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July 23, 2012

“Oasis” Mark 6:30-56 Ordinary 16B © 7.22.12 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Have you ever been asked and agreed to do something for which you felt utterly unprepared? Remember that experience and your feelings for a moment. Were you scared that you would mess it up? Excited at a new challenge? Flattered that someone had enough confidence in you to ask? When you were done–assuming the job had a finish, rather than being ongoing–when you were through, how did that feel? Were you satisfied? Amazed that things went as well as they did?

I suspect that whatever the tasks and whatever the feelings we could recount, there’s something we all would have in common: physical and mental fatigue, especially if the job was a big one and had a deadline that came quickly. And I would venture that we even have felt depressed, something akin to post-partum depression, a sense of emptiness after hours and days full of activity and affirmation. What to do? Probably several things, but certainly at least one: take a break.

So it was for the disciples. After spending time traipsing around the countryside with Jesus as he taught and healed, they were commissioned by our Lord to go out on their own and do the same things he had been doing. Only this time he wouldn’t be coming along. And that wasn’t the only scary part of the enterprise. For one, they were to take nothing with them but a walking staff. Imagine! No money. No bread. Not even a change of underwear. Rather the teams of two were supposed to depend, like Blanche Dubois, on the kindness of strangers, the hospitality offered in the villages they visited. For another frightening aspect of their assignment, they were to proclaim a message of repentance. OK, but what exactly were they supposed to say beyond “Repent, for the kingdom has come near” or “repent and believe”? And what if somebody asked difficult questions? Suppose they were met with hostility and scorn?

As it turned out, the disciples enjoyed great success on their mission. They came back filled with excitement and reported to Jesus everything that had happened, what they said, every detail. When Peter and James and John and all the rest had finished, Jesus looked into their tired eyes and said, in essence, “you need a vacation.”

Our Lord realized from his own experience that unless his disciples got some rest they wouldn’t be much good to him or anybody else. Their retreat was in fact a gift to the demon-possessed, the sick, the despairing. The greater the demands on our energy and time; the more complicated and important our relationships and tasks; the more involved we are in the life of family, school, church, and community, the more we need respite. To keep on going and going like the Energizer Bunny with no thought for our own spiritual, physical, and emotional wellbeing may seem to be the right thing to do given the needs of those we must serve. It might appear appropriate since no one else has exactly the skill set and effective approach we do. Keeping on keeping on may be the expected role we have in our families or communities. But let’s face facts: when we’re wrung out and stressed, exhausted, overburdened, what happens? Judgment becomes clouded. Reaction time is off. Ideas get stale. We can’t concentrate. We fly off the handle at the least little provocation. The anger and resentment build. And when such emotions are turned inward, we call that “depression.”

Best-laid plans go awry, though, and that’s what happened with Jesus and the Twelve. It was hard for them to be inconspicuous, even without paparazzi and cameras following them as would happen today. Too many recognized them and told their friends who told others and soon there was a big crowd following them out to their deserted place. There was a vacation in the future for our Lord and his men, but not today. Like it or not, the immediate need trumped the imperative for rest. Here was an aimless mass of humanity longing to be guided, hungry for sustenance of soul. Later on, as the day wore on, they would need food for their bodies as well.

We know the story well. Jesus takes charge after the disciples can’t get it together. Five loaves and two fish turn into satisfying dinners for five thousand, with twelve baskets of fragments left. It’s a familiar and beloved tale, and I’m going to come back to it in a minute. For now, though, notice what happened after the miracle meal.

Did you catch it? “Immediately, he made his disciples get into the boat….” That’s actually a little weak. Forced them is more accurate. Mark pictures Jesus practically picking each man up by the collar of his tunic and throwing him into the boat, dragging him kicking and screaming away from the clean-up and the chatting and the basking in the glow of a miracle. It’s as if Jesus is saying “Doggone it! You deserve a vacation and you’re going to have one! I’ll take care of everything. Get out of here and get some rest! I mean it!”

Hmmm. Forced to take time off. Compelled to sit down and take a load off. Urged to get away. Unheard of, right? Why would anyone have to be made to rest? Let’s see. A need to be needed so great that life is meaningless unless we’re doing something for somebody else. A longing for affirmation and praise for a job well-done. A desire to control a situation that we cover up with a fantasy about our indispensability. The inability to say “no,” a failing brought on by our addiction to doing or our guilt that tries to act now to make up for some past neglect. Or maybe our doing doesn’t arise from caring at all; it’s part of a strategy to maintain a public image and beef up our resume.

