Once I preached a sermon on marriage here at Calvin Presbyterian. You can get yourself in trouble as a single man preaching on marriage. I know enough to know the things I don’t know so I did the best I could. Many of you said I did a decent job. I thank you for your generosity.
But as a single minister I feel I know a lot about loneliness and solitude. Ministry can be a lonely profession. Maybe it’s the impossibly high expectations, maybe it’s the having to move a lot, maybe it is wondering how close you should get to your sheep, maybe it’s the marrying people, maybe it’s the burying people. Maybe it is being welcomed into the lives of so many but being apart from the lives of so many that makes us ministers feel alone in a crowd. The ministry teaches you a lot about joy. It teaches you a lot about suffering. It teaches you about trust. It teaches you about betrayal. It teaches you about hope. It teaches you about loss. It teaches you about loneliness. And it teaches you how to move from loneliness to solitude.
Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline, has this to say about the discipline of solitude. “Jesus calls us from loneliness to solitude. The fear of being left alone petrifies people. A new child in the neighborhood sobs to her mother, “ No one ever plays with me.” A college freshman years for his high school days when he was the center of attention: “Now I’m nobody.” A business executive sits dejected in her office, powerful, yet alone. An old woman lies in a nursing home waiting to go “Home”.
There is a difference between loneliness and solitude. To truly be present with others we must be able to be alone with ourselves. If we could only cultivate that stillness of spirit we would realize that we are never truly alone. In Matthew chapter 6 Jesus tells us when we pray to go into our room, lock the door, and pray in secret. The text suggests that our Father “is” in secret. God exists in secret in a way that is different than when we are around other people. In the silence love speaks because there is no one else to love us when we alone but God. Jesus knew this truth. The pattern of Jesus’ ministry was after he had ministered to the crowds he would go off to a desolate place to be alone. And in today’s passage he teaches his disciples to do the same. What can our scriptures today teach us about solitude?
- Solitude provides us rest
- Solitude provides us steadfast love
- Solitude provides us power
Right before our passage in Mark Jesus had sent out his twelve disciples to the surrounding country side. It told them to bring nothing for the journey. Instead, they were to teach, cast out demons, and heal. The gifts that Jesus’ disciples provided were spiritual gifts provided to them by God. In return God would provide for the apostles through the hospitality of strangers. One problem I have noticed in ministry is the church monopolizes giving. We don’t allow those we serve to give to us. Jesus tells us it is better to receive (Acts 20:35). When we give it gives us pride and joy that we are able to provide for those we love. Much of the shame around poverty is you can’t do that. That’s why so much ministry doesn’t result in people coming to church or welcoming us into their homes. Because they think they have nothing to give to us. But when we put ourselves in a place where we not only give but receive love a great spiritual power begins to flow that attracts people to us and us to them.
This sort of ministry is successful and thus it is exhausting. Jesus’ disciple return and told Jesus about everything they taught and did. And because their ministry was powerful that had developed quit a following. People were coming and going to see Jesus and his disciples. They didn’t even have enough time to eat. So Jesus says, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest for a while.” Jesus is trying to teach them what he always did after a hard day of work, after a hard day of ministry. Mark 1:35 records after healing and casting demons out of a crowd Jesus arose early to go and pray in a desolate place. The disciples had to search for him for they did not know where he had gone. But now Jesus is showing them where he goes to recharge. He is inviting them into the mystery of his power and love.
The first thing that solitude helps us with is rest. Who are we when we are not doing anything? Who are we when we are not being useful to someone? Who are we when our spouse is not around? Who are we when our children are not around? Who are we when we have no sermon to preach, no one to comfort, no flock to shepherd? I spent about four months searching between churches. Jesus speaks of sheep without a shepherd but I was a shepherd without his sheep. And I struggled in that time of transition. I struggled during that time I was alone. I am sure you have had to struggle with such questions during times of transitions. I found a park in downtown Harrisonburg where I could watch a creek and seek the Lord in silence. Have you found a place where you can seek Him? Often it helps our minds to designate a place for that.
The disciples seem to understand that seeking solitude leads to rest. But they don’t seem to get the second point that Jesus was trying to teach. Seeking solitude leads to steadfast love. Jesus acknowledges that the disciples are tired. They have been ministering so much that they did not even have time to eat. That’s why they get on a boat and go off to a desolate place. But Jesus doesn’t get mad when the crowds follow him and interrupt their quiet time. Instead the scripture says to us, “ When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like a sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus did not see the crowd as an interruption but as an opportunity. What would life be like if we stopped seeing interruptions as interruptions but as opportunities for ministry? How did Jesus do this? The Sunday school answer is well he is Jesus. And that is a good answer. But the scriptures tell us he had compassion. He had steadfast love. Yet, the disciples don’t seem to get it. Jesus taught rather late, the church service went way over because Jesus knew the masses needed to be fed spiritually. But the disciples do not have the same compassion that Jesus does for the crowds for they say, “ This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” The thought that they should even try to give the crowd something to eat didn’t come to mind for the disciples. For they were tired. They didn’t care.
