Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 18, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

2 Samuel 7:1-14a+Psalm 89:20-37+(Ephesians 2:11-22)+Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). Jesus’s words to the disciples could very well have been words spoken to me as Tim and I retreated last week to a house in the woods along the Hudson River. It was a sublime week of doing absolutely nothing but watching the boats go by and reading and napping and listening to baseball on the radio. It may be hard to believe, but after 16-months of COVID protocols, isolation, and distancing, what I most needed was to get away from everything. No, it doesn’t make any sense at all.

Except that it does.

I know that many of you have spent an awful lot of time by yourselves or closed in with your families, separated from workplaces and extended families, so I know you understand that all of that was not what you would call restful. I would venture to guess that most of us have spent a lot of the last 16 months exhausted from trying to navigate new ways of working and living and simply surviving. The blessing of technology is that we were, for the most part, able to carry on with our work or our schooling via Zoom and file-sharing and all those amazing capabilities we’ve only gained in recent years. Of course, that blessing comes with a curse: we can work constantly, 24/7, and still never be done. It takes effort and discipline not to respond to that 10pm email that really can wait until tomorrow.

So, while many of us spent a lot more time far from the madding crowd, it does not mean that we were resting. And it certainly does not mean that we were spending hours in prayer. No, we were finding more ways to get our work done and our children taught and groceries acquired and all those everyday things that became major chores.

Jesus often went away by himself to pray, out in the desert or on a mountain. Yes, people more often than not found him and begged for his help, but he must have had enough time in seclusion not just to rest but to reconnect with the God who sent him into the world, to pray for strength, and to rest in the arms of God as Beloved.

Before the episode last week with John the Baptist losing his head, Jesus had sent the Twelve out into the villages two-by-two to take Good News wherever they went, to heal and to teach. Today, we begin with their return, telling Jesus all about their adventures. It is then that he invites them away to a quiet place, and I don’t think it is entirely because they needed rest. I think Jesus understood that these disciples, newly aware of the power of God within them, could very easily stray into believing that what they did, they did on their own. Jesus knew his bible and surely knew the proverb that said, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). He understood that believing that we are the ones working the wonders is a sure path to trouble.

So, he invited the Twelve away to rest, yes, and to reconnect to the source of their strength, to commune with the God who created them, and to be strengthened for all that lay ahead.

In the saga of David that we have been following these past several weeks, an interesting episode occurs, and I believe that it is very much a sign of what happens when we become disconnected from God and trust in our own might. We heard last week how David danced before the ark of the Lord as it was brought into Jerusalem. He treats his wife, Mychal, shabbily, even taunting her, and we are led to believe that she was cursed to bear no children (although as Laura Moore rightly said last week, chances are that she was a wife to solidify an empire, not a wife to carry on her family name, and so it was likely a marriage in name only). There is something cold and calculating about all of this, even the part about bringing the ark into Jerusalem as a symbol of a unified kingdom of Israel. It’s as if David is using God’s house – the ark – as his own personal totem.

Our reading this morning opens with David declaring that he is going to build a temple for the ark, a permanent house for God. Now maybe David was sincere in his desire to honor God in this way. Or maybe this was another mechanism by which he demonstrated his power, his authority, his divine blessing. And so, the prophet Nathan has a dream in which God says, “David is not to build my house.” Instead, God is going to make sure that David’s house is established, that his line will endure. God will bless David and his kingdom, but it will be for his son, Solomon, to build that temple.

I wonder if David had become disconnected, trusting in his own power and might over the enemies of Israel and Judah, and wanted to cap his great success with a great temple. When Nathan tells David of his dream, for a moment, at least, David gets it. We don’t read that part, but David offers up a prayer of thanksgiving to God for his promise of blessing, that God will build David’s house, and not the other way around.

And then David goes out warring and conquering, and the next time we will encounter him, he will be committing adultery and plotting murder. In short, David is a sinner, just like everyone else.

Just like those disciples who needed to be reminded to reconnect with God. We all know that when push came to shove, one betrayed him and one denied him and the rest of them fell away, at least at the moment when their lives were on the line.

We all know that they rallied after the resurrection. Our gospels tell us that they spent a lot of time in prayer. The appearances of the risen Jesus gave them encouragement, and by the time the Holy Spirit blew through the city on Pentecost, they were ready to launch a global movement that we call the Church.

It doesn’t mean they never faltered or failed or doubted or questioned. They did because they were human, just as we are. The Good News for us is that God continues to invite us to repent, to turn around, to return to God. John Keble, a 19th century English priest and poet would put it like this

New every morning is the love
Our wakening and uprising prove;
Through sleep and darkness safely brought,
Restored to life, and power, and thought.

New mercies, each returning day,
Hover around us while we pray;
New perils past, new sins forgiven,
New thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven.

(Hymnal 1982, #10)

So, go on. Go away to a quiet place to rest, to let yourself be reminded who and whose you are, and them return, refreshed and renewed, to the good work you have been given to do.  

ASEPSermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 18, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas