Evensong sermon – Sunday 20th July 2014
Trinity 5 (Proper 11)
The passage we heard just now from Mark’s gospel begins with the disciples gathering around Jesus, telling him all that they had done and taught. At the beginning of the chapter though, before we get to this reading, we hear how Jesus had gathered the twelve together and sent them out in pairs to go and heal those with unclean spirits. The twelve disciples had been given very clear rules of engagement by Jesus – they were to take nothing with them for their journey except a staff; no bread if they got hungry; they were not to take a bag or any money; and they were to wear sandals and a single tunic.
Then there were the instructions as to what they should do when they entered a house, and that if they were not welcomed anywhere, they were to shake off the dust from their feet. The gospel writer then says simply that they ‘went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.’
Then the gospel writer changes scenes, and tells the story of the death of John the Baptist. This scene change in the middle of the chapter acts as a kind of mechanism to illustrate the passing of time, during which the disciples are out working hard, proclaiming repentance and healing the sick.
So when the gospel reading we heard this evening begins with the apostles gathering around Jesus, we lose something of the back story; we need to remember that they have been out with no provisions, with no emergency rations to keep them going; they have been travelling as light as it is possible to travel, and they have been working hard, sometimes in the face of hostility. They return to Jesus exhausted, but excited too, and keen to share with him all that they have done and taught.
Jesus immediately recognises what the disciples need most – quiet and rest. His first concern is to try to give them the space and the time to rest, to recover from their travels, to escape the pressures and demands of all those gathered around them, demanding of their time and their energies. So they get in a boat and head for a deserted place to be alone together, to escape the needs and the demands of all the people for a while; to rest and to recuperate.
In these few, simple lines in the gospel then, we have mirrored for us the model for an effective Christian life. In the sending out of the disciples to do their work, and in their coming back and seeking rest and peace, we are shown how we as Christians are to order our lives.
It’s what the commentator, William Barclay, refers to as the ‘Rhythm of the Christian life’. He explains that the Christian life is a continuous process of going into the presence of God from the presence of the people around us, and coming out into the presence of those around us from the presence of God. It is like the rhythm of sleep and work – we cannot work unless we have our time of rest and sleep, and sleep only comes easily if we have worked until we are tired.
I remember when I was at school being taught in economics how over the coming two decades we in this country would enjoy more leisure time than any previous generation had ever experienced. We were told that the value of the so called ‘leisure pound’ would increase exponentially as people began to spend significantly more of their disposable income on leisure activities. Well that was just over 25 years ago, and how wrong they were!
Instead of having more leisure time than ever before, people seem to be working just as long hours as they ever did, if not more in some cases. And the time that we do have seems to be filled with so many frantic activities. We have electronic devices that are supposed to make our lives more convenient, but I know that I for one am guilty sometimes of being a slave to the likes of email and Facebook, rather than allowing them to serve me.
It is all too easy in this day and age to fill our lives with constant activity. To fill all our waking hours full of business, with lists of things we need to do, people we need to phone or pop round to see. We live in a society that hardly knows what silence is or how to find it.
Leading up to my ordination three weeks ago, I and the others to be ordained deacon spent three days in silence at a retreat house near Horsham, where we had times of structured prayer interspersed with talks from the retreat leader. The rest of the time was free to us to sit, to walk, to be still and to wait on the voice of God. It was a time to enter fully and deeply into prayer with God, and to listen to what he was saying to us. After the business and stresses of moving house two weeks earlier, it was the perfect preparation as we approached ordination.
Now I realise not all of us have the luxury of taking ourselves off for three days retreat whenever we feel like it, but the model is nonetheless one to embrace. We cannot sustain our spiritual lives unless we give time to be with God in prayer, whether that be in the stillness and silence of a retreat, or in the shorter times at home or in the garden, or when we are out for a walk.
One person I know even says that their most precious time with God is when they are tending their allotment. The important thing though isn’t the time or the place, but to establish that effective pattern, that rhythm of going into the presence of God from the presence of the people around us, and coming out into the presence of those around us from the presence of God. Finding and tending to the rhythm of the Christian life is a vital discipline for each one of us as we seek to deepen our relationship with God.
As Jesus and the disciples arrived on the other shore, their hopes of the peace and rest they so badly need are dashed as they are met by crowds of people who have spotted them and recognised Jesus, and who are desperate to receive the healing that they knew Jesus could offer them. And instead of getting annoyed or returning to the boat to try to escape the crowds, Jesus looked on them with compassion.
He saw the crowds and likened them to sheep without a shepherd; in those people he saw the intense need of each one, and had compassion on them, reaching out to them to protect, guide and heal them as a shepherd tends his flock.
And Jesus continues to do that for us today. He knows when we are in need; he understands our need for healing, for guidance, for protection, and he yearns for us to come to him, to rest with him a while, not with clever words or careful prayers, but just to be. He wants us to stop our constant ‘doing’ and to spend time with him ‘being’.
In the business of our 21st Century lives, we mustn’t let our ‘doing’ crowd out the need for ‘being’. Let us instead follow the example of Jesus and his disciples. It’s a salutary lesson for me too as I begin my ministry here – that well known phrase ‘practise what you preach’ is one that was ringing in my ears as I prepared this sermon. I too need to work on establishing and practising that effective rhythm of the Christian life.
Everyone who is ordained is expected to say the daily office of morning and evening prayer, and for me it provides a foundation, a bedrock on which to build that rhythm of the Christian life.
But whatever you find useful, whether it is a regular time of Bible study, or using Bible reading notes, or simply a regular time of quiet prayer, the important thing is to establish that rhythm of the Christian life that Jesus models for us. We can only sustain our spiritual lives through an effective pattern or rhythm of time to come into God’s presence in prayer.
Morning and Evening prayer is said every weekday, either here or in one of the other churches, and is open to anyone to join us. Why not come along and join us sometimes if you can, as you too seek to establish that effective rhythm of the Christian life?
Let us pray:
Loving God, help us as we seek to establish that effective rhythm of the Christian life, of coming into your presence from the presence of others, and as we do so, may we grow in knowledge and understanding of you, that we might be better disciples of the gospel, and serve you more fully. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.