Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Sermon: "Calgon, Take Me Away!"

Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, NH
August 12, 2012

“Calgon, Take Me Away!”

Psalm 23 ~ Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

When I was a child growing up on Long Island in the 1970’s I used to dread this time of year.
 Because it was right about now, in the first weeks of August that all the stores would begin to advertise their Back to School sales.

Summer was in full swing, and my brothers and sisters and I spent every waking moment traipsing around in shorts and sandals, our hands sticky from watermelon and popsicles.
We’d ride our bikes to the community pool, spend hours exploring the wooded lot at the end of our street, and stay up long after dark catching fire flies in the back yard. 
Then one day, right about this time of year, we’d open the mailbox and realize that the end was near.
The JCPenny Fall Catalog had arrived…usually with a picture of some goofy kid on the cover wearing polyester pants and a turtleneck sweater, and toting a giant backpack full of school supplies.

It seemed like the summer break had only just begun – it was 90 degrees outside and yet the pages of the catalog were filled with pictures of plaid overcoats, falling leaves, and shiny new notebooks.  
The arrival of the fall catalog was also my mother’s cue to march all of us down to the local Thom McAn shoe store and have us squeeze into new shoes that were always too tight and too uncool for my liking.
It seemed colossally unfair.
We’d only just gotten OUT of school, yet the adults seemed to be in a rush to shove us back IN.

It was good to have a break – an opportunity to get away from all that learning….and thinking…..and having to meet expectations.
To have the time to just lie down in the grass,
       stare at the sky…and watch the clouds roll on by.
How many of us as adults wouldn’t love to have the time, and the space, to do that now?

To feel the cool grass pressing against our back, and the warmth of the summer sun dancing across our face.
To let all of our worries, and our responsibilities just float away, knowing that we’ll deal with them at some other time, in some other place, far off in the future.
How many of us wouldn’t love to have the space just to breathe?

God knows that we need that space,
          but what many of us may not realize is that God commands us to claim  
             that space.

Exodus 34: 21 - “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath day, you shall rest”
Numbers 10:33 - “Moses and the people set out from the mountain and traveled for three days (and) the LORD went before them to find them a place to rest.”
Matthew 11:28  - “Jesus said, Come to me all you who are weary and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.”
…and Psalm 23 –  “God makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters; and restores my soul.”

God commands us to do God’s work in the world,
           but God also commands us to rest and restore our souls.
In our Gospel reading today Jesus says to his weary disciples,
"Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."

To our modern ears, this verse could easily have come from a brochure advertising a Caribbean vacation:

"Come away –
   to a deserted place –
      all by yourselves  -
           and rest a while."

I can almost here the steel drums playing in the background.

At the point where we pick up the story in Mark’s gospel, Jesus knows that his disciples are due for a break.
They’ve just returned from the long missionary journey that Jesus sent them on.
They’ve been away, possibly for months, visiting with the sick, lobbying for the poor, and spreading the Good News of God’s radically inclusive love to all the surrounding towns.

Now they’ve returned from their journey and we can imagine them running up to Jesus, excited and out of breath because they can’t wait to tell him all they had done.
But Jesus doesn’t say to them – Great job! Now, let’s get out and do more! We’ve got to help more people, we’ve got to create more disciples, we’ve got to make sure that everyone hears this incredibly Good News as soon as possible!
No. Jesus doesn’t say that.
What he does say is, “Now it is time to rest.”

Jesus was a prudent leader. He knew his disciples were fired up, that they were no longer questioning their role in his ministry and they finally had confidence in their own abilities.
They understood that by acting as a conduit for God’s love and compassion a whole lot of good things could get done, and a whole lot of people would get helped in the process.
But Jesus also knew that the disciples would not be able to sustain the pace they had set.
They needed to dial it back a notch, and leave themselves time and space to recharge their batteries – emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
Because if they didn’t they were in danger of burning themselves out.

Burn out is a condition that many of us are familiar with.
Not the kind of burnout that comes from working too many hours or for too little pay, or the burnout that comes from feeling unappreciated in our work.

The kind of burnout that Jesus was looking to circumvent in his disciples, and in us, is the result of the unrealistic belief that it is our responsibility to save the world…or at least our own little corner of the world.
The belief that if we don’t do the work, no one else will, and it will never get done.
Burn out is what happens after we realize that we can’t do it all, and we’re just too tired to do any more.

Sociologists call this condition compassion fatigue.
As human beings, God created us to live in relation to one another, and to do this we must feel compassion. But when we've heard too many emotional appeals for disaster relief, walked down too many streets crowded with human sorrow, or been asked to serve on too many church committees, we soon realize that our compassion is limited.

