A homily for Proper 11, Year B prepared for Westminster Canterbury, Richmond VA
Gospel Lesson: 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.
“Come ye apart and rest a while.”
If any of you have ever been to Shrine Mont, you may recall reading those words above a stone seat, formed from the rock that was used in constructing the outdoor stone cathedral that many people in Virginia (especially Episcopalians) have loved for many years. When my parish retreat would head to Shrine Mont, it was always the children who clamored to sit in that space, even though I think some parents and grand-parents may have appreciated it even more! But, that image of Shrine Mont comes immediately to mind for me when I hear today’s Gospel: the yearning for a quiet place of rest, set aside, with the gentle words of Jesus reminding us to stop and rest.
We are very good at talking about all the many active things that Jesus does: healing, teaching, preaching, guiding his disciples. It’s rare that our attention is drawn to the other thing that Jesus does with regularity: rest. It’s a pattern in Jesus’ ministry, actually. He deliberately pulls away and finds quiet and solitary places to rest and pray. This is why we find Jesus in deserts, gardens, mountains and the far side of lakes, as well as in the cities and towns where people learn to anticipate his arrival. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is met by an enthusiastic (and probably quite tired) group of disciples who are filled with stories to share about all the good work they have been doing. I can practically hear the chatter among them: how many places have we travelled, how many people have we healed, how we are responding to the needs of the world. I suspect, the disciples being human, that some of this might have even been a thinly veiled way of suggesting to Jesus that maybe, possibly they deserved a break.
Jesus hears their pleas, spoken and unspoken, and anticipates their need. Before they even ask, Jesus offers up to them: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” You’ll notice that the passage does not go on to say, “And the disciples argued back and said, ‘no, please, let us stay here and work harder!” The next thing we know, they are gathered together on a boat, setting sail and, I would imagine, feeling relieved to be sailing toward a well-earned respite.
But, news travels fast. Communication in biblical times might not be as rapid-fire as it is today, but word quickly spread that Jesus and his disciples were headed across the sea of Galilee. By the time they geared up their boat and sailed across that sea, people had already made it to the destination of their arrival on foot. They brought those who were seeking, those in need of healing, those who needed the touch of Jesus. Imagine, if you will, the tired disciples hoping for a calm, quiet stay ahead when instead they saw throngs of people headed to the shore to meet them.
And, it wasn’t just people who were happy to see them, or bringing them food and nourishment for their stay. These were people who were sick, outcast, needy, desperately longing and not at all interested in how tired the disciples were. I imagine the disciples looking toward the shore and seeing all the work that they needed to do coming toward them. One or two might have even headed Jesus’ way to lodge their disappointment and worry out loud, “How can we meet all of these needs?”
I can relate to the disciples when confronted by all the need I see. We are human beings and it can overwhelm us to see the level of need in this world coming toward us and feel our own level of exhaustion, physically and emotionally. But, Jesus is not overwhelmed. Jesus is moved with compassion. Jesus sees the people and anticipates their needs for healing and hope, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd” and, as the scripture goes on to say, he began to teach them many things. In fact, Jesus engages a rich ministry of healing and teaching throughout the region, anticipating the needs of all those he encounters.
You see, if we read this story again there is an important parallel. Jesus anticipates the needs of the disciples, and anticipates the needs of the crowd. Jesus gathers the disciples on a boat to move away, and gathers the crowds around him. Jesus enfolds the disciples with restful, loving care and enfolds the crowds with healing and hope.
Jesus, our Good Shepherd supplies our needs, whether we are disciples or distant strangers who are drawn by need and rumor toward the healing touch others have experienced. Through Christ, there aren’t just a chosen few who get treated royally while others get to hang around like a star-struck fan club hoping to catch a glimpse. In this world-turned-upside-down, everyone’s needs are anticipated, they are gathered together and enfolded in the loving care of the Good Shepherd.
It has occurred to me this week, reading and reflecting on this Gospel, that there was a holy lesson for the disciples which is also a holy lesson for us. In our own lives, rest is a sought after destination which we think of as a place and time set apart. But to Jesus, our human need for rest is the gateway through which ministry is revealed. We come to know rest not through our own actions…or lack thereof…but as enfolded in the loving care of God. Rest is active. We are gathered and enfolded in the arms of the Good Shepherd who knows the needs of the whole flock of this world. When we feel overwhelmed by needs of the world, Jesus reminds us that He is the Good Shepherd who enfolds us and gathers us. Our rest is not something that is just “yet to come” but also right here, in our participation in the Body of Christ which responds to the needs of the world.
That stone seat and sign post at Shrine Mont isn’t just about the destination, either. It is a stopping point for reflection on the way to the Cathedral Shrine of the Transfiguration, the place in which the disciples see Jesus divinely transformed on the mountaintop. Perhaps this Gospel reminds us to participate in another form of transfiguration: to see Jesus as the source of rest and the gateway to healing. It isn’t the busy pace of our own actions through which we earn rest; it is care and keeping of our divine shepherd who grants to us and to all the flock what we need in the great company of the Body of Christ of which we are a part. We don’t need to worry. We don’t need to fix all the needs we encounter. We need to rest in the quiet confidence of that faith and allow healing and transformation to flow freely.
Come ye to a quiet place and rest awhile. Rest confidently in the knowledge that we are gathered and enfolded in the love of Christ, sheep in the fold of our Good Shepherd.
O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.