Running on Empty

By J. Donald Waring

And (Jesus) said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. (Mark 6:31)

When the Waring family moved to New York City in 2004, we pulled up to the rectory in our suburban-tested, kid-friendly Chevy minivan. We’ve kept the minivan all these years, and use it mainly in the summer and mainly to get out of the city. Whenever we do I try to remember to fill the tank with gas before coming back through the tunnel; I noted early on that it costs a king’s ransom to fill up in Manhattan, and the lines were impossibly long.

Unfortunately, the last time I had the car off the island I forgot to stop for gas. What is more, I’ve actually been driving around within the city quite a bit this summer ferrying the boys to and from various day camps. About a week ago I noticed that the fuel gauge was nearing empty. “Not a problem,” I thought. “We’re going on vacation soon; I’ll fill up then. Besides, stopping for gas would be a sign of weakness, and I knew that you, the people of Grace Church, would not stand for weakness in your rector. So onward I drove.

Soon I was to discover that the minivan has an especially annoying feature: an alarm that keeps sounding when the gas is dangerously low. I finally relented, but when I arrived at the station I remembered on West 13th Street, it was gone. I went to another station I recalled seeing on West. 23rd. Gone. I went to where I thought another station was. Gone. Now running on empty, I couldn’t risk running out of gas in the middle of Manhattan traffic, so I drove back to the garage where we keep the car.

At home again, I went online and finally found a station near Houston Street. I also learned something else: gas stations in Manhattan are going extinct. Only 11 remain below 96th Street, and the number is expected to shrink even more. Developers see the land as too valuable not to be built up, and the owners can’t resist cashing out on the lucrative offers they receive to sell. So imagine the scenario: all the cars you see racing up and down the avenues and snarling the streets of Manhattan will soon have nowhere left on the island to get gas. Perhaps then, quipped one columnist, you’ll finally be able to get a cabbie to take you to Brooklyn.

When I first began preaching sermons 23 years ago, I made a vow that from the pulpit I would never complain about the selected Scripture texts assigned in the lectionary. Already I’d heard too many sermons during which the preacher merely gobbled up valuable time whining — yes, whining — about how the Epistle and the Gospel and the Old Testament texts had no common threads running through them.

I suspected that people weren’t coming to church with a desperate need to hear whether the preacher could somehow, against all odds, successfully weave the texts together. So I determined that no matter how obscure or disconnected the biblical passages were, I would not whine, but simply man up and deal with them. Such was the vow I have kept, until today. Today I have a complaint against the Gospel reading we have heard (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56). It is a sliced and diced Gospel passage. The mischievous compilers of the newfangled Revised Common Lectionary that the Episcopal Church adopted have given us a piece of Swiss cheese with an overly large hole in the middle of it. [After preaching this sermon, I learned that General Convention decreed that the Revised Common Lectionary is no longer mandatory, and that preachers can return to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer lectionary. Will wonders never cease?]

The passage in question consists of nine verses that are cherrypicked from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 6. In the first portion, verses 30-34, we heard how the disciples returned to Jesus after an apparently successful preaching and healing mission. They were exhausted, as was Jesus. Crowds were pressing upon them, so much so that they had no leisure even to eat. Thus, Jesus said, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” They boarded a boat and headed across the Sea of Galilee.

But the crowd spotted them, ran around the shore, and was waiting there on the other side when Jesus and the disciples arrived. So much for resting a while in a deserted place. But instead of frustration and fatigue, Jesus had compassion for the crowd and continued to teach them. Then the passage abruptly and awkwardly jumps from verse 34 to verse 53. Suddenly, without explanation, Jesus and the disciples have crossed the lake again, and in the second portion we hear more of the same: the needy crowds, desperate for Jesus’ words and healing touch, chased after him wherever he went.

You may wonder: what is the missing piece? What has been removed? I’ll tell you what has been removed. The gas station has been removed! Mark 6:35-52 is nothing less than the feeding of the 5,000, the portion of the passage that is supposed to power the comings and goings before it and after it. Beginning at verse 35, Mark tells us how Jesus received an offering of five loaves and two fish. He blessed the loaves and fishes, and multiplied them, and distributed them so that 5,000 hungry people had their fill.

The miracle is the whole point, it’s the visible demonstration of why the whole region was chasing after Jesus. Without it, we simply have the crowds running on empty around the Sea of Galilee, like so many cars driving around Manhattan with nowhere to get gas. Oh, the nasty names I muttered this week at those who have taken away our gas station. They have removed the good news. They have hidden the still waters to which a shepherd might lead his flock. They don’t even leave us with the meager five loaves and two fish that we can hand over as an offering.

