Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
It’s the middle of July in the middle of summer in Washington D.C.—vacation time for many of us or at least a slower pace in general, one hopes. For some of you, though, this midsummer’s day musing sets your heart to wishing you could get away; you feel burdened and heavy laden with pressing needs, perhaps illness of a loved one or yourself, work or relationship issues, financial constraints, the economy, concerns over global unrest and war. And we all know how fast paced things can get. We grab meals as we can, eat lunch at our desks, text and twitter and facebook interspersed throughout. We frequently do behave, as it’s been said, as human doings instead of human beings. Some of you may be so driven to produce that you feel unable to stop for rest for a variety of reasons, yet you’ve come here to this sacred place of beauty this morning. Well, may I just say, you’ve come to the right place for today in our sacred Scripture we are reminded by a compassionate, loving God of many things but two in particular. First, we are to take regular time apart for spiritual renewal and rest. And second, we are not alone. God is always with us and available, teaching and healing all who seek the Holy One. Let’s start with our gospel reading from Mark.
The background for today’s reading is this: Once Jesus had called the twelve apostles, he gave them their on-the-job training. They traveled the countryside with their master teacher. They traveled by boat on the Sea of Galilee, from this side of the Jordan and then the other. They learned as they watched their master teacher, their shepherd Jesus, at work. Watched him teach, and proclaim that the kingdom of God is at hand, watched him heal the sick no matter who came to him, heard him teach in parables, and heal more people, and watched him taking time apart for prayer and rest always. By now in the gospel of Mark word had spread. Everywhere they went people sought them out, followed Jesus everywhere. And finally, it was time for the apostles to go out on their own. Jesus sent them out to do what he had been doing. It was now their turn to go in his name and be shepherds themselves for the people. He instructed them to go two by two, carry no baggage, proclaim God’s presence and peace, told them to heal and cast out demons along the way. And they did just that. They worked hard, which brings us to our reading today. Having returned from their first efforts in ministry on their own, the apostles gather around their shepherd, their teacher, their guide in life, to tell him about all whom they had healed and taught. One can imagine how excited they must have been to report in to their master.
Jesus says, you’ve worked hard. Now learn this: Your mission is completed in rest and renewal. He might have added. Creation was seven days not six, and the seventh day was the Sabbath and is part of ongoing Creation. Jesus said to the apostles, “‘Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest.’ For many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31). And so the apostles got into a boat with Jesus on the west side of the Sea of Galilee, paddled out, and rested in the company of each other and in Christ. We don’t know how long but they took a time apart. Once on the other side, a great crowd was there waiting for them and Jesus having compassion for these people because they were ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ taught them many things. The two miracles that happened next on that shore and then on the sea are omitted in today’s reading. So huge, they are left for next week all by themselves.
It’s important for us to know the chronology of events in this gospel because these two miracles are smack dab in the middle of what we are given for today. What we did hear read today are like bookends surrounding two great miracles. And the miracles in the middle? Jesus taught all that day without stop. Everyone was hungry but there was seemingly little food, yet the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand occurred. Then Jesus sent the apostles on ahead while he went apart up on a mountain to pray. Note well: he took time apart to pray. And a storm came up and Jesus walked out on the water to the frightened apostles and calmed their fears and the storm. Miracles hidden within today’s lesson literally and metaphorically.
The latter part of our reading occurs just after the calming of the sea. Jesus and his apostles landed on the shore, moored the boat, and continued the work of healing to the throngs who continued to seek Jesus throughout the villages and cities and “all who touched the fringe of his cloak were healed.” All. Miracles happen when we give ourselves a time apart for spiritual renewal and rest. It might be as simple as taking the time for silence each day…. Set a timer, turn off your phones and just sit. It may be joining with others in a centering prayer group or Bible study, or taking a walk or journaling. What’s important is that we take the time apart. We are not alone. Our compassionate God is always with us, waiting for us to come…to rest…to be taught…to be healed.
The son of one of my good friends has struggled with alcohol and drug abuse for more than a decade. I’ll call him Jake. Jake has been living quite a ways away from my friend yet has always kept in close touch with her and his dad and sister. He has been living with his girlfriend and their two small children. Jake has been on the wagon and off the wagon and back on again. Pressures of a low paying job and then carrying the burden of child care at night while his girlfriend worked the night shift left him little time for rest or renewal.
Not so long ago, my friend received a desperate phone call from Jake’s girlfriend. It was three in the morning and she didn’t know where he was. She feared the worst. My friend would later find out from Jake that he had been out partying with a friend after work, had decided not to drive home, and just slept at his workplace with this buddy, both too drunk to drive. Well this so called buddy stole some money from the shop on the sly and the next morning Jake was fired. He called his mom, my friend, hysterical, not knowing what to do. He said, “Mom, what do I do now? How am I going to take care of my kids? I don’t know where to turn.” And my friend said, “Jake, you turn to God.” She could hear silence at the end of the phone and a deep breath. The next day Jake went back to his twelve step program, found another job and an AA sponsor in long-time recovery. Today Jake has a solid program of recovery himself and they are calling it a miracle. My friend feels like she finally has her son back. Jake took a time apart: he realized that a power greater than himself could restore him to sanity and that he wasn’t alone.
From what do we need to be healed? How do we need to be fed? What fears do we need Christ to calm? We can turn to God and know that we are not alone. Miracles happen.
I wonder if, when the apostles were in their time apart with Jesus, anyone spoke. Or did they just let the calm of the sea rock them? I wonder how they prayed together. I wonder, as a devout Jew, if Jesus or any of them for that matter ever recited or read from the Psalms of which they would have been so familiar. Perhaps the twenty-third Psalm. I bet they did. These words comfort millions of us whenever we’re in doubt about God’s presence or distraught or need a time apart if even five minutes grabbed in the midst of a hectic morning. Hear them now. Let them bathe you in peace:
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters;
He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Whatever your care this morning, whatever your joy, know that you can rest in God and that your compassionate teacher and healer is with you always.