We’ve all experienced unexpected disruptions, often just as we were getting ready to take some precious time for self care. It probably happens far more often than we would like to think about. Let’s face it, our lives are complex; our relationships matter; our work and ministries provide a sense of purpose, and so we do what we need to do.
So you can imagine what it must have been like for Jesus and the disciples when we meet them in today’s gospel.
Earlier in Mark 6, the twelve disciples were commissioned as apostles to go two by two in order to spread the good news of God’s love.* Now they’ve returned and are telling Jesus everything that has happened. Jesus' response is to immediately take them on retreat. He leads them to a deserted place for rest and renewal.
Throughout the scriptures the wilderness is a place for connecting with the divine presence of God. Many of us have experienced this firsthand, and routinely ensure we have time in the wilderness to encounter the divine presence of God within ourselves and within creation. We take long walks in lush green woods. We walk the beach and listen to the rhythm of the waves crashing on the shore. We kayak and are amazed at the liveliness of God’s creation always happening in the background, that so often goes unnoticed in the day to day. We sit down and take in the rolling hills in the distance. We dig our hands in the soil to connect with the food and flowers that will grace our table. We head off to retreat centers and campgrounds with beautiful views on every side.
Like the unexpected phone call or text that disrupts our plans for rest and renewal, the disciples and Jesus found swells of people were tracking their boat’s destination, and heading there on foot. It would have been understandable if Jesus felt frustrated by the interruption. We know he certainly expressed frustration from time to time.
Yet in the face of a great crowd of new followers and spiritually curious folk’, “...he had compassion for them, because they were a sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them...” (6:34).
He had compassion for them.
The authors of Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth offer a helpful definition of compassion.
“Compassion is the ‘quivering of the heart in response to another’s suffering’. It is the ability to ‘get inside the skin of another’ in order to respond with loving concern and care. Compassion is so deep and closely connected to others that the truly loving person breathes out compassion. The compassionate person identifies with the suffering of others in such a way that she or he makes a space within the heart, a womb of mercy, to allow suffering persons inside and to embrace them with arms of love.”**
The text says he had compassion for them, because they were a sheep without a shepherd.
This great crowd was without a shepherd, and this statement reflects a couple of things worth noting.
First, following the disciples commissioning, King Herod, a figure appointed by and responsible to the Roman Empire, ordered the murder of John the Baptist. John the Baptist was many things to many people in that region-- he was a teacher, a baptizer, and a prophet. He was a significant figure in the life of Jesus, an encourager who pronounced the coming of this Holy One who would lead a revolution, a transformative Way of Love. In other words, this was a loss for the swelling crowds and it was a personal loss for Jesus and his disciples. They were mourning a shepherd figure.
Second, shepherd was a term historically associated with kings, and so to say they were without a king, is to speak to the corrupt and selfish style of leadership modeled by King Herod, and the Roman Empire he represents. Jesus has compassion for his oppressed people, who were bone weary of living as a minority group shoved to the margins, a tolerated people in their own land. His compassion indicated what he represented in the Way of Love, and was an act of opposition to the political leadership of that time.
The social political landscape of that time was ripe and ready for Jesus of Nazareth's message of survival, endurance, forgiveness, love, and hope.*** As a result, these crowds swelled. The Jesus Movement rolled on from village to town to Jerusalem, igniting a forest fire that would heal and restore the soil of Israel.
Let’s be clear though. The lesson is not that we abandon all acts of self care when something more pressing or seemingly ‘holy’ needs us, because the scriptures also have a lot to say about the essential need and expectation that we care for our inner lives, as well as, practice sabbath.
Y’all are probably tired of me preaching about the sabbath, but I am going to harp on it until I take my last dying breath, because it is so counterintuitive in our culture.
Walter Bruegemann writes that, “Sabbath is taking time...time to be holy...time to be human.” ****
Our own Presiding Bishop Michael Curry writes, “The wisdom of the Sabbath is that it provides the opportunity to stop, pause, and notice the presence of God in the world, God in the other, God in ourselves.” *****
When we pause for sabbath, for retreat, for rest and renewal we are carving out the space to care for our inner lives. If we do not take care of our inner lives, it will interfere with our relationships and threaten the health of our work and ministries. Even though Jesus attempted to take the disciples on retreat, rather unsuccessfully, he actually prepared them for caring for their inner lives in the subtle instructions of their commissioning.
Jesus was very intentional to send the twelve out two by two, a critical reminder that we were never meant to go it alone. In order to accomplish God’s dream for this world we need to collaborate with others in every aspect of our lives. We were created to be in relationship, with God, one another, and ourselves. Our partners in life and in ministry walk beside us and can encourage us to take care of ourselves, and to nurture our inner lives.
Before departing Jesus also gives the twelve disciples incredibly precise instructions about what they can bring with them--only a staff. Now, maybe Jesus is simply concerned that the disciples are not overburdened by heavy packs, but I would argue Jesus’ real concern is that the disciples know not to carry around their burdens and instead trust them in the hands of God.
When we leave our homes and go about spreading God’s love in the way we teach, work, relate, play, and help our neighbors, we need to give our burdens to our loving Creator. If we are carrying around anger or fear, resistance to new ideas, preconceived notions about our neighbors, or are nursing old wounds, it will get in the way of the mission. It will cause harm to our relationships.
This is also why he instructs the disciples to shake off the dust from their sandals if they find they are unwelcomed in some places. Because when we experience rejection, we can let others' judgments cause chaos and upheaval in our inner lives, creating more burdens within, and drawing us still further from God’s dream. In other words, in order to go out into the world each day as a disciple, we have to be mindful of our inner lives.
Howard Thurman writes, “[Jesus] recognized with authentic realism that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of [their] inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys to [their] destiny”.******
To be disciples in the Way of Love, we need to take care of ourselves.
Nurturing and cultivating our inner lives on a daily basis will look different for each of us...
...maybe it is practicing meditation
....or setting aside quiet time for prayer or sitting with the scriptures
...or practicing mindfulness and bringing intention to every aspect of our day
...maybe it is creating music or art or a garden
...maybe it is yoga or running or moving outside
...or anything that helps us to feel more fully alive, healthy and whole in this world.
There will always be unexpected interruptions, and, if we can find routine and daily ways to care for the quality of our inner lives and hand our burdens to God, we will be able to meet those unexpected interruptions with compassion and grace.******* It will also leave us poised to maintain healthy relationships, which is essential to our survival.
So-- fellow disciples, this week I invite us to spend some time reflecting.
What if we each took an inventory in the coming week to ask ourselves:
* Today’s passage is Mark 6:30-34; 53-56. This sermon reflects on events throughout the entire chapter of Mark 6.
**Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth by Ilia Delio, Keith Douglass Warner, and Pamela Wood in 2008. Quote is taken from pg. 135. In portions of this quote, they are quoting and expanding on an idea by Joyce Rupp in her book The Cup of Our Life: A Guide for Spiritual Growth, pg 110.
*** Read more about the idea of Christianity as a ‘technique for survival’ in Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited. See pages 18-25.
****Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, pg 87.
***** Bishop Michael Curry in Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times, pg 161.
****** Howard Thurman’s, Jesus and the Disinherited, pg 18.
******* Here are some resources if you are looking for some guidance on how to cultivate and care for your inner life. The clergy are also always happy to meet with you to discuss.
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