Sunday, July 2, 2017


Matthew 11:28-30
July 2, 2017
William G. Carter

“Come to me, all you that 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.”

I don’t know of a more inviting invitation. “Come to me and I will give you rest.” He speaks to the woman who cannot sleep, to the child who is anxious, and to the man is bone-tired. Come . . . rest. The invitation is gentle, not forceful. He speaks from a level place, a humble place. And his invitation includes all: “all you,” or as they say in the South, “you all.” There’s not a single person excluded. Everybody come, come and rest.

What intrigues me is why so many people turn him down. Have you ever noticed that?

As a kid, I learned from my father. He knew how to put in a long day’s work. At his desk by eight every morning, home for supper by six, then he would change his clothes and go outside for a few more hours of labor. Dad came from a family of farmers. They didn’t sit very much, unless Grandpa was riding the red tractor in his straw hat and a strand of timothy grass in his teeth. Even then, the days were long and there was precious little rest.

When we would visit those grandparents, we’d leave at the end of an IBM workday. Mom would have the kids bundled up and ready go. Dad would roar up the street, run in and change his clothes, and off we’d go, six hours in the car, along endless Route 6. Next morning, he would wake early on his parents’ farm, slug down some coffee, and ask if there was anything he could do to help. He didn’t rest when he went on vacation.

I know a lot of people like that. They can quote the Bible: “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” says one version of a verse from the book of Proverbs.[1] Or there is that section that somebody read to us at the teenage Bible camp:

Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief, officer or ruler, she prepares her food in summer,

    and gathers her sustenance in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a vagabond, and want like an armed man. (Proverbs 6:6-11, RSV)

It’s a compelling lesson from nature. And in case you don’t know what a “sluggard” is, the New Revised Standard translates the word as “lazybones.” Go to the hard working ant, O lazybones, and learn your lesson. Work hard. Don’t ever sit still. The Calvinists didn’t invent a hard work ethic. They found it in their Bibles.

But there’s also the invitation to rest. According to the Greek dictionary, to rest is “to cease from movement or labor in order to recover and collect (one’s) strength.” Now, we don’t need a dictionary to tell us that. We already know what rest is. It’s just that we don’t do it very well. 

And do you know why that is? As Jesus suggests, it’s a matter of the soul. “Come to me,” he says, “and I will give you rest for your souls.” The soul is the part of us that’s alive. It’s the intersection of thought, feeling, and breath. It’s the gift breathed into us by God’s Spirit that makes us human. The soul is the wellspring of our dreams, the anchor for our imagination, the seat of all passion and hope.

And the soul is the part of us that can be traumatized, anxious, and fearful. When the soul is wounded, one of the typical responses is to keep pushing on, persisting through, often in the vain hope that if we just add another inch to the span of our day, we will speed by or gloss over the deep wound that we are trying to avoid.

That’s what Wayne Muller identified as he reflected the practice of keeping Sabbath – and why so many people resist it. He writes:

This is one of our fears of quiet; if we stop and listen, we will hear this emptiness. If we worry we are not good or whole inside, we will be reluctant to stop and rest, afraid we will find a lurking emptiness terrible, aching void with nothing to fill it, as if it will corrode an destroy us like some horrible, insatiable monster. If we are terrified of what we will find in rest, we will refuse to look up from our work, refuse to stop loving. We quickly fill all the blanks on our calendar with tasks, accomplishments, errands, things to be done . . . anything to fill the time, the empty space.[2]  

He’s right about that. Go to a restaurant and watch the people around you. Some of them would rather stay attached to their smart phones than have an intelligent conversation. Go the shore to get away from it all, and when you realize that others had the same idea, take note of how many of them are staying tethered to email and internet.

It is simply the next extension of what I discovered about two weeks after I bought my first laptop computer some twenty-five years ago: because we can do work anywhere, we never stop working, especially if the work is mental, or emotional, or virtual, or expected of us. Let me tell you it was interesting to spend four days last week in a place in the New Mexico desert where there was little internet service, and you only got cell phone service if you stood on a table with your left arm in the air as an antenna. Don’t ask how I discovered about the cell phone service.

