God’s sabbath rest and re-creation

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Marietta, GA

by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, July 18, 2021

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11, Year B)

(2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56)


Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (NRSV):

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things…

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

It’s good to see you after a week or so of vacation. Summer time is vacation time for many people, a time to rest, to renew and restore before we get back to our schools and jobs and daily lives. This year has been exhausting in many ways, and we’ve been eager for rest, eager for renewed energy to meet the challenges of the days ahead.

So today’s reading from the Gospel according to Mark is exciting to hear. Jesus invites his disciples to a time of rest. How wonderful to hear that invitation! Jesus had sent his disciples out two by two to preach the good news, to heal and deliver people from evil. They faced challenging adversaries and villages sometimes rejected them. When they returned to Jesus, they gathered around him to tell him all that they had done and taught. So, Jesus responds with words sweet to our ears: “‘come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while’ for many were coming and going and they had no leisure, even to eat.”

So they took a boat to a deserted place by themselves to be with Jesus, to share all they had done and taught. We see Jesus do this often for himself; he goes off by himself to pray. Jesus does this in the midst of his ministry; he does this at times of transition and preparation as well. Here he takes his disciples with him, and they are nourished by Jesus’ presence and power.

Jesus is not introducing something new. God’s covenant with his people included keeping the Sabbath day holy, in part by refraining from work. Instead of bringing in the harvest or planting seed or working with the animals, the people were to trust that God would provide for them. They would honor God with their time and their attention. The Sabbath is about rest from labor, but the Sabbath is The Lord’s Sabbath. In the Lord’s Sabbath rest, God not only invites us to rest; God invites us to renewal.

The sabbath is rooted in the account of creation. For six days the Lord created the heavens and the earth, and he rested on the seventh. The Bible describes the seventh day as part of God’s creating. On the seventh day he completed his work of creating. The sabbath is an essential part of God’s creating. So it is with our weekly sabbaths and our yearly sabbaths, our larger times apart with God. God seeks our rest and renewal and re-creation in him.

If we are always busy with the work of our hands, we easily become obsessed with our own labors, focused on ourselves and our own accomplishments. But God calls us—indeed commands us to rest from our labors and trust in God to provide for us. This rest is not simply inaction. Sabbath rest is the Lord’s sabbath—it is rest and renewal with God. The Sabbath day is the end of the week for Jews and the beginning of the week for Christians. Either way it stands as both the completion of the past and preparation for the future. We find our rest and renewal in God.

A break without God is like a dead cell phone without a charger. Simply turning the phone off will not give it more charge. Simply turning off a car won’t fill its tank. Simply breaking from work won’t strengthen you to return. But plugging in, and filling up, and rebuilding your strength changes you when you return, and changes the work itself.

God’s rest is not about escape or self-indulgence. God’s rest is about God strengthening us, about God nourishing growth in us, about God equipping us for the road ahead. So we come here seeking not solace only, but also strength, not for pardon only, but also renewal. The grace of encountering God here in Christian Community and in the sacrament is to be filled with God’s presence and power and sent out into the world renewed and transformed.

So we practice sabbath weekly as we rest from work and gather as a community to worship God together. We read the Bible and we pray for ourselves and for others. We worship God—focusing on God as God and on us as children of God and servants of God. And we take joy in our fellowship together, where laughter and playfulness help open us to greater creativity. God blesses us on the sabbath and helps us grow and thrive.

Our yearly sabbaths give us the opportunity to reflect on our lives from a larger perspective. We think about our careers, our families, the ways in which God has called us to live and to serve. We take stock of where we are, how we can grow closer to God, how we can thrive and serve others with fresh vision. I commend sabbath rest with God to all of you—on Sundays and on those summer sabbath occasions. Rest in God and find strength in the one who made you and who loves you.

Of course, the sabbath is not simply an end. The Sabbath is both completion and preparation. God is at work in our lives in sabbath and in our work. This was true for Jesus and his disciples as well. In fact, today’s lectionary reading skips over an important part of chapter six. The reading starts with verses 30-34, then skips to verses 53-56. But the verses in between are important and they are connected to this sabbath time.

Jesus tells them “come away to a deserted place by yourselves and rest a while,” for they had not even the leisure to eat. And what happened? A crowd of five thousand people showed up! The crowds saw Jesus and the disciples leave in the boats, and they circled-around to the other shore on foot. The whole crowd interrupted this precious sabbath retreat time. And Jesus had compassion on them and taught them—for they were like sheep without a shepherd.

So as evening approached, the disciples, who had not leisure even to eat, asked Jesus to send the crowds away into town so that they could buy themselves dinner. The crowds had interrupted their sabbath, or so they must have thought. You can imagine their surprise when Jesus said to them “you feed them something to eat!”

Of course, don’t we often find ourselves in similar circumstances? Just when we’re tired from all the regular stress of life, when we feel drained and stretched, when we’re balancing the maximum we can handle, then the recession hits; the pandemic strikes, the diagnosis comes in; the test grade tanks; the friend walks away. Just when we’re done raising children, our parents move in. Just when we made it through Junior year, Senior year begins—all with new challenges greater than the old ones. We often don’t know what to do or how to handle anything more. We are out of resources, but we’re called to give again. Sometimes we’re inclined just to run away. But that isn’t the kind of rest God invites us to experience. God invites us to rest and to renewal, a rest and renewal in Christ who empowers us to face these challenges and thrive!

When Jesus asks his disciples to feed the crowds, they balk at first, as we often do. Jesus then says to them “how many loaves do you have? Go and see.” They said “five loaves and two fish.” And you know the rest of the story, don’t you—Jesus gave thanks to God, broke the five and two loaves and fishes, and gave them to the disciples, who fed the five thousand. And Jesus did this miracle with the participation of these weary disciples.

God’s sabbath prepares us in ways that might surprise us. God fills us with his strength and equips us with his power. We are not empowered for our own priorities; God empowers us to share with him in his priorities—to share with him in blessing the world. And all this empowerment and strengthening is part of sabbath rest with Jesus.

God calls us to sabbath rest to restore us from the hard parts of our journey. God also calls us to sabbath rest to equip us and empower us—to strengthen us for the journey ahead. As weary as we might sometimes feel, remember how God strengthens and equips us. God empowered us during COVID, as he did in recessions and transitions and uncertain times in the past. God is equipping us now to face post-COVID times of rebuilding and renewal.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, engage with God in sabbath re-creation and return energized to participate in God’s larger work in the world!