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Overworked: The Third Sunday of Lent

April 14, 2011

OVERWORKED
The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on The Third Sunday of Lent , March 27, 2011

Genesis 1:26- 2:4 Deuteronomy 5:1-21

This Past Wednesday I enjoyed a Sabbath. I had a day of leisure from which I emerged restored, refreshed, renewed, and reborn. (Thank you Carmen for that set of words). I started the day with two goals: to read a book, and to take a nap. My mom had just given me a copy of Toni Morrison’s new book, A Mercy, about four women living in the exile from themselves, their families of origin and the land they called home as they are transported (as orphan, widow, slave and foundling) to a small farm in the new world of America in 1690. It was a wonderfully evocative, languid read of only about 150 pages, and it took me a whole day of lazy reading, but I finished the last page before bed. And I did take a nap – two hours in the middle of the afternoon. The day passed quickly because I was absorbed in the seventeenth century world, and in the world of my dreams. But by the time of my evening prayers, my mind was so alive and alert that I had mentally dashed off the outline for this sermon.

Time is a gift. In fact, it was God’s first gift. “God said, let there be light. And there was light. And there was evening, and morning, the first day.” The poet Philip Larkin asks “What are days for?” and responds to his own question by saying, “Days are where we live?” Each day is a gift in which we may love and serve God in our neighbor, where we live our vocation. But you know, as I know, that our days can absorb all the activities we can put in them and that they happen whether we notice them or not. We have all had the experience wondering where the days, or even weeks, months or more have gone when we weren’t looking.

And time has rhythms of its own: time does not just pass, it can be experienced as thrillingly or agonizingly expansive (ask young lovers, or those in pain). Or it can be experienced as swiftly fleeting.

And so, when creation was complete, and human beings, women and men, were given the vocation to serve and preserve creation, God smiled, and enjoyed the first Sabbath. An act we were made to imitate and enjoy. For in doing so we imitate, we image, God’s rhythm of work and rest, enjoying what God has made just as God does.

For Christians, rather than Sabbath as the culmination of the weekly labors (the interruption of ceaseless toil, the final day of the week), the Sabbath became the first day, the Lord’s Day, a day to give shape to all that follows; God’s first word: rest.

Do any of you remember the great “leisure scare” of the 1950s? After two centuries of industrial labor in the industrial economy, many experts believed the problem of excessive working hours had been solved. Labor unions, civic reformers, Social Gospelers and many churches had led a struggle for shorter hours, the forty hour work week, the end of child labor, workplace safety, etc., which we do well to remember today. And then with the post-war consumer economy and the advent of new technologies, experts worried that we would have little to do. It was projected that economic progress would yield steady reductions in working time. The “four day week was thought to ‘loom on the horizon.’” By today, it was estimated that we could either have a twenty-two hour week, a sixth month work year, or a standard retirement age of thirty-eight.”

In 1959 the Harvard Business Review announced that “boredom, which used to bother only aristocrats, had become a common curse.”

What would ordinary Americans do with all that extra time? How would housewives cope with having their husbands around the house for three- or four-day weekends? The pending crisis of leisure came in for intensive scrutiny. Foundations funded research projects on it. The American Council of Churches met on the issue of spare time. Institutes and Departments of Leisure Studies cropped up as academia prepared for the onslaught of free time. There were many like Harvard Sociologist David Reisman who wrote about “play” in the lonely crowd, and the “abyss” and “stultification” of mass leisure. (from Juliet Schor, The Overworked American)

The fact that few [people] seemed to know what to do with the gift of time, is telling for how we got to where we are today.

For, beginning in 1948, work hours began to increase, even though it took a long time for anyone to notice. Work hours grew for men and women, for working class and professional alike, across a wide range of industries. Today, the term ‘leisure crisis’ could be used to describe our “time poverty” and the way we are over-worked. Within my lifetime – which I take to be the measure of distance between my mom’s experience of raising me and my experience of raising my own son – within my lifetime Americans are working an extra month a year and have forty percent less time to be restored, refreshed, renewed, and reborn. We cope with this by spending less time sleeping and eating, less time with our children, and by having stressed out marriages, relationships, pocketbooks, and bodies. Can I get a witness?

Of course while Americans of all ages, races, classes, professions and incomes are overworked – the very poor are not only overworked but underpaid! We live in a culture of overwork in which we are admired if we are busy: you know the saying, “If you want something done, ask someone who is busy.” There is one huge exception to our culture of overwork: the growing numbers of people who are unemployed or underemployed who experience what can only be called “involuntary leisure,” which is no gift at all?

