Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, July 22

Mercy on Demand
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church
Richmond, VA
July 22, 2012

Jesus’ example gives us the freedom to seek the rest and renewal we need to live as faithful disciples in the world. It is this ability to rely on God that enables Jesus to respond to our cries for help anytime and anywhere!

Someone has said that there are two great dangers in the Christian life: one is to withdraw from the world and not work to transform it; the other is to work so hard at transforming the world that we never find time to withdraw from it.

Throughout the history of the church, groups have come along that feel that the world is so corrupt and evil that to preserve what little bit of Christian faith they have, they need to get as far away as possible from its temptations and distractions. Whenever Christianity became more acceptable in the Roman Empire after Constantine’s conversion, a small minority of Christians feared that authentic discipleship had been compromised. It had become too easy to be a Christian. So they fled to the desert, started monasteries, took vows of celibacy, lived in solitude, prayed constantly, fasted dangerously—all to pursue union with God with the intensity of an athlete training for the Olympic games.

Whenever it seemed that ignorance and superficiality had overtaken Europe during the middle ages, again Christians like Benedict challenged the monks and nuns of his day to deeper forms of devotion, greater degrees of obedience to Christ. In the end, Benedict and his monasteries became pockets of salvation and learning in a dark time.

In John Wesley’s day, the Moravians taught that before one could really be of any use to Christ in the world, first you had to withdraw from the world and wait patiently and prayerfully to receive the divine knowledge that you really had been saved from your sins. Then and only then, could you engage in works of charity for the poor or take up your post serving God through your vocation in the world.

Wesley admired the Moravians and it was through their preaching that he himself discovered assurance of his own salvation. But he parted with them by teaching that one need not withdraw from the world’s demands to discover assurance—quite the opposite. He taught that by praying, study the Scriptures, worshiping God, receiving the sacraments, and serving others, one was in a much better position to receive the gift of inward assurance of salvation.

It’s tempting to want to flee the world—its troubles, heartaches, disappointments. It’s tempting to want to find a place where temptations do not threaten to undermine our faith or discipleship. It’s tempting to try to find refuge from the stresses and strains of life on a mountaintop, a beach, or a sanctuary. And once we’ve found that place of peace and tranquility, we’d like to just stay there. Run from the world and all its heartaches, difficulties, and pain. And sometimes some of us yield to that desire. And we fail to help others come to know Christ or to speak up against injustice and evil or to make our neighborhood or workplace just a little bit better because we prefer the quiet place apart.

You know people like that. Maybe they haven’t run away to the desert or disappeared to a monastery. But they’ve found refuge in their lovely mountain retreat, or on that lush golf course, or in their comfortable gated community. There they are not bothered by the cries of parents whose children kill each other over drugs, or children whose hearts ache because their parents are in prison.

The other temptation is to become so busy making our mark on the world, trying to change the world, that we never find time to be still or be quiet. We never find time to just quit running here and there. We never stop to enjoy that sunrise on the beach or be impressed by the mountain’s autumn colors. We work constantly. We even do good things in our business—nurturing our children, caring for our parents, visiting the sick, reaching out to those in need. There’s something admirable about people who rise early, work energetically, and never seem to require much rest. Troubles don’t seem to slow them down.

We live in a society that rewards, admires, and honors that kind of life.
Americans take less time off and enjoy fewer days of vacation than just about any industrialized nation in the West. Americans average just over two weeks of summer vacation. That makes us vacation misers when compared with say, the Germans (whom we once thought of as such hard workers), who enjoy an average of six weeks of summer vacation, or the French, who have over five weeks of vacation.

Americans are working more and producing more, to be sure, but they are working longer in order to do it. Surprisingly, the average productivity of the Germans or the French is not much less than that of Americans, considering how many more hours Americans work. And the French and the Germans have lots of holidays throughout the year on top of all this summer vacation!

The idea of being caught not working hard scares some of us to death. We take a sick sort of pleasure in others looking at us and wondering how in the world we manage to do all we do.

That is where our text for the day speaks to both temptations. One could never accuse Jesus of being lazy. He was on the go, from here to there, preaching, teaching, and healing. But he gives his disciples a command in today’s passage that may be quite foreign to some of us. “Come apart and rest…” This is not just a suggestion—it is a command. Rest.

