There was an item in the news this past week about the effect of computers on sleep. When used at night, the bright light from television screens, computer screens, tablets and smartphones can cause insomnia. We can add this to a list that includes alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine. Any one of these can make it difficult to get a good night’s rest. Any combination of these makes it that much more difficult; add to that the stresses and worries of our everyday lives. Given the choices we make it’s little wonder that we are “sleepless in Seattle”!
In today’s reading Jesus invites his disciples to have a rest. Unlike us, they weren’t burdened by the conveniences and temptations that make it difficult to get rest in our modern world. They’d just returned from doing a lot of good and satisfying work, offering hope and healing to desperate people. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” Jesus says. For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.
No doubt all of us can think of times when our lives have been so full that we hardly have time to breathe. We resonate with the language Mark uses in describing the crowds: they “hurried,” he says, and “rushed about.” Whether it’s the demands of work or small children at home or care-giving or other worries, real or imagined, true rest can seem out of reach.
On top of that—and maybe most importantly—our society makes us question whether it’s even okay to rest! Many among us are exhausted from fear, worry, other people’s expectations or the expectations we place on ourselves. At the same time our society teaches us that hard work is a virtue! In fact, we speak of a “work ethic,” as if hard work is a sign of a person’s moral character. You will often hear someone speak of having a strong work ethic; you will never hear anyone speak of having a good “rest ethic.” And yet, our faith tradition teaches us that rest is just as important as work. Rest is the fertile soil out of which good work emerges and flourishes.
There are those who say “work hard, play hard,” but playing hard is not necessarily the same thing as rest, and may be just another path to exhaustion. A friend of mine recently said to me, “Do you ever get back from a vacation feeling like you need a vacation to recover from the vacation?” Or, on Monday morning, instead of feeling refreshed and energized for the week how many workers already are looking forward to Friday because the weekend was spent catching up on work?
And yet, our faith tradition—including Jesus’ own example–teaches us that rest is just as important as work. We were created for rest, just as much as we were created for work. Deep in our souls we know that. We know that there’s more to life than just work. Exhausted people speak of vacation as a “getaway” or an “escape”–as if work is a prison to break out of!
In today’s reading, having done much good work, Jesus’ disciples return to him and describe what they’d done. Sounds from the text that they were excited. Their work was life-giving! They were amazed by what God was doing through them! Having listened to all this, notice Jesus’ response. He doesn’t say, “Good job—now get back out there and keep working!” Instead, he says, “It’s time to rest.” They didn’t ask for it—but he saw that they needed it. How often do we keep working when Christ invites us to rest?
Jesus sends them off. But even in a remote, deserted place both he and they are pursued by anxious and desperate people. It’s difficult for them to find rest. You might know that feeling, too. Even if you can find a place away from other people, demands and expectations and worries can follow you anywhere. Even if you’re sitting dead still with no one around the busy- brain is still at work; there’s still the little voice inside that badgers us with the work we should be doing, the work we’ve left undone.
And yet, in Matthew’s gospel Jesus says: Come unto me, you who are burdened and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. It’s what he says to his disciples in today’s reading: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”
I was talking with a pastor friend this past week. She and her husband have been married 38 years. Early in their life together they made a commitment that every Friday would be their day together to do what they wanted. In the early years they had kids at home but even that didn’t stop them from making one day out of the week a day of rest.
From the very beginning God has given us the gift of rest. In fact, the fourth commandment is to “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.” There’s a kind of in-your-face aspect to this commandment. It’s as if to say, “If God needed to rest, are you greater than God to think that you don’t need to take time?” But the commandments are not threats or demands; instead, they are God’s gift and key to a good and satisfying life. To practice rest, not just one day a week but as an important part of every day, is an act of faith.
Think about it. If we overwork we live as if we can’t trust that God’s power is what sustains us and others each day. We are tempted by the belief that “if I don’t do it, it won’t get done.” By working a modest day, and at the end of the day, turning the day over to God we show that we believe in more than ourselves and our own abilities.
Whether or not we choose to rest, the needs of the world never end. Jesus invites us to find ourselves in today’s story. Where in our lives are the needs and demands of other people, or, our own expectations of ourselves, leaving us weary or worried? Which of these burdens can we begin to let go of, trusting that the one who loves us loves others just as much, for as Mark writes, wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
My spiritual director on several occasions has said to me, “Remember that you are not Jesus.” I pass along that gentle reminder to you, as well. If you don’t do it, the work may not get done. Would that be the end of the world? Or, might it be that stepping back from certain tasks might make room for the gifts of other people to blossom? Here’s my prayer and a blessing for you in the week ahead: May you find rest through worship, may you sleep well, may you practice disciplines of prayer and meditation that lead to rest, and may you remember that it is not your work but Christ’s compassion and love that sustains you as it sustained the weary crowds he encountered, and it is Christ’s compassion and love that is the source of any good work we do that provides hope and healing for our world in need. AMEN