A Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Louise Browner Blanchard, Associate Rector
One of the many joys of St. Mary’s is the beauty of its surroundings. The buildings, of course, are lovely, but what takes my breath away is the setting. I’ve noticed it especially since the bridge over Tuckahoe Creek closed, and I approach the church from the other direction. Although I’m not, it always feels as if I’m driving farther into the country…and then St. Mary’s appears – first, the sight of the lilies and the cemetery, with New St. Mary’s watching over both, and then, quickly, Little St. Mary’s and the Old Parish Hall. As I turn into the parking lot, the sound of my tires on the gravel reminds me of driving down a country lane. As I walk to my office, little lizards and other creatures scurry and buzz, and a choir of birds chirps and sings. I am at peace.
If the story in today’s gospel took place today, this is the kind of place where Jesus and the apostles might have come to be by themselves and rest awhile. Most of you, who have been coming here for a lot longer than I have, understand why. In fact, the peacefulness of St. Mary’s may be the very thing that brought you here or keeps you coming. You’re not alone. More and more people who are not a regular part of the St. Mary’s community come here for meetings and retreats because of its beauty and serenity. Other churches, schools, and organizations come here to recharge. And this summer, the special needs children who are attending Friendations Summer Camp here – many of whom are on the autism spectrum or otherwise particularly sensitive to commotion and noise – have thrived as never before in the calmness and tranquility of St. Mary’s buildings and grounds.
As I said, this is the kind of place where Jesus and his apostles might have chosen to rest awhile. Certainly, they needed it. The apostles were the 12 whom Jesus had sent out on their own, two by two, to teach and heal. They had returned, having fulfilled their missions, and they were eager to share their experiences with Jesus and each other. Jesus was grieving the beheading of his cousin and mentor John the Baptist by King Herod. Meanwhile, so many people were trying to see Jesus and the apostles that they couldn’t even eat, much less catch up on everything that had happened. Jesus recognized that they all needed to get “away to a deserted place…and rest a while.”
It was not to be. They set off for the deserted place by boat, but people saw them from the land, and hundreds, even thousands, got to where they were going first and were waiting for Jesus when he arrived. We can only imagine his initial response, but the recorded one was compassion – literally “to suffer with.” He put aside his weariness and his grief and whatever else weighed him down and began to teach them “many things,” perhaps first and foremost that compassion is the default response to human need and suffering. He didn’t get back in the boat and tell the apostles to keep rowing. He didn’t shoo the crowds away. He didn’t tell them that this was a place for just him and his disciples. He didn’t tell them to leave and come back the next day. He recognized that they were desperate for what he had to offer them. And he gave it to them, in the midst of a place that could hardly be called deserted any more.
It did, however, become a place of peace – despite the number of people and the commotion that surely attended them. The gospel tells us that Jesus “had compassion for the great crowd, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” He recognized that they were hungry for assurances the likes of the 23rd Psalm, which we said together a few minutes ago – hungry to be healed by the knowledge that none of us is without a shepherd who is present and guiding us, graciously providing us with whatever sustenance we need. In Hebrew, God’s goodness and mercy don’t just follow, they pursue. Surely, God’s pursuit was good news to people who were used to being pursued by aggression and persecution, discrimination and self-righteousness.
And, hopefully, Jesus’s assurance that God’s goodness and mercy pursues each one of us brings us peace and healing. The beauty of St. Mary’s can’t hide the fact that sooner or later most of us arrive here amid as much commotion as the crowds who followed Jesus around the Sea of Galilee. It can be commotion in our own lives and souls or in the lives and souls of those we love: mental or physical illness, death, grief, addiction, financial or legal problems, divorce, difficult transitions, or simply the sense that we have lost our way. It can be commotion in the world around us: changes expected and unexpected. Ultimately, what we seek – whether we understand it or not – is the peace that comes from knowing that what heals us, sustains us, and unites us all is the love of God.
The challenge, of course, is when we realize that the peace that we think we need is our stopping point rather than our destination. Jesus and his apostles needed to rest a while, and the deserted place seemed just the spot to get what they needed. But it turned out that the real healing came not from the place, but from Jesus’s response to the need that he encountered there. The real healing required compassion, in other words, loving our neighbors as ourselves…and the realization that other’s needs often take precedence over our own. The apostles never got the rest that they expected because the crowds kept coming. But everyone, apostles included, was healed by God’s love as it was revealed through Jesus’s compassion. And through the sharing of that compassion by those who were healed, the good news spread. It may have started in a so-called deserted place, but it never would have gotten to where we are today if those who received it there hadn’t taken it out into the world.
Like the deserted place of today’s gospel, the beauty and tranquility of St. Mary’s is a stopping point rather than a destination…a waystation for the deeper and greater love of God that both pursues us and calls us beyond ourselves. We are blessed to be nurtured in such a beautiful spot. Today’s gospel beckons us to remember what we are being nurtured for – to love one another as we have been loved – and to go out into the world and do it.