The apostles were gathered around. They were awaiting a word from their teacher Jesus, a teacher who had proved himself to them through his healing touch, and his prophetic word. Already these disciples had witnessed the healing of the paralytic, the healing of the man with a withered hand, the healing of the many in the crowd near the seashore, the healing of people meeting at Simon’s house. The healings are too many to number at this point, and certainly the apostles had to be convinced by now at the veracity of this prophet’s words. Jesus was consistently calling people to him, reaching out to the crowds, surrounding himself with those in need. Now it was clear to all, this man was a healer.
The book of Mark is the most terse of the gospels. Mark is a writer who believes in getting to the point. He doesn’t spend much time elaborating on the details, he doesn’t tarry over the small touches. Instead, the book of Mark reads like a grocery list of healings and sayings, moving quickly from story to story, almost as if Mark wanted to make sure he didn’t miss out on any point of his inventory. Mark is a “just the facts, ma’am” kind of writer. He’s not prone to fancy flourishes.
In the midst of Mark’s retelling of all those healings, in the midst of all the activity, after Jesus had commissioned his disciples and John the Baptist has been done away with, there is this beautiful little interlude before Mark launches into the next section of miracles. Some commentaries call it a “transitional point.” There is a space of about four verses that seem very “Un-Mark-like.” They are verses that share a bit more intimately about the quiet side of Jesus, about the more contemplative side of this prophet, and so often they seem to be words we spend very little time pondering.
In the sixth chapter of Mark, in the thirtieth verse, there is this line: “The apostles gathered around Jesus and told him all they had done and taught.” When I hear this verse I am reminded of how excited my step-daughter, Brynn was coming home from summer camp last year. There were so many important things to tell us, about the wind storm which knocked over trees, and about the tie-dye shirt she made, and about how if you got more than five letters a day you got thrown in the lake. We spent all evening listening to every little detail of the week, and she replayed all the funny stories, and retold all the camp legends. No tidbit was left behind in her excitement. And this is how I picture the apostles gathered around Jesus. Children around their caregiver who don’t want to miss out on sharing any of the juicy details of their wanderings and seeings.
And then, the writer of Mark tells us, Jesus said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile,” because there were people all around them, coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat a meal. I think perhaps we should rename this, “Jesus’ first commandment of self-care.” Come away. Come away by yourself. Rest. This man of action, this man who gave of himself constantly, knew the simple need of rest. And so, Jesus invited them all into a boat, and he moved them away from the shore to a deserted place, a place alone.
But the pericope does not stop there, because the action continued on the shore. The people continued their searching for this one who they had heard about, this one who offered miracles, this one who traveled with his own posse who could get things done. Word got out about where Jesus and the apostles had retreated to, and the crowds arrived there, and Jesus saw them and offered his compassionate wisdom.
The action, of course continued, miracles filled up the verses that followed, but that’s not where I want us to go this morning. Not yet. Not for now. Let’s save that for another Sunday. Instead, I’d like for us to pause on the words given to the apostles about finding quiet places. For it seems that sometimes we’re so busy looking for the action in this story, that we forget to tarry on the quiet pronunciation right before it. The call to come away. The call to rest. This quiet simple vignette is a critical one for all of us to discover.
When I began to look at this scripture last month in preparation for this Sunday, I was sitting on the porch of my in-law’s quiet retreat-like farm in Texas all by myself, my family inside having breakfast, and I looked out across the field and realized that it was the first time I’d settled myself in quiet in months and months, I realized that the quiet moments, the sabbath moments, the “come-away” moments are few and far between in so many of our busy lives, and so perhaps this was a scripture on which I needed to preach.
One of the things I learned in seminary was that we shouldn’t take words out of context, we shouldn’t preach on only part of a text without elaborating on the rest. And so, I’ve often felt as if I shouldn’t simply preach on this encounter with the apostles, without then telling about how Jesus came back and fed all those around. But, I was surprised to learn that in the lectionary, these verses are listed alone. The story of the feeding of the five thousand, which occurs next in the scripture, are to be preached about at a different time, on a different day. And I marveled, that I’d never heard a sermon about this before. It seems as if being commanded to find a quiet place, the command to “be” rather than to “do,” isn’t as valued by the church. Taking care of ourselves, reconnecting to the quiet presence of God can sometimes take a backseat to all of the action we are called to do in our service to the world. Finding our way to reconnect in the silence seems self-indulgent perhaps. Feeding ourselves, when so many others cry out for our feed may seem selfish. And yet, this story gently seems to ask us, “How can you feed others when you’re not fed yourself? How can you speak a words of God’s peace and love, when you have no connection to it in your own life?”
I’m not implying that there is a dualism between caring for ourselves or caring for others. I believe to be whole that both are necessary. I’m simply inviting each of us to follow Jesus, the one who has called us clearly to come away to deserted places when we need to be refilled.
There was a moment when I was reminded of this call quite clearly, and the image has stayed with me for several years. It happened one afternoon when I was pastoring at the Manchester Church of the Brethren. I was driving on a country road near South Whitley, Indiana, taking a shortcut, on my way to visit one of my parishioners at the hospital in Fort Wayne. I was tired. It had been a long week and it was a Thursday afternoon, the day before my weekend began. That trip to the hospital was my final task before I had time to rest and, as someetimes happens when I drive on a country road, and no one else is around, I was going a teensy, tiny bit too fast. Now, I want to be clear about this. There was no emergency I was hurrying off to, this wasn’t a desperate situation that I had to attend to immediately. I was just feeling frazzled. I was just feeling frantic. And, as often is the case with me, that can translate into my foot pressing itself with a little more force on the accelerator. You can imagine what happened next. As I sped over a hill, I quickly noticed, the presence of a black and white police car waiting patiently on the side of the road with a radar aimed directly at my Honda. The police officer hadn’t even needed to turn his lights on and start the engine of his cruiser before I had pulled over in a confession of guilt. I knew I had been speeding, and I knew I had been caught, and I knew that it was completely and utterly my fault. The officer sauntered over to my already rolled-down window, and I had already gathered my license and registration and I held them out the window, practically forcing them on him. He greeted me, took my documents, quickly scanned them for my name, and said politely, “Mrs. Miller, why are you in such a hurry today?” I said, quite bluntly, “Actually Officer, I’m on my way to visit someone in the hospital, but it’s not an emergency, and I had no business driving this fast on a country.” He asked who I was visiting, and I told him it was one of my parishioners. And he said, “Oh, you’re a pastor?” And not wanting to exploit my status as clergy, as I’ve seen some other pastors do, said, “Yes, but I want to be clear. This isn’t an emergency. I’m just speeding.” Perhaps that was my cry for help. The officer smiled at me, handed me back my license and registration, and looked into my eyes and said gently, “Pastor Miller, if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be there to take care of anyone else. If you have an accident, who will visit your parishioners? I’m not going to give you a ticket or a warning, just take care of yourself.” And with that, this saint of a man turned and headed back to his car and I rolled up the window and burst into tears. Tears which lasted all the way to Fort Wayne, and tears which I can easily conjure as I recall the grace I was granted by that officer who acted as Christ for me that day. The Christ who reminds us to come away, come away and rest. The Christ that reminds us that we cannot feed others, unless we slow down and feed ourselves too.
My fervent prayer for this body of believers is that we may be Christ for one another. That we may understand that to do the work of God demands that we quiet ourselves to find God first. And that we might come away to those quiet spaces to breathe deeply of the God who calls us to renewal. So, come. Come away to a deserted place. And may you find in that rest, strength to fill others from your own abundance.