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16th Sunday of the Year
Jeremiah 23:1–6; Ephesians 2:13–18; Mark 6:30–34

Four Shepherds
When our responsibilities threaten to crush us, we should turn to God in prayer.

One name stood out above all the rest in the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s. That was the name Martin Luther King.

King was the undisputed leader of millions of black Americans.
He was their hero.
He was their spokesman.
He was their shepherd.

Without him, black people in those years would’ve been like the people in today’s gospel. They would’ve been like sheep without a shepherd.

King and his close associates were like Jesus and his disciples in another way. They too found it impossible to go off alone by themselves for some peace and quiet.

For example,
one night after a hectic day in Montgomery, Alabama,
King had just gone to bed. His wife, Coretta, had already fallen asleep.  Just as he was about to doze off, the telephone rang.

He picked it up quickly to keep it from waking Coretta.
An angry voice on the other end said, “Listen, Nigger,
we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week,
you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.”
The caller than hung up.

Suddenly all of King’s fears came tumbling down on him
like a collapsed building. All his courage deserted him.

He got up, went to the kitchen, and heated a pot of coffee.
He sat down and tried to think of a way that he could remove himself from the situation in Montgomery without appearing to be a coward.

At that moment, with his courage gone, he bowed his head and prayed to God. He said something like this:

“Lord, I’m taking a stand for what I think is right. But now I’m afraid, terribly afraid. People are looking to me to lead them. But if I appear to be frightened, they too will become afraid. I am at the end of my rope. I don’t know what to do.
I can no longer face this responsibility alone.”

The most striking lines in Dr. King’s prayer are the ones where he says, “People are looking to me to lead them.
But if I appear to be frightened, they too will become afraid.”

In other words, to borrow the expression in today’s gospel,
they will be like sheep without a shepherd.

Every pastor of a parish, every teacher of a class,
every parent of a family can identify with Dr. King’s words.

There are times in life when we feel the responsibility of leadership in a frightening way.
There are times in life when we feel we can no longer carry the burden that has been placed upon us.

There are times in life when we feel like Jesus who cried out
in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible,
take this cup of suffering from me!” Matthew 26:39

When times of crisis like this come, what should we do?

We should do what Jesus did.
We should do what Martin Luther King did.
We should do what Christians have always done.
We should turn to God in prayer.

Right after Jesus prayed to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, Luke says, “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.” Luke 22–43

And right after Dr. King prayed to God on that memorable night in Montgomery, he said he felt the strengthening presence of God as he had never felt it before.

The lesson for us is clear.

When we feel crushed by some heavy burden,
we should do what Jesus did.
We should do what Martin Luther King did.
We should turn to God in prayer.

One of the military leaders in the North during the Civil War was General Sickles.

General Sickles tells us that shortly before the Battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln felt crushed by the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. Instinctively he turned to God in prayer.

Commenting on that prayer, Lincoln himself said:

“Never before had I prayed with such earnestness.
I wish I could repeat my prayer.
I felt that I must put all my trust in Almighty god. . . .
He alone could save the nation from destruction.”

When Lincoln rose from his knees, he said:

“I felt my prayer was answered. . . .
I had no misgiving about the result.”

In a similar vein, but in a more humorous way,
Harry Truman told reporters after his first full day as president:

“Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you,
but when they told me yesterday what had happened,
I felt like the moon, the stars, and the planets had fallen on me.”

Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln,
Harry Truman, Martin Luther King—all four of these shepherds did the same thing when responsibility crushed them. They turned to God in prayer.

In each case, God gave them the courage and strength to continue to shepherd their people.

There’s a practical message here for each one of us.
It is simply this:

When heavy burdens threaten to crush us, we too should turn to God in prayer. If we do, God will strengthen us,
just as he strengthened these shepherds.

Let’s close by paraphrasing today’s responsorial psalm:

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He guides me in right paths for his name’s sake.

“Though I walk in the valley of darkness, I will not fear.
Thought I be crushed by heavy burdens, I will not falter.

“For the Lord walks beside me. He steadies me and strengthens me.

“And when my life fades, like the fading sunset, he will escort me into his home to live with him for ever and ever.”

Series II
16th Sunday of the Year
Jeremiah 23:1–6; Ephesians 2:13–18; Mark 6:30–34

Finding Sanctuary
We all need to set aside a few minutes of each day to pause and pray.

