Sunday’s sermon: Sleeping: Holiness in Rest

Text used – Psalm 23

  • Throughout the summer, friends, we’ve been working our way through Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices for Everyday Life[1], and today, we find ourselves on the final chapter … the final sermon in this series.
    • Arc of the book (and arc of the sermon series) has followed a typical day in the life of the author and attempted to find moment of sacredness and connection with God even in the most mundane and routine tasks → Throughout the summer, we’ve talked about …
      • The blessing of waking up – of starting each morning awash in the grace and overwhelming love of God
      • Brushing teeth and eating leftovers – of the blessed embodiedness and physicality of our faith and the way God loves and blesses our bodies
      • Losing keys and fighting with spouses – of the undeniable importance of confession and forgiveness in our lives and in our faith
      • Checking email and calling a friend – of the connectionality and sacred community that we find with God and with one another
      • Making the bed, sitting in traffic, and drinking tea – finding sacredness, sanctuary, and flashes of the holy in some of the most automatic and least expected moments of our days
      • And so it’s only fitting that as we wrap up our series, we do so by wrapping up the day: with rest, with sacred Sabbath rest, with returning to sleep so we can wake up and do it all again tomorrow.
        • Especially appropriate during this time of year → fall is a time when we shift from the busyness and activity and extended hours of light in the summer to the more measured and deliberate slowing-down of autumn
          • Starting to think about closing cabins for the summer
          • Starting to think about putting gardens to bed for the winter months ahead
          • Starting to think about farmers harvesting the crop that they’ve spent all summer tending
          • Starting to watch the light diminish slowly, bit by bit every day as our particular patch of the world tilts further away from the sun and we prepare for the extended darkness and cold of winter
          • It feels like our part of the world is preparing for sleep as well.
  • Here’s the thing, though: we’re going to come at this idea of rest from a slightly different angle than you’ve maybe heard this morning. Very often, when we talk about rest and faith, we’re talking about times to seek relaxation and renewal in God. It’s a conversation about being refreshed. It’s a conversation that feels much like taking a deep breath – cleansing and calming and reassuring. But Warren comes at the idea of going to sleep and rest and faith in a different way. – Warren: Our need for sleep reveals that we have limits. We are unable to defend ourselves, to keep ourselves safe, to master the world around us. Sleep exposes reality. We are frail and weak. We need a guide and a guard. No matter how much I love or fear something, ultimately my human need for rest kicks in. Even when my kids are sick and really need me, I can’t stay awake with them day and night for long. Our powerful need for sleep is a reminder that we are finite. God is the only one who never slumbers nor sleeps.[2] → For Warren, the rest that we find in God is a reminder that God is God and we are not. It’s a reminder that the world does not revolve around us – that the world does not, in fact, require our attentiveness, our activity, our overextendedness, or even our worry to continue its course through the heavens. The world will keep on spinning whether we will it to or not. God will continue working in this world even when we do not. God delights in working in and through us, but God’s work is not dependent solely upon us. Because, indeed, God is God, and we are not.
    • This is a blessing! → meant to relieve some of the weight that we have placed upon our own shoulders
      • As parents/grandparents
      • As partners/spouses
      • As children of aging parents
      • As workers in whatever industry you find yourself in (especially teachers/school administrators and staff and health care workers right now ♥)
      • When we go to sleep at night, we cannot function in these roles that make up the fabric of our lives. When we wake up again in the morning, we can once again don whatever hats we need or choose to wear, but when we sleep, we must lay those hats down. We must pause. We must breathe. We must let go and let God.
    • Now believe me, I know that’s often easier said than done, especially in times of great stress and worry. I have spent plenty of nights awake at 3:00 a.m. going over and over this decision or that upcoming event, this parenting dilemma or that task that remains unfinished. And there are plenty of nights when, even if I sleep all the way through, I don’t get as much sleep as I should because I stay up too late or get up way too early in order to get more work done. And, y’all, I know I’m not alone in that.
      • Warren quotes data from a National Health Interview Survey: Nearly 30 percent of adults average less than six hours of sleep per night, significantly under the recommended seven to eight hours. Only about 30 percent of high school students reported getting at least eight hours of sleep on an average school night, though they need around ten. In one national study, over 7 percent of people between twenty-five and thirty-five admitted to actually nodding off while driving in the past month.[3] → Clearly, we need more rest. Clearly, we have taken on the burden of too much – too many tasks, too much worry, too much to think about and turn over and over in our minds. Clearly, we have elevated the notion of productivity over basically everything else in our lives and our days.