So there you have my public lectionary complaint. Call it a whine if you like. The way the gospel reading has been chopped leaves us with no place to fuel up for the chase. Perhaps therein lies the sermon. What are you chasing, and how much fuel do you have in your reserves for the chase? Most people in New York City are here to chase something — be it a dream, or love, or wealth, or excitement. The city lures people in with its promise and possibility, and once here we chase after all sorts of pursuits: worthy pursuits, vain pursuits, senseless pursuits.

Stacie tells me that recently in the neighborhood she saw a great crowd of photographers staking out a particular address. Two women eventually emerged, and the photographers chased them down the street, snapping pictures, trying to get a comment. Honestly: whoever these two women were, what life-giving wisdom, healing touch, or word of gossip could they possibly impart to warrant the fuel necessary to chase them? What or whom are you chasing? How much fuel do you have for the chase? And is the chase worth it at all?

As for the crowds around the Sea of Galilee, at least the person they were chasing had actually done something. Jesus had healed the sick, cast out demons, raised the dead, and already rocked the ruling authorities. The power of Jesus’ Spirit is what they wanted. It is what I want, too. It is, I hope, what brings us all to church this morning. In fact, today’s patchwork Gospel makes me yearn for it even more than I normally do.

I realize my lack, and I am reminded again that my tank is running on empty. In contrast, I see the inexhaustible supply of compassion in Jesus’ tank. Here are Jesus and his disciples, desperately needing to get away for a rest, but watching the crowd running around the lake in pursuit of them. What do they do? Jesus has infinite compassion to share on every shore.

A few weeks ago I took Luke to a game at Yankee Stadium. When you arrive there by subway, MTA employees repeatedly announce that you should fill your Metro card before the game rather than after it. After the game, the line will be long and the press of the crowds will be great. It’s a helpful reminder for tourists, but as for me, I know how to navigate the subway, and I was certain that I had enough on my card.

Sure enough, on the way home I swiped my card and Luke went through. Then I swiped it again and bang! The turnstile wouldn’t move. I couldn’t believe it, but my card was empty. I swiped it again. Still empty. The people behind me in line were getting impatient. To my right was the machine to refill the card, so I instinctively turned there, only to be told by someone in the crowd, “Hey, to the back of the line!”

I shouted to Luke, “Wait right there; don’t move.” Then I saw that the line stretched further than I could see, and I momentarily froze. I was about to tell Luke to come back through the turnstile when a young guy in the front of the line at the machine took pity on me, had mercy on me, showed he compassion. He said, “Cut in front of me and fill your card.” This I did and thanked him profusely. I breathed a sigh of relief as I rejoined Luke on the other side of the turnstile, but the whole way home I was troubled by my thoughts.

If the roles were reversed, would I have shone the compassion of the young man? Would I have had the wherewithal even to notice what was going on with a stranger, let alone have mercy on someone who, through his stupid fault, had allowed his card to go empty? I just don’t know if I have that much gas in my tank. The young man’s compassion set my alarms ringing. Even more so does the bottomless mercy of Jesus highlight that I am running on empty.

Perhaps the essential point of the hole in today’s gospel reading is to expose our emptiness. Something is missing, not only in the reading, but in our souls. My tank is empty. My supply of strength, smarts, wit, and wisdom isn’t sufficient to eternal life. Even my Metro Card was empty. I suspect the answer is not to swipe the card again and again, redoubling or efforts to press on with grim grit and determination. None of us by our merits has the fuel necessary to stand worthy before God.

Much as we don’t like to hear it, the story of Christianity is not about our potential for compassion, competence, and strength. Rather, it’s the story of our weakness, poverty, and powerlessness. In fact, a necessary prelude to receiving the gospel is encountering our emptiness. Why? Because a soul too full of itself has no room for the Spirit of Christ to dwell. But when we finally relinquish the delusion of our self-sufficiency, this is truly when Christ can claim us for his own.

Do you remember the penitent thief on the cross next to Jesus who said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”? Jesus replied, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Likewise, today I am brought to the foot of the cross, where all I can do is look up and beg for mercy from the one who offers himself there.

Let me tell you about a profound little incident that I once witnessed during the administration of Communion at one of our services. A mother and her daughter were approaching the altar to kneel at the rail. I don’t remember who they were; this was several years ago. The little girl was about four years old, possibly five. She held in her hand a large, stuffed animal toy that she most definitely did not want to relinquish.

When I came to the girl and offered her the bread, she was initially unable to take it because of the toy. Her mother saw all this in an instant, and with a firm yet gentle voice imparted to the child some very sound Christian teaching. She said, “Your hands have to be empty.” Once the girl emptied her hands, I was able to place in her little palm the bread of heaven, and say to her: “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for you, preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life.”

How about you? Do you suspect that you are running on empty? Are the warning alarms sounding? If so, then rejoice and be glad. It means that you are finally ready to be filled with the Spirit of Christ, who will revive your soul, and guide you along right pathways for his Name’s sake.

The Rev. J. Donald Waring is rector of Grace Episcopal Church in New York City.


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