Getting Rest


A sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, July 3, 2011. The lectionary readings are Zechariah 9:9-12, Psalm 145: 8 – 15, Romans 7:15-25a, and Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.

Wendell Berry has a poem that fits this day.

Six days of work are spent
To make a Sunday quiet
That Sabbath may return.
It comes in unconcern;
We cannot earn or buy it.

(“Six days of work are spent,” Sabbaths, San Francisco: North Point, 1987).

He goes on to imagine a Sabbath, a day of rest, which perhaps does not come gently or predictably. Maybe it’s cloudy. Maybe there are storms. Maybe one wakes up angry, or angry at one’s self. And yet, with the power of Sabbath-time, with the power of God’s Sabbath, all noise and wonder, all worry and planning, all expectation, all regret—stop. They are given a chance to breath. They find their voice again. They pause for God’s re-creation.

I grew up in North Carolina when the Sabbath was still culturally acknowledged. Only a few restaurants were open on Sunday. Very few stores were open, and one prominent department store had special curtains it would close in front of its windows so that no would could even window-shop. Sunday was a day for church (or presumably, if you were Jewish, you were expected to extend the Sabbath to coincide with the majority culture). It was a day for spending time with one’s family. It was a day for slowing down, recharging, eating big midday meals, and napping. Such Sundays could sometimes seem endless, and so I couldn’t wait for the next day of work, or school, or whatever the normal routine would bring. But even in the boredom, there was a certain giftedness to Sabbath.

In Genesis we find God resting on the seventh day. In Exodus, God commands the people of Israel to take a break, “remember the Sabbath day,” “observe the Sabbath.” This is echoed in the Ten Commandments, and this is the tradition Jesus would have grown up in. Jesus keeps the Sabbath, though, like in some other cases, Jesus gets into trouble with the religious authorities for his interpretation of the Sabbath. The Resurrection takes place on the Sabbath, or, depending on the way you count the day and keep time according to the sun, it takes place on what poets and theologians have called, “the 8th day”—a sort of Sabbath of Sabbaths, so special, so individual, that it happens totally outside the normal configuration of time.

For something to be “Sabbath,” it becomes holy, set apart. Different. Not like everything else. And rest, for most of us would be that—it would be set apart. It would be unusual. It could even be holy.

In the Gospel today we have some famous words,

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus offers rest, but I don’t think it’s simply the kind “plopping in a sofa” rest at the end of a long day. Instead, I think he’s talking about the kind of rest that comes at the end of a struggle. It’s a kind of rest that happens when we realize that the world does not really depend upon me after all. It’s the kind of rest that comes by putting our trust, our faith, our hope, our decision, our joys our pains, our very life, in the hands of Jesus.

Teresa of Avila, was a 16th century Spanish saint and mystic who was a very busy lady. What I most like about Teresa is her common sense. She struggled with the force of her own personality, her own abilities and talents, the voices of the world that tried to tell her what to do. And yet she put absolute faith in Jesus and followed him. It was this faith that empowered her to found or reform 17 convents all over Spain. She traveled in a donkey-pulled wagon with a dislocated shoulder, with arthritis, with all kinds of physical maladies, and yet she did what she perceived to be God’s will. At one point, Teresa reflected on “obedience.” She says

Obedience is like when there’s some difficult matter to be sorted out. The two sides cannot agree on a solution, and so they take their problem to a trusted third party, to have it resolved. Teresa says that in obedience, we take to God the things within ourselves that are at war with each other. We lift them up to God as though these things are our sacrifice upon the altar, and we trust God to decide for us. This is obedience. This is surrender. This is joyful rest.

Teresa wrote,

Let nothing trouble you, let nothing scare you,
All is fleeting, God alone is unchanging,
Patience
Everything obtains.
The one who possesses God lacks nothing at all.
God alone suffices. (Teresa’s “Book mark” poem, 1582)

This is Sabbath. It is time out, time put aside, down-time, quiet-time, whatever you might want to call it. Sabbath time is hallowed time, time made holy, and it doesn’t matter much how we spend it, as long as there is some bit of time where we stop striving to be perfect, when we stop caring whether we pray correctly or not, when we try less to please God than simply to get to know him.

Jesus offers us rest. He offers us rest in prayer and meditation. Eastern religious traditions have often been better at teaching meditation, and many a Christian has found Sabbath in yoga, in meditation, in simply sitting. If you meet the risen Christ coming down the road, receive his rest.

Jesus offers us rest through our worship. In worship we rest in the prayers of those who have gone before us. They have battled over which words to use, which images to explore, which days to hallow, and so we can rest in some of their decisions and simply let the tradition wash over us. Not every word will speak to me. Some will offend. Some will startle. Some will soothe. But taken together, worship is a time when we don’t have to work so hard, but can be at rest with God.

Finally, but perhaps even more frequently, Jesus offers us rest in one another. This involves allowing others close. It involves allowing others to be a part of our lives. It might mean asking others to pray for us, asking other to run an errand, allowing others to help us in some way. In this parish, sometimes it means telling someone else what’s going on in your life, and understanding that few of us are very good at reading minds. The rest of Christ sometimes comes to us in the form of resting in the arms of another person or community.

Our Prayer Book captures this Rest of Christ in the Collect for Quiet Confidence, when it leads us to pray,

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit, lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 832)

This is a holiday weekend. In what remains of it, and throughout the summer, I pray that we might come to know the rest that Christ offers us—rest in the one who calls us to put all our faith, all our life in him.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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