The Grace of Starlight
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
The first verse of our Gospel lesson to which I would like to draw your attention is aspirational, and I suspect that it will preach well to a crowd in the Adirondacks. The disciples need to renew themselves after the intense activity of itinerant preaching and healing, and Jesus calls them to rest. Jesus says (here is the verse), “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while.”
The call to rest in a deserted place is one of the foundational ideas of the Adirondacks. The Adirondack Park is unique because most of it is “forever wild.” Unlike many lakes and coastlines in New England, the Adirondack waterways remain relatively undeveloped. If you have visited the Wild Center in Tupper Lake, you might have seen one of the exhibits that displays a projection of planet earth from space. The exhibit demonstrates the extent of light pollution, and the curator can zoom in on the Adirondack Park to show that it is one of the only places on the east coast (in addition to large swaths of Maine) that is absent of visible light pollution from space. The exhibit is a powerful illustration of what makes the Adirondacks special. If we like to be social, there are other summer spots that might draw our attention before the north woods.
“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves, and rest for a while.”
By virtue of being here, I suspect that many of us may have heard this call at some point in our lives, but it is often difficult to accept this invitation, even for those of us who already find ourselves in a relatively deserted place. The constant “connectivity” of our digital age means that we are usually only a few feet from the rest of the world. What once were truly “wild” woods are too often filled with WIFI signals.
Perhaps our lesson from creation with which we began the service could help us to navigate these difficulties and live into Jesus’ invitation. Each of our two tips for viewing stars in the night sky are relevant to what it might mean for us to receive “rest for our souls” in the sense that Jesus is suggesting to his disciples.
You will remember that our first tip for viewing stars is to take time sitting in the darkness to allow the chemical, rhodopsin, to regenerate in the rod receptors of our eyeballs. When we emerge from the intensity of our lives, we need to take some time to allow God’s grace to come back into focus. We can’t force our souls to receive grace any more than we can force rhodopsin back into our eyeballs quickly. We need to sit for a while and let our anxieties and fixations fade. In a manner of speaking, we need to allow our receptors of God’s grace to regenerate, just like our rods need to allow the rhodopsin to regenerate. This is why “unplugging” can be so important when we “come away.” The incessant feeds on our devices call us back to the world and burn away our ability to be present with God in an almost identical manner to the way that a flash of light burns off all the rhodopsin in our eyes. Speaking for myself, just one poorly timed email flash can leave me blind in the dark, unable to experience God’s grace.
Our second tip for viewing stars is to relax our eyeballs in order to allow more light into our eyes. The more we try to focus on any particular group of stars, the more muscles we engage in our eyes and the less light we receive. No matter how long we have been sitting in the dark regenerating rhodopsin, if we don’t relax our eyes and allow the light to come to us, then we will never receive the full depth of the night sky. This is a wonderful metaphor for how God’s grace appears in our lives. We cannot grab it; we cannot conquer it, or achieve it, or purchase it; we cannot even see it in the way that we are accustomed to “seeing.” Instead, we have to let go of what we think we know and open ourselves to its possibility; then, suddenly, grace appears to us, as if on the periphery, but definitively visible. We must let go, open up, and receive the grace that is already given without grasping at it, or it will become invisible again.
“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves, and rest for a while.” That is the first verse for attention today. If we follow our two tips for viewing the stars while pursuing rest for our souls, the verse may come alive for us. I hope that it does for us while we are in this place.
The second verse for our attention is more pragmatic and less poetic than the first, but I suspect that it may be more relevant. In some senses, it is also a corrective to thinking that we can only experience God’s grace in a deserted place. Mark writes, “Jesus saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
You will remember from the Gospel lesson that Jesus and his disciples set off for a deserted place in a boat in order to regenerate and receive God’s grace, but their best laid plans are thwarted. After getting into a boat so that they wouldn’t be followed by the crowds, many people saw them departing and anticipated the place which they were heading; they travelled there by land and arrived before the boat did. So the unpopulated place that Jesus and his disciples had anticipated became “populated” before they could arrive and rest.
I suspect that some of us may have experienced this dynamic in our lives. A property that is supposed to be a place of refreshment suddenly becomes a burden of responsibilities and upkeep. A brief escape with our family suddenly becomes a snaggle of tension and infighting. The beautiful sunny dock days that we were imagining manifest as a slate of cold, damp days by the fire, sucked back into work emails. As Robert Burns famously quipped in his poem To a Mouse, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
One of the great gifts of the biblical witness is how it refuses to be domesticated by our idealism. Jesus is constantly dealing with mundane frustrations in the same way that we are. His teachings and signs do not occur on some mystical mountaintop, hidden in the mists of Sri Lanka or some other distant land of erotic ideas; on the contrary, Jesus was born amidst the filth and poverty of some of the world’s most contested and violent terrain (two thousand years ago just as it is today) and he was surrounded by needy people. Jesus lives in the world, just like us. Here, we return to the second verse for our attention today,
“Jesus saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
Jesus does not resent the presence of the crowd that he had been trying to escape with his disciples, but rather has compassion for them. He stays with the crowd and he gives up his pursuit of a “deserted place” because the people he encounters are like sheep without a shepherd.
This is a verse that carries Good News. Let’s return to the stars for a moment to illustrate this point. How often, after all, do we receive a perfect night for viewing stars, without the moon or cloud cover? How often do we find ourselves in the Adirondacks on just such a night, a place where we can enjoy the stars without the light pollution of our cities? Even when such a rare occasion arises, how often are we able to set aside the time and attention to sit in the darkness for twenty minutes, allow our eyes to adjust, and then relax and let in the full depth of the universe through our corneas? I have been coming to these north woods my entire life, and I can only think of one or two occasions when the stars have metaphorically and literally aligned in such a way. If that were the only pathway to receive God’s grace, then most of our lives would be a barren wasteland of grace-less days.
The Good News of this story is that Jesus meets the crowd with compassion, and he stays with them where they are. He does not run away so that only those with enough wealth, time, status, talent, and/or commitment can reach him. Jesus is showing us that God is available for both disciples in need of rest and those of us who are struggling through anxieties, doubts, and the vicissitudes of life. God meets us where we are.
It is here that we might see the connective-tissue between all four of our lessons this week. Each one of our readings articulates God as a shepherd who finds his sheep wherever they may be and offers them His grace. In the reading from Jeremiah, we heard the prophecy that God would raise up the Messiah from the lineage of King David, a Messiah who will serve as a shepherd for all people, bringing every child of every race into the flock of God. Our psalmist famously writes that, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” In like manner to Jeremiah, Paul is trying to unite a divided community in Ephesus that has pitied Jews and Gentiles against one another. He writes, “[God] has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.”
This image of God as a shepherd, who makes himself known to the rested and the bedraggled, the rich and the poor, the pious and the irreverent, the descendants of Abraham and the rest of the world, is one of the central pillars of God’s revelation in Jesus. In Jesus, we see that God is a unifier, a life-giver, a peace-bringer, and a compassionate shepherd for all people.
So today, as we walk out of the Church of the Ascension, whether we find ourselves searching for a deserted place or caught up in the concerns and tensions of the world, we are invited to remember that God is with us, serving us like a shepherd would, seeking us out wherever we may be, and offering us grace at every turn. Amen.