The story of creation and the Commandments given to God’s free people tell us that enjoying the Sabbath is the first act of living the way God intends. This will be the topic for another day, but on the Sabbath hangs the Biblical concept of social justice, economic equality, the care of creation and the practice of human hospitality; the enjoyment of Sabbath is the glue of covenant community and the requirement for the worship of God. The liberation of Pharaoh’s slaves began with a demand for the Sabbath, a day of rest and worship, and the Sabbath commandment as it is recorded in Deuteronomy reminds us that continued enjoyment of the Sabbath is not only the mark of our freedom from ceaseless toil but they way we stay free. Manna was provided in the desert on a Sabbath schedule; the culture of accumulation, greed, guilt and debt are to be attacked with Sabbath regularity; Sabbath rhythms even shaped the promise of return for God’s exiles in Babylon.

If, as great church Father Athanasius said, “God, in Christ, became a human being so that human beings might become like God,” we can begin in no better place than the practice of Sabbath. The spiritual life begins with receiving God’s gift of time and learning what to do with it.

*So, how can we re-claim the gift of time?

Ask yourself this question: If you had an extra hour each day, what would you do with it? I have asked that question of almost fifty people this week. I have long thought it a good question to begin a process of spiritual direction or discernment, because it can put us in touch with our deep needs and God’s gift of time.

By far, two answers stand out: most of us would read a book or get some sleep. The reading does not surprise me, as it is my own answer. Good reading nourishes our soul, expands our imagination, deepens our capacity for compassion; novels allow us to enter sympathetically into the life of another or into another world. How many of us have increased our capacity to love or forgive through reading about a particular person significantly different from yourself? How many of us can imagine Afghanistan because we read The Kite Runner? Reading also informs us about the world we live in and the needs of our neighbors. I know that some of you pray with your newspapers.

Now…, how many of you have fallen asleep while reading? Few of us get the sleep our bodies require. On average we need 90 minutes to two hours more sleep a night for optimal health. Teenagers particularly suffer because, according to many studies, we send them to school about two hours before their brains are awake. No kidding. Adolescents are biologically oriented toward the evening. Most who have had spiritual experiences report them at sunset, rather than sunrise.

Since the earthquake in the Pacific, I have been turning to the New Zealand Prayer Book in my prayers. Earlier this week I discovered the following line in the service for evening prayer:

It is but lost labour that we haste to rise early,
And so late take [our] rest, and eat the bread of anxiety.
For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep.

According to my research this week, a fair number of us in this congregation say we would use an extra hour to pray. More in this congregation than I have met anywhere else before. And I am not surprised: this is a praying congregation. One respondent on the church facebook page said she would “take a quiet walk near water and meditate.” Another facebook fan said she would spend the hour with her Bible and her journal, while noting that last year she gave up a day of work for Lent. (Now we’re on to something). And one honest soul said, “If I were given an extra hour in the day, I would probably squander it.”

My friends, how can we convince anyone that we are saved by God’s free love, grace and mercy, and not by our works, if we never stop working. Being busy (with work, at home, on the athletic field, even at church) may make us look and feel important, but if we cannot, in the words of the Psalm, “Be still and know that God is God”, then we will have difficulty recognizing, let alone receiving, God’s free gifts.

As your pastor, I will take a Sabbath day each week. With a new music director coming soon, and the establishment of rhythms in the office with the staff and volunteers, I will take a day each week to be restored, refreshed, renewed, and reborn. And I will do my best to keep Sundays as a Sabbath for you. On Sundays we will meet together within the time God has given us – to celebrate our freedom, to honor the God in whose image we are made, and to be a beacon in the community to draw people into relationship and service with Jesus Christ. Amen? Amen.

*Those interested in pursuing the practice of Sabbath are encouraged to pick up Dorothy Bass’s book Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time. (Jossey Bass, 2000), or her chapter on Sabbath in the 1997 collection Practicing our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (now available in a revised and updated edition). Youth may engage the gift of time through the chapter on “Time” in Way to Live: Christian Practices for Teens, edited by Dorothy Bass and Don Richter. (Upper Room, 2002).

[I am new to blogging. The text version of this sermon had some pretty cool footnotes (on Barth’s view of the sabbath, and some necessary ones, like the citation of Juliet Schor’s book The Overworked American from which I haev quoted and paraphrased. I have all the citations]

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