Pslam 62 says that steadfast love belongs to the Lord. We cannot obtain steadfast love unless we seek the Lord in solitude. And we desperately need steadfast love today The Hebrew word for steadfast love is Hesed and it is one of the most important concepts in the Old Testament. It is often translated as “steadfast love, loving kindness, or loyal love.” Perhaps the best demonstration of steadfast love in the Bible is the story of Ruth and Naomi in the book of Ruth. In the book of Ruth a famine arises in the land of Israel. So a man named Elimelech journeys to the land of Moab with his wife Naomi and their two sons. But Elimelch died leaving his wife a widow with two sons Mahlon and Chilion. These sons married two Moabite women Orphah and Ruth. After ten years the sons died. So Naomi was left without any support from her husband or her sons. In that society this would be considered a slow death sentence.
Naomi tells her daughter in laws to leave her for she has nothing to give them. The scriptures tell us that Orpah kisses her mother in law, perhaps as a sign of goodbye, a sign that she is taking her mother in laws advice. But Ruth clings to Naomi and declares, “ Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
Hesed is a bond that is stronger than your urge to survive. It is a love that is faithful. It binds one to another in a covenant cut out of a bond that is stronger than stone. Ruth says her love for Naomi cannot be broken except by death. The Lord says his love cannot be broken even by death. Recently, David Ornt gave his testimony about being a Dad, and how his journey as a Father related to his faith. He described his love for his girls this way, “In my search for the perfect words to explain what being a Dad feels like; they found me while I was reading Stewart Scott’s book “Every Day I Fight”. Not all of you will know who Stewart is but he is an ESPN personality that died from a rare form of cancer a few years ago. Before he died he wrote a book about his fight with cancer as well as just his life in general. In his book you can tell he has a genuine love for his daughters as well as his love of being a Dad. In one chapter he says: “When that baby is put into your arms, she is instantaneously set apart from everyone else in your life, even your significant other. When you first meet your child, she becomes the only person – ever – with whom you are already deeply, deeply in love. And the love does nothing but grow from there.”
Though I am not a parent I have heard this description of a parent’s love for their child before. You love them for the mere fact that they exist. And through all the joy and all the sorrow that love only grows. That is the love we have for our biological children and even our adopted children. But human love ends at death the Lord’s love is an undying love. What does the Apostle Paul say in Romans 8:31-38, 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be[a]against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.[b] 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Another thing that the disciples did not realize is that solitude give us power from the LORD. As Isaiah says, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:27-31)
Even if the disciples had compassion on the crowd they didn’t think they had the power to feed 5,000 men and probably 10,000 people, since women and children were not included in that count. But with five loaves and two fishes Jesus fed the crowd and had twelve baskets left over. The common pattern with miracles in the Bible is that when people asked Jesus to perform a miracle to show off, to prove that he was the son of God, Jesus refused. But when people were hungry, when people were sick, when people were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd, Jesus was willing to use divine power in the aid of steadfast love. Why don’t we see as many miracles today? Part of it may be because that is just not God’s will for every particular situation. But our text suggests today that power flows with divine love, and if we are not seeing divine power in our ministry, it is because we are not loving people with God’s love. For power and steadfast love belong to the LORD.
Henri Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic Priest and theologian. He taught at Notre Damn for much of his life but in 1986 he joined the community of L’Arche Daybreak in Toronto, Canada. These are communities that minister to people with mental disabilities. Any one with a child with such disabilities knows the great joy, sorrow, community, and loneliness, that can come from carrying for those with disabilities. Mary Hecht knows much about this ministry because that is what St. Mary’s children’s home does. Ministering in L’Arche taught Nouwen a lot about power and steadfast love. I would like to end this sermon by sharing his words from his collection, Out of Solitude.
“To care means first of all to empty our own cup and to allow the other to come close to us. It means to take away the many barriers which prevent us from entering into communion with the other. When we dare to care, then we discover that nothing human is foreign to us, but that all the hatred and love, cruelty and compassion, fear and joy can be found in our own hearts. When we dare to care, we have to confess that when others kill, I could have killed too. When others torture, I could have done the same. When others heal, I could have healed too. And when others give life, I could have done the same. Then we experience that we can be present to the soldier who kills, to the guard who pesters, to the young man who plays as if life has no end, and to the old man who stopped playing out of fear for death.
By honest recognition and confession of our human sameness we can participate in the care of God, who came, not to the powerful but powerless, not to be different but the same, not to take our pain away but to share it. Through this participation we can open our hearts to each other and form a new community.” This is not a community that we can create by seeking it. It is a by product of God’s power and steadfast love. It happens when we are seeking solitude.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.