Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

In 1802, two expeditions of discovery were off the coast of southern Australia, both charged with charting the ‘unknown coast’. Matthew Flinders and Nicolas Baudin famously met off the coast at what Flinders would name Encounter Bay. Encounter Bay is one of my favourite places, my favourite South Australian beaches, although for me the encounter is a little different. It is not about two strangers meeting unexpectedly. Encounter Bay is for me what the Celts call a thin place, a place where ordinary human beings might encounter God.

Encounter Bay | Photo: Hazel Cochrane

Margaret Silf, who writes about Celtic spirituality, writes about such ‘thin places’ in this way:

“For the Celts there was never any shadow of doubt that these two worlds, the visible and the invisible, the material and the spiritual, were one. In every way the visible and the invisible were interwoven, as surely as the air we breathe and the food we eat come together to give life to our bodies. The invisible was separated from our sense perceptions only by the permeable membrane of consciousness. Sometimes that membrane could seem as solid as a brick wall. Sometimes it could be very thin. Indeed we speak even today of some places being as ‘thin places’, meaning that the presence of the invisible and the spiritual in those places is almost palpable.” [1]

Encounter Bay is a thin place.

Last weekend on a couple of days off I found myself sitting there, on a pile of seaweed, gazing at the waves, watching the birds flying around. When one first arrives at even such a holy place, one’s mind can seem weighed down with all that is happening for quite a while. The distractions of living as an ordinary human being, the joys of things, the worries of things, the griefs that bite at times, and one can wonder for a while if this holy place can help us know God’s presence. I found myself, too, wondering about Jesus, when he went to his holy places, if it wasn’t the same for him. If he wasn’t distracted for a while, too. 

In this morning’s gospel reading from the 6th Chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark, Jesus encourages his disciples to spend time away from things, reflecting. The disciples have been busy.

Jesus says to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ …And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 

God makes clear in the Ten Commandments, in the second commandment, in fact, the need for rest. It is called the Sabbath, this day of rest. It may happen on a Sunday or it may happen on a day or two by the sea. The actual day doesn’t matter. What matters is that woven into our lives is rest, a time to reflect. To allow the busyness of things to cloud our minds and then to allow the sea air, or the movement of the waves or some words of scripture, say Jesus’ words, “Come away … rest awhile” to calm our minds and to remind us. Remind us of what? We might wonder. Remind us of the deep truth of things. That we are made by God and loved by God. And that the redemption of things, the healing of us and our failures and mistakes, the healing of illnesses like this COVID-19 pandemic and the healing of all creation and especially our precious earth are found in God, can be longed for with God. In a thin place perhaps beside the sea. I think it matters that we have a sense that our hopes and longings find a place with God. That God accompanies us in them. That when healing such as we might long for in this pandemic may seem far away, that we know God is with us, even as we pray that God might heal. By the sea or up a mountain, that we sit with those situations that seem to have no clear solution and that God is there with us, almost struggling with us. As we saw Jesus struggle at the hardest times of his earthly life.

Jesus went up mountains to pray. We are told that often in the scriptures. Went by himself up mountains to pray. And I do wonder if he wasn’t distracted for a while. I do wonder if his mind wasn’t full of the stories of the sick he had healed, and those held by negative thoughts that he had set free, and the guilty that he had forgiven, and the teaching… The teaching … the longing he had to help us know the love of God, the way of God, what he called ‘the kingdom of God’. The stories he told of lost sheep and prodigal sons. Did his mind spin like ours with memories and worries and hopes? Until the peace of the mountain calmed his mind and he knew again. The presence of the one he called “Abba”. The word a little child used for a most trusted Mother or Father as they climbed onto their parent’s lap to be comforted and restored. Until Jesus knew God, “Abba” was close. Restoring him. Making him ready to face the world again. And how was he made ready to face the world again? What Jesus found there on the mountain was compassion. Our gospel reading mentions that …

Now many saw [Jesus and the disciples] going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 

Jesus in his thin place finds compassion. Compassion – a word that literally means “suffering with”. Being alongside with … The writer Simone Weil said “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.” [2] Jesus’ compassion is that miracle. And he finds strength to do it up on a mountain.

But Encounter Bay, and mountains here or near the Sea of Galilee, are not the only places where we rest, we reflect, we know the presence of God. Our Cathedral, too, might be one of our ‘thin places’. As we find ourselves reflecting in the presence of words and images, in glass and wood and stone from which the building is made. And we find ourselves resting and reflecting in the presence of music.

This week, our Director of Music, Anthony Hunt, and the music staff of the Cathedral, and members of the Cathedral Choir have welcomed 15 new singers to the Winter Song School.  For three mornings children and parents have been given a window into the life of a Cathedral chorister. We have toured the Cathedral from the crypt via the choir stalls and the nave, to the gallery of the Cathedral, the God view, we sometimes call it. They have seen Anthony’s name as a head chorister on the honour board in the John Dunn Room (“you must be 150, Mr Hunt,” one visitor was heard to say). They have sung with Anthony, been taught by a singing teacher names Rosie, and they have rehearsed with members of the choir. They have played the organ with David, principal organist. Today they were to have been working members of our choir as it sings our Choral Eucharist, singing a mass setting, leading the hymns. But restrictions have come again, the reality of living in a world in the grip of a pandemic has struck again, and we have instead James to sing for us. James’ clear fine voice is leading us as we gather, conscious of how fortunate we are, really, when we ponder our lives in the midst of the lives of our sisters and brothers across the world. 

What does the music and liturgy do, we might wonder? In this Cathedral dedicated in memory of Saint Peter to the glory of God. Well, just what those mountains were doing for Jesus, just what Encounter Bay does for those of us who love the sea. Our Cathedral helps an encounter. Helps us encounter God. As we come here at the end of a busy week, our minds bustling with the story of our lives, the joyful things, the worrying things, the deep sadnesses that we have known and which grip us at times. We come here to reflect on our story and the music and the liturgy helps us know. Know that our story is held in the great story of God who we know in the one who climbed his own mountains to pray, Jesus. And as he found, in the presence of God, compassion for those he encountered on the plains below, we might wonder if we too will know that same gift. If we too when we have encountered God will find in ourselves the presence of God’s compassion, God’s suffering-with, for those who need the miracle of our attention when they find their life’s suffering almost too hard to bear.

[1] Margaret Silf, Sacred Spaces: Stations on a Celtic Way, p9.

[2] Quoted in Painting the Word by John Dury p37.