A Sermon preached by Sara Milford at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on July 22nd, 2012.
The Scripture Texts for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11, Year B are:
2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
There’s a blog my husband saw a few years ago, which has since gained in popularity, thanks in large part to wonderful little lists, guides, how-to’s, and incredible dedication on the part of the author. A former journalist and a father of six, Leo Babatua writes about simplifying life and living well. Striving to live fully into his blog’s name, Zen Habits, he chronicles his journey into right living through the creation of healthy habits.
One of his posts, right between “The Best Procrastination Tip Ever” and “Toss Productivity Out,” is “Improve Every Moment.” The problem statement, essentially, is what if you can’t slow down? What if you can’t escape the busy-ness of your life?
His tiny guide:
- Be more present, so life doesn’t rush past you without you noticing.
- Enjoy every activity you do more, so life is better all the time.
- Feel more relaxed, so every day is as good as a vacation.
- Be ready to handle anything that comes your way.
He elaborates a bit more, saying basically that, like children, we need to live more in relaxed mode. In relaxed mode, we sense and feel more and get out of our thinking heads to remind our brain what it’s like to feel. Maybe one by one we can release those muscles that are so used to being constricted. Soften the jaw. Roll back and drop the shoulders. Breathe to our bellies. Smile.
For practice Leo suggests being aware of our physical body, the present environment, at any given moment and doing so as often as we can. Most of us are blessed, after all, with five senses. We can feel the temperature of the air and feel the support of the pew; smell the old wood of this place; hear the creak of the floor or the breath on the exhale. Hopefully, we see the light showing through the beautiful stained glass. Perhaps you can taste your morning coffee on your tongue.
But how easily we get distracted from life as it is and get caught up in that whirlwind of busy-ness. We find a groove and stick with it, maybe a comfortable routine, something that doesn’t rock the boat too much but fills every moment of our days and nights. We will work ourselves to the bone. It may even be with good, worthwhile work, or work that we have to do, but we forget our whole person. Eventually, no matter what we’re doing (or not doing), we find that our system isn’t sustainable. What seemed to work isn’t working any longer. Something’s wrong. Something needs to change.
Jesus knew all this. I don’t recall anyone ever telling Jesus how to improve every moment, that he needed to be present, enjoy the moment, relax, and be prepared to handle anything that crossed his path. No one had to tell Jesus to embody mindfulness and compassion — that’s just who he was, who he is.
From today’s Gospel, I imagine the disciples, like young children after being rounded up, greedy for attention and approval from the teacher they most adore, recounting to Jesus all the good work they’ve been doing. Imagine the thrill of their work, the endorphins that were coursing through their bodies as it is with any of us who are in the zone, doing what we love. They have been fueled by their passion, living into the miracles brought about by their faith. They’re on a roll and ready for more. I imagine Jesus smiling knowingly, patiently (for wouldn’t he already know all they’ve done?), admiring his chosen. They have done good work. But they have more to learn.
“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”
Following their great teacher, they go along to this deserted place that may likely have been a vacant place between two settlements, someplace not terribly accessible, particularly by foot, so they go by boat. But there were many who saw them and recognized them and rushed to get to where they were going first – by land, on foot. The crowd is willing to risk the journey to get even a glimpse of this teacher, to get a chance to be taught. I wonder if the disciples saw the crowd, too. I wonder if the disciples tried to persuade Jesus to change destinations, saying something more along the lines of, “Jesus, they know who we are. They know You. We’re not going to get any rest. Let’s go somewhere else.” The excited children from before now realize their lack of sleep and their hunger. Settling into their bodies, pulling the focus inward, they now have their sight set on rest, food, and time alone, with Jesus, of course.
When they get to shore, Jesus has compassion on the people, these lost sheep. Without missing a beat, he teaches them, taking them into his fold. They were hungry for the nourishment He provided. Now, I don’t know about the disciples, but I do know how my children behave when they are tired, when they’re hungry and just done. If I say we’re going somewhere to do something, that had better be what we do. If I stop to visit with someone, there is no end of exasperated sighs and eye-rolling. You’d think I was torturing them intentionally.
But that’s not it. As a mother, I want to set an example for my children to stop and to pause when needed. Every moment we have a choice to make, I’m always telling them. We can indeed improve every moment. More often than we realize, we’re given a choice to make a difference in someone’s lives, including our own.
I figure Jesus exemplifies love in action. He sees a crowd in need, sheep in need of a shepherd. Jesus’ innate goodness may make it seem like he had no other choice than to teach to those willing to hear, but Jesus was man. Jesus chose to speak to those with open ears and open hearts. They listened. They were fed. All were fully present.
Except maybe the disciples, who were there, likely sighing deeply with their growling stomachs, muttering to one another. I picture the teens rolling their eyes and groaning under obviously dire circumstances, thinking of themselves, spiraling into diverse tangents that took them out of the moment, away from the full-bodied mystery before them. Not in the present. Not enjoying the moment. Not relaxed, and definitely not prepared for what’s to come. (But that story’s saved for later.)
We get in today’s reading the bookends of the miracle of a great feeding. We hear that after Jesus teaches a crowd, they cross over to meet yet another crowd. The crowds kept coming. Wherever Jesus went, they followed, hoping that they might, like the hemorrhaging woman, “touch even the fringe of his cloak.” It says that “all who touched it were healed.” We remember that Jesus felt the power drain from him when the one woman touched his garment. But this multitude of people keep coming and coming, and Jesus keeps healing.
Where does Jesus rest?
It strikes me that this story isn’t about Jesus resting. We don’t get the bit today about Jesus going to the mountain to pray. He told the disciples to come away and rest awhile; he didn’t say he would. Maybe the disciples had it in their head that if they were going to rest, surely Jesus would be taking time off, too, but when does the Son of God clock in and clock out? He was just telling the disciples to rest. Maybe it would have prevented their grumblings if he had more explicitly said, “Y’all just sit back and let me do the work now,” like any mother who’s ready to take over in the kitchen from the inefficient children trying to help.
We just don’t have the stamina to do all the work alone. Even the disciples in God’s presence, though they were empowered to perform miracles, could not use compassion alone as fuel. They were probably a little too much of this world, a little too much tied down in their own minds.
What if, instead of being so preoccupied in our busy lives and daily struggles, we were aware enough not only to feel the physical environment but also sense and perceive the needs around us? Feeling this, relaxed, we could have awareness and presence. We may very well find joy and great energy in such moments, maybe even a bit of fun. If we are living into the Good News of Christ, we know the right thing to do in the moment because we love one another — above all else.
When we can’t escape the busy-ness, we are shown that we can have mindfulness and compassion. And when we can’t do that — because we will fail — we are to know that God can. Jesus didn’t try to escape the crowds that sought him out. For the disciples, and for us, Jesus is showing the way. When it’s time to work, we will work – and hopefully with awareness. When it’s time to rest, there will be rest. When there are those who are in need, they will be cared for. All this through the Love of God.