Jeremiah 23:16; Psalm 23; and Mark 6:3034, 5356
We begin this morning with Jeremiah’s “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I have never been “woe-ed” and I’m pretty sure it isn’t good. Now, who are the shepherds being “woe-ed?” They are the earlier kings of Israel who, Jeremiah says, are responsible for the devastation of the nation and the exile of its people.
This does not sound like good news. There is good news however. And the good news comes in the passages that follow. There is the promise of a reversal; God promises the coming of one from the line of David who will gather the scattered remnant, who will return them to the safety of the fold, who will restore prosperity, who will raise up new shepherds to care for them, and who will execute justice and righteousness throughout the earth.
Now, unlike the first hearers, we have the benefit of knowing the rest of the story. We know who it is from the line of David who will fulfill the hopes and promises of Israel. We know who will be the Good Shepherd, who cares for the flock. And it is that Good Shepherd we see in this morning’s gospel trying to care for the apostles, who are those new shepherds that were promised so long ago. So let me turn to the gospel reading.
Some years ago my family lived in a suburb of Rochester, New York, in an area which is an old farming community, with a restored village on the Erie Canal. Like many such communities, developers have purchased the old farms surrounding the village, and this one has become a large, flourishing suburb.
We lived in the center of the village, where nearly everything our family needed was within a four-block radius of our home. Within that four-block radius was the high school our children attended, the restaurant where our daughter bused tables, the golf club where our son worked, the doctor’s, the dentist’s, and the orthodontist’s. Main Street was just around the corner and there was a small restaurant where the teens went for soft drinks and french fries after school, a Starbucks, the post office, and the church that I served. In the afternoon, our teenagers would stop by my office to chat after school, or to borrow the car. For parents, it was a great place to raise teens, and it was great for the very reason teenagers hated it. Everyone in the community knew absolutely everyone else. If teenagers were somewhere they weren’t supposed to be, or doing something they shouldn’t be doing, we would know within hours. The culture of that community was very like the culture of Palestine in the first century.
In today’s gospel Mark tells us, “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.” Now, Jesus, as some of you know, had sent them out two by two, and he had given them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; they were told to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics” (Mark 6:7-9). So now they’re back, with much to tell, and they’re trying to catch up with each other without much success because, we’re told, so “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”
Now, in such a close-knit community, it would have been inconceivable to eat without sharing with others. Meals were a major social activity. They were leisurely events that strengthened the social bonds of the community. For Jesus and his followers, who needed time to rest and catch up with each other, this was a problem. And so, Jesus says to them, “Come away to a deserted place…and rest a while.”
In this time and culture, this is a pretty unusual suggestion. Deserted places, places between villages and hamlets, were wild and dangerous places. In first century Palestine, more than ninety percent of the population lived in villages and hamlets. Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth had a population estimated at between fifty and one hundred and fifty people. Everyone in the community knew everyone else. Privacy was non-existent, and rest was impossible.
While 21st century Western culture is quite different in some respects, we, too, have difficulty making time for the things that are important. There is an investigative reporter, Robert Krulwich, who has an intriguing mind and pursues questions some of us would never think to ask. He once did a segment on time by considering the telephone.
Some of us remember the days of the rotary telephone. For those of you who don’t, after each number was dialed it took a few seconds for the dial to return to its original position so you could dial the next number.
Then, however, we were introduced to push-button phones, which were much faster. Now there was no lag time between each number dialed. You simply dialed the numbers in succession. And today of course we have speed dial. Press one button and the number is entered at lightening speed. By today’s standards, a rotary phone now seems unbearably slow.
Robert Krulwich was curious to know how long a phone rings before the caller becomes impatient. In the days of the rotary phone most households had one phone. Most often it sat on a table in the front hall, so when it rang you had to come from wherever you were in the house to answer it, so it might ring half a dozen times. Curious, Krulwich went out and interviewed people. His hunch was that four rings would be the trigger point because four rings are the settings for most answering machines. In fact, he found that callers become impatient much sooner than that. The most impatient people were teens and young adults who expected the phone to be answered on the first ring. He pointed out that one ring doesn’t give anyone time to even cross a room, and their response was, “But you should have your phone on you.” My grandmother would have been astonished.
