Sermon from Septuagesima Sunday, Mark 1:29-39
Today is the feast of Septuagesima, which in the old days was the beginning of Lent – the lesser lent as it was called before Ash Wednesday. You lucky folk have it well off with only forty days of fasting and abstinence, but in the old days it was seventy. Although to be fair, the same traditions which began Lent on Septuagesima also celebrated the season of Christmas right up to Candlemas, with forty days of unremitting joy. And after forty days of unremitting joy, I suspect you would welcome a bit of fasting and abstinence.
But there is a slightly Lentern theme to our Gospel today. Because it is about being less busy. And about spending time alone with God.
“I know you must be busy”. Is a phrase that you come across an awful lot when you’re a priest. “I know you must be busy”.
It’s difficult to know how to respond to that. Do you say “No, not at all” Which makes you sound lazy. Or do you say “Oh yes, frightfully busy” which puts people off talking to you. I’ve always thought that my job was not to be busy, to be the one who had time for people.
I mention that because there is so much business in Mark’s Gospel. I sometimes feel very tired reading it. Everyone is permanently full of energy, Jesus is in full Duracell-bunny mode, inexhaustible, unquenchable, like the cat from the Stevie Smith poem, that likes to gallop about doing good. Or indeed from Isaiah– running and not fainting, walking and not being tired. Even Peter’s mother in law, once healed, immediately gets up and starts serving them. I mean, at least have a cup of tea and a sit down.
Is that what we’re supposed to be like, Christians, full of energy, always busy, living for the service of others, who like to gallop about doing good?
Oh I do hope not.
I’m reminded of that rather catty quotation in the Screwtape letters – “She’s the sort of woman who lives for others. You can tell the others by their hunted expressions”
Churches can sometimes be very busy places. And people can get very tired.
This Gospel reading, like so many parts of our Gospels, is both a comfort and a challenge. Because although Mark’s Gospel is busy and hectic, this is the part of the Gospel where Jesus stops.
Everyone, the whole city has come to Jesus to be healed, have stayed until well into the night. Everyone wants a bit of him, and Jesus is tired. So while it’s still dark, he gets up and goes away by himself. To get some alone time with God, to recharge his batteries. And when his disciples eventually catch up with him, they sound reproving. Everyone’s looking for you. Lots more people to heal, more work to be done. They’re expecting you.
And He says “No. We’re not going back. We’ve moving on.”
I wonder if he felt any guilt at leaving behind those who wanted him to stay and heal them, comfort them, console them, teach them. I know I would. But the reason this gospel passage is a comfort and a challenge, is that it tells us that sometimes we have to stop, and for our own well being spend time alone with God, to renew ourselves. Just us and God.
A number of years ago, my spiritual director asked me why I was working myself into the ground. I rather angrily told him that I had no choice. Two churches to run, so many funerals, so many things to do, so many people wanting me, so much stuff, and after all, we’re supposed to cope aren’t we? To run and not faint, to walk and not be tired.
He prescribed periods of silent prayer. And the real answer to why I was so busy was found only in the terrible, uncomfortable silence. And the silence really was terrible and uncomfortable. And the answer was, of course, like every young priest, I wanted not just to be a person of god, I wanted to be ‘super-priest’, the best priest, and as we all know, good priests, are busy, never let people down. Good priests know everyone by name, their houses were always full of folk – they are extroverts. But also, they are academics, well-read, poetry-quoting, in tune with the church fathers, people of prayer who spend hours in silent contemplation. So they are introverts too. So priests are both extravert and introvert. Or in other words, the ideal priest is a schizophrenic.
It was only in the silence, time spent alone with God, that I began to see things clearly. I was killing myself with work, because I wanted to be the best priest. My virtues of diligence, and industry, had become vices of pride, and guilt at letting people down. I learnt a lot of things in that silence, and one of the things I learnt – perhaps as Jesus learnt in his silence – was that if we are to be the people that God wants us to be, sometimes we have to let go of what other people want us to be. Sometimes we have to let go of what we want us to be too. If we are to be truly ourselves.
The world we live in seems to be getting busier and busier, more and more frantic, increasingly resembling Screwtape’s Kingdom of Noise. So it is more vital than ever that we give ourselves what Jesus gave himself – time alone with God. Time to ask ourselves what all this business is for.
Sometimes we are busy because we feel we ought to be and need the approval of others. Sometimes we are busy because we can’t find a way of asking for help. Sometimes we are busy because we don’t actually want to spend time alone with God, afraid as we are of what we might find in the silence.
So here’s what I find when I’m being silent, alone with God. The first thing I find is that it can be very boring. After the “oh isn’t this nice and peaceful” feeling has worn off, and after you have thought through your shopping list, and what you’re going to do tomorrow and worked out what you should have said to that person who was a bit rude to you, it gets boring. But boredom is just a cover, a veil, which masks sometimes some unpleasant things.
Sometimes when it’s just you and God, you’re not sure he’s there. And sometimes you’re not sure who you are. Who am I, silent, alone, naked before the throne of God. It’s so much easier to keep busy than go through all of that.
But eventually, through the silence, when we have quieted ourselves enough to let God get a word in edgeways, there is a something which can only come through silence, because words can’t express it. And that makes it very difficult to speak of.
Mark Lawson was making very heavy weather of an interview with a poet on the radio recently, asking them “so what does this poem mean”. To which the poet could only reply, “if I could tell you that I wouldnt’ have needed to write the poem”. And it is the same with silence. If there was a way of putting it into words, we wouldn’t need to be silent. What comes to me in silence, whatever it is, is not an answer to questions, because questions are formed from words. And if we are to be in silence, then we need to be without words, even words in our heads. When finally we can do that, when we can be in silence without any new thoughts or new words barging their way into our brain, then what comes in response is something – obviously – indescribable through words.
Once we have stopped interrogating God, begging God, demanding of God, what comes to me is that, whoever I am, even if I don’t really know who I am, and whoever God is, even if I don’t know that either, there is something – I don’t know – something which magnifies, something universal, which shows me the depth of my own soul and gives a true notion of the idea of the universal, the numinous. And it’s at those moments where life begins to make some sort of sense.
What I learnt in that silence, is beautiful, but so obvious I’m almost embarrassed to share it.
Which is simply that duty and joy are not two separate things. They are the same thing. Our duty is to be joyful. Our duty to God is not a burden, it is that which gives us life. Our sacrifice is not a life diminished by the cares of the world, it is a sacrifice of life-giving praise. God is with us to renew us, not exhaust us.
For our yolk is easy. And our burden is light.