Rev. Harrison’s sermon from Sunday, February 15th, 2015. The text for this week was Mark 1:29-39. May God guide you this week as you wander through the world.
The Benefits of Wandering Off
When I was in Boy Scouts as a kid, when we had finished everything for the day, and dinner was over and the dishes were done, the other guys would go play a game or hang out in the tent and tell stories, and I would take a walk. I’d walk to the edge of camp, then turn off my flashlight and wander among the trees. And I’d look up into the tree tops, and I would think. I’d think about big things and I’d think about small things. I’d think about God and I’d think about the girl that I had a crush on. Those are some of my most cherished moments, just wandering around in the woods all by myself.
When I got older I sought other ways to find peace and tranquility. On camping trips I used to wait until everyone had gone to bed and then sit in silence and write in a journal about my day. And the first semester of college I had a special place, a bench behind one of the dorms, where nobody ever went, and I would go and sit on that bench and watch the sun go down every evening and pray.
I wish I could communicate better how important those times were for me, but it’s hard to explain the experience. I can only hope that you have had times in your life where you have experienced something like it: some sense of sacred time, some moments of peace and tranquility in your life.
Our story in the Gospel of Mark is about Jesus healing people at Simon’s mother-in-law’s house in Galilee. But I’m more interested in what happens afterwards. The next morning, Jesus wakes up before everyone else and wanders off. It isn’t the only time Jesus wanders off. In fact he makes it a sort of habit to take time for himself. When the crowds are too much, he takes a boat to the other side of the lake. When his disciples are too much, he takes a nap in the boat. The night that he’s arrested, he wanders off from his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane to find some time alone and pray.
Even Jesus needed to take a break every once in a while. We try to squeeze more and more activity into our lives. We run ourselves ragged trying to do more and more and more. I sometimes have so many lists of things to do and worry about that I have to make a list of all my lists. But when the Creator of the universe walked this earth in the form of Jesus Christ, he took breaks. And incidentally God took some time to rest after creating the universe as well. Rest is an important spiritual and mental discipline, and one we give ourselves far too little of.
Rest is important because we can’t function without it. You are a treasured gift from God, and such a gift is too good to be neglected. God has called you for a purpose. You have a part in God’s great plan of salvation. And you are your best resource to fulfill that calling. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us to run the race that has been set before us with perseverance. But you cannot accomplish your task if you wear yourself out before you finish the race.
There’s an old story from the tradition of the desert fathers. Abba Anthony, an old monk (later St. Anthony), was out taking a break, resting and enjoying the companionship of his brethren, and a hunter walked by. The hunter was scandalized that Abba Anthony was taking a break from work and prayer. Anthony told the hunter to get out his bow and shoot an arrow, and so the man did.
“Draw it again,” Anthony said. And so he did, shooting another arrow.
“Draw it again.” The bowman shot another arrow.
“Draw it again.”
“If I keep drawing my bow the wood will wear out and it will break.”
“And so it is with people,” Anthony said. If we stretch ourselves beyond measure, we will break. Just as any musician cares for his instrument or a handyman cares for his tools, we too have to care for ourselves if we hope to remain useful.
Taking time to rest can also help us make progress when we’re stuck. It seems counterintuitive, but sometimes taking a break is exactly what gives us the distance and creative energy to make a breakthrough in our work. I don’t know how many times I’ve found myself stuck on a problem, whether it’s how to say something in a sermon or how to fix something in my house and I’ve decided to take a break. And ten minutes into my book or walk or whatever, boom. There it is, the solution to my problem.
Setting aside some time for peace and quiet also gives us the opportunity to reconnect with God. Perhaps one of the best ways to regain the strength and energy is to spend time in prayer. When Jesus took time away from the crowds and the disciples, it was often so that he could pray. When you pray you’re reminded that you aren’t alone. You can ask for help and guidance and receive the assurance that God is with you as you go about your day. When Simon finds Jesus after he has had time to pray, Jesus is energized and ready to work again. It’s hard to experience God fully when you’re too busy to think straight. Taking time away from our busy lives to rest and recover are important because they open up space in our lives to invite God’s presence in.
Taking time to rest is important, but it is hard to fit into our lives. There is a never-ending list of things that need to be done, and never enough time to do it. It is so easy to get so focused on all of the little things we want done that we can never find time to remember the bigger things. In order to have periods of rest and peace to bring us strength and encouragement, we have to prioritize our rest. If we don’t value peacefulness, we won’t get it.
We also need to know what works. Not everyone finds peace in the same way. My Dad finds peace out on the golf course, but knocking a ball into the water three times in a row isn’t my idea of a good time. I find relief in spending time outdoors. But three days without running water isn’t someone else’s idea of a relaxing vacation. Some people are rejuvenated by being around people, some people are rejuvenated by avoiding them. Know what it is that gives you peace and seek that peace.
And finally, keep trying. Just like anything else, getting into the practice of taking care of yourself can take a little bit of work. If you’re trying to get in the habit of taking time to pray every morning, or spending some time away from your responsibilities and you fall off the wagon for a few days or a few weeks, don’t be discouraged.
When we come together to gather around the table, we take bread and wine and we proclaim them to be the body of Christ, and together we celebrate the mysteries of God. The bread and the wine remind us of the miracle of God’s grace. And it strikes me that the ingredients of the Lord’s supper, both need rest to come into their fullness. In order to make good bread or good wine, you have to let it rest. So it is with the godly life. In order to live up to the calling that we have been invited into, we must rest. God put the Sabbath in the Ten Commandments so that we might know how important it is, and Jesus rested even as he worked for our salvation so that we might follow his example.
The harvest is plentiful, and the laborers are few, but do not let that discourage you. Find some time for rest in your life. It will bring you joy and happiness, and it will make you a more effective follower of Jesus Christ, who told us to “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.