Take a break! Mark 6:30-34 and 50-56

The priest lay on the beach, looking most uncomfortable. To be precise, he was lying on a tartan groundsheet with a picnic hamper, thermos, holiday novel and his wife next to him. He looked uncomfortable because the August sun was beating down, and he was wearing full black clericals and an all-round collar.

I guess he felt he was still a priest even if he was on holiday, and it was his duty to be available if anyone needed him. I thought of that priest when I read today’s gospel, because he had one particular solution to the issues the gospel raises. Questions of work and rest, wholeness of living, Christian service and rhythm of life.

In v.30 the apostles gather round Jesus. They’ve returned from a missionary journey, when he sent them out in pairs to practice ministry. They tell him all they have taught, all the healings they had been part of. And then Jesus tells them: ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.’

Jesus knows the importance of rest. It is God’s invention. Genesis Chapter 2 tells us how God rested on the seventh day after all the work of creating that he had done. He gave his people holidays to celebrate and be renewed, to spend in worship and community feasting. Jesus reclaimed the Sabbath by freeing it from legalism and insisting that ‘the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.’ Notice how Jesus tells the disciples to rest – as leader he models it and insists on it.

So when we take holiday it is part of a God-given pattern for life. That’s a wonderful thing isn’t it as we approach the end of term – holidays are a sign that God loves us and wants the best for us! A weekly day off is one of God’s blessings, the rhythm of work and rest keeps us healthy and sane. Even within a day it is good to have breaks from work – notice how Mark writes in v. 31 ‘they did not have leisure even to eat’ – implying that food was a leisurely activity for them.

Of course, some of us have a tendency to overwork. In our culture that is often admired. But how does God see it? Not taking time off is actually often a failure of self-discipline and a lack of obedience. In the Old Testament God reminds his people that the Sabbath is a gift and not resting is a way of closing one’s heart to his blessings.

But why is rest so hard?! My day off begins, and there’s a shopping list, washing to put on, a lawn to mow and the tax return to fill in. Sometimes I enjoy gardening, other times it’s a burden. When I spend time with family I have to turn the Blackberry off otherwise that little red light blinks at me. It is actually a discipline to stop thinking about all the things I need to do! I’ve got to be honest: it is a bit of a problem.

The biggest thing that’s helped me is seeing each situation as God’s call to me at that time. So when I’m working, focus on that and not get distracted. When I’m with people try to give them my whole attention and not think about the next thing I’ve got to go to. When it’s time off, put everything else to one side. Focus on each moment and do that particular thing well. Including resting. We all approach this in different ways and I think we’ve got to be honest with ourselves: what is actually restful for you? What are your temptations? To miss out work, or prayer, or rest? And what can you do to keep that rhythm?

Of course, it’s not helped if our best laid plans go awry. Imagine the disciples sharing food or nodding off as the waves lap the side of the boat. And then becoming aware of a cloud of dust moving on the shore. What on earth can it be? It’s a crowd, rushing round the lake to greet Jesus. Jostling, bundling, calling out questions, holding up babies, the sick crying out for help. I wonder how the disciples felt?

‘And Jesus had compassion for the crowd, for they were like sheep without a shepherd and he began to teach them many things’. His rhythm of life was not rigid. He was able to respond with compassion when he saw need, because love went all the way through him.

If we are followers of Christ, then we are Christians all the time. At work, at home, at leisure. Our standards, our compassion should be the same whether people know we’re Christian or not. Whether we’re on duty, or off duty. On home turf or in a foreign land, with boss and with staff. integrity demands we treat people with the same respect and love.

So in the middle section of the gospel reading Jesus feeds the 5000. We’ve missed it out because we’ll be telling that story over the next few weeks. Eventually, in v.53 the disciples and Jesus cross over the lake again, meet another crowd, and heal more people.

Healing was so important in Jesus ministry. Everywhere he went he healed people. It wasn’t an added extra, but right at the core. God’s Kingdom is coming, preached Jesus, and that included making people whole. Jesus trained his disciples to heal. The Early Church carried on. Great hospitals like St Thomas’ in London have a Christian foundation, and the healing ministry continues today.

