17 September 2009

Proper 16 B - Come Rest Awhile

Sermon for July 19, 2009

Seventh Sunday of Pentecost

Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56

“Come Rest Awhile”

By Sheila Plant

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.

Some time ago, while researching for a project on the Old Testament, I was struck by the story of Namaan, a Syrian commander. I imagined this commander as having great presence, dressed in the finery befitting his status, surrounded by staff and soldiers who responded to his every whim. However, all that finery, all the trappings of his station could not hide one glaring fact. Namaan had leprosy, and his skin was a mess with big, ugly blotches all over him. At some point he received a message from the prophet Elisha. Namaan could be cured of his leprosy by dipping himself seven times in the River Jordan. However, he resisted. His staff tried to persuade him to do it by asking, “If the prophet asked you to do something difficult or dangerous to cure your leprosy, you’d do it wouldn’t you? So, why don’t you try something as simple as dipping yourself in the Jordan?”

Namaan was a proud man, and perhaps the idea of baring himself in front of his soldiers was somewhat embarrassing or below his dignity. But, he was a smart man and conceded their point by going straight to the Jordan and by the time he towelled himself off, his skin had become as fresh and smooth as the skin of a baby.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to do something. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” In other words, he tells them to take a break to devote some time to “being” rather than “doing.” He often tells us the same thing- “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” He is telling us, too, to take a break and devote some of our time to “being” rather than “doing”.

But, we often ignore that command. We want to follow the path of Jesus and are willing to take whatever action is necessary to keep us on that path. But when it comes time to rest, when it comes time to Jesus telling us to take a break for awhile, we respond as Namaan did at first. We would do something big and brave, but to do something so simple is beyond us and we ignore Jesus.

When was the last time you announced that you were having a ME day-resting, doing nothing, only to find that a few hours into your resting day, you were bored. You felt guilty, fidgety, and all the while you couldn’t turn your mind off from thinking of all things that needed doing. Thinking of “doing” instead of “being” as Jesus had asked of his disciples.

Jesus had his reasons for asking his disciples to rest. They had just returned from a mission on which he dispatched them. He had sent them out in pairs and in haste. They were not to encumber themselves with gear or supplies, but to simply trust local hospitality to meet their needs.

They were not to linger where they were not wanted. Instead they were to be on the move, calling people to repentance, casting out demons, anointing the sick. It was work they had never done before and once they returned they must have been exhausted. How refreshing Jesus’ response must have been to what they did. Notice he didn’t respond to their 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 told his weary disciples to rest awhile. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” These words must have felt like cool, refreshing water to people who are slaked with thirst.

Many of us do critically important work and find ourselves exhausted. Yet, we don’t rest. We might even believe that we cannot or should not rest. We push ourselves in a way we would never push others. Our life may be productive, we may check off everything on our “to do” list, but the time comes when deep down we recognize something is wrong, that we lack a sense of deep meaning, so we feel cheated.

The disciples have returned from their travels, but the pace has not slackened. As we read in the gospel, “Many were coming and going and they had no leisure time to eat.” Does that sound familiar? Is your workplace like that? Your home? Do you sometimes eat in the car as you go from meeting to meeting? Rather than an exception, this is a common experience for people today. Many are so busy coming and going they have no leisure time. 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 God?

Jesus listened to the disciples as they reported on all they did. He did not, however, tell them to throw themselves back into action again with an even greater abandon.

He didn’t ask them to do something daring and difficult, big and brave. Rather, what he asks for is so disarming in its simplicity. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.”

Jesus wants us to rest.

But, in today’s world of frantic paced busyness and stretching ourselves in all directions, we see rest as a four letter word.
If people are resting, we may be suspicious of them. Why aren’t they working? If we are resting, we are suspicious of ourselves and we can even make ourselves feel guilty for not doing anything. There is always more to do, and further ways to justify our existence by what we produce. In the face of all that we should be doing, Jesus smiles and says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.”

If asked most of us could recite the pattern of our work as we engage in it day by day, week by week. After I retired from a long teaching career, it took a bit of getting used to not doing things according the bells at recess, lunch or home time. But can this be said for our resting patterns? Is there a pattern in place that insures that going off by ourselves to rest for a while is a reality rather than a desire.

Those patterns may not be there but we can take steps to establish them. Gradually we can build into our lives rhythms of rest and solitude to balance out the rhythms that already pulse.

It can be done.

In her book called “Sabbath Keeping”, Donna Schaper helps us to see that the Sabbath is not something to keep but rather a way of living that helps us become people who work when it’s appropriate, who rest when it’s appropriate and who even rest and work at the same time. She sees the Sabbath as a road to living a life of plenty. During one of my pre-ordination retreats, our leader told us over lunch one day that he would see us at dinner. We naturally assumed that someone else was leading us for the afternoon session, but when we asked what we would be doing, he replied, “nothing”. We would be “being” not “doing”. Jesus was telling me, “come away to a deserted place by yourself and rest for awhile.” I saw no one else that afternoon, and once I became accustomed to the silence and the solitude, I realized that I was doing something simple, and I was listening to Jesus and it felt right. How I spent my time “being” may have been completely different than how someone else spent their time “being.” But it didn’t matter because I was beginning to put a pattern of balance in place.

The French theologian and Mathematician, Blaise Pascal, once said that more than half the world’s ills came from the fact that some people cannot sit in a room alone. That would mean they would have trouble “being” instead of “doing”. Being alone in that room can mean we have, for however brief a period, too much time on our hands, too much time to think. When was the last time you heard the phrase, “Can’t you sit still for just five minutes?” Was the question directed at you, or were you doing the asking? Often asked out of frustration for someone who is constantly on the go, we could interpret this question as an invitation not for “doing” but rather for “being.” Our refusal to rest can hurt us, hurt others and hurt the tasks to which we devote ourselves.

A lot of us try to function without the Rest Factor that Jesus wanted us to include in our lives. We’re plenty busy but the results can be disappointing. When we factor in some rest, some Sabbath time, we are certainly not working as much, but what we are doing is more significant and more meaningful. God does not need to remind us that all that we are and all that we do are gifts from God in the first place.

Like Namaan, we may be willing to do something dangerous and daring, big and brave when what we’re really being asked to do is something quite simple. Namaan needed to slip into the healing waters of the River Jordan. What we are asked to do is equally simple: slip into the healing waters of a life that makes room for regular rest, a life marked by Sabbath time. Today God 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 soul, and we learn to listen and to heed his words to us: “Come away to a place all by yourselves and rest a little while with me.”

And so as we go forward into a new week, let us remember to take a rest without feeling pressure or guilt and begin to establish patterns of a balance between being and doing. May we all find healing in our lives marked with Sabbath time.

Thanks be to God.

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