Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 21, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Dominican Retreat & Conference Center, Niskayuna, NY (for the retreat “Holy Hunger: When Food is Not Enough”)

Jeremiah 23:1-6Ephesians 2:13-18
Psalm 23Mark 6: 30-34

No Leisure Even to Eat

“[Jesus] said to them, ‘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.”
Mark 6:31

By deciding to come to this retreat, you accepted Jesus’ invitation to come away for a while and rest.  Like the apostles, we may be very busy, living scattered and distracted lives, hurrying from one task to the next, “coming and going.”  Many of us know what it’s like to  be “coming and going” inwardly, too, feeling full of confusion, handling conflicting emotions.  Jesus knows that we need to come away to a quiet place of solitude and inward listening, so that we can sort out what is in us, rest in the love of God, and touch our essential nature as the beloved of God. 

I am moved by the observation that the apostles had “no leisure even to eat.”  Those of us who struggle with food may very well eat with no sense of leisure – maybe we eat standing up or on the fly, while we’re driving or reading, working or otherwise multi-tasking.  We may grab every possible opportunity to eat, but eat without satisfaction, without really being filled.  We may eat with a sense of shame or guilt, anxiety or disgust, rather than with a sense of serenity and leisure.

Whether or not we’re wrestling with an eating disorder, we come away on retreat because we’ve reached a point where we want to stop our restless “coming and going” – we want to find our center in God, that still place deep within where we know that we are seen, known, and loved.  We come away on retreat because we want to find leisure to eat: we want to learn not only to handle food more wisely, but also to appreciate and to take in each moment as it is given to us. We want to breathe in the love of God that is given to us breath by breath, heartbeat by heartbeat, and to let that love tranform our lives. We want to learn what it feels like to be fed.

Jesus knows the need of the apostles to come away and rest a while, and find leisure to eat — and he knows our need, too.  Jesus the good shepherd knows our hunger to be seen, known, and loved, and our longing to be healed and made whole.

Heaven knows that when we were small, for one reason or another the important people in our lives may not have noticed or been able to provide what we needed and were most hungry for.  So how precious it is when our hungers are seen and taken seriously!

A wonderful story comes to mind that I heard a while back. 

A family settled down for dinner at a restaurant.  The waitress took the orders of the adults, then turned to the seven-year-old. 
‘What will you have?’ she asked. 
The boy looked around the table timidly and said, ‘I would like to have a hot dog.’ 
‘No,’ the mother interrupted, ‘no hot dog.  Get him meat loaf with mashed potatoes and carrots.’
‘Do you want ketchup or mustard with your hot dog?’ the waitress asked the boy. 
‘Ketchup,’ he said. 
‘Coming up,’ she said as she started for the kitchen.
There was a stunned silence at the table.  Finally, the boy looked at his family and said, ‘You know what?  She thinks I’m real.’1

The people around us may not think we are real – but Jesus knows we’re real.  Jesus knows that our longings matter.  Like the waitress in the story, he turns to us and asks, “What will you have?  What are you hungering for?  What is the longing so deep that you can barely put it into words?”

Jesus came to bring us life, abundant life, and the first way he works with our desires is to awaken them.  For those of us trained since childhood to believe that our needs and feelings don’t matter, and that everyone else’s desires are more important than our own, it is startling to meet in Jesus someone who takes our desires seriously.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ very first words to those who approach him are, “What are you looking for?  What do you seek” (c.f. John 1:37).  “Ask,” he says elsewhere, “and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-11).  In other words, risk expressing your desires in prayer.  Dare to give them voice.  In the face of all the pressures to shut down, to go numb, to stay anesthetized, dare to listen for the power that rises from your depths, for the deep Yes that is connected to your life-force and your deepest creative energy.  The God we meet in Jesus is a passionate God, a God who provokes and nudges and galvanizes us to join in the dance of life, and who wants to awaken us to our full potential as human beings.

If the first way that Jesus works with our desires is to awaken them, the second is to set them free.  He says not only “Ask, seek, knock,” but also  “Leave it, drop it, sell it.”  Drop your nets and follow me.  Sell your possessions.  Put it down.  Give it away.  Let the dead bury the dead.  As Jesus says in Mathew’s Gospel, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid.  Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:14).

When we know what matters most, we can let other things go.  When we are in touch with our most authentic longing, we are free to release the people, places, and things to which we once so desperately clung.  It is an experience of inner liberation.  It doesn’t mean that we no longer enjoy the things of this world — on the contrary, we do enjoy them, we relish them, we delight in them, but what’s different is that now we enjoy them without clinging or clutching.  When we know, really know, that our hunger is for the eternal, that only the Infinite can satisfy our infinite longing, then we can eat with our friends and enjoy the food. 

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves,” the good shepherd says to us tonight, “and rest a while.  Let me awaken your desires, and let me set them free.  Let me feed you with the bread of life, for I see you and know you and love you.  Here your hunger will at last be satisfied, and in the strength of this bread, you will have power to give yourself as bread to other people.”

Just after the passage we heard in tonight’s Gospel, Mark goes on to tell the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand.  In a few moments we will share the bread and wine of the Eucharist, given to us by God in Christ with such tenderness and at such great cost.  We will gather at this holy table so that everything in us and around us can be lifted up and blessed — not only the bread and the wine, but also we ourselves and the whole creation, every leaf of it and every speck of sand.  Sharing in Holy Communion helps us to perceive at last our own belovedness, our own blessedness in God, and also the fact that everyone is beloved, all beings are blessed.  Everyone and everything is part of a sacred whole, and all living things are kin.  In the strength of the blessed and broken bread, and of the blessed and poured-out wine, our deep hunger is filled.  For this I want to say: thanks be to God. 

1. Jack Kornfield, “Respect for Parenting, Respect for Children,” Inquiring Mind, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring, 1992, p. 8.

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