Whenever I return home to Wisconsin there are certain places I always make a point to revisit completely alone, without anyone with me. There is the Trail’s End Tavern where I eat the best chili dogs I’ve ever had, and where my dad took me beginning when I was 3 years old. There is the church where I grew up and where I first heard the voice of God telling me that I was His priest when I was 8 years old. And there is the lakeshore where I learned to swim, and where I taught my own sons to swim. Throughout my life, whenever I have returned home, in happy times or in bad times, my first stop is to stand on the lakeshore. Listening to the lapping of the waves is powerful and healing and reminds me of who I am. If I can’t actually swim in the lake I at least make a point to touch the water with my hand because there is something sacramental in the experience. In fact, the holy water I use at church is made up, at least partly, of water from Lake Winnebago.
There are places like that for all of us, I think: they are “thin places” where heaven and earth meet and where we can experience connection and wholeness. Our first reading this morning (from Jeremiah) basically warns our leaders, the ones who are supposed to bring us security and a sense of God’s presence that they are defiling us and defiling the places we hold sacred. The ultimate sacred place is the Kingdom of our God, which is compared to a meadow where all humanity can live and thrive, a place where there is no want, and no fear. It is, in effect, the place where heaven comes to human experience, the place where divine energy overflows into all creation.
The underlying truth in all that is that having sacred places is all well and good, but we must also be open to experiencing God in the everyday, normal and sometimes annoying moments of life. There is a real danger of thinking of God as limited to only special places and perhaps absent from others. It’s the old dichotomy of sacred and profane, a view that says these two realities never touch. In this rapidly-changing time in which more and more people declare themselves “spiritual but not religious” we have to take care not to limit our ideas of God and not restrict our faith to our sanctuaries, rather, we need to find ways to extend our sanctuary walls so that ultimately the whole world is one big sanctuary without walls.
The reading from Ephesians affirms that in Christ, God has made peace with all peoples, insiders and outsiders alike. Although the Law of Moses is no longer binding, that original covenant with David is still in force. The only difference is that now God’s covenant with Israel has been expanded to include all humanity. The Law is no longer a dividing line, creating two classes of people: the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean. Instead the Law’s underlying energy is changing into something that will inspire and help redefine all humanity. Ephesians reminds us that Christ is our peace, our unity. Christ is the one who takes diverse peoples and those who previously thought one tribe was better than the others into one humongous community of acceptance and love. And what’s exceptionally cool for us Gentiles is that we are no longer “illegal aliens”, trying to sneak over the border into the arms of God’s love, we are, rather, God’s beloved. And it’s not just us either because there are no illegal aliens anywhere anymore: everyone is included in God’s covenant of grace. Does Paul’s affirmation that we are “aliens and strangers no longer” have something to say to our American political situation? If God has no aliens, should we? I realize that this one scripture can’t entirely determine public policy, but surely we should keep this in mind when we are working out how to respond to undocumented workers and refugees on our borders. Rather than demonizing other human beings, maybe our first response should be one of compassion.
Mark’s Gospel portrays the interplay of compassion and action in ministry and everyday life. The disciples are so busy doing good ministry that they barely have time to eat. This is an important comment Mark makes because we can get so busy in ministry that we can burn out. We can wear ourselves down by the tasks of ministry and find ourselves emotionally and spiritually drained. We can find our relationships failing due to our lack of time and attention to them. Jesus sees the problem with these disciples and he recognizes their needs (and his own!) and he gives them some quiet time on a retreat in the wilderness to recharge their batteries. By the way, the back story at this point in Mark is that John the Baptist has just been murdered by Herod. Maybe Jesus himself needs to recuperate and regain his own spiritual centeredness in the midst of grief and the demands of ministry. The benefits of the retreat for Jesus are obvious. He returns to work with compassion and empathy. His heart goes out to those seeking his care; they are no longer just annoyances. They are sheep without a shepherd, to be cared for and led to discover the wholeness God wants for them.
This work of Jesus is never complete. Our participation in continuing his healing ministry will be lifelong. The challenges around us are so immense; the calls for compassion, energy, and peace-making never more critical. It seems impossible some days, and yet Jesus the healer is always with us and when we reach out to his presence, we, too, find grace and healing.
Today’s readings invite us to awaken to God’s “covenant of wholeness.” God is not in the business of judging us or wanting us to feel bad about who we are. God wants our highest good always, so we can find that “abundant life” Jesus is always promising and then share it with others. But we have to remember to take care of ourselves. We need to “go on retreat” ourselves. No one knows this more than I because had I been taking care of myself in 2015, I would not have found myself with a life-threatening drug problem.
In other words, we need to practice Sabbath in some practical and real ways. If the Creator could find time to rest after creating the whole universe in 6 days, surely you and I can find a day or two once or twice a year! There is a connection between reflection and action, work and rest, doing ministry and going on retreat. It’s not just pastors who need this, it’s every one of us.
Mark assures us that life is not going to slow down, that the demands of living are only going to continue. But we can, if we choose to remember, find rest and healing in God’s presence. And then something amazing and miraculous happens: we not only open ourselves to perceiving those sacred places, those “thin places” between our world and God’s world, but more importantly, through our living and loving and taking compassionate care of others, we become part of the “thin places” that are literally everywhere so that others can find the same healing power of God that we’ve found for ourselves.