A Monastery of the Heart
September 4, 2016
Preaching: Brian Keepers
Text: Matthew 11: 18-20 & Luke 10:38-42
We were running late. We missed our turn and had to back track, which meant we’d be cutting it close for dinner. The irony is not lost on me as I’m speeding up and down the winding rural blacktops near Three Rivers, Michigan. A friend and I are on our way to St. Gregory’s Abbey for a three day retreat. The point of the retreat is to slow down and rest. Here I am, watching the clock tick on my dashboard, breaking the speed limit and feeling anxious that we’re not going to get there on time.
My Honda Civic careens around the corner and pulls into the parking lot. Car doors slam, followed by the click of automatic locks, and we hustle up to the dining hall in a near sprint. The dinner bell has already rung. The monks and a few guests are already seated, and the Abbot is perched in his pulpit and has started reading from the Rule of St. Benedict. The monks are kind and hospitable, but they also like order and are sticklers about staying on schedule. Being on time for meals and for the Divine Hours is important to them.
The Abbot sees us out of the corner of his eye and motions for us to come in. We walk in, embarrassed and still feeling the rush of adrenaline. We find the place that has been set for us at the table. I even eat hurried. I take a few deep breaths, try to settle in and relax.
After we eat, we stand and say a prayer of thanksgiving. The monk who leads us speaks the words slowly, and invites us to do the same. It feels unbearably slow, saying these words (like listening to the Ents in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings). I’m present to how agitated I feel. Yet everything within my body and soul is crying out for rest.
That’s the crazy thing. My body and my soul cry out for rest; and yet I don’t like to rest. Rest doesn’t come easy for me. I’m not sure I even know how to do it. I like to go, do, accomplish, crowd my schedule with tasks and activities and get things done. Even when I plan a retreat specifically for the purpose of rest, I bring my hurried, anxious self into and struggle to just stop and be still. Can you relate?
In his book The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap, John Koessler says that most of us suffer from “a deficiency of rest.” Our “culture of productivity” assumes that busier is better and that devotion equals more activity. “No matter what we are doing now, we should do more. No matter what we have done in the past, it has not been enough,” (p.19).
The result is a highly driven lives (and churches) that constantly strive to exceed our current level of activity but, in the end, only contributes to souls feeling exhausted and burdened by anxiety. The one thing we desperately need, Koessler insists, is rest. Not fake rest but the real thing.
“Come to me, all that are weary and caring heavy burdens,” says Jesus. “And I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
This was Jesus invitation to two sisters whom we encounter in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem, and Jesus enters a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomes him into her home. In the gospel of John, we’re told that Martha and Mary are the sisters of Lazarus, and the village where they live is Bethany (John 11:1, 12:1-3).
Martha welcomes Jesus, and then she gets busy doing all the right things that make forgood hospitality. She cleans the house, prepares a meal, goes out of her way to serve her guest. Luke isn’t clear if the disciples join Jesus in Martha’s home. If so, all the more work to feed that many mouths.
But Mary, Martha’s sister, doesn’t lift a finger to help. Instead, she sits down at the feet of Jesus. This is a Jewish posture of discipleship--a student sitting at the feet of a rabbi to take in his teachings. So there Mary sits, fully absorbed in what Jesus is saying, impervious to the way Martha is scramblingaround to get everything done.
Martha’s heart smolders with resentment. She hits her breaking point and charges into the living room: “Lord, don’t you see how I’m scrambling around here in a frenzy, trying to get everything done! I’m only one person! I can’t do it all! Do you not care? Do you not care about me? Tell my sister to get up and help me then!”
It’s a reasonable request. The problem isn’t that Martha asks her sister to lend a hand. The problem is that Martha is worried and distracted by many things, which is preventing her from being fully present to the Messiah, to rest in the presence of the one who graces her home!
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Jesus calls her name. Not just once but twice. Why does he call her name twice? Perhaps to get her attention, all frazzled as she was. Perhaps to show her compassion, to let her hear in his voice that, though she questions it, he does care for her. Perhaps he says her name twice because he is calling her, summoning her.
This is what God does throughout the Bible when he places a call on someone’s life. “Abram, Abram!” “Moses, Moses!” “Samuel, Samuel!” It is an indication that God is speaking and summoning them to a life and a purpose greater than themselves.
Could it be that Jesus is summoning Martha, out of her worry and distraction, into a new way of being? Could it be that he is calling her to cease her striving and working and worrying and simply come to him? Like her sister, to come and sit in his presence?
Martha, Come to me. Sit. Rest. Just be with me.
One of the surprising things about this story of Martha and Mary is that it comes right on the heels of Jesus sending out seventy of his disciples to do the work of mission, and then the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Do you remember that parable? It turns out that the Samaritan, the least likely of all the characters in the story, is the one who helps the injured man on the road and shows genuine love of neighbor. Then Jesus ends with this command, “Go and do likewise.”