In all sorts of ways. Jesus calls some people to use their talents as medics. A Congolese woman called Pulcherie had been blind for half her life, as cataracts took over her vision. Her husband abandoned her to raise their child Guychelle alone. Then she came aboard a Mercy Ship, supplied by a Christian charity and received free surgery. When the bandages came off she saw her daughter for the first time.

Jesus enables us to let go of the past, bringing healing of memories. His Holy Spirit can liberate addicts from all kinds of things which bind them. Sometimes he heals someone from illness or evil power. At other times healing comes in patience, strength and the ability to cope. Even death is transformed by Christ, so that the last enemy is now the gateway to being made whole in the presence of God.

Healing is so important in the gospel, and I sometimes wonder if we make enough of it? Yes, we pray every Sunday for those who are ill, but is there more we could do in these churches to be open to the healing presence of God? I’m sure we believe God can heal in all sorts of different ways, so should we be providing more opportunities? A healing service on Sunday? The chance to receive personal prayer or perhaps the laying on of hands at the communion rail? I’d love to see someone develop the healing ministry here.

Because it was a regular part of what Jesus did. And those regular rhythms are important. The passage ends with these words from v. 56 ‘And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market places and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.’

Wherever Jesus went, this kind of thing happened. Several times in the gospels we read summaries like this: Jesus went around their towns and villages preaching in the synagogues and healing the sick. In between the big miracles, the detailed accounts, and the full parables, there are little generic descriptions of the kind of thing Jesus did. Lives changed but not recorded. Minor ailments healed. Teaching repeated? Did the disciples mutter to themselves: ‘ah, he’s telling the lost sheep again?’

Why do we have these summaries? Well what did you have for supper last Tuesday? Can’t remember? But I’m sure you had something to eat. And it kept body and soul together. And you probably enjoyed it well enough at the time. Unless it’s a special occasion most of us don’t remember a particular meal – or a sermon for that matter! Yet it probably did us good at the time.

Much of life is like that. Necessary. Keeping us going. Building up strength. Not unusually memorable but enabling us to live from day to day. Whether it’s meals, or church, housegroup, Bible reading and prayer, the regularity and daily nutrition is important.

When I look around at the people I’ve known for years, the ones who persevere in their faith are usually the ones who’ve got those regular disciplines sorted. The people who grow in Christ are often those who try to spend time with God each day. They’re the ones who know their need of one another, who are part of a church and a housegroup. It really does seem to make a difference. We can’t sustain ourselves with the spiritual equivalent of an occasional banquet followed by a long famine. We need that regular spiritual meal.

The choices we make form us. A rhythm of life is so important. Rest and work; prayer and leisure; exercise and church – it’s surely not coincidence this theme is intertwined with healing. Put those disciplines in place, stick with them even when it’s difficult, and you will reap much benefit.

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Was Indiana Jones right?

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark was right – in places. That film, and today’s Old Testament reading agree: God isn’t magical – his power can’t be used at human will. And while his presence brings great blessing to those who worship him, it can also be very dangerous for those who lack humility.

The Ark of the Covenant was a wooden box. In it were the tablets of stone on which were written the 10 Commandments. The box itself was overlaid with gold. Between two carved statues on the lid was a special spot – the mercy seat. On this place, once a year, the High Priest would put the blood from a sacrifice. That was the only time anybody was supposed to go near the Ark, which was kept in the Holy of Holies, at the heart of the temple.

That was because for the Jews the Ark was a focus for the presence of God. It reminded them that the God they worshipped wanted to dwell with them. It taught them that he was also a holy God and that sinful people could not take his power or love for granted.

But sadly people forget what symbols mean, or imagine that they can manipulate God. The Israelites took the ark into battle, thinking that would make God win the battle for them. They lost, the ark was captured, and after many adventures David decided to bring it back to Jerusalem.

Which is where we join the story. Although it’s thousands of years old, and comes from a completely different culture, there’s much it can teach us about worship. Christians do not have an Ark, because Christ has fulfilled its meaning. He is God with us. God’s holiness is shown to us through Christ’s cross. That’s how God is both holy and with us – because Jesus deals with our sin there. Christian worship is very different, yet I think you’ll agree, the principles are remarkably similar.

