Our gathering today in this Ultreya celebration for the Diocese’s Cursillo, reflects the gathering of the apostles returning from their travels, who were telling Jesus about all that had happened to them. Mark’s Gospel reading also provides us with a clear image of what is happening with the crowds of people who were following Jesus to listen to his teaching.
So Jesus said to his apostles:
Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.For many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat.
And I was reflecting on the busyness of our lives and the way we live in God’s kingdom, perhaps not yet arrived, or partially here, or perhaps we think to ourselves: I’ll make it when I’ve time tomorrow, or even ‘not now’. However, the request and invitation from God is ‘now’ and it’s not about some more convenient time in the future. Our work in God’s kingdom provides us time to pray, reflect, celebrate and enjoy each other’s company and to have some quiet time to share our news.
Your presence here today breathes life into the quote in Hebrews:
Through [Jesus], then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Heb.13:15-16)
Mark’s story comes after a couple of key events earlier in the chapter. Jesus had sent his disciples out in pairs and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He told them to take nothing except a staff; no food, no suitcase or bag, no money, only the sandals on their feet and the tunic they were wearing. They were to go out and proclaim repentance for all, cast out demons and cure the sick.
And in the same chapter, we hear, like the disciples and Jesus about the shocking news of John the Baptiser’s murder at the hands of Herod as a present to his daughter Herodias for her fine dancing.
It is clear the times in which Jesus and his first disciples were living were difficult, dangerous, challenging and uncomfortable. There were consequences for what they were doing and saying. Jesus’ training was tough and uncompromising and not always easy to follow. While his compassion was unlimited and loving.
Jesus was now asking his followers, his disciples and apostles who had taken that first difficult step in learning and practicing their faith, to find time to gather quietly, to pray and share their news, reflect and learn, to regather their strength and commitment, be reassured and comforted, before heading out into the world again.
Our sense of urgency, our sense of seeking to spread the good news of Jesus, of God’s love, is our motivator. It pushes and drives us to show by our lives, the way we live and speak, what we do and what we think, the shape and sense of the God we believe in and to whom we have given our lives. Our behaviour, words and lifestyle, show people glimpses of our God. If we live cranky and rude lives, we show a rude and cranky God.
But what happened to Jesus and his companions at that point, is what happens to us today. The people who were hearing the good news, watching the healing, want to find out more; and when we follow someone with such determination, the pressure is insistent and demanding. And as the disciples were advising Jesus to send the mob home:
Jesus [He] had compassion for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
My commentaries tell me the word ‘compassion’ as it is used here, is a very weak translation of what was going on with Jesus. The Greek word ‘splanchnizomai’ refers to ‘a churning of the gut’. Jesus’ insides where literally churning because those in the crowd were like sheep without a shepherd.
It is a theme resonating through the Hebrew scriptures, with Moses, Ezekiel, and other prophets, as they prayed the Lord would one day ‘set up over them one shepherd who shall feed them and be their shepherd’ (Ezek. 34:23).
As we see sheep without a shepherd or even sheep with faithless shepherds, who are distracted by idols, exploitative and self-seeking. Having sustained suffering and deep wounds at the hands of such shepherds, some sheep remain in our congregations, but many do not dare to trust such shepherds again.
Many have moved outside our church, or refuse to learn about it, don’t want to risk exposure to more bad religion and destructive faith. People are fleeing the church; people aren’t interested in finding out about Jesus and the Christian way of life as they are tired of seeing appalling behaviour and self-serving greed and corruption or being told whom they must hate in order to be Christian. Your presence today tells a different story of hope.
Jesus was confronted by a crowd lacking a true shepherd. A crowd who had the likes of Herod and the pharisees as their shepherd, leaders who were not focussed on their welfare but instead on their own agendas. These leaderless people are the ones who were chasing after Jesus.
And Jesus teaches them something of God’s abundant ‘economy of plenty’ that unfolds even in places were there is thought to be nothing. And instead of retreating from the world in the face of such need, or trying to put order and hierarchy into it, not judging and excluding, Jesus begins to teach the crowd many things.
If you go on a few verses in the Gospel, what comes next In Mark’s story is the feeding of the five thousand.
You will remember the disciples’ response to the crowds’ hunger:
You need to send them away so they can go and get themselves something to eat’.
Jesus’ response is very telling. He says to his disciples:
You give them something to eat’.
Their indignant response shows how little they have yet learned; how little they understand God’s economy. The disciples ask Jesus if they are to find 200 denarii to buy enough food.
Jesus ignores their incredulity and instead asks them to look at what there is already, and he then sits the crowd down in groups and takes the resources provided and he breaks the bread, blesses it and gives it to those with whom he is sharing a meal, just as we are about to do this morning.
All ate and were filled.
We see and hear the resources God has provided, and when received with thanksgiving and shared with generosity, are enough for everyone. As we share God’s provisions generously with those who need it, God’s abundant provision in God’s economy for the world is more than enough.
Our world of apparent plenty, with an economy which tells us relentless growth with winners and losers based on continuous consumption in a finite planet is the only way to go; is instead, if we stop, listen, pray and reflect, shown to be an illogical, cruel and witless belief system. Infinite materialistic growth is unsustainable, unlike God’s infinite love and desire to show us plenty.
God does provide us with the resources we need. God works with Jesus’ disciples, the apostles and companions who follow Jesus as God is today. God uses us to continue to feed God’s people.
As you are doing and will continue to do, you are recognising the resources, you are bringing them for blessing, breaking and sharing with each other and those around you. God provides and does so with your help.
As we live out our faith, sharing together, learning and resting, experiencing God’s compassion when we are weary, we will continue to do what Jesus asked and we will give those without a shepherd something to eat. As the 23rd Psalm reminds us:
The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. The Lord makes me to lie down in green pastures; and leads me beside still waters. The Lord will refresh my soul and guide me in right pathways for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff comfort me. You spread a table before me in the face of those who trouble me. You have anointed my head with oil and my cup runs over. Surely your goodness and loving kindness shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
The Lord be with you.