A Sermon about Rest

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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.

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A Sermon about Sabbath, Life, and Liberation: Lectionary 9 / Pentecost 2

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This week, I was invited to preach at the weekly Eucharist at the Churchwide Office (“headquarters”) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), where I have also recently started a position as Interim Coordinator for Global Service Events with the Global Mission Unit of the ELCA. Pictured above, from left to right, is me, the Rev. Kevin L. Strickland (Assistant to the Presiding Bishop / Executive for Worship, ELCA), Megan Brandsrud (Associate Editor, Living Lutheran), and Beau Surratt (Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago).

An earlier version of this same sermon was preached this past weekend (June 2-3, 2018) at St. Stephen Lutheran Church, Midlothian, IL.


Lutheran Center Chapel (ELCA Churchwide Office)
6 June 2018 + Lectionary 9B (Pentecost 2)
Mark 2.23-3.6; Deuteronomy 5.12-15


“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it boring.” These are the words Barbara Brown Taylor uses to describe her childhood religious experience. For her, the Christian Sunday Sabbath observance was a day defined by “could nots”: you could not wear blue jeans, you could not play ball, you could not ride bikes, you could not go to the movies. Truthfully, it all sounds a bit more legalistic than restful: a day set aside by God for rest co-opted by human meddling, something we seem to be pretty good at — not unlike the Pharisees quibbling over Sabbath law with Jesus.

There is, however, no debate that the Sabbath was intended for promoting life and well-being. That much was universally understood, common ground between Jesus and the Pharisees. The problem comes when we, like the Pharisees, try to set limits on the divine gift of rest, to define what God has already given us freely.

The urge to limit and define what Sabbath is and isn’t, though, is understandable. We live in a world that demands much from us, with multiple things competing for our time and attention nearly 24/7: our work, the news, social media feeds, family and friends, and, of course, our phones and devices, often our most intimate of companions. The idea of stopping all work, all obligations, is radically countercultural. It might even seem impossible.

In a world of unrelenting demands, Sabbath offers us a much-needed opportunity to stop and gives us permission to rest: take in the weekend, order takeout and let someone else do the cooking, sleep in or take a nap, go for a bike ride, walk the dog, get caught up on Netflix. Hyperconnected to all the things that lay claim to our time and absorbed in the things that drain our energy, we need these moments to recharge and avoid burnout.

And yet: If this idea of personal rest is all we mean by Sabbath, we miss the larger point. Sometimes, I think when we say Sabbath, we mean self-care. Don’t get me wrong: that part is definitely important. But Sabbath is wider in scope than that.

Sabbath is about personal rest and rest for the entire community. Sabbath, for the ancient Israelites, was for their children, their slaves, foreigners living in their town, even their animals. Sabbath is concerned for the rest, life, and well-being of everyone and everything.

If Sabbath were only concerned with refraining from work and focusing on personal rest, the scenes in Mark’s gospel would have looked very differently: absolutely no grain plucking or withered hand healing. End of story.

But that’s not what happens. The disciples are hungry, and they eat, physically nourishing and giving life to their bodies. The man’s withered hand, while not an immediately life-threatening condition, deprives him of being able to work in his society, and Jesus heals him, restoring to him the ability to live and thrive. These actions, far from breaking Sabbath law, are the very embodiment of it: promoting life, restoring wholeness, proclaiming liberation.

That kind of Sabbath-keeping is also risky business. We’re barely three chapters into Jesus’s ministry in Mark’s gospel, and already the authorities are plotting to destroy Jesus. Already this is the beginning of the end, the way toward the cross, in Mark’s gospel. Mark makes it clear that Jesus’s announcement of the reign of God, his agenda of proclaiming Sabbath rest and liberation for all people, is exactly the kind of thing that will get him killed.

Following in the way of the Jesus, the way of the biblical prophets, the way of our contemporary activists and martyrs, we know that proclaiming Sabbath rest and liberation  and justice isn’t always the most popular or well-received message. The late theologian James Cone once said, “If you are going to worship someone who was nailed to a tree, you must know that the life of a disciple of that person is not going to be easy.” Going to those who suffer, proclaiming good news and liberation, is risky but necessary business.

