St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury
July 27, 2003
Next Sunday we conclude our series on "The Real Jesus" by looking at the issue of miracles. The following week (August 10) we start a new series, which is called "Axioms for Inner Wellbeing". Six such axioms are suggested by the epistle readings in the lectionary over that period. We might be making a preliminary excursion into the area today, with looking at Yeshua's own need to get away from time to time. That may sound odd to those who prefer to see him as the perfect model of equilibrium and inexhaustible good cheer. But the fact of the matter is that this is an ideal picture of Yeshua, not supported by the facts.
My first point is that Yeshua knew those experiences that take it out of us. A fortnight ago, on the Sunday evening, I was with a house church in Belmont (Geelong). It was meeting in the home of Kenneth and Alison Ralph. Kenneth is a UCA minister and psychologist. His book "Yes, I get depressed" is written for the non-professional person who has a lively interest in understanding this common human experience. He weaves together the insights from psychology and the ancient wisdom of good religion, with lots of good real life illustrations. ("Yes, I get depressed" is available from Unichurch Books.)
The first chapter is called "Everybody gets the blues". Kenneth cites a catalogue of famous depressives, especially among the artistic and creative; Goethe, Hemingway, Schumann, Tchaichovsky, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Van Gogh, Churchill and so on. Chapter 2 is headed "Just how unhappy did Jesus get?" He shows how all the gospel writers, despite their exalted images of Yeshua, nonetheless portray him as knowing the deeps of unhappiness. He looks at four instances. I acknowledge a fair debt to Kenneth in this section, for the skilful way he analyses Yeshua's experience and emotion.
· First is his very public grief over the loss of a dear friend: Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha. You know it: the shortest verse in the bible. "Jesus wept." (John 11:35) Kenneth says Yeshua didn't go off to the nearest olive grove to do his crying. He did it in full view of people, who commented, "How dearly he must have loved him!"
· Second is the lament over Jerusalem. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" (Luke 13:34) Kenneth identifies in this the pain of rejection, the experience of utter frustration and powerlessness.
· Third is the agony in the garden; what he calls "the episode of acute anxiety and despair". (Luke 22:39-44) Yeshua has gone to this private place with the inner circle – Peter, James and John. Even though he has moved away, apparently they can hear him praying aloud. "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done." (Luke 22:42) There are accounts of this also in Matthew and Mark. The Greek words in the original all convey intensely strong emotion; they translate to our 'deeply agitated', 'appalled', 'distressed'. In the Good News Bible, Mark has Yeshua saying "The sorrow in my heart is so great that it almost crushes me." (Mark 14:34)
· Fourth instance of Yeshua being brought low is the cry of abandonment. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34) Kenneth Ralph points out that this has been differently interpreted, and indeed that Luke leaves it out of his account. He seems reluctant to attribute despair to Yeshua and instead has him saying, "Into your hands I commit my spirit." (Luke 23:46). Kenneth reminds us that "people of profound faith can also be people of deep despair." But he says, "For myself, I don't think he died a disillusioned man, but I do think his faith took a real hammering."
So, first point: Yeshua knew personally those experiences that take it out of us.
Second, he was very well aware of the stress on his friends from time to time. In the little vignette we just read from Mark 6, he has been teaching in the towns; the disciples too. Word of the death of John the Baptist has just reached them. Remember, John the Baptist was Yeshua's cousin, and also his mentor. Yeshua had been baptised by John and had probably been a member of John's movement before setting out on an independent mission. The tension is mounting. They are now in constant demand.
The previous chapter mentions that woman
in the crowd with chronic bleeding; twelve years of it!
In a very moving sermon last Sunday, Robert Sanderson (an elder at St
Aidan's) reminded the congregation that this woman was beyond human help.
"She had heard of Jesus and believed that he could cure her. But she could not ask him for very good reasons. First, a woman in those times could not approach a rabbi directly. And second, the purity laws were very strict about anything to do with bleeding and she was therefore regarded as 'unclean'. She was an outcast from society because if she had contact with anyone else, then they would be defiled and would require quarantine and a ritual washing . . . She pressed through the crowd, knelt down and touched the fringe of his garment. Immediately she knew she was cured . . . but so did Jesus."
