In the 1983 children’s book, Round Trip, the author, Ann Jonas casts a fairly simple story. It’s a story of a family taking a road trip to the city. The pages are simple – black and white illustrations with one line sentences in the top corner. By the time you reach the end of the book, the sun has set, the day is done, and it’s time for the family to return home; to read about the return trip, the book is flipped upside down and read backwards. The simple black and white illustrations now appear to be something entirely different; the pages that once showed a movie theater beaming a hopeful story to crowds of people in the city, when turned upside down, shows a roadside diner that provides the perfect place to stop and rest. What perspective you take, this simple book teaches, determines what you see.
Our gospel passage today is not unlike this. Jesus invites the apostles to follow him to a deserted place to rest for a while, taking a break from the hard work of spreading the good news. After the apostles had gone away, news of their place of rest broke out and people from all the towns traveled by foot to see Jesus and his apostles. As Jesus saw the great crowd, he had compassion for them, because they were lost and didn’t have direction, like a sheep without a shepherd. And then the lectionary skips a couple of famous miracles one of which we will hear about next week, and it picks up after Jesus has fed 5,000 and has walked on the water a little bit, and as soon as Jesus gets out of the boat, people from all over began to seek him out, especially if they were sick so that they might be healed. And because our lectionary has this pieced-together nature today, it’s important to pay attention to what perspective one takes to truly know what one sees in this passage from the gospel according to Mark.
Like any story, there’s probably someone that you identify with most in this passage. Who do you easily identify with in this passage; is there a group of characters toward which you naturally gravitate? Perhaps you can resonate with the apostles, who have been so busy that they had “no leisure even to eat” and you hear Jesus’ words to come and “rest a while” as balm to the soul. Or perhaps you more identify with the crowds that seek out the apostles and Jesus; perhaps you feel a little bit like a sheep without a shepherd and are in need of some safety, guidance, and a bit of hope.
The apostles have been working so hard; just a few verses earlier in this same chapter in Mark’s gospel, Jesus had sent the apostles out into the world. They return and report back all that they had done; it has been good and noble work, but it has been exhausting work. Jesus knows that they need rest to be able to continue doing this good work because being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a lot of things, but it is definitely a life of work. We work to bring about the kingdom of God, we work to relay God’s love to all that we meet, and we work to bring the good news of God in Jesus Christ to the world, and it’s easy to get fatigued. We have to incorporate rest into our way of life.
At General Convention a few weeks ago, our Presiding Bishop preached the opening sermon and in it, he lays out seven things that can help us follow a rhythm of life, The Way of Love: turn, learn, pray, worship, bless, go, and rest. As we rest, we “receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration.” The apostles needed rest; perhaps they were at risk of compassion fatigue, where their compassion just couldn’t go any further, perhaps not just their bodies were tired, but also their hearts and souls. And while compassion fatigue might certainly be a risk for us today, I wonder if we might be more at risk of outrage fatigue.
Nearly every day, upon waking there is a constant flow of information from news sources or social media, and it seems that the question that I carry each day is “what are we supposed to be upset about today?” And from what I’ve seen the weight of this question has very little to do with the positions one holds or the direction of the outrage; it is exhausting.
We need rest; we need rest like the apostles needed rest. We need to take a rest from the constant outrage that is so prevalent in our society, but this rest is not and cannot be a rest of privilege; it cannot be a rest of turning off the news if it doesn’t directly affect us or those we love. The rest that we seek cannot be at the cost of other people’s created and loved nature. We need rest, not just taking a break from all of the heartbreak in the world, but we need to rest in the deep, overwhelming hope found in the resurrection. It is not a rest that is easy to come by, but the rest that Jesus extends to the apostles, that Jesus extends to us, is to receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration. Perhaps this is what you see and hear in our gospel passage because this is word you need today.
But while the apostles are resting in God’s grace, the crowds are wandering around; the crowds have come because they don’t know where else to go and know that Christ offers something that meets their needs. Jesus, seeing the crowds has compassion on them because they are like sheep without a shepherd. And maybe this phrase falls too dull on our ears to remember that sheep fear everything that is unknown to them, and they need protection. Or perhaps it’s easy to forget that the shepherd can only lead the sheep by building trust and establishing a relationship. When we hear Jesus refer to the crowds as sheep without a shepherd, perhaps it’s easy to forget that they were not a metaphorical prop to help us understand Jesus’ role, but real, live people who were hurting, hungry, and in need of care. When we remember that, it is easy to see ourselves in the crowd.
It’s easy to see ourselves, or others, as in need of a shepherd. It’s easy to see that so, so many of us are in need of someone we trust to help guide us along the way. So many of us are in need of a bit of protection from all that there is to be outraged about; we need someone to speak hope into our lives. Those of us who see ourselves in the crowd need someone to help us remember that in the kingdom of God, there is no injustice or oppression, only healing and hope.
So, the question we might be left with from today’s gospel is are we the apostles in need of rest or the crowds in need of hope? The answer, of course, is that we are both. God is found in taking the much need rest in the resurrection hope when exhausted by the work we have been given to do and in times of desperation, in times where the desire for healing and the need of hunger become our driving forces; one is rarely solely in need of rest or hope, most of us are some combination. So where do you need rest; where do you need hope? Where you need rest, take rest; rest in the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration; remember that we do not do this work alone, and we cannot do it if we are exhausted. Where you need hope, find and cultivate hope; hope in the resurrection life, even if you have to seek it out; hope that is easy cannot sustain us, but the resurrection hope can guide us when we are lost. And in your rest and in your hope, pray; pray to build a relationship with Christ so that Christ can be your shepherd. Pray that you and all those who share in this Christian life and work may be able to truly rest in God’s grace and pray that all those who are in need of God’s hope and healing may come to know it, like sheep with their shepherd.