July 22, 2018 – St. Francis Church, Stamford
The Rev. Debra Slade – Find Your Deserted Place
Summer for many people signals warm, leisurely days with vacation or two, and a slower pace of life. This might mean less traffic on a daily commute or less lines at the grocery store. For some people, who have special programs in the summer, like me, summer means more work. Part of my hospital job involves teaching, mostly seminarians, how to spiritual care in a hospital setting. My course is called the intensive summer unit – because it is intensive and intense – exposing students, many of whom are in their 20’s — to many of the sad realities of life – illness, traumatic accidents/events, and death. Most of my students are studying to be pastors and priests, and some are choosing to become professional hospital chaplains. They work 40 hours a week at the hospital, and the New Haven students have a commute of up to 4 hours a day depending on the traffic and the train.
This program doubles my teaching work for ten weeks. To make up for the extra teaching hours I put in during the, I stay late to catch up on my other work; this week I worked until 10 PM most days, and forgot about eating until after I got home. As we all know, over work makes you crabby, tired and impatient, which I work hard to disguise by emulating what I tell my students to do – smile at everyone in the hospital you meet. I say: “we are the smile ambassadors – it is the easiest thing we can “ – and, I do believe, people appreciate a smile so much when it seems like the world doesn’t care, or they’re worried, scared, or something bad just happened. So between working long hours, shepherding students through hard cases, and smiling, smiling, smiling – it was with some irony that God gave me a gospel reading to preach on which begins with Jesus saying to his disciples: “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.” “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” And, my response is, as the Church Lady would say: “Well, isn’t that special?”
Jesus’ ministry was known for the crowds that followed him and the disciples everywhere they went as they travelled around the country offering a new message and vision for the world. Jesus’ healing powers became so highly sought after that the crowds would surround him just to get a glimpse of him or to touch his clothing. His celebrity status also made him a target for the authorities as well, and the religious leaders who were jealous of his popularity and incensed by his message of inclusion, hospitality for the stranger, and most of all love of God and neighbor. The segment of the gospel that we heard today is the bread of a sandwich that has in its middle the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus walking on water and calming the seas. Stay tuned for that story next week. But our lectionary this week shows more about the personhood of Jesus than a big miracle – it shows his deep concern both for the shepherds he mentors and trains, and for the sheep he comforts, protects and heals. And 23 Psalm perfectly matches with this theme.
Jesus’ actions were done in a world where the needs of the world, like our own, were great. This reading shows us two ways to respond to such great needs. The first is to look at the world and those in it through a lens of compassion: “As he went shore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them because they were like a sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things.” And not only did Jesus teach but he healed people, and not just a select few, or people of his own faith group, town or nationality, his healing touch was available to everyone, to all people. Many people I speak to in my role as chaplain also talk about the despair that they feel for the current state of the world, particularly as they contemplate their own mortality. With all of the events in the news showing our nation going in directions that seem incomprehensible, the phrase: “they were like a sheep without a shepherd” has even more relevancy today. I try each day to think of ways each day that I might be able to do more to help the disenfranchised, particularly those who are the most vulnerable, like the children separated from their parents at the border, or addict who is homeless and forced to turn to crime to just survive, but a lot of the time I feel impotent and helpless. We hear heartbreaking stories on the news everyday, and the compassion we feel can easily turn to compassion fatigue, and then burnout for us shepherds who want to do as much as we can to bring comfort to a world that is in pain.
So when Jesus says to us compassionate, exhausted people — “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” we say: “How can we, Jesus, there is so much work to be done here.?” But that is when we all must stop being shepherds and become sheep again. That is when we need to remember the words of the 23rd Psalm where our shepherd “maketh us to lie down in green pastures, leadeth us beside the still waters, and restoreth our soul.” God wants us to enjoy the beautiful world God created and loves as a parent loves a child.
When I was away for a week recently to attend a family wedding in England, we stayed on a farm in the Cotswolds not too far from Oxford where my husband and I met 37 years ago. The farm was an idyllic place, almost like a movie set – with two beautiful horses, some sheep, cows, chickens and amazing Boxer dog called Hilda. Outside our door was a swimming pond with natural water recycled in the nearby barn and surrounded by flowers and vegetation. On the last day Emma, her boyfriend Fenton and I spent two glorious hours in the pond swimming and playing with Hilda who would lap up the water on the side of the pond and then run around it several times to dry off. It was absolutely heavenly, and the most amazing thing was that it was the first time since I was about 8 years old that I went swimming with eyes (now fixed by cataract surgery) that could actually see my surroundings and with eyes that could look underwater! It was a very simple thing – swimming in a pond, with my family and a hilarious dog. You can tell from my story – those hours will be with me again whenever I am weary, tired and in need of refreshment. Jesus our shepherd is telling us that we all need to take a break – recharge and rest awhile. Find your deserted place whatever that may be – go by yourself – or go with those that love you. Give in to your inner sheep and let God and our magnificent world restore your soul and give you peace. Amen.