PROPER 11 / 9 Pentecost — 23 July 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45
RCL: Eph 2:11-22 Ps 89:20-37 Mark 6:30-34,53-56
As he 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.
In Scotland, at least in the Olden Days, there was a lot of what we in the American West called “open range”—unfenced moors where unattended, unshepherded flocks of sheep wandered about as they would. For some reason known only to them, it often pleased the sheep to stand in the middle of the road, just on the other side of the crest of a hill. My college roommate and I were touring Britain on motorbikes one summer, typically running some hundreds of yards apart, and whoever was leading would come over the crest of the hill only to find the road full of sheep, screech to a sideways stop, engage the sheep in vigorous and contentious conversation (generally without much success), and finally persuade them to move over to the shoulder of the road, to permit passage. After which the sheep would saunter back into the middle of the road to stare with minimal curiosity at the departing form of this rude Yankee who was so insensitive to local Scottish ovine custom. At which point the other one of us would come over the crest of the hill.
“He saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” And the crowds today are still like that, including ourselves too much of the time. Absolutely clueless. And desperately in need of being taught by Jesus, taught many things.
But notice how the Gospel today begins. The disciples return from the mission that we heard them being sent out on in last Sunday’s gospel, and Jesus says to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Even in the midst of the urgent work of teaching and healing, Jesus takes them away from the press of the crowds to a place where, they hope, they can be alone. Jesus takes very seriously the importance of withdrawing, of going into retreat for a new depth of prayer and reflection and renewal, away from the world’s business, even the world’s genuinely very important business.
If we as the Church are to minister to the world in Christ’s name, if we are to know what and how to teach this wandering and clueless world, then we too have to take seriously the importance of retreat, of detachment, of withdrawal from time to time for refreshment and re-creation. For the sake of our work in the world we must from time to time stop working. For if we are too completely buried in the world’s business, we shall lose all our perspective on it, and end up by having nothing to give to the world.
There are many ways we can detach ourselves and withdraw for a time. Vacations are an obvious and genuine instance, although I’m afraid that most of us do not pay as much heed to making our vacations as refreshing as we could. Too often our “vacations” are even more frantic and tiring than the rest of the year!—we get home and need to take more time off to recover from vacation! Another instance is the classic spiritual retreat. Not the so-called “working retreat” where groups of people in business or in institutions like the University—or the Church—go away somewhere in order to focus on aspects of our work (useful though such meetings may be), but a real retreat, perhaps though not necessarily in a religious community’s guest-house or a retreat center—like our St. Benedict’s Abbey down at Donnellson, or the Roman Catholic Cistercian Abbey up at New Melleray near Dubuque—where the whole purpose is not to get any work done, but simply to pray and read and think in a simple and uncluttered environment of silence for a few days. In a world which is obsessed with work, with achievement, the Church has a vital ministry of proclaiming God’s sabbath, of providing retreat.
Even within the ordinary day there is opportunity for withdrawal, detachment, retreat—within every day. Most of us, I’m afraid, don’t take the opportunity nearly as fully as we could. If we are to be God’s people, doing God’s work, teaching and witnessing to the truth to this silly clueless wandering sheep-like world, then we simply must spend some time being with God, being with Jesus, learning the truth about him, about ourselves, about our world—learning who the truth is. This means taking time out, stopping everything else, and withdrawing, even if only for ten or fifteen minutes at a time.
“But I’ve got so many things to do! The day is so full! I’m too busy!” Yes, most of us are exactly that—too busy. Yet are any of us doing anything comparable in importance to the work Jesus was doing in his ministry? And yet Jesus needed retreat, withdrawal from the world, renewal—he needed a lot of it. Much though we in our pride hate to admit it, the world will not come to a halt and fall apart if we aren’t there every minute to manage it! We must take the time, we must make the time, to go apart with Jesus, away from the daily press of the world—in prayer and meditation, in the study of the Scriptures, in our worship together, yes, even just in play, in art and music and literature, smelling the roses, watching the clouds. If we do not do this, we will have nothing to give to the world, nothing to share with the world, nothing to teach the world. Instead of participating in Jesus’s ministry of being a shepherd, we will just be more aimlessly wandering sheep: not part of the solution, but just more parts of the problem.
But when we do go off with Jesus alone, leaving the world’s business behind, even if only for a little while, and not dragging along all our usual agenda and problems and concerns, then we become free really to listen to Jesus. And we receive the strength and the wisdom we need to be able to return to the world to share in his ministry of healing and reconciliation.
© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead