July 18, 2021 Sermon, “Come and Rest Awhile” by Rev. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd

Come and Rest Awhile

Mark 6:30-34; 53-56

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

The disciples had been scattered, sent out in pairs to teach and to heal. It had been some time since they were together with their rabbi Jesus. They had much to tell Jesus and one another. They had failures and they had successes. Some people had thrown them out of house and village. Others had warmly welcomed them. Some people had been healed and others hadn’t, no matter how hard the disciples prayed. Sometimes they were offered feasts and other times they went hungry. There were times when they were lonely and missed the camaraderie of their community of disciples.

The air sparkled with the excitement of being back together again. Jesus laughed and cried with them as they poured out their hearts. He knew that their enthusiasm at being reunited would soon settle into a weariness of having ministered intensely and apart from each other. It was time to renew their energy and rebuild their community. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” Jesus kindly suggested.

I was speaking with a minister who has just moved to Winnipeg to a new position. She mentioned that some churches have largely stopped their ministry over this past 15 months, apart from some kind of online or mailed worship. Committees haven’t met, nor have small groups; outreach projects have been put on hold. I was sad to hear that and a bit surprised, because that certainly hasn’t been our experience—although to be fair many rural communities do not have reliable internet connections to meet virtually. Our committees and teams at both Westworth and St. Andrew’s River Heights have continued to meet and minister—sometimes in very creative ways.

Just this past week, I’ve heard from two young families who have expressed deep appreciation for the summer craft and game packages they have received from the Westworth Sunday School. Our Community Care Team has made three rounds of calls to those who aren’t part of any group and cards are sent to those who are ill, bereaved or celebrating a special occasion. They also sent shortbread and the Christmas Eve message to those who are shut in. Outreach has continued to support West Broadway through food and donations, and have kept before us a number of social justice concerns. When regulations have allowed, members from the Archives Team have come in from time to time. Our Affirming Committee has led us to becoming an Affirming Ministry. The prayer shawl group has continued to provide prayer shawls, which I’ve been able to drop off at hospitals and homes. Property has been working on new arrangements for custodial services and potential rentals. Worship has been working harder than ever and the Safe Re-Opening Committee, which might better be called the Safe Closure Committee, has stay on top of the ever-changing regulations. UCW, men’s spirituality, women’s spirituality and adult study groups have all continued to meet virtually or in backyards when allowed. Most recently, the Ministry and Personnel Committee has helped us find a new Music Director and part-time handyperson. We’ve also held after church Zoom Cafés.

St. Andrew’s River Heights has also been active during this time with their online services. Their leadership team has continued to meet and their M&P Committee is also in a search for their new Music Director. The Fellowship Group baked goodies at Christmas and Easter and delivered them to those who are shut-in, to senior residences and homes and to those who are alone. A group of people, along with their minister Rev. Karen, made phone calls to seniors and other congregants. Outdoor visits and waves through windows were arranged. Interest groups kept in touch and some held Zoom or email meetings. They held a couple of dessert Zoom gatherings. They celebrated PIE day in worship (an acronym which means being public, intentional and explicit in being an Affirming ministry) and then ate pie together over conversation through Zoom. One of St. Andrew’s worship services was filmed at Oak Table, their community ministry partner. They have sent cards to those who are sick and grieving.

That’s a lot of ministry happening when we can’t be together in person! I can see Jesus welcoming us back from our separate ministries and saying, “Well done. And how are you doing? Tell us not only what you’ve done but how you’ve been during this time of separated ministry. I can see Jesus stretching out his hands to us and gently suggesting that as we begin to envision our time together again, we focus on re-building our community. That we take time to tell our stories of how we’ve been. That we take time to simply be together, share food and fun as we laugh and, I expect, shed a few tears together. We will have missed sharing some milestone events with one another.

Some will be keen to jump back into the fold with full speed ahead. Others will be a little more hesitant. Some might want to ease into social events and try not to fill our calendars as full as we used to. Others might need to stay home for a little while longer until they feel safe. I expect that our pews will not be as full at first. We’ll need to get used to being together again. And so, we will need to honour an extended time of slow reunion that might take us to a deeper level with one another. That sounds inviting to me, as Jesus’ invitation of secluded rest and community-building must have sounded to the disciples.

Just as the disciples were relishing in this delightful plan, chaos broke open. In spite of Jesus’ best intentions for retreat, the crowds, who were in desperate need of healing, found them. Just as Jesus had compassion for his disciples, he turned his compassion to the crowds. His compassion seemed limitless, although not so much for the disciples at this point.

