2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Mark 6:303-34, 53-56
“Work & Rest”
When I think about the church living through the Covid-19 Pandemic, there are both negatives and positives that come to mind. Certainly, it has been very difficult for us to maintain community, to enjoy worship and sacraments together, and find new ways to continue our mission while keeping each other and our community safe.
But we have learned during this crisis that the church is a lot stronger, more faithful, and more resilient than we might have guessed. And we have experienced what we might only have known in theory before – that the church is not the building, but the people.
God is not confined to our sanctuaries, but meets us wherever we turn to God in praise and prayer. And our job as Jesus’ followers is not just to show up at God’s house regularly to give God glory with our worship, but it’s to glorify God in all the ways we let God make a home in our hearts and in our lives every day.
We knew all that before the pandemic, right? But when you can’t actually “go to church” for many months at a time, that’s when you actually start needing to believe that God lives in your home too, and in your life every day.
Eventually, God does allow King Solomon to build a temple so that all the people can gather together for worship. But in today’s episode with his father, King David, God makes sure that the rulers of Israel and Judah understand who truly builds God’s house and what kind of house it will be.
While David enjoys his own house built of cedar, God is clear that the Divine has no need for such accommodation. God has been present with his wandering people through wilderness, war, and uncertainty, and God will continue to be present wherever God’s people live. God will be the one to build a house for them – not a building, but a line of ancestors who will share their faith and honour God in their lives for generations to come.
When Christians read this promise, we marvel at how we see it being fulfilled in Jesus. He was a descendent of David, who not only carried on the faith to the Jewish people of which he was a part, but expanded the walls of the household to include Gentiles also in the ever-growing family of God.
The Apostle Paul, writing to Gentile converts in Ephesus in the first century, explains how Jesus builds that house of welcome for all: “So [Jesus] came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near… So then you are… members of the household of God… In [Christ] the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
As the pandemic subsides, it will be very important for us to gather together again – so that we can share fellowship and care for each other more fully, so that we can listen together for God’s voice and find ways to respond to God’s call to mission and ministry in new ways, and so that we can encourage one another in faith and life, and keep each other accountable.
Not because we have built this house as a place for God to live, but because when we gather here, we invite God to keep on working on us, building us into a dwelling place where God can live and be active in our lives every day.
I think that our experience during the pandemic has probably helped us to understand one of the key messages of our first reading and second readings today. But I think that the Gospel text from Mark points to an area where many of us still struggle, and perhaps even more after about 16 months of pandemic life.
I expect that many of us can relate to the experience of the disciples in the story. They have been busy! Busy doing the good work that Jesus has called them to do. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus has sent them out two by two, giving them authority over unclean spirits. And we hear that they proclaimed that everyone should repent because of the coming Reign of God, and they cast out demons and healed many people.
Our work may not seem so spectacular, but we’ve been busy too. I’ve been busy preaching and teaching, not so much healing people physically, but hopefully participating in some of the spiritual healing that God is enabling in people’s lives through prayer, accompaniment, and care.
And although the pandemic put a stop to my travelling as Moderator, it didn’t make me any less busy with denominational leadership tasks including so many online meetings, visiting and preaching from a distance, writing, and consulting, and tending to the pastoral care of our church as a whole.
I know that many of you have been busy too – using your gifts in the church’s ministries, which have looked very different in the last year and required creativity and no less commitment and care than usual. And you’ve been fulfilling other vocations too – as parents, grandparents, spouses, or faithful friends – with that work of tending to relationships and people being especially demanding as we’ve all gone through this unprecedented experience.
You may also have a vocation to a particular profession, job, or volunteer role in the community. And for some of you, I know, the list of those roles and callings is long, with the daily challenge of living up to your commitments and fulfilling your responsibilities. Like the first disciples, many of us have been very busy, and the pandemic has not changed that reality.
As our Gospel text opens, we see the disciples excitedly reporting on their busy time out in the mission field. They “gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.” It makes me think of my monthly reports to Session about what I’ve been up to during any given month, or about the sharing that takes place at one of our Pastoral Care team meetings – when the members tell about how their visiting is going, and we rejoice together in the experiences of participating in God’s work, and consider where and to whom God is calling us to go next.
