"Come away to a place where there are no cell phones, your iPad will not work, a place where you can rest and be recharged." An attractive sounding invitation in the midst of our fast-paced, over-scheduled, information-filled days. Our busyness seems to preclude time for family meals, in-depth conversation with friends, times to just sit still for a few minutes in the silence. We seem to enjoy the hectic pace of our lives for seldom do I meet someone who is eager to tell me about their down time, but I do often hear stories of busyness. Our culture supposes that activity and accomplishment are better than rest. We identify ourselves to one another most often by what we do rather than who we are. I find myself easily slipping into a rhythm of activity that allows little time for refreshment of body and soul. Sabbath, meaning literally "to cease," is a gift that invites us to step away from our over scheduled, busy lives and experience rest. An invitation to escape to a place apart where one can find Sabbath is enticing.
Mark's telling of the Jesus story has a frantic pace about it. In the sixth chapter of Mark, Jesus sends out his disciples in pairs to go among the villages and teach. He gives them power over unclean spirits. He instructs his disciples not to take food, a bag or money with them but to accept with gratitude the hospitality extended to them. Jesus says to his disciples, "If you are not welcomed, not listened to, don't make a big deal about it. As you leave simply shake the dust off your feet and keep going." So they went out among the villages proclaiming repentance, casting out demons and healing many who were sick. When they returned, they could not wait to tell Jesus stories about their accomplishments.
As you might imagine by this time, Jesus and his disciples created quite a stir among the people, so they find it difficult to stop and rest much less eat a meal in peace. Even as Jesus listens to his disciples' stories, people are coming and going. So Jesus says to his disciples, "Let's go off by ourselves so we can rest, talk about the good you have accomplished and share a quiet meal together." So they get in a boat and set sail for that deserted place with no cell phone reception, no wi-fi, no interruptions, just Jesus and his friends. Finally, a little time to leave the work at the office and forget any schedules and just rest.
As it turns out, Jesus is on to something. The rhythm of work and rest seems to help us human beings function better and feel better about ourselves. A recent study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology by a team from the University of Rochester-McGill University in Canada and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond confirms what most of us know. People, regardless of income, working hours, profession or age feel better mentally and physically when they take time off from their labors. The report states, "Our findings highlight just how important free time is to an individual's well-being." Unfettered time provides critical opportunities for bonding, exploring other interests and relaxation.
We know from our reading of Scripture that Jesus observes the Sabbath. We have stories of Jesus being in the synagogue on the Sabbath. We also have stories of Jesus' struggles with religious leaders over how the Sabbath is to be observed. He seems to focus more on appropriate behavior than on the significance of Sabbath observance. Earlier in Mark's Gospel, Jesus teaches that Sabbath is a gift. It is a day to be freed from our labors to enjoy the creation and the Creator. He says, "The Sabbath was made for mankind, not mankind for the Sabbath." The invitation of Jesus to his disciples to retire to a place where they can rest, take a deep breath, bond with one another and share in telling their stories is important for their well-being.
Who among us does not know that things do not always go as planned. As Jesus and the disciples cross the lake in a boat, word spreads that they are on the move. People set out on foot and reached the place Jesus has in mind as a place of rest.
When Jesus and his disciples arrive on the shore, they find a crowd awaiting them. The crowd wants to hear what Jesus had to say. It's part of the human experience to seek that which we find lacking in our lives. The crowd is hungry for an assuring word. They want desperately to be made well, and the word is out that Jesus offers what they most need.
Mark tells us that "Jesus had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things." Though Jesus is most likely tired and hungry himself, he gives the crowd what they most need. He stops and focuses on people in need. He sees people whose lives are chaotic as they try to provide for their families. He sees people who are confused by the changes in the world about them. He sees people fearful of others who are not just like them. He sees people who simply have lost their way. He sees people who are hungry for reassurance and long for words of hope. He has compassion on them and teaches them.
In the portion of Mark's account that we skip in the appointed reading for today, the disciples remind Jesus that the sun is going down and that people need to head home to supper. Jesus invites the disciples to feed the crowd. "Are you serious, Jesus, we cannot afford to feed this crowd." Jesus invites the disciples to find out what is available. They report five loaves and two fish. Jesus took the offering, blessed it, breaks it and gives it to his disciples to distribute. Everyone eats and there are leftovers. Jesus feeds their hungry spirits and their hungry bodies.
Then Jesus moves on to face another crowd eager to have him heal their sick. Mark tells us that everywhere Jesus went people flocked to him for healing and a word of hope. Lynne Baab in her book Sabbath Keeping writes, "For Jesus, the Sabbath was a day to do good, show mercy, save life, free people from bondage. These acts, appropriate for the Sabbath spoke of God's nature; a merciful God, the God who heals, the God who delivers people from evil." I suppose we are surprised by this account, from the very beginning Jesus was concerned with showing compassion for people.
I was recently with a group of clergy when one person observed that in Mark's Gospel it seems like people are always rushing after Jesus wanting to be made whole. That thought had never occurred to me before. As I read this particular passage, it stuck me that people aware of their needs, be they physical or spiritual, sought Jesus with the assurance that he could address their need. I have thought about that in terms of how most people I know think about church communities today. In a world where "religion" has become suspect, I wonder how many people identify the church as a place to address their needs, a community in which to find wholeness. Being in a downtown church, I can assure you that a number of people do seek assistance for physical needs. I believe the church also has the capacity to respond to a hunger of the spiritual seeker. I believe God is pushing us toward a new understanding of connectedness and spirituality. I believe faith communities provide us the support and encouragement to strive toward wholeness by caring for our bodies and our souls. We are called to seek places of rest where we can be still and know God. We are invited to bond with others in exploring the richness of God's grace. I believe there is a reshaping of the world afoot with an emerging spirituality that is concerned with self-care, with the care of others and with the care of the planet we call home.
In order to be part of this new day, we must practice our faith intentionally. We must reach out in loving compassion to care for the least among us. We must put aside our petty differences and strive for peace among all people. We must seek and serve one another in God's name. Following the example of the disciples who went out in pairs, we need not be shy about telling our story, for we are fortunate enough to know the great love of God for all of us.
Let us pray. God of compassionate care and loving grace, grant us depth of faith and confidence in your love, that we might find our identity in you as the beloved. Help us to acknowledge the power of Sabbath as a time to be renewed and refreshed to answering our several callings. In a world filled with changes and chances, give us courage to serve the least among us and to provide compassionate care to all who seek our assistance in their desire to obtain wholeness. May you, the God of hope, fill us with all joy and peace in believing through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Health and Families Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, January, 2010
Lynne M. Baab, Sabbath Keeping, InterVarsity Press Downers Grove, Illinois, 2005, pg. 46.