Are you planning a vacation this summer? Do you want one? A chance to “get away” from the busyness - or just the sameness - of work and daily life? Looking for refreshment and renewal?
I’m going to the beach in August.
And so are the disciples.
Not going to the beach, but looking forward to vacation.
They’ve been very busy roaming the countryside: calling for repentance, healing people, evicting demons, and teaching about Jesus’ good news.
Now they’re back reporting to Jesus, so successful that they don’t even have a chance to eat - too many people are responding to their work and clamoring to know Jesus, to hear more, to be part of this fabulous thing that God is doing in the world.
That’s great for the gospel, but the disciples are stressed, so Jesus tells them all it’s time for vacation. “Come with me,” he says, “to get away from it all.”
But when they get to their retreat, what do they find?
You’d think they’d gone to Disney World. Or the O’Hare pickup circle on a holiday weekend.
The crowd heard they were going away and rushed to get ahead of them.
They want more good news, more inspiration, or healing, or a personal moment with the chance to say I got to talk to the famous rabbi (if they’d had selfies in those days, you know everyone in that crowd would be angling for one with Jesus).
Maybe you actually love crowds, but if your mind is on getting away, the most human reaction would be some kind of cranky: annoyance, frustration, even turning around and walking away.
Mark doesn’t tell us how the disciples reacted to the crowd, but Mark does tell us what Jesus felt. “He was moved with compassion, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
His gut and his heart respond: it’s empathy.
His gut and his heart respond: it’s empathy.
You’ve felt empathy before, right?
You hear about a child’s illness, and your heart twists for the child and her parents. A friend is unfairly fired, and your gut fires up with anger and sympathy on his behalf.
Or you’ve rejoiced with someone, sharing elation and a feeling of success: when the Hawks win the Stanley Cup, when a friend gets engaged, when your child triumphs in a game or lands that fabulous new job.
It seems to happen to Jesus a lot in the gospels, and all the time when he’s confronted with crowds, but for most of us, empathy’s less likely, less automatic when we’re faced with a crowd in need, instead of one friend or even one stranger.
Last weekend the New York Times ran an article about that. Studies show that when the people in danger or need are not like us, our empathy doesn’t trigger as readily. When it might cost us more — when we might need to spend money or use more of our time, our skill — empathy is harder to trigger, and we’re less likely to try to feel it.
So I think it’s a fair bet that a bunch of hard-working, exhausted disciples who have spent themselves taking care of people’s needs for healing and inspiration to the point that they didn’t even eat didn’t feel like they had a lot of empathy to give.
Jesus had taken them away for Sabbath, for rest,
and then actually plunges them right into more need, more work.
Perhaps he wanted to teach them something the authors of that New York Times piece say they’ve just started to learn: that we can actually grow our empathy, our compassion, that we can feel and care more, or more deeply just by wanting to.
Even just by knowing that we should.
That we can genuinely feel more, open our hearts more, build up all the benefits of trust and health and understanding and unity that empathy provides, just by wanting to, just by knowing that we should.
And it’s possible that this - this growing empathy - is the kind of Sabbath rest we sometimes need the most.
I know that when I’m worn out, when I’m ready for vacation or just busy busy busy, I feel my heart contract, withdraw, and get grumpy when I turn on the news and it’s full of shootings, economic crisis, arson, environmental mess, and all those other needs or sorrows.
I want to put off until later the needs of my family and friends, or just not worry about everyone’s feelings.
But when my heart does open when I’m tired and busy; when my gut is moved with your pain or joy, with the needs of whole nations struggling to survive, or strangers fighting prejudice or ignorance or hate, I’m actually happier.
I feel my relationships deepen and grow, and know I can make enough difference; that I can - and we can - change the world, even just a little bit at a time.
We promise this at baptism, actually.
You promised, or your godparents promised for you (or you’ll promise today, when we renew our baptismal covenant) to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.
We’ve actually promised to keep on growing our empathy,
to seek the image of God in people who are nothing like us, and to love them as ourselves.
So I tried it out this week.
I listened to the news, and actually felt more optimistic about all that debt and austerity chaos in Europe, because feeling for the pain of the pensioners and the politicians caught up in that mess actually helped restore my faith in humanity.
I read - instead of skimmed - Facebook posts and comments from the many friends or acquaintances who are dealing with illness and family crisis and loss, and was surprised to realize that I felt more whole, even refreshed, when I responded — even if I was clumsy or cliched — than when I passed on by because I was tired or just don’t know what to say.
I can’t promise that it will work for you, but both the New York Times and Jesus seem to think it will, so for Jesus’ sake I think it’s worth a try.
Take one of these cards and put it in your wallet, or on your TV remote or computer keyboard. Slip it in next to one of the ways you interact with the world.
It’s the words of Jesus that we heard today, the invitation to “come away, and rest awhile;”
and on the other side, the words of our baptismal promise:
to seek and serve Christ in all, loving my neighbor as myself.
Use this as a lens to look at others, and into your own heart.
Because I think that Jesus is telling us that in the end these two things are one and the same:
that we’ll find rest in giving love,
that love lasts longer and renews us better than any vacation.
And that’s good news, now and always.