July 18

Finding Rest

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Click here to hear just the sermon

At the Boston University School of Theology, most students pursuing a Master of Divinity degree must take a course called “Contextual Education.” This course immerses the student in field education – in a faith-based setting like a church or a nonprofit. Our regular congregation members are familiar with these students. We have had many of them help lead our weekly services over the years and participated in their growth and learning while they were here. One unique thing about this year-long course is that there is a required learning component. Each student, when they develop their learning agreement with their site, must include a Sabbath practice which they will undertake at least weekly. Some choose a traditional spiritual practice, like reciting the daily offices of prayer in the Episcopal tradition; others choose to spend time outdoors, walking mindfully in their surroundings as the seasons change; still others may choose to undergo a true 24-hour sabbath in which they do not engage in schoolwork or take a break from technology.

The point of requiring sabbath as a learning opportunity is to remind students that their vocations will require a large amount of energy expended for others in ways not encountered in a traditional 9 to 5 job. Rest and rejuvenation is an essential part of all of our lives, but for those in helping professions in which handling the emotions and spiritual wellbeing of others is an essential part, care for the self becomes a critical part of maintaining balance and boundaries. I have had the privilege of supervising and mentoring a handful of contextual education students over the years that I have served as University Chaplain. I have found that Sabbath keeping has often been the most challenging assignment for students to remember and adhere to. This is not to say that all students struggle with this aspect – in fact, I’ve had some students who have found the “requirement” sabbath keeping as part of this course to be a natural fit with their Iifestyles. However, for those who struggle with this aspect of their learning, it’s not because they don’t want to take time to slow down and connect with something larger than themselves. Instead, it is usually tied to their feeling that they must be constantly busy or productive, or that the demands of graduate school, an internship, and/or working a job does not afford them the luxury of rest. Instilling this observance of sabbath is an essential part of training those who will go into ministry, but really is applicable to any person in any vocation.

Self-care and work-life balance have become common place buzzwords today. In the events of the past year, many of us have struggled to find moments of rest and replenishment, whether it’s because of the lack of a physical separation from our workspace, an increased workload, an inability to safely travel, or simply the weight of the world’s news that keeps us from finding rest. Some of us may have been able to achieve some semblance of this balance, building in new routines (walks, meditation, time for prayer) into our new schedule. In our own ways we discovered or rediscovered means of stepping away from the difficult challenges faced in the past year. We need a break. We need to recharge. We need a new perspective, a change of scenery, a stop.

Today’s gospel reading begins with Jesus reminding the apostles that maintaining rest is an important part of ministry. You may remember that a few weeks ago in our lectionary readings, Jesus sent the apostles out, two by two, to heal and teach others in the surrounding area. He sent them out without any provisions other than their staff, a tunic, and sandals, with the advice that if they were not welcome, they should just shake it off and go to the next town. The term “apostle” here is not referring necessarily to the “The Twelve Apostles” but rather is a generalized term related to the Greek “apostello” which means “to send out (with a message).” Therefore these are the people Jesus has sent out with a message of healing and repentance, to spread among the people. Apparently the apostles had been very successful in their apostello. Upon returning to Jesus, they were so sought after by the people who heard of their ministry that they had no time to even eat! Jesus directs the apostles that they are to go to a deserted place and rest for a while. The apostles listen to Jesus because he has directed them successfully in their ministry thus far. They have built a relationship of trust in Him and his teachings. He is a successful leader, a compassionate and good Shepherd.

Their rest doesn’t last long, however. Even though they’ve made passage on a boat to go to this secluded place of rest, the people who have heard of Jesus and his apostles gather in crowds and follow them along the shorelines. For me, this description invokes that famous beginning scene of “A Hard Day’s Night” in which the Beatles are trying to hide or outrun groups of teenage fans who are chasing them in hopes of touching or being close to them. In my mind I see people clamoring for Jesus with the group getting larger and larger with each town they encounter. A growing flock of people all driven in the direction of their shepherd. Unlike the Beatles, however, Jesus assesses the situation and decides that the proper thing to do in this situation is not to hide or try to outrun the people. Instead, he forgoes his rest and addresses those in need.