Worship is essential. David wanted the ark back because it was used in worshipping God. And worship makes us complete: as St Augustine said: ‘You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.’ In worship we draw close to God, we drink deeply from the water of life, we’re fed with the bread of heaven.

What does worship do you for you? Does it fill you up? Set you up for the week? Put everything else in perspective? Take you out of yourself into the presence of God? Worship is a human instinct: we observe that if people don’t worship God they often worship other things.

But the worship of God is a great blessing. It can be individual – think of David the shepherd boy composing psalms on the hillside. And worship can be a whole community – as we see in v.5 where the house of Israel join in.

For many of us that’s when worship is at its best. When the whole community joins together in worshipping God for a particular reason. Remembrance Day, a baptism. Times like that have a really special feel to them.

So should our Sunday worship be more of an occasion? Should we be looking for other themes or special events? Songs of Praise, or Sea Sunday? Certainly if we want to include the wider community we do need to think about the words we use – what does Sung Eucharist mean to the average parent?

And we need to think about how church worship relates to a culture which is increasingly informal, and café in style. On the one hand people are quite consumerist – not many come to church out of duty these days. But on the other hand few are content just to watch a spectacle up front – they want to be engaged and involved. So we need to think about how our worship evolves.

Think about the best celebrations you’ve been part of… I bet they involve food. We couldn’t say goodbye to Phil without having puddings and wine. Religions have always understood the connection between food, community and worship. In v. 19 the day ends with David giving everyone bread meat and raisins. Whether it’s Harvest Supper, or mince pies and mulled wine after Carols, or good coffee, food and drink speak of hospitality and shared life.

At church the other week a child came in clutching a piece of toast. It’s a rush for families to get going in the morning. So we’re going to offer breakfast before the Family Service as part of our welcome.

It will be a nice breakfast too. Because everything we do in worship should be our best. God deserves nothing less. When we come together to worship the Lord of all creation, our Saviour and Friend, how could we offer something half-baked or indifferent? God deserves the best.

And of course, the more we put in, the more we get out. Singing is a great example. If you stand up, lift your head and sing out, you feel good. And it’s a virtuous circle, singing up encourages others to be confident too and creates a good feel in worship. Particularly if we’re sitting close enough to each other to create a bit of volume!

Offering our best also makes worship more appealing to visitors. Nowadays we all expect increasingly high standards in every area of life. We might wonder, what chance has the average parish church got? How can we keep up with society’s expectations?

For people can sink into the cushioned seat of their car, and adjust their desired temperature to ½ a degree. They can drive down the M4 listening to Kings College Choir singing Tallis while the children amuse themselves in the back seat with an iPad. You can stop at Cribbs Causeway, do your Sunday shopping and order a double macchiato with hazelnut syrup and chocolate flakes.

How can the church compete with that? Well actually we can. Home made cakes are better than any café. Building projects can improve our facilities. But there is one thing that society values even more than choice and quality. That is integrity.

Flash and technique count for nothing if there is no heart or atmosphere behind them. So many talented people have been brought down because they were not seen as genuine. And that is where the church can shine. In the warmth of our welcome, the reality of our community. In generosity which seeks no return. In an honest sermon and the engagement of the children. If what we offer in our music and our prayers is the best we can do, then that will speak of genuineness, and God rejoices in our best.

Our best also includes obedience. Remember that the Ark of the Covenant represented the presence of God? Because the Jews knew that God is holy and people are sinners, there were very clear rules about moving the ark. It could only be done by priests, carrying poles which were slid through loops attached to the ark. No-one could touch it.

So when we read verses 3-6 it all seems a bit slapdash. The Israelites load the Ark onto a cart. When the oxen stumble, one of the two men leading the oxen reaches out to steady it, and pays the ultimate penalty for their lack of reverence. David is angry at God, and fearful, and they decide to leave the ark in the nearest home.

Three months later it is clear that God longs to bless his people. So the Israelites return and this time they do it properly, with a sacrifice too. It’s a challenging story, and it’s included in our Bibles as a reminder that, although we do not worship in that way, and Christ fulfils the Old Testament, God is a holy God.

