“Give Us Rest” Colchester Federated Church, July 9, 2017, (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30) Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

There was once an American traveler who planned a safari to Africa.  He was that stereotypical Type-A American tourist traveling abroad.  We do our research about our destination and have a timetable, maps, and a clear agenda of the things we need to see and do.  Some local people had even been hired to carry some of the traveler’s supplies as they trekked throughout the land—it was that level of planning.  On the first morning of their adventures, they all woke up early and traveled fast and covered a great distance.  The second morning was the same—woke up early, traveled fast, and traveled far.  Third morning, same thing.  But on the fourth morning, the local hired help refused to move any further.  Instead, they sat by a tree in the shade well into the morning.  The American traveler became incensed and said to his translator, “This is a waste of valuable time.  Can someone tell me what’s going on here?”  The translator calmly answered, “They’re waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.”[1]

The truth is we can be on the go so much that it’s hard to sit still and just be for a minute.  Our frantic pace doesn’t allow our souls to catch up with our bodies.  Terry Hershey (who wrote Sacred Necessities about spiritual gifts essential for living a balanced and healthy life and the person who told that story) relates, “A nap is approved if I’ve worked hard enough to deserve it, or if I’m feeling under the weather.  A day off is condoned if it is my due.  A loll through the garden is acceptable only if I pull some weeds on the way through.  A wasted afternoon is allowed so long as it doesn’t happen too often, and I seem duly contrite.”[2]  Hershey laments that in our 21st Century American society we can’t seem to be still and soak it all in.  For too many people “wasting time” is almost a sin, and we live our lives avoiding this terrible sin at all costs.

In fact, being busy is almost a badge of honor.  Have you ever had a conversation with someone and asked, “How are you?”  Their response is, “Oh, I’m so busy!”  Perhaps we’ve come to value being busy and de-value rest.  After all if you’re resting, maybe you’re not all that important.  Though when people answer that they are busy when we inquire as to how they’re doing, it’s usually true!

However, this mindset is costing us dearly.  This mindset that rest is a privilege we earn and not a necessity we need.  One need only look at the American Psychological Association’s findings about Americans, stress, and sleep—and one will discover that people in our country report sleeping on average 6.7 hours per night (less than the minimum recommendation of seven to nine hours per night.)  Now we know that sleep is necessary for human beings to function.  Sleep allows our brain to recharge (our memories consolidate as we sleep.)  Sleep allows our bodies to rest (our muscles repair as we sleep.)  Sleeping is so critical that even a little bit of sleep deprivation can affect judgment, memory, and mood.  Maybe you never get cranky when tired, but many people do!  This is why we often hear about the dangers of driving while sleep deprived as it can be dangerous not just for ourselves but for people with whom we’re sharing the road.  People are encouraged to pull over and take a quick nap if you’re so tired that you can’t even think straight.  Research has shown that if Americans were to sleep an extra 60 to 90 minutes per night, we would actually be happier.[3]  Think about that—sleeping just one more hour every day could make people in our society happier people.  So what gives?  Are we so stressed that we can’t sleep?  Or we just can’t sleep and that makes us stressed?

There came a point in my last congregation where eleven hour work days were becoming the norm and six hours of sleep was a luxury.  Friends and family began to express their concerns about my workaholic ways.  My sister in her blunt way declared, “Seriously, Lauren—get a life and stop working all the time!”  In my vocation, half of new ministers leave the ministry in our first seven years and I didn’t want to become a statistic of burning out early.  Knowing this reality is actually part of the reason the Next Generation Leadership Initiative (the young clergy group I’m blessed to be part of through the UCC Pension Boards) was begun.  Startling trends were becoming apparent and our denomination took action to ensure the health and vitality of ministers under 35 so that we would be in ministry for decades and not leave the Church.