All these are possible and real. But Mark points to something else. He tells us that the disciples “did not understand about the loaves.” Huh? Why talk about bread after Jesus has walked on water, calmed raging seas, and saved frightened disciples? We might expect the author to make some comments about power over nature, but not about multiplying loaves.

The gospel writer’s point, though, is that calming wind and providing a meal for 5000 are both miracles cut from the same cloth. They both show God’s power and provision for his people. In the back of Mark’s mind is the image of God as Good Shepherd, a role that Jesus claims. Throughout the tale, Mark recalls Psalm 23. “He makes me lie down in green pastures” becomes “He ordered them to tell all the people to sit down on the green grass.” Imagine! Green grass in a desert! Sounds like an oasis, doesn’t it? “He leads me beside still waters” happens in the calming of the wind and waves. A table prepared with abundant provision is now set up in the wilderness for thousands. “I will fear no evil” even in the “darkest valley” claimed the psalmist. Now Jesus calms the fears of his disciples in the dark of night. He even takes for himself the name of God in the Old Testament. It’s used in Psalm 23 and everywhere. You know it: “Yahweh,” which means, among other things “I am who I am.” “Take heart; it is I,” the NRSV says. But the Greek literally has “Take courage; I am.”

God made known in Christ is the One who can and does fulfill from his bounty all our need for sustenance of any sort. His power is so great that five loaves and two fish can become a banquet or a fierce wind can be stilled or the brush of the hem of his garment can heal. This is what the disciples didn’t get. That’s why they had to be forced to go rest. Somehow or other, deep inside or with some consciousness, they had begun to believe that God couldn’t do without them. If they didn’t do the work of God, who would? There were sick to be healed and the good news to be preached. Gotta go. Gotta do. Gotta run. Emails to send and return. Phone calls to make. Prayers to say. Sermons to write. People to call on. Projects to finish. People waiting. People clamoring for attention. If I don’t do it, it won’t get done!

Somebody has called that way of thinking “practical atheism.” That means acting as if God did not exist even as we profess great faith. The ability to rest, to let go, is evidence of our security in God’s provision for our needs. God’s supply is enough. What God does and chooses to do is enough. The disciples wanted to say it’s not enough, what we’ve done, what we can do. But Jesus insists, commands even: “Enough.” Rest now. Let God be God.

Walter Brueggemann has written about the Sabbath commandment. “Rest belongs to the shape of the faithful life,” he observes. “To take such a rest is to participate in God’s own rest at the end of God’s work of creation. The possibility of Sabbath rest means that the world is not marked by frenzy, precariousness, threat or restlessness. God’s sovereignty is so sure that even God can ease off daily management of creation and the world will not fall apart. The world has a life of its own with some sustaining power that God has assigned to it…. Sabbath means desisting from the frantic pursuit of securing the world on our own terms.” Coy Franklin, who some of you may remember was pastor in Tupelo back in the day, had something similar to say: “The Sabbath was given as a reminder that life does not depend on our striving but upon our receiving life as God’s gift…. Sabbath rest provides some balance by reminding us that there is more to life than we earn or win” (“The Extraordinary Gift,” Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 1991: 9).

Yes, there are times when the situation demands that we keep going, do what needs to be done, think about rest later. There’s an emergency or at least the task is urgent. People are depending on us to help fulfill a great need. That’s not the time for taking a break. But if we’re to be effective and faithful workers, caregivers, elders, helpers, ministers, then rest, renewal, respite will be part of our lives. If we don’t choose and name the times, then our bodies and our minds with their stress and strain will name them for us.

Jesus calls us, even commands us to come away and rest. But as Brueggemann reminds us, the commandment “is not simply requirement or regulation, but…an act of dreaming and hoping and envisioning.” Our lives can be different. We don’t have to be this way. That’s the promise of God, the sovereign God, who calls us and invites us to be secure in his care, secure enough to rest. We are invited to imagine what life would be like if we relinquished control, let go, yielded to God. To wonder what could be if we were to trust in the God who himself can let go and rest.


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