Sermon: Sabbath Rest

“Sabbath Rest”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
July 22, 2018

Genesis 1:31-2:3
God saw everything God 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 God had done, and God rested on the seventh day from all the work God had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work God had done in creation.

Mark 6:30-32
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.

Have you ever wondered about the fact that after the creation of the world, God rested?

We’re so familiar with the story in Genesis that we probably don’t even hear how strange that sounds: the all-powerful, Alpha-and-Omega Creator of the universe took a break. Sure, us mere mortals might need to relax occasionally- but God, the source of all that is, the divine being beyond any of the physical limits we experience as humans?

What does it say about God that God rests? And what does it say about us – people who, scripture tells us in the very same chapter, are made in the image of this God who rests?

Some cultures do rest better than others – and ours, you will not be surprised, isn’t one of them. We’ve been conditioned to think that our worth is determined by our work, to always keep an eye on the clock and always keep our phones close at hand and our inboxes open in case the office beckons.

Not to mention our extracurricular culture, which has many kids doing something after school every day of the week and on weekends, with parents shuttling them around for hours out of the day. Or social media and the 24-hour-new-cycle, which train us to never take a break because we might miss out on the newest development.

If you’ve ever lain awake at night, unable to shut off your to-do list, or if you’ve ever gone on vacation and spent half your time off just trying to unwind from the worries of everyday life, you know what I mean.

Yet God rested.

The being with, arguably, the most important to-do list in the universe, took off an entire day out of the week to just – rest and enjoy creation.

And that God, laying out the very first set of rules for humankind made sure to highlight that rest – the Sabbath – right alongside biggies like “don’t murder” and “I’m God.”

Why is this stuff so important?

For one thing, a culture that has a hard time resting fuels health problems, social malaise, and mental health crises. But, more importantly, that kind of culture suffers a disconnect from the spiritual – from the very One who created us to rest.

On vacation in Maine last month, I discovered I was suffering one of those disconnects. Despite the fact that we were staying in a beautiful location and out hiking or exploring almost everyday, enjoying time with family and a change of pace, I felt vaguely distant from God. I was praying for people, of course, and feeling grateful for this time off – but even the natural beauty around me – usually a surefire way for me to connect with God – felt a bit fuzzy, out of focus, like I couldn’t properly take it all in.

I finally figured out what was going on when the rest of the family trekked over to a concert while I stayed behind to make a phone call. Making the walk to the concert by myself 15 minutes later, I experienced what people must feel like on drugs: “the lupine, God – it’s glorious! Did you see that osprey? Oh my God, God, the light on that old boat as the sun is setting – it’s like a National Geographic photo! And the sound of the steel drums drifting through the evening air – this world is amazing! WOW! THANKS!”  

Ahhhh. There it was – true rest, and thus, real reconnection with God. Turns out I had just had a bad case of vacationing with a 4-year-old – also known simply as “parenting in a different location,” without any of the breaks provided by daycare or babysitting.

At Learning to Pray on Wednesday night we talked about how sometimes we are hit over the head by revelation this way, a God-moment in the midst of our days – but more often, we feel connected to God when we have made time for rich, full, rest – not sitting slack-jawed on the sofa, bingeing Netflix, but taking part in activities that restore us and fill us up, being fully present to the people or the environment around us, or simply enjoying a moment without any kind of agenda lurking nearby. When we make it a point to take regular breaks from work, from to-do lists, from anxious thoughts and worried news cycles – when we create space for real rest – we are much more likely to be aware of God’s presence, always there, always inviting us into relationship, but often obscured by the hustle and fret of everyday life.

As Rabbi Abraham Heschel writes in his masterpiece The Sabbath, “Sabbath is the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of [humanity].” 

In Judaism, the Sabbath – from the Hebrew word “to cease” – is traditionally observed as an entire day off from any kind of work as defined by the Torah and the sages – no cooking, driving, shopping, even writing or using the phone. The window created by this cessation of work, as Rabbi Heschel writes, is designed to help us recognize and reconnect with our Creator – to eliminate the distractions that turn our souls towards production and preoccupation rather than peace.