We could misunderstand this. We could be anxious to get everything right in worship, or imagine that it must be very solemn. We must remember that this account is from the Old Testament where worship was ritualised and laid down in law.

For us, Christ has fulfilled the temple law, so it is no longer needed. Our worship remembers him and how he reconciled us with God. He paid for our sins so that we can enter into God’s presence freely. If the ark were here, we could touch it, because of Jesus. This story does not tell us that our worship should be fearful, or sombre, but it does remind us of the price Jesus paid so that we could come to God.

Of course, Christians do have ways of organising their worship. We have a particular way of laying out the communion vessels, a pattern to our service. It’s good to have a way of doing things, otherwise we’d be starting from scratch each time. It’s good for that way to be shared with other churches, so if you’re somewhere new you know what’s going on. But we must always remember: these things are human traditions, they change and evolve. It doesn’t matter if we make a mistake. Stuffiness is not a virtue – reverence, beauty, joy and informality can thrive together. The worship of God is not a performance that we have to get right.

What we do need to try and get right is our obedience. Throughout the Old Testament and the New, God tells us there is no point in having wonderful worship if we’re not living his way. In Amos 6:23 ‘Away with the noise of your songs, let justice flow like rivers’. In Psalm 40:6 ‘Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, I delight to do your will O God.’

Worship must change our lives. When we draw close to God we become more like him. His love fills us. When we hear God’s word we are challenged to put it into practice. When we worship God we are inspired by his love. His Spirit fills us, and sends us out through that door. Worship changes lives to make a difference in the world.

Giving

A vicar got up one Sunday and announced to his congregation: “I have good news and bad news. The good news is God has provided us with enough money to pay for our building repairs, parish bills and employ a youth worker. The bad news is it’s still out there in your pockets.”

I’m going to be speaking about giving today. Not because we’ve given out the leaflets about the Schools worker programme, although that is an excellent cause. Nor am I thinking about Norton church funds particularly, because Christian giving is much more than keeping church buildings going. It’s about supporting God’s work, giving to those in need. But I’m preaching on giving because it’s in the reading set for today from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. And because it is such an important part of Christian discipleship.

It’s not very English to talk about money and our attitudes to it. Jesus had no such inhibition – he talked about finance a lot. Allegedly he talked more about money than he did about heaven. ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart is also’. He knew that our attitude to wealth and how we spend our money is a real indicator of how much we have allowed our faith to transform our lives.

In the reading, St Paul is organising a whip-round. There is a famine in Jerusalem, fellow Christians are suffering. As followers of Jesus they have been expelled from the synagogues which means they are cut off from one of the sources of welfare. Nor was there a welfare state in those days. People paid tax but it did not go to help those in need. So Paul appeals for help from the churches he has founded. As we read his request we see much guidance for us about our giving, not just to the church but for all kinds of charity.

Those Christians had never met each other. Many in Corinth were Gentiles, most in Jerusalem Jews. The Jewish church kept the Old Testament Law, the Gentile church did not. That was a point of real friction. By comparison, it puts many of today’s arguments into the shade. And yet they were committed to supporting one another. They helped people miles away they had never met, with whom they didn’t entirely agree, because they were brothers and sisters in Christ. Generosity bridges gaps. And in parishes which regularly support a charity it’s wonderful to see the benefit the parish receives.

In v.7 Paul writes: ‘As you excel in everything, so excel in this generous undertaking.’ He’s saying that giving is a privilege and a joy. If you passionately support something you like giving to it. I know a financial advisor who doesn’t exactly love giving tax to the government, but he pours money into his golf club. In the children’s hospital there are many homemade posters for fundraising events – a family has had a child endure a rare illness and now they’re putting heart and soul into raising money for a cure. If we have the resources to make a difference to something we care about then that is a gift from God. So what do you care about enough to support?

The act of giving can be a joy. I’ve seen a video of a church in Africa taking a collection. When we take the offering in England we pass around a little bag solemnly and people look rather glum as they drop an envelope into it. In Africa everything is done with joy and celebration. People dance up the aisle bearing their gifts. Cash may be scarce. So the gift might be vegetables, grain, even a live chicken. Sometimes the chicken makes a break for freedom. It is colourful, chaotic, filled with laugher. They delight in giving. And while that may not be the British style, perhaps we could learn from that pleasure in supporting what we believe in, enjoying being able to make the world a better place.

