Mark 6: 30-44, 53-56
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost/ 22nd July 201
Jesus was a busy man. The demands on his time, enormous. The burden of his call, overwhelming. The disciples, too, were busy, because Jesus was busy. The demands on their time were enormous, because they were with Jesus. The burden of their respective calls appeared overwhelming, called and sent by their teacher and Lord to serve the kingdom of God. At this juncture in Mark’s Gospel we have the returning of the twelve. Earlier in chapter 6, Jesus summoned the twelve disciples, meaning students, gave them authority, and then begins to call them apostles – meaning people sent. He commissioned them and sent them off to proclaim God’s good news. He told them, “take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.” And he sent them out to a world both hostile and open to their message. He sent them out to be agents of healing and salvation, to announce the realm of God.
Here in verse 30, the apostles have returned, gathered around Jesus to give him a full report, telling him “all that they had done and taught.” Then, almost breaking them off in mid-sentence, he says to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” “For they were coming and going,” Mark tells us, “and they had no leisure even to eat.” So that’s what they do. They leave for a deserted place. But it wasn’t deserted enough because soon onlookers noticed where they were going and a whole crowd surrounds them. This becomes the scene for the feeding of the five thousand with five loaves and two fish. As Jesus approached the great crowd, he had esplagxnisthe, the Greek word for compassion, splagnizomai, which means to be moved in the pit of one’s stomach, to have deep empathy for another. Jesus had compassion for them for they were like sheep without a shepherd. And so Jesus is back at work and so are the twelve.
Scholars have long noted that Mark’s Gospel, the shortest of the four, is a fast-paced narrative of frenetic activity. One of Mark’s favorite words is “immediately,” used 28 times in the Gospel, a word that marks time, speeds up time, moves the story along. And Jesus is busy, very busy, once he receives his call. And if you note the flow of Jesus’ activity, full days of ministry and service are followed by times to pray, to pull away, to rest. Even after the feeding Jesus goes off to pray (Mark 6:46). His ministry flows in a graceful rhythm of work and rest and work and rest and work.
And so I’m struck that Jesus – fully committed to his call, tireless in his efforts, no slacker he – never forgets to take time to rest. And he makes sure that his disciples never forget this. He is their good shepherd too and wants to make sure they get the rest that they need. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). For they were “coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31). Rest is required right in the middle of their work. Rest is required in order for them to do their work.
When we think of “rest” the notion of Sabbath and Sabbath rest are not far away. We first discover the importance of Sabbath in the creation story. In the Decalogue, Moses tells us that the Sabbath is set apart and holy. On the seventh day, God rested (Exodus 20:8). Throughout the summer in worship, we’ve been lifting up the themes of creation and creativity. Inspired by liturgical panels consisting of artwork made by members back in May, each piece reminds us of the creative spark endowed in each of us. The marvelous variety of images reflects the wild diversity of God’s people and the seemingly limitless reaches of our imaginations. God’s love is bursting forth into creation and the power of that love never stops. God is busy. The source of all there is. The source of our lives. If the pulsating out-flowing of God’s energy would ever cease, we, too, would cease. For we are creations of the Divine imagination in whom “we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28)”
The panels depict aspects of the first creation story in Genesis 1. Creation and creative expressions are, obviously, activities that require enormous energy, effort, work, and struggle. Built into the creation story, however, is something that (I believe) is not reflected in any of the panels, a part of creation that was not rendered artistically for us, something is missing – Sabbath rest. Maybe because we often think of God resting, of Sabbath, as something apart from the actual act of creation, something that comes after, certainly related to, but disconnected from the rest. We often think the creation of humanity as the culmination of the creation account. After all that effort, we imagine, God takes a break. On the Sabbath, we assume, nothing happens. How does one draw nothing?
Here’s a different view. The case could be made that the culmination of creation was not the creation of humanity, but the creation of the Sabbath. That all the effort of the six days was in order for God to rest on the Sabbath with us and then take delight in, enjoy the goodness of creation with us. Rest is built into the Sabbath and the Sabbath is built into the Creation. The Sabbath then is connected to the ongoing creative activity of God. It’s not something extra, added on. This means that whenever the Sabbath rest is separated from the frenetic six days of activity, of doing, there’s a sense in which the Creator is rejected. When we deny Sabbath rest as part of God’s good creation, we are, in effect, rejecting the Creator and, at the same time, doing violence to the creation and to ourselves as creatures. In other words, we were created to rest and to enjoy a Sabbath rest with God. If the Creator relishes the importance of rest in order to be a good Creator, then we as the result of the Creator’s love are called to relish the importance of rest so that we, too, might be creative.
