9 Pentecost B—7/22/18
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Pr. Scott Kramer
Friday is our day off together, so this past Friday my wife and I did what we love to do this time of year and that’s hike in the mountains. We drove to Mt. Rainier National Park and started out on the trail.
We weren’t alone. The trail follows a major road just outside the park for a mile or more so there was plenty of traffic noise. On the trail itself were dozens of people, and because this is Seattle, everybody has to bring their dogs–off-leash!
This is not exactly what we were looking for. We don’t go into the woods or the mountains for a shopping mall experience. We go there to experience the beauty of God’s creation: snow-covered mountains, wildflowers, forests, lakes and streams. Peace and quiet, too.
Peace in our time is elusive, even far from the cities. Turns out, though, that this is nothing new! In our reading from Mark’s gospel Jesus says to his hard-working disciples, “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.
But that was just the beginning. 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.
In this story Jesus is not taking his disciples to a national park for a picnic and a day hike. It’s not a vacation or a weekend getaway, either. Nothing wrong with those! But something more is at stake here—if, in the midst of our busyness, we modern people take time to listen and learn.
Notice that everywhere they go, somebody wants a piece of Jesus and his disciples. The need is endless. His invitation to come away to a deserted place seems hopeless. And yet, there’s something more going on here than “escape” or “getting away from it all.”
How about you? Does it ever feel to you that everybody wants a piece of you? Maybe you have a job with heavy responsibilities, or school with endless requirements. Maybe you’re a parent with children at home. Maybe you’re caring for a parent or other family member.
Or, maybe you’re none of these. But I’ll bet this sounds familiar: A telemarketer calls with ideas for how to separate you from your money. Appeals arrive in the mail—some for good causes, some not so much. Advertisers bombard you through radio, internet, TV, print and social media. Phone notifications—ON! Everybody wants a piece of you. Some of it is good and healthy, some of it isn’t.
Either way, like Jesus and his disciples, it’s pretty close to impossible to “get away from it all.” But, as I say, I’m not sure that’s what Jesus was after. I think he knew deeply that the worries, fears, responsibilities, and expectations are all waiting for us wherever we go. Sometimes peace and quiet can actually make it worse. If we can find a little peace and quiet, sometimes that’s when our “monkey” brains go into overdrive, having too much time to think, and worry!
No, I don’t believe Jesus was inviting his followers merely to “get away from it all.” I don’t think the “deserted place” that he spoke of was a park, or a beach, or a cabin, or resort, or any other actual place, fine as those options might be. I believe the “deserted place” was the experience of connection with God no matter what the circumstances.
Right? The people, the needs, the pressures, the worries, the fears, the responsibilities always caught up with Jesus and the twelve. Or, sometimes all those things were out ahead, waiting for them when they arrived!
Most of us assume that peace and rest depend on having some control over our lives—a certain amount of financial security, health, and social order. This, of course, speaks to some basic human needs. But complete mastery of our circumstances is mostly futile, for no matter how rich or able-bodied or influential, we really don’t have a lot of control over life.
Can you imagine having a centeredness, a spiritual strength, a focus, a calm, no matter what the circumstances? This is the invitation of Jesus to a deserted place, no matter how chaotic and noisy the world around us.
Our psalm today is the beloved 23rd Psalm, which is usually looked to as a source of calm and comfort. It is that, but there’s more. How much attention do we pay to these words? Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. We like the idea of comfort, but what’s up with the rod and staff?
I have here this morning a shepherd’s staff. This is the tool used to discipline and correct the sheep who tend to wander. Why? Because the wandering sheep is likely to fall off a cliff or get eaten. It’s the shepherd’s discipline that keeps the sheep in line, and which is the source of their peace and maybe even their life.
The deserted place that Jesus speaks of is one such discipline. The shepherd’s rod and staff are regular spiritual practices that develop within us the ability to stay close to the shepherd, no matter what circumstances we face.
Last Sunday we heard a quote by Fr. Thomas Keating, who is a teacher in our time of the spiritual practice of centering prayer, or, contemplative prayer. Centering prayer is the practice of creating internal space for the Holy Spirit to do its work of transformation and healing. Those who embrace such spiritual practice experience what Jesus and his disciples experienced, and what all of us experience: the intrusion of fears, worries, responsibilities, distractions, and to-do lists–because everybody wants a piece of us, including our own minds. In centering prayer, we don’t escape these things. We acknowledge them and allow God to hold them for us, while the Spirit does its work.
Spiritual discipline is not extra credit for saints or spiritual superstars. It’s essential to staying close to the Shepherd. On our recent hike in the national park, as we returned to the parking lot, we noticed something we hadn’t seen earlier. It was a young deer, dead, a short distance off the trail. Like a sheep from its shepherd, little Bambi evidently had been separated from its mother by some predator and killed.
There’s a lot at stake in staying close to the Good Shepherd. There’s a lot at stake in taking to heart Jesus’ invitation to a deserted place. There’s a lot at stake in allowing the rod and staff of spiritual discipline to keep us close to the Shepherd.
Our reading from Jeremiah describes how easily even God’s own people can be separated from the Shepherd. The problem then, as now, was a rotten king. As we see in our own time, even church-going people can be led astray to follow such a king toward destruction, ignoring the Good Shepherd who leads to truth, justice, compassion, life and love.
Thanks be to God that we have a Good Shepherd who invites us to a deserted place! There we will find in the midst of our fears, distractions and responsibilities, one who will keep us close to the gospel of love, for us–and for all people.