Rest and Compassion
The Reverend Dr. Dorothy A. Jeffery
The writer of Mark intertwines several stories in today’s expanded reading. Mark is an interesting gospel because compared to the other gospels, Jesus is almost always busy, going from one task to another. This rushing about sounds very familiar to many of us in our hectic and busy connected world. Mark’s favourite connecting word is “immediately”.
The author's purose is to show the spread of Jesus’ influence esecH The author’s purpose here is to show the spread of Jesus’ influence especially among the Galilean peasantry – the sick, the poor, those in need of physical and spiritual healing. This portion of the story really begins with the sending out of the twelve to preach, and to heal Today we have the disciples returning to give an account of this first missionary venture, this first effort to be the hands and feet of Christ. They are elated with their success which has gone even beyond preaching and healing – they report on their teaching also. You can imagine the excitement of the scene when they gather with Jesus. Everyone talking at once. Everyone explaining what has happened. Probably eager for their next assignment.
But after all this work they are tired. Yet the crowds around them are pressing in. Jesus recognizes the situation. The disciples have been so busy that have not even had time to eat. He has compassion for the disciples and invites them to a quiet time alone (with him).
They leave and travel from place to place in search of wilderness and a place for fellowship and rest. Their travels (in chapter 6) have covered much of the world known to Jesus – starting in Nazareth they travel by land among the villages, and then by sea from the northeast of the Sea of Galilee (Bethsaida), back across the sea to Gennesaret (on west side of the sea of Galilee). They had a purpose - preaching, teaching and healing, but now they seek rest.
‘Rest’ is completion of their mission in a quiet place of retreat. It is also a place for debriefing the mission without interruptions. Jesus names this as wilderness or a deserted place.
Traditionally wilderness is a place where God encounters the faithful and provides sustenance, protection, renewal and direction. Recall the stories of Moses and the wilderness wanderings. In wilderness he receives guidance from God (the Ten Commandments), the people are sustained (manna, and quail and water from a rock), and they are protected by a cloud of the Presence. Here in wilderness, God forms a new community of his people. Jesus seeks to do the same: to rebuild and rejuvenate his community of twelve disciples.
I see some personal connections to the story (superficial, maybe, maybe not). I have just returned from a trip across the Salish sea (specifically the part of also known as Gulf of Georgia), going back and forth from Burnaby (my home) to Vancouver Island (east coast beaches and forests; west coast beaches and forests; some sun, some rain, lots of rest) and home. There was purpose in my travel: to visit a seminary friend last seen on a retreat in April, to hike, to read, to rest. Now I am home and in need of catching up (on laundry, on appointments, on walks with local friends, and church tasks).
I expect each one of you enjoys taking a break. We especially like to take summer breaks. Everyone has their own favourite way of resting. Mine is getting out camping in nature and the wonderful parks and beaches of B.C.
Others of you may find the connection to these stories in the part about the disciples being too busy to take time to eat. You may know it as skipping lunch, lunch or breakfast on the run. We collectively have forgotten the joy of eating and sharing meals with friends and family with the demise of the family meal. We are so besieged by activities and responsibilities that they reshape even the basic functions of life such as eating. But we also miss out on rest and reflection.
Rest is Jesus’ plan … but it is interrupted. How often is your plan for rest interrupted or neglected?
For me, the current church tasks I mentioned is trying to write a history of West Burnaby UC which amalgamated with South Burnaby UC, officially on January 1, 2017 to become Jubilee United Church. This is the church I normally attend. This task is partly a time to rebuild the Christian community and bring the two communities together as they compare their histories.
I know you experienced the amalgamation dance several years ago in 1994, so have written your history. I checked your website but I was also aware of it from student colleagues at VST.
“Tasks for the church” is part of what we do among all the good deeds and service work we do in church and in community, in families and with strangers.
On Friday the UCC Observer magazine arrived with my mail. It has a pertinent article topic for today’s topic: “Self-Care for caregivers” p. 30-31 UCC Observer July August 2018 Many of you are care-givers in various ways – parents, teachers, caring for elderly parents, visiting a sick person, support for a grieving person. The article is a group of short interviews with care-givers and they are not all clergy or church folk. One tip –self-care is best practiced with a group you trust: it's helpful to be accountable to someone else. Another practitioner of contemplative meditation reminds herself and others: we are not here to fix the world; we're here to love it.
