Text: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (Jesus pursued by the crowds)
My sojourn in the wilderness began four years ago in July 2011. For my first full-time position after ordination, I was placed in Borderlands, a pastoral charge of three churches in southern Saskatchewan along the border with Montana. It wasn’t a literal wilderness, of course. Most of the land was either under cultivation or used for ranching. I lived in a suburban manse with high-speed Internet and all the amenities of 21st Century life. But the sparseness of the population made me view my two and half years in Borderlands as a sort of wilderness retreat.
In 2011, when I found out where I had been placed, I was dismayed. The border between Saskatchewan and Montana is one of the least populated parts of southern Canada. And the small number of people there is in decline as ranches and farms grow in size and services of all kinds, including churches, disappear.
This area was the last part of southern Canada to be settled by non-Native people. Homesteading occurred between 1910 and 1912 and the towns of Coronach, Rockglen and Fife Lake weren’t founded until the late 1920s when a CPR spur line was built. Since World War II, farming has been mechanized. The number of people has declined, the countryside has gone dark, and scores of towns have disappeared.
A movement has recently arisen in northern Montana to return the land to wilderness since population there is small and declining as well. In Canada when ranchers put their land up for sale, Grasslands National Park west of where I lived often buys them to add to that wilderness park.
I loved the beauty of Borderlands – the rolling hills, the badlands of the Big Muddy Valley to our east, and a huge sky arching over endless expanses of prairie. On some trips to and from Moose Jaw or Regina, I saw more wildlife than other vehicles. Abandoned farm houses dotted the landscape.
I found it odd to live in a region with few people when world population is growing. On an average day, the human race increases by about 200,000 people or by the equivalent of one new Saskatchewan every five days; and yet the border area between Canada and Montana continues to lose people.
The decline in population will reverse if the fracking boom in North Dakota and eastern Saskatchewan moves west to the shale that lies beneath Borderlands. But with this year’s decline in oil prices, the spread of that boom is now in doubt.
Church life is not very active there. We were lucky to have 30 people in worship in all three churches combined on any given Sunday. There were no committees and little outreach work. One thing that kept me busy was funerals. The funeral director who worked out of Assiniboia handled about 100 funerals a year. He once grimly remarked that his job was to bury the county since there were far more funerals than births.
I was only one of two paid clergy people in the region. The other was a Catholic priest from Poland. Our isolation from other clergy felt strange to me. There were also no doctors, dentists, electricians, car dealers or fast food outlets. There seemed to be little of anything other than coyotes, antelope, deer, hawks and turkey buzzards!
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ students have returned from their first efforts at ministry without Jesus. He leads them to a deserted place to rest since they have been so busy they don’t even have time to eat.
But when they get to the wilderness, they find that the crowds have rushed to be there ahead of them. Jesus responds with compassion. He continues teaching and healing because the people seem to him like sheep without a shepherd.
Like any reading from the Bible, there are many ways to interpret this passage. Here is one take.
The needs that Jesus encounters in the wilderness might not just be those of the people of Galilee who have come to trust and rely on him. They could also be the needs of himself and his disciples.
When we retreat to a deserted place, we bring ourselves with us. “Wherever you go, there you are,” is a phrase that captures this idea.
In the quiet of the wilderness we may be able to tune into our own needs more clearly. Without many distractions, we might encounter the clamour of the world’s needs in our hearts and minds.
The needs of this world seem infinite. Parents who try to be present to their children know this. Churches that try to bind up some of the wounds of their neighbourhoods know this. Activists who try to mend a society torn apart by pollution, war, and other forms of violence know this.
Today’s Gospel story says that Jesus responds with compassion, which means “suffering with.” Jesus suffers with us and so mysteriously helps us to heal.
When I was in Borderlands, our numbers were few. But we were like anyone else – people with stories of great joy and pathos. Like anyone else, we yearned for relief from pain, for a sense of purpose with which to channel our passion and wonder, and for healing in lives of joy and loss.
The ministry of our churches did not fulfill those needs on its own. Instead, it pointed to the symbol of Jesus as the One who walks with us.
Spiritual healing comes from an awareness that God suffers and celebrates with us. As the ground of Life and Love, God supports this moment in all its chaos and glory. God in Christ is a symbol of the presence of Spirit that makes the pain and fragility of our brief lives bearable and reminds us that they are lives shot through with divine peace and joy.
I was glad to be called to Edmonton after two and half years in Borderlands. In order to learn and grow in ministry and to be with friends, colleagues, and family, I returned to city life. But after I had been here for a few months, I was surprised to find that I missed the beauty of the landscape, the wild emptiness of the highways and byways, and the unique people with whom I had shared life and ministry for those 36 months in Borderlands.
When I served communion in my last service there on December 29, 2013, I was struck with grief to know this was the last time I would have this privilege. I don’t know when I will next be in that part of the world. But when it happens, I will feel joy and gratitude to be back.
When I left that isolated area to come to a city with as many people in it as the whole of Saskatchewan, my own needs moved with me, of course. And so here in a big city, we also take time each week to wander in the “wilderness” of worship so that we might glimpse again a divine companion who walks with us.
When we set aside time for Sabbath and worship we are not just recovering from life’s many demands. We are making space to encounter life’s needs and the divine compassion that meets them.
Vacation or worship might feel like a retreat from life. But when we take a break, relax, and breathe deeply, we sometimes also glimpse the needs of the world and the God in Christ who suffers and celebrates with us.
And so we retreat from daily life in vacations, in times in the wilderness, and in regular prayer and worship. In any of those practices we may both restore our energy and encounter the Spirit of the Living God who shares our feelings and walks with us towards deep healing.
Thanks be to God.