The pace of life in our culture is such that we become impatient waiting for elevators. According to the Otis Elevator Company, our tolerance wears thin after fifteen seconds. At forty seconds, people become visibly upset. And once we board an elevator, the button most often pressed is—you guessed it—the Door Close button. The door is usually set to close after two to four seconds, sometimes longer in a healthcare facility, but seldom do people wait. Otis reports that building managers actually request the installation of a dummy button to safeguard lives and limbs.
Pizza Hut and Applebee’s put timers on your table at lunch and promise to deliver in fifteen minutes. However, the more we fill our lives with timesaving devices, the more rushed and stressed we are. Meals are not leisurely social events in most American homes. Fast food and convenience foods dominate, and if the whole family is home for dinner together it is the exception rather than the rule.
According to scripture, the first followers of Jesus are not so different—coming and going with no time to sit back and enjoy leisurely conversation or to catch up with each other. For that, they must escape to a deserted place outside of town.
And yet, some things simply take time. Raising children and grandchildren takes time, learning a foreign language takes time, healing from an injury, preparing a feast, and testing new drugs for the market all take time. And, in much the same way, rest, relaxation, and recreation take time. There is no way to accelerate the process.
Once, when our children were small, my husband went out one evening to play racquetball with a friend from work, and they got home much later than usual. The next day my husband reported that when Dick, his racquetball partner, got home, Dick’s wife, sat bolt upright in bed and said to him, “Do you see what time it is?! Just how do you think you’re going to get up in the morning?” And, without missing a beat, Dick said to her, “Oh, no problem, I’m just going to sleep fast.” Well, as we all know, there is no such thing as sleeping fast. Sleep takes time.
In the United States, the average worker receives ten days of paid vacation time a year. In much of Europe, four weeks is mandatory, and six weeks is customary. And we wonder why marriages founder, parents and children have so little time together, and anger, depression, and stress are epidemic. Two weeks of vacation may be great for our economy, but it is killing our bodies, minds, and spirits.
Jesus knew that rest is not simply a lifestyle option. It is a necessity. Someone once suggested we need to get back to the Old English meaning of “speed,” which was success and prosperity, not velocity. To wish someone Godspeed does not mean, “And may God hustle you along.” It means, “May God grant you a successful and prosperous journey.” To live a fertile, rich, and mature life takes time.
God designated a sabbath each week so we could recover a sense of wonder. God gave us a sabbath so we would have time to be. The sabbath reminds us that we are loved and valued by God for who we are; not for what we do.
Jesus was not opposed to work. But he did set limits. He did not think he and his followers should be accessible to absolutely everybody absolutely all of the time. He counseled them to rest, and to retreat.
When we don’t make time for rest and recreation we get cranky. We forget that God put us on this earth to enjoy it, not to critique it. Rest and recreation help restore our perspective. It’s much easier to love our neighbors, and to work for the spread of the kingdom when we take time for rest and relaxation.
One of the paradoxes of human life is that it is in rest, leisure, recreation and renewal that we regain a sense of perspective, recover serenity, regain our energy, acquire fresh insights, and reorder our priorities. Ecclesiasticus tells us, “A scholar’s wisdom comes of ample leisure; to be wise he must be relieved of other tasks” (Sirach 38:24).
Jesus says to us, as he did to his first followers, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” So I hope you will carry that with you this week.
Take time for rest and for leisure, to rebuild your bodies and renew your minds, that your spirits may be opened to the goodness of creation; and the goodness of a compassionate God who seeks us when we’re lost and keeps us safe through Jesus Christ the great shepherd of the sheep. Amen.