A Deserted Place

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | July 18, 2021

Mark 6:30-34 and Psalm 23

Jesus said – “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.”

Some years ago, I was visiting friends who had moved from Iowa to Lake of the Ozarks. A distance of maybe 350 miles, but worlds apart. They hired contractors to work on their place and they commented that, “Things here happen at a different pace than what we’re used to.”

There was a guy painting their boathouse. Rather than take his can of paint with him on the ladder, he left it on the ground. When he needed more paint on his brush, he would go down the ladder, dip his brush, go back up and paint. He repeated this process all day long. It did not seem like the best use of time or talents.

At the end of the day when his boss came around to check on him, my friend complained about the way the painter was working. The boss thought about this for a minute and then said, “Well, he is meticulous.”

That line stuck with me. Especially in those times when someone doesn’t seem to be moving at the speed I think should be moving. Maybe they’re just being meticulous.

The story today touches upon the challenge to balance the demands of work and the need for rest and renewal.

You’ve heard it said, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” The idea being that if you don’t have something constructive to do, you will naturally get into trouble. That as human beings  left to our own devices we’ll get up to no good. Or as we say to our children or had it said to us at some point in life, “If you’re bored, I’ll give you something to do!”

Christianity has taken on this notion of the “Protestant Work Ethic” in which more work is better and that we find God and serve God through work, work, work.

If we go back to the life of Jesus and look at him through the lens of the Protestant Work Ethic, we would conclude that our Lord and Savior was a rather lazy fellow – 

He took regular days off.

He spent a lot of time hanging out with his friends.

He liked to take naps.

He didn’t keep to much of a schedule.

Other people did the heavy lifting while he sat around talking to people.

He let interruptions get the better of him.

He was often late for appointments.

If we are meant to follow Jesus, what is it that we have lost in the translation?

If we try to see Jesus for who he was we would see that –

He was not a Protestant;

He was not a Presbyterian;

He belonged to no Church;

He was not even a Christian.

Through those lenses what appears on the one hand as lazy is in a different view mindful. Jesus was mindful and so he was aware of the balance between life and work and to the best of his ability he tried to maintain that balance for himself and he encouraged his friends to try to balance their lives.

People say – “I know you’re busy…I don’t want to bother you…you must be busy…” There is no good answer to that. My usual response is to say something such as, “I’m never too busy.”

One time I was busy; too busy. It was not a pleasant experience. There was a two-week period in which different commitments had to be squeezed into a limited amount of time – that being a 24-hour day.

My day began at 6:00 AM when I woke up. I needed to be at the school bus depot by 6:45 for my morning run. By 9:30 I had to be in class – I was a full-time seminary student. If I wasn’t in class I was studying for finals or writing term papers. At 3:30 I clocked in at my full-time job as a custodian and worked until midnight. Then I would head over to my other part-time job as a church custodian and work for a couple of hours until 3:00 AM or so. Then it was home to catch a couple hours of sleep before starting all over again.

That schedule lasted for two weeks. The school term ended and I didn’t need to drive a school bus or attend classes anymore. I had the luxury of one full-time job and just one part-time job.

That’s my definition of being busy. I decided that I would never be that busy again. That decision prompted years of conflict. Conflict because I was pursuing a career in a system in which busyness was next to godliness.

One time the church decided that a walkway needed to be installed leading up to the steps of the church manse. The manse was a mobile home that sat on a clearing in the woods next door to the church. If there was a cement slab out front it might lend a bit of dignity to the place. So a group of men from the church got together and spent a day mixing and pouring concrete and making a walkway.

Soon after I was asked a question that was really an accusation, “Where were you?”

“I was on vacation,” I said. They gave me three weeks a year, but since the job was part time and the salary was set below the poverty level so that I could qualify for what government assistance there was, I could rarely afford to go anywhere on “vacation.”

“Yeah, but your car was there. It would have been nice if you could have come out and lent a hand. It doesn’t look so good when people are working on your house and you’re just sitting around doing nothing.”

Sitting around doing nothing. I saw a cartoon in a magazine once. There was a church minister in his office on his knees praying. A woman comes into his office and the caption reads, “Oh good, you’re not busy.” Sometimes sitting around doing nothing is the something that needs to be done.

The hand-picked followers of Jesus had been sent out on a mission trip. They went into the towns and villages to tell people about Jesus. Their message was basically that he is the one who shows us the way to God. They talked of the things Jesus did and said. If they went to a place where the people were open to the message, then Jesus would come there and teach and maybe perform some healing miracles.

The time came to end the mission trip. Jesus called his followers back together so they could tell about their experiences on the road. The problem was that people didn’t want the good times to end. Crowds of people followed the disciples back to where Jesus was. There was so much activity that they didn’t have time to sit down for a meal.

It was getting to be a bit much. Jesus was trying to get some quiet time and people kept interrupting; he tried to be by himself and people kept showing up. He tried to sit down for a meal and people kept coming up to his table.

He wanted to hear from his friends their stories from the road. They had been out in the villages talking to people about the work of Jesus. It was time to regroup and spend some time in reflection. You can’t just go, go, go all the time. The well has to be refilled.

I find it interesting how some words and phrases in this story stand out. Jesus said to his friends, “Come away.” I wonder how that would feel to hear him say, “Come away.” Is what we are doing so important that we could not lay down the task and “come away?”

And usually the phrase that comes to mind is “go away.” But Jesus is not telling us to “get lost,” or to leave him alone. There are times in our life when he invites us to follow him into “the desert.” In the story he calls his friends to “come away to a deserted place.” And perhaps most importantly, he told them, “rest awhile.”

We don’t naturally choose the deserted place. When people would tell me that they’ve “been to America,” nine times out of ten they meant Florida. In Florida there is so much to see and so much to do. No one ever said, “I went to the bad lands of North Dakota.”

We will sometimes choose a place of peace and quiet. In this country there are many places where we can find a sense of serenity through the beauty of nature.

But how often do we ever say, “I am going to a deserted place?” Maybe it brings to mind an abandoned warehouse or a western ghost town. A deserted place brings to mind images of somewhere that was once alive and full of vitality, but now the weeds are growing up through the sidewalks. A deserted place is where we once had life and vitality, but no more.

What purpose might God have in calling us to such a place? It is likely about being in a place free of distractions; being free of whatever it is that prevents us from forming a cohesive thought or carrying on a free-flowing conversation. Which says that sometimes the empty mind and the idle hands are a good starting point for a conversation with God. Amen.

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