Sermons That Work

One of My Favorite…, Proper 11 (B) – 2006

July 23, 2006

One of my favorite Old Testament stories is about Naaman, the Syrian army commander. Naaman is a very important guy. I picture him dressed in an impressive uniform, riding in a big chariot, and surrounded by his officers and staff. What happens is that Naaman contracts leprosy. His skin is a mess — big, ugly blotches all over him.

He gets word from Elisha the prophet that he can be cured of his leprosy by dipping himself in the Jordan River seven times, yet he resists doing this. His officers and staff approach him and say, “Sir, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult and dangerous to cure your leprosy, certainly you would have done it. Then why not do something as simple as dipping yourself seven times in the waters of the Jordan?”

Naaman is a proud man, but he’s not dumb. He concedes their point, goes straight to the Jordan, and by the time he’s toweling himself off, the general’s skin has become as fresh as the skin of a little child.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to do something. What he says is: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” In other words, he tells them to take a break to devote some time to being rather than doing.

Often he tells us the same thing. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while.” Often he tells us to take a break and devote some of our time to being rather than doing.

Yet often we ignore this command. We want to follow Jesus and are willing to take action, but when it comes to rest, when it comes to Jesus telling us to take a break for a while, then we respond as Naaman did at first: We would do something big and brave, but rest is too simple, we say, and so we ignore what Jesus tells us.

Jesus has his reasons for inviting his disciples to rest. They have just returned from a mission on which he had dispatched them. He had sent them out in pairs and in haste. They were not to encumber themselves with gear or supplies, but simply trust local hospitality to meet their needs. They were not to linger where they were not wanted. Instead, they were to be on the move, calling people to repentance, casting out demons, anointing the sick. It was work they had never done before, and once they returned, they must have been exhausted.

Many of us do critically important work and find ourselves exhausted. Yet we don’t rest. We may even believe that we cannot or should not rest. We push ourselves in a way that we would never push others. Our life may be productive, we may check off everything from our daily “to do” list, but deep down we recognize something is wrong, that we lack a sense of deep meaning, and so we feel cheated.

The disciples have returned from their travels, but the pace has not slackened. As the Gospel reports, “Many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Does that scene sound familiar to you? Is your workplace like that? Is your home like that? This is a common experience for people today. Many are coming and going, and they have no leisure even to eat.

Jesus listens to the disciples as they report on all they did and taught in the numerous places they visited. He does not, however, tell them to throw themselves into action again with even greater abandon. He doesn’t ask them to do something difficult and dangerous, big and brave. Instead, what he asks for is disarming in its simplicity: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while.”

Jesus invites us to rest, yet we treat rest as a four-letter word. If people are resting, we may be suspicious of them. If we are resting, we may be suspicious of ourselves. There’s always more to do, further ways to justify our existence by what we produce. In the face of this, Jesus smiles and says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while.”

If asked, most of us could recite something of the pattern of our work as we engage in it day by day, week after week. I wonder, though: Can we do the same regarding our rest? Do we have patterns established that insure that going off by ourselves to rest for a while is a reality for us, rather than simply a desire?

We may lack such patterns of rest, but we can take steps to establish them. Gradually we can build into our lives rhythms of rest and solitude to balance out the busy rhythms that already pulsate so strongly. It can be done.

Let me mention a couple of resources. One is a little book by Donna Schaper called Sabbath Keeping. She helps us see that the sabbath is not something to keep, but a way of living that helps us become people who work when it’s appropriate, rest when it’s appropriate, and even rest and work at the same time. She sees sabbath as a road to living a life of plenty.

Another resource are the numerous retreat facilities open to us throughout the country. Some of these are associated with Episcopal and Roman Catholic religious communities. Both individual and group retreats are available. An individual retreat may involve working with a spiritual director or guide. Retreats can be scheduled for one or two days or longer periods. They are sometimes available for specialized groups. For more information on retreats, speak to any of the clergy connected with this parish. And if you go on retreat and find yourself sleeping a great deal, that may be exactly what God wants you to do!

The French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal once said that more than half this world’s ills come from how people cannot sit in a room alone. Our refusal to rest can hurt us, the people around us, and the endeavors to which we devote ourselves.

A lot of us try to function without the Rest Factor that Jesus wants us to include in our lives. We’re plenty busy, but the results are disappointing. When we factor in some rest, some sabbath time, we are not working as much, but what we do is more significant, more meaningful than it was when we were always on the go.

Like Naaman the Syrian commander, we may be willing to do something dangerous and daring, big and brave, when what we’re asked to do is something simple. Naaman needed to slip into the Jordan River’s healing waters. What we are asked to do is equally simple: to slip into the healing waters of a life that makes room for regular rest, a life marked by sabbath time.

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Christopher Sikkema


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