“The Gift of Rest”

June 2, 2013


Genesis 2:1-3

Matthew 8:18, 23-27


As most of your know, I will be taking a three month sabbatical beginning on July 1. So June will be a month of final preparation.

In many ways this is an ideal time for a sabbatical as our congregation is in a position of strength. New members are joining us, our church school is growing, we are financially sound, our building is in good repair with further work planned, and we even have a new sidewalk out front. It seems as though everything has come together for a smooth transition and for a productive time for our congregation and for myself. Nathan Willard, who grew up in this congregation, who has preached here several times, and who is known by many here, will be providing pastoral care and preaching during my sabbatical. The Church Council and our numerous church boards are ready to continue in their leadership roles, ably guiding our church in the coming months. As always, our church music and Christian education staff will make sure that those programs maintain their high quality. And Sheila will be in the office throughout these months, holding everything together as she does each day.

I do want to thank this congregation for your foresight and insight in making sabbatical time a part of the terms of your call to me to be your minister nearly six years ago.

A sabbatical is an old concept of a period of rest or change. You can see its root in the word “Sabbath,” the biblical term for a day of rest after six days of labor. Many in Iowa City are familiar with university sabbaticals, which are times for a faculty member to fully devote him- or herself to research and scholarship. At the University of Iowa, they are more accurately known as career development assignments.

I have three major projects that I wants to pursue in the coming months: 1) Continued reading and writing in the area of science and religion as our 18 month Scientists in the Congregation grant period ends and we look for new directions for that ministry; 2) visiting other UCC churches in settings similar to ours (adjacent to a university campus) to explore what works in church-based ministry to students; 3) reading and church visits exploring new directions in worship. Some time will be spent in Iowa City and some time will be spent traveling.

I’m very excited about these plans. Over the course of three months, I will be able to pursue interests that will help me grow and ultimately bring new vision to my ministry here.

And recently I’ve become aware of just how dangerous these plans are as well.

In all the work that I have set out for myself, I risk missing the real purpose of a sabbatical: rest.

A minster’s sabbatical is different from the “career development assignments” familiar to many in our community. These coming months need to be a time for renewal, meditation, reflection, travel, and, yes, rest—Sabbath time. The goal is not only to be busy and productive but to take a sabbatical. The spiritual, emotional, and psychological demands of ministry are great and the benefits of recharging and renewal will apparent to all of us when I return.

So as we move together toward July 1, I’ve been listening again to scripture that speaks about rest, that calls us toward Sabbath. And I hope that what I say today will be helpful, not only to myself but to all of us in our busy and demanding lives.

The familiar words of the 23rd Psalm say this about God the shepherd: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still water; he restores my soul.”

And of course, as we hear those words we remember that the English language is alive and flexible, always welcoming change. Because of this, no English Bible translation has ever been seen as definitive. We are helped then, by hearing a few other translations of those words, such as the Jerusalem Bible, which reads:

In meadows of green grass he lets me lie.

To the waters of repose he leads me;

there he revives my soul.

Or this version:

Fresh and green are the pastures

where he gives me repose.

Near restful waters he leads me,

to revive my drooping spirit.

The sense here is of the Shepherd’s careful providing for all things: the food and drink of green pastures and still waters. In short, to speak this verse is to affirm that God “restores my soul,” or better translated, God “keeps me alive.”

Life depends on God, the psalmist tells us. Life depends solely on God.

We find life in the care of the shepherd God who gives us the rest and repose we need.

“Resting,” however, goes against our grain.

Yes, Jesus knew he needed a break.

Most of us find it much harder to know when to say: “That's it.”

Just because we are online, must we check out every single website that might be pertinent to our work? Just because we can, must we check our email or Facebook page five times a day over the weekend? Just because we can, should we drive an extra hour to get a jump on tomorrow's journey?

Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.

Where and when do we finally draw the line and declare: “It’s time for a rest”?

The good shepherd “makes me lie down.” Maybe that is the purpose of weariness, even illness—to make us lie down, to rest when on our own we would not. We seem to have lost the power to relax.

Somewhere I heard that account of Albert Einstein’s sailing style. He would get in his boat and just sit there, looking at the water, drifting here and there in the harbor. All the other boats were zipping around him, tacking back and forth. There in the midst of this was Einstein—a calm, restful presence.

