Proper 11(B): Spiritual Oxygen Mask
By: The Rev. Lori Allen Walke
At first glance, the lectionary pericope for Proper 11 seems like an odd way to split the text. What happened to verses 35-52? Surely it was not that the community who put together the lectionary believed including those seventeen verses in between would be too much for one reading. There are plenty of lectionary selections that are longer than twenty-six verses.
The omitted verses include two important stories: the feeding of the crowd of 5,000 and Jesus walking on water. While other lectionary selections might be longer, those two stories are certainly a lot to cover in one scripture lesson. Perhaps we should be thankful we simply get the “bookends.” On the other hand, these bookends provide plenty to consider. It does require us to back up a little to see what brought Jesus and the apostles to this moment.
The scene opens with the apostles gathered around Jesus, telling him all that they had done and taught. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus had sent them out two-by-two to proclaim the gospel. It was quite an adventure for them as they, “cast out many demons, and anointed many with oil and many who were sick and cured them.” We might imagine the group, having finally made it back to each other, talking over one another, interrupting with extra details, with Jesus trying to piece together their exploits. When we put the pericope in the context of other events in the chapter, we can assume that part of the discussion included the demise of John the Baptist.
In fact, this tragedy immediately precedes our lectionary selection. After John the Baptist’s head is put on a platter for political retribution, the disciples (it is unclear whether these are disciples of John or Jesus or a mix of the two) get involved. The text is rather brief about what happened: “when his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid in in a tomb.” We can only imagine the trauma. Whether these were John’s disciples or Jesus’ disciples, they all moved in the same circles. If the authorities killed John the Baptist, what was to stop them from killing his followers? Was this a message intended to put Jesus on notice? It is not unreasonable to assume that those who cared for the body of John the Baptist wondered if they were next. While the gathering of Jesus and the apostles was certainly a reunion, it was also likely a group therapy session.
Jesus responds quickly with pastoral concern: “Come away to a deserted place by yourselves and rest a while.” The apostles are exhausted from being on the road. Ministry can be draining. There is also the murder of a prophet to process. Jesus sees it all and knows what to prescribe—time away, rest, and quiet.
I have a hunch prayer was involved. After all, Jesus was a praying machine. Jesus prays by himself, in public, in small groups, early in the morning, in the wilderness, on the mountaintop, at the table, before healings, and after healings. Jesus prays when he’s in trouble and for other people—the only situation missing is a prayer two minutes before kickoff (thanks be to God). Jesus offers the disciples a model for prayer—”pray in this way,” he says, and launches into the now familiar Lord’s Prayer. Perhaps the clearest instruction to followers of The Way comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ For Jesus, prayer goes hand-in-hand with faithfulness.
It is also a critical practice for spiritual care and renewal. Time after time, we read of Jesus stepping away to a solitary place to pray (Mark 1:35, Matthew 14:23, Luke 9:18, Luke 11:1, Luke 22:39, just to list a few examples.) Now, more than ever, the disciples need to center themselves, to eat a proper home-cooked meal, to be in communion with the Holy, and to sort through all that has happened. Jesus knows first-hand this requires intentionality, so he calls a time-out. We can imagine Jesus telling the disciples that they must take care of themselves if they are to take care of other people.
Jesus may have had a hunch of what was to come. The ministry of the disciples had caught fire. People were just as hungry for hope then as they are now. We know this because when the disciples finished their time away, crowds of people looking for the Good News immediately met them. Don’t forget—the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is in the omitted in-between verses of our bookends.
Verses 53-56 reinforce just how deeply people were drawn to the work and ministry of Jesus. Everywhere he goes, and subsequently everywhere the disciples go, people beg for healing, for care, for the Good News. Jesus is always ready to meet them, having done the necessary spiritual work. Thankfully, the disciples are too, in all likelihood because Jesus taught them how to first put their own oxygen mask before trying to help anyone else.
As we do the work of the Kingdom, as we encounter life’s deepest grief and highest joy, may we always remember that the necessity of rest and quiet for spiritual health. After all, the people need us to be ready to share the Good News with them.
The Rev. Lori Allen Walke ministers alongside the people Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City. Lori holds an undergraduate degree in Political Science and a graduate degree in Health Care Administration. Passionate about social justice and the public good, she earned her JD from Oklahoma City University School of Law in 2009 and passed the Oklahoma Bar exam the same year. She earned her Master of Divinity from Philips Theological Seminary and was ordained in the United Church of Christ in 2012. She is currently working on her Doctor of Ministry at Emory University. Lori lives in Oklahoma City with her husband, Collin Walke, State Representative for House District 87 and attorney, along with their beloved mutt, Tenzin.