19th July, 7th Sunday after Trinity, morning
Mark 6:30-34; 53-end
Revd Kate Tuckett
I’m not someone who finds it very easy to switch off straight away. I find it almost impossible to sit on a beach or take a holiday without an activity to distract me from the emails I haven’t sent, the personal admin I haven’t done, the systems that will all collapse without me. In short, my out of office goes on, and I become a total drama queen.
And there’s so much work to do, isn’t there. How are our places of work supposed to function without us? How will our lives keep going if we are not managing them? And so many of us buy in to this particular sin of over-activity. So-and-so is a workaholic we say, secretly seeing this as some kind of virtue. To be busy is a badge of honour. To be busy is to have worth.
So it often is in our faith. To have worth before God and one another is to do more and more and more, to work ourselves into more of a frenzy, to make ourselves indispensable, to have a right control over things.
The ancient Jewish concept of Sabbath builds rest into the divine order of things. But rest may not be its only purpose. If the Sabbath were only for rest, we might be tempted to think it serves only as fuel to back us up so we can do more work. After all our work is very important. The world needs us. It may be that we need to take Sabbath as much to remind ourselves that God’s redeeming work in the work can go on without us.
In the gospel reading, after a busy and draining period of teaching, exorcising and healing, Jesus and his disciples have given of themselves, over and over, again and again, day after day. And Jesus tells his disciples ‘come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’
I wonder if the disciples have started to think that Jesus’ ministry is about them. They’ve just come back from their first preaching and healing campaign. They’ve been healing and casting out demons, and it seems they’ve been doing it quite well. Surely it’s tempting to let the whole thing go to their heads. It would certainly go to mine.
But Jesus has them leave all their fans and retreat to a quiet place. And he goes on teaching and healing without them. If the disciples have begun to develop an exaggerated sense of self-importance they must be more than slightly dismayed.
Mark’s gospel is the shortest and most action-filled of all the gospels. Jesus is constantly on the move from place to place, preaching and healing. This snippet comes in the middle of a series of stories about Jesus stilling the storm, healing the sick and raising the dead. His miracles remind us that God’s will for us is not chaos but wholeness. But these stories can do more harm than good. They are spectacular stories, most of them, and there is a lot of comfort to be had from them. The kingdom breaks through and for a moment we see a glimpse of how things might be --- or perhaps how things already are in the mind of God --- the once-blind beggar walks off to look for work, the storm is calmed, the little girl stretches her arms above her head, for she is not dead but sleeping.
The problem is with reading these miracle stories that it is hard to do so without wanting one of our own. Every one of us here knows someone who is suffering. Every one of us knows someone who could do with a miracle, but miracles are hard to come by. As people of faith, we often cannot bear this randomness, and so the temptation is to start to try and control them. We try to make the miracles about us. We comb the miracle stories to find out who did what so that we can learn from their experience in the hope of becoming irresistible to God.
Jesus’ healing here is tied up very much with his preaching. Many of the healings and the exorcisms we see in Mark’s gospel are to make statements about all the things he has taught about --- power, abuse, unequal relationships, class, addictions, money, the state of marginalised people in society – indeed many of the same issues that our society and world face today.
Notice the people beg Jesus to let them touch his cloak. This reflects back to the story of someone we heard about in the last chapter --- the woman suffering a haemorrhage, rendered unclean by the strictures of the law that pronounce menstruating women to be untouchable. She has told others of what God has done for her, of how she has been reintegrated into society. It’s this proclamation, not that of the disciples that causes people to bring their sick to Jesus.
Jesus cannot be controlled. The miracle stories seem to show us that Jesus very rarely goes the same thing twice. And it’s human nature that when we read these stories we want to control Jesus’ miracles. But that’s only a step away from the faith that tells us that if you sick and getting sicker, it’s our own fault. We must try harder. Try to impress God with the power of our belief and claim our miracles as a reward. Try to control God.
Jesus prayed for a miracle on the night before he died. ‘For you all things are possible’, he prayed to his father. ‘Remove this cup from me.’ Only when he opened his eyes the cup was still there. The miracle was that he drank the cup, believing in the power of God more than he believed in his own. It’s perhaps the greatest miracle when we understand that God is God and we are not.
Like the disciples, we too are faced with the reality that all our ideas of our own self-importance that we indulge, all the ways we try to control God, are not a virtue. 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. Christ teaches and heals and makes himself known in our communities and churches even without us.
So I invite us all to hear the invitation of Jesus: Come away to a deserted place, by yourselves, and rest awhile. Come to a place that is deserted by email and twitter, wifi and 3G, email and voicemail. Put down the iphone. Don’t update the status. Set the away message on your voicemail and email and don’t even think of checking it. Because all these voices preach to us as well but teach us very often nothing. To consciously separate ourselves from these voices may help us to know the love of Jesus, and know how much we need the love of Jesus, whose teaching is always tied up in healing, for ourselves and for the world.
Darcy will be baptised in a minute. She will take her place in the body of Christ. She will be marked with oil as a sign of God’s great love and delight in her to start her journey of faith. Her parents and godparents will make promises for her. This sign, this sacrament is not dependent on her, her parents or godparents. It is a sign of God.
I’m reminded by the words of Francis of Assisi: ‘Preach at the gospel at all times. Use words only when necessary.’ When we know the healing love of God that is bigger and better and infinitely more spacious and compassionate that our own attempts, perhaps then we can know our own place in Christ’ body, and show the love of God which is always great, beyond, above and before us.
This sermon uses materials from:
Brown Taylor, B. (2015), Bread of Angels, pp139-143