Some of us may need a nudge to leave our place of retreat and get to work. But I suspect more of us need to consider the meaning of Jesus’ command to his disciples—“Come aprt…rest…”

Think with me about the context of this command, if you don’t mind me calling it that. Jesus had sent his disciples out on their first mission trip. They’d given all they knew to give up to that point. They’d faced challenges they’d never experienced. They’d experienced some success—but I’m sure that they’d tasted some failure. Now, after all that work and activity—it was time to find a place for them to be alone, to tend to their souls, to learn again from their teacher. “Rest…”

Also, while they’d been out preaching the good news, word had reached Jesus and the disciples that something awful had happened—John the Baptist had been beheaded by King Herod Antipas. He was really one of them—he was on their team. Things might have gone well on the mission trip, but if John had just been beheaded, what was going to happen to them if they kept following Jesus? What would happen to Jesus if he kept preaching the same message he was preaching? Something like John?

But they not only worried about themselves and their teacher—undoubtedly they, and especially Jesus—were heartbroken. For Jesus, John was family. He was dead. If anyone understood him besides his mother, it was probably John. They’d grown up together—born near the same time. He was dead. They needed time to rest, to have their souls renewed—but they also needed time to grieve.

Now, I know this time of retreat doesn’t work out quite like Jesus had hoped. The crowds will not leave him alone. And admirably, Jesus, even though he must be physically exhausted and emotionally drained continues to try to minister to the people. But that doesn’t lessen in anyway the lesson he was trying to teach his disciples—everybody, even the very Son of God, needs time to rest.

I suspect that obeying this command is hard for some of us for several reasons. One reason it may be hard for some of us to stop, be quiet, turn off our cell phones and tv sets, is that we genuinely feel we’re just too busy. We’re caught up in the rat race and just don’t know how to stop. We’ve made so many commitments to our bosses, our families, friends, and yes, sometimes our church that we just don’t know where to cut back. But as the great philosopher Lily Tomlinson once said, “Just because you win the rat race doesn’t change the fact that you’re still a rat.”

Some of us get addicted to the busy pace that slowing down for 30 minutes to meditate and pray or for one day to think about God’s direction for our lives would be like a junkie going without a fix.

I’ve often wondered if the problem with the priest and the levite in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan was that they were just too busy to stop and assist the man who’d been beaten by robbers. They had meetings, at church of all places, and they could not be delayed. The Samaritan may have been good, in part, not just because he stopped to help when no one else would, but he had prioritized and ordered his life in such a way that when he saw a real human need staring him in the face, he had time, and had given himself the permission to stop.

Perhaps another reason we resist taking time to stop and be still on a regular basis is that we’re not all that sure of what we’ll discover when we look deep within our souls. What motives will we unearth if we examine our consciences? What wounds will surface that have never really been healed? What grudges or resentments will we see if we look closely?

Henri Nouwen wrote that "our culture has become most sophisticated in the avoidance of pain, not only our physical pain but our emotional and mental pain as well. We not only bury our dead as if they were still alive, but we also bury our pains as if they were not really there. We have become so used to this state of anesthesia, that we panic when there is nothing or nobody left to distract us. When we have no project to finish, no friend to visit, no book to read, no television to watch, no record to play, and when we are left all alone by ourselves we are brought so close to the revelation of our basic human aloneness and are so afraid of experiencing an all-pervasive sense of loneliness that we will do anything to get busy again and continue the game which makes us believe that everything is fine after all.” (Reaching Out, pp. 16-17).

Still, I suspect that many of us have engrained deep within us somewhere that if we are not doing something all the time, we are wasting time. And wasting time is not only un-American—it is, for many of us Protestants steeped in a tradition with a strong work ethic, a sin against almighty God. So, if that is the case for you, if you feel guilty for taking time for yourself, time to restore your spirit, time to rest your body from the grind of life, let me counter the command engrained in many of us—“Thou shalt always be busy (or at least look like you are) with the command Jesus gave his disciples here in Mark, a practice, he himself tried to be faithful to, “Rest..”Come apart, be with me, let’s rest a bit.” Jesus wasn’t suggesting that they run away from the crowds permanently, or that they leave behind the work God had given them to do forever—he was saying, just for a time, let’s get away, let’s slow down, let’s refresh our spirits, let’s encourage one another, let’s get close to God, let’s examine our souls, and then, when we’re ready, we’ll get back to it.”