I can see their faces etched with disappointment and weariness. But they sat patiently and listened to Jesus as he told stories and teachings to thousands who gathered. Finally, after many hours, the disciples begged Jesus to send them away to the villages where they could buy food and, more importantly, give the disciples the break they so desperately needed. Jesus’ response seemed a little less compassionate this time. “You feed them.” Oh my. What in the world was Jesus asking them to do? Indignant, they responded, “Are we to go and buy 200 day’s wages of bread to give away?”

The story of the feeding of the thousands will be heard next Sunday, but let’s just remember that a mighty miracle of sharing took place and after that, Jesus tried again to send his disciples away to another place where they wouldn’t be known. They would try again to find a quiet, uninterrupted place of retreat. By now, Jesus needed solitude from everyone, including his disciples. So he sent the disciples on by boat while he stayed to pray and renew his spirit.

What should happen next, but a storm that quickly mounted threatening waves in the shallow waters. Of course. Another crisis. Another miracle. They arrived on the shore exhausted yet again. And what then happened? Well–the place they landed was where the sick were brought because it had many hot, mineral springs. People travelled there from all over because it was known to be a place of healing. “Not bad,” the disciples first thought. “We’ll have a spa day!”

Not so fast, you poor disciples, because Jesus’ fame has preceded you. And once again, the crowds surged forth.

What are we to make of this gospel lesson? That we should prepare never to pause for quiet retreat and rejuvenation? That we should just keep on going and forego rest and relaxation? That’s certainly the spirit of the Protestant work ethic. Keep your chin up and keep on keeping on. Well—Jesus didn’t actually do that. He frequently went away to spend time alone with his God.

What this lesson tells me is that we should plan for retreat days, spa days, down days regularly. We need to be with one another. To laugh and to cry together. Let’s not put that as our last priority or we’ll never do it. I need not pack my calendar as full so that I still have spaces to simply be alone and be with community. If I take them regularly, then I’ll be better able to set aside disappointment when needs suddenly present themselves. It’s like the story of the Good Samaritan. Some of the people who passed the wounded man on the road may simply have been in a hurry or overwhelmed with a cup already overflowing with the needs of others. They didn’t have one more iota of space to respond to a new need.

And so—I’m wondering if this fall we can plan for more spaces and not keep rewarding each other for doing too much or letting our fear of missing out on something cause us to keep adding to our calendar. Then, when needs and crises arise, as they inevitably will, we will have the energy and the wisdom to respond faithfully and graciously.

One biblical commentator took this lesson a bit further. Nadia Bolz-Weber suggests that this passage addresses two self-centered extremes. One is self-importance. Humility teaches us that we are not indispensable. If we have a driven, A-type personality, there’s a good chance that we have to consciously resist this. We need to step back at times when we want to step in. This is one of my faults—I’m a fixer and I want to make everything right. But I can’t—no one can. And sometimes others will do a much better job if given the chance.

The other extreme is self-indulgence. We may be focussed on too much self-care. When challenges arise in relationships, in work, at church, we may tend to disappear in the guise of self-care.

I might add that there is a third type of self-centeredness that is focussed on self-doubt. This type is ruled by fear and is reluctant to respond to needs for fear of doing the wrong thing or not being good enough. If we have a hesitant personality, we may need to risk more and say yes more often. We may need to step forward when we feel like stepping back.

As Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, “In reality, neither the narcissism of workaholism nor that of self-absorption is a virtue.” I would add that self-doubt is not humility, for it is still pre-occupied with self. Bolz-Weber continues, “We remember our right size when we see that God’s redeeming work in the world might involve us but doesn’t depend on us.”[1] This leads us to balance. If we can work towards balance as we re-engage with community, we will have energy and space to respond faithfully to the unexpected and be vehicles of God’s grace. We will also be able to pause enough to discern between the urgent and the important. When we are triggered by the tyranny of the urgent, we lose self-perspective and may even lose ourselves.

As Angel Chernoff writes, “The older we grow, the more peaceful we become. Life humbles us gradually as we age. We realize how much nonsense we’ve wasted time on. Just do your best right now to feel the peace that flows from your decision to rise above the petty distractions that don’t really matter.”

Let’s try to set aside the tyranny of the unimportant urgent, that we may enter into those invitations of rest and rejuvenation, meditation and peace, and welcome the Spirit’s nudging when the unexpected moments of need arise.

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “With or Without Us,” Christian Century July 13, 2009