Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling picture
July 18, 2021

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The Japanese call it shinrin yoku:  forest bathing.  Florence Williams, a journalist who writes about the connection between science and nature says that is is “More than a hike in the woods. It involves cultivating your sense to open them to the woods.  You stroll a little, write a haiku, crack open a spicebush twig and inhale its woodsy, sassy scent,”[1] It’s considered preventative medicine in Japan, and the country has invested millions of dollars in creating official “forest therapy trails.”  There are even doctors that have been certified in forest medicine. Williams’ book explores the notion that evolutionarily we are biophilic.  Certain habitats trigger a neural bath of happy hormones, and our brains have the capacity to learn how to find these habitats and re-create the experience.  Over millennia, our bodies have been formed to be happy and to recalibrate by experiencing nature.

Maybe Jesus is on to something when he says to his hardworking, likely stressed out disciples, who had just been out in the world practicing being healers and teachers for the first time.

“Come away to a deserted place.”

I haven’t always heard “a deserted place” as just being in nature, but maybe it’s a way to take Jesus seriously.  We have to get away from our buildings, both the literal ones and the metaphorical ones: the structures that we build around life, around one another, the facades we erect to make our way and do our work and raise our children.  We have to find the place where our brain knows how to start flooding our minds with hormones that make us happy again, or at least, less afraid.  A space where we can stroll, or write a little poem, inhale the scent of humus, earth, our celestial home.

The gospel text, for me, is a little parable about our real lives.  We know this about rest; about nature; about time away.  But did you notice? it never quite happens. The people who need healing and hope follow them right into their rest period.  The text even says that the people beat them to the deserted place. It would appear that there was not one moment without the pressure.

Of course, Jesus, the good shepherd, tends to the flock. He doesn’t blink an eye.  He meets the people where they are.  He’s not mad that they showed up at the retreat center during his time away.  They want to get down to the business of fixing their problems even before he gives his lecture on contemplation and the value to time away.  He doesn’t even seem to be impatient or irritable.

I always thought that Jesus was the model, the way he sees this need and responds with compassion and mercy.  We are to be like him: always loving, always caring, never resting, putting others needs first.

I’m pretty sure that it’s not good news for most of us to be told to be more like Jesus.  We try that regularly, using with pretty mixed success.  We relate to the words in the table welcome:  Those who have tried to follow Jesus, and those who have failed.  We’ve been both.

We’ve been through a pandemic, have watched our politics slide into meaner and meaner strategies. We’ve lost jobs or have seen our work changed into something that we didn’t sign up for.  Our kids had a rough year at school.  Some of them lost all the milestones that many of us had.

Maybe for this year, this summer, this morning, the word isn’t “just be better.”  Maybe the invitation is be part of the crowd, to come to Jesus, to line up, knowing that we’re starving and overwhelmed.

Like he did then, he will meet us with compassion and love and forgiveness and mercy.  He won’t even wait to give us the lecture on resting or praying more.  The truth is that there is no such thing as a deserted place.  We live in the age of resurrection.  There is only the full place; a landscape saturated with Spirit, percolating with grace, a world of complex need, demand, and disturbance that is not closed but open to newness.

We call this room a sanctuary because it houses the people of God.  It houses the embodied presence of Christ in the world:  in us, in stuff like bread and wine, in words spoken in love and prophetic challenge.  We’ve probably gained a new appreciation for this space after 15 months away, trying to make due “out there.” Some of us are still doing that, unable to return for all kinds of reasons.

Sunday morning, indeed, is the time when we come to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, to get close to him, to be healed.  Worship isn’t another program for becoming better people or working on our spiritual task list, but primarily a time to encounter and rest in the goodness of God.  Worship is not first and foremost, “productive time.”  It’s relational time, time carved out to sit with Jesus and with one another.

The idea is that if we can be with God a little more clearly for an hour, maybe we’ll begin to see all of life as a time with God–all our experiences bathed in Holy Spirit.

The only way that we’ll have any clarity about our next steps, or our strategies for changing, feeding, reconciling, or doing justice, is if we tap into the Spirit of Christ that is already within us.

“Come unto me….and I will give you rest,” Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel.

For just a bit, put your burden down.

I read a story this week about a merino sheep named Shrek.  He escaped his pen and managed to hide in caves for six years.  Primitive sheep shed their wool annually.  Domestic sheep have to be shorn.  Their wool just keeps growing.  By the time he was found by a good shepherd, he had sixty pounds of wool that was shorn.[2]

We’ve all got sixty pounds of wool…and a good shepherd has found us after a long time in our caves.

Can you rest with the good shepherd for a minute this morning?  Exhale a bit of the last 15 months; put down a bit of the burden for a spell, even the work of being a better person, better employee, better spouse, better disciple.  Just put it down.  Be present to whatever brought us here in the first place:  our hungry need, our brains that need to be flooded with a different hormone that the ones that flood it all week long, our longing to be loved, genuinely and fully loved.

Know what Jesus knew.  Love is at the center of all things.  It’s like the ruby slippers.  You’ve been wearing them all along, even when all you could feel was the hands of those scary monkeys.  If you haven’t heard it yet today, or for a very long time, hear this:  You are loved.  You are precious, beautiful, adorable, delightful, amazing, just as is every life.

We’re bathed in love.  It’s in the stars, and in the earth.   It’s in this church.  It’s in our homes.  It’s everywhere, the whole universe flooding, every expanding with the hormones of grace.

Take a stroll in it; write a little poem about it; let it flood up within you.

And then and only then, go be human with Jesus.

[1] Florence Williams, “The Nature Fix:  Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.W.W. Norton & Co, 2017, p. 18-19.

[2] “Shrek, the Sheep Who Escaped Shearing for Six Years,” Amusing Planet,