The words of our Gospel this morning were a great comfort to me when I turned my attention to preparing for this sermon today – “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while”.
It’s been some weeks since I’ve managed to preach and I must admit that the prospect of having to compose some coherent reflections on the scriptures felt rather daunting after days of back to back Zoom calls.
It’s been a period in recent weeks of much coming and going, metaphorically speaking that is, in my public health work as you might imagine. No leisure even to eat, which has caused much consternation. Those words then were a welcome consolation and refocused my attention- “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while”.
That withdrawal to lonely place to rest a while is essential to us all. Without it, we lose our bearings, we become like sheep without a shepherd.
In our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures we heard “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!”. Mark’s gospel provides an implicit critique of Israel’s false leaders, clearly failing in their shepherding duties. Jesus though “had compassion, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things”. The people hunger for the word of God and in feeding them Jesus shows himself to be a shepherd after God’s own heart, feeding God’s people with knowledge and understanding, as Jeremiah put it.
As I sat down to write to this sermon then I was aware of having lost my way a little and the need to rest awhile resonated very strongly although recognising that for Jesus and the disciples they were not just withdrawing from a period of busyness but were also still absorbing the news of the beheading of John the Baptist which preceded the passage we heard today.
The scriptures are a constant source of consolation, refreshment and renewal and the daily offices are visits to that well of living water. As our school terms draw to a close and the summer holidays beckon, for many we are about to enter the period of annual withdrawal, although with the uncertainties and complexities of foreign travel an additional stress this year.
My wife Sandra and I have already managed some time away having spent some time on a boat ourselves, in our case pottering up the Thames from Reading to Oxford and back again and then walking a stretch of the Old Way, a recently recovered pilgrimage route, from Lewes to Canterbury.
When we are on holiday, particularly after difficult times, it’s very easy to imagine that to be the fullness of life that God intends for those who love him. If only we were permanently on holiday. I must admit I’m inclined to that kind of reasoning myself, most often having to dragged screaming and kicking back to normal life.
We see in our Gospel reading that Jesus and his disciples soon returned to marketplaces and many besought him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment; and as many as touched it were made well. I face the end of holidays with some resentment of the tasks to which I must return.
The words of the hymn call me to have courage though:
Father, hear the prayer we offer:
Not for ease that prayer shall be,
But for strength that we may ever
Live our lives courageously.
Not forever in green pastures
Do we ask our way to be;
But the steep and rugged pathway
May we tread rejoicingly.
Not forever by still waters
Would we idly rest and stay;
But would smite the living fountains
From the rocks along our way.
Be our strength in hours of weakness,
In our wanderings be our guide;
Through endeavour, failure, danger,
Father, be thou at our side.
I very much hope that this summer will be a season of refreshment after the strains of the pandemic and the isolation that it has imposed on so many. If like me, you face those holidays with some discomfort over your willingness to turn your back on those in need, the words of the late Franciscan Brother Ramon might be welcome:
Don’t be discouraged if you feel that your experience of retreat cannot attain to such high motives as the ‘love of God alone’. Loving service, renewal, refreshment and growth in discipleship may be humbler motives, but it is not up to us to define motivation too clearly. The first shall be last and last shall be first, and those who think their feet to be planted on the high road of holiness may be deluded. And those who feel that they are on the lowly path of humble service may truly be just beneath the summit of the mount.
I find those to be very beautiful words of acceptance, and ones that carry some of the wisdom of the religious life where for example, the day does not allow the flexibility to stay on at work because of a deadline. The things we are most likely to drop — prayer, silence, and stillness — are given particular attention and prioritised instead.
The Rule of St Benedict instructs- On hearing the signal for an hour of the divine Office, the monk is to set aside what he has in hand, and go with utmost speed, yet with gravity and without giving occasion to frivolity. Indeed, nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God.
When the day and the night are lived this way, it becomes clear that most of our hurrying is unnecessary.
I hope you are all able to enjoy some kind of holiday this summer and that you find the consolation and refreshment to be found in God’s word.
Jesus said “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while”.