We can’t rescue every person we see living on the street, we can’t ease the pain of every sick person that we know, we can’t feed every child who went to bed hungry last night, and we can’t say yes to every request to serve our church community with our time, energy, and money.

Now, there are plenty of us who could be doing MORE to help in our communities and in our churches, but that’s a whole other sermon.
This text today is for those of us who feel compelled to take the world upon our shoulders and who need to hear that it’s okay to lay our burdens at Jesus feet and rest for awhile.

Intellectually, most of us accept and understand that our ability to help is limited, but that doesn’t stop some of us from trying to overcome those limitations.
Because like the original twelve disciples we’ve heard and responded to the call to serve in God’s world. We are Jesus’ disciples, just 100 generations removed.

And like the disciples, we can’t help but keep running up to Jesus, excited and out of breath, rattling off a list of all the good that we’ve done in the world in his name.
We do this not to be boastful or proud, but to relay our joy and amazement over the healing power that God’s love has in the world.
And we want to do so much more.

But Jesus’ response to us is the same as his response to the original twelve, “You’ve done good work – now come away to a deserted place and rest a while.”

At this point it’s worth mentioning that the Gospel story goes on to tell us that Jesus and his disciples did not find rest in that deserted place….
because the place that they went to was not deserted.

 The people who had been following Jesus and his disciples for weeks, possibly months, followed them yet again, meeting Jesus as soon as he stepped out of the boat on the opposite shore.
As we read this text, we can just feel the disciples cringe in weariness, and let out a deep and mournful sigh at the sight of yet another group of people in need.

We’ve all been there.
We sit down for a quiet dinner and the phone rings.
We close our bedroom door to get a moments peace and the kids start fighting.
We take a week off from work and the boss calls us every day with one crisis after another.
We just want to scream: “Why can’t everyone just leave me alone!”

As we might expect, Jesus’ response to having his planned vacation suddenly interrupted by a demanding mob was not anger or disappointment, but rather more compassion. 
He had compassion for the people for they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he recognized that their need was greater than his own.
Now, there is a lesson in here for us to have compassion for those who make demands on our time, but I don’t believe the message of this text is that we must be like Jesus and respond to those demands at all times.

The text tells us that Jesus stepped out of the boat and addressed the crowd, not the disciples. Sensing their fatigue, it can be assumed that Jesus told them to wait for him in the boat, much as a mother might tell tired children to wait in the car while she runs one more errand. While Jesus taught the crowd, the disciples took a much-needed sabbatical, in fact they are not mentioned again in the text until a full chapter later.

Martin B. Copenhaver, a UCC pastor in Wellesley Massachusetts writes:

Even though the disciples were empowered to teach, preach and heal as Jesus did, they still could not reflect the constancy of his compassion. It is immediately after their greatest success that they encountered this most persistent human limitation.
Only God can extend constant compassion.
God is the only one who never suffers from "compassion fatigue.”
In the constancy of Jesus' compassion, his kinship with God is revealed. [i]

We are called to follow in Jesus footsteps, but we can never truly be like Jesus.  We’re not God.
We may have huge hearts and tremendous love for others but our capacity for giving of ourselves is limited.

The amazing thing is that as we step back to take a much needed rest, we create a space for someone else to step in.
We may feel as if we’re dropping the ball, but in most cases that ball doesn’t stay on the ground for very long, as someone else who has been resting on the sidelines notices a need that is no longer being filled and steps forward to fill it.
This doesn’t happen every time, and sometimes it takes a while for someone to step in and fill the void that another has left behind, but it does happen, more often than we may realize or acknowledge.
On this mid-August morning I invite you to sit back for a moment, close your eyes, and find a space to breathe.
To come away to a deserted place and rest for a while.
To forget about the pressing needs of the world and allow yourself
 to experience the sensations of summer.

The smell of fresh cut grass, and afternoon rain.
The taste of strawberries, lemonade, and corn on the cob.
The sound of song birds at dawn, cicadas at noon, and tree frogs in the dark of night.
The feel of cool slate and hot sand on the soles of your feet as you go barefoot into the world.
The flowing warmth of yellows, reds, and oranges that blanket your vision when you close your eyes and turn your face towards the sun.

Jesus invites us to take rest in him.
To go out into the world and do God’s work, and then stay behind in the boat while he finishes the task.
To act as a font for God’s compassion in the world, and grant ourselves permission to have compassion for ourselves and take a much needed break every once in awhile.

Because there are times when we just need to lie down in that green pasture,    
        beside the still waters,
            and let the Lord restore our soul. 


[i] "Watching from the Boat," The Christian Century, 1994.

No comments:

Post a Comment