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Ninth Sunday after Pentecost — July 21, 2024

Philip Gladden writes on self-care and Mark 6:30-34, 53-56.

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Year B

“What do you do for self-care?” That’s the question our general presbyter/stated clerk routinely asks ministers and elders who are being examined by the Commission on Ministry. Answers range from “This is what I do” to “Well, I try to do this” to “It’s hard sometimes to find time for self-care.” His question is important, not just for teaching and ruling elders serving congregations, but for members who serve in churches and try to live faithful lives in a busy world.

When the apostles gathered around Jesus “and told him all that they had done and taught,” they were probably both excited and tired. Jesus didn’t ask them, “What do you do for self-care?” Instead, he invited them to withdraw with him from the demands of ministry and rest for a while in a deserted place.

Mark tells us the pressures continued after the apostles returned from their mission trips, “for many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (6:31). As he does in other places in the Gospels, Jesus models for the apostles (and for us) the importance of restful self-care. And, so, “they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves” (6:32). Of course, that deserted place wasn’t entirely deserted for very long. The crowds recognized Jesus and the disciples in the boat and, running ahead from all the surrounding towns, were waiting for them when they beached their boat. So much for getting away to a deserted place by themselves and resting for a while!

A wise and kind seminary professor encouraged us to view apparent interruptions to our carefully planned daily agendas as opportunities for ministry. “When you’re working on your sermon and have a session agenda waiting to be planned, when you’re trying to finish your Sunday School lesson or catching up on correspondence, and a church member ‘interrupts’ you to talk to you, as often as you can, hear them out. Listen as a pastor, for it’s often in those ‘interruptions’ that some profound ministry and care can take place.”

The crowds by the lakeshore “interrupted” the plans Jesus and his disciples had to rest a while. While each of us has to navigate how to balance much-needed time for rest and the ever-present needs and ministry opportunities, Jesus nevertheless models a compassionate response and “he began to teach them many things” (6:34).

The first half of this week’s Gospel reading ends there, with Jesus and the disciples surrounded by many who had hurried ahead of them and now “were like sheep without a shepherd” (6:34). The stage is set for the miraculous feeding of the 5,000. And yet, this week’s Gospel reading doesn’t include the multiplication of food or walking on water. (You do have a chance to preach on the feeding story on July 28, from John 6:1-21.) Instead, the lectionary jumps ahead to 6:53-56 and, once again, Jesus and the disciples are surrounded by the crowds who have brought the sick to be healed by Jesus.

Although Mark tells us in 6:46 that “after saying farewell to them, [Jesus] went up on the mountain to pray,” we do not hear anything about the disciples getting a chance to relax and recharge. In fact, unbeknownst to them, they are about to experience a terrifying, exhilarating and exhausting encounter with Jesus out on the lake.

Here we have an example of Mark’s familiar use of “sandwich stories,” when he inserts one or more stories into other stories. In this instance, Mark includes (although the lectionary excludes) the feeding and walking on water stories between two summaries that succinctly describe and highlight Jesus’s teaching and healing ministries (6:34 and 6:56). The crowds may not have had a fully developed understanding of who Jesus was (after all, they were like shepherdless sheep), but in some ways they better understood what Jesus had to offer than even his disciples did. In the immediate aftermath of their reporting to Jesus “all that they had done and taught,” the disciples got to witness Jesus teaching and doing what was needed for the people in need.

The fact that the disciples never seem to get their time away to rest in these verses does not sanction ministers, elders, and congregation members to neglect their self-care. The scriptures are full of exhortations to be still and to observe sabbath time. Still, the ministry opportunities continue, for individual church leaders and for congregations as a whole. The question is, how will we remain faithful to both callings, to be most faithful, most prepared, and most compassionate in our ministries? We can begin by heeding Jesus’s teachings and following his example of carving out time to rest and pray even as he responded with compassion to the needs of the sheep.

Questions for reflection

  1. What do you do for self-care?
  2. How do you model self-care and sabbath keeping for your congregation?
  3. In what ways does your congregation offer times for rest and nourishment for your members so they can hear Jesus’s teachings and be strengthened for their ministries?

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