July 18, 2021, Comfort and Affliction, Mark 6:30-34 and 53-56 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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At least four different people, Finley Peter Dunne, John Kenneth Galbraith, Lucille Clifton and Reinhold Niebuhr are credited with the phrase “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” referring to everything from the media to poetry to God himself. And certainly it is the nature of anything that is true and wise to do exactly that, to shake us up in our complacency, and to be an anchor to us in our difficulties. But I would say that nowhere is that more true than in our encounters with the Bible.
The psalm we read today, Psalm 23, is probably one of the most comforting passages in all of Scripture. It’s something so many people hold onto when they are sad or worried, when they’re afraid or grieving or going through some great suffering – our own valleys of the shadow of death. There have been many, many times over the years when I have found comfort and rest in the middle of a sleepless night by reciting this psalm, over and over and over, letting the images of green pastures and quiet waters soothe my worries, resting in the assurance that the Good Shepherd is present with me, walking by my side, keeping me safe.
We come to the Bible expecting to find comfort. But if we come expecting only warm fuzzy feelings and good cheer, we might be disappointed, or at least surprised, to find ourselves afflicted as well as comforted in our encounters with God’s Word. And it seems to me that today’s gospel reading is a perfect example of that, because it gives us a healthy mix of both comfort and affliction. As we read, the twelve apostles have just returned from their first solo flight in ministry. Jesus had sent them out, two by two, with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs, to do all the things they’d been watching Jesus do. They have traveled from town to town, on foot of course. They preached, and they healed people, and they cast out lots of demons. And, as you might expect, they have come back to Jesus excited, but very, very tired. So Jesus takes them out into the wilderness for a kind of retreat, because the work is just non-stop. People are coming and going at all hours, desperate for healing and comfort of all kinds. There isn’t even time for them to grab a meal.
So, it is very comforting to see that Jesus recognized the need of his friends and apprentices to get away and to recharge their batteries. He knows that in their finite humanness they can’t go on and on without taking a break. In fact, in this same chapter, Jesus himself takes time to go off by himself for quiet, for prayer, because even the Son of God has need of rest. Few things resonate more with us in our day and age, I think, than to see that Jesus himself understands the need for solitude and self-care. When we’ve been pushing ourselves to keep on keeping on, out of duty, out of guilt, or just because nobody else is doing it and if I don’t do it won’t get done, whatever our reason is for burning the candle at both ends until we’re close to burnout ourselves, here’s the word for us. “Come away by yourselves, and rest awhile.”
It’s not the only time Jesus makes this invitation to us, either. One of my all-time favorite Scriptures, from Matthew 11 is this: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
The need for rest and self-care is something we are finally learning, in our goal-oriented, high-pressure, competitive society. And it’s a good thing. We’re learning that pushing ourselves too hard, doing too much work, getting too little sleep, can be a factor in everything from premature aging to cancer. One of the most common metaphors we use to emphasize how important it is to take care of ourselves comes from airplane travel. You’ve heard this, I’m sure. If the pressure in the cabin drops, there are oxygen masks that drop down above each person’s seat, and as the stewardess always reminds you, you need to make sure your own mask is securely fastened before you help a fellow passenger. Otherwise, you’ll pass out from lack of oxygen and you won’t be any help to anybody. So, the metaphor says, that’s how it is in our Christian lives as well; when we work so relentlessly hard at our ministries that we allow ourselves to get run down and burned out, we don’t have anything left to be of any real use to anyone. That’s why we need to heed the words of Jesus in the midst of our busyness and stress: “Come away by yourselves, and rest awhile.”
So that is a real comfort to us in our afflictions – except maybe for the diehard workaholics who really hate the idea of needing self-care. Most of us, though, will find comfort in knowing that Jesus understands and approves of our need for rest and refreshment when we are worn out. But of course the reading goes on from there, and here the gospel also has a message to afflict us, lest we get too comfortable. Because, lo and behold, before they even reached the place Jesus was bringing them for some R and R, no sooner had they set foot on land, than there were the multitudes once again, waiting for them, needing them: hundreds of people, thousands maybe, poor and ragged and on foot, hungry and sick and desperate and altogether needy. Everywhere they went, in fact, there were the people. Everywhere they went, there was the need. I can so easily imagine how all their hearts sank as they saw the crowd waiting for them on the shore. But Mark tells us how Jesus reacted. “He had compassion for them,” Mark says, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” And Jesus sat right down right then, tired and hungry and worn out as he must have been, and he began to teach them many things.
Lest we get too comfortable with the idea of self-care, and the need to attend to our own needs before we can serve others, which is certainly a wise and good principle, Jesus gives us another principle to balance that out: the principle of compassion. There will be times when we are genuinely weary and heavy-laden, and lo and behold, just as we are sinking into our soft recliner with a good book, or just as we sit down to a long-awaited meal, there’s a knock at the door, or the phone rings, and suddenly, like Jesus and the apostles pulling in to the shore, we are face to face with a need that is greater than our weariness. Then we are called to have compassion. Then the good principle of self-care is called upon to lay itself down in the service of the higher principle of compassion. This is what it means for us to take up our cross and follow him, putting one foot after the other, walking in the imprints of his compassion and love.
In the Old Testament reading today, God had given Jeremiah a word to afflict the overly comfortable rulers of his people. Jeremiah was prophesying during the years of Judah’s fall into apostasy, leading up to the day when King Nebuchadnezzar swept in and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and carried the people off into exile. “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” God cries. Without good leadership, the people were wandering helplessly, like sheep without a shepherd, confused, fearful, faithless. This was a word to afflict the comfortable rulers of Judah, who had put their own needs before the needs of the people, who had failed in their responsibility to have compassion on God’s sheep in their need.
But in his faithfulness and lovingkindness, God also gave a promise to comfort the afflicted sheep of Judah. He promised that he would surely send a Good Shepherd, one who would have compassion on the sheep. We know that Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise. And that is our comfort in all our times of affliction, that we have a Good Shepherd. That there is one watching over us who will never grow weary of our needs, but who gave himself for our sake, out of his great compassion for us. Our comfort is that we are not sheep without a shepherd. But if we are tempted to become too comfortable, let us remember that we are being called to become little shepherds ourselves. As we follow our Good Shepherd, we don’t only take our rest in him. As we take up our cross and follow him, he is teaching us, day by day, in all his gentleness and in all the humility of his heart, to obey the higher principle of compassion. His one commandment to us it this: to love one another as he loves us. He had compassion on the multitudes who came to him in their need, even in his weariness, because he saw that they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Today, let’s allow ourselves to be afflicted by our Lord’s example of compassion.