July 22nd – 8th Sunday after Pentecost

You know, when I started preparing this week’s service, I was struck by the richness of today’s Scripture. I was really tempted to focus on the Old Testament reading for a couple of reasons. First, it talks about David, and his desire to build a home for the Ark of the Covenant. But the Lord did not want this, because he felt that God should not be confined to one place, but that we should see him everywhere. This emphasizes for me the idea that we should not be tied to a building, that our energies should be invested in worship rather than the trappings of it.
Then, there was Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which we have been reading a lot during these past few weeks. Here, I could have talked about being welcoming to the stranger and friend alike. I could have talked about inclusion, and shared with you stories from my time as a teacher, when inclusion meant something very different from, and yet startlingly similar to what Paul was saying.
But, instead, I decided to focus on the Gospel, and on one particular word in our reading for today. As some of you know, I have worked in the past with spiritual directors, and one of the methods used is known as Ignatian meditation, because it was developed by St. Ignatius. When reading Scripture using this method, one of the possibilities is to allow one word to take hold of the reader, and just see where your mind will take you. And that is what I did this week. The particular passage is a short speech by Jesus to the weary, hungry apostles. When they gathered around him, he said: Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest. And the word which immediately leaped out at me was the word REST, probably because I know that most of you, like me, could use some.
In the book of Genesis, we are told that God himself rested on the seventh day, from all the work of creating that he had done. And in Mark’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus recognized the need of his followers to rest, so who are we to consider ourselves any better than any of these, that we do not need rest? I know that I do, and I know that I often don’t get it, or don’t take it when the opportunity presents itself.
Just think about the word for a minute, and what it can mean. Rest. A break from all the activity surrounding you, a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Rest. A chance to renew, to recreate, to re-energize for the next period of busy-ness. Rest. Part of me still connects rest with recess, that time in a school day when most people were not required to do anything. Rest. At the end of the day, putting your feet up, even if only for a few minutes. Rest. That period of time when you are not DOING, but just BEING. Rest.
I have to admit that I was a bit surprised by my own reaction to the word, but I have learned that, when this happens while I am reading Scripture, there is a reason for it. It is God’s way of getting my attention, which is often difficult to do. So I looked at my life, and realized that it is very busy. Now, this is not a complaint – just a statement. One thing that I really dislike is the idea that one person is less busy than any other. Sometimes it seems to me that people are in a competition to see which one is busier. So I have no intention of telling you that you are not as busy as I am. I was assured at one time that, after the 250th anniversary celebrations, things would quiet down here at St. Andrew’s, and I would have time to relax. This has not happened, and it doesn’t feel as though it is going to happen any time soon. For as long as I can remember, I have filled my days and my nights with things to do. I spend a lot of time each week working on Sunday worship. Someone once commented that I should be able to “wing it” by now. Let me assure you, you would not want to hear what would happen if I attempted to do that! As you know, I have a large house, and just keeping up with that takes time every day. I visit people who are in the hospital, and telephone others regularly. I have obligations connected with the church, and others connected with the community, and still others connected with the Presbytery, Synod, and our National Office.
It’s funny that, in the middle of the summer, in the middle of what is supposed to be down time, we are still craving rest. But, when you think about it, it really isn’t surprising. As most of you know, my little dog, Wooly, had a rough week. We were back and forth to the vet several times, and she prepared us for the worst, thinking that Wooly couldn’t possibly survive this latest crisis. But, thanks to modern medicine, she did survive, and will probably be with us for some time yet. However, there have had to be some changes to accommodate her new condition. For instance, she can no longer use any stairs, which means that we must carry her up and down whatever stairs are in her way. She must be carried outside when she needs to go, and someone has to stay with her, to make sure that she doesn’t fall down. That doesn’t sound like too much, but when it is added to the list of other things to be done, it certainly cuts in on the time designated for rest.
And, as Keith can tell you, even when I AM resting, I don’t rest. If I watch TV, I knit. I even take my knitting to movies and concerts and meetings. I just don’t want to waste that precious time. I think – and I think that Keith would agree with me – that I have forgotten how to rest. And how about you? Have you forgotten how to rest? Have you forgotten how to take time to rest? If so, you aren’t alone.
I recently read a study based on 32 couples in the Los Angeles area, and I am pretty sure that the same statistics would apply to just about any family. The idea was to take a detailed snapshot of American family life early in the 21st century. The results, according to one researcher, were “disheartening.” So consumed with working, collecting, amassing, and generally “getting ahead,” they actually spent very little time together enjoying what they were working for. As reported by the Boston Globe, Jeanne E. Arnold, lead author and a professor of anthropology at UCLA, shared her particular dismay at how little time family members spent outside: “Something like 50 of the 64 parents in our study never stepped outside in the course of about a week,” she said. “When they gave us tours of their house they’d say, ‘Here’s the backyard, I don’t have time to go there.’ They were working a lot at home. Leisure time was spent in front of the TV or at the computer.”
They have not time, in other words, to rest. And, it seems to me, nor do we.
