Sermon, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (July 22, 2018)

In the 1960 movie classic, La Dolce Vita, movie director Frederico Fellini introduced the world to a particular character in his story, a photographer, whose name is closely linked to the Italian word for a most annoying sound, familiar to all of us: the sound of a buzzing mosquito, circling around one’s head, or paparazzo. In a later interview, Fellini described how this buzzing insect “hovering, darting, stinging” (Time, April 14, 1961) and its characteristic paparazzo sound seemed to him a fitting name for this person. Soon, the name came to describe a particular phenomenon of the modern media world. In a society with insatiable thirst for celebrity gossip, paparazzi came to signify free-lance photographers who follow celebrities around, often blurring and crossing the lines of privacy, decency, and even safety, perhaps most powerfully illustrated by the death of Diana, princess of Wales, in a high-speed chase with paparazzi pursuing her.

The gospel reading this week reminded me of the delicate dance that exists between the growing celebrity of Jesus, and the demands of the crowds that pursue him. The text, as we read it, outlines the traveling motions of Jesus and his disciples. First, we meet Jesus who welcomes back the disciples from their first efforts of ministry on their own. Remember, two weeks ago we read how Jesus sent them out, two by two, without money or resources, but just a staff for the journey. Their trip has been successful and now they are all reunited again. On the banks of the Sea of Galilee, the Lake of Gennesaret, Jesus invites them all to retreat to a place of prayer, where they can, to use a contemporary word, decompress and recharge. They cross the lake, because things are always better on the other side. Rather than finding quiet and solitude, they are faced by a crowd, who press their pleas for healing and teaching, and Jesus took compassion on them. Next, in a renewed search for a place of retreat, Jesus and the disciples cross the lake again. In almost cartoonish clarity, one can see how the crowd hurriedly travels in a dust cloud along the shore line as Jesus crosses the lake by boat, just to greet him again as he lands on the other side of the lake. There will be no peace and quiet for Jesus today.

In this story I recognize the hurried, haggard life many of us lead, constantly on the move, running, perpetually a few minutes late, from one appointment to the next, from one commitment to another errand. The gospel according to Mark, the shortest of the four gospels, breaths an air of urgency and immediacy. Like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, the gospel seems to proclaim there is no time to waste, for Jesus, for the crowd, and for us. As Mark weaves in front of us a picture of the Good News, he repeats the word ‘immediately’ forty times in the gospel! Immediately, Jesus made his disciples get in the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake, he writes. (Mark 6: 45) Mark knows that Jesus’ time will run out soon, and that the powers of this world will destroy and devour him, long before he can complete his healing and teaching work. And, as I preached a few weeks ago, Mark also knows that those of us in need of healing, and who isn’t in need of healing, do not have the luxury of waiting around patiently for healing to come, but pursue that restoration urgently, with immediacy. And so, we rush along, and bemoan with the famous rabbit: “the hurrier I go, the behinder I get.” (Alice in Wonderland). 

Yet, Jesus interrupts this narrative and says: “Come with me to a quiet place and get some rest.” (Mark 6:31) How refreshing! Come with me to a quiet place and get some rest. Yes, the crowd that pursues Jesus is healed of their disease, illness, wounds, and discomforts, but I wonder if we are missing the real medicine Jesus offers here today. Beyond miraculous healing, Jesus invites us to come with him to a quiet place and get some rest. I could use some. What’s keeping you on the run?

In Christian spirituality, the idea of keeping rest is often described as maintaining Sabbath, following the example and commandment of God at creation, to keep a day of rest, following a week of work. Ministers are notoriously bad at keeping Sabbath, since we work on weekends, so, I would say, don’t necessarily follow my example. That said, here are some of the things I have learned about keeping rest. 

First, we often treat rest as a goal, as a destination. I’ll rest when I get vacation; I’ll slow down when I retire. Famous last words; and have you ever come back from a vacation, feeling like you need a vacation? Jesus says: “Come with me to a quiet place, and rest.” When the disciples get to their destination, they find neither quiet nor rest, but instead are overwhelmed by the crowd, coming and going, so they could not even eat. Perhaps they were to find their rest and solitude on the boat? Perhaps their quiet place is not a destination, but something to be found along their journey? In transit, so to speak.

Second, rest and quiet comes in many shapes and forms. Of course, we should think about private prayer and meditation, but also about the restoration that happens when we take a pet for a walk, join friends for a good meal, go fish on a stream, or sit down with a cup of coffee and a good book. All these things are good and enjoyable, but they can become chores or stressful obligations too. For these things to work as healing, restorative practices, we have to be intentional about our own attitudes toward them. 

It is not uncommon, for instance in private prayer and centering meditation, that your mind begins to wonder, to race, obsessed with all the things that are going on your life – and especially about the things you could be doing instead. This does not mean you are bad at prayer; it just means you are human. As you become aware of these distracting thoughts, let them go and return to a place of quiet within yourself. I promise you, those thoughts will be there still after your prayer or meditation; hopefully you will feel better prepared, rested, to face them. I invite you, and encourage you, to find a few minutes each day to simply practice quieting your mind, and breath in the rest Christ offers us. 

Third, a place for quiet and rest can be found in our weekly worship. Freed from the many demands and worries daily life forces upon us, we gather deliberately, intentionally, for one hour, to share with one another our hopes and dreams, our fears and worries; we study and deepen our faith; we share prayers, fellowship, and holy communion… and we find reprieve, respite, rest. 
God invites us to come to a place of quiet and find some rest, so we may go back out into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, to love and to serve God.