When we moved our young family to the United States, we couldn’t find a ‘see-saw’ anywhere. When eventually we found a playground with a see-saw, we were told it was called a ‘teeter-totter’. On reflection, the American name is more descriptive than ‘see-saw’: ‘teeter-totter’ describes the way two children play on the equipment.
Each child sits at her end of the long plank and balances up and down. Two ends, a plank, and an elevated pivot are all that it takes to make a see-saw.
Jesus describes a spiritual see-saw at the end of this Sunday’s Gospel reading. There are two ends to the see-saw: one end is ‘Come unto me … and rest’. The other end is ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me’ (Matthew 11:28-30).
These are two poles of Christian life. At one end is the delightful world of prayer, of resting in God, of basking in a relationship with the One who utterly accepts us. At the other end, is the world of ministry, of efforts for the Gospel, of actively caring for others.
Spirituality and pastoral care, being loved by God and loving others. The see-saw reminds us that, though there may be two ends, it is one plank. In the end you cannot separate prayer and ministry.
In the Franciscan tradition, we say we Christians serve God in the Three Ways of ‘Prayer, Study and Work’. These are the three activities into which all Christians are invited. ‘Study’ is like the vertical beam of the see-saw which enables us to pivot between Prayer and Ministry. ‘Study’ is learning from Jesus (Matthew 11:29), considering mindfully both our prayer and our work for the Kingdom.
What we learn is that prayer and ministry cannot be separated. They are the same plank, the same life. Some Christians are tempted to spend ‘sweet hours of prayer’, retreating to the safety of spirituality, and never venturing out to practise on others the love which God lavishes on us.
Some find it easy to ignore the pesky questions about God and prayer and put all their effort into social activism, caring for the refugee, standing up against racism, feeding the hungry – and forget that it is not sustainable. We need also to be fed ourselves, and nurtured and healed.
The wisdom of Jesus is that both are needed: ‘Come unto me…’ and ‘Take my yoke upon you.’ The challenge of the end of this Sunday’s Gospel reading is this: how is your balance on the teeter-totter? Do you move ‘up and down’ between prayer and ministry, or are you stuck at one end or the other? What ‘study’ do you need to help integrate spirituality and ministry?
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to Saint Mark. Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
[Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 NRSV]
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 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. … … …
53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
For the Gospel of the Lord,
Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
In the Name of the Living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning’s reading is like a three-course meal without the main course. The compilers of the lectionary obviously thought it is a good idea occasionally to have prawns au tire-bouchon and tiramisu, and no meat and veg in between!
The missing verses tell the stories of the feeding of five thousand, plus women and children, and Jesus walking on water. Both are important stories showing us a great deal more about who Jesus is. We could spend several sermons on each of those stories.
But today we are directed to the prawns and ice-cream, I think for good reason. The first section, the entrée, describes the busy apostles returning from healing and teaching, and telling Jesus the good news of their achievements. It then describes the crowd, so busy they had ‘no leisure even to eat’.
The apostles try to escape to a desert place by themselves, but the crowd walked faster than the sail-boat and arrived before the apostles.
There’s an expression, ‘compassion fatigue’, which you have probably heard. If you care for people, there’s a cost. If you are constantly caring for people, day in, day out, then you can become exhausted. ‘Compassion fatigue’ does not apply only to social workers. There are people in this congregation who care for an adult child with challenges, whether at home or living independently (the child, that is), and that’s a burden. There are people in this congregation who are at this church every day, meeting the people who come to the Op. Shop, caring about strangers. That’s a burden. There are people on the Manna & Mercy roster every week. That’s a burden.
I’m not complaining, or inviting you to, although sometimes a good whine is a healthy response. What I’m saying is that people care for others, all of us do, and it carries a cost. We get tired. We get burnout. Just like the people in this morning’s gospel, the few apostles and the many in the crowd. And sometimes we get to the point where we believe ourselves indispensable.
Jesus may be having a joke at our expense when he says that crowd were ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. We all feel, as leaders, that we must be there for the sheep. Without us, who knows what would happen? But really?! most of us have been on Australian farms and we know about sheep without a shepherd. They’re fine. They can eat and drink and lie down to sleep on their own. They don’t need a full-time shepherd.
We get busy caring, and that’s good. But we must at least be aware of compassion fatigue.
I get the impression that the apostles were almost desperate in their search for peace and quiet!
