Text: Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56, Pentecost 8b
It’s hard to believe, but summer is half over! Schools start back in less than a month. It’s even harder for me to believe that next Sunday will be my last day with you here at St. James, and what an amazing journey of mutual care and compassion this year of transition has been! I am certainly thankful for this community and for all we’ve learned together. And I pray that you extend the same love, grace, and support for Pastor Andrew as he begins his ministry here in a few weeks, because it’s a great place to start
The beginning of August, I’ll start my next interim call at Bendersville Parish, but before I dive into learning and loving another community, I think I need a vacation!
In motherhood and in ministry, I think the adage proves abundantly true that you can’t take care of others well unless you take care of yourself! So, the last week of July we’ll embark on a few days of retreat. As some of you know, my parents and nephew live 30 minutes inland from Assateague Island. We always vacationed there when we were kids, and last September my parents took the plunge and moved there! My kids get to enjoy the paradise that is Nana and Grandad’s house, and Eric and I get to enjoy not just the company of our extended family, but a few extra hands and the relaxed pace of life that comes with no internet or t.v. We watch old movies together, play board games, laugh, and enjoy a kind of leisure that is sadly uncommon in our world today. Of course, we usually end up on the island for at least one afternoon. To me, mosquitoes aside, it’s one of the most perfect places on earth….Secluded. Natural. Alive… I only need an afternoon… As my toes hit the sand, my lungs fill with salty air, and I hear the roar of the waves and the song of the seagulls, I feel instantly renewed and totally at peace.
How many of you have taken your vacations yet this summer?
Vacations are part of the rhythm of Sabbath life. Rest is good for the body and the spirit. It’s part of the abundant life God desires us to lead. It supports a sense of wholeness and wellbeing from which effective ministry and compassionate care flows.
In our gospel text, the disciples have just returned from their missionary journeys and are recounting to Jesus all that they were able to do through his power while they were away from him. But within the first few lines, it’s clear that there’s a kind of crisis brewing. The disciples had not learned appropriate boundaries while they were away. They were so eager to work in the kingdom of God and to serve the needy, that they were forgetting to care for their own most basic needs. Even as they were trying to share their experiences and regroup as a community around Jesus, many continued to come in search of their help. The disciples were working so hard, serving so deeply, that our scripture says “they had no leisure even to eat.”
Now, this really struck a chord for me because doesn’t that sound a lot like the world we live in today. We keep ourselves so busy that the only time we have to eat is in our cars as we’re driving from one meeting to the next or at our desks as we continue to work, sandwich in hand. We don’t take time to savor our food in the company of friends or family. Many of us don’t even eat around the dinner table any more!
Jesus did not toss them each a hot pocket and say “keep calm and carry on, I’ll come back later when you’re less busy” but rather he insisted, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” I imagine it was hard for the disciples to leave their work behind them. When you love what you do, when you truly feel like you’re following God’s call and making a difference in the world it is hard to set that aside and honor your own need for rest, but this text reminds us explicitly that Jesus wants all people –both caregivers and care-receivers alike to live in health and wholeness. “He maketh me lie down in green pastures”…. Sometimes the shepherd has to make the sheep take their well-earned rest.
They got into a boat and Jesus whisked them away to a deserted place for a little R&R, a vacation if you will…. But just as they arrived at what they thought was a deserted place, they discovered a great crowd already waiting for them. This would be like just as you arrive at the beach your cell phone rings with a work emergency. No rest for the weary, I suppose. But, if you take a close look at this text, you’ll notice that it is not the disciples whom the great crowd seeks, but Jesus. They so crave connection with Jesus that they hurried to this far away, deserted place on foot, so fast in fact that they beat the boat! They sprinted for the opportunity to connect with this Jesus who had the power to make their lives whole, their direction clear, and their hearts swell with joy. And so, Jesus meets the crowd where they are. Jesus is the one who gets out of the boat and tends to their deepest needs.
Instead of being filled with frustration or disappointment that his plans were foiled, our text says “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
He had compassion. A lot of times we hear the word “compassion” and think “well, isn’t that nice.” But there is a power in compassion. Compassion is a defining characteristic of Jesus, and the lens through which those of us who serve in the kingdom of God are called to view the world around us. This is not a passive, peaceful emotion… but rather a visceral reaction that propels one to serve. In the biblical sense of the word, Jesus’ compassion for the crowd meant he felt sympathy and love for those gathered deep down in the pit of his stomach and that feeling so gnawed at his heart that he just couldn’t stay on the boat and pretend like they were still on vacation. He sprang into action immediately out of his deep, compassionate love for them.
They were like sheep without their shepherd, wandering aimlessly on the shore. They were all lost, lacking guidance, and longing for his protective and nurturing presence. And so, he began to teach them many things… His compassionate response for the crowd manifest –in this instance- through his teaching. The text doesn’t tell us exactly what he said, but I’m sure his teaching about the kingdom of God was good news for this crowd who had been without a good king for so very long. As Christ, that is, as Messiah, Jesus was the king they’d been longing to learn from. Jesus’ teaching was good news for both the disciples and the crowd. They rested in his words of life. And we do today as well.
As Christians, the body of Christ, we are responsible for sharing the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ with the world around us. And that can feel like a daunting job in the world in which we live. We’re called to a crowd of folks who don’t care about organized religion, as well as to those who have been so damaged by painful experiences in the church that they want nothing to do with any of us. We are called to those who are wandering aimless, hungering for the wholeness and healing only Christ can bring. We are called to the sheep who don’t even know what a Shepherd does.
We are called to take care of ourselves so that we have the energy and joy to take on the challenge that is living out our faith in the 21st century. We come away for a while and rest in the words of life and feast on the bread of life in worship, and then we get out of the boat and meet the crowds where they are along the shore. Our compassionate response to crowds upon crowds of disillusioned and broken people is the sharing of the gospel and the embodiment of Christ’s love –a love strong enough to make even the most broken whole and holy. Amen.