Mark 6: 45-52
Who went to the Activities Fair last Monday? Did you wander through, trying to take it all in? Did you have a plan of attack – I’m going to find the Wahoo Basketweaving Society and then the Wesley Foundation, and then I’m out of here? Did you get overwhelmed and have to take a break in the shade of a tree? The Activities Fair is such a great example of the many, many, MANY things you can do, try, join, support, or steer clear of during your time at UVA. But, to be honest, I find it a little scary.
Even when I know what I’m looking for, I start to get dizzy wandering through the aisles, people-watching, sign-reading, and trying not to run into other dizzied people making their way through the aisles. Even when I am not trying to visit every table but just find that one I’m after, it’s so easy to get sidetracked or just give up.
This week, I started thinking about Jesus at the Activities Fair.
It’s Mark’s fault. I noticed something for the first time when I was reading this passage recently. This takes place right after the feeding of the 5000, when Jesus was preaching to large crowds and folks got hungry so the disciples scrounged up 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish and passed them around among the 5000 hungry people – and when the scraps came back they filled up 12 baskets. The feeding of the 5000 or the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
So it was a pretty good day of ministry. And right after this event, Jesus sends the disciples out across the lake (the Sea of Galilee) and he hangs back on the land to be alone for a while and pray. Out on the lake, the disciples start struggling in really windy conditions, straining at the oars. And Mark says, “When [Jesus] saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea” (Mark 6: 48). So far this sounds like Jesus, right? Disciples in trouble, Jesus to the rescue. But here’s the strange part I never noticed before. The very next sentence after Jesus seeing them and coming towards then, walking on the sea, is this one (v.48): “He intended to pass them by.” Huh? You mean, when he was contentedly praying alone on the shore and saw them struggling, he got up and performed yet another miracle by walking on water – in their very direction – but he was headed someplace else? He intended to pass them by? Really?
I’m sure by now you have figured out why this reminds me of the Activities Fair. Right?
Well, I’ll come back to that but I want to tell you about one of Ryan LaRock’s classes first. One of Ryan’s majors is French and this semester he is taking a class about the concept, art, and practice of being a flâneur. A flâneur is someone who meanders, wanders, takes the side streets, someone who sets out to stroll through city streets and just see what happens. Barbara Brown Taylor, the Episcopal priest and writer whose book An Altar in the World we studied together last spring, mentions flânerie in the context of one of the spiritual practices she highlights, the practice of getting lost. She says that setting out without a map or a goal is how we let God be in charge, and how we notice what God is doing since we are attentively looking for clues instead of checking things off our own lists.
Anyway, I started thinking of Jesus as a flâneur this week. Maybe he was out for a stroll (a weird, water stroll, it’s true). Maybe he was stretching his legs. Maybe he was just out to see what he would see. Maybe he had a notion of spending the night at a little bed and breakfast he knew on the other side of the lake so he ambled in that direction. Whether he had a goal or some other intention isn’t clear. We think, because of the way Mark starts telling us the story, that Jesus gets up and sets out across the lake in order to go help the disciples. But then, Mark tells us, he didn’t have any intention of going there. He was headed some other way but decided to stop by when he came upon them.
We don’t know where Jesus was going but we do know that he came to the aid of the disciples when they were in trouble. We don’t know where Jesus was headed but we know that he showed them who he was, God-who-created-the-waters, Who walks on them effortlessly, God in human form, God who saves.
This is the bewildering God we follow. The One who never leaves us alone and who considers us wholly worthy of diversion. Jesus who stops by to see what’s happening with the likes of us. And if this is who we follow, then this is what we do, too. What happens when we follow where Jesus leads? Who will we be diverted from our paths to help?
What if Jesus was headed over to visit with President Sullivan last Monday and, while walking up the Lawn, stumbled upon the Activities Fair? Which tables would have attracted Jesus-the-flâneur? Who would have caught his attention and diverted him from his original path? Where would Jesus have stopped by?
I know that right about now many of you are tired of beginnings. Maybe you have “beginning fatigue.” One week into the beginning of this semester and you’ve endured ice breakers in every new group you’ve tried out. Or you’ve been leading ice breakers to welcome new folks to your group. This might be the 4th year you have begun a year here. If you’re like me, you might be excited by the new year and the new people, but also craving the rhythm that eventually develops when everything settles in a bit.
Beginnings are strange that way, calling forth our hopes and anxieties in a potent mix. So if here at the beginning of week 2 you already feel tuckered out, like you’re straining at the oars and it’s mighty windy out, take heart. These are the types of conditions that attract Jesus’ attention. You are the kind of person Jesus veers off course to stop by and see. Isn’t that amazing? We are the kind of people who attract God’s attention. We are the messed-up, in-trouble, bumbling disciples who are worthy of having God show up.
We are also the disciples who try to follow where this God leads. Which means, we are willing to get blown off course or have our heads turned when we are out like flâneurs meandering around Grounds and through our own very important lives. We follow the God who steps aside and stops by to help. Which means, we try to behave like Jesus, stopping by to offer help, but also that we can expect to meet Jesus there, too. Just as the disciples weren’t left on their own in the middle of the lake, God is in the midst of the messy and glorious details of our lives. Everyday. And this is where we are called to follow, too: right into the messy and glorious lives of the people around us. Roommates, dorm mates, those who clean our dorms, professors, homeless people looking for help on the Corner, merchants who welcome you to their businesses on the Corner, strangers and strange tables at the Activities Fair, and on and on.
I understand if you feel some beginning fatigue right about now. So I’m reminding myself, too, when I say beginnings should be familiar territory for Christians. Last Sunday, Ed said that the moment we say “I believe” is the beginning of our faith journeys, not the end. Absolutely. Even when our semester finds its rhythm, even if you are an old hand who can’t remember how many times you’ve begun a semester, or simply begun again – there is opportunity in each moment to say, affirm, reiterate, and behave so that we are saying with our lives, “I believe.” It’s not all up in the air. We are not all flâneurs every time we head out the door or across the lake. We are often headed in a direction we feel called — towards a major, a vocation, a significant other – but we are also often called off-course, off what we thought our course was. The journey of faith offers some habits, practices, and rhythms, but it also offers new-each-day diversions and chances to go deeper. Places to practice stopping by.
Here at Wesley I hope we aren’t as bumbling as the disciples, but I know we are. I hope we won’t be caught up a creek without a paddle or out on a stormy lake in trouble, but I know we will. I hope we won’t be so busy with our lives and goals and plans that we don’t see who God is spending time with, just there off to the side of our path. But I know sometimes we will be too busy or too blind. But I also know that Jesus does stop by here. All the time. And that he calls us to follow him into unexpected places, away from the paths we know, to meet him in people and situations we could never have imagined. And we get the call to begin anew every single day. So let’s get started – again!
Thanks be to God!
©2012 Deborah E. Lewis