In the Letter to the Ephesians, we see Christians getting along well together. In a letter from my cousin Tom, an Episcopalian who lives not in Ephesus but in Michigan, he shares a story of a cowboy getting along well with his brothers who are serving in the U.S. military.
This cowboy who has just moved from Wyoming to Texas walks into a bar and orders three mugs of Bud on tap. He sits in the back of the room, drinking a sip in turn out of each mug. When he finishes them, he orders three more. The bartender draws the next three, while saying, “You know, a mug goes flat after a while. It would taste better if you bought them just one at a time.’
The cowboy replies, “Well, ya see I have two brothers. One is an Airborne Ranger; the other’s a Navy Seal, and they’re both servin’ overseas somewhere. When we lived in Texas, we’d go to the tavern at the end of every day to relax and have a beer. When we all left our home in Texas, we promised that we’d drink this way to remember the days when we drank together. So I’m drinkin’ one beer for each of m’brothers and one for m’self.”
The bartender admits that this is a nice custom and leaves it at that. The cowboy becomes a regular in the bar and always drinks the same way. He orders three mugs and drinks them in turn, a sip at a time.
One day he comes in and orders only two mugs. All the regulars take notice, and a respectful silence falls. When he orders his second round, the bartender says, “I don’t want to intrude on your grief, but I do want to offer my condolences on your loss.”
The cowboy looks puzzled for a moment, and then a light dawns in his eyes, and he laughs. “Oh, no, everybody’s just fine,” he explains. “It’s just that my wife and I joined the Baptist Church, and I had to quit drinkin’. Hasn’t affected my two brothers, though.”
Our Texan probably relaxed in the tavern year round, not just in the summer. We can do the same this summer, taking a bit of vacation time, resting, and renewing in our own fashion.
It’s kind of interesting to compare how differently Europeans and those of us here do summer vacation. We take less time off and enjoy fewer days of vacation than just about any industrialized nation in the West. Keeping in mind that while teachers officially have more vacation time – they usually use it to do the work they didn’t have time to do during the regular work year. Americans average just over two weeks of summer vacation. (Obviously I am not talking about pandemic years.) Those two weeks make us vacation misers compared with, say, the Germans, those stereo-typically hard workers who enjoy an average of six weeks of summer vacation, or the French, who have over five weeks of vacation. Not only that, but the French and the Germans have lots of holidays throughout the year on top of their summer vacations.
Americans work more. They produce more. Yet, surprisingly, the average productivity of the Germans or the French is not much less than that of Americans, considering how many more hours Americans work. So what does this have to do with this Sunday’s Gospel?
Well, Jesus and his disciples have been busy. When the disciples gather to report on “all that they had done and taught,” Jesus must be really impressed. He says to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while. Mark says that Jesus proposes this vacation because “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Have you ever been that busy? Too busy even to eat? So they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.”
Hmm. A deserted place. More specifically, a deserted beach.
When I was a high school senior we lived in Manhattan Beach (in California) in an apartment about three blocks up from the beach. I really can’t tell you what the beach itself looked like on a sunny summer day except to say that there were wall to wall (well, water to boardwalk) bodies, beach towels and surf boards. The only barely bare space was where the volleyball nets were set up. You wouldn’t have gone to the beach there expecting it to be deserted.
When Jesus and his disciples get to their deserted place, the beach is anything but deserted, and so once again they minister to the crowd. Later, when they cross over to the other side of the lake (maybe in one more attempt to get away from the crowds) there are people again, and Jesus is recognized at once. Same story, next verse. They minister to the crowd.
Did you ever take a vacation and have it somehow spoiled? Or at least have it not go as planned? Like I think it was a spring vacation (actually in those days it was allowed to be called Easter vacation) when Kay (my older sister) and I got to go to our grandmother’s, and we both came down with the measles. Ever have a vacation messed up by reservations that fell through? Ever have a water pump go out halfway across the Mojave Desert? Ever have a well-earned rest disturbed by still another expectant crowd?
But Mark isn’t as interested in pointing us to spoiled vacations as he is to showing us the need to take that vacation, to slow down, to rest. It’s like a command. The crowd has been served, and Jesus tells his disciples to rest. How easy that should be. What an undemanding command that is.
I think. How many sincere, dedicated, earnest disciples do we know who faithfully keep a restful Sabbath? I’m certainly not one of those, I guarantee you. I’m better than I was when I was still teaching full time, but I know I’ve got a ways to go.
Maybe it has something to do with being American. Maybe it’s the Protestant ethic. Doesn’t our busyness, our unceasing activity sometimes give the impression that we believe that it’s up to us to do good or else good won’t get done? That it’s up to us to set the world right, or else the world will be lost? Behind our busyness is the blasphemous belief (What?? Blasphemous? Yeah, blasphemous.) that we are saviors of the world and that we are the solution to what ails it. Do you know anybody like that? I sure do. I’m even aware of it in myself. Though with God’s help, I’m working on it.
Think about this. To stand and say in the Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” is to say that we believe that it is not up to us to make the world come out right. God not only created, but is yet creating and creative. Our God is neither dead nor inactive not ineffective.
So – that means that we can take time off! We can relish times of inactivity, reflection, and the blessed grace of doing – nothing! Sitting quietly. Sunday worship can give us a taste of this. While we do a lot of activity here – praying, singing, listening, meditating, sharing a Eucharistic meal, greeting one another in the name of the Lord (at least virtually), the “world view” would say that little of it is useful, productive, or essential.
Though I would argue vehemently against that “world view.” Good heavens. We are here relaxing, resting, simply enjoying being with one another and with God. ow great is that!
Some Christians say that these Sunday mornings are a foretaste of eternity when we shall be able to rest from our labors, to relax and enjoy being in the presence of God, not just one day a week, but always. Our destiny, in God’s hands, is rest – sabbath rest forever.
For those who don’t know how to stop and rest, that might seem a bit scary, I know how they feel. To sit idle almost panics me. I had to pick up my grandson after a basketball practice the other day; he had told me that Coach had said they’d be done at 1:00. Fortunately, I had my purse book with me. Because practice lasted until after 2:00. But because I had my novel with me, I was OK. Sitting idle for an hour and twenty minutes would have driven me crazy.
I should follow the example of our cats. As I write, Mello is stretched out on our bed. If I go into the bedroom, he opens one eye to see who is causing the disturbance – then he goes back to sleep. Jasmine is asleep near the top of the stairway. That’s her self-designated spot. I’ve even posted a sign: “Beware of Top Step Jasmine.” The third cat, appropriately named Mr. Personality, snoozes most of the day up on a platform on our cat tree.
Recent Facebook posts have featured pictures of feet – Bonnie’s, Katie’s, my daughter’s. The pictures were obviously taken by Bonnie, Katie and Gina as they were stretched out on a lounge chair. Great pictures.
So let’s remember that, thanks be to God, the world is not in our hands. The future is not ours to determine. We can do God’s work as it is entrusted to us. We can work and pray and do our best to be light and salt to the world. And then we can get away from it all, to take a vacation or a mini-vacation – take a bike ride, read a good book, finish a jigsaw puzzle, enjoy our gardens, play with our dog – somehow take sabbath, secure in the faith, in the knowledge, that the most important work is God’s.