But what’s so odd is the next story is Jesus going to Martha’s house, where he commends Mary not for “going and doing” but for “sitting and staying.” Do you find that confusing? Which is it? “Go and do” or “Sit and stay?”
It’s both. But the “going and doing” arises out of the “sitting and staying.” In other words, before we are called to do anything, we must first be. Our doing flows out of our being. So Jesus seems to be saying, “Don’t do something, just sit here! Just be with me!”
Richard Foster tells a story about when he was in college, and he was distracted and pulled apart by many things—the pressures of school, working a job, volunteering at a church, and a host of other things. He found himself, like Martha, exhausted and feeling resentful. One night he went for a walk in the woods, and he was complaining to God and feeling sorry for himself. Then, he heard the Lord say in the quiet place of his heart: “You are frustrated and feeling sorry yourself…because you do not have all your desires satisfied. But if you will be with me you do not have to have all your desires satisfied. With me is ultimate and complete satisfaction. If you are genuinely with me, you are in the best place possible.”
Foster goes on to reflect on that experience: “That was all [God said]. No promise to transform my life circumstances. No guarantee of wealth and prosperity and all my worldly desires. No pledge to change a single thing. And yet those words quietly dissipated my frustration and overcame my self-pity. I walked out of the woods with a fresh spring in my step. I had been addressed personally, intimately. The voice of the true Shepherd was altogether sufficient” (Sanctuary of the Soul: A Journey into Meditative Prayer, InterVarsity Press, 2011, pp.11-12).
If you are genuinely with me, you are in the best place possible. No matter where you are or what is going on around you or in what kind of circumstances you find yourself. To be with Jesus is to be in the best place possible.
Ok, all of this sounds good. But how? Do you know how hectic my life is? Brian, you’re preaching a sermon like this on Labor Day Weekend, right at the beginning of the hurry and hustle of a new school year? Do you know how many tasks need to get done? What kind of pressure I’m under? I wish I could just come and sit at the feet of Jesus, but I don’t have that luxury right now!
Jesus does not tell us this is easy. It is simple, but it is not easy. It requires a choice. Mary and Martha each had to make a choice. And no one can make that for us. “Mary has chosen the better part,” says Jesus, “and this will not be taken away from her.”
Choosing the better part—to be with Jesus—does not mean that we must give up our many tasks and withdraw into a reclusive life in a monastery. That’s not realistic for most of us. But Jesus does call us to abide in him, to trust him and make him the center of our lives, even as we go about our many tasks. As author Leighton Ford explains, the secret to finding rest is not at the circumference (merely reducing our activities—although we may need to do this) but at the center (refocusing our heart).
Spiritual writers of the past have talked about the importance of cultivating “the monastery of the heart.” By this they mean that no matter how busy life gets, we stay centered in Christ in our innermost place. So we can be with Jesus wherever we go and whatever we do, because he is in us and we are in him. We are simply called to pay attention to the Christ who is always with us. And to rest in his care for us, his strength and power. To stay joined to Jesus, attached to him, and let him pull us into the unforced rhythms of grace rather than pushing so hard on our own effort.
A few weeks ago my brother and his wife, who lived over in Zeeland, moved to Chicago so my sister-in-law can begin a Ph. D. program at Wheaton. They were downsizing and thus tried to sell many of their things. I bought their John Deer push lawn mower, since our old lawn mower was in rough shape. I had that old mower for 15 years, and had just gotten used to mowing with it. It pushed hard and the handles shook to the point it would give you blisters.
Well I decided a couple weeks ago to try this new John Deere lawn more (new to me), and I squeezed the self-propel level, and it pulled me with such force that I nearly tripped over my own stumbling feet! Mowing the lawn was a night/day difference! When I was pushing that old mower, all on my own strength and effort, it was a chore. But with this new mower that was self-propelled, suddenly I was being pulled along, and not only was mowing the lawn easier but it made it a lot more enjoyable!
So it is when we rest in Christ—stay joined to him. Life becomes less about pushing, striving, and hustling, driven by our fears and anxieties, relying on our own strength and effort. It now is about being pulled along, filled with Jesus’ life in us, swept into the unforced rhythms of grace. It’s still hard at times and takes effort, but we have the sense that we are being carried by a strength greater than ourselves.
Where are you today? What is your soul saying to you, if you dare to stop, get quiet, and listen?
In the silence, do you hear Jesus’ invitation-- calling out to you today, summoning you to come be with him? Come with your worry and distraction, your fear and heartache, come and lay it all before him. Surrender. Let it go, whatever you brought into the sanctuary with you today. “Cast all your anxieties on him,” says 1 Peter 5:7, “because he cares!” Yes, Martha, he does care!
Let him cultivate in you a monastery of the heart so that rest might become for you not just something you do now and then or when your busy life affords it, but a constant state of being, a regular way of life. Let us hear Jesus say… “Come to me, you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.