Some years back, the Wall Street Journal carried a
front-page article entitled “At Some Companies Every Day Is Marked by Religious Exercises.’’ It went on to say that a case in point is Service Master Industries in Downers Grove, Illinois.

Company executives there set aside time for weekly Bible sessions and prayer meetings. The company also invites
employees and their spouses to go on an annual three-day retreat.

Another example cited in the article is General Development Corporation in Miami. Executives there take turns leading weekly devotional services.

Still another example is R. J. Reynolds Industries in Winston Salem, North Carolina. There a chapel is always open and a chaplain is on the company’s payroll.

Finally, the article cited Midwest Federal Savings and Loan
in Minneapolis. Executives there installed a chapel,
rather than the traditional cocktail lounge,
on the top floor of their new office complex.

This is just a sampling of the examples cited by the Wall Street Journal. But they give you an idea of the general tone and spirit of the article.

Asimilar article appeared more recently in the New York Times.

It reported on the same kind of religious activity among the businesspeople in New York City. The article went on to explain the reason for the renewed interest in prayer.
Quoting a business executive, it said:

“[Businesspeople] turn to this because of a desire for fellowship with those who have a common understanding of the pressures of business life.’’

Touching on this same point, another executive said of the weekly meeting he attends at Chase Manhattan Plaza:

“This place is a refueling station for me. If I weren’t able to come here, I don’t know what I would do.’’

The point that these businesspeople are making is the same one that Jesus makes when he says to his disciples in today’s gospel:

“Let us go off by ourselves to some place where
we will be alone and you can rest a while.” Mark 6:31

Then Mark goes on to explain why Jesus said this to his disciples. It was because so many people were making so many demands on them that they didn’t even have time to eat.

The businesspeople and Jesus are both pointing to a need that we all feel at times. It’s the need to take time off to regain our perspective and to recharge our spirit. More specifically, they are pointing to the need to take time off and put ourselves in touch with the core of our being—and especially with God, who dwells in the core of our being.

In an article entitled “Sanctuary—The Secret of a Peaceful Heart,’’ Margaret Blair Johnstone calls this need to get in touch with the core of our being the need for sanctuary in our lives.

Some people find sanctuary early in the morning over a cup of coffee

before the family gets up. Others find it alone in a quiet room after the family is in bed. Still others find it in a more creative way.

In her article, Margaret Blair Johnstone tells about a friend who is a social worker living in a poor area of the city.

The only window in her one-room dwelling opens out onto a filthy, dirty alley. It’s pretty difficult to find sanctuary in a place like that. Yet, she has managed to find it. Describing her friend’s daily life, Johnstone writes:

“Her life is an endless routine of pavement pounding, tenement-stair climbing, grievance hearing, and monotonous record keeping.

“One night I paused at her door to leave a message.
She invited me in. I found her small room aglow with candlelight.

“ ‘This is how I keep my sanity,’ she exclaimed.
‘Every night for 15 minutes I light these candles. To me the most serene thing on earth is a lighted candle.’ ’’

And so sanctuary can be found in a variety of ways.

The important thing in all this, however, is to find it.

The important thing is to get in touch with the inner core of our being, and with God, who lives there.

The important thing is to nourish our spirit in God’s presence so that we can continue to do God’s work in the hectic rat race of daily life.

The important thing is to spend five or ten minutes of each day in quiet communion with God, who wants to speak to our soul and to renew our spirit.

There’s a beautiful prayer called “Slow Me Down, Lord.’’
It expresses the same point that Jesus makes in today’s gospel,
and it is the same point that so many businesspeople are making today. It makes a fitting prayer with which to close.
It reads:

Slow me down, Lord. Slow me down!
Ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind. . . .

Give me amid the confusion of my day, the calmness of the everlasting hills. Break the tensions of my nerves and muscles
with the soothing music of the singing streams that live in my memory.

Help me to know the magical, restoring power of sleep.

Teach me the art of taking minute vacations, of slowing down to look at a flower, to chat with a friend, to pat a dog,
to read a few lines from a good book.

Remind me each day of the fable of the hare and the tortoise,
that I may know that the race is not always to the swift—that there is more to life than increasing its speed.

