+In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was in high school, there was a fad of sorts among certain of my classmates to wear rubber wristbands with the letters W, W, J, and D. Most of you will probably know that these letters stood for the question “What would Jesus do?”.
Now, as a teenager I was rather less charitable than I am now, and I thought that I was pretty theologically adept, which I really wasn’t, and when a fellow of mine approached me and asked if I wanted to wear such a wristband, as he had an extra, I responded that I had no intention of dying on the cross for humankind, in fact that there was no need for me to do so, and thus the question was a less reliable means of determining moral action than, say, Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative.
Anyway, upon obtaining some maturity and doing some reflection, I discovered that I was not right to dismiss the pious practice of wearing “WWJD” wristbands, nor was I entirely wrong. In addition to being our saviour, Jesus is our principal moral example, and while not all of his actions are expected of us, the virtues of which he is the exemplar, self-sacrifice being chief among them, are the virtues by which we are called to live as children of God.
Even so, there is not a neat one-to-one correlation between the actions of Jesus and what makes for a healthy moral and spiritual life for us, because Jesus was the Son of God and he had a specific mission which is not ours. We are called to sacrifice (and even some heroic Christian saints are called to die for the faith), but we cannot make the ultimate sacrifice upon the cross. That was Christ’s alone to do. Likewise, we are called to make Christ known, but we go about that in a way which Jesus himself didn’t do, because he only had three years to do it.
I say all of this to try to make some sense of a tension which is present in today’s Gospel. We learned that Jesus and the disciples didn’t even have time to eat because they were so busy with sick, hungry, needy people. So, they try to get away and have a time of respite by crossing the Sea of Galilee and getting away from the crowds. But when they get to the other side, the people there recognized who Jesus and his disciples were and rushed up with their own needs just as they had on the other side of the lake. The Gospel doesn’t say that Jesus and his disciples had a cup of tea and took a nap before getting on with it, and we can only assume that they continued their ministry as before. Tired and hungry, they tended to others who were tired and hungry without tending to their own needs. “What would Jesus do?” He’d sacrifice his time of respite whenever the needy approached him.
Jesus could do this, and some heroic saints like the apostles did it as well, but for most of us such a schedule would lead to ineffectiveness. I would not be able to do the needful tasks set before me in my ministry if I didn’t eat at relatively normal times, and sleep relatively regular hours, and take time simply to be alone and pray in the presence of God. If I didn’t take time to do these things, I’d eventually get cranky and the work that I do for the church would be slapdash and inconsistent.
The same would be true for any of you, unless there is a real certifiable saint in the congregation this morning (which there may well be). Most of us would be sorely remiss if we didn’t take time to recharge our batteries, as it were, and God not only understands but insists on this.
We heard it in the psalm, which many of us know better in the King James translation:
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul.
Rest and restoration is something God intends for us, and which He gives us. We usually hear this psalm at funerals, and indeed death is the final means by which we attain rest and rejuvenation, albeit in eager expectation of the Resurrection. But this is not primarily a psalm about death. It is, rather, a psalm about life, the Christian life wherein we find periods of rest in God between the periods in which we furiously wage the glorious battle for the Kingdom.
Thus, the Christian life is one of balance. We are certainly not permitted to live a life of sloth and complete comfort. But neither does the Christian life entail that we labor for the Kingdom to the point of exhaustion and, to use a hopelessly contemporary term, “burnout”.
Yet our whole culture militates against this balance. Or, rather, I should say cultures, because there are, it seems to me, two diametrically opposed views of human activity to which significant portions of our society adhere, both of which miss the mark.
On the one hand, we have the “Protestant Work Ethic” a heresy which defined the American psyche for generations. In a nutshell, this worldview holds that we’ll stay out of trouble if we keep extraordinarily busy. We’re less prone to sins of the flesh if we work eighteen hours a day and sleep lightly the other six.
On the other hand, we have the hedonist approach, which has taken hold of much of society in the last fifty years or so. By hedonist I don’t necessarily mean sexual hedonism, though that fits under the umbrella, as it were. The technical meaning of hedonism is the glorification of any lifestyle predicated principally on self-gratification, whether vulgar or apparently lofty. So, sitting in a bathtub all day eating donuts and drinking cognac is one form of hedonism, and doing nothing with one’s life besides personally enriching leisure activities like reading dusty books and exercising is another form of hedonism.
Anyway, the “Protestant Work Ethic” and hedonism are two sides of the same heretical coin. Like most heresies, the Christian view is found in the via media, the middle way. Just as the old Christological heresies, which held that Christ was either only God or only man, were resolved by a middle way of affirming both truths, so too do these modern heresies find their orthodoxy somewhere in the middle. We must come to balance work and play to be healthy people, and we must balance the good works enjoined by our Christian commitment with prayer and rest to be healthy Christians. Christian monasticism has struck this balance perfectly in its programmatic scheduling of time for work, prayer, and study; but we who live in the world can find this balance too if we make a prayerful assessment of our own lives, and develop what is called a rule of life: a plan for how to balance work and play and prayer and study and so forth.
In the end, we may be sure that the Christian life is one in which activity and contemplation both play a role. The Christian life requires rest if the work we are to do is to be done. Ultimately this rest is found in God and our times of recreation (or re-creation) are sanctified by God and held in His hands. Indeed, to rest at all is to rest in God in a profound and wonderful way. And so, let us ever pray the prayer of St. Augustine, who said, “our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they find their rest in thee.”
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.