Monday, July 23, 2018

Resting When There is Work to be Done

Jesus said to his disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”  For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

Every person here knows what it is like to be swamped at work, to be overwhelmed by the tasks at hand, and to have people coming at you from all directions.  At times like this you say to yourself, “I need a vacation” or “I need an assistant” or even better “I need a vacation and an assistant.”

This morning’s gospel reading comes in the midst of a very busy and hectic time.  Jesus has sent out his followers in groups of two to preach and teach and heal.  They fanned throughout the region and did some impressive work; so impressive that when they re-gather in the countryside, 5,000 people follow them there.  Jesus teaches all day.  And then, because the people have no food, he takes what is available – five loaves and two fish – and uses it to feed the multitude.  Do you remember how in the story the disciples distribute the food?  12 disciples, 5,000 people – that is 416 people per disciple.  Now, I have never worked as a waiter, but serving 416 people strikes me as being a monumental task.  Jesus says to his followers, “We need to go away.  It is time for us to rest.”

It is worth noting this invitation does not come once all the work has been completed.  People are still coming and going and the disciples are so busy feeding folks they themselves do not have time to eat.  When Jesus says lets go away for a while there is still plenty of work that needs to be done.  I once served a bishop who said the reason he scheduled a clergy conference in the fall at a time when church activities are ramping up and priests generally are really busy is because this is precisely the time when we most need to get away.  Resting when there is work to be done.

The 10 Commandments are recorded in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy.  Each contains the command to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, but the rationales differ.  The Exodus version is grounded in creation: six days God worked and on the seventh day God rested.  We humans who are created in God’s image are to follow this pattern in order to express who we are and to preserve what is holy about us.  The Deuteronomy mandate to honor the Sabbath is grounded in the experience of slavery in Egypt.  Forced for generations to make bricks day after day after day, God’s children became valued only for what they can do, not for who they are.  Sabbath rest is a tangible affirmation we are more than just machines; that there is more to life than constant productivity.  When observant Jews light two candles on Shabbat they do so to remember they are created in God’s image and they are free. 

Eugene Peterson, a now retired clergyman and author, once wrote about his Sabbath practice:

Monday is my Sabbath.  Nothing is scheduled for Mondays.  If there are emergences, I respond, but there are surprisingly few.  My wife joins me in observing the day.  We make a lunch, put it in a daypack, take our binoculars and drive anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour away, to a trailhead along a river or into the mountains.  Before we begin our hike my wife reads a psalm and prays.  After that prayer there is no more talking – we enter into a silence that will continue for the next two or three hours, until we stop for lunch.

We walk leisurely, emptying ourselves, opening ourselves to what is there: fern shapes, flower fragrance, birdsong, granite outcropping, oaks, and sycamores, rain, snow, sleet, wind.  We have clothes for all weather and so never cancel our Sabbath-keeping for reasons of weather…  When the sun or our stomachs tell us it is lunchtime, we break the silence with a prayer of blessing for the sandwiches and fruit, the river and the forest.  We are free to talk now, sharing bird sightings, thoughts, observations, ideas – however much or little we are inclined.  We return home in the middle or late afternoon, putter, do odd jobs, read.  After supper I usually write family letters.  That’s it.  No Sinai thunder.  No Damascus road illuminations.  No Patmos visions.  A day set apart for solitude and silence.  Not-doing.  Being-there.  The sanctification of time.

How does this sound to you?  Perhaps the specifics are not for you – the walking, the silence, the weekly repetition – but don’t you think you would feel a lot more human if you found your own nourishing way to keep the Sabbath?  I know I would.  A famous opera singer once noted half of Beethoven’s music is silence.  It is the empty spaces between the notes that distinguish music from noise.  What do you do to create empty space in your life?  

In her book An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and author, said much the same thing as Peterson:

At least one day in every seven, pull off the road and park the car in the garage.  Close the door to the toolshed and turn off the computer.  Stay home, not because you are sick but because you are well.  Talk someone you love into being well with you.  Take a nap, a walk, and hour for lunch.  Test the premise that you are worth more than you can produce – that even if you spent one whole day of being good for nothing you would still be precious in God’s sight.  And when you get anxious because you are convinced that this is not so – remember that your own conviction is not required.  This is a commandment.  Your worth has already been established, even when you are not working.  The purpose of the commandment is to woo you to the same truth.

She quotes Meister Eckhard who said, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting.”  What do you need to subtract from this day in order to allow it to work on you?

I think it is telling Jesus has to call his disciples to follow him to a place of rest.  The harder a person pushes himself or herself the more alienated he or she becomes to needs of his or her own body and soul.  While the command to honor the Sabbath is in the same list as ‘Thou shalt not kill’, we hardly treat it as seriously.  But it is every bit as important because without a regular pattern of rest and restoration we engage in killing ourselves.   In a very real sense, the Sabbath is not a commandment, but holy gift.  Jesus offers you this gift with the invitation to step away for a while and rest.  Will you accept?