2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Have you ever been so tired that all you can think to do is curl up and go to sleep? That feeling where very fiber of your being is working toward getting that rest, and anything that gets in the way seems much more insurmountable than it probably is? I suspect that some of you feel that way more often than not. We are busy people—we tend to push ourselves to the edge of exhaustion more than we should. I’m guessing this is not unique to the 21st century, but I wonder if it’s not easier to fall into this pit today than in years past.
Our relentless lifestyle—and our fatigue—make 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.
Now, 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 would have been angry; I would have asked the crowd to leave us alone for a bit; let us recharge, and would have promised to get back to them shortly. 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.
But how do we do that—work with God? Perhaps a hint may be found in the verses left out of today’s reading. Jane also referred to this story last week; it’s a big one! 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 thing that frightens 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 busy people 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.
What does that look like for you? For some it may mean literally getting away—just being in your place of work, or at your home, or wherever else you are busy may mean that you can’t really relax. For others it may be about taking a mental timeout: Maybe deciding to take a break from social media, or turning off what ever you use as a distraction (the TV, or the radio, perhaps? Or some activity that you employ as a distraction.) The point of this strategy is to move away from the mindless things we use as numbing agents—Clearing our minds and de-cluttering them.
Or it might mean finding a way to use meditation and prayer as a respite. As most of you know, Will Boyce taught short course of contemplative prayer last month. I have found this form of silent, wordless prayer, when I have earnestly practiced it, to be both restful and invigorating. Outside of this practice, I rarely have the discipline to just turn off my racing mind. Contemplative prayer not only gives me permission to turn it off; it demands that I do so.
What is your deserted place—your place of respite? Only you can figure that out. I hope each of you will be proactive in finding your own ways to restore and refresh. God calls you not only to be active, but also to rest.
So, my friends, take these lessons to heart today. 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 continue with the work of God.
Let us pray.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.[iii]
[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.
[iii] “A Prayer attributed to St. Francis,” The Book of Common Prayer, p. 833.