By Mr. Ed Schneider on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost:
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us always. Amen.
There are many spiritual disciplines. These disciplines include prayer, self-denial, simplicity, hospitality, work, study, fasting, worship, and giving. This isn’t a complete list, but it gives you an idea of how spiritual disciplines are intended to touch on every area of our lives. Spiritual disciplines are intended to help us move beyond ourselves and to learn to be open to experiencing God in new, diverse ways. Spiritual disciplines are so critical to our spiritual health and to the health of every Christian community that you’ll find some explicitly mentioned in Scripture. And you’ll find some at the core of all Christian monastic rules. Today’s Gospel is about one spiritual discipline that’s routinely ignored today. It’s the discipline of taking a deep, physical, mental, and spiritual rest. It’s the discipline of Sabbath rest.
The reading begins with the disciples returning to Jesus after He sent them in pairs on a mission to proclaim the Gospel, to cast out unclean spirits and to anoint the sick with oil and cure them. You can imagine that when they returned, they were excited. But you can also imagine they were tired from their work. Jesus saw that, and He tried to get them away from the crowd so that they could rest. However, the crowds followed them wherever they went, they couldn’t get away. The lectionary today skips over a large section of the text, and the missing bit is the story of how the crowds followed Him to a lonely place where there was no food. Jesus then fed five thousand people. That had to be exhausting. After Jesus fed the crowd, He again tried to get the disciples away somewhere quiet to rest. But again, the crowds followed. People wouldn’t let Jesus and His disciples stop. The crowds kept following Jesus to heal their sick, and Jesus, having compassion for them, continued to work.
Yet rest is what they needed. We all know what happens when we work long hours with no rest. We get tired. We can’t concentrate. We have accidents, we get irritable, we burn out, and our health suffers. We have to take care of our health. We all know that maxim, that we can’t care for others unless we first care for ourselves.
But there are so many demands on us. There are too many things to do and never enough time to do any of them. When can we take time to stop? We know we can’t always be Martha scurrying around doing our chores. We also know we have to be like Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet, and the Gospel lesson today plainly tells us that people will continually make demands on us and keep us from resting if we allow that.
This is why Sabbath rest is a discipline, a discipline. It requires us to make a commitment to rest and then follow through on our promise. It’s such an important discipline that is in Torah. God told Moses on Mount Sinai, remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. You shall not do any work. For in six days the Lord made Heaven and Earth, the sea and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day. Now, it’s easy to take this commandment and get all balled up in legalisms. Some have, and Jesus tells us in the Gospels that those people were missing the point. They were missing the point of what Sabbath rest is really about.
So then what is Sabbath rest? It’s about taking an extended time to be still. To be present. To be quiet. To allow not only your body to rest, but to allow your mind to rest as well. What does resting the mind looks like? What does that mean? It means letting go of and avoiding the distractions that filled our minds with verbal and emotional clutter. I don’t know about you, but I find it tiring to read newspapers, and the news online, to watch movies, and to scroll through social media. I appear to be sitting, resting, but my mind is working, processing and absorbing what I read and what I see. And I also get so emotionally stressed and wrung out from the very many dramas and horror stories, real and fictional, in the news, in movies, and in social media posts. When I need mental rest, I have to get away from it all. I had to turn the TV off or go away where there is no TV, where there are no newspapers, where there are no cell phones. The best vacations I’ve had are where I’ve had no access to any of that, because my mind then isn’t filled with that chatter.
Okay, we know the physical and mental benefits of Sabbath rest, and we have an idea what it’s supposed to look like. So why is Sabbath rest a spiritual discipline and not just a physical or mental one? Because it’s only when we’re rested, only when we’re still, only when we’re quiet, that we can be open to hearing God’s voice. How can hear God speaking to us when our bodies are tired? How can we be open to hearing God speaking to us when our minds are cluttered with the headline news and social media dramas du jour?
1 Kings 19 tells a story of Elijah fleeing to Horeb to escape King Ahab, “God said to Elijah, go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by. Now, there was a great wind so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord. But the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake. But the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, a fire. But the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” It was only in silence that Elijah heard God’s voice.
God’s voice is not in the earthquake of illness from exhaustion. God’s voice is not in the wind of our ephemeral fears and anxieties. God’s voice is not in the fire of our dramas. God’s voice can only be heard in the silence of our souls. As Psalm 131 says, “Oh, Lord, I am not proud. I have no haughty looks. I do not occupy myself with great matters or with things that are too hard for me. But I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast, my soul is quieted within me. Oh, Israel, wait upon the Lord, from this time forth forevermore.”
Resting the body and mind, stilling the soul, being quiet, being present: these are the elements of true Sabbath rest. And these elements are the conditions needed to enter into the deepest type of prayer, which is by far the most important spiritual discipline we can practice.
Prayer isn’t just about intercessions. God knows our needs, our wants, and our fears before we say anything, and God will help us in the ways we need. But deep prayer is at the heart of our relationship with God, and we can’t be receptive to what God has to say unless we take the time to be still, to be quiet, to be present. The spiritual discipline of Sabbath rest is about taking the time during each week, the discipline, take the time during each week, and it could be any day of the week, it doesn’t have to be Sunday, to rest. Be still so that we can be present to God. It’s a time we need to regain our strength so that we can meet the world as it is and where it is, and continue actively loving and serving the Lord. Amen.