The Rev. Bailey Pickens
Psalm 23 and Mark 6:30-56
I’m tired and a little jet lagged this morning because I just got home from Minnesota—I was working at a summer camp, one that’s been very close to my heart for fifteen years now, and I flew home late yesterday afternoon. The very sharp among you might be wondering why on earth I would work at a summer camp the week before I am supposed to preach, and the answer is because it provided me with a good sermon illustrations. Which is the real reason a pastor does anything, actually, for the sermon illustrations.
Really truly, though, I love the place more than I am really able to say. There’s a sensation available to you as a camp counselor—I will not say that everyone who does that job has it, but it is certainly there for the having—when, for instance, you’re watching the kids in your cabin hastily grabbing their things to run to the showers, or when you’ve set them about some activity or another and they all lean towards each other to figure out how best to do it, or when they’re sitting around a campfire and nobody is paying even a lick of attention to the counselor trying to teach them a new song—the overwhelming sensation that all of them, even the teenagers, are so small, actually. They are so small. And you are so big and you need to put them all into the softest nest and set on them, like a hen. A strange sensation for me to have, for one, because all of them are taller than I am by some margin.
Obviously it’s not about size, right—it’s not even about the kids’ relative competence or strength, though I want to hover next to them to make sure nothing hurts them (impossible at summer camp, as it is in the rest of real life). It is about a sudden awareness of their preciousness and the real claim that that preciousness has on me and on my relationship with them. It is a ground shift, seismic, totally apart from my own conscious thoughts of doing my job; I am not reflecting on how much I like these fine young people, but rather am suddenly dazzled by a glimpse of their total value. I imagine that something like this feeling is a constant companion during parenthood. A close cousin of it is part of falling in love. In moments of transcendence, we may feel it even for strangers.
Preciousness is woven into us. At the very beginning of everything, when God spoke and then the world existed, God called each made thing “good.” There is no obvious need for this, no debate about the worth of the brand-new world, no one to prove anything to; it is a statement, from the mouth of Truth, about the truth of us and of the world we inhabit. In a real way it is true because God has said it. The love of God for us, for water and trees and rocks and sky and little scampering animals and crawly things and great beasts and birds and human beings, is an absolute; God loved us before we existed at all and we come into being in that love.
—These are big claims, though I am not the first to make them, and they are made up of pieces of the whole of scipture, but I think, really, that if you read the gospels slowly enough, as though there might be something new even in this book you have read in snippets at least five hundred times, you can see it.
For instance: We just heard how Jesus and his disciples, worn out from their work, went by boat to somewhere away, and instead of being met by quiet space and openness were met by a crowd of people, because someone had recognized them and when word got out the villages emptied, and I guess someone knew a shortcut. Jesus got out of the boat and looked at them and he saw need, and he filled it. Mark says the people “were like sheep without a shepherd,” and it filled Jesus with compassion, and he began to teach them. Then, when evening came, the disciples wanted to send the people off to fend for themselves for dinner, and instead Jesus miraculously provides for them again, in multiplying the loaves and fishes.
What a lovely story, we might think, about how Jesus cared for these simple people, who didn’t have any idea what to do. “Sheep without a shepherd” sounds like a gentle way to call them all kind of dumb.
By the end of this story, we know that there are five thousand men there, in addition to women and children. Thousands of people. Maybe as many as lived in the town where I grew up: a whole small city, waiting expectantly. It is just not possible for them to be beknighted peasants all, simple and unable to care for themselves. There must have been heads of families. There must have been heads of villages. There must have been brilliant minds, creative ones, pragmatic ones, kind ones, frightened ones. And all of them were people who had made a way for themselves in difficult circumstances. They were capable people.