Part of the joy comes from it being a free gift. There should be no compulsion in giving, no guilt or emotional blackmail. As we have seen in the tragic case of Olive Cooke, unethical fundraising is wicked. In v.8, Paul writes: ‘I do not say this as a command’. Now in the Old Testament the tithe was a command. You were supposed to give 10% of your income, and indeed many Christians do that today, seeing it as a good principle. But it is not meant to be legalistic. Some are able to give more, some less. Whatever we give must be our own free choice. Made in a spirit of prayer, realism and open generosity

I must say I’m very impressed by the way this Diocese asks PCCs for money. In many other places it is a kind of church tax – each parish is given a figure. If you don’t pay it they come after you. My parents’ parish has years of debts to pay off. But here in the Diocese of Bristol each PCC is asked to pray about it and decide what we can afford. We give what we want to support God’s work.

The church authorities didn’t need to do it this way. It’s a huge risk. But they’re putting a Christian principle into practice. They’ve got a vision, showing the way towards greater maturity and interdependence. What a step of faith and trust! It’s been fascinating to see how some of our parishes took a brave step last year in raising their parish share – and how God has been faithful and blessed them with the best fundraisers they’ve ever had!

The apostle teaches: when you give, give what you have decided freely in your heart. We should consider wisely, pray about it and plan. Standing orders are great as they allow an organisation to plan and stop one’s giving being haphazard. Think about the charities you give to. Don’t just respond to the emotive appeals which fall through the letter box, but seek out things you really believe in. I don’t respond to chuggers, phone calls or mailings, and as a result I don’t get hassled much. But I do give to the things I believe in.

Things which make the world a better place. For example our PCC often gives some income to charity. When we had a fundraiser we gave part to the Water Aid project in Uganda. They use local organisations, which are much less susceptible to corruption than governments. And providing people with wells and pumps gives them the ability to help themselves out of poverty. As the well-known quote goes: ‘Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man how to go fishing and he eats for the rest of his life.’ Wisely used, our support can transform lives.

Ultimately we give because God gave to us. Christian giving is inspired by the creative love of God and the redemptive love of Jesus. In v.9. Paul writes: ‘for you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’ Jesus left the glories of heaven for a harsh life on earth. The Son of God submitted himself to death so that we could be forgiven. He gave up everything he had for us, he died for uoi and me, and what we give can never repay that. When we really understand that, when we grasp the depths of Jesus love, that sets our hearts free to give.

Are there any guidelines about how much we should give? Two animals, Pig and Hen, were asked by the Vicar’s wife to contribute towards the Harvest Meal. It was a ham and egg supper. ‘Ooooh’, clucked Hen, ‘Isn’t it good to be able to help the church?’ Pig wasn’t so sure. ‘You make a donation,’ he grunted, ‘but I make a sacrifice.’

Ten pound a week may be a huge sacrifice for a widow on a pension but only a drop in the ocean for a successful professional. So in v. 12 Paul teaches that ‘the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have’. In other words, we should give according to our means. God looks at the heart; the intention, the generosity, what it means to us.

So we should try and give realistically. From time to time our income and expenses change so it’s good to review our giving regularly – say once a year. Remember to allow for inflation. When I was a child a pound was a lot of money. But what can you buy for a pound today?  It’s worth 25% less than it was ten years ago.

Because of that we may think we haven’t got enough income to give some of it away. And in a sense that’s true – we’ll never have enough for all the things we could desire. Those who hoard everything to themselves never have enough. And those who wait until they’re rich enough never get there. But the people who give a proportion of what they earn find out what they real priorities are. They receive God’s gift of contentment.

For if we give according to our means then the last two verses in our reading come true: ‘The one who had much did not have too much and the one who had little did not have too little.’ Those who are hard pressed are relieved and those who have plenty are blessed in helping them. God provides for us when we are generous.

This is Christ’s vision, that we should follow his example of amazing generosity. That in giving to those in need we may find joy in doing good. That in supporting his work we ourselves may be blessed. Being able to give is a gift, may we discover it. Amen.