Chaplain Mel Baars
July 22, 2012
Mark 6:30-34; 53-56
It seems that Jesus and his disciples are being stalked—literally. And, not just by one or two people, but by hoards of people. No matter where they turn, there are people waiting for them. If they get in a boat heading to an undisclosed destination, a place typically desolate, when they arrive, the crowds are waiting for them. Even while attempting to strike a balance between work and family and friends and the need for rest and renewal, their efforts are continually thwarted by sick and hungry people, or, as Jesus calls them, “Sheep who have no shepherd.”
I couldn’t help but empathize with Jesus and his disciples as I read Mark’s gospel this week, particularly hearing that so many people “were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” It’s hard to imagine that people wouldn’t leave these guys alone long enough for them to share a meal without interruption. Yet, around here, I know what this is like. There have been times, throughout these months, when it has felt like I can’t get through a meal or a work out without some emergency happening. Often, I would be sitting in the DFAC, trying to enjoy a moment of peace with a friend, or on the treadmill, nearing the end of a long run, when, in mid-bite or mid-stride, I see one of the chaplain assistants making a beeline for me. Dread quickly settled in the pit of my stomach. “What now?” I would wonder to myself. Can’t a girl eat dinner or work out without having to stop somewhere halfway through and deal with yet another person and their problems. Throughout these months, it has become harder and harder to remember my compassion.
I am willing to bet that leaders of every rank have at least one or two stories similar to mine. Perhaps you were on your way home, about to pull into the driveway, after a long training exercise, when your phone rings. One of your soldiers has had a crisis and suddenly you find your car turning back around, heading to work. Or, you get to the office early, excited to make a dent in the piles on your desk, and there is someone waiting for you, someone who really needs you to be there for them and listen to what they are going through. All your plans for productivity go flying out of the window. As leaders, or parents, spouses and even friends, as people who are entrusted to care for others, if it is just one person, we are continually faced with the challenge of balancing our needs with the needs of others. There is always more work to be done and many more needs to be met. In fact, I am convinced that in some of our jobs, working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, we still wouldn’t finish it all. In the midst of this incredible demand, we also need an occasional break, some space to breathe. We need to close the email and put the phone away and simply rest. Because, if we don’t make the time to rest, sooner or later, our bodies begin to shut down. We get run-down and sick, not only unable to work but also we become needy ourselves.
There is a lot of literature out there about the importance of keeping the practice of Sabbath and of maintaining balance in our lives so that we don’t neglect any aspect of ourselves, physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional. But, I have to admit, I am always a little suspicious of these authors. Many of them are contemplatives by trade, often being paid to live part-sequestered lives on a lama farm or somewhere alone in the New Mexican desert. They don’t seem to have some of the same demands that we have, of morning PT and soccer practice or worries of whether or not their kid has enough extra-curricular activities on their resume to be accepted into a good college, the right graduate school program, so that they might have a chance at finding a decent job in the midst of economic downturn. It’s easy to find space and time to rest when the demands of family, work, and, life, in general, are not banging down your door. But, for people like us, is balance even possible when we are expected to work twelve plus hours a day, when there are always crises to be managed, when we are expected to be available and at the ready, all the time, without exception?
I think this is what is so remarkable about our gospel. There doesn’t seem to be one, clear, definitive answer. Because, life is never that neat, no matter how well we plan for it. When the disciples reconnect with Jesus and tell them all about the ministry they have done, the healing and the casting out of demons, his initial response is for them to, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” After all the work they have done, it’s time to switch gears. The disciples need some time to process all that they have seen and experienced. Jesus knows too well that there really isn’t any rest in the midst of the public. No matter how tired they are, the people and their needs keep multiplying. In order to get any rest at all, Jesus knows they must get away, separate themselves from the epicenter of their work so they can take stock and prepare for what may be coming next.
So, off they go to a deserted island, a place where no one can bother them, and they can renew themselves. But, as they get closer to this quiet place, something doesn’t seem right. Wait a minute… they begin to grumble to one another. Are those people gathered on the shore, anticipating our arrival? We thought this was supposed to be a silent retreat. Yet, Mark reports, “The people saw them going and recognized them. They hurried there on foot from all the surrounding towns and arrived ahead of them. When Jesus saw the crowd, he had compassion for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them.” So much for rest and recuperation, or as we put it R&R. At least for that moment, the needs of the people took precedence over the disciples and their fatigue.
You may have noticed as we read our scripture for this morning that there is a huge section of the sixth chapter of Mark missing from our reading for today. Verses 35-52 are left out completely, at least for this Sunday. However, it is important to acknowledge just what we are skipping over: the feeding of the five thousand by a few loaves and fishes and then, directly following that story, Jesus walking on water and calming a raging storm. These are two of the most incredible miracles stories in the whole Bible, both only explainable through some divine intervention. But, I think it is significant that what bookends these miraculous stories are our verses for today. On this Sunday, in the verses that both precede and follow these two instances of otherworldliness, we are reminded of something extremely worldly, the simple challenges that we are faced with, day to day-- the struggle to find balance in our lives in the midst of life, the people who keep showing up, reaching out to us for help, or the fact that there is never enough time to do all that needs to be done. We are reminded in our gospel that finding any real balance is as difficult for Jesus and his disciples as it is for us.
This is what we are reminded here. On one hand, we must make a space for rest. We must find time to renew ourselves, spend time with those whom we love, refill our tanks through prayer, retreat, and even silence. At the same time, though, there are going to be moments, seasons even, when life doesn’t pan out the way we plan it. There will be times when we have to set aside our rest and our own needs in order to respond to the life that is unfolding all around us. But, it is always give and take. It can’t be all one without the other. No matter how well we plan, and how intentionally we act, life is still going to get in the way.
Jean-Pierre de Caussade, a spiritualist from the eighteenth century, embarked on a life mission to figure out what God wanted Christians to do and think in each and every moment. Essentially, he endeavored to answer this question: what does faithfulness look like in the midst of the chaos in which we live and work and breathe? The more he investigated this question, the more he realized how much faithfulness has to do with paying attention to God’s presence among us and the ways that God is calling us to respond to our lives. He also discovered how important it is to trust that, at the end of the day, no matter what happens, God continues to give us what we need. He said, “Everything turns to bread to nourish me, soap to wash me, fire to purify me, and a chisel to fashion me in the image of God. Grace supplies all my needs.” Whether it is a space for rest or the energy to continue with the work and service that we are called to do, God makes a way. God provides the sustenance that we need to get through, even the most difficult seasons.
In a place like this, our sustenance turns out to be quite simple. It is friendship and real conversation. It’s showing up for promotion ceremonies or lingering a few extra minutes in the smoke pit when it is obvious that someone could use an ear and a little support. It’s paying attention to the needs of those alongside of us on this part of the journey and hopefully having compassion for them, even when we are tired ourselves. This is not about pity; it’s about being willing to get a little messy on some days. It’s about responding to whatever crosses our paths, even if this puts us in uncharted territory, and trusting that, no matter what happens, God will be there with us, shepherding us gently along the way. Amen