There is a story which I have shared with some of you, about Martin Luther, one of the busiest people of his time. Whenever he knew that he would have an exceptionally busy day,, he took the first hour after waking up as a time to read Scripture and to pray. He commented that it was this extra hour with God which gave him the strength and energy to get through such a day.
Most of us have at least a nodding acquaintance with the ten commandments, and most of us feel pretty good about believing that we don’t really break them. I would like, at this time to remind you of the precise wording of the fourth commandment, which may be found in both the book of Exodus and the book of Deuteronomy. Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Six days shall you labour 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 residents in your towns. We have come to interpret this as rather differently from what was intended. When I was growing up, it meant that we HAD to go to church. In Roman Catholicism, it was considered a mortal sin to miss church, unless you were desperately ill, or in hospital. There was really very little about rest in our interpretation of this commandment. However, let’s put it in context. The commandments were given to Moses while he was leading former slaves of the Egyptians to the Promised Land. For them, the key part of this would have BEEN the word “rest”. Just imagine being given permission to do nothing. In fact, not only were they given permission, they were COMMANDED to rest.
I have begun to think that too many of us find ourselves in the same situation as the Israelites in Egypt, with one significant difference. We are, ourselves, our owners. We are, ourselves, the slave-drivers. We are, ourselves, the ones who refuse to give us permission to rest. This self-imposed slavery is difficult to admit to, and even more difficult to escape from. Rather than being enslaved by a dominant race, we are enslaved by our dreams of success, so many of us are working longer and longer hours. We are enslaved by the idea that our children must do everything they possibly can – from swimming lessons to sports to music to anything you can imagine – so that they have no time just to be. They have no time just to lie on the grass and look for shapes in the clouds. They have no time to rest. We are enslaved to the idea that the person who dies with the most toys, wins. Wins what, exactly? Possibly an early grave as a result of working him or herself to death. This is the idea of wanting more – more clothes, more gadgets, more jewelry, whatever the MORE is that drives you to work and work and work until you have no time in your life to enjoy the fruits of your labours, until you have no time for anything but more work.
Listen again to Jesus’ invitation: Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest. He is not inviting us simply to take an afternoon off and sit in the sun or even to take a vacation to some exotic place. He is inviting us to talk off our self-imposed shackles, to open the doors of our self-constructed cells, to release ourselves from the belief that, if some is good, then more must be better.
A few years ago, I read a book by Barbara Gordon, called I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can, which is the true story about how her own life spiralled out of control, because she was driven to succeed in the highly competitive world of television documentaries. After years of work, years of abusing her body with prescription drugs, years of achieving, her body rebelled, and so did her mind. She collapsed, and was forced to rest. The rest of the story you can read for yourselves, but the point is that, even if we don’t consciously recognize that we are doing too much, that we need to rest, our bodies will eventually let us know. This is why people – notice I did NOT say “men”, as this is one area where, unfortunately, women have achieved equality – are having heart attacks at younger ages. This is why more and more people – assuming that they live to retire – find themselves lost. They have no idea what to do with all this time they suddenly have. They don’t know how to rest.
Today, I want you to listen to the opening verse of the 23rd Psalm. The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. Usually, when we read this verse, we focus on the first phrase. But today, just think for a minute about the second one. I shall not want. It is BECAUSE the Lord is my Shepherd that I shall not want. Because I trust God, I will not give into society’s clamouring for me to do more and more and more so that I can have more and more and more. Because God has promised to take care of me, I will get off the treadmill of work and accumulation so that I can rest, and notice the abundance, and rejoice.
And that, my friends, is what Sabbath rest is all about. Sabbath rest gives us the opportunity to step back, to stand apart from those things which usually consume us. It gives us the opportunity to feel God’s presence, to feel God’s love, to appreciate the gifts God has given us. It gives us the opportunity to feel content with what we have, to realize that we don’t need more and more and more.
I will not tell you that this is an easy thing to do. As people living in the 21st century, we have been conditioned NOT to do this. We have been conditioned to believe that our slavery is success. But the Lord knows better. He knows that we need rest, which is why he not only invites us to rest, he commands us to take it. We heard it in the 4th commandment. Further on in the 23rd Psalm, we read: He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He doesn’t encourage us to do this; he MAKES us do it. He knows, even if we don’t, how desperately we need rest. He knows, even if we don’t, how much we need time to commune with him. He knows, even if we don’t, that life — abundant life — doesn’t consist of merely more and more and more, that “abundant” ultimately isn’t a quantitative term but a qualitative one.
I have a challenge for you – and me – this week. Pick an evening – any evening – and turn off the television and the computer and your cell phone. Replace it with time – time with your family, time with your friends, or time alone. And don’t stop there. Consciously make a Sabbath time a part of your daily life. Consciously take time to think about all the good and wonderful things God has provided for you. In this way, we will create a Sabbath community, one which encourages, consoles, and celebrates together whenever we keep the Lord’s commandment to rest. Thanks be to God.


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