A sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 22, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.
The disciples told Jesus what they had done, and Jesus told them to come away and rest. People in general, but Americans in particular, like to focus on the things they do, what they accomplish, how busy they are. I’ve been involved in several occupations, and wherever you get a group of people in the same occupation together, even among clergy, someone (or several) will start talking about how busy they are, how little time to relax and so forth. Much of this is what might be called “humble bragging”—showing off how successful we are by enumerating our hardships. It’s a trap.
The disciples came to Jesus, and they had been out doing good things, challenging things, and there were all sorts of people around them and all sorts of things were going on. Lots of opportunities, challenges, people to heal or to teach—and Jesus says, “let’s get out of here.”
The text of the Gospel points out that so many people were coming and going that they had no time to eat. In that kind of situation, people stop being able to pay attention. Mostly, we just fling back automatic responses, maybe just do anything we’re asked whether it is of any help or not, or maybe just do the opposite: just say no or avoid helping anybody. There comes a time when our rush to respond and do things and get things done makes us of no earthly good to anyone.
Living in God’s compassion is not a competitive sport.
Our society doesn’t seem to care—busyness for the sake of being busy is rewarded. But Jesus tells his disciples, “come away to a deserted place and rest a while.” Quiet, rest, and prayer build compassion and attention. We think that we can do that while we’re multi-tasking with our busyness. … But that doesn’t make much sense, does it? It takes time to dwell in God’s presence—Yes, God is always here, always present FOR us—but it takes time to re-order our brains, empty our minds, let go of the quick and anxious solutions that we obsessively jump to, in order to justify our busyness. It takes time and rest to hear God’s invitation and to see the truth of God’s world and to appreciate the beauty of God’s people.
Now the world conspires to keep us busy and it is not always easy to find the place and time of rest that God is calling us to take. It says that the crowds figured out where Jesus and the disciples were heading in their boat and they ran around the lake and got there before them. Some deserted place that was. I imagine Jesus laughing when he saw them. It says he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. In other words, confused, heading in all the wrong directions, not finding the pastures they wanted, and putting themselves in danger. So Jesus began to teach them. I suppose that they paid him enough attention that the disciples could sit and take it in without being harassed, at least.
Our lectionary does a funny thing here. At this point they skip two of the most important and best-known stories in the Gospel of Mark, the Feeding of the Five Thousand and Jesus Walking on the Water. Most everyone knows those stories, so let’s keep them in mind, because they shed light on today’s reading. Those are big miracles and we remember them as pretty flashy, but they are mostly about Jesus addressing the disciples’ anxiety, getting them to listen and to be calm. Jesus taught the people and they were sitting there all afternoon and it was time to eat. The disciples told Jesus to get rid of the crowds, “Send them away.” Jesus response was to welcome the people, to extend them hospitality. His response to the disciples’ saying the crowds should go and fend for themselves was, “You give them something to eat.” Likewise, later, they were in the boat, struggling, and when they saw Jesus, they panicked and cried out. They were so preoccupied with their anxiety (one translation says “they were tormented in their rowing”) that they couldn’t process the reality that was there: Jesus walking toward them on the water. We tend to focus on the miraculous and unbelievable aspects of these stories, but in them, Jesus makes his disciples focus on the reality that is there before them. And in the seam between these two miracles, the text says, “After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.”
Prayer and rest are essential in being able to see the world as it really is; to be able to listen and know truth beyond our own anxiety, fear, and unspoken assumptions we hold from our upbringing or our culture. Jesus leads his disciples into hospitality, not by telling them to run around desperately doing things, but telling them to give, telling them to not fear, for he is here with us.
Don’t get caught up in our current fearfulness that manifests in rushing about. All those crowds rushed around, trying to catch Jesus. But he took time and prayed and saw them as they were. Then he reached out his hand and healed them.
Our healing comes in participating in God’s welcome for all people. It’s not some high volume production process – it’s in a simple smile, or a word of encouragement, or a shared prayer. In welcoming we see each person as they are, God’s beloved child. When we are rested in mind and spirit, we can see that.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.