So what is the rest that restores our souls? That is the invitation of Jesus Christ. We find it by “coming to him.” And what is that? Coming to a church? No, we come to him. If you merely come to church, it will exhaust you.

But we can’t see him. How do we come to him?  I think we come by paying attention to his grace. We come by listening to Jesus say that every one of us has inestimable value. We come by chewing on his promise that we “do not live by bread alone,” but by the life-giving words that come from the mouth of God. We come by observing the birds of the air and how they are cared for by an Unseen Benevolence. We come by admiring the wildflowers which bring beauty to life’s path and we did not plant them.

It’s all about grace, the invisible goodness and favor which give us our lives in the first place. If we’re convinced that life is only weariness and burden, then we’re missing how everything is really a gift, a generous gift. If we are obsessed with the latest stupid stunt of some public figure, then we’re missing what a wonderful blessing it is to be together, to pursue the dreams we have in common, to work for the benefit of all of us.

Maybe the saddest addiction of all is to be consumed only with myself – my views, my fears, my worries, my hurts, my anger, my wounds. I don’t know if there is a heavier burden than that. There is only one way to have that burden lifted from our shoulders. It is to come to Christ, who alone is saving the world as an expression of the goodness and grace of God. We really do have to give up the burden of being addicted to ourselves.

I recently picked up the latest collection of Sabbath poems by Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer. For forty years, he has spent Sundays resting, going for a walk, and writing short poems on Sabbath themes. He pays attention to the world that thrives even on his Sabbath day off. In the book’s preface he writes these words:

We are to rest on the Sabbath in order to understand that the providence or the productivity of the living world, the most essential work, continues while we rest. This work is entirely independent of our work, and is far more complex and wonderful than any work we have ever done or will ever do. It is more complex and beautiful than we will ever understand.[3]

The world doesn’t revolve around us. Maybe it’s better for us to orbit around the One who made it all, the One who fills it with life and brings it to such abundance.

“Come to me . . . and I will give you rest.” That’s why the invitation persists. We don’t rest once and then think we’re done with it. Neither do we sit on our hands while others labor to benefit us. A full life is a rhythm of work and rest, of task and reflection. And if life is out of balance, if the rhythm is limping, the invitation is to come. To keep coming. To persist in coming to the grace of Jesus Christ.

At its heart, this kind of rest is about one thing: what will fill me with God’s abundant life? What will restore my soul?  What are the practices that create a song in my heart? What is it, for you, that brings you totally alive? That’s the kind of rest we’re talking about.

Every one of us has an answer unique based on who they are, how they are growing, and how they are wondrously made. In my house, one of us picks up yarn and needles, and imagines a hat for a premature infant; although these days, she is just as likely to design and create a kitchen table or a backyard deck. (It is an awesome thing to be married to a woman with a nailgun.) Meanwhile I sit in my blue chair, juggling metaphors or scratching out a new jazz melody. All of us are wired differently.

The lady up the street has an enormous flower garden; tending it is what gives her life. Or there’s the man who persists in welcoming cast-off puppies; they keep him company and he returns the favor.

For some people, it’s running marathons (which I can’t understand) or singing difficult songs (which I do). For other people, it’s providing a happy table, where joy is the main course.

For some people, it’s the solitary work of quiet prayer for the needs of the world. For others, it’s translating those prayers into acts of mercy and justice. It gives life to them and to others.

This is what it means to come to Christ in restorative rest. In the grace of God, we find what gives us life and we pursue it. And we keep pursuing it, not for the sake of indulgence, but in the pursuit of a greater integration and health. It’s a different kind of yoke to be placed upon our shoulders. We give up all the other slaveries and take on the disciplines that heal our souls.

And that’s why we keep coming into this place and gathering at this Table. For this is where we hear once again how much we are loved, how deeply we are saved, and how greatly the world is kept in hands far more gracious and just than our own.

May you have a blessed Sabbath, again and again.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Proverbs 16:23, The Living Bible
[2] Wayne Muller, Sabbath (New York: Bantam, 1999) p. 51-52
[3] Wendell Berry, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2013), introduction.

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