I Give Up… Exhausting Myself

Sermon preached for the third Sunday of Lent for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Exodus 20:1-17

 Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

***

In 1973, a pair of psychologists decided to study how a person’s religious bent affected their willingness to help other people—their altruistic, prosocial behavior. [1]

So they went to Princeton Theological Seminary, one of our Presbyterian learning institutions, and ran a three day experiment on 40 soon-to-be-pastors. Each student took a survey on why they were religious, then were given one of two tasks: go give a talk on the variety of jobs seminarians can hold, or go preach a sermon on the Good Samarian, having just reviewed that famous story, where a priest and Levite pass by a man robbed and left for dead by the side of the road, but a Samaritan stops to help.  

This is where the experiment gets interesting. A third of the students were told that they were already late, and needed to hurry to the building where they were supposed to give their lecture or sermon. A third were told that the there was no rush, but they shouldn’t waste time either. And a third were told that they had a few minutes and that while they should head over to the other building, they might have to wait a few minutes once they got there.

Do you see where this is going?

In an alleyway between the two buildings, the experimenters had placed an actor slumped down in a doorway, eyes closed, coughing and groaning. The alleyway was narrow enough that to get from one building to the other you effectively had to step right over him. 

Over the course of three days, 40 seminarians paraded past him. When the psychologists crunched the numbers, they were amazed. 

Fewer than half had offered any kind of help at all, even anything as minor as mentioning the man’s plight to someone in the next building. How the seminarians viewed the role of their faith didn’t make any difference; whether they were thinking about future jobs or whether they were literally composing a sermon on the parable of the good Samaritan didn’t make a difference. The main indicating factor of whether or not the seminarians stopped to help the man in the alleyway was how rushed they were. 

That’s it. 

It wasn’t just their ability or willingness to help—it was whether they noticed the man at all. Several subjects who were told they were late and had to hurry didn’t even remember seeing the man—despite having to step right over him as he groaned on the ground. 

Hurry put blinders on them, cancelling out all their well-intended beliefs about the need to be Jesus’ hands and feet and giving the lie to their carefully crafted lectures and sermons about ministering to others. 

The psychologists concluded that “ethics become a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases.” Although the experiment was small, the simple truth it showed is critical: we are better people when we are not rushed, distracted, and exhausted.

The 10 commandments are a foreboding list of thou shalt nots, and at first blush they can seem like a quaint burden that no sensible modern person would take seriously. For the Israelites, though, who had been living under the capricious and cruel rules of their Egyptian enslavers, the 10 commandments must have seemed like an astonishing amount of freedom. And together, these ten rules for life actually create a pretty incredible road map to keeping a community safe together—safe in God’s grace, and safe from each other’s worst impulses. It is hard to create a strong, loving community when jealousy runs rampant and people lie about and to each other, much less when you’ve got stealing and murdering messing up the works. 

Some of our ten commandments are still followed—well, religiously—no murdering, no stealing. But some we hand wave away. We all covet a little bit, that’s not so bad, and Sabbath? Sabbath is a relic. Who has time for a whole day off nowadays?

And yet the command to keep Sabbath is almost smack in the middle of the list, marking the transition from commands about God to commands about people. For God, the Sabbath command is not incidental or optional. It’s central to how God’s community is supposed to function. 

The 1973 Princeton experiment showed that the students’ willingness to stop and help the man in trouble was less about their morals or faith than it was about their busy-ness. And so I wonder, would the rest of the commandments fall into place more easily if we had more Sabbath in our lives?

I’m not saying that murder would disappear from this planet if we all took more naps. But I do know that I am not my best self when exhausted; that I am far more prone to jealousy, to anger, to rudeness, to self-importance. I know that it is easier to be satisfied with what I have when I have taken time to enjoy it. I know that I have to resist the temptation to make an idol of my own indispensability. 

I know Sabbath won’t solve every problem, but what would the world be like if everyone got the rest they need? How would our relationships with each other change if we weren’t all running on empty all the time?

The lure of busy-ness is highly seductive. How many of us want to be seen as busy, as people who are productive, who get stuff done, who are needed everywhere, who are important? The idol of busy-ness feels glamorous, even while it makes excuses. Oh, sorry I never called you back. Sorry I couldn’t come help. Sorry I was a little rude. I’m just so busy. 

Our addiction to busy-ness is killing us. Studies have shown repeatedly that humans need rest—sleep, certainly, but also mental, social, emotional rest. We have to be “off” the clock sometime, or we literally crumble at the seams. Headaches, fatigue, high blood pressure, irritability—we are sacrificing ourselves to the god of the 24/7 life.

