I want to start this morning by thanking you for my upcoming sabbatical time, which will begin on Wednesday of this week. This time next week, as you are gathering here, I will be heading to Washington DC for the Festival of Homiletics, a preaching conference, where I will get to hear some of the best preachers and theologians and be inspired by their articulation of our call. This conference is where my continuing education budget will be spent. In June I will be going to Connecticut, to a conference center called Mercy by the Sea, which has lots of space for solitude, including a labyrinth by the ocean. A friend from seminary will be joining me, and we will spend half our days in silence and half our days sharing the joys and sorrows of ministry we have experienced since we graduated together 16 years ago. Later in June I will join some of my Maine clergy colleagues on a sailboat retreat, where we will share our favorite Advent and Christmas worship ideas with one another. I will attend a writers’ conference in New York City in August, plus my family and I will travel to my sister-in-law’s vacation home in Mexico and my parents’ vacation home in Canada. In between all that travel I will work on a big church project I haven’t had time to complete, I will read some books I haven’t had time to read, and I will worship in a variety of churches in our area. I also will finish rewrites on my novel.
Within the UCC, sabbaticals have been a recommended benefit for clergy for a long time, and more and more churches are realizing how important it is. Since we have obligations most Sundays, we are not able very often to hear others preach. We are so busy with weekly preparation and the administration of the church that we often lack time to read for educational or spiritual growth. We are on call, 24/7, which can be exhausting, and the pastor’s schedule can be a difficult one for families. I know all these reasons why pastors need sabbatical, and I know I need one, and I still occasionally get a twinge of guilt about it.
When I told my hairdresser that I would be on sabbatical this summer, she said, “Gee, I wish I got three months off!” Most of you were too polite to say that to me, but I don’t blame you if you thought, “I work hard, and I don’t get sabbatical!” Let me just say, for those of you who are still working—I wish you got sabbatical, too. I would love to give each one of you the gift I am being given. I would love to give you more time with your family, because I know you need it and I wish I could grant it. And I would love to give you time to rest, to get a break from the stresses of life.
But most of all I wish you sabbatical because I wish you time when your primary purpose—your job—was to focus on your spiritual life, to focus on God and yourself in God. Most of you don’t have that kind of time. Those of you who are still working can’t possibly take three months off to focus on your souls. But I wonder if you might be able to find three days, when you could be deliberate about being focused on God. Or maybe you could find three hours in the span of a week, when your thoughts were on God. If you came to church that Sunday, that leaves only two hours, spread out over the other six days. How much time could you take—could you make—to focus on God? Or maybe you could take a sabbatical from something that causes you stress. (No, not parenting! But maybe Facebook?)
Once we get to mid-June, the church pace slows down significantly. You have fewer responsibilities around here, and more opportunities for play. I hope you will play some—both here and elsewhere. I hope you will take a beautiful Sunday morning to worship with your family and friends out in the world God created—not just skipping church, but moving church, carrying it with you to the lake or the shore. I hope you will also come to church some, for we have some amazing folks scheduled to speak, and you’re going to want to hear them. Plus, this is where you are rooted and grounded, where you are made strong. Don’t neglect the gathering of the body of Christ.
This brings me to our Bible passage for today from the Letter to the Ephesians. “The main theme of Ephesians is God’s plan to reconcile Jews and Gentiles….The author’s vision is cosmic. [The writer, allegedly Paul] understands that God’s final purpose is not only human reconciliation, but also unity and harmony in the universe. [Paul believes that] the church, with Christ as its head, is the means of accomplishing that purpose.” Although we don’t know if Paul actually wrote the letter, it has a typical Pauline structure. The letter opens with a salutation and closes with a blessing. The first three chapters are doctrinal, and the last three chapters are didactic or teaching. This is typical of Paul: Give the theory and then explain how to put it into practice.
But Ephesians is a bit different because, smack dab in the middle of the letter, the writer stops and tells the people of his prayers for them. “I pray that God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” He goes on for several verses. Basically, the writer was letting his audience eavesdrop on his prayers for them. So I decided to do the same this morning. Here is my prayer for you.
