Text: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (Jesus goes to the wilderness)
Jesus was an introvert — or at least that’s the sense I get from passages like the one we just heard. In it Jesus retreats to a deserted place away from the crowds.
Now, my understanding of Jesus might be clouded by the fact that I am an introvert — someone who needs time apart from people to recharge. But whether or not my guess about Jesus is correct, today — with summer finally here and at the start of a long break for me — I reflect on why all of us might want to spend time in wild places this summer.
In the gospel accounts, it is common for Jesus to retreat to the wilderness to pray, even though, as in today’s reading, the crowds often foil his attempts.
Here are some of the relevant mentions from the Gospel of Mark. In chapter one, Jesus comes to the River Jordan to be baptized by John. Immediately, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness for forty days. Then, after his first sermon in the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus slips out in the night to pray in a deserted place (Mark 1). When Jesus appoints his 12 apostles, he does so on a mountainside (Mark 3). During his ministry in Galilee, Jesus is constantly crossing the lake to gather with people on the shore away from settlements. After the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6), Jesus retreats to a mountain to pray. Jesus’ transfiguration (Mark 9) happens on a high mountain. When Jesus finally arrives in the capital city of Jerusalem for what we call Holy Week, he leaves the city every evening, except for Thursday when he eats a final meal with his friends in an upper room. But even on that night, which is the one of his arrest, Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.
Everyone in ministry – which includes all of us here – knows how the work can both feed and drain us. Whether one’s ministry is staffing The Bread Run, singing in the choir, or parenting children, sometimes we struggle to balance the spiritual joy this work brings and the weariness it can engender.
The ministry of Jesus is powerful. He calls his followers, and without hesitation they respond. He teaches with authority, which astonishes his listeners. He debates corrupt religious leaders in ways that startle his friends and helps them to repent. He casts out demons, heals the sick, and wakes the lifeless from inattention and slumber.
In all this work, Jesus is filled with joy. But sometimes he gets tired, which is probably what leads him to slip out to the desert to pray in the middle of the night or to sail across the Sea of Galilee when the crowds become too much.
In this way, Jesus models both self-giving love and self-care. It is not only you and I that need to monitor our stress levels. Even Jesus seems to do this.
Many of us feel closest to God in nature. We crave the solitude of a hike through a mountain meadow. It can remind us that the God who is Love is also a God of mystery, power, and beauty.
On the other hand, much of what we call Sacred originates in cities. It is only with the rise of civilization 6,000 years ago that humanity’s spiritual impulses were shaped into community rituals, theological concepts, and religious institutions.
Humans are animals: creatures of cosmic and biological history. We are dependent on sunlight, soil, and other lifeforms large and small. When we leave the city to spend time in nature, we connect to the earthly side of the sacred.
But we are social animals, ones imbued with a consciousness that is dependent on language and all the technology that language facilitates. Humans are unique in the web of life because social and linguistic evolution has given us so much more power and creativity than other species.
Some people are extroverts, who, I understand, gain energy by plunging into the thick of the community. They are the life of the party; people who look forward to spending time with family and friends in the summer more than they do to times of solitude by the shores of rivers, lakes and oceans or in the quiet of forests, grasslands, and desert highways.
But whether one is an introvert or an extrovert, we all need both solitude and community. Anyone can gain from walking barefoot on a beach or gazing up at the clouds while floating on a northern lake. Anyone can gain by talking with loved ones and strangers about the joys and pain of living and by sharing what is possible as fellow pilgrims on life’s spiritual journeys.
I like to stretch the metaphor of wilderness beyond the natural world. The wilds can be found inside of us as well as outside. Some of the wilderness to which we can retreat might be our deepest feelings, whether painful ones like grief or joyous ones that accompany a new love.
We might encounter the wilds of ecstasy while listening to music or reading a novel. We might encounter the wilds of rage when discussing the abuse of refugee children by the U.S. government or the pollution of the oceans.
There is also wildness to be found in community. This might include the fierce joy we experience in a protest march or an epiphany shared with members of an audience at a performance of Shakespeare at Hawrelak Park.
The wilds available to us are many. Some may terrify. Some may delight and lift us into closer communion with each other and God.
My prayer for this summer is that we will all encounter wilderness – with loved ones and friends; in engagement with works of art; in time spent alone with untamed oceans and mountains; and in moments of heart-felt connection with ourselves, the web of life, and God. I hope that we will return from these wild places feeling recharged and refreshed.
May the wilds of summer 2018 transform us, bless us, and guide us back to ministry in family, church and neighbourhood. May we return more confident that the Christ of both the city and the desert is within us and beside us.
May it be so. Amen.