But that is exactly where Jesus goes and what Jesus does. In two Sabbath scenes, Jesus centers the experience of those who are in need of liberation: those who are hungry and those who are in need of healing and restoration to community. Time and again, Jesus’s ministry takes him to the same place: to the oppressed and marginalized. Time and again, Jesus heals and offers life and wholeness.

Jesus’s Sabbath practice is less concerned with avoiding work than it is with giving life. Like the God who gave the Sabbath to the ancient Israelites on the heels of liberation from Egypt, Jesus, too, is committed to liberation, to exposing and undoing oppressive systems that undermine life at every turn, and instead to preserving life. And this, too, is the call of the church: proclaiming liberation, proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, proclaiming that LGBTQIA+ persons have a place in this church, proclaiming that immigrants and refugees are human beings worthy of dignity and respect, proclaiming life, abundant life, for all, period.

It’s not difficult to get bogged down in details and distractions that keep us from our Sabbath rest and proclaiming this message of liberation. I’ve only been on staff here for a week, but already I know this is an interesting place to work: this strange mash-up of church-meets-corporate America. It’s not difficult to get lost in an endless swirl of emails, reports, phone calls, and meetings, and forget why we’re here.

On my first day, I attended the town hall hosted by Bishop Eaton. In response to a question I can’t remember, she told us something to the effect of: We are the church, and our mission is to proclaim the gospel. What a simple but powerful — and needed — reminder.

Before all else, we are the church. No matter our unit or office or ministry outside these walls, we are here to proclaim the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. We proclaim the good news of liberation, God’s reign of justice, Sabbath rest for all people and all creation. Sabbath gives us rest and life in order that we might give others rest and life.

We come into this space from many places, from many responsibilities, from many demands. Here, we are centered around God’s Word and Meal of love and liberation.  Here, we receive God’s word of promise. Here, we taste and see that God is good. And from here, we are sent back into the world, renewed, recharged, refreshed, to serve a world so desperately in need of that same good news. Here we are given life, and from here we go forth to proclaim and share that life.

A Sermon about Keeping the Sabbath (and Why It’s So Hard)

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This Sunday, I had the opportunity to worship with the people of God at First Lutheran Church, a neighboring ELCA congregation not far from Augustana. You can read more about the ministry FLC is up to in Omaha on their website.


First Lutheran Church, Omaha, NE
21 August 2016 + Lectionary 21C
Luke 13.10-17



Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—
I keep it, staying at Home—

So begins the poem by Emily Dickinson. Exchanging a choir for the song of birds, a vaulted ceiling for the covering of trees, and even the preacher in favor of God herself. For Dickinson, sacred space is more out there than in here.

I suppose it’s probably a good thing I didn’t take Dickinson’s advice this morning—or else this would be a very quiet ten minutes… not to mention that I’d probably be going into the wrong line of work.

calmBut I must confess, even as a seminary student who deeply loves all things liturgical, some of my most sacred Sabbath experiences happen outside the four walls of a sanctuary. Living in Chicago for the past eight years, I have come to relish any sliver of urban nature I can find. Walks along Lake Michigan are my favorite, where in the mugginess of summer heat I can actually dip my feet in the cool water, or just sit along the shore and gaze out over the seemingly endless waters.

These sacred moments spent in the midst of urban beauty more often than not organically lead me to prayer and reflection on the day.

But then, I have thoughts.

Thoughts about my to-do list: There’s laundry to do, a sermon to finish, groceries to buy, meetings to attend, bills to pay.

Left alone to our thoughts, distractions creep in. It’s inevitable. And quite frankly, it makes any notion of Sabbath downtime hard to come by.

