Sabbath as Radical Witness
Rev. Dr. Amy Butler
At the very beginning of this six-week series we talked about Sabbath as remembering—remembering who we were created to be. And then, week by week, we examined more ways in which we could practice Sabbath in our lives: relationships, renewal, refocusing, and restoration.
Today our study of Sabbath brings us back to the first story we heard as we began: the story of creation—remembering who we were created to be: wholeness…purpose…relationship…healing…all that we long for in our lives…and in our communities, our country, our world.
Today we examine Sabbath as radical witness, because if Sabbath truly means coming back to who we were meant to be, it also means that whatever change we want to see in ourselves and in the world begins…with us.
It was written as sort of an afterthought one day in the recording studio by blues legend Otis Redding. The recording was mildly successful within the blues community, but it wasn’t until two years later that the song really took off. In fact, you and I would probably not even know that Respect was written and performed by Otis Redding, because the version we all immediately think about is the one recorded by Aretha Franklin in 1967.
Aretha Franklin heard about Otis Redding’s song, through the grapevine (hahaha), and decided it expressed her very deep frustrations about being a woman in the 1960s. She took it to the recording studio and changed up most of the lyrics as she went. As we all know, the song became an all-time classic, the call of the feminist movement in the 1960s—give us a little respect—just a little bit!
I imagine if Jesus’ disciples had to pick a theme song by the 6th chapter in the gospel of Mark, well, Respect might have been the one they’d have asked to hear played on the loud speakers when they returned to Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown. They were riding the wave of popularity that Jesus had stirred up by going around healing people: the paralytic, the demon possessed man, the woman with the issue of blood, Jairus’ daughter. It seemed that Jesus was truly on a roll, and for the disciples this meant that their decision to leave everything to follow him was beginning to pay off. They could now go home to their families holding their heads up high, ready to be complimented for that shrewd career move, and finally they’d be the recipients of just a little respect.
“Just give us what we know we deserve—you know it’s about time—we deserve a little respect.”
With the news of Jesus’ preaching and miracles traveling fast, the disciples probably thought it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that when they arrived at their next destination, Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, there’d be a ticker-tape parade, at least!
Hometown boy makes good, coming back to show relatives and friends what he’d achieved, and followed by his trusty disciples—those men who signed up to join him when no one else thought he was worth anything—make way for the celebrities! This wasn’t just Joseph and Mary’s kid; this was someone who commanded a little respect.
And so, when they got to town they went straight to the synagogue and Jesus began to teach. “Many who saw him were astounded,” the text reads, and I’d imagine that the disciples were about ready to jump up and bask in the reflected glory. But it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t respect Jesus was getting; it was more like…derision.
“Is this Joseph the carpenter’s son? You have got to be kidding!” “Who does he think he is, prancing around up there in the front of everyone? We knew him before he was anybody! We know his whole family! Who is he to think he can get up there and speak with such authority?”
And, while Jesus certainly knew that his message wouldn’t be popular, the text says that even he marveled at their unbelief, and he pointed out to his disciples: a prophet gets no honor in his hometown; there’s no respect here for someone who dares to speak words of truth and challenge.
What did you expect, disciples?
Well, what they expected was a community that would welcome them with warm pride and open arms, first on the bandwagon, pressed up close to the front lines, cheering loudest of all for the world changing message Jesus was preaching. But going home and being met with a less-than-positive reception taught them pretty quickly that you don’t become a follower of Christ because you’re looking for public acclaim.
It was an experiential object lesson, perhaps, to serve as a backdrop to the instruction Jesus would give the disciples next. They had to learn that a prophet, a truth-teller, never gets the respect she deserves until long after she’s gone. Why? Because the prophet’s words, if they’re words from God, are often hard ones to hear—none of this “give the masses what they want to lull them into complacency and in the process insure mass popularity,” as the disciples had imagined.
The gospel Jesus was proclaiming and the disciples would preach, too—as soon as they caught on—was a gospel full of hard things: teachings like welcoming the stranger and loving those who are unlovable, and living your life as if you really believe that God’s kingdom is coming to be on this earth.
And proclaimers of the message wouldn’t be getting all that much respect, not even in their hometowns.
Jesus gave the disciples instructions next—sent them out. And he told them not to take anything with them except the clothes they wore on their backs and the message they had to proclaim. Go boldly into new places, Jesus told them…even into old places, where people knew you before. And tell them what I’ve taught you about making peace with God and learning to live a new life. Be radical witnesses.
The disciples wanted their theme song to go something like Aretha Franklin’s version of Respect, but if they’d listened closely enough to Jesus’ directions, they would have known that a medley of Hit the Road, Jack and Ain’t Too Proud to Beg might have been a little more appropriate.
