August 24, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Genesis 2:1-3, Luke 8:40-42, 49-56, Acts 20:7-12

Holy Is The Rest

This is something everybody does, but we’re usually not proud of it. It is perfectly fine in the privacy of your own home, but it could be embarrassing if it takes you by surprise somewhere else. In many cities, it is illegal to do this on the subway. For some reason, we often find it offensive to see a homeless person doing this in public, but it is always okay for puppies and babies.  Of course, what I’m talking about is sleep.

The thing about sleep, it seems there is never enough. In the U.S., teenagers and young adults are incessantly sleep deprived.  So are older people, and middle aged people, and children. People in the hospital can’t get sleep —you keep getting woken up so they can come in to check something. At college, whether you study all night or party all night, there’s very little sleeping. If you live in a house with a baby, you’re probably tired most of the time. Very wealthy people are exhausted. They work long hours, and there is pressure so intense and stress so deep you can feel it ringing in your bones. Very poor people are exhausted. They work long hours, and there is pressure so intense and stress so deep you can feel it ringing in your bones.

This makes me wonder. Could you imagine if there were some way to give people rest the same way we hand out bags of groceries at the food pantry? Some kind of service that would offer a safe place for a few hours with a comfy couch, and free child care, and no phones allowed. Just come in and sleep; won’t cost you a dime. Could you imagine if we could give ourselves permission to rest? If we lived in a world where you could call into work tired…  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary, and I will give you rest.” This is a good promise. Holy is the rest, promised by the Lord.

Now it is also the case that sleep is a rather touchy subject in the Gospels.  In the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there is an undercurrent of concern around the coming of the new age. The old age has passed, but the new age, the promised reign of God, has not yet arrived. The people were expecting it in their lifetime, so there’s a sense of being caught between worlds. This is the background for teachings that admonish hearers to “Keep awake! For you do not know the day or the hour!” In these Gospels, the disciples disappoint Jesus in the hours before his death when they are not able to stay awake and keep watch (Matthew 26:40-46, Mark 14:37-41, Luke 22:45-46).

Indeed, sleep is an unmistakable reminder of our humanity; it calls us right into a place of tenderness and vulnerability where your guard is let down, like it or not. Sleep is an unmistakable reminder of our holiness, beings connected by breath and dreams to the Holy Spirit, source of life.

Today we hear two scripture readings, one from the Gospel of Luke and one from the second part of Luke, the book of Acts. Both stories feature youth who are pronounced dead, but really the Spirit is still in them, and they are just asleep. Being dead is not the same as being asleep, and may we always know the difference.

In the story from Luke, Jarius, a leader of the synagogue, finds Jesus and falls down at his feet begging him for help. His twelve year old daughter is dying. Then the story shifts and the crowd presses in on Jesus, and he accidentally heals the woman who touches his cloak. And then it’s too late. Someone from the house of Jarius comes and says, she’s dead. “Your daughter is dead.”

You might think this is the end, and it is not the end, because Jesus interrupts: “Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.” Jesus goes to the house with Jarius, and all the people were weeping. When Jesus told them, “She is not dead, she is only sleeping,” they laughed at him, and their laughter and their tears got mixed up together. But Jesus was right. He called out to the girl, her spirit returned, and she got up. He asked her parents to bring her something to eat.

What’s not to love about this miracle? The girl isn’t dead, she’s asleep, and the people who were crying are now laughing. But in our world, we know the truth. Twelve year old daughters can actually die, no matter how hard we believe. So this is great for the family of Jarius, but what about my family and yours? Why is the miracle always for somebody else? Is a question just about anybody could be asking.

Now the story from Acts goes like this. The believers had gathered in an upper room to break bread, and Paul was preaching. He kept on talking all the way until midnight. Maybe he was very boring or maybe, as some have suggested, all the lamps in the room made the air stale.[1] However it happened, a young man named Eutychus fell asleep then fell out of the third story window.

Eutychus is found to be dead. You might think this would put an end to that sermon, but it is not the end.  Paul goes down, takes him in his arms, “Do not be afraid. His life is still in him.” Then Paul goes back upstairs, eats dinner, and keeps talking with the people until dawn. In the meantime, the people go and find out that Eutychus is alive. Not dead, only sleeping.

Being dead is not the same as being asleep, and may we always know the difference. It’s the tragic teaching of Romeo and Juliet, and a salient lesson for all time. We human people are ambitious and hardworking, we live life full and fast, and we run the risk of thinking there are only two choices. You  either have life full of sizzle and zing -one hundred and ten percent, or you have death — nothing.

What about the rest? What about that wobbly middle place between life at its brightest and death at its darkest? Maybe this place is grief, or creativity, or the wilderness between heaven and earth. Maybe this place is sleep, or depression, or the meantime. Here there is rest, and holy is the rest. Holy are days devoted to staying in bed and feeling more deeply than you ever have before. Holy is the drifting and the wondering how long…

Earlier this year I read a book called Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It by Jennifer Michael Hecht. For the most part, this is an academic exploration of suicide throughout history and in different cultures, its stories and its rules. What I find compelling is the author lays out her agenda in the introduction, so there is no doubt. In fact, her motivation for the book is the title: stay. Life isn’t just something we have, it is something we choose. Staying alive is not our default setting, not a position to take for granted. Staying alive is actually a brave choice that we face every day.

Also in her book is an argument of luminous hope. She draws upon the theory that shows the suicide of one person affects many others. It can even carry the inadvertent consequence of inspiring sympathy suicides.  We think, if he couldn’t make it, maybe I can’t either. But what if the opposite is also true? Hecht writes, “If suicide has a pernicious influence on others, then staying alive has the opposite influence: it helps keep people alive. By staying alive, we are contributing something precious to the world.”[2]

I saw this happen on my facebook feed in the days following the suicide of Robin Williams.  Alongside favorite quotes and memories from his career, I came upon several posts from people who have come too close to suicide, but survived, and went on to find that these days, things are better.

Sometimes we think hope is dead, when really it is sleeping. I mean no shame at all for those who let go and die, but those of us who stay, those who can say, “I know depression and I’m still here,” you make life more possible for everyone. So maybe the miracle isn’t always for somebody else; maybe it’s ours to share.

Friends, you don’t have to be one hundred percent zinging and sizzling with the fullness of life, and you don’t have to be dead either, all the time. There is the rest, and holy is the rest. Here is some hard truth which needs to get said out loud in this place: It’s allowed to be you who needs a break. It’s allowed to be you who needs help. If you need help, please ask for help. If you need a break, please take a break. And if you can give somebody else a break, please do. If you need rest, please rest. God rests.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, darkness covered the face of the deep, and the word of love spoke up from the dark. For six days, God calls the world into being and sees that it is good. First the light out of the dark, then the seas and the sky, the flowers and the trees, and the sun and the moon. The LORD makes the sea monsters, then all the creeping things that creep upon the earth, and the people too. You might think this is the end, and this is not the end. On the seventh day, God rests all blessed and holy.

Then God gets up again another day. And so do we. Amen.

[1] see footnotes HarperCollins Study Bible NRSV page 2098.

[2] Hecht, Jennifer Michael. Stay: A  History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It. Yale UP, New Haven: 2013. page 5.

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