In all of our readings today, we have heard the theme of shepherding over and over again. In Jeremiah, the Lord warns against destructive shepherds who fail to lead the people on a path of righteousness and compares the people of Israel to “Sheep without a Shepherd.” In Psalm 23, we hear the familiar words of how the Lord acts as our shepherd, caring for and protecting us from evil. In the gospel, Mark compares the people on the shoreline with shepherdless sheep, echoing the sentiments of the Jeremiah text that they are in need of care and effective leadership.

Shepherding is one of the oldest professions. In the agrarian nomadic culture of the ancient Israelites, it was well known as an occupation for the poor. Shepherds are not farmers – while they may be tied to a farm eventually for the economic purposes of sheep (shearing and meat production) they are independent in their task of tending and protecting their flock. Being a shepherd is a tough job. It is all consuming at times, especially when lambing season comes. It requires care, fortitude, attention, and an ability to set boundaries.

We are familiar with the imagery of the Good Shepherd. In fact, looking at the back of the chapel as I speak right now, I can see Jesus depicted as the Good Shepherd in the large stained glass window above the balcony. In one hand Jesus holds a shepherd’s staff, outstretching his other hand to the congregation, inviting them in. To the left, a window depicting women and children who gaze upon him, and on the right a mixture of other adults adoring him. “Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep” it states above the images of the people. Jesus is the Good Shepherd because he loves and cares for his flock. We are reminded of the actions of a Good Shepherd in the text of

Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd; I lack for nothing

He makes me lie down in green pastures

He leads me to water where I may rest;

He revives my spirit:

For his name’s sake he guides me in the right paths.

Even were I to walk through a valley of deepest darkness

I should fear no harm, for you are with me,

Your shepherd’s staff and crook afford me comfort.

You spread a table for me in the presence of my enemies;

You have richly anointed my head with oil,

And my cup brims over.

Goodness and love unfailing will follow me

All the days of my life,

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord throughout the years to come.

The use of the term shepherd fits for the kind of work Jesus does. He provides his sheep with what they need (see the feeding of the 5,000 which is actually contained in the verses omitted from this week’s lectionary reading). He knows the appropriate actions in the appropriate season, including when to rest and when to be active. He shows his care through acts of healing and disregard for human-created laws that interfere with the work of God. He guides and sets boundaries through his teachings. He protects his flock from evil.  Even more than that, he knows how to tend to new flocks of sheep, even if he has never encountered them before.

I see today’s gospel lesson as the story of two flocks. The first is the group of apostles. This is the small flock with whom Jesus has developed extensive relationship. They have learned from him. They trust his words and actions. They have been entrusted by him to carry the power of healing to others and to share his teachings with the wider world with the knowledge that they will continue to follow him and return to him for their continued growth and strength. The second flock are all those people who have heard of Jesus and “recognize” him from what they have been told by others. They probably do not know the full extent of his teachings. They definitely do not know that he is the Son of God. Many of them probably know that he and his group of disciples heal people. That is reason enough for them to get excited and seek him out. Imagine how the stories shared about Jesus and his miracles must have sounded after they had passed from city to city, gaining momentum as his infamy continues. A miracle man who has healed many who were on the verge of death, or had no hope for healing is making himself available to others. No wonder they flocked to see him! These two flocks still need the guidance of Jesus, but their needs are dictated by their current relationship with Jesus. The first flock, Flock A let’s call them, composed of the apostles have different needs than Flock B, the flock of the sick and uninformed.

Flock B consists of those who have great needs. Remember they are the sheep without a shepherd. They have no one to care for them, to guide them. They are literally running themselves ragged trying to find Jesus to solve their problems. If you’ve ever seen sheep without the guidance of a shepherd or a sheep dog, or ineffective shepherding, you may not realize how quickly things can go wrong. Because sheep are a flocking animal, they travel in a large group. This helps naturally protect them from predators, but it also can make it very difficult to stop them once they all start heading in the same direction. Shepherds are effective in drawing boundaries for the sheep to ensure their safety – keeping them in the good grazing areas and protecting them from predators. Without even those basic needs being met, the sheep, while having some natural inclinations for self-preservation, are more likely to find themselves in unsafe conditions. Jesus sees that these people are in danger because they lack the guidance and care of effective leadership. Even though the disciples need rest, Jesus sees that the crises these people are facing is of utmost importance. The members of Flock B also need rest, in the form of existential calming. Rest will come for all. Love must come first.

