Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 • Psalm 1 • 1 John 5:9-13 • John 17:6-19
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May the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight. Oh Lord. Our strength and our Redeemer. Amen. Please be seated.
My seminary education at CDSP in Berkeley during the week of orientation, Linda Clader, who was at the time, the academic Dean and who also happened to be my advisor, gave a talk to the incoming freshmen seminary students about the value of rest. She used as an illustration, the musical notation of our hymnbook and of all printed music, which includes not only notes for singing the music, but marks to indicate when not to sing, when to rest. Those are the marks that I have never learned how to read. And so I guess at how much time I’m supposed to allow when I encounter them on a staff of musical notation, but trained musicians and train singers know that when they see those indications, they rest their voice until they sing the next note.
It was a good illustration because as Linda was at pains to make clear, the music depends on the rest in order to be complete. It isn’t only the notes that make the music. It’s also the spaces between the notes. And she was telling us all this, because we were just beginning a three-year course of study in pursuit of our master of divinity. And she knew what we were up against and had seen it happen that people who had forgotten to take their rest suffered. She knew something about what she was talking about and about eight or nine months later, when I was at the tail end of my second semester of my first year. And I was feeling just overwhelmed with all of the responsibilities of grad school papers and readings and Hebrew homework, and chapel responsibilities and committee responsibilities and community life and something that the seminary kept calling formation, which they want it to be happening to us. But we weren’t really sure what that was. It all made me feel just so panicked all the time and Clancy and I were about to have a baby. So in about April, let’s say March or April of that spring weeks away from the due date of our first child, I just thought to myself, I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Interestingly, what happened was when Elijah was born, he became the most important thing in our lives. And though his arrival added to our list of daily responsibilities and did not take away any of the other things that I was already committed to the clarity about our priorities were so strong that I had no question on a day-to-day basis about what mattered most and what I was supposed to be doing with my time and attention. And that was helpful lesson because Elijah brought love into our lives in a way that it didn’t exist before. And that love commanded our attention and ordered and organized all the rest of our lives. And so even though we’d added and I did once add up the hours, I spent a full 40 hours each week, just caring for the baby, even though we’d added the additional, the addition, the equivalent of an additional full-time job to our lives, it ordered everything else about our lives so that it was possible to manage.
So I’m not telling you this because I’m going to say that we got a lot of rest in those days, but we got something like clarity, which helped make those moments of rest, that we did have more meaningful. And I’m sharing this just as a reflection on the question of work and rest and leisure, because this has been our parish retreat weekend. And we’ve been asking you all to consider those things as well, in preparation for this weekend, Ethan and I both read a book and invited you all to do so. And you may have called how to do nothing by a local artist called Jenny O’Dell. By the time I had finished the book, I thought that what Ms. Odell had done was create a kind of secular version of a series of religious teachings, completely consistent with our values, but drawn from the worlds of the arts end of the study of nature and of secular philosophy to draw a conclusion that in the absence of any periods of rest reflection and attention on ourselves and the lives that we live surrounded by the physical presence of nature and the world itself, we miss out on the opportunity to give our attention to ourselves where we are when we are there.
And that in and of itself is a great human need. And without it, we suffer, she describes the world of internet attention seeking as a kind of constant distraction that draws ourselves away from ourselves and creates fragmented minds and spirits and people. And that adds to the accumulation of suffering in the world. So I appreciated her book and her approach and found myself agreeing with all of her diagnoses and prescriptions and thinking that they were completely consistent with what the church has always taught. Even if we haven’t always emphasized it this long passage from John’s gospel this morning can be kind of confusing. John says a lot of things in a very roundabout way. I appreciate Ethan’s observation made recently that it sounds like John doesn’t really have a whole lot left to say, but he has to fill up the page count for his teacher’s expectations before turning in the essay.
But in John’s gospel, Jesus talks about something that he calls the world. And then he talks about a relationship with God that is distinct from being in the world and in its way, this is the gospel of John’s version of trying to get us to understand that there is more to life than the many things with which we keep ourselves busy and distracted raising our families, attending to our careers, participating in the civic life of the nations, in which we find ourselves, all the things that are important and deserve attention, but in the absence of some other attention, given over to that relationship with God whom Jesus calls, father and whose relationship he epitomizes by saying it is a relationship of total communion that he and the father are one in the absence of any attention on that relationship, all of those other obligations and commitments, only us down and further add to the suffering of the world, which is the result of all that fragmented, distracted attention.
The gospels, really the whole Bible, all of our religious teaching and the local artists, Jenny O’Dell are all making the same effort to invite us purposely, to create ways to set aside our many obligations, commitments, and distractions, even though they may give us a lot of joy, a great sense of purpose. They may foster our community, life, family, life, and professional wellbeing, but they are not the same thing as a relationship with God, which also deserves our attention. And when Jesus talks about going to the place where God is and where he and God are one, he does also invite us to follow him to that place in our religious tradition, the time and attention that we give to prayer, to studying scripture, to participating in the sacramental life of the church, to being gathered together in fellowship, but not just for the sake of one another’s company, but to witness to one another in our mutual pursuit of that place, where Jesus has gone before and to which he invites us to go.
All of these things are the ways that our religious tradition invites us to participate in what the Bible calls Sabbath, the rest that puts aside all of our worldly commitments for the sake of attending to our relationship with God who as the token says, bidden or not is always present. We must choose to make that time and turn our hearts to God. God is always ready to meet us, but only waits for our initiation in that relationship. If we never choose, we never cultivate that relationship never grow and benefit from that rest. And by rest, I don’t just mean the absence of activity. I mean, giving ourselves in our hearts and with our attention to that sacred presence, that is always with us. And I might add, that’s not only for the sake of our own personal peace of mind. That’s not only so that we can drink deeply from the well of God’s grace and feel ourselves to be Holy and peaceful and blessed by God.
It’s because the world in all of its distractedness and fragmented newness compounds, suffering to the point of conflict and violence witnessed this week’s headlines about what’s happening in the middle East. Again, we, by giving our attention to the presence of God, cultivate the possibility, the capacity in ourselves of responding to conflict and suffering in the world with compassion to seek justice for the sake of mercy. So our project, as it were, is to make time to be with God, to grow in our relationship with God, to expand and enhance the ways that we ourselves can manifest. God’s grace, mercy, compassion, and justice in the world, which in it’s distracted, fragmented, constantly busy way needs it badly when Jesus prays to God on our behalf, though, we are in the world that we would be one with God as he and God are one. This is the project that he gives us to do. Maybe one day a week would be good. Maybe six hours, one day a week would be good. Maybe two hours, one day a week would be good. Start where you can with what you can, but don’t do nothing.
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