Mark 6:30-34; 53-56
Healing and Feeding Today
Our NYE experiences began on Monday night at Mensch Mill Camp and Retreat Center, continued on buses for many, many hours through Pennsylvania and Ohio, eventually landing us in West Lafayette, Indiana and Purdue University. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday were filled with countless opportunities for us to imagine what God was doing in us. Friendships were forged and strengthened as we played, sang, ate, learned, worshiped, walked, sweated, laughed, cried, and questioned. There is no doubt that all the youth and adults who participated in NYE each had his/her own unique experience. It is hard to sum up such an experience, actually, but if I were to tell you one thing that fed and healed me that week, it would be this: the teenagers both from our group and all the various groups at NYE. The youth fed me and healed me. They fed me with their unfiltered ideas for the church and for their community. They fed me with their dreams, creative thinking, and energy to make new friends. They healed me with their acceptance of all kinds of people—ALL KINDS—without a tokenism about it or any sort of hypocrisy. They healed me when they cheered for their peers who led worship or spoke; they healed me with their laughter, honest tears, and difficult, probing questions. The youth fed and healed me.
These days we hear so much talk about how younger generations don’t go to church anymore and thus most religious institutions fear tomorrow. In fact, most of the rushed, poor decisions about religious programs are decisions made out of fear and not innovation. I hear church leaders talk about technology or overscheduling and sports activities on Sundays–how these societal changes have kept young people from the church. Studies show the declining interest in Christian churches among younger generations and the doomsday prophecies begin among denominational leadership and yes, leaders in local churches, too. Budgets are cut and programs forgotten. Time and energy is put into survival and the guarding of traditions. Younger generations terrify the church, because their ideas do not fit into existing structures and they see the world differently. And whenever we fear people, we tend to ignore them or avoid them, and so overall, the church has chosen to avoid youth. But none of this was our experience on Slater Hill.
It was Friday night, our last evening in Indiana. It was hot. The sun was relentless. Slater Hill, on the north side of campus, slopes down to a stage where the closing worship service of NYE was about to happen. Our house worship band, Tribe of Judah out of Chicago, got things started as they always did. We sang. We sweated. Slater Hill was sprinkled with white t-shirts with the phrase “I have faith in…” The Collegium of Officers, your national United Church of Christ staff, offered their blessings and encouragement, and then, the Communion service began. Boxes of juice [mine was frozen, thank God!] and packages of Goldfish cookies got passed throughout the 2500+ t-shirt clad assembly on the hill. The worship leaders reminded us to Take. Thank. Share.
Slater Hill was an appropriate setting on that Friday, hot as it was. And I admit that as I sat on that hill with the youth and adults from our group, I was drawn into the story of the loaves and fishes in the Gospels. Somehow in the midst of being uncomfortably hot, in the middle of the creative chaos happening on the hill and on the stage, between bites of Goldfish cookies and chipping away at frozen juice—the story came alive. It’s a little weird that our story in Mark skips over the feeding. We get it next week, though. Today we get the before and after of it, which, come to think of it, also seems appropriate. The before of the story is that the disciples, those who were following and learning from Jesus, had been busy. Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while. Jesus always had good timing. He sensed the disciples need to hit the reset button; the crowds were large. It was time to get away. So they did—on a boat.
Ironically, though, in their effort to escape the crowds, people followed and people were waiting in neighboring towns. Jesus’ compassion did not wane. He saw the people like sheep without a shepherd. He fed them with teaching. But the disciples didn’t quite understand. The people were physically hungry, too. This is the part of story we did not read today. The conversation about food between Jesus and his followers led to the loaves and fishes event; then to Jesus appearing to walk on water and the disciples freaking out in a boat, once again; then to their boat crossing over to Gennesaret. And more crowds. People waiting. Sick, confused, left out, needy people gathered in the marketplaces. They pleaded for healing. And like the courageous, bleeding woman of another story, they believed that a simple touch of Jesus’ cloak would be enough. And they were right.