And so Jesus lovingly urges his disciples to rest, he urges them to stop, compels them to get away from it all. He tells them to play. He tells them to get something to eat. “Come away,” literally “Come! You yourselves,” I mean you. He wants to get their attention. You – I mean, you: stop. The Greek here means to cease, to rest, to rest in order to gain strength. Rest is a means to an end, not the end itself. The word was used to command soldiers to rest so that they could be better soldiers. It was also used to describe land that is allowed to rest so that the land can yield a harvest. That’s what Jesus is calling them toward. Rest is essential for the health of the soldier and the land; it’s essential for a vital life; and it’s no less essential for people called to do the work of God. Jesus shows us here that our ability to rest directly impacts our ability to be creative, productive, and useful. We could say rest and re-creation go hand-in-hand.
Now, we all know in our guts that this is true. We do. But we also know there’s a lot in our lives that tries to separate activity from Sabbath rest, that tries to put a wedge between activity and rest, where we privilege activity over rest. As the Franciscan priest and writer Richard Rohr notes, Western and American culture alike, we’ve all “imbibed the culture of unrest so deeply.” We’ve all “drunk the Kool-Aid.” We’ve been doing it for centuries. We have this suspicion around rest or resting too long. You know the sayings: “Idle brains are the devil’s workhouses.” (This dates back to 1732) “Idle hands are the devil’s tool.” (1808) “An idle brain is the devil’s workshop.” “The devil finds work (or mischief) for idle hands to do.” The Protestant work ethic has been entwined with the capitalist spirit to yield a way of life that might look religious and successful, but it’s not necessarily the Gospel, and it’s not liberating. Instead, hard work is blessed, celebrated. People take enormous pride in the number of vacations days they don’t use, the amount they can accrue. They see it as a badge of honor. Mostly men do this (but not exclusively so). We equate not working with laziness. And who wants to be called lazy? We view activity as a virtue; idleness is of the devil. We equate rest with doing nothing and having nothing to do leaves you open to all kind of trouble or mischief.
Our relation to time also fuels our suspicion of rest. We’re obsessed with time, but we don’t think there’s ever enough. We are the most technologically advanced civilization the world has ever known, with technology at our fingertips designed to help us have more time to do the things we want to do. And we still don’t have enough time. We’re so busy and worry about getting everything done in time. There’s not enough time to rest. We’re fearful of wasting time. Some say rest is a luxury they can’t afford. Time is money. Time spent without activity, time spent idle, time spent doing nothing looks wasteful – it looks un-American. But it might actually be Gospel. Maybe, then, we need to waste time; maybe we need to be prodigal with it, as God is with time. We have all the time in the world, so why not spend it?
Our suspicion toward rest is reinforced by the perception that we have to keep busy because that’s what’s expected of us as modern people. Tim Kreider, writing recently in The New York Times called this “the ‘busy’ trap.” “If you live in America in the 21st century,” he writes, “you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.” Many of us are guilty of this. I know I am. We might be complaining, but it can be used as a boast. “Notice,” he observes, “it isn’t generally speaking people pulling back-to-back shifts in the ICU [at the hospital] or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed…they’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.” Even our children are busy these days, overbooked, over scheduled. They are learning it from us. And what they are learning, Kreider suggests – and I would agree – is that “busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” When we are busy we don’t have to stop and look at ourselves or at our neighbors or at the needs of the world, we don’t have to look at the things that need tending to in our souls. We can immerse ourselves in activity – even religious work, church work, make it look "holy" – and think that that’s okay. But it’s not.
With compassion toward us Jesus invites us to step away, to rest, to recharge. Go ahead, be bold, go ahead – be idle! Go ahead – risk idleness! Do nothing! Play! See what happens. Kreider assures us that “idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration – it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
That’s what Jesus said. That’s what God said long ago. Sabbath, rest, idleness – the “necessary condition” for getting any thing done. So stop. Rest. Rest in God. Fall into the everlasting arms of God – fall and allow yourself to be held, resting in God’s compassion, knowing he provides for our every need. Rest. For only then can we be creative and be of service in recreating the world in God’s image.
It’s one thing to hear someone talk about rest in a sermon and another to actually rest. So here’s an opportunity for you to rest in the Lord, here and now. You can use this guided prayer any time, anywhere. Offer these words of scripture before entering into a period of silence:
Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
 Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).
 Richard Rohr in Following the Mystics Through the Narrow Gate (2010).
 Tim Kreider, “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” New York Times, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/