Sermon; Proper 11B; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
“I never take a day off because the devil never takes a day off.” – Pastor's motto seen/heard in several places.
You may have heard or seen this slogan stated somewhere by a clergy person at one time or another. It may have been stated as an honest depiction of what a clergy person does, or how they feel, in the never-ending battle against the forces of evil. It may have been stated as a self-indulgent way of broadcasting how hard a particular clergy person is working. After all, clergy sometimes feel they need to prove they work more than one day a week. But however it was presented, there are clergy who take pride in living into this statement.
Some time ago I heard a rebuttal to it, which I wish I had originated. It goes like this: If you never take a day off because the devil never takes a day off, you need a better role model.
There are plenty of places in the gospels where Jesus goes off alone to rest, pray, and recharge. If we are going to keep our focus, if we want to avoid burnout, then we should be more like Jesus and find time to rest, pray, and recharge. This isn't just good advice for clergy, it's good advice for everyone – teachers, accountants, first responders, cooks, landscapers, moms, dads – anyone and everyone could benefit from time away.
We are presented with an example of this in today's gospel. The disciples had been sent by Jesus earlier in the chapter to preach, heal, and cast out demons. They've now returned to tell him all they've done. Their popularity has grown such that they had no leisure to even eat, so Jesus takes them away to a deserted place to be alone. He doesn't tell them to get to work because the devil never stops working. He doesn't call them slackers for needing a rest. What he does is to recognize that to be effective we must have time away. If that means going way to a deserted place, then so be it.
This is a good idea and a good thing to try and achieve, but it doesn't always happen as planned. In the case of Jesus and the disciples, their effort to get away was thwarted twice. Once immediately after they returned and went away but were followed by a great crowd who met them when they went ashore, and a second time when they crossed over the Sea of Galilee to Gennesaret and were recognized by many who brought sick people to him. Both times the desire to get away to be alone, to pray, to recharge, was thwarted by crowds of people seeking out Jesus to heal them.
A long time ago I was at a preaching conference where Abp. Desmond Tutu was the keynote speaker. You may have heard of him. He worked in South Africa fighting for the inclusion of women in the church and against apartheid. He became famous after President Nelson Mandela appointed him to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which worked to bring a peaceful end to the sinful system of apartheid. He has since traveled the world speaking out in favor of equal rights and against injustices of all kinds. And here he was speaking at a preaching conference in Atlanta.
After he was finished my friend Jane and I wanted to go up to him and say something like, “Thank you for being here.” FYI: priests can be fanboys/girls too. That may or may not have been what we actually wanted to say, but it was something short so as not to take too much of his time, just so we could say we talked with him. And maybe, if we could, just to touch his robe . . . right?
The only problem was that the rest of the attendees had the same idea and we were all met by a wall of bodyguards who politely, but forcefully, told us that the Archbishop had places to be.
I think about that story every so often, especially when this particular gospel lesson comes around. I think about the travel and the people Abp. Tutu met. I think about the number of people who just wanted to say, “Hello,” or shake his hand. It must have been overwhelming. I wonder if his security detail was just taking him back to his room so he could rest, pray, and recharge.
I think about Jesus who faced the same crush of people on a regular basis. I think about his need/desire to “go away to a deserted place” every so often. I think about his lack of a security detail and his inability to get away from the crowds.
These two leaders, Desmond Tutu and Jesus, modeled good self-care by taking time for themselves. The Archbishop probably managed to do that more often than Jesus, but we do see Jesus trying to find time to rest, pray, and recharge. This is a good lesson for all of us to keep in mind – finding time to rest, pray, and recharge.
But there's another part of this story that we often overlook, and that's the part of the crowds.
For many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat. Many saw them going, and as he went ashore he saw a great crowd. When he got out of the boat people rushed to bring the sick to him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak. And after he spoke, all those gathered rose so that they might have a word with him.
The gospels provide us with glimpses into the life of Jesus. They also provide us with glimpses of how Jesus can be present in our lives today. If we take seriously the idea that Holy Scripture conveys the Word of God, then we can also look at Scripture as informing how we can orient our lives more closely with the will of God. But I think we would miss a wide swath of what Scripture has to say to us if we only focused on Jesus in MY life and MY relationship with God – because there is plenty in Scripture that can give us guidance and/or insight into how we can live and relate with other people. On its surface, today's gospel gives us the story of Jesus willing to heal all those who came to him. If we look a little deeper, though, we might also gain some insight into how the crowds themselves related to Jesus.
How often have we been part of the crowd? How often have we just wanted one touch, a quick word, one picture? How often have we put our desires above the needs of others? There are certainly times we need to reach out to another person. There are times when the needs of others take priority in our lives, no matter how inconvenient. But maybe, just maybe, if we all took time to evaluate the impact our actions had on others – from personal interactions, to finances, to the environment – we would all be in a better place.