, and hallowed in the rhythms of our lives. In our world and in our culture that moves at breakneck speed, I would argue that to ignore Sabbath time is to court trouble violence, even.
Thomas Merton once said that activism and overwork are little more than a form of contemporary violence. He wrote, “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 projects, to want to help everyone and everything, is to succumb to violence.” It is as if our very life depends on taking Sabbath time.
But I gotta tell you. As we gather here tonight to honor the life and memory of our sister Pauli Murray, and as we work day by to day to blot out injustice and the many isms that trample upon the souls of our brothers and sisters, I gotta tell you—it too often feels like we are on Sabbath time. Perhaps it is just what is in the air—relatively good economic times will do it—but as I travel through the world and the church I too often get the feeling that we live at the sunset of the Sixth day. Our work is done, it is all good, and now we can rest from our labors.
After all, as a member of Generation X I have little reason to believe otherwise.
There have always been women priests in my church.
Hasn’t the Sabbath day come?
People of color have always been a part of the top leadership: Ron Brown was head of the DNC when I was in high school, Jesse Jackson ran for president, Condaleeza Rice is a top aide in the White House.
Hasn’t the Sabbath day come?
There were more women then men in my seminary classes. Most of us had no trouble finding jobs as associates, vicars, or even rectors of small parishes right out of seminary.
Hasn’t the Sabbath day come?
Many of my gay and lesbian friends have certificates of domestic partnership on their walls and are having families of their own. Babies everywhere!
Tell me, hasn’t the Sabbath Day come? We can rest now, can’t we?
Two years ago, I was riding in a car with Elizabeth Kaeton, Louie Crew, and Ellen Barrett. We were returning from Philadelphia where we had spent the day celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ordination of the Philadelphia 11. It had been a wonderful day—some of the Philadelphia 11 were there and gave testimonies about what those times were like and what their lives have been like since that historic event. Bishop Barbara Harris preached at the Church of the Advocate remembering her role as a crucifer at those ordinations. It was a great celebration. But riding home after it was all over, Elizabeth asked me what I had thought of it all. My response was that I felt as history had come alive that day. For until then, the women and men of the women’s ordination movement had been faces and stories from history books and oral tradition.
For some, that 25th anniversary celebration was cathartic—remembering the old times, rejoicing in the progress that had been made. But I had not been there, had not experienced the struggle. And so the questions that come to me whenever we celebrate folks like Martin Luther King, Jr., Absalom Jones, and Pauli Murray arose once again: How do children of the legacy keep the history alive? And when the work is not done—and it hardly ever is—how do we keep the movement moving?
How do we keep the movement moving when some think we have already arrived? How do we keep the movement moving when some have not learned how to rock the boat? How do we keep the movement moving when it is just a lot easier, a lot safer, to be a good girl or a good boy? How do we keep the movement moving when a whole generation rises up and says—me among them—this (fill in the blank) is not my issue? How do we keep the movement moving when many believe we are on sabbatical?
There is no denying that things are different than they were 30 years ago when protest, marches, and rallies were the public ways we showed our dissatisfaction with the status quo. But I wonder, and I am not casting blame here, but I wonder, if the handoff might have been smoother. Because somewhere between the uprisings of the 70s and the entitlement era of this new century, we have neglected to tell the next generation that whether it is the Sabbath time or not, there is still work to be done. Jesus knew it. Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, but if there is work to be done in bringing on God’s reign, well you better get to work. If there is healing needed on the Sabbath day, you better get to laying on those hands.
After all, it might have been different for the woman who Jesus healed on the Sabbath day. I wonder what it was like for her? I can hear her family now, as she is leaving the house on the Sabbath day. Be a good girl. Just play by the rules and don’t shake things up. And I wonder if she thought, there must be a better way. Bound in pain for eighteen years she knows who Jesus is. Everyone had heard what he could do. And so having heard the word that he was coming through town teaching in the synagogues she would have made herself available to the possibility of grace and healing. And upon encountering the healing power of Jesus she is made to stand up straight and she begins to praise God. Jesus gets criticized for healing on the Sabbath. But seeing someone in pain--- perhaps he just couldn’t help it.
And what happened to the woman? My guess is that she went back home—barely recognizable from when she first left. She was changed. And when asked to answer for her healing and new found stature, I imagine she might have said, “ Sabbath day or no Sabbath day, I just couldn’t help it.”
Like the woman Jesus healed on the Sabbath day, we all live with burdens that weigh on our backs—stooping us over, giving us pain—and we know there is a better way. And on those days when things are looking good and we think we might rest, we don’t have to look too hard to find a sister or brother stooped over from the weight of oppression and injustice. And so when the opportunity presents itself for change, healing, transformation, we, like Jesus, are called to jump at it. And we do it because we can’t help it. Because the cost of living with the pain and bearing the burdens and not doing something about it is too great. Because the Sabbath is not ever truly a Sabbath until we can all rest.
And the list of those who can’t rest is long:
The women in the dioceses of Fort Worth, San Joaquin, and Quincy who want to serve at God’s altar can’t rest.
The children in each and every one of our communities who make it to the third grade and still can’t read can’t rest.
Our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who feel called to the vocations of priesthood and loving relationships can’t rest.
And those who do not know their history, and are therefore doomed to repeat it, can’t rest either.
So how do we keep the movement moving? How do we help those who’ve never struggled understand that there is still a struggle? Yes, we tell the stories, we pass on the history. And then we speak about TODAY. And we make the struggle real in the here and now. We speak of those who are healing and working on the Sabbath day because they just can’t help it. And that we should all join in the struggle because our baptismal covenant and the gospel imperative demands that we heal and work and bring on the reign of God because Jesus couldn’t help it either and who are we to declare a vacation?
And we ask ourselves—over and over again. What kind of day is it? Is it just a regular day—just another day to go about the work to which all the baptized are called of making the world a more just place. Or is it a Sabbath day—a day when we are called to look around and pay attention—pay real careful attention to the friend, stranger, or person in the mirror stooped low from oppression in need of hope and grace. Because in the end, Sabbath time or not, Jesus is working for the healing of our souls, the dismantling of our prejudices, and the day when we might all really rest because indeed FINALLY, for the whole creation, things are good, very, very good.
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