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25th July 2021

Cutting Some Slack

Passage: Mark 6;30-34

It was in 1989 that I first moved into the South East. I was called to be Associate Minister of the URC in Purley, at that time, known as the URC cathedral of the South. It was large, busy, incredibly highly organised and the congregation were mostly in the highest of high-achiever brackets. They were lovely people, who welcomed me warmly but I did feel out of my depth. I shall never forget the staff meeting, a few months into my ministry when one of the team said that she had been trying to contact me but I had never been at home. (This was before mobile phones, emails, even answerphones were scarce.. walking with dinosaurs). But when this lady said that I had been difficult to get hold of, I felt good for the first time. Yes, I have arrived. If I am so frantically busy that people struggle to catch up with me, I have won the right to work in the South East. That sounds SO sad and I knew it, but at the time, it was the mark of a successful professional life- you justified your existence by being unavailable. Having said this, I spent four Christmases in Purley and I was ill and totally out of action for two of them!
These few verses in Mark’s Gospel seemed so insignificant to the writer of the Commentary I have been using that he ignored them completely. He rushed straight from the previous big story (the death of John the Baptist) to the next (the feeding of the 5000). But to me, these verses have a deep significance. The disciples come back from their first missionary tour and tell Jesus all about it (a de-briefing session) and, rather than immediately planning the next big project, Jesus says, “you are exhausted. You have not even had time to eat. Come away to a quiet place and get some rest.” And when crowds of people follow them to this quiet place, it was Jesus who took on the preaching, leaving his disciples to rest. &&&&&&&&&&
Sabbath rest was built into the social and religious heritage of Jesus’ people, the Jews. According to the creation hymn, even God had rested on the seventh day. Most other religions consecrate a rest day. Buddhism sanctions it “for the cleansing of the defiled mind.” When bodies, minds, hearts and spirits become over-stressed, they stop functioning effectively. Do you remember the episode of Morse where he investigates a murder supposedly committed by a canal boat crew in the Victorian era? The boatmen had a bad reputation for evil living and after this case, the law was changed to allow them Sundays off and a chapel provided for them so that they could attend worship. It was socially acknowledged that people who worked incessantly with no time to rest would be easy prey to addiction, sickness, violence, crime, family breakdown-the lot.
Rowan Williams (as in Archbishop, academic, writer, poet, Master of a Cambridge College) told a conference of URC Ministers that we needed to take time out and just watch a box set on television from time to time. I doubt I was the only person present thinking “yeah, right. And when does he ever find time or inclination to lie on the sofa and watch UK Gold?” But maybe it is an ability to relax which feeds his incredibly prolific creative output and high achievements? Everybody needs space- not just for relaxation-as in watching a box set- but also for recreation (re-creation), whatever it takes for you to restore what Poirot calls “the little grey cells.” Time to be still, time to reflect, time to take stock of life. &&&&&&&&&&&
This is really little more than common sense, isn’t it? “Self-care” is the watchword nowadays. Even our high-achieving professions are learning the value of building rest and re-creation into busy schedules. But I think that in the Bible this goes a lot deeper. It is about our relationship with God and our ability to trust God.
In the ancient story of the Exodus, the Hebrew slaves were rescued and led to freedom by the miraculous intervention of God and their great leader, Moses. Wonderful. This event is still commemorated by their descendants But you would have thought, wouldn’t you, that if those escaped slaves could believe that God personally had rescued them from Egypt, they would also have believed that this same God could get them safely across the desert and into their new land? But they did not. All the way through the desert they kept stressing out, refusing to co-operate with Moses, staging rebellions, trying to do things their way, usually with disastrous results. And more than the Bible records God declaring, “these people shall never enter my rest.”
The way these words are recorded make them sound like a vindictive punishment: they won’t do as I say, so to hell with them. But to me, it comes across more as a statement of fact- these people are incapable of trusting me, which means that they will never be at rest.
In the late nineteen forties, the Revd Dr Peter Marshall, an acclaimed minister, popular preacher and Chaplain to the American Senate, suffered a serious heart attack and was out of action for several months. When he finally returned to work he was asked to comment on his illness and he replied, “one thing I have learned is that the kingdom of God goes on without Peter Marshall.” His faith had become stronger because he had learned to rest in God. And this “rest” was not just the time his body had spent in a hospital bed but a new state of mind, heart and spirit which had learned to trust God with his life and vocation, rather than take charge of it himself.
“Rest,” in the Biblical sense, means allowing God to do his job. It means getting to the heart of Christianity which teaches us that we do not achieve salvation/ peace with God through our own efforts. No matter how hard we try or how frantically we seek to justify our existence by busyness we are never going to achieve the peace, rest, satisfaction we long for. We are never going to be good enough and life is never going to be good enough. Only Jesus Christ could take on the world, the evil, the destruction, the death and win. Only by “resting,” trusting in what he did will we find “rest” for ourselves. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&
Does this sound impossibly naïve to you in a world grappling with science, pandemic, economics and politics? Look at what happens when people seek their “rest” in amassing wealth by fair means or foul. Look at what happens when one group of people seek their “rest” by trying to prove their superiority over another group. Look at what happens when people seek their “rest” in dominating the natural world rather than respecting it. We have seen for ourselves that the results are not pretty…..
As a church, owing to the pandemic we have had to shelve a lot of planning and just take things in very short, uncertain stages. Let me be honest, the “South-East me” fears it could be the beginning of the end of St John’s. But the “faith in God me” dares to hope and to “rest” in the hope that this might be a whole new start into something better.
And in our own personal lives, with all the turbulence going on? Let me leave you with something I read in a letter by Paul Woolley, of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. He remembered reading that famous saying of Jesus “Come to me all you who are heavy burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you.” The yoke I imagined, he wrote, was single yoke attached to a load to be pulled along. Jesus’ yoke still seemed tiring, the load heavy and none of it appeared to have much to do with my everyday life. But then he realised that a yoke is used between two animals, to enable them to pull together on a load. Jesus was suggesting that they pulled together, in the work of God’s kingdom and in the living of life to the full.
So let us take up the yoke of Jesus Christ and “rest” in the knowledge that his strength, his wisdom and his love will bear the load which is too heavy for us. Talk with him in prayer, walk with him through life and learn what it means to “Rest in the Lord.” Not just for our own sake but for the sake of the church and of the world. Amen.