Seventh Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 11

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July 19, 2009

We are in many ways a weary people. Literally and figuratively, we are tired.

A survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that 47 million American adults suffer from sleep deprivation. That’s almost a quarter of the adult population in America. That’s a lot of weary people. And it is a serious problem. Fatigue and exhaustion can have serious consequences. Lack of sleep can affect our physical and mental health. It can also be deadly. Sixty percent of licensed drivers reported that they drove cars while drowsy. Fatigue has contributed to many auto accidents and fatalities. Sleep deprivation is a serious problem, and it has a number of causes: from lifestyle choices, to work, to illnesses, to sleeping disorders. The results of the survey are clear: many Americans, too many Americans, both adults and children, are not getting enough sleep. We are, quite literally, a weary people.

However, we really didn’t need a survey to tell us this. Just ask someone how they are doing these days, and listen to what they say. Have you ever heard people say things like: “I’m exhausted.” “I’m running myself ragged.” “I’m wiped out.” “I’m spent.” “I’m running on empty.” “I just need a nap.” “I need caffeine.”

People are tired these days and they will tell you so. We are over-worked, over-committed, over-extended, stretched-thin, stressed-out, and burnt-out. We are too busy and we are too tired, and we will tell you about it. It seems like there is some kind of strange competition going on where we try to outdo each other with how busy and how tired we are. In a curious way, busyness has become a socially desirable good.

Kerby Anderson, in an essay “Time and Busyness,” puts it this way, “Being busy is chic and trendy. Pity the poor person who has an organized life and a livable schedule. Everyone, it seems, is running out of time.”

We are a busy, busy people these days, and ask somebody how they are doing, and you’re more than likely going to hear about how worn-out they are. We didn’t need a national survey to tell us what we already knew: we are, in many ways, a weary people.

The pace of modern life has picked up, with keyboards clicking and computers crunching and cell phones chirping with their instantaneous messages around the globe. Contradicting the optimistic predictions of people in the 1950s and 1960s, these technological feats have not led to more leisure time for Americans. Quite the contrary. Most people are busier than ever. The average workweek has increased rather than decreased in the last thirty years.

Kerby Anderson quotes a Manhattan architect, who designs automated environments, as saying, “Technology is increasing the heartbeat. We are inundated with information. The mind can’t handle it all. The pace is so fast now, I sometimes feel like a gunfighter dodging bullets.”

And we are not just physically tired. The Germans have a good word for this other kind of weariness: weltschmerz, which means “world weariness.” We are wearied by many things in our lives. In our work lives, people speak of being tired of the rat race, the daily grind, or climbing the corporate ladder. In our political lives, people are tired of broken promises, empty rhetoric, and partisan bickering. In our personal lives, we are tired of being alone, tired of the bar scene, tired of the routine. We are tired of feeling angry all the time, or feeling afraid all the time, or feeling worthless all the time.

In so many ways we are a tired and weary people.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus addresses the weariness and busyness of his apostles. We are told that the apostles gathered around Jesus and told him all that they were doing and all that they were teaching, and, apparently, they were very busy. They were so busy, we are told, that they didn’t even have time to eat. So many people were coming and going, that they didn’t even have a chance to grab something on the go. So Jesus’ words to them must have felt like cool, refreshing water to people who are slaked with thirst. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

How refreshing this response must have been to his weary disciples. Notice Jesus didn’t respond to the apostles’ reports about what they were doing by going over a new strategic plan. Notice he didn’t respond to their reports of what they were teaching by going over a new curriculum. No. He said to his weary apostles, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Don’t we all long to hear these words spoken to us by our Lord? Don’t we all desire to hear the invitation to come to a place all by ourselves and simply rest a while in the presence of our gracious God?

No doubt our faith requires us to do certain things as well as believe certain things. No doubt we are created to find meaning and value in the work we do, especially when it is done to the greater glory of God and the service and up-building of our neighbors. But our weariness in what we do and our pervasive busyness are signs that something isn’t quite right.

To put it in contemporary terms, our pervasive business and weariness are signs of the failed illusion that we are in control of our lives, that we are self-made men and women. To put it in theological terms, they are signs of the illusion that we can make ourselves right with God through our actions and beliefs. Since these are illusions, we need to keep propping them up. We keep adding one more thing to our to-do list, rather than take some time and reflect on why we are doing all these things.

And rather than see weariness as a sign that something is out of whack, we take it as a sign that we are making headway. See how busy and weary I am? Doesn’t that mean that I am valuable? Doesn’t that somehow make me worthy of admiration? Doesn’t that merit at least a little divine favor?

When the apostles gathered around Jesus, they told him all that they were doing and all that they were teaching. They were so busy, so many people were coming and going, they didn’t even have time to eat. And Jesus said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Our Lord knows what we need, even when we do not. When we gather around him, we may want to tell him all the things we have done and all the things we have taught others. We hold up before him our busyness and our weariness as objects worthy of praise and reward. We tell him that we have been so busy that we haven’t even had time to eat. And we say to ourselves, surely all these things will prove how important and valuable we are.

And our gracious Lord looks past all our illusions and he doesn’t even mention them, because if he did, he would have to remind us that all that we are and all that we do are gifts from God in the first place. Rather, he looks into our hearts and sees what we truly desire, what we truly need. He makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside the still waters and restores our souls. And he says to us, “Come away to a place all by yourselves and rest a little while with me.”