July 22, 2018 – 9th Sunday after Pentecost
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56; Ephesians 2:11-22
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
Two weeks ago our lesson from Mark’s Gospel described Jesus sending out his twelve disciples in pairs to travel as his ambassadors to villages surrounding his home town of Nazareth. The disciples were instructed to preach repentance and to heal the sick and cast out demons. Some time has passed and the disciples are now re-gathered around Jesus. We can imagine how eager they are to tell him their adventures and ask him questions! As we know from recent lessons, Jesus’ reputation, especially as a healer, was steadily growing. Crowds of people followed him everywhere. Mark writes, “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”
So Jesus says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” They all went by boat to a deserted place. Mark doesn’t say how they spent their time away. We know that when Jesus withdrew from others, he prayed to the Father. We may assume that the disciples and Jesus ate together in peace and rested. Perhaps the disciples talked among themselves about the work they had done. They may have sought Jesus’ advice and counsel. Eventually the time for retreat came to an end, and they returned by boat, to a “great crowd.”
Mark tells us that when Jesus saw the people, “he had compassion for them because they were like a sheep without a shepherd.” This image – sheep without a shepherd – occurs frequently in the Bible to describe people who lack a prophet or king to lead them. God had called Jesus to shepherd God’s people; in fact, to be the Good Shepherd who would lay down his life for the sheep. Obedient to that call and in compassion, Jesus returned to the people, to teach them and heal them.
This short, easy to comprehend passage has profound implications for people who want to follow Jesus because we see Jesus and his disciples doing two things: engaging and serving the world and retreating from the world for rest and renewal. This model for Christian life has shaped monastic tradition, notably the Benedictine tradition. We find its rhythm in the lives of holy men and women we honor in the church. The most reclusive Christians – think of the Desert Fathers and Mothers who lived alone in caves in Egypt in the 4th century or of 14th century Julian of Norwich living alone in a cell attached to a church – even these “hermits” left their solitude to offer spiritual direction or to teach newcomers the way of holy life or to counsel and confront political and religious leaders. And the most actively engaged Christians – think of Teresa of Avila reforming the Carmelite order of nuns or Dorothy Day living among the poor in the slums of New York City or Mother Teresa in India – even these “activists” retreated regularly from their work to solitude, prayer, and the sacraments of the church.
At this year’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church which took place earlier this month Presiding Bishop Michael Curry introduced a guideline for us – “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement,” as he describes our church – to help us follow Jesus in our lives as individuals and as the church. It is called “The Way of Love,” and you will find a copy of this in your bulletins today. You can see how the seven steps Curry recommends fit well with this rhythm of engaging and serving the world and retreating from the world for rest and renewal.
People from the world’s great religions as well as philosophers and thinkers in many cultures and civilizations and periods of history have recognized that human beings seek meaning in and for our lives. We need to make sense of life. In order to become what we may call “fully human” we need goals and an all-encompassing sense of purpose in life that represent the highest concept of human potential and human nature. Many people embrace goals that do not represent what is highest – power, wealth, status, pleasure, and so on. The wisest among us recognize that achieving such goals does not lead to true fulfillment or peace. As Christians we may say that such goals are not worthy of us as creatures made in the image of God. And as Christians we may with confidence assert that as creatures of God made in God’s image the most appropriate goal of our lives is love. If we have come from God – who is love – and are going to God – who is love – then our path in life is rightly The Way of Love.
The first part of Presiding Bishop Curry’s guidelines – “What do you seek?” – provides an excellent framework for the steps in The Way of Love. What do you seek? Jesus said, “Seek and you will find.” But what do you seek? Is your answer truly “love, freedom, abundant life, and Jesus”? Or do you seek something less than all this? Let your life answer this question. How do you spend your time, talent, and treasure? We recognize that the food we put into our bodies affects our physical health. What about our spiritual health? What are we taking in to our souls? What do we read? What do we listen to? What do we watch on television? Does what we take in raise us to greater love or bring us down to anger and contempt and despair? What company do we keep? How do we allow others to affect what we do and what we think and what we say? Are our companions walking in the Way of Love, or at least attempting to, or are they on another path? And what about our inner lives, our thoughts and feelings? What do we encourage within ourselves – for example, love and gratitude or criticism and complaint? How are we directing our own souls?
When challenged by some religious leaders of his day about his disciples breaking religious law by eating without washing their hands, Jesus responded by teaching the crowds following him that eating with unwashed hands does not defile a person. Rather, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles” (Matthew 15:18). Our hearts – meaning our wills, our intentions, our energy as well as our feelings – our hearts are the source of our speech and action. So paying attention to what we actually say and what we actually do can serve as a measure of the condition of our hearts.
Honest self-examination will help us all to recognize where we need to get back on track, back on The Way of Love. And the seven steps offered by Bishop Curry are all aids for doing just that. Turn: Pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus. Learn: Reflect on scripture each day, especially on Jesus’ life and teachings. Pray: Dwell intentionally with God each day. Worship: Gather in community weekly to thank, praise, and dwell with God. Bless: Share faith and unselfishly give and serve. Go: Cross boundaries, listen deeply and live like Jesus. Rest: Receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration.
All of these steps will help us to find love, freedom, and abundant life. Most importantly, they will help us to know our Savior better and to love him more deeply. Jesus has promised that if we seek God, we will find God. If we seek the kingdom of God above all else, we will actually be part of the kingdom of God here and now. If we seek to put on the mind of Christ, by God’s amazing grace, we will put on the mind of Christ. And then, with St. Paul, we may say “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). And our lives will be for our good, for the good of the world, and for the glory of God. Amen.