Will you forgive me if I invite a terribly simple theme for a sermon that focuses mainly on just one verse? Well, with your forgiveness or without it ?, and ready for charges of proof-texting, I’m nevertheless going to bear down on the verse that made my soul sing when I read it: “And he said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.'”
Rest. A break from all the bustle and activity. Rest. A chance to renew, to stop, to slow. Rest. An end of work, if only for a little while. Rest. An opportunity to stop doing that you may simply be. Rest.
What a beautiful word!
So much is packed into Jesus’ simple invitation and I have been a little surprised at my own very strong reaction to it. The only thing I can explain it by is that I have filled my life — for years I suspect but especially of late — with so much activity, so much work, so many obligations that the very idea of rest is enough to grip my entire being. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a complaint. I love my life and would rather be busy than not. It’s more an observation that somewhere in all the writing and teaching and traveling and parenting and all the other things that make up a blessedly hectic life, I think I’ve forgotten how to rest.
And I suspect that I’m not alone.
I was struck this past week by a study out of UCLA (reported in the Boston Globe and pointed out to me by the wonderfully eclectic site Boing Boing ) observing the typical week of thirty-two middle class families in the Los Angeles area. The idea was to take a detailed snapshot of American family life early in the 21st century. The results, according to one researcher, were “disheartening.” So consumed with working, collecting, amassing, and generally “getting ahead,” they actually spent very little time together enjoying what they were working for. As reported by the Globe, Jeanne E. Arnold, lead author and a professor of anthropology at UCLA, share her particular dismay at how little time family members spent outside: “Something like 50 of the 64 parents in our study never stepped outside in the course of about a week,” she said. “When they gave us tours of their house they’d say, ‘Here’s the backyard, I don’t have time to go there.’ They were working a lot at home. Leisure time was spent in front of the TV or at the computer.”
They have not time, in other words, to rest.
We’re familiar with the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy. But usually we interpret that in light of 1) a negative reaction to commandments and 2) the assumption that Sabbath means church. But as my colleague Rolf Jacobson has regularly pointed out to me, this commandment — or, better, teaching — would have been unbelievably good news to people who were recently slaves whose time was never their own and who never, ever had a guaranteed period of rest. “Wait a minute,” Rolf imagines them saying upon hearing the 10 Teachings read, “You mean we get to rest? We even have to rest? Glory Hallelujah!”
I have this hunch that more and more of us find ourselves in a place not all that different from the Egypt where the ancient Hebrews languished. Except our slavery is self-constructed, self-imposed, and therefore far more difficult to detect or overcome. We are enslaved to notions of success, and therefore put few limits on work. We are enslaved to ideas about our children having every opportunity possible, and therefore schedule them into frenetic lives and wonder why they have a hard time focusing. We are enslaved to the belief that the only thing that will bring contentment is more — more money, more space in our homes, more cars, more things to put on our resumes or in our closets, more…. Go ahead, name that thing you’ve fallen prey to wanting more of. And such levels of wanting, quite frankly, don’t permit much time for anything but work.
In light of all this, listen again to Jesus’ simple invitation to “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” This is not just an invitation to take an afternoon off or go on vacation — though those may be important elements — this is an invitation to loosen our shackles and climb out of the cages we’ve constructed from a culturally-fed belief that more is the ticket to happiness and that work is the ticket to more.
Now hear the opening verse of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” I’ve written on this before, and so won’t go into great detail here, except to say that while we tend to focus so strongly on the powerful imagery of the first half of the verse, that imagery simply makes no sense apart from the second half of the verse. Because the Lord is my shepherd, that is, I shall not want. Because I trust God for my good, I shall not cave in to the loud din of my culture enticing me to want and want and want at every turn and corner of my life. Because God has promised to take care of me, I will get off the treadmill of work and accumulation so that I can rest, and notice the abundance, and rejoice.
And that’s the key thing about Sabbath rest, I think — it invites a chance to step back and stand apart from all the things that usually drive and consume us that we might detect God’s presence and providence and blessing, experience a sense of contentment, and give thanks.
But that’s hard to do. No wonder the Psalmist says quite honestly that the Lord didn’t simply invite rest but rather confesses that the Lord “makes me lie down in green pastures.” We are a people that desperately needs rest yet resists it. And so the Lord commands it.
So this week, Working Preacher, here’s what I’d counsel, invite, implore, and even beseech you to consider. Tell your people about our need to rest. Tell them about the slavery we call success and the rat race we call modern life. Ask them to be honest about how much time they spend together and spend outdoors and spend enjoying all the things they’ve worked so hard to attain. Remind them that God desires more for them. Remind them that life — abundant life — doesn’t consist of merely more and more and more, that “abundant” ultimately isn’t a quantitative term but a qualitative one. But then go one step forward. Get them to take out a piece of paper or give them a note card and have them write down one thing they will not do this week: one evening they will shut down their computer or turn off their cell phone (gasp!), one appointment they will refuse to make, one obligation or opportunity they will forgo.
But don’t stop there; then ask them also to write down one thing will actually do in order to rest: one walk they will take with a friend or spouse, one game they will play with a child or neighbor, one opportunity they will take to sit, alone or with others, not in front of the television but simply to contemplate their blessing and abundance that they may go to bed that night content and grateful. Get them to write these two things down and take the card or piece of paper with them throughout the week. Then ask them to email you what they discovered, what they found, where it was difficult to follow through, and when it was rewarding.
Finally, find a way to share what your people are experiencing that together you may begin to create a Sabbath community, encouraging, consoling, and celebrating with each other as together you keep the Lord’s command, trust the Shepherd, and answer Jesus’ invitation. It won’t be easy — many of us may have to give up some of the destructive yet oddly attractive habits we’ve acquired; but who knows, along with what we lose we may just find our lives again.
So there it is, Working Preacher, a simple, perhaps trite, and possibly proof-texting sermon suggestion that, who knows, may fall upon your hearers’ ears like his compassionate invitation to rest did on Jesus’ first disciples.
One last thing — you need to rest as well, Working Preacher, so before you ask this of your people, do it yourself. For your work is valuable and, trust me, you’ll do it better and enjoy it more if you take some moments for Sabbath rest.
Blessings on your week, ministry, and life. And know how grateful I am for both your labor and your rest.
Yours in Christ,