A Sermon about Rest


Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
22 July 2018 + Lectionary 16B (Pentecost 9)
Mark 6.30-34, 53-56

What gives you rest?

Maybe it’s listening to your favorite radio station or podcast on your way home from work. Or coming home to a home-cooked meal (or having a pizza delivered!) and unwinding after a stressful or busy day. Or going for a run or long walk to take a deep breath of fresh air and gather your thoughts.

What gives you rest?

Whatever it is, we know: Rest is important.

Rest for our bodies is important.
Rest for our spirits is important.
Rest is important.

Jesus recognizes that.

So much has happened these past few weeks in Mark’s gospel. It’s been a turbulent, restless time for the disciples and for Jesus. Jesus’s teaching and healing have become wildly popular. People have been tracking him down and closing in on him from every side — physically. On his way to one place to visit a young girl near the point of death, we heard the story of a woman who approaches Jesus from behind, seemingly out of nowhere, to touch the fringe of his clothes in a desperate attempt to be healed.

From other stories these past few weeks, we also know that not all attention is good attention, either. Jesus’s family has already tried to restrain him, his religious community has accused him of being possessed by a demon, and he was even outright rejected in his hometown. All the while, Jesus commissions his disciples and gives them the authority to teach and heal and cast out demons — but he is also clear that they, too, will be rejected.

And then, last week, in a dramatic unfolding of events, Mark reports the gruesome and sudden death of John the Baptist, whose own message and ministry served as the forerunner to Jesus. Is Jesus next? Are we next? we might imagine the disciples asking.

These have been turbulent, restless times.

Now the apostles are gathered around Jesus, and they tell him all that they have been doing and teaching. Caught up in the excitement and commotion and busyness of everything, I imagine a cacophony of voices around Jesus, each one telling stories to everyone else. And in the midst of that, all of sudden, quiet: Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.

These are welcome words of rest in the midst of turbulent, restless times.

Rest is important, and Jesus recognizes that. For himself and for his friends.

Their work is important, to be sure — healing and proclaiming liberation and casting out the demons of injustice — but they’re no good to anybody, least of all themselves, if they get burned out and neglect to take care of themselves, physically and spiritually.

These past several weeks, I’ve been working at the ELCA Churchwide offices, coordinating a number of summer events. Just this past week, I emerged from the thick of one of orientation event, even as I was busy preparing for the next conference this coming week. With so many details to remember, materials to prepare, and emails to write, it wasn’t difficult to lose myself in a whirlwind of busyness — forgetting to tend to my own needs to rest and recharge, to eat, to have a cup of coffee, to have a conversation about not work with a colleague or a friend, to attend the Churchwide midweek chapel service, to breathe.

I suspect more than a few of you can relate. There is always so much, too much, to do. Never-ending emails and reports for work. An endless cycle of cleaning and housework when we know full well it’s just going to need to be done all over again soon enough. The anxiety of congregational life and programming, obsessing over every last detail before the events and programs we plan ever actually happen (maybe those of you who planned and helped with VBS this past week can relate?).

It’s in these moments we hear Jesus’s welcome words of promise: Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.

Get up from your desk and take a walk. The work will still be there when you get back.

Sit down on the couch and have a glass of water. The dusting and dishes can wait a few more minutes.

Take a deep breath and dwell in God’s presence around this table, at this meal, today, right here, right now, in this moment.

Rest is important. Rest for our bodies. Rest for our spirits.

Taking time for rest does not mean that we are ignoring the work that needs to be done, and taking time to care for our bodies and our spirits does not mean that we have failed. Just the opposite: It means we are ensuring the care of ourselves, our very bodies that God has made and called very good, to make sure that we can keep doing the work of the gospel.

Rest for our spirits is important. The great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who himself never seemed to stop either, knew this when he included a stipulation for his co-workers in the cause of nonviolent resistance to “meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.”

Rest for our bodies is important. Jesus knew this too when he pulled his disciples aside at a time when they had had no time even to eat a meal.

Rest is important.

Take time for rest. You can start today, even here, at this table. Take, eat, drink, rest.