The Jewish concept of ‘Sabbath’ can be helpful. We take it for granted that time is divided into weeks of seven days, but, historically, this seems to have been a deliberate innovation of the Jews.
A seven-day rhythm, with six days of work and one day of not working; six days of work and one day of rest.
You and I grew up when there was no Sunday shopping, no movies were shown, there was no football. It may have been easier back then to keep the work-rest rhythm, but even then, you needed the right attitude, the right reasons.
The Old Testament gives two reasons for Sabbath. Exodus says, ‘Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work … For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.’ (Exodus 20:9-11)
In other words, we rest after working because God rested after working.
Deuteronomy gives a different reason. ‘You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.’ (Deuteronomy 5:15)
We are not slaves. We are free to not work. Our freedom is a gift. Therefore we should keep the Sabbath as a way of showing our thanks to God.
To this day, Jews make a big thing out of Sabbath. They begin the holy day with a special meal on Friday night, gathering all their family. The men wear their yarmulke, the kippa, which reminds them that there is a God above. The women light candles, they bless God, they put aside all their work and their cares for 24 hours. If you are grieving for a loved one, mourning is put on hold for that time. Jews don’t work on Sabbath. Some Jews don’t even light fires on Sabbath, so that they don’t cook, they don’t turn on lights, they don’t start their motor car. They live within 100 paces of the synagogue so that the walk doesn’t count as work! But the point is not the detailed regulations, it is the spirit of Sabbath which is so important.
Sabbath is not about self-care. It is that, but it is much more. To take and enjoy the gift of Sabbath is to honour God.
My challenge for you this morning is to find or review your regular Sabbath practice.
There are excellent retreat places in WA. I would encourage you to stay several nights in the guest house at New Norcia, meet the monks, join in their daily prayers and bask in the atmosphere of prayer and retreat. Koora, out of Southern Cross, is a comfortable place literally in the desert, run by two Anglican clergy. Maybe an annual visit to a place like these, or St John of God Retreat House in Shoalwater could be part of your life.
Or just spend half an hour in the pews here, or in old St Mary’s when you are in Busselton. We take so much care to maintain these buildings, and that’s part of their purpose.
It’s no good going down to the beach and sitting there if all we do is think about the ones we care for, worry about what we need to do next. That’s not Sabbath!
It’s no good finding a place away from home to stay if we end up doing the same housework we do at home. That’s not Sabbath.
I remember my Mum doing all the housework on our farm, on her own, before mod. cons. She washed clothes in a copper and squeezed them through a washboard. She cooked for seven of us on a wood stove. She cleaned without an electric vacuum cleaner. Then every summer, Dad would take us all away on holiday to Busselton or Albany. Mum commented once that on all these holidays, she washed clothes, cleaned house and cooked without a break.
But I also remember Mum religiously dropping everything every Saturday to play sport. For Mum and Dad, tennis, and later bowls, became her Sabbath. She parked us kids somewhere appropriate for our age and made sport her means of being refreshed as carer.
Your Sabbath should be regular, planned, and have an element of ritual. It is important that you put yourself in a different place where you cannot be reached, physically or emotionally, by the ones you care for.
Maybe a regular movie, or reading fiction, can be elements of your Sabbath. Certainly, a holiday like a cruise can be an annual Sabbath where you are physically cut off from the ones you care for, and others care for you.
So, go and find a desert place, a Sabbath rest, and leave the worry about the sheep to the Good Shepherd.
When we untangle all the busy-ness of the first half of this morning’s Gospel, the coming and going of apostles and many others, we find an invitation to be refreshed by God in our caring.
God knows, like Jesus, we will be back in the fray again soon enough. So we come to the dessert, the tiramisu, the pick-me-up. We imagine people all over the region rushing to bring their sick to Jesus. We know that feeling. But there’s a little detail in the tiramisu that stands out to me. The sick could ‘touch the fringe of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.’ (Mark 6:56) Scholars believe this ‘fringe’ is the leather strap Jesus, a good Jew, used to tie his tefillin, the little prayer boxes, on to his forehead.
The healings, it seems, happened because Jesus prayed habitually. In other words, Jesus was conscious of God working through him, and this enabled him to heal many.
We aren’t Jesus. Again, this is a little hint not to care for others in our own power. We may not wear the tefillin, but we should wear the habit of daily prayer, and remember that our power to care is not really ours. It is God, working through us. And that is a matter for thanks. That’s the sweetness in the dessert.