Living life exhausted kills relationships, too. Overwork, stress, distance, no time to reconnect, no time to just be together—these things kill friendships, and marriages, and turn parents and children into virtual strangers. 

And as we cling ever more deeply to the idea that we are so important that we cannot stop, we make ourselves more important than God, who worked six days to create the world, and on the seventh day rested. The world spun on without God turning the wheel. It can spin on without us. 

During Lent, a small group of us have been working our way through the book Sabbath in the Suburbs by the Reverend Mary Ann McKibben Dana. As a mother of three and part-time pastor in the hectic DC suburbs, Dana and her husband couldn’t fathom how they would manage taking a full day off each week. But for a year, they gave it a shot. They took a weekly Sabbath. Sometimes it was beautiful and restful and holy. Sometimes it was annoying and inconvenient. But they made it part of their family rhythm, and they did not regret it. 

I’m loving working through the book right now, in what we pray is the third quarter of this frustrating pandemic experience. Since last March, it has often felt like time was meaningless—days blended into each other, months passed with no real change, the external rhythms of school and work and sports and errands and proms and graduations and vacations all faltered and fell away. Time stretched on in an endless, meaningless, exhausting way. 

But the work of Sabbath is the work of making time meaningful. Of setting aside time to behave differently than the rest of the week. 

Like most of us, I tend think of Sabbath as a time to rest. And when I imagine resting, I imagine a lot of sitting or napping or otherwise not doing anything. But Dana opened my eyes to some of the other facets of Sabbath. She talks about Sabbath as a time of rest, but also a time of delight, and a time of balance. Remembering that Sabbath was given to the Hebrew people as the direct opposite of their time in slavery, Dana suggests that we use our Sabbath time to rekilter our lives from what is exhausting us. 

If we are sitting at the computer all week, then sitting on the Sabbath may not really be what our bodies need. We may need to move—to walk, to run, to stretch, to play. 

If we are stuck on screens all week, an ebook or movie may not help. We may need the far horizon of God’s creation or the tactile, physical delight of painting or sculpting or knitting or baking or woodworking or even mechanics. 

If we are isolated all week, we may need to reach out to friends, but if we are oversocialized, we may need time alone. 

If we have been doing a lot of hard emotional work—like arguing with a spouse or raising a teenager—we may need to escape with a fluffy book. 

If we have been numbing ourselves to the hurts of the world, we may need to let ourselves cry. If the week has been tough and our hearts are tender, we may need to indulge ourselves in the things that bring us joy. 

Sabbath does not look the same for each of us. We need different kinds of rest, and our lives demand different rebalancing acts. For some of us, Sabbath will be a day; for others, an afternoon; for others, an hour each morning. But Dana cautions that we can’t simply expect Sabbath to happen on its own; it takes a rhythm, not strict but steady, to change a lifetime of conditioning.

The Princeton experiment found that hurry had a cost. Busy, exhausted, distracted people do not have anything in the tank for compassion, for others or for themselves. But more than that, they’re not even likely to notice that anyone needs compassion in the first place. 

Giving up busy-ness is hard. It means saying no to things we feel are needed, important, perhaps even things we desperately want to do. It means giving up our self-image of being indispensible. It means fewer hours in the week to get our work done. It may mean awkward conversations with family and friends who cannot fathom why we’d be so seemingly self-indulgent as to think we deserved a moment’s rest. 

But friends, we have to give up what exhausts us. We have to give up this addiction to the unending cycle of what comes next on the schedule. Because it is keeping us from loving our neighbor, and ourselves, and even God. 

Start small. Start with five minutes of Sabbath. In the morning, watching the birds as you make your coffee. Or when you get home from work, take five minutes to sing to the radio in your car. Take a daily walk. Read a daily poem. Leave room in your schedule for the unexpected. If you at all can, say yes to what makes your heart leap. If you at all can, say no to what makes it sink. 

Sabbath may seem like a quaint relic of a bygone era. But I believe it is a crucial antidote for our time, a gift straight from God to keep God’s people healthy and whole. 

So friends, remember the Sabbath. Remember it is God’s command, and God’s gift. Remember you have the right to rest. Remember you have the right to rest. 

Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy. 

Amen.


[1] https://stanford.app.box.com/s/bfnb1l20humj6j4dcqkq939uddgu2fw0

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