Sermon July 18, 2021: “Take a Break”

Gospel Reading:
Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “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. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Praise to you Lord Christ.

Sermon, “Take a Break”

            At the end of our June study we were discussing some of the laws found in the Old Testament. One in particular brought some conversation, mostly about the pastor. It was from Exodus 31, “You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people.” It seems rather extreme to say the least, but the point is to keep the Sabbath. Take some time to breathe, rest, and relax in God’s presence. One of the participants of our study said, “If everyone is supposed to keep the Sabbath, what about pastors? How do they keep the Sabbath when they work on the Sabbath?” Of course I responded by saying that the person who asked this could preach the next Sunday, but really though clergy do take Sabbath days, just not on Sunday.

            For 11 or 12 years now, I have taken retreats, sometimes for a few days or a week, but more recently they are retreat, prayer, and reflection days. It’s harder to stay overnight with two little ones. Most of those retreats have been with the brothers of Saint Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan. It’s a small abbey in the Episcopal Church in the Benedictine tradition. I go to this secluded place and rest for a while. I take a Bible, a few books, a notepad or journal, my prayer beads, and I just rest with God. It’s my time to grieve, to share with God my joys and frustrations of ministry, and I just take the time to listen to God. I am so thankful that in the last month or two they have reopened and I have continued my retreat day tradition.

            It’s essential for all of us to take time to rest. This is not true just for clergy, even though the Indiana Conference and many church leaders have been encouraging clergy to take care of themselves. Clergy burnout is a real thing, so wellness in mind, body, and spirit is essential to ministry and life in general. It’s true for me and for you. It was true for Jesus too.

            We read throughout the Gospels that Jesus took time to rest and retreat. In Luke 4, we read that the news had spread about Jesus, crowds of people came to him and what did he do? “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Lk 4:16). We read early in Mark that “very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” In other places we find Jesus withdrawing from the disciples to the lake with crowds following him. In Mark 3, “Jesus went out to a mountain side to pray.” In the next chapter “Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake.” Matthew tells us that when Jesus heard about what happened to John the Baptist, what we heard last week of his beheading, Jesus then “withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” Should I keep going? One more. In Mark 9, we find Jesus taking “Peter, James, and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them.” The Transfiguration happened in this solitary, quiet place between Jesus and his closest disciples.

            There are many more examples throughout the Gospel of Jesus finding quiet, solitude, and space to be in prayer, sometimes alone and other times with a small group. Either way you look at it, Jesus took the time to retreat. He told the disciples to do the same.

            In Mark 6, after the disciples were sent out into the mission field, Jesus told them to retreat. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while.” They were busy followers of Jesus. “Many people were coming and going,” Mark tells us, to the point that they don’t even have time to eat. Jesus didn’t tell them to pray more, study the Bible more, talk to one more person, preach one more sermon, or attend one more committee meeting. No, Jesus told them to go away to a place of solitude, quiet, and rest.

            What’s interesting in this reading is that they respond immediately with no questions. “They went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves,” we read in Mark, but what complicates this story are the following verses. Apparently people saw the disciples going off by themselves, so the disciples hurried there, to the deserted place, before the crowd arrived. We’re not told how long they had or if the retreat was cut short, but what we do know is that they responded to Jesus’ call to rest and retreat.

            I will tell you that throughout my marriage, my wife Candace has often challenged me here. When she can sense my frustration with something or I’m just being kind of grouchy, she’ll simply ask me one thing. She won’t ask what’s wrong or why am I grouchy. She’ll ask, “Is it time to go to the monastery?” I can tell you that even a day away to rest, reflect, pray, and listen does wonders for the soul as it brings a deep peace, it relaxes the mind, and quiets the heart. Let me ask you the same question, “Is it time to go to the monastery?” Alright, maybe that’s not the right setting or deserted place, as Jesus said, for you. Where is Jesus calling you to go, by yourself, to rest for a while with him?

