Our gospel story for today focuses on a contrast that applies just as much to our everyday lives now as it did two centuries ago. Jesus is at the height of his popularity in the Gospel of Mark, and the crowds are relentlessly following him and his disciples wherever they go. Jesus has compassion for the people, and willingly works tirelessly to teach those who want to hear and to heal those who are suffering.
As Christians, we look back to the prophetic words of Jeremiah in our first reading and see the actions of Jesus. Jeremiah assures the people that God sees and understands when they have poor leadership, when they are neglected by those who should be caring for them. When that happens, God will send a new shepherd, who will be wise and just and promote righteousness. Our gospel describes Jesus as fulfilling those promises.
Today we have to pay attention to the opening verses of our gospel reading. This takes place immediately after the disciples returned from their first mission trips which we have been talking about for the last two weeks. They had experienced a good deal of success, teaching and preaching and healing. In fact, in last week’s reading, Mark tells us that word was spreading around Galilee so much that even King Herod heard about the disciples preaching. Jesus’ response to his disciples is to urge them to come with him and rest. Apparently, they had worked so hard that they did not even have time for regular meals, and we know that Jesus often found himself in the same predicament, so they must have all been pretty exhausted.
What does Jesus mean when he says they should go to a deserted place? In their case it literally means the wilderness, where there were few if any people and no distractions. Jesus is attentive to the practices of his disciples and is aware of all the challenges they faced on their journey. But this story is not just for the past. Jesus is always attentive to all that we go through on a daily basis. We can fall into the trap of too working hard, whether it be for our families, our jobs, our church, or our community without attending to our souls and our spiritual and emotional needs. Jesus is concerned about us when we do not stop to think, to meditate, to wonder, to focus on what is really important, to pray. It is at those times that Jesus says: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”
Whatever our deserted place is – and it is unlikely to be the kind of wilderness experience those first disciples had – it should be a place where we can have a sense of ourselves again. No noise except that which we choose, no presence besides our own and the Holy Spirit, no company besides plants and animals. In such a place we seek peace, mindful that there is no peace if our heart has no peace. We should never be afraid in our deserted place, because there will only be fear if we allow ourselves to live in fear. In our deserted place, we must clear our minds in order to free ourselves from the grip of anxiety, fear, and endless movement. In our deserted place, we appreciate the silence and attend to the movements of our bodies. In our deserted place, we recover our hearts back again from our cell phones and our busy lives. Our deserted place is not necessarily a geographic location but a kind of pathway of time and space that functions as a way in and out of our constant work, distractions and busyness. To be able to know ourselves is to know how we function best in the world. In that way, we are much more effective than when we are distracted, tired and feeling unfulfilled.
Our world is in such a precarious situation that we need this constant movement in and out of our own deserted place that solid spiritual practices provide. These practices are so important because our presence and work as Christians in the world are fundamental to the lives of those who are marginalized. Like Jesus, we are to have compassion for others – the sick, homeless, refugees, the poor. We see people in need everywhere. We want to attend to their needs, to welcome them home. We talk at church about how to offer assistance, how to be present, how to promote policies that are compassionate and just.
We worry about the earth itself, the condition of the land, the destruction of wild places, the safety of our drinking water, the humane treatment of animals and other creatures. We have the capability to provide enough food for all using practices that will protect the land and the health of all those who will consume it, yet we can’t seem to put those practices above corporate greed. There is enough food, but often corruption prevents safe distribution to those who live in hunger. Sometimes it feels as though creation itself is crying out for our support so that it may be healed.
For example, the famous cedars of Lebanon, mentioned many times in Scripture, are in danger of being wiped out by the end of this century because of global warming. They have outlived empires and survived the destruction of modern wars, but scientists warn that they may not be able to survive the rising temperatures of the earth. The cedars used to be found in forests that covered thousands of square kilometers but now there are only 17 square kilometers left in scattered groves. The magnificent cedar trees are the symbol of the country of Lebanon, they are survivors just as the country has survived, and the people will be devastated if the trees become extinct.
As the stewards of the earth and all its creatures, we have so much to do, as Jesus reminds us. Our gospel stories tell us that at times, even Jesus couldn’t stop. His heart was driven by such deep compassion. But Jesus knew he needed to stop. No one can run too much and do too many things without being forced to stop and take a break, possibly because of illness. Our task as followers of Jesus is to be attentive to all that is crying for our attention and demanding our care. As people of God, we are called to discern the spirit of our times and see where the Spirit of God lives and what the Spirit is asking us to do.
At the same time, Jesus is telling us that we have to pause and pay attention to our hearts, to our movements and to how we are living our lives. Without a strong spiritual life, oriented by daily spiritual practices of prayer and meditation, of pause and time alone, we cannot do all the work we need to do and we cannot be all that we are called to be. A heart without action is ineffective, and action without a heart is empty. Jesus is calling us to have a compassionate heart and to do strong actions of justice and mercy. Yet he always reminds us to take the time to be spiritually healthy and to be attentive to our basic physical needs so that we can be the most effective at carrying out the work he calls us to do. Amen.