Sermon – July 22, 2018 – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

            It has been quite the summer. I’ve just returned from West Virginia with our middle school students, marking the end to the third and final trip with our middle and high school students this summer. I’ve done some calculations and, in the past month, I have spent close to 50 hours on the road and have traveled to or through 11 states. Our students and myself have worshipped by campfire, with 31,000 people, and in crowded, dusty church basements. We have spent over 40 hours in service to others and over 15 hours dwelling in scripture and reflecting on our experiences. The impact of these three trips on our students, and consequently our own community, has yet to be discovered.

            When I first began planning last fall, I knew summer three trips was an audacious goal and that it would be fulfilling, yes, but also exhausting. What I did not yet know is that, on top of these three experiences, I would also have to be saying good-bye to people and a community that I love. I am at my breaking point of exhaustion. And so, when I hear this gospel story, of the disciples returning from their first solo mission, I can feel the ache in their bones, the bags under their eyes, and the strange mix of fullness and sadness in their hearts. I feel the great relief when Jesus says to his disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.”

            Before our students and myself leave for our service-learning trips, we talk a lot about what respectful service looks like. Respectful service focuses on a communities needs, not on our own needs. Respectful service means that those whom we are serving are the experts in their own needs, not ourselves. Respectful service means that we are there to learn, not to teach. Respectful service is recognizing that we do not bring Jesus to any particular community but that Jesus is already there. Respectful service is rooted in relationship. It’s not about having pity, it’s about having compassion.

            In our gospel story for today, Jesus sees the crowds pressing towards him and his disciples and we are told that he has compassion on them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd. Note that Jesus doesn’t feel sorry for them, Jesus doesn’t pity them for their conditions, instead, Jesus has compassion for them because they were all alone.

            When we think about our role as followers of Jesus in the world, we must remember that our default posture towards others has to be compassion. Compassion is much more difficult to practice than pity, because it forces us to see each other not as something to be fixed but as an individual to be loved. Compassion is not always easy and it’s not always enjoyable. Compassion requires time, it requires really getting to know the stories of those you are in relationship with and it requires that you become vulnerable yourself. After all, being in relationship is often just offering bits of yourself to one another over and over again. Compassion is exhausting.

            This is where we get the phrase “compassion fatigue.” Compassion fatigue when your exposure to others’ needs is so great that it actually causes you become desensitized to tragedy and trauma. It’s our bodies defense mechanism to keep us from exhausting ourselves while caring for others. It shows up in feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, stress, anxiety, insomnia and self-doubt. It actually prevents us from being able to care for those around us.

            Compassion fatigue is why Jesus instructs his disciples do go away to a deserted place, all by themselves, and rest awhile. Even Jesus recognizes that we all need to take a step back to care for ourselves. Today we often hear the term self-care thrown around, and yes, self-care is really important. But self-care is more than just watching your favorite show on netflix, taking a bubble-bath, and eating chocolate. It’s more important than that. Self-care is about tending to our souls. It is about taking a step back so that we might re-focus, re-center, decompress, and debrief. Self-care is about spending time in prayer and worship so that we might discern what God might be calling us to next and so we might have the strength to follow that call.

            As my time as one of your pastors comes to an end, I am recognizing that, in this time of transition, we all might need to be called into a deserted place to rest a while. There is discernment that needs to be done, soul tending that needs to happen, questions that need to be asked. In the last three years, we have each offered bits of ourselves to each other and to our community. In these last three weeks of saying good-bye, it may feel like our hearts are a little raw, at least that’s how I am feeling. That’s another reason compassion is so difficult— compassion for another person makes saying good-bye really, really hard. So, my dear St. Matthew Family, take some time and rest.

            The reality of our life on earth is that there will always be needs. Our work as followers of Jesus will never be done until we see the Kingdom of God in it’s fullest expression. Ultimately Jesus always calls us all out of the deserted place to continue his work of healing and reconciliation. We cannot stay in a space of wilderness too long. There is work to do. And so I am confident, that in do time, you will continue using your gifts to make our world the kind of place Jesus intended it to be.

             I will not be here to witness first hand how God will continue working through this congregation but I have faith and confidence that God will. You will continue to be hospitable to everyone who walks through these doors. You will continue to be a strong voice for food justice in our community. You will continue to pour into each other and grow together as a church family. I want to encourage you to also listen for the ways in which God is calling you to uplift and use the gifts of our children and students. They not only have the skills to do this work alongside you, they have the experience. As I said in my letter to you all, they are powerful ministers of Jesus’ light, justice, and love—we, the Church, just often forget to tell them that they are. Please, in my absence, continue to tell them just how much we need them. Continue to uplift their gifts and let them lead. They have been born, baptized, and called for this work.

            As I finish, I want to offer you a blessing. We used this blessing this past week in West Virginia to end our week of service and it touches on how God’s grace and mercy continues to move us onward, even in times of transition, grief, joy, and sadness.

St. Matthew, as you move onward…

May God further broaden your perspectives,

opening your eyes wider to what is good and true,

expanding your understanding and grace for others,

so that you see the world as Jesus does.

May God continue to ignite passions within you,

drawing out the things you care about,

creating meaning from emotion,

so that your head and heart connect

in beautiful harmony.

May God never stop exposing new possibilities,

opening doors you didn’t expect,

challenging the status quo,

so that you form a faith that says “yes!”

May God keep on inspiring worthwhile pursuits,

bringing your faith to your fingertips,

placing your feet in the footsteps of Jesus,

so that you join in God’s good work for the world.

In all of your perspectives, passions, possibilities, and pursuits,

may you be confident of this:

That he who began a good work in you

will carry it on to completion in Christ Jesus.

And finally, may you intimately know the God

who faithfully, lovingly, and steadily draws you

onward.