The Rev. Anne Michele Turner
Proper 11, Year B (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56)
July 19, 2015
St. Mary’s Church, Arlington, Virginia
A lot of preachers will be preaching the same sermon today. It goes something like this: Jesus rested, so you should, too. Take a break. Jesus rested, Jesus asked his disciples to rest, and Jesus asks you to rest, too. Maybe some sermons will even explore the Sabbath traditions. It’s the perfect message for these deep days of summer, when half of us are coming from the beach and the other half want to head there.
I kind of want to preach this sermon, because it’s true. But I also don’t want to preach this sermon, because it is incomplete. I want to be true to this entire gospel today—a gospel that is, indeed, about rest, but also about interruption; a gospel that is about self-care, but also about care for the world. Fundamentally, it’s a gospel about compassion, and compassion is what I really want to talk about in the end.
But let’s start with the rest part—because that is what really smacks me over the head, and maybe you, too. The story begins as the apostles return to Jesus after their first missionary efforts, their first go at working for Jesus in the world around them. And they are full of stories and insights, and it had been busy and absorbing, and they’d gotten so caught up in it that they’d been skipping lunch every day. And Jesus gets that it’s unsustainable. So he does this obvious and yet completely amazing thing: he tells them to rest. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.”
What an astounding, powerful thing this is to hear. Rest. It was counter-cultural when it was first formulated in the commandment of Sabbath, giving Israelites who had lived in slavery an identity other than work. It is counter-cultural still to us who live in this work-obsessed city, in this work-obsessed age. So much of who we are as people is formed by what we can produce, by what we can accumulate, by what we can accomplish, but what we can check off and tally up. How busy we are becomes a perverse sign of status. And so when Jesus suggests that there’s another way to understand our purpose and our value—it’s like water in the desert.
I am guessing that a lot of us have that deep, aching place in us—the ache for a self defined by something other than what we do. Especially at this time of year, maybe you are getting a glimpse of what it would be like if you were less rushed, less burdened, less obligated, more free. I am aware that Tim has just returned from his sabbatical, and that our parish administrator Pam Frick is in the midst of hers, and I hope both of them will have insights for us about the power of rest.
If all that we are left with this morning is that power—that thirst for rest and the understanding of how deeply transformative it might be for us—that would be good. It would be enough of a gospel.
But, there’s more. There’s the plan for perfect rest. And then there’s the reality. Because life rarely works out as we plan, does it?
It certainly doesn’t for Jesus. This wonderful retreat goes awry pretty quickly, as Jesus and the disciples literally get chased on their way out of town. They show up to the deserted place and it is instead full of people. And not just any people—but the neediest, hurting-est, most clamoring people of all, the kind who just won’t take no for an answer.
So it is with so many Sabbaths. They get interrupted. We peek at e-mail, because it’s just a quick peek, and then there won’t be any surprises when we get back to work, right? Or we make an exception about not taking projects with us on vacation because this one is not just really important, but really, really important. Or the circumstances of life are such that Sabbath is always compromised, because who can turn off the work of feeding an infant, or entertaining a toddler, or responding to the phone calls from the nursing home? The world needs us, and sometimes its legitimate, and sometimes less so, and we really have a hard time telling, anyway.
But the real bread of the gospel—it’s here in what Jesus does when the beautiful, planned rest falls apart. Because I kind of expect him to be a Sabbath purist, right? But he’s not. Jesus doesn’t hold some imaginary line of perfection. In fact, Jesus does here what he does all over the gospel narratives, which is not to get hung up in the way Sabbath is supposed to look but instead to meet the moment with gentleness. He went ashore, and he saw the crowd, and he had compassion for them.
And that’s what really matters here, in the end. Not getting it perfect, or getting rest “right,” because perfect and right aren’t always in our control, and more than the weather at the beach. But responding with compassion—this is Jesus’ gift to us, and Jesus’ model for us. Instead of anger, there is mercy. And instead of disappointment, there is healing. And instead of frustration, there is love.
It’s really tempting for us to think that this sort of compassion springs from Jesus’s divinity here. Jesus can be kind to these people because Jesus, deep down, is nicer than us, or so the thinking goes. Because he’s all Jesus-y, he can do the good things I cannot. But I’m not sure that’s what’s happening here. Honestly, I’m inclined to think that his response springs from his humanity. The root word of compassion is related to the word for belly, for guts. It means to understand and to feel something deep down in our human bodies. I think Jesus is able to be gentle with all this human broken-ness precisely because he understands it so well. Jesus can have compassion for these sad, messed up people because he’s had some pretty profound experiences of being sad and messed up, too.
This is may be a fine theological distinction, divinity versus humanity, but I want to make it because if love and gentleness in the face of disappointment comes from Jesus’ human nature, then it’s possible for our human natures, too. If Jesus can be compassionate, it is in our power to be compassionate, too.
And so the real challenge of today’s gospel, the larger question it lays on us, is not just one of how we spend our time, but how we spend our hearts. What would it be like for us to have compassion, both inwardly and outwardly? What would it be like to act not from a place of scarcity, or exhaustion, or anger, but instead one of mutual sympathy with this hurting world? What would it be like love whatever imperfection comes and tugs at us?
I imagine that sometimes such a stance will indeed draw us into rest. Practicing compassion includes compassion for our tired, beaten down selves. And so sometimes we will say, yes, I will go away; yes, I need to rest a while. And sometimes compassion will indeed draw us back into activity—into loving action for the people around us who need our presence.
And so I invite you—as I believe Jesus invited you, and me, and all of us—to be gentle in this time, wherever we find it leading us and however it unfolds. Jesus doesn’t ask us to be super-human. Quite the opposite. He asks us to be deeply human—to know our flaws, and our limits, and our deepest needs. And he asks us to befriend them. Gently. Compassionately. Because, ultimately, those needs can lead us not to failure but into love.