Let’s begin with a show of hands. How many of you have been on vacation already this summer? Keep your hand up if you did not come back refreshed. Keep your hand up. How many of you who have not been on vacation this summer do not have a vacation scheduled? Perfect. Today’s Gospel reading is aimed directly at you folks with a hand in the air – the folks who are not going away or came back from being away no more rested and reinvigorated than when you left.
You may recall that the reading two weeks ago described how Jesus paired up his followers and sent them off to do ministry throughout the surrounding region. They preached. They taught. They prayed with the sick and healed. In today’s reading we learn of their return and how they share with Jesus all that they have done.
Jesus’ responses by inviting, no, by insisting that they go away to a deserted place in order to rest and recover. Jesus knew first-hand how exhausting ministry and daily work can be. He knew the toll it takes on us physically and emotionally and spiritually. He knew how long periods of uninterrupted work leads to decreased productivity, stifles creative thinking, and increases the likelihood of mistakes and conflict. “Let’s go away for a while,” he said to his disciples. “Let’s go to a place where we can kick back, prop up our feet, and relax. You need it and so do I.”
It is wisdom rooted deeply in the Judeo/Christian tradition set of the foundation of the Ten Commandments. “Six days you shall work,” we read in Exodus 20, “but on the seventh day you shall rest from all your labors.” And what is the rationale for this command? God brought forth the creation in six days, then on the seventh day God rested. We rest because our theology of humanity holds that we have are created in the image of God. If God rests, then so should we.
It is interesting that when Moses shares the commandments with all of Israel in Deuteronomy 5, he adds another thought as to why we should observe the Sabbath day commandment. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt,” he tells the people. “Remember how we were forced to work seven days a week. Remember the toll it took on us. Remember how God delivered us from bondage.” Slaves work non-stop, but now we are free to reclaim the image of God in us. One way we do this is by resting.
Two days into my week-long bike ride I began to feel the weight of enslaving routine lift. Sleeping in a tent, waking at sunrise, rising and packing up all my belongings, being served a breakfast, and getting on my bike by 7:30 became a welcome new pattern after months and months and months of doing the same thing day after day after day. I remember a one-panel cartoon I saw years ago where a driver on a prairie is approaching an old dirt road marked with a sign that reads, “Choose your rut carefully because you’ll be in it for the next 120 miles.” We made-in-the-image-of-God human beings are not meant to be in a single rut or routine for that length of time. The rhythm of week is to be broken by a single day of rest.
More than this, our tradition suggests that even this pattern is not enough. Work, sleep, work, sleep, work, sleep, work, sleep, work, sleep, work, sleep, Sabbath, sleep repeat can become its own kind of rut, can’t it. Interspersed throughout the Jewish calendar are periods of longer, annual festivals that involve leaving home and gathering in Jerusalem. Moses introduced three such events to the people of Israel: the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of First Fruits, and the Feast of the Harvest at the end of the growing season. While each had a specific religious connation, each also produced the added benefit of breaking the cycle of routine; freeing, if you will, the pilgrim from the tyranny of non-stop work; releasing a person enslaved by life’s obligations to reconnect with the deeper identity of God’s image in which he or she was created.
Jesus knew to be true what a comedian once remarked: a vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you’ve been taking. It was time to get away, check out, recharge, and get refreshed. The demands of life and ministry necessitate periodic breaks. On average we Americans struggle with this. We average fewer vacation days than most other developed nations. Even worse, we are more likely than citizens of other countries to let vacation days go unused. This means that our work suffers, our families suffer, and we suffer.
Coming back from my bike ride I was energized to integrate some new patterns into my day. Stepping away for the rut of my routine gave me not only a perspective on what I was doing with my life but also a sense of power that I could change it. I have initiated some changes that are helping me create a better spiritual balance in my life – changes which will bear fruit for the work I do for you as a priest. It took getting away for me to get out of the old rut. Somewhere down the path this new pattern will become its own kind of rut, but not to worry, another vacation will help me to see that more clearly.
So, if you had your hand up, if this sermon is for you, find some time to leave town, to change the view, to experience life in a different way. You will find yourself freed from what enslaves you and better able to do all the work God has given you to do.