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SHEEP WITHOUT A SHEPHERD – Mark 6: 30-34 53-56

The Eighth Sunday of Pentecost [Proper 11], July 18/19, 2015
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist

Our Gospel lesson captures that moment when Jesus’ disciples returned from their first missionary journey, a time when they experienced personal success in witnessing to God’s Kingdom. They had preached the Gospel, cast out demons, and healed many people. Everywhere they went they drew large crowds who were eager to hear the Good News that Jesus had come into the world to proclaim.

The twelve disciples had enjoyed an exhilarating, exhausting, experience on their own for the first time. As Jesus listened to their reports he must have been filled with pride and joy in their success, but Mark tells us that Jesus could read fatigue in their faces. So the Lord proposed:
Come away for a while and rest. I know a place close by ~ just across the lake ~ a deserted place, literally a bit of wilderness.

Come away and rest …what beautiful words … These words are forever an invitation to step out of all the busy-ness and activity of life … to slow down, to change gears … in a deserted place … far from the madding crowd.

Come and rest … What a lovely words.
Rest … An oasis from the tyranny of calendars and deadlines.
Rest … A chance to renew, to slow down, to recharge the batteries
Rest … An opportunity to stop doing those things that consume your life and your soul for a while … a time to be a human being, not just a human doing.

July is vacation time for many of us. I know when we had school-aged children it was the only time when we could get away … to the mountains, to the shore, to visit relatives or friends in Europe. July is prime summer time with all the pleasant activities we associate with this season of year … outdoor living, a cook-out on the grill hamburgers and potato salad, sunshine, floating on a raft in the pool, a chance to kick back and relax.

What a beautiful concept … but what a far cry from reality for far too many people. Sadly, many Americans have so filled their lives with work, commitments and obligations that they cannot stop for vacation time.

St. Paul once said to leaders in the Corinthian church that he was determined to get a control of himself lest … after I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected. [I Corinthians 9:27]

Pastors and priests, myself included, talk a lot about self-care, yet many clergy are not very good at it. We encourage the establishment of boundaries, and then we make ourselves available at all times, day and night. I had a pastor in the Lutheran Synod, in which I served as Bishop, who would take a family vacation every summer for four weeks, but he always returned to his parish on Sundays. He could not tolerate the thought of anyone else preaching from his pulpit or celebrating the Eucharist at his altar!

Clearly, pastors and priests are not the only ones who have trouble finding that quiet place. A recent CNN study reported that Americans are taking fewer vacation days than workers took forty years ago. About 40% of the workers polled said they are afraid to take time off because the work piles up. American workers forfeited $52.4 billion in time-off benefits in 2014.

A spokesman for the U.S. Travel Association stated: Americans are work martyrs. They are tied to the office, they leave more and more paid time off unused each year, forfeiting their earned benefits and, in essence, working for free. In the past year American workers took an average of 16 days of vacation. Compare that to the French, who relish their standard five weeks or twenty-five days of annual leave, and they take it.

The British Bible teacher, William Barclay, commenting on our Gospel lesson from Mark, made this statement:
The rhythm of the Christian life is the alternate meeting with God in the secret place and serving people in the market place. [William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, 157]

I am convinced that the essence of the Christian life is this ebb and flow of moving into the presence of God, withdrawing from the busy-ness of life, and then returning to involvement with people, enriched by our spiritual renewal. How can we do God’s work without some time to practice the presence of God in our lives? But prayer and devotion that do not lead to practical action for the good of others are simply self-indulgence.

We need both. We need to withdraw into the presence of God, and then we need to re-engage with the world.
If we totally withdraw into a kind of fortress Christianity, cut off from reality, we will become obscure and irrelevant.
If we are totally swallowed up in the world of labor and business, we will become distracted and irreverent.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Mark speaks of Jesus in this way:
As (Jesus) went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. [Mark 6: 34]

Like sheep without a shepherd? Is that what we are? I think there are many people who are wandering through life more than a little lost. A GPS can help get us out of travel confusion. But what rescues us from life confusion? How can we achieve that blessing Jesus spoke of … a more abundant life?

In our Gospel lesson Jesus invited his disciples to rest … but that does not happen. The crowd with their multiple unmet needs pressed in upon them. Mark tells us that Jesus had compassion on them. He put his plans for rest on hold in order to reach out to the people, healing, curing, feeding, and teaching. Although the story is omitted from our Gospel lesson, this was the context in which Jesus fed the 5,000 in the wilderness, a narrative we will hear read next week. He addressed their deepest needs.

Well, what do we need? I fear that our attention is often so focused on what we want that we do not always think about what we truly need to be happy, fulfilled individuals. Our basic needs are simple … food, shelter, health care, and clothing. But that is never enough. How can we learn to control our wants. This is where the challenge of Jesus becomes real.

We are told that … Jesus had compassion for the crowds, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. I resonate with those words. I see so many people in mindless, godless pursuit of wealth … sheep without a shepherd. I see so many people fused to their I-phones and electronic devices, convinced that their lives will shatter without this connection, and I see sheep without a shepherd.

Come away … into worship, into prayer, into reflection. Gain perspective. And then return to serve … to heal … to be a beacon of hope. I am convinced that if we will do this … we will discover the peace of God that passes all human understanding and this discovery will keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God.

Dear Lord, support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, in your mercy, give us a safe lodging and a holy rest, and peace at the last. AMEN.

Washington Memorial Chapel