January 22, 2023
I know that it’s been a couple years, but I’m sure we all still remember the Shutdown at the beginning of the pandemic. Remember how everything got eerily still? We couldn’t go anywhere for the longest time. And then there were the trends that popped up of “pandemic skills”—hobbies that people picked up in their downtime while they were stuck at home. Didn’t it seem like everyone suddenly started making sourdough bread? But then, after the shutdown was lifted and we started emerging from our homes, there was this meme that started floating around.
It basically said, “if you didn’t come out of the shutdown with a new skill, then it wasn’t because you didn’t have the time—it was because you did use your time” or something like that. And while I get the sentiment of whoever came up with it, I also think it says something extremely unhealthy about what we think unstructured time is for. Whether they meant to or not, the author of the meme put a burden of guilt on anyone who didn’t use that time the way the author thought it should’ve been used.
And I think that’s a real feeling—the guilt at wasting time. Have you ever had a really, truly lazy Saturday? The kind of Saturday (or other day off) where you putzed around the house, watching TV or reading, and before you knew it the day was over and the thought entered your mind that you “didn’t do anything” today. Or there was so much you could’ve, or should’ve, done. And the guilt seeps in. We get anxious thinking any spare time we have needs to be used doing something productive, something useful, and a day without productivity is seen as being “wasted.”
Well, it turns out that’s not just an American psychological phenomenon. Way back in Jesus’s day, Jews were criticized for their holy day of rest. I’ve mentioned before that Jews were known for three things in the Roman world—their weird diet, their whole “one God” thing, and their Sabbath rest. Romans simply could not understand why Jews would take a whole day and do nothing. Writers from the time wrote Jews off as lazy for wasting a whole day. I think they’d find common cause with that meme-writer who assumed everyone should get a new skill in their down time.
But scripture seems to tell us a different story. And I would argue we should be listening to scripture much more than the culture around us that tells us to go, go, go or memes that shame us for not learning piano while a pandemic shut down the world.
Because this morning we heard this passage about Elijah and his angelic waiter. Elijah had just come from a spectacular victory over the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. But by showing how impotent Baal was, Elijah had enraged the Queen of Israel, Jezebel, who wanted him dead. So he ran away. He ran a long, long way out into the Judean wilderness. And then he laid down, exhausted, feeling ashamed. After how powerfully God had showed up at Carmel, Elijah thought he should have been unafraid of the Queen’s threats. But here he was, exhausted and laying down, rather than being productive and continuing to fight for God.
Yet, rather than shaming him for his fear, or guilting him for taking a rest, God sent an angel to Elijah. And the angel gave Elijah food and drink. He was encouraged to rest. He was given space to grieve how he felt. He was given room to breathe, to be, to not do. And he wasn’t made to feel less than for doing it that way. Because God knows we all need a break sometimes, and we shouldn’t feel guilty about that.
And then taking it a step further, we hear in the gospel this morning from Jesus. The disciples had just returned from going all over Judea, preaching the good news, healing the sick, casting out demons, and seeing God’s own miracle-working with their own two eyes. They were so excited that they wanted to tell Jesus all about it! They wanted to get back out there, keep up the good work, share the good news! But Jesus didn’t let them. Instead, he told them to come away to a quiet place and rest. Slow down. Take a breath. Jesus didn’t simply refrain from guilting them for resting—he insisted that they take the time to sit and do nothing!
The thing is, God gave the Sabbath rest as a gift to us. It isn’t a day meant to catch up on all the small tasks we’re not paid to do. It isn’t a day set aside for developing self-improving skills. It isn’t a day that we have to earn, that if we get enough tasks done then we have been productive enough to be worthy of a break. It is a day of rest. It’s meant to be a day where we don’t really do anything productive, where we don’t feel obligated by anything, where we give our minds, bodies, and souls a chance to recover from work and be restored.
When the angel gave Elijah the food to eat it was because his body needed it and his soul needed it. Elijah was at the end of his rope, and as a finite, mortal being, he needed that rest. And when Jesus called the disciples to come and rest, he did it because he knew how easy burnout can be, even when you’re doing something you love. No one has an endless store of energy to just keep going forever. Sabbath is a gift because it’s God’s way of telling us, “You are human, you aren’t eternal. You need rest. So here, take it. No strings attached.”
What would change if you took it? How would we all be different if we stopped feeling guilty for the times when we heeded our soul’s need and just rested for a while? How much could the world be a better place if we saw down time and unstructured time not as voids demanding to be filled with activity, but as opportunities to receive God’s gracious gift of rest? What would happen if we acknowledged the fact that we are human beings, limited and mortal, and we need this gift that God is so freely giving us?
May we all take the next lazy Saturday we get, whenever that might be, and receive it as a gift from God where we don’t have to do anything productive at all. And we don’t have to feel bad about that, because that’s what God intended.
Thanks be to God. Amen.