Most of us? Well, we’re no Einsteins. We're going faster and faster all the time.

Resting is “laziness,” “non-productive.” And one of my fears in taking this sabbatical is that I will be seen as one who “rests.” If you want to stay afloat, there is no such thing a “down time.”

Wearing ourselves thin has become a status symbol in itself. How many times in the past week did you speak of how busy you were? How little sleep did you get--and how proud are you because of it?

Resting goes against our grain.

Can we learn once more from Jesus whom we seek to follow?

Look at Jesus beside the sea. He has been teaching and preaching for some time now. The crowd has seen all that they can see—or all that they need to see for now. Jesus has done all that he can do—or all that he needs to do for now.

Enough is enough.

Without any final blessing, without dismissing the crowd, Jesus abandons the people who have gathered around him.

Even Jesus needed a break. Maybe the difference between Jesus and us is that he was willing to take some down time.

Jesus' decision to leave the crowd is immediately followed by the image of a Jesus sound asleep in the boat. Sailing means sleeping. At peace with himself and his mission, Jesus falls asleep at the drop of an oar.

How many times have you found yourself staring at the clock at 2 a.m.?

Mentally catching up on your work,

confronting an annoying coworker,

second-guessing the motives behind adolescent behavior,

figuring out how to make a month's income pay two months' worth of bills.

Sometimes were just not up to the challenge of falling asleep.

Maybe it's just that we are far too scared to sleep. After all, it takes a certain amount of confidence to just conk out. Ask any new parent. You can't really relax unless you are convinced that ultimately things are taken care of, unless you know somebody else is watching out.

On the other hand, here is Jesus. He sets out in a boat, letting other people navigate, curls up and is sound asleep before they've hardly drifted away from shore. There is no suggestion in his attitude or behavior that he should be doing anything else. It was simply time to sleep.

A great windstorm arises hitting the boat with such violence that “the boat was being swamped.” And what is Jesus' response to this danger?

Jesus is asleep.

In panic and despair, the disciples wake Jesus up, screaming, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!”

Some have viewed Jesus' command to leave the pressing crowd and his immediate collapse into such a deep and restful sleep as a sign of a very human Jesus' need to rest and regroup after a demanding day. The disciples themselves seem convinced that Jesus is primarily an exhausted man—one who does not even respond to a dangerous situation because he is just too tired.

But there is an ancient tradition recognizing that sleep and rest are in fact divine characteristics, not signs of human weakness. Remember the story in Genesis? How does God acknowledge the completion of the creative impulse? By resting. Indeed, God’s gift of the Sabbath to created men and women indicates the elevated status of human beings. Like God, we are called to observe a time of rest.

But what good does this do us? We know we're not divine. We lie awake at night trying to devise ways to deal with the chaos in our lives because we believe we have legitimate reason to fear it.

There are times when it seems like we need more from God than God is willing to give. But it might be that God is giving more than we are willing to recognize.

Maybe it's time that we learn to walk beside still waters, to lie down in green pastures.

First: we might learn to trust. Like Jesus sleeping in the storm, we might learn to trust in the power of God. From the whirlwind God asks Job: “Where were you . . . when I established the bounds of the sea and said ‘This far you shall come and no farther.’” The implied answer, of course, is “Nowhere to be seen.” We forget that there is a power in the universe that brings order out of chaos, life out of death, hope out of despair. Paul reminded the Corinthians that “God has put all things in subjection under God's feet.” We can trust God's power and authority, God’s grace and love.

Second: Sometimes we just need to disengage. Jesus knew that sometimes it was necessary to pull back so that later we might be fully engaged. There are times when our stress-driven souls need to disengage, to pull back.

Third: We might receive the rest we have been offered. Resting is not a lazy way out—it seems to be built into creation. God “rested,” we are told. And as a gift to the human beings God created, we are invited to share in this rest. Sleep, days of rest, vacations are an essential part of our covenant relationship with God.

Trust, disengage, receive.

Cared for by the good shepherd, we lack nothing.

Let your soul be restored.

Let your drooping spirit be revived.

Let God keep you alive.

Let God keep you fully, abundantly alive.