Let me look upward into the branches of the flowering oak and know that it is great and strong because it grew slowly and well.

Slow me down, Lord, and inspire me to send my roots deep into the soil of life’s enduring values that I may grow toward the stars of my greater destiny.’  Wilferd A. Peterson

Series III
16th Sunday of the Year
Jeremiah 23:1–6, Ephesians 2:13–18, Mark 6:30–34

Monk’s decision
Prayer and action need to be kept in balance.
Jesus said to his apostles, “Let us go off by ourselves to some place where we will be alone and you can rest awhile.” Mark 6:31

There’s a story about an old monk who had prayed his whole life for a vision that would reassure him that his faith was true. But it never came.

Then one morning, while he was praying, the vision came.
It was the most joyous moment of his life.

Then something heartbreaking happened. At the very moment that the vision appeared, the monestary bell rang.
It was the signal that it was time to feed the poor who gathered daily outside the monestary gate.

And wouldn’t you know, it was the old monk’s turn to take
the food harvested the day before and distribute it to the poor.

Naturally, the old monk was torn between staying and praying to God and leaving and feeding the poor outside the gate.

If he turned his back on the vision, he would risk being ungrateful to God for the gift of the heavenly vision that he had prayed for all his life.

On the other hand, if he turned his back on the hungry,
they would leave without anything to eat, thinking there was no available food that day to feed their hungry families.

What should he do?
Before the echo of the monestary bell had faded,
the monk made his decision. He turned his back on the vision,
went to the kitchen, put the available food on a cart,
and distributed it to the people standing outside the gate.

An hour later, after he was finished, he returned to his room.
He was tired and not really certain that he had done the right thing by turning his back on the vision.

When he opened the door of his room, he couldn’t believe what he saw. He fell on his knees.
There, waiting for his return, was the vision.

While he wept for joy, the vision said,
“Had you not gone to feed the poor, I would not have stayed.” Retold from Lawrence LeShan, How to Meditate

One day several people were discussing the story.

One man said he disagreed with the story. He said the monk was dead wrong in making the decision that he did.

He said the monk should have stayed and prayed to God.
After all, God is far greater and far more important than a group of people.

It would be interesting to see how each one of us here would respond to the man.

But since we cannot, allow me to share my feelings about the man’s view.

They are that Jesus would have done exactly what the monk did. In fact, that is what we see Jesus doing in today’s Gospel.

When he sees the crowd of people—like sheep without a shepherd—he doesn’t ignore them; he postpones his own plans to spend the time with his apostles.

If there is one thing clear in the Gospel, it is that Jesus is deeply concerned with helping the needy, and not simply with praying for them.

Take Jesus’ portrayal of the Last Judgment. There Jesus makes it crystal clear that we will not be judged on whether or not we prayed for the hungry, the homeless, and the needy.

Rather, we will be judged on whether we did something concrete to help them.

Jesus concludes his portrayal of the Last Judgment,
saying to those standing at his right:

“I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important
of these followers of mine, you did it for me!”

Then he will say to those on his left, “Away from me. . . .
 I was hungry but you would not feed me . . .
naked but you would not clothe me; I was sick and in prison,
but you would not take care of me.” Matthew 25:40–43

In a similar vein, the apostle James writes in his letter to the Christians of his day: My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? . . .

Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. What good is there in saying to them,

“God bless you! Keep warm and eat well”—if you don’t give them the necessities of life? . . .
Faith without actions is useless. James 2:14–16, 20

Prayer and action are both important in the living out of our Christian lives. Both are like the two rails of a train track.
They must flow along in life together. Both are absolutely necessary.

The danger is that we give priority to one at the expense of the other.
For example,
there’s the danger of reasoning that just because I can do only a little to help the poor that I’ll simply pray for them and leave it go at that.

We ought to do both. Recall how Saint Ignatius of Loyola expressed this idea, saying:

Work as though everything depends on us, but pray as though everything depends on God.

Finally, there’s another old story, with which many of us are familiar. It speaks directly to the issue at hand and bears repeating. It goes like this:

One day a person was praying to God to help the needy people of our world.
Finally, in utter frustration, he shouted, “Lord, why don’t you do something about this ugly situation down here?”

There was a pause. Then a heavenly voice spoke out and said,
“I did do something. I made you.”