Sermon for 19.07.15 on Mark 6.30-34, 53-end
What a wonderful gospel reading to have on this Sunday in late July. Jesus says to his disciples, Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while. You’ll observe that Mark and Timothy have both taken this gospel message to heart and are on holiday this week, and next Sunday it will be my turn.
At this time of year – indeed at any time of year – I run into far too many people whose lives could easily be described by the next line of the gospel reading: “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” The Faith at Work group has often wrestled with this problem of being too busy with work to live the kind of family or just private life that makes us flourish. It’s not a very original observation, but I believe it is still very true, that in today’s Britain society tends to be divided between those who work far too hard and those who are unable to find the meaningful paid work they would love to do.
A book I read many years ago called Christ, Stress and Glory by Wanda Nash gave me a really helpful perspective about this, and I have been quoting from it ever since in training sessions for lay people, ordinands and curates. Wanda Nash suggests that we should seriously take Jesus as our model for our own ministries.
Jesus did not assume that he would carry out his Father’s calling on his own. He went out of his way to find people to work alongside him. He took time choosing them one at a time. He didn’t choose those with great educational backgrounds or intellectual abilities – instead he found people who could share his vision and who had their feet on the ground of ordinary life.
Doing things always on our own builds up stress. Human beings are made to be in groups. Jesus gathered people who could stay with him – people who would carry on his work later, but for now would be his travelling companions. They proved to a be a pretty unlikely set of colleagues! They were slow to understand him, they made many mistakes, they bickered and competed with each other for favour and attention, but Jesus remained loyal to them all. He drew strength from their company.
Support networks don’t just appear – we have to work at building them up. Here are some of the patterns that Wanda Nash has noticed in they way Jesus built up his team:
He didn’t just choose family members, though he included them, but he looked outside his close circle. He went to the places where people were rather than expecting them to come to find him. He saw latent qualities in surprising people.
He was selective – he didn’t take on everyone who wanted to follow, but chose the people he felt he could form into an effective team. On the other hand, some people whom he invited decided to turn down his invitation – remember the rich young man who couldn’t bear to part with his wealth. Jesus never coerced anyone. Each one had to decide freely whether or not to be his disciple.
Contrary to all the customs of his time, he chose a group of mixed gender. We sometimes forget this, because the group of Twelve were famously all men, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, each headed by one of Jacob’s sons. But at a number of points in the gospels we hear about Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and other women who travelled with his band, not to mention Mary and Martha who were two of his closest friends and most fervent disciples.
Jesus spent time on his own in prayer to his Father, often alone in the desert or up a mountain, but he also opened up his prayer life to others and showed them how to develop their own relationship with God. He gave them instruction in prayer and taught them the short formula we know as the Lord’s Prayer.
He was proactive. He mulled over the experiences of the day with his friends, he asked for their feedback, and he got away from crowds simply to rest with them. We all remember how he was criticized by the Pharisees for being a man who enjoyed good fellowship with food and wine.
Jesus selected priorities for his work. He was single-minded about his mission: love God first, then love your neighbour as yourself. He was always compassionate to strangers in need, as we see in today’s gospel. In caring for others, his first concern was always for the poor, and he prioritized action over words. He conserved his energy, often healing in private or from a distance rather than putting on a show in front of a crowd.
If his message was not welcomed, he moved on. Remember when he sent his disciples out in pairs and told them to shake the dust off their feet if their words were not received? There is no point in arguing with people who don’t want to listen and Jesus didn’t do this. He didn’t waste time but stayed focused on the present task. In all four gospels there are examples of times when he simply slipped away from an unconstructive situation.
He delegated jobs to his friends, even though they weren’t always very good at following instructions or very skillful. He set realistic goals and stuck to them. He wouldn’t be deflected from what he had discerned was his calling.
If Jesus could step back, we certainly can. Remembering that we don’t have to be all things to all people all the time, that we need time to be on our own and be restored, and that we and we alone are responsible for our own tendency to burn-out – these are the things that will keep us sane and healthy in ministry, able to go on loving and bearing fruit.
We need a basket of skills in order to do this. We need skills of the body, recognizing that we are responsible for what we eat, how much we exercise and sleep, and how often we make time to relax or do something that pleases or invigorates us.
We need skills of the mind, the sort of skills that management courses often focus on. These include prioritizing, delegating, setting SMART targets, managing our diaries and understanding the difference between urgent and important.
We need skills of the emotions, such as listening skills, keeping a sense of humour, identifying the internal dialogue that we may need to challenge, being assertive but not aggressive, and remembering the Sabbath principle. We need regular days off when we really do shut off from work and refresh ourselves in other ways, rather than trying to be a 24/7 superhero who is indispensable.
And finally we need skills of the spirit. These include recognizing that eternity is in the present moment and we should inhabit it fully and gratefully. They also include being ready to forgive and be forgiven, over and over again, and to accept that God loves me not for what I do but simply because God freely chooses to love me.
Of course sometimes we will get it wrong. We’ll become ill from overwork or from worry about not having work, or we’ll fail to do what we should do, or we’ll simply double-book ourselves and cause offence on all sides. We’ll fall prey, again and again, to whatever our besetting sin is. It is helpful to acknowledge what the destructive patterns are in our own lives. We’ll hurt others, the ones we cherish and the ones we try our best to love for Jesus’ sake.
When we get it wrong, as we will, we must avoid what Wanda Nash calls “destructive rumination”, going over and over in our minds the mess we have made. Instead we just offer our mistakes to God, along with all the other things we can’t fix. We are not indispensable or infallible: only God is. Like the people of Gennesaret, may we recognize at once that Jesus is the one whose touch can bring us healing and whose model of living can bring us into a deep relationship with God.