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Text: Mark 6: 30 – 34, 53 – 56
You’ll have to excuse me, I’m not at my best,
I’ve been gone for a month, I’ve been drunk since I left,
and these so-called vacations will soon be my death,
I’m so sick from the drink, I need home for a rest.
There, that’s my sermon intro.
I mean, it sort of sets up the theme of the gospel story, which is that the retreat Jesus means to bring his disciples on, a respite from the preaching and travelling and healing they’ve been doing, just becomes more work. So, the theme of a vacation that wasn’t really a vacation sort of sent me to thinking about that song, even though I doubt Jesus and the Disciples were binge drinking, which is what the song’s about.
We pick up the story when the twelve Apostles, whom Jesus had sent out two by two (I wonder who got paired with Judas), return, telling Jesus about all the things they had done. They healed, they cast out demons, they preached, they converted, they baptized, they had rocks thrown at them . . . and they became pretty popular. Of course, with more popularity just comes more work. “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” They can’t get a moment’s peace, alone, even to just sit down for a moment.
So Jesus says, essentially, “Let’s go on a retreat.” They will take a week off, reset, do all the self-care things you’re supposed to do in the helping professions so you aren’t “pouring from an empty cup,” and be able to return rejuvenated and ready to engage in the work of love once more.
“The work of love” . . . put a pin in that phrase. I’ll come back to it.
But instead what happens is that the people find out where they are going, and run ahead, to give them more work to do.
Jesus steps out of the boat onto the spot he had picked out, expecting to see nothing and instead sees a great crowd, pushing and shoving to get to the front of the line to be blessed, healed, exorcised, whatever.
He could send them away. He could be indignant that they interrupted his and his disciples’ rest. He could set healthy pastoral boundaries and remind them of office hours and not to contact except in case of emergency.
But instead, he has “compassion for them,” and gets to work.
If you are in any kind of helping profession, actually any kind of profession at all probably, you’ve no doubt been just completely flooded with talk about how to take care of yourself. Take time off, take moments, set healthy boundaries. If you didn’t know, “self-care and spiritual development” is actually written into my job description here, and not just vacation but deliberately part of every week. Your M&P committee makes sure I take care of myself. What I do, Sunday afternoons, is play Dungeons and Dragons.
But . . . I don’t know if you’ve ever gone on vacation and couldn’t relax because you’re stressing about all the work you have to do when you get back. Maybe you’ve gone on vacation and it’s only become a list of chores you haven’t had time to do while you’re working, things that have been piling up in your personal life. Maybe you haven’t been able to go on vacation because you don’t make enough to take time off. And maybe you’ve sat in a bubble bath just completely unable to let yourself relax. Maybe you’ve binged Netflix and it’s only been a way to turn off your brain for awhile and go numb, not relax.
A thing that was going around social media lately was news that Amazon, in some of its warehouses, has installed these booths you can go to “take a few minutes for yourself.” People laughed at this because Amazon’s been criticized for extremely stressful working conditions in its warehouses where people have been penalized for taking washroom breaks and have had medical emergencies on the warehouse floor and no one has even noticed. I’ve seen these booths called “crying booths,” where you go to have a nervous breakdown, but only once per shift.
I, personally, actually find all this emphasis on self-care kind of exhausting. Like taking care of myself was one more thing on the to-do list, and one that would get routinely pushed down by other tasks which were more urgent. In the end, honestly, putting “self-care” on the to-do list just makes the list longer.
And all I’m thinking is, maybe our day to day lives shouldn’t feel like something we have to escape from?
And that’s where Jesus comes back in. What he and his disciples are doing is work, and they need rest, but it’s a very particular kind of work, the kind of work we are all called to no matter what our profession: the work of love. And love shouldn’t feel like work. The very act of loving must be what restores our souls, not drains them.
The gospel uses the word, “compassion,” in the English translation. “Compassion” is a powerful word that we often gloss over, to simply mean “pity” or “care.” But the Latin roots, com meaning “with” and passio meaning “suffering,” point to something much more. “To suffer with.” Jesus “has compassion” for them. And Christ “suffering with” us is at the heart of the gospel story, isn’t it?
The Greek word used is a mouthful, splagchnizomai, from the root splagchnon, meaning “guts, entrails, innards,” but in the same way that we would use the word “heart;” to Greeks the seat of emotion wasn’t in the heart but in the bowels. Jesus feels for these people in the very depths of his body and soul.
The way God loves is unconditionally, completely, and totally self-giving. It seems like the kind of love that would be exhausting. It would be exhausting to constantly have to go after that one sheep that keeps wandering off. It would be exhausting to love a people who keep turning away. Honestly, after a while, why would God even love us? We keep screwing up. We keep abusing each other and ourselves, we keep abusing the earth, we can’t get it right? Aren’t God’s love reserves drained by now?
And maybe you feel that way. Maybe it’s hard for you to love someone, or a particular kind of someone, and you find yourself stretched more and more and loving them just feels exhausting.
But God’s love is not exhausting; it is rejuvenating. It’s us who make loving each other hard.
I’m not saying that you’re loving the wrong way if you feel exhausted in your love for your partner, children, parents, strangers, the world . . . I’m not saying you’re bad at love if you feel drained. I’m saying that the way that we are set up to love—transactional as if paying out of a love account—in a society that wants us to judge all human relationships we have on the basis of “what can you do for me”—is at odds with the way God loves.
Why did God create humanity? Just to love. We were never going to be able to give Him anything, other than someone to love. We were never going to be able to “repay” that love, but that isn’t why She made us. Jesus and the disciples are able to go back to the crowd because “he has compassion for them,” because love is at the heart of what they do. Because the love of God is life-giving, liberating, especially when we share it with others. In loving others is when we can feel the most loved by God.
I’m not saying don’t take moments of rest and rejuvenation if you can find them. But for me, I find doing the work of love—being there for people when they need me—to be so much more life-affirming and refreshing in my soul than a bubble bath. I like vacations, but because they give me the opportunity to do things I wouldn’t have the time for otherwise. But when I feel like I’m doing the work that God calls me to do, when I feel “on a roll,” that’s when I feel most energized and ready to engage with God’s world.
I’ve always been skeptical of the use of the Bible as essentially a self-help book. But there is a thing I think we can learn from this which is to view the work of love and justice as getting closer to God, as restoring in the soul, as much a part of “spiritual development” as meditation or prayer. God sets aside the Sabbath and Jesus heals on the Sabbath, because loving one another is shabbat. It is rest. It is restoring. It is not work, the way we think of work. It is life. Amen.