But Jesus quickly discerns that his workers need a rest. He says to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” The narrator explains the underlying reason: “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”
Now, I don’t know about you… but my experience of the pandemic has been that I’ve been as busy as ever. Not necessarily more busy than usual. Different busy, but just as busy. But I think what I’ve struggled to do, and perhaps you can relate to this too, is to take a proper break.
When there’s no separation between work and home, when technology makes us available pretty much all the time, when there’s no opportunity to travel away for a little holiday, when there’s not even much to do outside the home except buy groceries and do essential errands… we are likely to lose the balance in our lives between work and rest, and we are at risk of burning out.
Sixteen months into this pandemic, perhaps I’m too late to offer this encouragement to take a break for rest and renewal. But now may be the time when some opportunities for going out or getting away are actually becoming more possible. This summer may be a good time to take a break from a few things you were doing faithfully, at least until September.
On Friday evening, Nick and I actually went out to dinner with a couple of friends. And I realized as we walked back to our car at the end of the evening, I had not looked at my phone for three and a half hours. I was not listening for the sound of email notifications or checking for text messages, and that was a lovely gift.
Of course, I did have my phone with me. And if someone had a pastoral crisis, I would have heard it ringing and answered. And I would like to suggest that when Jesus and the apostles tried to get away for a retreat, that’s what happened to him. Jesus’ “phone rang” with an urgent need, and he knew what must be done.
It was just after “they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves” that “many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As they 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.”
If we were to ask ourselves that classic question, “What would Jesus do?” having read this Gospel story, I think we could probably say that when we’ve been so busy working and fulfilling our vocations that we have no leisure even to eat, Jesus would say, “Get away by yourselves, and rest awhile.” And when we see people struggling with urgent needs that we can fulfill, then we let ourselves be interrupted and do what we can.
There is no doubt that Jesus believes his disciples need a rest, but the affection that Jesus has for the people is a gut-wrenching sympathy. He is burdened by the sight of desperate people, such that he is willing to give up on the retreat and get to work. Jesus feeds the crowds spiritually through his teaching, and will soon feed them materially with real bread.
Our lectionary reading today skips over the next part of the story, reserving the well-known account of the feeding of the 5000 for another Sunday, but it seems relevant to mention it here. As Jesus spends time teaching the crowd, it gets late. So his disciples come to him and say, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” “Aren’t we supposed to be on retreat this weekend?” I can imagine them thinking.
But you remember Jesus’ response, right? He says to them, “You give them something to eat.” And although it seems unimaginable to feed such a crowd, they do pull out the food they have, and they give it away. And miraculously, it is enough.
It seems to me that Jesus’ life and ministry was filled with the same struggles that we experience around finding balance between work and rest, between the need to care for our own bodies and spirits and to respond with compassion towards those we are called to serve.
It makes me think of that advice I’ve heard given to parents of newborns. When the baby sleeps, you should sleep. Don’t use that time of quiet to rush around cleaning the house and getting other work done. You’ll need to rest, because soon enough the child will be awake again and needing your attention and care.
After the feeding of the crowd, Jesus sends his disciples off in their boat once again. And while that’s not a physical rest for them, at least they have a break from all the people. Meanwhile, Jesus goes up a mountain by himself to pray.
The Gospel text today doesn’t leave us with an easy answer about when we should work and when we should rest, or when we should allow our times of self-care to be interrupted by the more urgent needs of others. And in the context of our time, it is clear that many of us do need to attend to our spiritual and mental well-being, while at the same time, it is also quite obvious that the people around us need our attention too. Everyone is not bouncing back from the tragic effects of Covid-19, and so many people in our communities are struggling with grief, anger, depression, or severe poverty and need.
What would Jesus do? And what would Jesus call us to do? Love God, and listen to God’s guiding through prayer. Love our neighbour, showing compassion especially for those in need. And love our neighbour “as ourself,” taking time whenever possible to come away to a quiet place and rest a while.
May the Spirit guide our working and our resting this summer, so that all God’s children (including you) may experience the compassion of Jesus.