In the Name...
Did you know that to talk to American soldiers you have to learn many languages? No, it’s true, each of our branches speaks a totally different language. For example, if you tell them to “secure a building”, the Army will post guards around it. The Navy will store files in it. The Marines will assault it. And the Air Force will take out a three-year lease with option to buy.
One of my favourite Old Testament stories is about Naaman the Syrian general. He's a big man with a big problem - he has leprosy. He goes to visit the prophet Elisha for a cure and is told to do nothing more difficult than go and wash in the Jordan River. But, this upsets him because he thinks that's so simple as to be beneath his dignity. His staff, however, prevails upon him to give it a try observing that if Elisha had asked him to do something complicated or dangerous he'd have agreed. So, Naaman swallows his pride and goes to the river where he discovers, as he's healed, it's as simple as that, after all.
In today's Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to also do something which sounds simple, but is hard and what he says is: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” In other words, take a break.
When we think about what it means to follow Jesus and obey his commands we imagine that means doing great things, serving on committees, spending time on missions, volunteering in the community. We don't imagine that it would ever mean doing nothing. And yet, there are times when Jesus calls us to do just that - nothing.
We always hear about how terrible it is that people reject God's commands when they don't match up with our social values or our way of life. Well, funny thing, that's true about the command to rest, as well.
I grew up thinking that the Japanese were the stereotypical workaholics, but, I was aghast to read that the average Japanese worker takes 50% more vacation time than the average American. Many of us in this parish do, or have done, important, demanding, work, yet we’ve often felt there's always more to do; places to go; people to meet.
We push ourselves in ways that we would never push others. We treat "rest" as a four-letter word. Well, it is, I guess. But, it's also an attitude in society. If people are doing nothing, we think they should feel guilty. If we're doing nothing, we feel guilty ourselves.
Even when we take a vacation, we try to cram in a thousand and one activities. We work hard and play hard. Yet, unless we take the time to rest then we won't be fit, in any sense of the word, to follow Jesus in anything else and that's why this command is as important as any other.
Consider the disciples. They had just returned from a difficult mission. Jesus had sent them out to preach the kingdom, cast out demons, and heal the sick. They'd never done anything like this before, and it doesn't appear that Jesus gave them a lot of detailed instructions on how to do it. They had to make it up as they went along. And, once they returned, they must have been exhausted.
Jesus listens to them as they report on all they did and taught in the numerous places they visited. He senses their excitement, but, he's also sensitive to their physical and spiritual condition. So he doesn't tell them to get right back out there and carry on the good work. Instead, he says, take some time off.
Clergy have the luxury, if you will, of being able to go away on retreats and retreats are usually billed as spiritual exercises where the object of the exercise is to become more spiritual. So, we do things which are other-worldly. We turn off our cell phones, we keep silence, we listen to talks, and it can be helpful. I've always enjoyed retreats because I usually learn something new or surprising.
In fact, a few years ago, I went on one and the priest leading it said that he had been asked to speak about ways we could be refreshed in ministry, so he was going to take as his text for our meditations something which we would all find very surprising. The text he chose was from Exodus 14 and when I read part of it now, you'll see what he meant.
"As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?" But, Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still."
A scene of panic in the face of impending destruction may not seem very refreshing or restful, but, in choosing this scripture, the retreat leader's point was that so much of our ministry as clergy is focused on what we're supposed to be doing for God and his people that we can easily forget that God is involved, as well.
And that's not just true for clergy. All of us are Christian ministers. All of us are called to preach the kingdom, cast out demons, and heal the sick in our daily lives and encounters. And, like the Twelve, we make up a lot of it as we go along, responding to this person or that situation in ways which we believe bring the power and love of Christ into their lives. And it is exhausting.
So, we need reminding that our ministry is really His ministry. We are refreshed when we realise that the fate of the world or the church or our relative or friend does not depend on us alone. We are refreshed when we stop having a faith which puts all the expectations on ourselves. In short, we are refreshed when we realize that while we are called to represent the Saviour, the job of Saviour has already been taken.
Of course, few can go on a formal retreat but what all of us can do is to build into our daily routines some time alone with God. And even though that sounds easy, it isn't for the same reason it wasn't easy for Jesus and the Twelve. What did the Gospel today say? They tried to get away, but, “Many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Does that scene sound familiar to you? This is a common experience for people today.
Although, just because it's not easy doesn't mean we shouldn't try. As this Gospel continues to unfold, Jesus and the Twelve try several times before they finally get a moment to rest. But, the point is, they try. As with any of God's commandments, we don't keep them perfectly, but, we keep perfectly trying.
Naaman the Syrian was caught up in his own expectations of whom and what he was and he tried to impose those expectations on others, even on God. What Elisha gave him was an opportunity to step back from the persona he had created and be the person God had created.
Stepping into the Jordan lifted a huge burden from his mind and spirit, as well as his body. In that moment, he rested. And he was the better for it, in ways he couldn't have imagined.
So, take a break from being who you think you're supposed to be, or who you think others want you to be. And may your ministries be refreshed.
In the Name...