            You might be thinking, but I don’t have time. I have to work. There are bills to pay. Things to fix around the house. The lawn isn’t just going to mow itself. There are screaming kids in the backseat and I don’t think the monks would appreciate that. There’s just too much to do Pastor Matt! I’m too busy! Maybe we’re too busy, so much so, that we need to be with, rest with, talk with, and spend some time with God. Maybe we’re too busy not to pray.

            I’m kind of surprised that the disciples didn’t tell Jesus, “but Jesus, there’s a great crowd in need. They need healing. They need to hear us preach. They need us to teach them.” It’s clear in the second part of this reading, which skips ahead after the feeding of the 5,000, that people in need are always around Jesus and the disciples. I wonder though if they would have been able to respond if Jesus hadn’t challenged and invited them to rest. If we are authentically following Jesus, then we are also finding time to rest, to let go, and simply be with God. I am fully convinced that we cannot live up to our fullest potential as Christ followers, as people, without intentional times of centering, where we center our lives, our hearts, our minds on Christ alone. In fact, the spiritual author and priest that I go back to all the time, Henri Nouwen, wrote that “Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life. We do not take the spiritual life seriously if we do not set aside some time to be with God and listen.”

            To follow Jesus, to serve others, to take the spiritual life seriously, we must set aside some time to be with God and listen. Again, you might be thinking I can’t find a week to retreat and even a day sounds like too much. Here are some suggestions. Set a timer on your phone or alarm clock for 5 minutes of silence during the lunch hour or in the evening. During that silence talk with God. Pray for the people you encountered. Pray for yourself. Pray for whatever comes to mind. Or simply hold the silence. That’s five minutes. When I first started going to the monastery, the brothers would spend time in silent meditation following Vespers, which is the 5pm evening prayer time. They would spend 20 minutes in silent meditation. I remember my first visit sitting there in silence, breathing deeply, thinking this is so great. Then my mind started to wander. I looked at my watch thinking we only had a few minutes left and it had been only five minutes. During my last few visits, I found myself settling deeply into the 20 minutes of silence and actually longing for more. It takes practice, but I found rest with God.

            Alright if that’s not your thing, then try to pray with your feet. What I mean is take a prayer walk. There’s a quote that is often attributed to different theologians and saints that I usually say was written by early monks. The quote is this: “It is solved by walking.” Whatever it is, it is solved by walking. When I take retreats, I often take prayer walks to listen for God. The disciples walked a lot with Jesus and I imagine they had to be spiritual at times and not just a means to get around. The Gospel tells us that they went into villages and cities and there were always people in need. I imagine some of those walks had to be a time to pray with their feet.

            When we are challenged by the hustles and demands of life, it can be difficult to remember our true selves and our deepest connections. Ephesians reminds us of our connection with one another through Christ. When we center ourselves time and again in Christ through a retreat, a moment of rest and prayer, or a prayer walk, we remember that Christ is our peace and “Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit.” This theme is found in the famous words of the 23rd Psalm. Our Lord invites us to lie down and rest in green pastures and leads us beside still waters to reflect. Our God restores our soul so that we will “dwell in the house of the Lord our whole lives.” That’s what rest and retreat provides for us. They are not just spiritual disciplines, or ways for us to connect with God, but they are the ways in which we dwell in the house or presence of the Lord as we balance work, family, life, and our relationship with God.

            Whatever spiritual disciplines you embrace, I hope they will give you abundant life, energy, and rest. It’s so important to take care of yourself as we serve and minister together. You know the other invitation that Jesus offers in Matthew, when Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Here’s the invitation as paraphrased by Pastor Eugene Peterson in his The Message Bible:

“Are you tired?

Worn out?

Burned out on religion?

Come to me.

Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.

I’ll show you how to take a real rest.

Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it.

Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.

I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.

Keep company with me

and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

            This is my prayer for you today. May you go away with Jesus to a quiet place and find rest, renewal, and recover your life. Slow down. Take a break. Enjoy time with God.

Amen.

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