In his book, Sabbath, Wayne Muller describes how a rare infection suddenly interrupted his hectic, exhausting pace of life as a therapist, minister, writer, and consultant. Muller remembers:
Because a team of dedicated doctors and nurses skillfully treated my pneumonia—and through an intricate web of blessing and grace—I survived this most intimate conversation with my mortality. Still, for several months after I left the hospital, I continued to feel a weight of lingering weariness as my body worked to repair and renew what had been so terribly damaged and infected. I moved slowly, and not often. The smallest tasks exhausted me, and even reading felt like work. I had to take naps every day. There was a rhythm to my days; a good day was inevitably followed by a bad day; a time of clarity and strength invariably led to a time of weakness, and a recurring ache in my chest. I recovered in fits and starts, a gradual healing punctuated by periods of recurrence and remission. But curiously, my most reliable feeling during this outwardly difficult period was an inward sense of peace. It felt a visceral surrender, deep in the cells of my body, a surrender into the arms of whatever or whoever was holding and healing me. (pp. 65–66)
This morning, we receive the sign of the ashes, and hear these ancient words that mark the beginning of the season of Lent: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The ashes are a stark symbol of our mortality. They are an expression of our fragility, an acknowledgement of the limitations of our energy. They are an invitation to be humble, to admit all that we do not know or understand. They remind us that all the things we possess, all the wealth we accumulate, all that we accomplish in our lives, in the end, turns to dust.
And yet, the ashes are not a curse. They are not supposed to make us depressed or throw us into despair. The ashes are good news. Dust connects us to everything. We are formed from earth and star stuff, made of our ancestors and our children’s children. And our ancient stories also tell us, of course, that we are not just dust. We are inhabited by God’s own breath. We are a paradox, an intricate dance of humble clay and holy Spirit. When we embrace our fragility and limitation, then we make space for the divine to live in us and work through us.
Adrienne Marie Brown says that “each day should be lived on purpose.” I believe that is what Jesus learned to do when he faced his own mortality in the wilderness. Hunger, danger, and loneliness tested him, body, mind, and spirit: Was he really God’s beloved, God’s trusted representative? How would he live out that identity? The length of time, forty days and nights, evokes the forty years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert, moving from slavery to freedom. This hyperbole—forty days, forty years—expresses how long it takes to reach liberation, how far we must travel to become fully and completely ourselves, how many times we will falter and begin again as (in the words of Adrienne Marie Brown) we seek to be “in our lives.” Refusing to turn stones to bread,refraining from taking reckless a leap off the pinnacle of the temple, rejecting the chance to rule the world, Jesus shows us what “living on purpose” looks like. Rather than being driven by fear and scarcity we trust that our needs will be met. Instead of seeking to prove ourselves and test God’s care for us, we let go and rest in the strength of divine love.And we stop participating in the ways empire, in the system that profits from exploiting human labor and the earth and we adopt the life-giving values, practices and leadership styles that are embedded in creation itself.
Wayne Muller’s illness spurred him to live differently, to live each day on purpose. He began to practice Sabbath, which he defines as a life-giving balance between work and rest. He writes:
Yes, we are strong and capable people, we can work without stopping, faster and faster, electric lights making artificial day so the whole machine can labor without ceasing. But remember: No living thing lives like this. . . . We are part of the creation story, subject to all its laws and rhythms. . . . To surrender to the rhythms of seasons and flowerings and dormancies is to savor the secret of life itself. Many scientists believe that we are “hard wired” like this, to live in rhythmic awareness, to be in and then step out, to be engrossed and then detached, to work and then rest. It follows then that the commandment to remember the Sabbath is not a burdensome requirement from some law-giving deity—“You ought, you’d better, you must”—but rather a remembrance of a law that is firmly embedded in the fabric of nature. It is a reminder of how things really are, the rhythmic dance to which we unavoidably belong. (p. 69)
The notion that Sabbath is living with a purposeful rhythm, in harmony with the patterns embedded in creation, makes a great deal of sense to me. I know that my time needs to flow in a certain way, or I begin to feel off balance, tired out and depleted. I have a sort of mental check list of the elements that I need to make space for in my day. Time for moving my body. Time when for being still—prayer time, rest time, reading time. (If a cat comes and curls up on my lap I know I’ve done this adequately.) Time with other people, and time alone. Deep thinking, productive concentration time. Time to address the small tasks and loose ends that clutter up my brain. Time to wander outdoors and take in the beauty of the world.
Sabbath is communal as well as personal. It is the purposeful rhythm of justice and right relationship we are called to inhabit together. Again and again, the dominant white culture has acted in ways that exploit people and destroy the earth, that alienate us all from the life-giving rhythms of nature. We can see these patterns of harm in what has been happening with the Roof Depot warehouse site in South Minneapolis. For eight years, our neighbors in East Phillips and Little Earth have been advancing plans for a visionary indoor urban farm and affordable housing at the site. The City of Minneapolis has repeatedly blocked their plans, seizing the land for its Public Works expansion, a move that would bring hundreds of trucks into a neighborhood that already suffers from heavy industrial pollution. And the city plans to demolish the warehouse starting this Monday, which could stir up toxic arsenic buried under the building.
A few days ago, indigenous folks attempted to occupy the site and to demand that city leaders listen to their voices and receive their leadership. They were immediately arrested and their allies were kept away by force. For those of us who live, work or worship in Minneapolis, and for our city leaders, this is a desert wilderness moment, a time of testing, a time in which are facing mortality and our fragility and trying figure out who we are and how to live on purpose. Will we embody our stated commitment to address the public health emergency of racism? Will we figure out how to interrupt generations of harm? Will we make space for Sabbath?
“Living each day on purpose” is an invitation to honor the dance of dust and spirit that is our truest identity; to surrender to the sacred rhythms our Creator gives us in creation; and to join Jesus in the long and winding journey toward liberation. Amen.