  • In this vein, Warren introduces a particular phrase in this chapter → It’s a revolutionary phrase. It’s a phrase that just might turn your life upside-down. Are you read for this? The phrase is: “the blessedness of unproductivity.” “The blessedness of unproductivity.” This basic idea behind this phrase: those moments of pause, of rest, of putting everything down remind us that God’s got this. This idea of the blessedness of unproductivity is why our Scripture reading for this morning is so perfect. Psalm 23 – a psalm of rest; a psalm of letting go; a psalm to remind us that God was and is and always will be there for us, providing and guiding and guarding and blessing.
    • Very 1st verse sets the tone: The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing.[4]
      • Role of a shepherd = something many of us have lost touch with, I think → It’s not the tender, picturesque life of laying about in the fields that Hollywood has conjured up over the decades. Shepherding is rough. Shepherding is constant. Shepherding is taking the well-being of an entire group squarely on your own shoulders – the guiding, the protecting, bringing the new lives into the world and helping the oldest and sickest ones to leave this world as peacefully and comfortably and humanely as possible. Right off the bat, Psalm 23 recognizes not that we play this shepherding role for anyone else but that God plays this shepherding role for us.
        • 2nd part of that first verse underlines the total provision of this shepherding role: I lack nothing → Heb. = literally “not” + complex word that means doing without, being deprived, being deficient → So because God plays that shepherding role for us – that guarding and guiding role – we are not deficient. We are not deficient in what we need. We are not deficient in what we have. And most importantly, we are not deficient in who we are. So often, our busyness and overextended productivity stems from our own insecurities – insecurities about who others think we are and insecurities about who we think we are. We overwork ourselves day in and day out because we do not feel like we are enough. And yet right off the bat, Psalm 23 tells us that because God is our constant source and companion, we are truly and unquestionably enough.
    • Goes on to detail all the ways in which God provides for us: He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters; he keeps me alive. He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name. Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me. Your rod and your staff – they protect me. You set a table for me right in front of my enemies. You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over![5] → Everything that we need – food and water, safety and guidance, blessing and breath itself – come from God. Note that not a single one of those verses says, “Because I did this, God provides,” or “Because I earned this, God rewarded me,” or “Because I believed exactly the right thing … because I followed exactly the right doctrine … because I was a member of the right and only church … God was with me.” None of the provisions – none of those “enoughs” – are tied in any way to any action on our behalf. This psalm is all about how and what God does for us simple because God is God and we are not.
      • Along these lines, Warren poses a powerful and thought-provoking question → First, she makes a great point about our utter and undeniable reliance on God: Each night when we yield to sleep, we practice letting go of our reliance on self-effort and abiding in the good grace of our Creator. Thus embracing sleep is not only a confession of limits; it is also a joyful confession of God’s limitless care for us. For Christians, the act of ceasing and relaxing into sleep is an act of reliance on God. [She then poses her question:] What if Christians were known as a countercultural community of the well-rested – people who embrace our limits with zest and even joy? As believers we can relish sleep as not only necessary but as an embodied response to the truth of Scripture: we are finite, weak creatures who are abundantly cared for by our strong and loving Creator.[6]
        • Echoed in the final verse of the psalm: Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the Lord’s house as long as I live.[7] → Notice that God’s goodness and faithful love will not sit idly and disinterestedly on the sidelines of life waiting for us to make time. “Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life.” While we are working, while we are worrying, while we are weeping, while we are wandering, God’s goodness and faithful love pursues us. While we are praising, while we are playing, while we are preoccupied, while we are procrastinating, God’s goodness and faithful love pursues us.
          • Heb. “pursues” = verb that carried considerable insistence and doggedness → It is a thoroughly active verb. It is a tenacious verb. It is a verb with grit and endurance – one of those verbs that takes on a life of it’s own. That is how God pursues us. That is how God cares for us. That is how God provides for us. That is how God loves us. And that, friends, is why God is God and we are not. So rest easy. Rest true. Rest unburdened. Because God’s got you. Truly, thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Tish Harrison Warren. Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 2016.

[2] Warren, 144.

[3] Warren, 145.

[4] Ps 23:1.

[5] Ps 23:2-5.

[6] Warren, 152.

[7] Ps 23:6.