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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Rest from our Labors
August 30, 2018

This weekend marks the unofficial end of the summer vacation season, capped by the Labor Day holiday. Both Labor Day and its counterpart holiday at summer’s beginning, Memorial Day, are marked more by their immense retail sales than by serious contemplation of their historic significance.

Labor Day was birthed in response to widespread outcries for better treatment of industrial workers in the late nineteenth century. Many people lost their lives in labor reform riots over the years leading up to the national establishment of a holiday to honor the American laborer.

More than a century later, have we finally established full equality of labor opportunities and benefits for all? Alas, there remains in our society a glaring income differential between men and women, as well as between whites and people of color. Sadly, this is also true in the church, despite the apostolic declaration that Jesus obliterates the distinctions between male and female, employers and laborers, and different ethnicities. (Galatians 3:27-28) “Equal pay for equal work” is but one expression of the desire that all people be treated equally. Other expressions of this sentiment are equally appropriate: Equal voice. Equal process. Equal opportunity. Equal respect.

Jesus entreats all who are weary from carrying burdens they bear disproportionately, “Come to me.” (Matthew 11:28-30) In my arms, at my side, you will find rest. As his body on this earth, the Church ought likewise be a place of rest from oppressive injustice. Its bosom should be a haven from the depredations of a world ravaged by the strong taking advantage of the weak.

The quest for rest seems as elusive within the life of the church as in the surrounding world. We are glad to work our most dedicated members as hard as possible, something that comes back to haunt us when they are no longer willing or able to sign up for yet another year of teaching a class, or another cycle of service on the session. Weariness in well-doing has replaced the joy it used to bring, and suddenly it seems nigh impossible to find enough people to staff Sunday School, serve on committees, sing in the choir, and the list goes on.

When I was a pastor, about this time every year we celebrated “Rally Day” to kick off the new fall program season. It was a festive anticipation of wonderful new prospects in the wings, but also an expression of relief that we had finally gotten enough recruits to fill all the open work slots. Our church members were very active, a sign of real health. But I learned that some wonderful people were skating on the edge of burnout.

Jesus doesn’t burn his followers out. Nor should the church. Instead, he promises them rest. So should the church.

That does not mean they should be idle. “Take my yoke on you,” he entreats his followers. There is work to do. Miraculously, his yoke is easy! “Yoke” and “ease” seem mutually incompatible, yet for Jesus they go hand in glove. When we wear his yoke, we don’t get exhausted by the work.

Is the church’s yoke also easy, its burden light? Or are we burning out the saints who have faithfully answered the call to service?

Key to keeping the yoke easy is Jesus’ way of spreading the load. Nobody is called to work alone, only in tandem, which is how a yoke functions. We do not carry our load on our own, but we share burdens together. (Galatians 6:2) This was how the early church operated, so none would be unduly burdened. Except for his praying and his dying, Jesus himself conducted virtually all his ministry together with his companions.

Our ability to handle our responsibilities with grace and delight depends on our sharing them broadly with others. Here is a mark of a church, and of a presbytery, that is struggling rather than thriving – it keeps relying on the same few people to do most of its work, rather than branching out to include others who are new to the task.

As a pastor, I came to believe that nobody ought to be received as a member of the church without being assigned a task in the church’s life and mission. We gave every new member a job, even if it meant going beyond their comfort zones, or ours. It meant that some of our veterans had to hand off to new folk some things they had long treasured doing.

How is it for us? Are we intentionally sharing the work of the Gospel so everyone has a part to play? Paradoxically, getting more of our people to work yields more rest for all. Would that all of the church joined on “Rally Day” in the work of the Lord, not just the usual suspects!

Yours in our Lord’s work,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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