A Sermon About Rest for the Weary, with #KellyOnMyMind


Sermon for ML 403 Preaching Lab
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
6 October 2015
Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30 (Pentecost 5A)

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

You know the words. And you could probably sing them better than me. But I’d be hard-pressed to think of a time when these words were sang as poignantly as when Georgia death row inmate Kelly Gissendaner sang them early last Wednesday morning, just moments before the pentobarbital took over her body and she breathed her last.

That night, in the hours leading up to her death, I was glued to my Twitter feed—waiting, watching, praying, and hoping against hope. When the Supreme Court rejected her last request for a stay of execution, I was sad, angry, and bitter.

And with #KellyOnMyMind, I read with fresh eyes this gospel text. And I couldn’t help but resonate with Jesus: “To what will I compare this generation?” Of course, the generation that Jesus was referring to had just rejected John the Baptist and was now actively rejecting him. They had rejected his message of the coming of the royal reign of God that was especially for tax collectors and sinners and outsiders. On Wednesday morning, that generation didn’t seem all that far removed from those who rejected Kelly, a death row inmate-turned-minister of the gospel, an outsider among outsiders.

In our text Jesus is frustrated, and I felt that frustration. I once heard the death penalty described as “evil cloaked in respectability and law.” We call it “justice,” but we’re fooling no one. It’s the taking of life for life, rooted in an unquenchable desire for retribution. It rejects any possibility for reconciliation and restoration.

Kelly (center) with theologian Jurgen Moltmann, at her 2011 graduation from the Candler School of Theology’s Certificate in Theological Studies program

Reconciliation. Restoration. Sound familiar? Words that could just as easily describe Jesus’s ministry. Jesus’s rejected ministry, that is.

No wonder Jesus was pissed off. The gap in this pericope includes some not-so-nice words against the villages that rejected him. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! And you, Capernaum, you will be brought down to Hades!”

They just don’t get it—these wise and intelligent ones. But notice who does: infants. Ones without religious status, ones who shouldn’t know but somehow do, ones that get trampled on, ones whom the wise and intelligent resent. Ones like Kelly Gissendaner.

But then there’s that beautiful paragraph at the end: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” What are we to make of that after everything we just heard?

A few years ago, I went through bout of depression. I had just graduated college with what had been plans to go to seminary, but I had also just come out. The denomination of which I was then a part doesn’t exactly support queer clergy, so those plans were shattered. I struggled with a loss of community and a lack of clarity about what I wanted to do with my life.

It was also around that time that an Episcopalian friend introduced me to compline. This simple prayer service for the close of the day involves reciting these last verses from Matthew’s gospel. For me, compline has become a practice of laying down the burdens of the day and a powerful reminder of rest. It doesn’t solve all my problems, but it reminds me of God’s love and God’s ability to hold all my stuff when I cannot.

We’ve all had our share of seemingly hopeless situations. Last Tuesday night, Kelly could’ve easily despaired or harbored resentment against her executioners, but in her final statement, she said, “Let my kids know I went out singing ‘Amazing Grace.’” Kelly sang “Amazing Grace” because she knew that the power of the state to take her life was no match for the power and the love of the God who had redeemed her life.

There’s plenty to despair about in the world around us, my friends. There’s plenty to despair about when the state of Georgia takes the life of a woman who embodied the very definition of rehabilitation. There’s plenty to despair about when a news article from last Tuesday bears the headline, “The U.S. has six executions scheduled over the next nine days.” There’s plenty to despair about when yet another mass shooting leaves nine innocent people and their killer dead at a community college in Oregon.

There’s plenty to despair about, and frankly I’m sick of it. But Jesus offers something different.

Come to me, all you that are weary of state-sanctioned killings.
Come to me, all you that are burdened with loss and uncertainty.
Come to me, all you that are weary of mass shootings.
Come to me, all you that are wretched, lost, and blind.

Come to me, and I will give you rest.
Come to me, and I will show you amazing grace.

Come to me, Jesus says to each of us, and I will give you rest. Jesus doesn’t necessarily promise to make everything better, but he does promise respite in the thick of it. And that promise is ultimately found in the hope of the resurrection. And we can rest easy knowing that all has been conquered for us. Thanks be to God.