The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Context is important. The Gospel reading appointed for today is a case in point. Immediately prior to the feeding of the five thousand Jesus and his disciples have retreated to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Presumably, following a demanding schedule of teaching and healing, it was time for the disciples to rest and retreat—to rejuvenate themselves for further service to God and humanity. However, as it so often is with the best of plans, life gets in the way. A large crowd sees that Jesus is leaving, and they follow. What comes after is one of the most memorable miracle stories in the Bible. From a mere five loaves and two fish, five thousand are fed. Remarkable.
Now, at last, we reason, a rest is in order. Apparently Jesus thinks so as well, for he commands his disciples to get into the boat and make their way from the crowds to the other side of the sea. And, after bidding farewell to the crowd, he, by himself, goes up on the mountain to pray. I picture him departing in a stately demeanor. Me—I probably would have picked up the hem of my robe and run.
Surely, our Savior must have been exhausted. We know, most of us, that there are times and circumstances in which it’s difficult to be gracious when one is well rested. But try to imagine being gracious when your energy is all but gone. I imagine that this is the state in which Jesus and the disciples had found themselves.
This, then, is the context which finds us at the beginning of today’s reading. Sometime later, Jesus looks towards his disciples and sees that they are struggling to row their boat against the wind.
I can’t help but wonder what went through our Savior’s mind at this moment. Is it possible that he looked at his ragged band of followers and entertained the thought, however fleeting, “Can’t they manage anything without me?”. Nevertheless, Jesus comes to them, walking upon the water. At this point in the narrative we’re really not certain what Jesus intends. Perhaps he has come to make certain that all is well. Maybe his intent is simply to calm the winds without their notice—give them a divine nudge in the right direction, if you will. However, things do not go as planned, and the disciples catch a glimpse of their Savior. At this point, the situation (at least for us, the listeners) takes a turn toward the humorous; because now, the disciples, tired, and frustrated though they must be, catch a glimpse of their Savior. Yet, rather than sensing that help is afoot; they believe that what their eyes behold is instead a ghost. And whereas they were tired and frustrated a moment before; now they are not only exhausted; they are terrified as well. With any hope of a quick getaway foiled, Jesus boards the boat and speaks to them saying: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he gets into the boat with them and the wind ceases. And they are utterly astounded.
Today’s reading underscores several important points about the nature of Jesus. First, rest is important—not only for humans, but also for God. Second like a good shepherd, Jesus places the welfare of his flock above all else. If you think about it, the job description of a shepherd is not really all that easy—yet, I consider that many of us have been in similar situations in our own lives, be it caring for our children, or others whom we love who are in need of our care. In the end, what most of us can conclude is that there is no amount of money or benefits that make jobs such as these worth doing—there is only one motivating factor—only one reason for doing what we do—and that is love.
I can still recall, before I had a child, I couldn’t imagine why it should be so difficult. From what little I observed, babies slept a lot, so why did new parents always look so tired? For myself, I thought I’d take up a hobby when we had a newborn. “After all (I reasoned to myself), I have a whopping twelve weeks of maternity leave. Why, perhaps I’ll take up a hobby, like learning how to sew!” Then our baby arrived, and I came to realize how a good night of sleep could indeed be more precious than gold.
Take a moment and picture yourself as a parent of an infant who has yet to sleep through the night. By the time the day has come to a close you have changed countless diapers, endured a round of colic, and in the short space of nap-time have worked frantically to wash dishes, scrub toilets and throw a load of wash in the dryer. By the time your child is in bed, you collapse. And then three a.m. arrives with a wail. The fact is, you don’t want to get up. You close your eyes, imagining for a fleeting moment that you are having a bad dream. For a further moment you consider whether you might be able to sleep through the racket. And then you get up, stumble to the door, bang your toe against the bedpost, and go feed the screaming soul in the room across the hall. You do this—why? For nothing short of love. Why do any of us devote our lives to children and causes, to parents and loved ones, to the hungry, the aged, to the strong of spirit and the sick of heart? Why? For love. Because, in the end, all those who love another know, that when push comes to shove, we’re going to do what has to be done for the good of those we cherish.
What this reading tells us is that life is composed of a delicate balance between work and rest; and that rarely are we given the opportunity to choose to schedule convenience in our lives. Children do not sleep on schedule. Spouses and parents get sick. Sometimes it rains when we’re on vacation, and more often than not, the phone rings the moment we’ve closed our eyes for a nap. Life is not made simple—not for us, and not for God.
The Good News is this; Jesus gives us an example of how to live in a difficult world—of how to seek balance in the midst of a world which rarely turns according to the whim of our desires. This story, if we read it well, it is really a humorous account of how difficult it can be to meet the needs, not only of ourselves, but of others as well.
How frustrated Jesus must have been as he looked into the faces of his disciples, who should have been relieved to see him, but were frightened instead. It would be hard to fail to understand if Jesus had simply thrown up his hands and made his way back to the mountain, leaving the disciples to fend for themselves—after all, didn’t they KNOW who He was by now? Instead, he climbs aboard, calms their fears and strengthens their spirits by saying: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”—in much the same way that a tired parent, exhausted from the day before, goes to a crib, lifts up a little one, pats a back, gives a kiss and puts the child back to sleep.” In the end, Jesus is not only our Savior, he is also our example. He teaches us how to live; how to balance time with God and time with those we cherish. Jesus shows us that ours is a God who will go the distance for love; walking to the top of a mountain to spend time with his Father, and over the water to the disciples he loves, and finally, up the dusty road to Golgotha to die for each one of us here. This is good news, for in this message is a lesson; a lesson for how we are all, each one of us, meant to live. In the name of our Good Shepherd. Amen.