Sunday, July 18, 2021

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

 Mark 6

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. 31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

32 So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. 33 But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.

53 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. 54 As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. 55 They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.

Suddenly everyone’s going into space.

Well, when I say everyone, I mean everyone who’s a billionaire and can fund their own celestial science project. Sir Richard Branson seems to have won the race to create a space tourism industry, but others disagree. He only went up 50 miles, and everyone knows space is 60 miles up, right? Quietly, some ask the awkward “couldn’t this money be better spent on problems here on earth” question, but that betrays the spirit of the age.

All of this put me in mind of the last time too few people held too much weath, and that would be during the Gilded Age. Generally the period began in the 1870s and ushered in rapid economic growth, industrialization, and massive wealth inequality. The names of the leading men of the age are still familiar to us, so dramatic was their share of the wealth. Rockefeller, Carnegie, Guggenheim, and Vanderbilt are perhaps the best known, some for the scale of their wealth and some for charitable causes they supported. The library across the street was funded by the Carnegie Co. of New York, an example of something the Gilded Age gave us—our own little piece of all that excess wealth.

Something else the Gilded Age gave us was stress. Yes, stress existed before 1870, but the race to become wealthy in this new age created a new kind of pressure. The myth that if you worked hard enough you could become the next Rockefeller tormented the minds of many, and the result was a new ailment, the nervous breakdown. And with a new ailment comes a new cure, or perhaps we might say a new old cure, and that would be rest.

S. Weir Mitchell, a neurologist based in Philadelphia, created the rest cure, “a regimen of forced bed rest, restricted diet, and a combination of massage and electrical muscle stimulation in place of exercise.”* He is also known for his theories on women’s health, particularly the idea of “hysteria,” and in doing so caused great harm. Yet on the rest cure, his influence was short-lived, to be replaced by another nineteenth century innovation, the work cure.

The work cure was definitely a product of the age. A new theory replaced the idea that troubled people were somehow depleted, suggesting instead that people are like streetcars, meaning they need only draw on “sources of power beyond themselves.” Like the crisis that follows when the 501 gets disconnected from the overhead wires, you just need to reconnect and get going. I expect this is where the foolish advice to “keep busy” comes from, something we still hear today. Eventually, the work cure was discredited too, but vestiges remain in the popular imagination.

Jesus said “Come with me to a quiet place and get some rest.”

It sounds familiar because it is, but it also sounds familiar because of a more famous passage in Matthew 11 where Jesus says to the crowd “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Looking closely, these two statements are somewhat different, and require a look.

The first cure is finding rest in a quiet place. This is advice Jesus lives and shares throughout the Gospels. He knows the power of solitude, the need to retreat from the crowds and their demands—and be alone. He makes time to be alone with God, which is a remarkable thing considering his utterly unique relationship with the Most High. Still, he takes the time, and commends taking time to others, to find a quiet place and get some rest.

The second cure is finding rest in Jesus. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” The reason we share this quote at funerals is precisely because Jesus is the ultimate source of comfort. We support one another, we try to find the words, we might give a little advice, but ultimate rest is found in the arms of Jesus. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” he said, “for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Since I’m the third generation off the farm, I needed to look up yoke to recall exactly what it looked like. Essentially it’s a cross-beam, laid over two animals, often oxen, connecting them and allowing the farmer to control both animals. These “beasts of burden” work together to pull a plough, under the direction of the ploughman.

So a couple of things here. The first is the promise that Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light. When you choose to follow in the Way of Jesus, you are literally yoked to him and expected to do work. Preach and teach, forgive others, seek the Kingdom where it may be found; visit the sick, feed the hungry, encourage the despairing. “Love and serve others,” our creed says in summary, while you “seek justice and resist evil.” So we’re yoked, but the yoke is easy. And the yoke is easy precisely because we’re yoked to Jesus, the source of all rest.

That’s the first promise, yoked to the source of rest. The second part of the promise is implied in the design of the yoke. We are yoked together, not alone, but yoked to fellow travellers. We find greater rest when we share our burdens with each other, when we remember that we never pull alone. Everything that a life of faith demands is best met when we look to each other, and understand that discipleship is always a shared task.

In another time and another place, great wealth existed alongside great poverty. The time was the late Roman period, and the place was North Africa, called the “crown jewel” of the Roman Empire. North Africa was the wealthiest province, produced the most grain, and generated many other exports including ceramics and olives (and olive oil). All this made North Africa the place to acquire wealth and pursue your dreams. At the same time, great poverty existed with an underclass of labourers, slaves, and ex-slaves doing the bulk of the work. And into this setting stepped Augustine of Hippo, later St. Augustine, ministering to everyone in the busy port city of Hippo Regius.

You can imagine the pace of life in Hippo, the restlessness that surrounded everyone. The wealthy seeking more wealth, the poor seeking basic needs each day, the sick seeking relief. The early church stood in the centre of all this activity and tried to reach everyone. And finally, it took Augustine, with wisdom from God, to find the words, words that echo Mark 6 and Matthew 11 and offer a word to all the seekers of Hippo. He said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”

However restless you feel today, and whatever burden you face, may you find rest in God, in this and every age. Amen.


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