We're told Yeshua literally feels the energy being drained out of him! Now they've all met for a debriefing. Everyone is feeling exhausted, Yeshua as much as the others. He says, "We need to get away from all this." The Greek is very emphatic. Literally it is "Come you yourselves privately into a deserted place." Nothing could be clearer than that. "Just you lot; not all your mates and hangers-on this time. Privately! Understand? And some place where we'll get some peace." Not easy though, is it! Someone told me recently about the grand-mother who sent a present to her grand-daughter on the birth of grand-daughter's third child. Grand-daughter now had three under four, but still no playpen. That was her grannie's present. The 'thank you' card said, "Dear Grannie, I love the playpen. Every afternoon I hop in there for an hour, put on my sleep mask and hope they won't bother me!"
This episode calls us back to what we could call "Moses' Fourth Law of Human Dynamics". "Remember the shabbat day (the rest day), and guard it as a holy thing!" That ancient story from the Hebrew 'dreaming' has the creator of the universe putting his feet up on the seventh day (Gen 2:2-3). It's absurd taken literally, of course, but it's the sages' way of telling us that this principle is embedded in the very nature of things – as much as the laws of physics and mathematics. There is a fundamental rhythm about life which must be respected.
My third point is that the loss of this presents a challenge to churches. I heard last week from a Melbourne book publisher that the second biggest seller in the US, after pornography, is 'self-help' literature – material which tells how to get your life together properly. Three or four years ago a book called "Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest" was published. Its author is another minister and therapist. His name is Wayne Muller. Muller tells of a medical practitioner he calls 'Roger'. He points out that medicos are trained to perform when they are overloaded, rushed and short of sleep. But he notes that when Roger was tired, he would order more and more tests, because he felt his judgement was flawed. "But when I was rested," Roger said, "if I could get some sleep or take a quiet walk, I could trust my intuition and experience to tell me what was needed. If there was any uncertainty, of course, I would order a specific test to confirm my diagnosis." That's not an argument against tests! It's an illustration of what happens when the fundamental rhythm is lost: our judgement becomes unreliable.
Yeshua, of course, understood the deeper meaning in Moses' Fourth Law. He knew it wasn't about petty legalisms. It wasn't even about getting everyone regularly to temple or synagogue. It was to symbolise by a special day this rhythm which is basic to wellbeing. Hence his rebuke to those who accused him of desecrating the sabbath. "The sabbath is for the good of humanity," he says. "Not the other way about." Wayne Muller notes that recognition of this fundamental rhythm is in all the great faiths.
But we're losing it in Western societies. "We've gotten to the point," Muller says, "where the only culturally accepted reason to stop entirely is when we get sick!" If that's true, then it's very serious indeed. Toward the end of his life, the great Catholic mystic and writer Thomas Merton warned of what he saw as a spreading type of violence which was characteristic of our time – overwork and overactivity! Pervasive violation of Moses' Fourth Law of Human Dynamics!
We're not talking about a dull and miserable sabbath observance or 'sabbatarianism'; that would be to miss the point. We're talking about what Muller called 'restoring the sacred rhythm'. There is no one best way. What's best for one may not be for another. But it may well be that a good method is exactly what you're doing now. We're told Yeshua was regularly in synagogue. I've no doubt whatever that for one day in the week he took things very quietly.
I told one of you recently about a journalist friend of mine who started back at church after years as a 'church alumnus' (to use Jack Spong's expression!) He explained it to me very bluntly. "Parson," he said, "I figure that if going to church does no more than get a man's mind off himself for one hour a week, sure as hell that has to make it worthwhile!" A very senior policeman I'd better not name told me that even though he wasn't the most frequent church attender, he advised his officers to go now and again. "It can be as refreshing as lying in the bath . . . and you come out a lot cleaner than you went in!" Manfred Clynes, the world-famous concert pianist who became a professor of neuro-physiology, assured me that we are 'programmed' for reverence, and that periodic episodes of moving into that reverential mode we call 'worship' could be profoundly healing and health-giving.
St David's has the potential to become such a centre of healing and wholeness; a place where men and women and children and young people are helped to be richly aware of this Mystery with whom Yeshua lived in communion. I bid you all continue to think about what that means for the larger community around us.
Next week: "What do we make of miracles?"
Kings 19:9-12. Elijah
hears the holy whispers in the silent stillness
Mark 6:30-34. Yeshua takes his team for 'time out' to be refreshed
address given by Rev Dr John Bodycomb at St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury
Sunday, July 27, 2003. MAY BE
REPRODUCED WITH ACKNOWLEDGEMENT.