Two things jump out at me. First, that Jesus invited people to come away to a deserted place in order to rest. And second, in that deserted place of rest, people were fed and healed. I wonder: what is our deserted place? Where do we need to go in order to rest, and then to be fed and healed? Let’s be frank about it—we’re not a culture of rest. Most of us work ourselves into the ground and don’t think twice about it. We struggle to even give two hours a week to ourselves for rest and the deserted place. And I don’t mean two hours in front of the TV or the computer. I mean going somewhere that’s outside of your normal routine—a place where your phone can’t distract you and Facebook won’t be able to lure you in again. A deserted place. For rest. Where is yours? Where is Jesus Christ calling you to? Come away to your deserted place; rest.
For many of us, the deserted place was West Lafayette, Indiana for a week. For you, perhaps your place is a break from the routine, a moment to stop and reflect or learn or absorb. As always, when Jesus invites us to something, it’s beyond what we may think. Jesus doesn’t invite you and me to take a cruise, though that can be replenishing in a different way. Come away and rest is a Christ-invitation to loosen the chains that keep us caged up—cages we’ve built ourselves, believing as society does, that more is better and the way to happiness; work is the way to more. But Christ invites us to the deserted place; to rest. Why? Because in the deserted place, we discover that we’re not alone! Apparently, there many, many people just like us—people who are burned out, overworked and over tired, confused, hurting, sick, depressed, angry, sad, doubtful, and lost. Sheep without a shepherd. And they all find each other in the deserted place.
And there we are fed and healed. Jesus Christ draws people of all sorts to himself. Some are hungry for food; others for teaching. Some are sick physically, mentally, or spiritually. Others crave forgiveness and cannot find it. Some have lost hope and just need a reason to get up in the morning. And just like on Slater Hill or in Gennesaret, the fellowship gathered is completely open to all. Christ doesn’t differentiate or create categories. We all go to the deserted place. We all get fed and healed. The dividing walls we have built between ourselves are torn down like the ones in Jericho, because our God builds community out of people, and not stone, wood, glass, or steel, ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, cultures, or social levels. God builds community out of people who are drawn to the Christ invitation. Because in our world we are divided by a thousand things. Because in our daily routines we encounter prejudice, greed, hate, and even violence. Because most of life is not a blessed, accepting fellowship of people who believe and live out Christ promises, who love each other and love the world.
And so we should be moved to accept Jesus’ invitation. It’s a gift, and not an obligation, you know. Because when we accept Christ’s invite to follow him to the deserted place, the feeding and healing await us. We’re healed by the making of new friends who are people drastically different from us; we’re fed by the worship, singing, praying, learning, absorbing, exploring, experiencing, and serving that happens in blessed community. But all this is not limited to be just some sort of religious therapy. After the feeding and healing, we’re then sent out to feed and heal others. The disciples took a while to get this. We struggle with this, too. We’re supposed to feed and heal—you and me. And the beauty of it is that we never do it alone. In the deserted place, it’s actually quite populated. People of all sorts are there. We all get fed. We all get healed. Then we go out to our towns, cities, and places to offer the same gift to others.
The closing benediction for the final NYE worship service on Slater Hill was offered by youth from various UCC Conferences. They shared the blessings they experienced at NYE and their commitment to make a difference in their communities. Students from France and Germany expressed their gratitude in their native languages for the extravagant welcome they had received. And then Rev. Geoffrey Black, the UCC General Minister and President sent us all out—to our towns, cities, rural areas, and churches. The sun had finally set and our deserted place actually became just that. Slater Hill emptied. Buses returned home. Bags were packed. Tearful farewells were exchanged. Hugs and cell phone numbers. People autographing each other’s t-shirts. We all left the deserted place to go back home. But being fed and healed we knew that the next chapter of the story was the most important—bringing it home with us to share.