It may come as a surprise to many that Jesus was not successful, at least in the ways in which we are inclined to measure “success.” He was a wise teacher and a miracle-worker, and at times he drew large crowds. But he also encountered opposition, right from the very start of his ministry, and from the most religious people of his day. Most people were simply indifferent. When the crowds realized that he wasn’t what they expected him to be, and that he wouldn’t do what they expected or hoped he would do, they turned away. And not all who were attracted by his clever stories and powerful deeds became faithful followers. Even his closest, most trusted friends often disappointed him, and abandoned him when times got tough. He died alone, except for a few faithful women who stayed to the end.
In today’s gospel, we get a glimpse of the frustration he felt from time to time when he encountered the indifference of the crowds and the opposition of religious leaders. “To what will I compare this generation?” Jesus asks. “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
I can’t think of a more suitable text to ponder while in retreat than these words of Jesus drawn from the Gospel of Matthew. A retreat is a chance to step back from our normal routines and responsibilities, to surrender our burdens and cares to God, and to receive once again God’s healing and life-giving love. //
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself coming into the presence of Jesus, who is so gentle and so humble. Imagine him extending his arms to you, welcoming you into his embrace. Hear him say to you, “Come to me; I want to give you rest…. I see what a heavy burden you’ve been bearing and how weary you are from carrying this load. Let me take it from you. Come apart for a while, and rest.” //
Tonight’s first lesson is the rescue at the Red Sea. Remember the story. Through Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery, God saved our family from famine by bringing them to Egypt. Later expanding in number, they were made slaves and remained so for 400 years. Freedom seemed impossible.
Through a burning bush, God sent a shepherd, Moses, to say: “Let my people go.” When Pharaoh refused, God turned the river to blood, sent frogs, gnats, flies, and more. God’s people packed their bags and ate a meal of lamb with its blood above their doors so that “death’s dark angel [would] sheathe his sword” and pass over them. Finally, fed up, Pharaoh said: Go. Our people fled into freedom!
Soon they found themselves on a dead end at Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army approaching. Trapped between water and the enemy, our people panicked: Why did we leave if only to be slaughtered out here?
Moses said: “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.”[i]
A pillar of cloud blocked the Egyptian army’s view. Moses raised his staff, stretched out his hand, and as we heard read today, God drove back the sea, turned it into dry land, and the people walked right across. The Egyptians pursued them, also coming into the sea on the dry ground. God clogged their chariot wheels, let the waters return, tossing them into the sea. God saved our people and destroyed the enemy.
The Exodus is the story of epic escape, freedom from slavery. The Lord—and only the Lord—saves. Humanity cannot save itself. Deliverance is definitively divine. While wonderfully good, this is hard news. Like our ancestors, we desperately try to save ourselves. We want to work our way out. We resist asking for and receiving help. We complain, deny and don’t trust. The Exodus reminds us of this somber truth: we cannot save ourselves. We are like slaves in Egypt and dead-end at the Red Sea. We need a savior.
Listen again to Moses: “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” Like Psalm 46: “Be still, and know that I am God.”[ii] We often shoot off panicked prayers, frenzied, striving and scared. How can we be still?
Stop. For a minute or for a few. Stop what you’re doing. Stop the noise. Disconnect from devices. Take deep breaths. Go outside to breathe fresh air. Shake out the panic, or walk or run. Gently sway, rocking, calming yourself. Gaze at something beautiful: light and shadow, tree, bird, or you own hand. Pray your desire: “Let me be still, and know that you are God.”
While we run, fight, and hide, we were also created for stillness. Nightly we surrender to sleep. Whether bird, dog, or human, we can calm ourselves and one another. Imagine a bird gathering her young under the shadow of her wings. Imagine an adult picking up a child and rocking until the child relaxes in loving arms.
Dear children of God, we have a savior who knows our necessities and our weaknesses.[iii] When there is no way out or it appears we are at a dead end, our God continues coming to save. “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” God invites our still surrender, and when we cannot, we may find ourselves being picked up, held and rocked in safe, loving arms.
[i] Exodus 14:13-14
[ii] Psalm 46:10
[iii] Collect for the Sunday closest to July 20: “Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.” Book of Common Prayer
My mother grew up, at least in the summers, with her Methodist minister grandfather who was quite a strict Sabbatarian. As a grown woman she remembered the Sundays of her childhood as full of rules, regulations, and restrictions. She could not swim unless it was over 100 degrees. She was not allowed to call on her friends but had to sit quietly with her younger sister reading. Sunday dinner, which had been cooked the day before and in spite of being kept warm in the oven, was cold, overcooked and tasteless. To me, and obviously to her as she spoke of it, it sounded dreadful.
Today’s gospel pulls us in to yet another confrontation between Jesus and a group of Pharisees. This time the argument is about sabbath keeping. It’s an argument I think my mother would understand.
It’s easy for us read this passage and once again to vilify the Pharisees, setting them up over and against Jesus, and always on the loosing side. Rather than doing that, let’s dig around and see what we can discover about the nature of the sabbath, and the point Jesus might have been trying to assert.
You may recall that one of my favourite Collects is the one for the Second Sunday after Christmas: O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity….
I return frequently to this prayer, both as a prayer to pray, but also as something to ponder. I find the image of wonderfully creating and more wonderfully restoring our human nature to be a place of rich contemplation, just as my imagination is captured by the image of sharing the divine life. It is this latter phrase that arrests my attention this morning.