Jesus just wanted them to know that the life of faith is not a life of instant acclaim, automatic comfort, or even—yes—respect. He wanted them to know that they’d hit the dusty roads of Palestine and they wouldn’t always be welcomed in with open arms; the gospel message they were called to radically witness was a hard message to preach and a hard message to hear.
Even at home—maybe especially at home.
Jesus knew what his disciples didn’t…that at the end of their road lay, not political power or hometown hero status, but a cross. And Jesus knew that those disciples were going to have to decide then, and then again, and again, and again, if being radical witnesses to a message of love and reconciliation was worth the price.
And what makes us think that it would be any different for any of us? If the practice of Sabbath—remembering who we were created to be—brings us back to a message of love, God’s expansive and all-encompassing love for us and for the whole world, then the same question is facing us, too. Will we use our lives to be radical witnesses?
While most of America was grilling hot dogs and watching fireworks on Wednesday, I went to church.
And by “church,” I mean a brand new, 20 screen AMC theater complex. Come to think of it, the church might take some tips from the rows of gleaming soda machines, the expansive lobby, and a self-serve popcorn line. (I know I am making the ushers really nervous right about now—sorry about that.)
I went to the theater to see a documentary film about Fred Rogers—Mr. Rogers to those of us who were television-watching children in the 1970s; the film is called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I went to see it because I had a childhood shaped in part by Mr. Rogers’ daily ritual of changing into a colorful sweater, putting on sneakers, taking us onto his spare television set, using slightly scary-looking homemade puppets in a land of make believe, and talking in a very calm voice about how important we are to the world, and to each other.
Fred Rogers was a pretty unusual guy who had a passion for talking to children as if they mattered—a truly strange career choice for a young ordained minister in the 1960s. And to the world, Mr. Rogers was often a joke. He appeared almost polly-annish in his approach to repeating a message of friendship and kindness, as if something so simple could really have any impact at all in a world filled with such division and separation.
His family, friends, and colleagues insist that the Mr. Rogers we saw on television was the Mr. Rogers of real life: someone who was unfailingly kind, who validated the feelings of even the least significant person in the room, and who wasn’t afraid to talk about hard and painful things in the world.
And Mr. Rogers was resolute in his insistence on love and kindness—not in a way that made him weak, but in a way that demonstrated the ultimate power of love to change peoples’ hearts and to change the world. He was often outspoken in his disapproval of how writers and producers used the medium of television to depict situations of discord or rancor or conflict, teaching children values of competition, individualism, and greed instead of kindness and acceptance.
In his own eccentric way he used the flimsy set of his show as a powerful pulpit to combat hatred, violence, racism—pervasive themes in American culture then and now—that were teaching a whole generation of young Americans to be suspicious of people who were different than they were; to hoard possessions at the expense of others; to live lives that were valued by individual position and prestige with no concern for the well-being of a neighbor. Mr. Rogers offered an alternative approach to American exceptionalism that called not for independence, but for interdependence; not for shame, but for acceptance and affirmation; and not for violence, but for powerful, life changing kindness—for offering every single person the invitation: “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
At the very end of the movie when the documentary was discussing Mr. Rogers’ death I had the thought, “Great. Mr. Rogers is dead. No wonder the world is going to hell.” But I guess the filmmakers knew we’d all be thinking the same thing, and they were not about to let us walk out of the theater that day without taking the example of Fred Rogers with us. The film closed with every person who had been interviewed for the film asked to do the same thing: to think—for one full minute: who is it in your life that has been someone who encouraged you to be kind and neighborly and good?
The cast—each of them in separate video clips—sat and thought. And tears ran down their faces…and mine…and maybe yours, too, if you’ll take the few moments of silence after the sermon to think about your own life…because there are, in fact, many people in this world who do invite you and me to be their neighbor, many people who choose to be kind, many people who remember who we were created to be and who live their lives as radical witnesses to that possibility. The film was a great reminder that we might not get the respect of our hometowns, but we can use our lives to make things better.
In a world that tells each of us we can’t be valuable unless we look a certain way, own enough stuff, have the right achievements on our resumes, perhaps the most important thing we could to with our lives is to practice Sabbath, to remember who we were created to be, and to live our lives with radical witness to that possibility.
You’ll notice the page in your bulletin that reads: “My radical witness is…”. In the next few moments of silence think about how you might answer that question and write something down. It could be anything: giving money, saying a prayer, showing kindness to another…however it is that you are using your life to remember who we were created to be and to live as a radical witness. Then, if you have a cell phone with you, take a quick selfie holding up your radical witness. If you prefer, there will be staff in the narthex and in coffee hour to take your picture. Then, let’s post them on social media so the world will know: we take Jesus’ call to be radical witnesses of love very seriously—so seriously that we’re all doing something.
Jesus knew and we do, too: if you live your life being a radical witness you might not get your hometown to give you the respect you think you deserve, but you might get the world to sit up, take notice, and stop…in the name of love.
(Sorry, couldn’t resist.)