Jesus thought it was important. Why? He knew that if his faith wasn’t strong, and if his energy wasn’t high, and if his body wasn’t healthy, and his mind wasn’t clear, he could be of as much use to the people God had sent him to love and care for. And he wanted his disciples to learn this.

One man challenged another to an all-day wood chopping contest. The challenger worked very hard, stopping only for a brief lunch break. The other man had a leisurely lunch and took several breaks during the day. At the end of the day, the challenger was surprised and annoyed to find that the other fellow had chopped substantially more wood than he had. "I don't get it," he said. "Every time I checked, you were taking a rest, yet you chopped more wood than I did." "But you didn't notice," said the winning woodsman, "that I was sharpening my ax when I sat down to rest."

How many times to we try to serve God with a dull ax?

And then there’s one other problem I think some of us have with finding balance, a good rhythm in our lives. Because we are so accustomed to evaluating the worth of a corporation or the worth of a person by their productivity, we think that if we are not working we are not producing and if we are not producing, we aren’t worth much.

So what Jesus is trying to impress on his disciples goes against the grain of much of the world’s conventional wisdom, doesn’t it? But in the realm of the spirit, in the realm of God’s kingdom, just because you are not working at your job or building a building or plowing a field doesn’t mean you’re not being productive.

Jesus invited his disciples to a deserted place—a wilderness, if you will. Such places are sometimes viewed negatively in the Scriptures. The wilderness is where you go to be tried, to be tempted, to be tested. The wilderness is a place where you feel far away from God, where you feel all alone. It doesn’t look like, at least on the surface, that anything good happens in the wilderness—that deserted, lonely place.

But that’s not the only way to look at the wilderness. Sometimes, when you’re in the wilderness—spiritually as well as physically—though on the surface it doesn’t look like much is going on, deep down below the surface, in the subterranean levels of your spirit, God is doing a great work. Not only did the children of Israel find themselves banished to the wilderness because of their hardness of heart, but in the wilderness, they learned how to trust God for everything so that they’d be ready to enter the land of promise. Sometimes the wilderness connotes a place of safety or protection as well as renewal. David escapes Saul when Saul wants to kill him by going out into the wilderness. The prophet Elijah discovers God’s protection from Jezebel as she tries to pursue and kill him—in the wilderness.

Sometimes when you enter the wilderness, not because of decisions of you’ve made but because of circumstances imposed on you by life—an illness, a disappointment, the loss of a loved one, loss of a job—you feel that nothing good could possibly come of it. You feel far from God and feel like he’s let you down. Nothing good, you think, could come of such a time or place. But maybe, without you even knowing it or feeling it in any tangible way, you are growing spiritually—you are learning to walk by faith, and not sight, you are learning patience or trust or faith or perhaps even compassion. God is using such a time to shape you so that at the right time, he can use you in a way he hadn’t been able to use you before.

Have you been there? The deserted place? The wilderness? Maybe you choose to go there, maybe sometimes God leads you there and meets you there.

This idea of rest may be foreign to us. But it wasn’t to God. What does the Bible tell us about God’s own rhythm. He worked, he created how many days? 6 right? What did God do on the 7th? He rested. And he commanded the people of Israel to build into the rhythm of their lives the same pattern—a day of rest, a day of worship, a day of renewal—every Sabbath day.

This passage begins with Jesus seeking a place apart for him and his disciples to rest, to recover, to grieve after the loss of John the Baptist. It ends with Jesus responding with compassion and offering healing to people who were sick and who were broken. The suggestion is that the two things are related. If we want to be useful to God at work, in our families, through the mission of the church, we need, as often as we can, to touch base with the one who is the source of all life and the source of power to do the good we truly desire to do.

Philip Melancthon, the great Reformation theologian, once said to his friend Martin Luther, "This day you and I will discuss the governance of the universe." What Luther said in response was unexpected: "This day you and I will go fishing and leave the governance of the universe to God.

The next time you start to feel weary, physically or spiritually, remember God’s command—and God’s gift—rest. Because when you take time to rest, to find that deserted time and place, you are testifying to one of the greatest elements of our faith—God is the one in charge of the world. Not you and me. What greater source of peace, strength, and courage could there be?   

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