Rabbi Heschel paints a beautiful portrait of observing the Sabbath as a full day of rest, with the whole week shaped around it, leading up to it. One potential pitfall of this practice, though, is that we go full throttle on the other 6 days of the week to be able to take that full day off, never stopping to rest along the way.

I’ve been reading the Commissario Guido Brunetti crime series by Donna Leon this summer. Brunetti, an overworked Venetian detective, is definitely guilty of this phenomenon. We’ll let his wife describe it:

“The next morning, Sunday, was the day of the week Paola dreaded, for it was the day when she woke up with a stranger. During the years of their marriage, she had grown accustomed to waking up with her husband, a grim, foul creature incapable of civility for at least an hour after waking, a surly presence from whom she expected grunts and dark looks. …On Sunday, however, his place was taken by someone who, she hated the very word, chirped. Liberated from work and responsibility, a different man emerged: friendly, playful, often amorous. She loathed him.”  [Death in a Strange Country, Donna Leon, chapter 15]

Allowances for a little tongue-in-cheek hyperbole aside, the author makes a great point: when we rest only on designated “days off,” or when we relax only on vacation, we are robbing the world (and us) of our full selves – the part of us that craves rest so we can be “friendly, playful, amorous.” I’d add compassionate, peaceful, connected to God and to each other. If we “rest” only here at church on Sunday mornings, the remainder of our week filled with activities and worry, we are missing out on the spiritual sustenance we were created to need.

I once read a brilliant observation – I wish I remembered where, because I’d like to give this person credit. The insight was to treat regular life like vacation and vacation like regular life. If you’ve just come back from vacation, that probably sounds insane. Why ruin time off by bringing real life into it?

But the reasoning is this: if you save up all of your Sabbath for vacation, you’ll end up loathing your everyday life, longing to escape from it. And if you treat vacation as the big reward you’ve been working towards all year, a time to absolutely unplug and do nothing but drink margaritas on the beach – you’ll inevitably feel let down, hungover, and, far from recharged, you’ll be dreading the return to life as usual because you’ve glimpsed how starkly un-restful and unsustainable your regular schedule is. Maybe you’ve been there?

So the idea is to look for ways that each day can be vacation-like – rest-filled and, like God’s original Sabbath observance, sprinkled with moments of enjoyment that recharge and reconnect us. Naps. Exercise you enjoy. Calling a dear friend instead of surfing the internet. Soaking up your child’s presence instead of worrying that you needed to be out the door ten minutes ago.

At Learning to Pray, someone shared a story I have her permission to tell about how one day last week she woke up earlier than usual, with 30 extra minutes before work started. She had been trying to jumpstart her prayer life, so she eagerly planned to use the extra time to read scripture, pray, and journal. She was going to feel super spiritual! Except when she glanced at the clock, she realized she didn’t have to leave for work in 30 minutes – she had to be at work in 30 minutes, including a 20 minute commute. Instead of scrapping her rest time altogether, she decided to take 5 minutes and be fully present, enjoying beautiful music and just sitting with God. The rest of her day, she said, was remarkably different – through a stressful work shift and a numbing commute back home she still felt connected to God, all because she had rested for those five minutes – just five minutes spent soaking in God’s inviting presence, open to her soul.

We learn in today’s Gospel passage that even in the midst of an incredibly demanding ministry – scripture describes it as people from all over the region “rushing” to see Jesus, following his disciples everywhere, constantly begging that they might be healed – Jesus commands his disciples to ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ (Mark 6:31) Even in the midst of the most important work anyone could arguably do, Jesus tells his followers to rest. To take time away, time by themselves, to rest and enjoy with no one tugging at their elbows or asking anything of them. When I hear that invitation –  ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while’ – I can actually feel my body relax, my chest loosen, my breathing deepen. This is what we were designed for – to do good and beautiful work, yes, but also to stop – to enjoy, to reconnect, to rest.

I’ll end with a song by Rain for Roots, sung from the point of view of Jesus:

Come to me,
Walk with me,
Learn the rhythms of my grace,
Come to me,
I have all you need,
Learn to rest even while you are awake.

Are you tired?
Are you worried?
Worn out from the day?
Have you been in a hurry?
I will slow the pace…

Come to me,
Walk with me,
Learn the rhythms of my grace,
Come to me,
I have all you need,
Learn to rest even while you are awake.