We may all suffer from the protestant work ethic: the drive to do “good”, to be constantly busy. But in doing so, do we wear ourselves out? I know I do, so even as a retired minister I need to include rest in my plans. You may have heard your church friends remark “I am so busy now that I am retired, I don’t know how I ever had time to work”. That is part of what Mark is talking about today.
As Christians we need to stop, to come away together as a community and break bread together. We need to gather as a faith community (on more than Sunday morning) to rest from our labors and partake of a common meal, an important part of life together. When we return from individual activities (even those in the name of church and for the sake of Christ) we need to re-form ourselves as the body of Christ, otherwise we may be broken and so poured out that we cannot function as Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
An 18th century spiritual director reflects that while God calls us to renewal through communal practices of Sabbath keeping, Eucharist and theological reflection, God also pledges that when others interrupt our plans for retreat God will sustain us.
In the passage from Mark’s gospel, after the disciples have come back from their time of mission, Jesus knew they were excited, exhilarated and exhausted. He said, ‘Come away with me and rest.’
He didn’t say, ‘Go home and rest’. The writer of the gospel is saying to his church, ‘When you are worn out from doing Christ’s work in your daily life, you need to rest. But the rest you need isn’t just physical “all by yourselves in your houses” rest. What you need is to spend time together with other Christians and with Christ. When you are tired, you need spiritual rest as much as physical rest. You need to be together with Christ in worship and fellowship.
That is what Christ continues to offer to us today. When life is difficult and stressful from many struggles and cares that is not the time to stay away from worship. It is the time to come to worship and to be with other Christians who will care for you, pray with you and encourage you.
According to Canadian theologian, John Douglas Hall, these brief scenes in Mark address two foundational questions of any religion. Q 1. How does God view the world? Q 2. And how does God ask us to view the world? Theology (the first question) drives ethics (the second question). The answer is revealed here in brief and pertinent form (v. 34) “he had compassion”.
This is also found in the essence of the prophetic traditions of ancient Israel “God is moved and affected by what happens in the world.” God is a God of compassion. Compassion comes from its root meaning (German Mitleid) “with suffering”. Compassion cannot be experienced from afar. Pity may be, but compassion requires being with the one who suffers. Thus the need for Christian community in all its forms.
Karen Armstrong in her book “The Great Transformation” … “argues that the great religions of the world had their foundation in the ‘axial age’ (9th century BCE). In the midst of extreme violence, religious sages advanced the proto-theological beliefs that would flower in subsequent centuries into Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity and Islam. At the core is the concept of divine compassion”. The concept was a radical notion in its own time threatened by violent human impulses. It is threatened again in our times expressed in fundamentalist and exclusivist religion and populist politicians.
“Christianity”, Armstrong says, “must ask whether as a church we are ready to live that compassion in our profoundly threatened world.”
So we see here, Jesus, though he is tired, though he wants rest with the disciples, heals those in need because he has compassion. Jesus identifies with the crowds. The Jesus’ story is a continuous story of compassion –Jesus casts out demons from a man possessed [Mark 5:1-20]; raises a young girl from death, and heals a woman who is hemorrhaging [July 1, Mark 5:21-34]; Jesus feeds the large crowd who have gathered to hear him [Mark 6:30-37]… His life ultimately leads to the supreme act of compassion – suffering with all humanity in his death on the cross.
A colleague suggests that the reading should stop at v. 32. 32And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. There you hear only they went away and rested. It certainly resolves (avoids) the ambiguity of the passage between rest and action.
But carrying on a couple of verses we hear 34As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. These final verses seem a recipe for burnout – respond to every need, regardless of your own needs. We are tempted by our view of Jesus as model and guide to believe that we are called to do everything as Jesus did. We fall into the trap of seeing Jesus as simply human. Yet this forgets one of the fundamental points of Christian doctrine – Jesus is fully human and fully divine.
You will note in v. 34 only Jesus is in view. The disciples fade into the background (the ‘they’ of v. 32 becomes ‘he’ in v. 34). Implicitly the disciples are taking the rest they need. Similarly, we don’t have to do everything that presents or that we discover as a need. We cannot do everything. We can do something to advance the kingdom of God. But ultimately we must trust God – to sustain us, to protect us, and to act when we cannot. The very nature of God is compassion. Sometimes we must trust God to find ways to be compassionate – to us and to the whole world.
Our bodies - our minds - are the temples in which God dwells. If we don't give ourselves the needed rest, we will find it hard to be aware of God's presence in our souls. Let us take rest and refuge in God when we need it. That too is being disciples.