The need Jesus filled for them, the shepherding he provided, was not some kind of remediation for extra-needy people; his compassion for them was not pity with a spoonful of condescension. It was love, the profound love of God for God’s own people, the outpouring of love that comes precisely because human beings, as we are, are so precious to the God who made us because God made us. The instant response of Christ, in whom dwelt the fullness of the Godhead bodily, as Paul puts it, Christ in whom we may see the living God, the response of Christ to a sea of human beings disrupting his plans is to reach out to them with care for their spirits and their bodies both. The next day in the next place, the same thing: teaching and healing, teaching and healing, providing what is lacking and joining what is broken for those who are precious in the sight of God.
We live in a time and a place in which Christ’s way of being, both his example and his commands to us, is absolutely nonsensical. This is obvious in big, almost comically symbolic ways: the threat of a literal wall to prevent those with needs from filling them anywhere near some imagined “us,” human beings in cages and cells for weeks or months or years, death in the street at the hands of protectors of the state, leaders who trade on spite and caprice and smirking hypocrisy. These evils are easy to identify, and of course we must set ourselves against them. But it is easy to forget, in being against what is Obviously Evil, why, exactly, we call it that, or for “being against this bad thing” to become the whole of our position. But it is not. Our position, non-negotiably, is love. Christians are batting for Team Love. Not love as humans tend to do it, where it means something like approval, or liking, or desiring, or finding agreeable or decent, but Love as God does it, creating, providing, caring, in response not to the merits of the beloved but according to their worth, their intrinsic and overwhelming preciousness. Our time and place tends to measure people and things by what they can produce and what they are able to overcome—by how they demonstrate that they do not need. We desire strength, independence, self-sufficiency, avoidance of complaint, work ethic. And certainly these things may sometimes be good, but they are not part of God’s calculus—because there isn’t a calculus.
It is not possible not to need. Just as sheep are not somehow to be faulted for needing a shepherd to guide and protect them—it is their nature—humans are not to be faulted for needing food, or medicine, or God. It is not possible not to need; it is our nature, even those of us whose work in the world is for others, even those of us batting for Team Love. The gospel passage we read today begins with Jesus caring for his disciples’ fatigue. Did you notice? “He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place by yourselves and rest awhile.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Just prior to this, Jesus has sent his new disciples out to preach and heal by themselves—to do the work of Team Love. See how hard it is? Small numbers, strange places, physical danger, no time to eat. That is what it looks like. And Jesus knows it. “Come away to a deserted place by yourselves and rest awhile,” he says, because his disciples are just as precious—no more, but no less—than those they have been sent to, because Jesus was sent to all of them. “Rest awhile.”
And then: more work. When his disciples tell him that it’s getting to be late and everyone needs to go find themselves food, Jesus’ response is “You feed them.” With what budget? they cry, pragmatically. And yet somehow there is enough—and the disciples are the ones dividing people up, running around passing out food, and then doing all the cleanup afterward, too. Work. And then he sends them ahead in the boat and they spend all night rowing against a headwind—not that Godly work ever feels like that—and from up on the mountain, Jesus sees and comes to them, walking on water. Mark says Jesus was going to walk by them, until he saw that they were frightened—so he changes his plans, comforts them, and stills the wind. Rest, work, rest, work. “Rest awhile.”
One of the ways we learn from scripture is by reading ourselves into its stories, and one of the great richnesses of scripture is that there are nearly infinite entryways into its stories for us. Who are you, this morning? We in the church, do-gooders, try-harders, followers of Jesus, we who see problems and jump to try to mend them, we who often yet fall short of what perhaps should be obvious to us, are we not like the disciples? And we are, sometimes, yes. But we are also in the crowd milling about aimlessly on the shore, waiting for something we’re not sure what it is, like sheep without a shepherd. We will be cared for, in any case. Every face we see in the world is the face of someone unutterably precious in the sight of God; as are we. If we are called to self-sacrifice for the sake of the world, and we are, we are not then called to somehow forego the love of God for us, the comfort and provision held out for us in God’s hands. The crowds did not demure when offered bread and fish. The disciples do not refuse Christ entry into the boat with them or deny the gift of a calmed wind on their way to more crowds on the other side of the lake. You who are called to service will be given all that is needful. There is so much work to do. Rest awhile.