Loving and ever-present God, I thank you for this church. I thank you for faith that dared—
faith that dared to start this church so long ago faith that dared to continue on when times got hard
faith that dared to take difficult stands for justice.
I thank you for the legacy we’ve inherited from our mothers and fathers in the faith.
I thank you for these people—your people—my people. I hope it’s OK that I call them mine. Sometimes I feel like I’m their shepherd, and sometimes I feel like I’m herding cats. Sometimes I feel like they are my children, no matter how old they are, because I want to care for them and protect them . . .and sometimes I feel like I’m a mere child compared to their wisdom. I thank you for these people that I call mine.
God, I want for my people what Paul wanted for the Ephesians. I want them to be strengthened in their inner being—from the inside out—and that only comes from you, from you dwelling inside them . . . inside us. I want them to be strong—not the grit your teeth and hold on by your fingernails kind of strong, but the kind of strong that is scared and takes that step anyway. I want them to be strong because you dwell within them . . .and I want them to know it. Otherwise it’s too easy to believe the strength is their own. I want them to be rooted and grounded in love. It is so easy to be rooted in fear . . . or shame . . . or self-preservation . . . or self-deception. And whatever we’re rooted in will bear fruit. If we are rooted in fear, we will grow fear. I want my people—our people, God—to be rooted in love . . . which means being rooted in you, the source of love. I want those roots to go deep, deep down into the soil of grace, so that when the 50mph winds roar in their ears, they will be secure.
God, I pray for another thing Paul prayed for:
that they will be able to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of your love. How their lives would be different if they truly realized how much you love them. I think they wouldn’t try so hard to earn love if they knew how much you already love them. They wouldn’t strive so hard after emptiness if they knew how much you treasure them. They wouldn’t sell themselves for affirmation if they knew how much you adore them. If they only knew. That’s a lifelong journey, I realize. I can’t pray it into them or preach it into them. All I can do is remind them of it—frequently—and pray that one day it will sink in. And remind myself of it—that it applies to me, too—and pray that one day it will sink in.
God, I know that, as Paul said, you are able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. So I pray that you will do in them what I can’t think to pray for. I don’t want them to be limited by my imagination . . .or my example, for that matter.
Do abundantly more, God.
More than I know to pray for.
More than they know to seek. Amen.
These are just a few of the things I pray for and will be praying for in the next three months.
I also will be praying for you by name. I am taking my church directory home with me, and it will go with me on my travels, too. I will be praying my way through the directory, each person by name. And I want to invite you to join me in this spiritual discipline of prayer. Although I’m taking my whole directory, which has all our children’s names and everything, our secretary has made an abbreviated version of the list for you to use. On the back table in the narthex you will find pages with three columns of names. I invite you to take one and to join me in praying through the list, a few people each day, holding one another in prayer as I hold you.
There will be others caring for you as well. Please notify the church office if you or a loved one is in the hospital. Rev. Peter Foss will be handling visits to the hospital and to our homebound members. I hereby forbid everybody from dying this summer—no dying! But if you break the rules, Rev. Bob Morse will be available for funerals. Jill Saxby is coordinating worship and will be working with our guest speakers and preachers to plan meaningful worship experiences each week. Nancy Irving, our business manager, will serve as head of staff, and our Moderator (Ron Bennett) and Vice Moderator (Sue Stevens) are also available. I will interrupt my sabbatical only for a crisis that affects the whole church. Ron Bennett and Nancy Irving will decide together whether something reaches that level.
This does not mean, however, that if you see me at the grocery store, you have to hide in the frozen food section. Please say “hello.” In fact, let me help you know what to say. Repeat after me:
It’s good to see you!
Things at church are going great!
We still miss you like crazy!
I am rooted and grounded in love—God’s and yours. Thanks be to God.
 Thurston, Bonnie. “Ephesians Introduction.” The New Interpreters’ Study Bible.