As Jesus stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. (Mark 6:34)
So, in today’s Gospel, Jesus and the Apostles go on holiday!
Just like the school children and the teachers and so many others, they set off for a bit of a break.
Last week, in the Gospel we heard about the urgent, almost frantic mission which Jesus gave to his apostles, to go out two by two, to preach to all who would listen, to move rapidly from place to place shaking the dust off their feet as they went. And now, the mission successfully completed, it is time to go off to a quiet place for a bit of relaxation. ‘You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while,’ Jesus says (Mark 6:31). Their mission had been a bit too successful, and they were pressed by the crowds, and just had to get away.
Except, of course, it all goes wrong. The crowd guess where they are going, and get there before them. And the work continues …
Of course, it won’t be the first holiday, the first break, to be disrupted or broken into. I don’t doubt there are many here who have had a long or short break disrupted by a family crisis, or unexpected visitors or a sudden need to attend to an urgent matter from work.
And nowadays, with the mobile phone, it is almost impossible to get away. Many years ago there used to be appeals on the radio: “Here is an urgent appeal for John Smith, last known to be holidaying in Norfolk, to contact the nearest police station, for important information …” Nowadays of course, you’d just get a text …
This kind of disruption is a particular risk for the priest, just as it was for the apostles. We live “over the shop” and are easy to find.
I remember once walking on the beach at Southport in Lancashire. Now if you know that lovely resort you will know that the beach is extensive, and you need to walk miles to reach the sea. It was a midweek break and I walk arm in arm with my wife, not a person in sight, then a voice, a child’s voice I think, rang out “Fr Peter!” I looked in every direction - but could see no one!
Of course, for many caring professionals, unlike priests, it IS possible to switch off from responsibilities, and have the calls diverted to someone else. The Doctor, the Lawyer, the Social Worker, (perhaps even the police officer!) can take a break, safe in the knowledge that someone else is looking after their caseload, and the urgent calls are forwarded elsewhere. The priest, however, is a bit different. Any priest can administer the sacraments, but parishioners often don’t want any priest, but their priest. And even when the priest is away he may be recognised, or be called upon to defend the faith in some way, or … like Jesus and the apostles in the Gospel, realise that there are people in need who are like sheep without a shepherd … it is impossible for a priest, a good priest, someone called by God to this caring ministry, just to walk away.
But of course - priests are not unique in this. Do not compare the priest to the Doctor, Lawyer, Social Worker, the “caring professional”. Compare the priest rather to the Mother, the Father, the Son or Daughter, the Brother or Sister, because … to misquote the story of the brothers Cain and Abel … I am my brother’s keeper. Family ties, can and do overrule holidays, and our own quiet time. …
No - this is not a Gospel that teaches us about the caring professions, about high professional standards, at all. It is a Gospel which is about compassion, about mercy, about generosity, about love, love of our neighbour, even love of those who do not love us. It is about humanity, and about Christianity in which all are our brothers and sisters. Despite the words in todays readings about the Shepherds, this Gospel is not even about priesthood … But it is about what it means to be Church. About the mutual caring for one another, about valuing and nurturing every member of Christ’s flock.
And so, it is about Baptism. The Baptism we, all Christians share in Christ. Already a children of God through our humanity, we became one of the redeemed through baptism, one of his precious flock, a member of his family. We are joined together in the Unity of the Church, and also in its mission of compassion and love. Like the Apostles, following the example of Christ himself, we are called to care, beyond the responsibility of the moment, as a duty throughout life. May we always be blessed by God, and strengthened by his Grace to live out our responsibilities, as brothers and sisters in Christ.
At St Catherine’s, Birmingham at Sunday Mass 19 July 2015.