2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
I have been thinking a lot about how I spend my days. That’s not really something new for me; I am one of those people who goes to sleep and wakes up going over the day’s calendar, what I need to accomplish, what I dread, what I’m looking forward to. And I often have a future event that serves as a goal for me—usually something big: an important meeting; a desired vacation; a much-awaited performance. I am quite aware of time.
But lately that thinking is on a more meta level. I am thinking more generally about how I want to use my time as we begin approaching “normal life” after the pandemic. About how I might make a difference in the world in this season of my life. And about what I want to retain from the last 16 months and what I want to return to from my before-COVID life.
I know I’m not alone in contemplating these questions. I have had conversations with many of you about this moment of transition. What we have been through (and are still going through) as a global community is devastating. It’s not over, to be sure, but we are making a shift right now, particularly in this part of the world. And that makes it a good time to reflect.
I took this question to Facebook this week. I asked my friends to respond to this question: “What (if anything) did you gain in the last 16 months that you want to hang on to?”
I got more than 35 answers in a short time, and the responses were very thoughtful. Many talked about wanting to hang onto the closeness to others that they had gained—enjoying meals together as a household; reconnecting with family and friends far away (that has been a real lifeline for me and Don in the last year); and continuing to lean on others for emotional support. One friend spoke of the good feeling of solidarity with others through the darkest days of the pandemic, even though we were separated.
Others spoke of gaining a greater appreciation of nature. Through the pandemic they had enjoyed long walks; gardening; and even “singing back and forth with birds.” Those friends want to be sure they stay connected to the natural world.
Still others talked about the ways they have learned to reorder their priorities. They spoke of learning how to slow down; to enjoy more flexible schedules; about not letting the urgent things overtake the important things. One friend also spoke of how she gained a deeper awareness of systemic injustice, especially in the arenas of race relations and healthcare, and how she hoped that would not lose her newfound ability to look at the world as it truly is.
Many mentioned deeper spiritual practices gained during the pandemic. In particular, several of my friends have found their lives enriched by faithful participation in weekday prayer services on Zoom.
And still others spoke of learning to appreciate silence and stillness. One friend said, “I learned to enjoy my solitude and not give in to loneliness. It’s made me a better listener as I listen more with my heart as well as my ears.” Another friend said she has relished, “taking time to stop and just appreciate being.
As I think back over the last 16 months, what remember most is how our routines were disrupted. So many things we had previously taken for granted were not possible. Remember our fear of simply going to the grocery store? And not just of the other people in the store, but of the possibility the packages of food we touched were contaminated? That’s just one example of the countless ways we had to change our normal way of being in the world. I found all that reinvention absolutely exhausting. Even though my schedule was lighter, I found that my brain was working overtime!
And of course it wasn’t only the constant improvisation that made me tired; fear also wore me out. The fear that I, or those I love, might get sick; the fear that, as a nation, or even as an entire civilization, we might not get through this; and just the everyday fear of so much that was unknown.
No question, I feel like I have been tired for most of the last year and a half. And that fatigue makes it easy to identify with Jesus and the disciples in this morning’s gospel lesson. They too are tired. They have been traveling throughout Galilee, teaching and healing. They have been doing amazing things, and they have become known as healers—as miracle workers! The crowds are all around them, and they have been so busy that they have not even had time to eat. Jesus says they need some down time, so he suggests they go off to a deserted place, where they can rest. But the crowd sees where they are going and manages to get there even before they arrive.
Can you imagine how they must have felt, as the boat neared the shore, to see that crowd gathered in a place they thought was deserted? If I had been on that boat, I think I’d have been angry; I would have barked at the crowd to leave us alone for a bit; to give us a chance to recharge. But that’s not what Jesus does. The text says that Jesus had compassion for the crowd, and he gets off the boat and begins teaching and healing. Jesus has compassion.
What does the word compassion mean? “Com” means with – so “with passion.” Jesus reacts not with pity, or out of any duty, but rather feels the plight of those pressing in on them – he is one with them. He could have kept them at arm’s length—we can feel pity for people and things without getting involved. But he is with the crowd. This God is not one on high, acting above and beyond us; our God is one that is with us; one that identifies with us; one that is willing to get down in the muck and mire with us.
Jewish theologian Abraham Herschel speaks of this distinct nature of the Judeo-Christian God in his book, The Prophets. He talks about the divine pathos of our God, saying, “God does not reveal himself in an abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world. He does not simply command and expect obedience; He is also moved and affected by what happens in the world… God is concerned about the world and shares it fate. Indeed, this is the essence of God’s moral nature: His willingness to be intimately involved in the history of man.”[i]
God is with us; God in the form of Jesus became incarnate, became one of us, in a truly unique act of love. God came to earth and became human out of a deep compassion, and that compassion achieves its full expression at Golgotha, when we see that God identifies with us not only in birth and life, but also in death.[ii]
This was a radical idea for the world of Jesus’ time, and it is still radical. God is not at some remove; God is among us! God completely identifies with us, and compels us to act in tandem with God in our world, for our world. We are called to be companions with God in compassion. We are God’s partner in healing the world.
But how do we do that—work with God? Perhaps a hint may be found in the verses left out of today’s reading. Verses 35 to 44 of the sixth chapter of Mark are the feeding of the five thousand, where the disciples come to Jesus and tell him that he should send the crowd away to eat. Instead, Jesus tells the disciples that they should feed the crowd.
And you know how that goes. The disciples are incredulous. They have five loaves and two fish – there’s no way that’s enough to feed 5,000 people! And yet, when Jesus blesses the bread and breaks it, and they begin to pass it around, it turns out that there is more than enough for everyone. Jesus knows that there is enough, but insists that the disciples must act—they must be the instruments of God, in order for this bounty to come to the people. We are called to reach out, not to provide. God will do the providing part.
The other missing verses give more valuable information to us. Verses 45 through 52 are the story of Jesus walking on water. The disciples are frightened when they see Jesus walking across the stormy sea; but Jesus says to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
We must not let our fear of the unknown discourage our faith; rather we must continue to believe in the goodness of God and God’s world, and dare to see God in the very things that frighten us. We are called to push through our fears, our trepidations, our reticence, and to continue to do the work God has put before us.
And yet, God does not expect us to be relentless. We are also called to monitor ourselves—to know when there’s no more gas in the tank. In my most weary moments, I have found welcome in Jesus’ first words to the disciples in this passage: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”
I think that all of us need to pay attention to this entreaty from Jesus. Despite what we might think, we can’t do it all. We must take care of ourselves; we must know when it’s time to go away to a deserted place all by ourselves and rest.
In this time, when things are opening up again, and there’s so much to do, it is tempting to become as busy as we were before March of 2020. But when I look at that list of things my friends want to retain, I notice they are mostly about stillness; about awareness of our beloveds; about being tuned into nature; about being tuned into ourselves.
I was particularly moved by the responses of my friends who talked about the newfound value of solitude—about becoming more comfortable in silence and being alone. There is great value in compassion for the world, but I think we are better instruments of that compassion when we also have compassion for ourselves; when we take the time to recharge and to become more aware of what’s happening inside us.
So what is your deserted place—your place of respite? Only you can figure that out. I hope each of you are finding your own ways to restore and refresh. God calls you not only to be active, but also to rest.
God is with us; God calls us to be companions with Christ in healing the world; and God calls us not to neglect taking care of ourselves along the way. Let us move forward from this moment to do the work of God: to help heal the world, and also to help heal ourselves. Amen.
[i] Heschel, Abraham, quoted in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 262. (Article by Douglas John Hall)
[ii] Hall, Douglas John, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 264.