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“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while”

If the word gets around that you can heal the sick, you’re likely to be in demand. That’s clearly what happened to Jesus in the incident related in today’s gospel reading. Some New Testament scholars have thought that Mark’s gospel is based on the eye-witness testimony of the Apostle Peter, who was often around when these things happened. And listening to today’s gospel, you can understand why. It’s got a sense of urgency about it, hasn’t it? “ … they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them”. “… (they) rushed about that whole region … ” It’s almost like a news report.

Now I can’t help seeing in this gospel passage a parable of the Church, what it is and what it does. First of all, think about all this activity that was going on. What was it all about? It was in response to human need. “(they) began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was”. “And wherever he went … they laid the sick in the market-places”.

The Church, which is the Body of Christ and the visible sign of Christ in the world, is called to care for and support those in need, whatever their need may be - mental, physical, spiritual or emotional. And to do that, the Church needs to be active. It needs to be doing things in the community and to be seen to be doing things.

The Church needs to hold social events which are open to the whole community, including those groups and individuals who may have little to do with the Church at other times, so that they are aware of their local church. There must be opportunities to explore faith, ask questions and share doubts. There must be occasions in which people can simply enjoy each other’s company and find the support and pastoral care they need in times of difficulty or distress. And the church itself must be used for a variety of programmes and events, so that it comes to be seen as a centre and focus of community. Now I hope that you’ll recognise in what I’ve said just some of those things that take place in our own parish under Mtr Ruth’s energetic leadership. All these things are an integral part of the Church’s life. They are not a collection of things the Church does. They are what the Church is. 

Now let’s return to the passage from Mark’s gospel. And we read that, in the midst of all this activity, Jesus is saying to his disciples: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while”. In fact, as Mark tells us, they had to abandon the attempt. They got as far as making a brief trip by boat and when they got off the boat they immediately found a crowd waiting for them.

What Jesus says to his disciples reminds us of that other aspect of the Church’s life – prayer and worship. We “come away” when we come to church. Not that we leave our everyday life behind. We bring it with us, very much so. We may have things we want to give thanks for or that we need to pray about. But we do leave behind the constant demands made on our time and the pressures which everyday life puts upon us. And we give the time to God and we rest in him.

The worship that takes place in our churches, and indeed the church buildings themselves, are the public face of the Church. Now I must apologise at this point if I’m repeating myself, because I’m sure I’ve said it before, but this is something I feel very strongly about. Research shows that, whereas attendance at many of our parish churches has declined, many cathedrals and city-centre churches have experienced an increase in attendance. Of course London’s a big place, so for us “city-centre churches” would include the great Anglo-Catholic churches of the West End and the City. This, I believe, should make us ask what it is that people are looking for when they walk into a church. 

It’s always dangerous to judge other people by your own standards, but I know what I’m looking for when I go into a church. I’m looking to feel uplifted and taken out of myself, so that I feel I want to spend some time in prayer. I’m looking for a sense of mystery and of the presence of God. I’m looking to be drawn to certain symbols of the Faith – a crucifix or Christus Rex, the Stations of the Cross, an icon, votive candles burning; and above all the Reserved Sacrament. I’m looking for a sense of order which shows that this place of worship is loved, cared for and respected, whatever purpose other than worship it may be used for at different times. And I may well be wrong, but my guess is that I’m not alone in this.

It’s always tempting for us as a congregation to fill our church with things we happen to like, just as we fill our homes with things we happen to like. But this church is not our home, even though we should feel at home in it. We have a responsibility to our parish and to all those people who may not be regular worshippers but who come into this church for whatever reason and spend time here. Because the time they spend here, however brief, could just be for them an experience of God.

And the same principle applies to our worship. Our new prayer book, Common Worship, is a wonderful resource and its contemporary language has made worship accessible. Today there is much more freedom and flexibility in the way we conduct our worship. There is room for informality and it’s right that there should be. But there must also be a clear framework of tradition, because tradition is the golden thread which connects our worship with the worship of the Church in ages past and which gives to our worship dignity and spiritual depth. The worship of the Church must be an experience which we are drawn into. Something which enables us, in the words of Our Lord, to “come away”. These are the things which must be borne in mind as, in the weeks and months ahead, we consider how this church, this sacred space, can best be used.

In today’s gospel we see the disciples trying to meet the needs of the crowds who followed them wherever they went, and no doubt being well and truly overstretched in the process. And we see them trying, unsuccessfully, to snatch a few moments of peace and quiet. But whatever they were doing, Jesus was with them. And he is with us. Because whatever we do as the Church - outreach to the community, pastoral care, prayer and worship - it is focussed on God’s revelation of himself in Christ. In Christ we know God’s infinite compassion. We know the power of God to redeem human life. We know that his love for us overcomes our fears and feelings of inadequacy. The revelation of God in Christ is what makes us the Church.