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Waiting to Exhale

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Jun 29

Text: Genesis 2:1-3, Exodus 20:8-10, and Matthew 11:28-30

Not long ago, while trekking in a remote valley in Nepal, I saw a farmer planting rice on a terraced hillside. It was beautiful, rich land—planted with rice, corn, barley, and potatoes—each family working a small plot. The farmer had a pair of buffalo yoked together, pulling a basic wooden plow, the same, simple farming method that has been practiced for millennia. The same farming method Jesus knew.

Jesus’ teaching is full of illustrations from agrarian life: tilling, planting, pruning, and harvest. Our scripture reading from Matthew offers one such illustration. Jesus invites his followers, “Come to me all who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus invites us to take on a practice of gentleness and humility. He invites us to shoulder a yoke that is “easy”—a yoke that fits us well and does not chaff. A yoke—not of heroic effort—but of humility. Jesus invites us to share our burdens with him—a strong and trustworthy partner—for he will work with us and lighten our load. We need this gentle invitation to a posture of trust.

We are not people who like to be told what to do. We are not fond of exhortations. We prefer to determine our own paths. Yet somehow, we do need to be reminded—even commanded—because we so easily forget what is good and life-giving. We even need to be told to rest! We need reminding from a spouse to take a day off, encouragement to stay home from work when we are sick. We even need to be reminded to turn off the computer at night so the light from the screen cannot not send big, bright, “awake” signals to our brains!

The commandment to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” is certainly the sweetest and most delicious of all commandments. Take time for sleep, for delight, for ease. Deep in our tradition is this wisdom: that we should seek the life-giving rest we need. Time to recover, renew, re-orient. One author notes, “Sabbath honors the necessary wisdom of dormancy…[it] is not simply a human psychological convenience; it is a spiritual and biological necessity.”

But keeping Sabbath is not just a life-style suggestion—like something our primary care physician or our cardiologist might recommend. It’s a major ethical precept—on the same list as prohibitions against killing, stealing and lying. So, why is it so important?

Wayne Muller, author of the book, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives, notes, “Our lack of rest and reflection is not just a personal affliction. It colors the way we build and sustain community, it dictates the way we respond to suffering, and it shapes the ways we seek peace and healing in the world.”

People in all times and places need physical rest and spiritual renewal. Laborers and farm workers, teachers and technicians, that Nepali rice farmer with his pair of buffalo.

Is it possible, though, that our culture and generation is distinctively plagued with a kind of busy-ness that saps our life? Brother David Steindl-Rast (of the Taizé community) remarks that the Chinese pictograph for “busy” is composed of two characters: heart and killing. Do we fill our days and nights, our weeks and weekends with heart-killing activity?

Some of us remember a time (not long ago) when Massachusetts “blue laws” reserved Sundays for worship and family time. Our culture has slowly grown to honor our religious diversity and I would not care to make an argument favoring the culture-wide sanctioning of Christian’s Sunday observance over Jewish Shabbat or Muslim’s Jumah—the Friday call to prayer.

We have also become more secular and increasingly consumer-oriented. Shops that used to be closed on Sundays are now open. Hours that used to be spent in worship and study, with family, or occupied with rest or leisure activity, are claimed by soccer games, ice time, rehearsals. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these activities. They can be very good!

But when will we find the rest we need? If we arrive at Sunday morning in a state of exhaustion and collapse, when will we find time to worship? When will we seek out the sacred? When will we remember and celebrate the relationship with God that forms our very identity?

Our culture is obsessed with action and productivity, to the point where many of us struggle to maintain a sense of self-worth during times of unemployment or underemployment. Even with intentional, positive transitions like retirement, it can feel like the structure of meaning is being stripped away, when we “lose” the identity we have formed through productive work. How often do we introduce ourselves only to be asked the first question, “What do you do?”

If we believe our actions constitute who we are, it may be terrifying to rest. What will become of us? What will we be if we stop exerting all this effort? Perhaps these are questions that lead us to discover the value of Sabbath. For we are—first and foremost—beloved children of God, people who are invited to find our very identity in this relationship with our Creator.

Walter Brueggemann writes, “The Sabbath is a kerygmatic statement about the world. It announces that the world is safely in God’s hands. The world will not disintegrate if we stop our efforts…The observance of Sabbath rest is a break with every effort to achieve, to secure ourselves, and to make the world into our image according to our purposes.”

Observance of Sabbath rest, then, is a bold statement of faith! Because creation is in God’s hands, I can lay down my burden. Jesus invites us, “make your home in me, as I make mine in you.” “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

God-the-Creator invites us again and again to new beginnings. The invitation is embedded in the first creation story found in Genesis, at the very first chapter of our scriptural canon. We, who are accustomed to reading the New Revised Standard of the Bible, are familiar with these opening lines, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…“

“Rabbi Zalman Schater-Shalomi suggests a more accurate reading of the Hebrew would be ‘In a beginning,’ as if there were endless beginnings in the cycle of life. Biblical scholars also agree that the phrase ‘God created’ would be better translated ‘when God began to create.’ So the story literally begins: In a beginning, when God began to create the heavens and the earth… Creation, then, is an ongoing story of new beginnings.”

Ours is not a God who engages in acts of creation, completes the work, and then removes to a safe distance to observe from afar. Rather, God is present here and now: still calling the worlds into being, still calling us into relationship, and offering an invitation that is fresh each moment and each new day.

Jewish scholarship provides wonderful insight into what God was up to on that seventh day of creating. “In six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God rested and was refreshed.’ The word ‘refreshed,’ literally means, ‘and God exhaled.’ [So] if the creation of the world is like the life-quickening inhale; the Sabbath is the exhale...“

On the seventh day, God finished God’s work. What is this “finishing” that God does on the seventh day? It is not a day of inert inactivity, but rather, a pregnant pause. “The ancient rabbis teach that on the seventh day, God created menuha—tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose—rest, in the deepest possible sense of fertile, healing stillness. Until the Sabbath, creation was unfinished. Only with after the birth of menuha, only with tranquility and rest, was the circle of creation made full and complete.”

We gather this seventh day of the week to worship our God who is author of activity and of rest; a God of magnificent creation and of deep, healing stillness.

Sabbath can be a special day set aside for sacred time—like Shabbat is in Jewish tradition, like Sunday is for some of us. But it can also be an hour, an afternoon, or a season of rest. In these summer days, may you find healing rest and deep renewal. In case you need any extra motivation, here it is: God commands you to rest!

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