We know from Scripture that God is a God of many characteristics. Among the things we can say about God, is that God is a God of revelation. God makes himself known. God is also a God who creates, who teaches, heals, forgives, and restores. Each of these is a revelation of God, and so when we participate in them, with the eyes and hearts of faith we can discover something more about God, especially as God has been revealed to us in the person of Jesus, and in that way share in God’s divine nature, and participate in the very life of God.
But there is another act of Divine self-revelation that we don’t speak of very often. Just as we can discover something about God in acts of creation and creativity, so too can we share in the divine life through acts of rest. God is a God who creates, and God is a God who rests.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
We may expect Jesus to say: Stop. Breathe. Come away by yourselves.[i] Yet in this passage, Jesus says: “I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you.”
The yoke is an object of work, keeping two animals together to share strength. Jesus is saying: Work with me. Learn from me. Restoration comes from working my way.[ii] This way, this rhythm of life, will bring you more fully to life.
Jesus’ way, his personal pattern, includes private prayer and ceasing with Sabbath rest. Jesus’ way is also in his teaching.
For Jesus, Saturday – not Sunday – was the most important day of the week. Saturday, not because of shopping, or afternoon barbeques, or baseball games, or getting bills paid and the laundry done, but because Saturday was the sabbath, the most important day of the week. Jesus was formed in the observance of the Ten Commandments. Of all the Commandments, the longest explanation is given to the fourth commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.”[i] You are probably quite clear about the commandment not to commit murder, and not to steal, and not to take the Lord’s name in vain, but what about remembering the sabbath day and keeping it holy?[ii] Is that a little fuzzy for you? If so, what happened, because you’re not alone? For many people, several things have colluded to compromise the observance of sabbath.
For one, there’s the Church’s deference to Sunday. Sunday is the day of resurrection. Every Sunday is a little Easter. By the Middle Ages, most Christians had transferred sabbath observance from Saturday to Sunday, i.e., keeping Sunday holy. Sunday, for most Christians, became the new sabbath. As a young boy, I remember the preparation for Sunday, our sabbath day, included the ritual Saturday night bath. Sunday morning I put on my very best clothes for church. My father taught me how to tie a necktie because because of church attire on Sunday. And that’s pretty much what we as a family did on Sundays: we went to church Sunday morning and Sunday evening, and we were together as a family all Sunday. I didn’t play with my neighborhood buddies, I didn’t watch TV, I didn’t make a lot of noise. There were no school activities on Sunday. There were “Blue Laws” which kept the stores shut: no shopping on Sundays, which also allowed store employees to do the very thing we were doing on Sunday: having a day of rest.[iii]
I sometimes reflect on living the monastic life – how all-consuming it can be. There is always the next thing, and it can be very demanding. But the other week I was talking to my niece Katharine. She had a baby last year and she adores him, but she was telling me what hard work it is – day and night looking after a young child, on call 24 hours a day. Many of you will have had that experience and know exactly what it is like.
I remember a remarkable woman in my parish in England. She had five young children. When I used to visit there it was a maelstrom as they all came bounding up to the front door to greet me. So much energy! So much noise! I said to her once, “Gosh, how do you manage? How do you cope?” She said, “Well, I’ll show you.” We went into the hall and she opened the walk-in cupboard under the stairs, where most people stored their vacuum cleaners. I looked in, and there was a cushion on the floor and a candle. She said, “Every morning I go in there for 20 minutes, and spend time with God.” The children all knew that that was Mum’s special time. In fact, she put a sign on the door when she was in there. The children would never disturb her for those precious 20 minutes. “And that,” she said, “is what keeps me not just sane, but actually very happy.”
The words of Isaiah, the prophet: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (Isa 49:4).
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? In that valley of desolation and discouragement; that place where we start wondering if our efforts have made a difference, if they have been appreciated, if they’ve been worthwhile, if we’ve accomplished anything of value. Isaiah is discouraged. The people are in exile and all his efforts to redirect them to God have been met with indifference. He feels like a failure. “I have labored in vain,” he sighs, “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”
Discouragement is something we all experience from time to time. We may feel trapped in a dead-end job or a strained relationship, and have no sense of how to move forward. We may be enduring a chronic illness, with no relief in sight. We may find ourselves consumed with worry about our finances or our home or our work, and we wonder if things will ever get better. A sense of hopelessness settles over us, and we despair of our future. It’s difficult to imagine our circumstances improving and we’re not sure if we have the strength to go on.
During the month of August, while the Chapel is closed, we are reposting sermons that we hope will inspire you to embrace play, silence, solitude, and recreation.
1 Kings 19:9-13 a; Psalm 62; Mark 4:35-41
Last week there was an interesting factoid released on Boston.com rating the ten busiest Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority stations in Boston.You’ll be very proud to know that our very own Harvard Square Station ranked third just under South Station (#1) and Downtown Crossing (#2) with an average of 23,199 travelers entering the station on weekdays.[i] So it comes as no surprise that at any time of day you can find a diverse and frenetic populace bustling through the Square and its surroundings on an infinite variety of missions be it school, work, or play. And with all this activity comes a cacophony of sound that you’d expect to accompany the bronze medalist of busyness. At any moment you could witness a motorcade transporting high ranking government officials or foreign dignitaries speaking at Harvard’s Kennedy School, or an acrobat thrilling an audience with an impromptu performance of stunts, or hear any and all kinds of music being played live while waiting for the T to arrive. Sometimes the sounds are not so pleasant. The other day when I was taking a run along the Charles River, I experienced someone laying on their car horn to signal their displeasure at someone trying to make a illegal left turn onto JFK Street from Memorial Drive. The sound was immensely disconcerting.