These days it’s helpful to think that no one can pour from an empty cup, not me and not you either.  There’s a reason flight attendants remind us that should the need arise, we must put our individual oxygen mask on first before helping people next to you.  You can’t help anyone if you’re passed out from not getting enough oxygen, right?  Though it’s hard when you worry about what’s not getting done or who’s not getting helped in the midst of going for that ever elusive work-life balance.  This is the case for many people.

Which is why the words of Jesus we hear in Matthew’s Gospel are timeless and counter-cultural in our present society.  These words are life-giving and can change our lives if we take them to heart: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”[4]  Jesus isn’t just talking about physical rest here (though that’s essential, we do need sleep after all.)  Jesus is talking about rest for our weary souls.  Rest when we feel like the burdens we are carrying are overwhelming and we can’t possibly go on.  Rest that no one can provide but God alone.  Famous mystics aren’t the only ones who can reach such a spiritual state.  Jesus opens up this path for all of us.  Though to get there we have to lay our burdens down so that our hearts and hands are open to embrace a different way.

It ends up that rest helps us be more productive.  That may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s true.  Rest helps us be happier.  Rest is essential to our faith.  Remember that on the seventh day of creation God rested in that story.  The Sabbath is a holy day.  Jesus regularly would go off on his own to rest and pray in the midst of people clamoring for his time and attention.  When Jesus tells us to come to him when we are weary and carrying heavy burdens and he will give us rest, well, he knew what he was talking about!

Having returned from General Synod a few days ago I’m still a little tired.  Not spiritually tired, but physically tired.  Plenaries often begin at 8 AM and last until 10 PM.  We have breaks throughout the day, though it’s a hectic pace we keep.  What makes Synod a remarkable experience is finding those moments of spiritual rest and renewal in the midst of the busyness.  Finding ways that draw you out of yourself and into something much larger.  We come to realize that the Church isn’t just an institution, but a movement.  One of our speakers compared General Synod to being on the moon and then returning to earth when we get back home.  There’s this sense that we’re on the mountaintop with God and one another though we need to get to work in our particular contexts upon leaving.

The delegates passed a Resolution on the UCC becoming an Immigrant Welcoming Church.  Because we care about putting our faith into action, we weren’t just going to rest on our laurels after it was passed.  Our denominational leaders teamed up with some local organizations (the Annapolis Sanctuary Network and CASA) alongside the family of Guillermo Recinos Morales to march to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office (ICE) in Baltimore to advocate for his release from detention and for him to be given a motion to stay his deportation so that he can apply for asylum.  Guillermo is an artist and handyman who fled from violence in El Salvador in 2005—a father of four children and grandfather of seven with no criminal background.  There are decorative chickens all around Annapolis to promote tourism and it was Guillermo who painted them.

Hundreds of us marched to the Federal Plaza and heard his story from Astrid, Guillermo’s daughter.  We heard from Rev. Traci Blackmon, our UCC Justice and Witness Executive Minister, and many others about what it means to welcome the stranger.  We turned to face the building housing the government officials who will decide Guillermo’s fate and prayed for them too.  It was a powerful moment of putting our Christian faith into action.  And I would like to think that for the Morales family living with the uncertainty of their husband and father and grandfather’s deportation, it helped to have church people at their side marching.  Because we were able to get news crews there and the word out.  This family’s story got a boost for the local people of Maryland to have on their radars.  Maybe, just maybe, this march gave the Morales family some rest for their weary souls knowing that they are not alone and that people do care and want to help.

Sometimes in life we will have weary times.  Those moments where we struggle to rest and things seem bleak.  When life seems overwhelming or we feel alone.  In solidarity we can be there for one another.  And Jesus is with us—we can go to him to rest our weary souls.  That spiritual rest that only God can provide.  May it be so.  Amen.

[1] Terry Hershey, Sacred Necessities: Gifts for Living with Passion, Purpose, and Grace, 68-69.
[2] Hershey, Sacred Necessities, 70.
[3] “Stress and Sleep,” American Psychological Association, http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/sleep.aspx
[4] Matthew 11:28, NRSV.