Principle Lesson: Mark 6:30-34, 543-56
The gospel passage read today is a bit of a strange passage. From the start you will notice in your bulletins that we skip some verses in the narrative. Indeed, we start with this transitional piece at the beginning with the apostles gathering around Jesus after having returned from the mission Jesus sent them on. They tell Jesus “all that they had done and taught.” And then we have this story of Jesus and the disciples trying to withdraw to a deserted place for some rest but the crowds find them and Jesus has compassion on them for they are “like sheep without a shepherd.” Then the selection we heard this morning skips ahead to Jesus suddenly in Gennesaret. Now, the nineteen verses that were skipped contain some pretty memorable stories, including Mark’s version of the feeding of the five thousand and Mark’s story of Jesus walking on the water. So, in many commentaries, the part that we heard is actually often just thrown away. Indeed, the Jewish Annotated New Testament simply says of these verses: “This is a summary section.”
Despite it just being a summary section, however, I think that it contains a few nuggets for us to unpack. So, as I indicated, the disciples have just returned from their mission, having carried on a lot of very successful ministry. They were tired but didn’t even have the time to eat together! Jesus responds by inviting the disciples to “come away to a deserted place … and rest a while.” That is precisely what they are attempting to do! They are going off to a deserted place, to a wilderness place. That is an important little detail because of what the wilderness represents in the sacred story. Namely, the wilderness is the place where the people are able to connect or reconnect with their God and with who they are called to be. Everytime they go into the wilderness – whether it be the Israelites wandering or Jesus being tempted – there follows a moment of connection with God and with who God wants them to be. So, when Jesus invites them to the deserted place, to the wilderness place, it is an invasion to deeper connection.
Things, however, don’t go as planned. They often don’t! Indeed, they show up; they’ve had this plan to rest and reconnect but something gets in the way. Has that ever happened to you? The circumstances may be different but we all know what it’s like to have life interrupted. What is that they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men? The question then is, “What do we do when plans are interrupted?” What do we take from this?
First, we can take from this “summary section” that Sabbath rest is necessary! It is important to “come away to a deserted place…and rest a while.” We may not be able to physically escape (as in, on vacation) but the invitation to spiritual and emotional and mental rest is vital. This is what is meant by Sabbath rest. Sabbath rest is not always easy and its not always convenient; but, Sabbath rest is a spiritual necessity. And it is not only vital for us to take Sabbath rest ourselves; it is also vital that we create space for others to have Sabbath rest as well. Right! And seeing it as a necessity and not as a luxury means it is not something that we can opt out of. Indeed, it’s one of the Ten Debarim (the Ten Commandments) for a reason! It’s about the image of God – about how we see (and therefore connect) with God and how we see ourselves since we are created in that very image. It’s about the image of God who rested and about Jesus who sought seclusion to reconnect with God.
The best laid plans of mice and men! We, of course, live in the tension between our plans and the interruptions of our expectations and the unexpected, between life as we want it and life as it happens. I am quite sure that every one of us could tell a story about life’s interruptions. It happens in small ways and in large ways. It’s the baby waking up early from what you thought would be a quiet hour. It’s about a day that has nothing on the calendar that suddenly turns into a day of uninterrupted hectic busyness. It’s taking a new job and finding that you are not doing what you never expected. It’s the diagnosis that interrupts retirement plans. It’s a shattered dream, a divorce, or a death. Life plans get interrupted in a thousand different ways and the unexpected happens all along the way of life.
I wonder what that looks like for you today. What are the plans or expectations you have for your life? And what are the interruptions or unexpected happenings with which you are dealing? Where is God in all of that for you?
Second, as Jesus is going ashore to find seclusion (let’s not forget that is what Jesus and his disciples were about), Jesus had compassion on the crowd. Compassion literally means to “suffer with.” Jesus, in other words, was with the people in their suffering. He had an empathetic connection, and declares that the people there are “like sheep without a shepherd.” This hearkens back to Moses appointing Joshua to lead the people out of the wilderness and into the promised land. When Moses does this back in Numbers 27:17, Moses uses the same phrase, “for they are like sheep without a shepherd.” Remember that Jesus has gone to a wilderness area so the people who have found him there are in the wilderness themselves! This crowd has gone out into the wilderness in need of their own Sabbath, in need of there own guidance, in need of their own reconnecting with God and who they are called to be. And Jesus finds them in the wilderness and has compassion on them. He will be like Joshua and lead them out of the wilderness and into the promised land..
This is the interesting element in the story, albeit a disconnected piece in our reading since we skip over a vital piece of information that says, “Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd” (Mark 6:45). It’s on the way to Bethsaida that the disciples experience the storm and witness Jesus walking on the water. You see, they were heading to Bethsaida but they end up at Genesaret. Where they were going is not where they end up. They were with Christ the whole time (even if they did feel abandoned for a little moment) but they are heading for one place and they land in another. But what does Jesus do? He doesn’t take out his GPS and redirect. He doesn’t rush on his way to where he is supposed to be. NO! Jesus starts healing! Jesus just keeps going.
Yes, we live in the tension between our plans and life’s interruptions! Yes, our life plans get interrupted in a thousand different ways and the unexpected happens all along the way of life. When life is interrupted, it’s tempting to work even harder to make it happen, to reinforce our boundaries, to blame others, to rage, or to pray that God will make it all go the way we want. Jesus doesn’t do any of that. He doesn’t turn the boat around when he sees the crowd. He doesn’t get angry or resentful; he doesn’t blame or complain; he doesn’t ignore or deny the interruption. Jesus is simply present to what is.
None of us were expecting this is where we would be two years ago! Oh my gosh, what do we do? Here’s the third thing: We love one another. We care for the least of these! This is what we do. We may not end up where we were heading. We may be tired and there may be times when we need to take Sabbath. But whatever shore the winds may blow us to, we show up to do the ministry of love and to heal the wounded and bind up the brokenhearted. We practice faithfulness and hope amidst the uncertainty of life.
Everyday life is where God shows up. That’s not to take anything away from planning in ministry and life. This is not meant to take away from the vital practices of prayer, study, outreach, charitable giving, and going to church. It’s to recognize that all those are about being in a relationship and living everyday life. All along the way Jesus is present and faithful to whatever and whoever is before him. What if abundance and nourishment, presence and reassurance, are somehow hidden at the intersection of our plans and interruptions? What if the fringe of Jesus’ cloak (Mark 6:56) is always being made available to us? What if we are the fringe?
So the lesson for today in what is an otherwise “summary section:” practice Sabbath, show compassion, and be present!