When I first read this gospel lesson today, I was pretty excited. This text is the perfect summer gospel lesson. Summer is that time when we slow down a bit, we play a little more, we relax a bit more. The rhythms of life change a bit during the summer, whether we are tied to someone on a school calendar or not. In fact, one of my favorite collects for summer matches this text perfectly. The collect “For Good Use of Leisure,” goes like this, “O God, in the course of this busy life, give us times of refreshment and peace; and grant that we may so use our leisure to rebuild our bodies and renew our minds, that our spirits may be opened to the goodness of your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”[i]
So when Jesus says to the disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” I feel a sense of relief and permission – permission to rest from my labors, perhaps even to use summer as a time to rejuvenate, sleep a little more, not work quite so hard on all those committees and deadlines. When Jesus tells the hard-working disciples to come away and rest, his words become a word of comfort to our weary souls, his words help us envision a Jesus who cares about self-care, and his words even have us dreamily imagining a great desert getaway, perhaps mentally noting to google vacations to Palm Desert after church.
But before we get too excited about the introduction of our story, the rest of the story starts to invade our imaginations. We are told that on the way to that desert getaway, the people hear about the disciples’ getaway and beat them to the other side of the shore and immediately start asking for more healing. After more work for weary souls, we are told Jesus and the disciples try to escape again. But this time, the crowds get even more vigorous – rushing forward to grab their blessings. So much for a weekend of staying in our PJs and binge watching TV. And so much for the supportive boss who promotes self-care. Jesus changes his tune as soon as the crowds show up. No rest for the weary today!
For those of you who have been following along with my blog posts, you know I have been chronicling my experiences at General Convention. Day after day, something dramatic happened. But in the jam-packed nine-day schedule, we were given a sabbath – Sunday morning to go wherever we wanted to church. Sitting in the pews as a priest on a Sunday is glorious and rare gift, and I was particularly excited because I had an old friend that I was going to get to see in their home parish. But a few weeks before General Convention started we got word that a priest was going to organize a trip and prayer vigil at a detention center for women seeking asylum in the United States – and would use our free Sunday for the event. Now since today is Sunday and we are about to confess our sins together, I have to confess something to you that I would not normally tell anyone: my initial reaction to this invitation was resentment. Instead of getting to sleep in, visit church leisurely with a friend, and get some much needed sabbath time before going back into legislation, I was going to need to get up early, miss time with my friend, and stand in 100-degree Texas heat and feel passionate about yet another social justice issue. I knew I should probably be excited for the unique experience, and I should probably be preparing a protest sign, and invite other locals to the event; but all I could think on the inside was, “but you promised we could rest a while!”
What I forgot and what the disciples miss are the details of Jesus’ invitation today. Jesus does not say, “Come away with me to a resort, and get a spa treatment package with the bonus strawberries and champagne.” Jesus says “come to a deserted place.” Palm Desert, with its palm trees, mist sprayers to keep you cool, and sparkling swimming pools, is not what Jesus is talking about here. The desert is where Mark’s gospel starts – with John the Baptist eating locust and wild honey, with hardly any clothing for protection. The desert is where Jesus goes to be tempted by the devil. The desert is not where you go to escape and catch up on lost sleep. The desert is where you go to wrestle your demons and find deeper connection to God.[ii] The desert is a place of self-care: not the resting, rejuvenating kind, not the binge-watching, escapism kind, but the hard, deep, soul-examining kind of work that is about taking care of the self – just without all the amenities.
When Jesus invites the disciples into the wilderness, he is inviting them to renew themselves for ministry – to reconnect with the initial passion hidden within them, the joy that came from first volunteering to be fishers of people, the thrill of personal invitation to make a difference in the world and see a new age dawning. So Jesus says, “Want to get renewed about that Outreach Committee Meeting next week? Go out and have a conversation with a homeless person or swing a hammer on a Habitat house before you go. Want to stop crunching numbers for that big project? Go visit with the family who hasn’t been able to eat a hot meal all summer. Want to put down the newspaper to relieve your compassion fatigue? Go to the local jail and start hearing the stories of addiction, poverty, and prejudice that keep people in those cells.”
The good news about my compassion fatigue at General Convention is the same friend with whom I had hoped to go to church wanted to go with me to the Detention Center instead of church. I was fresh out of excuses to not go. In the blazing Texas sun, with sunblock and extra water bottles, we schlepped her one-year old to the wilderness of Texas. As soon as we spotted the cold, harsh, former prison walls that were now being used as a “residential facility,” I suspected Jesus was smirking with his “I told you so,” face. As songs rose up from the crowd of over 1000 Episcopalians, my heart started aching for the stories I could imagine inside those stone walls. As my friend’s child cooed and chattered, I imagined the women inside who wanted to be with their own babies. As we prayed, I realized my selfish desire for rest would not have been sated with a brunch and a long nap. What my soul needed was right there, in that brown, withered field in the hot summer sun.
I do not know what kind of wilderness place you need today. I do not know where Jesus needs to guide you to help you find the kind of rest your soul needs. I do not know what kind of deserted place you might be dreading today. But I invite you to say yes. I invite you to risk feeling more tired than rejuvenated. I invite you to open yourself to the deep transformation that can only happen in a place of vulnerability. The next time Jesus says to you, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” just go. I promise you will get the kind of rest your soul needs. Amen.
[i] BCP, 825.
[ii] Karoline Lewis, “Letting Go,” July 15, 2018, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5198 on July 18, 2018.