Barbara Brown Taylor traces a brief history of Sabbath-keeping in her book An Altar in the World. Growing up, Taylor recalls that the Sabbath was a day of could not: you could not wear blue jeans, you could not play ball, you could not ride bikes, you could not go to the movies. In other words, she quips, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it boring.” [1]sabbath-sunday

But even for the most devout Sabbath-keeper, changing times brought changing attitudes toward Sunday mornings. By the 1960s, the majority of homes had TVs, and many of them would be tuned to Sunday football. More and more, shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues began to open their doors on Sundays. Suddenly, there was a newfound liberation as Americans could fill their Sabbath day with a multitude of activities.

Of course, liberation for some meant just the opposite for others. Lower-wage earners would have to choose between keeping the Sabbath or keeping their jobs to meet the demand of added business hours.

Meanwhile, for churches, all of this has meant ever-decreasing attendance, no matter the reason for a churchgoers’s absence. To be sure, Sunday worship is certainly not the only way to keep the Sabbath, but the constant swirl of activities to choose from, to-do items to check off, and smartphone notifications to respond to seems have left precious little time to just be.


To counteract this “war on Sabbath,” Taylor suggests the spiritual practice of “saying no.” She explains that those who practice Sabbath, those who say no, are more able to resist our cultural emphasis on productivity, consumerism, and consumption. Saying no insists that you are worth more than what you do or how much you produce. Saying no allows you to just be, and rest, and recharge. (And no, I don’t just mean your smartphone or tablet.)

In our gospel text this morning, I suspect Jesus is practicing what it means to say no. To heal or not to heal on the Sabbath? That is the question.

The law, it would seem, is clear: no work on the Sabbath. But hear again what Jesus says: “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie your ox or your donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?”

Your ox or your donkey. I don’t think Jesus’s word choice is coincidental. Those words appear among a litany of persons and animals in Deuteronomy’s version of the Sabbath commandment, underscoring that the Sabbath is for everyone. And it goes on to remind the Israelites of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, rooting Sabbath rest in liberation.

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To heal or not to heal? then becomes something more like To allow a restrictive religious law to continue to oppress this woman and prevent her too from enjoying Sabbath rest, or to say no to all of that?

As one biblical scholar explains: When Jesus chooses to heal the bent-over woman, “his touch represents fellowship for those whose ailments may have denied them human contact; Jesus’s touch is their initial welcome back into community.” [2]

Jesus’s healing touch is indeed a liberative act. It frees the woman who has been healed so that she might praise God.

Our text reminds us that the Sabbath is about being made free. Free to be and to rest and to delight in God’s beauty. Free from distractions, and free to say no.


The Sabbath, as one blogger writes, is a gift of freedom, and it is a gift as old as creation itself. The first Sabbath, described in Genesis, is the capstone of creation, a gift from God so that we might be able to embrace all that has been created. [3]

Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to experience Sabbath rest when I’m wading in the waters of Lake Michigan in Chicago or walking down the tree-lined streets of my neighborhood here in Omaha. Because there is an intimate link between Sabbath and creation.

Creation reminds us of God’s good gifts to us and our interconnectedness with all things and all peoples. And the freedom of the Sabbath calls us to reconnect with God, with ourselves, and with the whole of creation.

When the woman who was once bent over for eighteen long years was suddenly able to stand up straight, her perspective quite literally changed. One pastor calls this text “a story of expansion, revelation, [and] vision widened by grace.” [4] Indeed, the healed woman sees more than just sunshine and fluffy clouds, but also a world in need.

Sabbath is a gift but also an invitation:

An invitation to a new way of life that says no to the things that make us bent over.

An invitation to the kind of justice-seeking Sabbath-keeping that Isaiah envisions, where the hungry are filled and the needs of the afflicted are satisfied.

An invitation to the freedom to be and to rest in God’s grace.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 127.

[2] Rodney S. Sadler, Jr., “Luke 13:10-17: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 385.

[3] https://journeytopenuel.com/2016/08/14/proper-16c-the-sabbath-is-calling/

[4] http://christiancentury.org/article/2016-07/august-21-21st-sunday-ordinary-time