Flock A is more like a domesticated flock. They have come to know and depend on their shepherd. They have had their basic needs met (well, with the exception of being so busy that they have no time to eat). Jesus recognizes that this flock, who has been consistent, has gone out to serve others, has done their best to serve God, needs a break. One, for obvious reasons of burnout – people cannot keep working efficiently without time away from their job. But secondly, a spiritual life is one of balance. It requires both activity and contemplation. While many of us may see our task as Christians to love and serve others, we must also have opportunities for spiritual refreshment in hearing the Word proclaimed, nourishing ourselves in holy communion, and taking time to connect with our Creator through prayer and meditation. On the flip side, contemplation without action is not a fully realized Christian life either. Faith should lead to good works in service of others. In a cyclical fashion, rest and action, contemplation and service to others, feed each other in maintaining a healthy balance.

The balance of our work and life, our spiritual activity and contemplation, our outwardness and inwardness is something explored by a wide variety of writers, but perhaps none better than the great agrarian poet and essayist and devout Christian, Wendell Berry. Berry, who owns a farm in rural Kentucky, advocates for the slowing down of life, a turn away from consumerism, of reconnecting with nature, of understanding the earth and all of its cycles. As a farmer, Berry has kept his own flock of sheep, although now in diminished numbers due to his age and ability to care for them. Berry has consistently written poems reflecting Sabbath practice mixed with his agrarian lifestyle for over 40 years. One such poem, number IX from 1991 entitled “The Farm” encapsulates the rhythm of farming life through Berry’s poetic lens. In this excerpt from two sections of the poem, Berry highlights the challenges of the daily work of tending sheep and provides reflection on the need for rest and quiet in a secluded place, not unlike the messages we heard in today’s gospel. He writes:

Near winter’s end, your flock

Will bear their lambs, and you

Must be alert, out late

And early at the barn,

To guard against the grief

You cannot help but feel

When any young thing made

For life falters at birth

And dies. Save the best hay

To feed the suckling ewes.

Shelter them in the barn

Until the grass is strong,

Then turn them out to graze

The green hillsides, good pasture

With shade and water close.

Then watch for dogs, whose sport

Will be to kill your sheep

And ruin all your work.

Or old Coyote may

Become your supper guest,

Unasked and without thanks;

He’ll just excerpt a lamb

And dine before you know it.

But don’t because of that,

Make war against the world

And its wild appetites…


To rest, go to the woods

Where what is made is made

Without your thought or work.

Sit down; begin the wait

For small trees to grow big,

Feeding on earth and light.

Their good result is song

The winds must bring, that trees

Must wait to sing, and sing

Longer than you can wait.

Soon you must go. The trees,

Your seniors, standing thus,

Acknowledged in your eyes,

Stand as your praise and prayer.

Your rest is in this place

Of what you cannot be

And what you cannot do.


But make your land recall,

In workdays of the fields,

The Sabbath of the woods.

We are not all shepherd-less sheep. We have the guidance, love, and care of our Good Shepherd. He has taught us the ways in which we can reach out to others and share the good news of his life and ministry, growing our flock, bringing in those who may be lost or shepherd-less. He sets boundaries for us, reminding us where the good places to rest are and taking care of us when we are most in need through our faith in Him. Just as we must find balance in the social and physical aspects of our lives, experiencing times of activity and times of rest, we must also strive to seek the balance necessary to feed our spiritual lives as well. In Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we can find that rest.

Rest is holy. Rest is sacred. Amen.

Wendell Berry, 1991:XI “The Farm” in A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979 – 1997, Washington, D.C. Counterpoint publishers, 1998. P. 137-138, 147.

-Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

Comments are closed.