s128g97 Somerton Park Pentecost 9 Sunday 16
"He said to the disciples, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat." Mark 6:31
I was not in fact intending to prepare a fresh sermon for today, but rather use a past one updated. However since I am preparing to take the retreat for the Staff and Students of St Barnabas College this week, and since this text is the classic raison d'etre of retreats anyway, it is appropriate to share with you some of the things I will be saying to the retreatants.
Retreats have often been seen as religious exercises where the object of the exercise is to become more spiritual, more holy or at least different from what we are. And so we do things which are other worldly, we withdraw from our normal existence, we keep silence, spend lots of time in Church listening to a priest give long dissertations on the Christian life, and go to Confession.
In reality (and I wish I had been told these things a long time ago myself), while some of these things are true, we do these things to find out more about ourselves without the distractions of other people. Our focus is not on God, or the community (be that family or college) but squarely on ourselves as individuals.
Actually my opening text for the retreat will not be the one from Mark above, because it may seem from this that Retreats are a break from working. My text is: "As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, 'Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians'? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness." But Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still." - words from Exodus 14:10-14.
So much of our ministry focusses on what we are supposed to do for God, for the kingdom, for the eradication of injustice, poverty and ignorance. I would not wish to criticise this, but to say that God has a part to play, and the defining events of the Jewish and Christian faiths - the Exodus and the Cross and Resurrection - were first and foremost God's actions.
The College has asked me to speak about being refreshed in ministry, and we are refreshed in ministry when we see God at work. We are refreshed when we realise it is not all up to us. We are refreshed when we cease to try to do what God wants to do. We are refreshed when we stop having a faith which puts expectations on ourselves and others and let God bring ourselves and others closer.
It is no accident that the gospel reading tells us that crowds followed Jesus and the disciples to that deserted place, and the time of refreshment perhaps didn't eventuate. People will flock to God if we will only let them. The world is a no different place now from then. People will flock to one who will offer unconditional acceptance, the opportunity to rest and be themselves rather than a programme to support, a spiritual challenge to conquer, a moral or political programme to impose on others, but rather healing.
We are told that Jesus "had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things." Mark 6:34. There is no other that offers unconditional acceptance, rest, and healing, and if the Church is not perceived as doing this, then it is little wonder that the same crowds are not seen flocking to her.
Indeed it is interesting that it is said that Jesus taught them many things. I indeed have been given the job of teaching many things this week. Five one hour meditations, during which I suspect I could speak the whole of St Mark's gospel from "woe to go" several times over. In preparing the talks I have wondered how remarkable the ancient authors, whoever they were, were. To have collated even the shortest gospel, St Mark, without the aid of computers, even without the decent paper, glue and scissors we enjoy, and come out with the product they did, is a miracle in itself.
I am drawing from a similar diversity of sources. Admittedly I am doing this along with my parish work, but I will not have a complete text typed up, but rather quoting from those sources which I have photocopied and referenced in the text along the way.
The other interesting curiosity is that St Mark tells us little or nothing of what Jesus actually taught the crowds. It is left to Matthew and Luke to give us more details in the words of the "Sermon on the Mount" or the "Sermon on the Plain", but even these are quite short. Matthew recollection of Jesus' teaching on the mount is contained in chapters 5, 6 and 7 - which Luke covers in just half of Chapter 6.
John's recollection of the teaching of Jesus centres on the night of the last supper, chapters 13-17.
The reality is we might just have five hours worth of teaching from the lips of Jesus in total!
I guess we too, like those crowds of old come to Church, to find unconditional acceptance, rest and healing, in a world singularly bereft of such things. If we look to these things that have attracted us to visit and remain in this place, then we have a clear direction in terms of our attitudes to others which will help or hinder them in finding in this place the same things God has given to us here ourselves.
I will be sharing with the retreatants this week some of the expectations I have put on myself over the years, quite unrealistic expectations, which God has slowly and gently allowed me to drop. God has accepted me for who I am and therefore I do the same to others when I share with someone else my faith as well as the areas where my faith is week. God has given me rest from living up to my own unrealistic expectations I have put on myself, so I give others rests when I don't put expectations on others, even if they can be justified in the words of the Bible, and God has given me healing.
For if in our frantic busyness, we so distract others from the the unconditional acceptance, rest and healing of God, what have we done. We are certain to be burned out, and we will be offering others nothing different. We will cease to be the Church of God, and God will indeed find other avenues to bring these things to those for whom Jesus died. God will not let us get in the way of the kingdom of love. God has been active from the beginning of creation, bringing the knowledge of unconditional acceptance, rest and healing to people, through the Church sometimes and despite the Church at others. It is God's work, and God will prevail.
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