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Sermon Archives

A Broad Place

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Jun 30

Readings - Responsive Psalm 118: 1-5 and Mark 6:30-37

I chose these passages for today with a particular line from our psalm in mind. Before we go there though, let’s turn for a moment to our reading from Mark.   “For many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat,” says Mark.  Jesus says to this crowd: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”  The passage comes as a bit a lull in the action in Chapter 6 and in Mark’s otherwise fast-paced gospel.  Earlier in the chapter, we learn that Jesus had just Jesus sent out the disciples, two by two,  town by town, to share God’s message of healing love.  And just before our reading, we are told about the violent death of Jesus’ beloved cousin and mentor, John the Baptist, at the hands of Herod. What follows this passage is the story of the feeding of the 5000.  At the end of what I just read, the hungry crowds are pressing in, like a Friday afternoon in Margaret Jewett Hall where we served over 200 guest this past week.  Our text at first appears like a relatively inconsequential transition.   We get the sense that Jesus intuits the disciples need for a break.  They're likely tired, full of stories of their journeys yet hungry for food and quiet rest. Jesus, meanwhile, could use some time apart himself. After all, we know how exhausting grief can be.  So he says  to his disciples at the edge of the Sea of Galilee: "Let's go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile." "Come away with me," is how another translation puts it.”  Weary himself and yet ever caring of his companions, I hear compassion, tenderness and longing in these words.  It reminds me of other moments in the gospels when Jesus seems especially human.  In Luke where it is written: "But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed." Or later in Mark where it says: "He didn't want anyone to know which house he was staying in."  ‘Come to me, o weary traveler’ indeed!


I wonder, how many of us at this point in the year are feeling a bit like weary travelers ourselves, whether from our own journeys of grief or stress, or just given all the outrageous and outraging political turmoil we are daily traversing.  I also wonder if Jesus by chance had the words and promises of the psalmist on his heart at this moment.


From Psalm 118: “Out of my distress I call on God and God answered me and set me in broad place.” 


That’s the line that’s been running through my mind this week.  And that beautiful image of a broad place.


It appears elsewhere in the Hebrew scripture:


In the Book of Job chapter 6!

“Indeed God would have brought you out of dire distress, into a broad place where there is no restraint...”


In Psalm 18: “God brought me out into a broad place; God delivered me, because God delighted in me.”


In Psalm 31: “I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction;

you have taken heed of my adversities... you have set my feet in a broad place.”


A broad place!  Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Let’s reflect it on together.  Consider for moment what it would feel like for God to set your feet in a broad place?


At a late June meeting a few years back, I invited people gathered to ponder what such a place would look like.  After a few minutes of prayerful silence, we began to share.  Some went quickly to this space and time - our worship gathering at First Church. A broad and beautiful place, indeed, with a wide open welcome.  I recall one person recalling taking her daughter to college in Indiana and the summer’s drive through mid-western cornfields  Lovely. I myself ‘went’ a few miles off the coast of Maine to a 3 acre island where I often go kayak-camping and lie atop a bed of pine needles, under a canopy of tall trees, as ocean waves crash on the rocky shore.  I hope to go again in two weeks.  A broad and quiet place surrounded by water, wide and deep!


My heart felt drawn to these passages and this theme today now for a few reasons.  For many, summer has the feeling of a broad place or at least of a broad time.  Families may move from the strait-jackets of our jam-packed school calendars, college students, faculty and administrators too.  Here too, we’ve been in the midst of a full season of people coming and going.  Within the past few weeks alone, we’ve joyfully welcomed newborn Ida Lucy Peterson and welcomed home some of our college-aged children! We said farewell to our minister Karin Case last week and we are saying goodby to our weekend sexton Tina Jenner after services today.  And many of our hearts are still heavy with the news of the passing last weekend of longtime and beloved member, Ruth Hsiao. 


New people come. People we’ve known for years and decades leave us and our hearts go with them.  In summer around here, meetings are sparser. Days are longer.  Whether we call on God out of distress or exhaustion or even from a newfound love or joy, I wonder what are those broad places that come to mind for you? Where might God be trying to set you and meet you in these coming months? 


Back to our passage and a brief word study!  The Hebrew word for broad place: “merchav” literally means an open, roomy space. It’s root is Hebrew word “rahab” which means “to be or grow wide or large” and in some cases to be widened, enlarged, relieved, or expanded” Broad places do that for us. Figuratively, merchav, symbolizes liberty, a place of no restraint, as in Job, both a freedom from and a freedom for!


Robert Alter’s translation of Psalm 31 captures this beautifully…”Let me exult and rejoice in your kindness that you saw my affliction you knew the straits of my life. And you did not yield me to my enemy’s hand, you set my feet in a wide-open place.”  In his footnote: “The image of that wide open place is the antithesis of the straits or narrow place in which the writer felt trapped.”


If considering the broad place isn’t where you are at the moment, if you can’t catch a break, don’t have a vacation coming soon, then this passage can still be for you!  For it recognizes that are lives and our losses can often leave our hearts and bodies feeling constricted and restrained.  That dire strait of grief and sadness, or the weight of daily stress or worries about our world, our children and the children at the border can leave us, as my dad would sometimes say at the end of a long day, feeling like we have elephants sitting on our chest. If you find yourselves, crying out in sadness or distress, unable to find time to catch a breath or a break, perhaps then these passages and even that image of a broad place can help you know that you aren’t meant to stay in that narrow place where you are now, none of us are!  God won’t leave us there! For there is a broad place calling you, coaxing you to it even now.  God and Jesus, say come!  Come with me, and I will show you a broad place, a safe passage, a space of grace and refuge and rest. 


Even for those taking ‘staycations’, those who can’t afford time off, those who are busy working or looking for work, I trust the message Jesus was sending his disciples to share is that that a broad place awaits us all.  Just imagine the much different life of the Psalmist, thousands of years ago, and what ideas came to mind then.  These words are so much more than a whistle blowing at the end of the day, week or year telling us its time to get away.  This kind of broad place cannot be found on Orbitz or Travelocity!  Instead, these words remind us of the broad place of conversation and relationship and encounter with the divine that’s available anytime and anywhere so long as our hearts call out God’s holy name.  Perhaps these words are even an invitation to do only that and then to leave it God to choose the meeting spot.  "Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place."


In his classic book, “I and Thou”, the Jewish writer Martin Buber suggests that there are at least three ways that our relationship with the divine is mediated, that is, there are at least three ways that we can come to know God through our human experiences.  Let’s call them three places.  The first is the realm of our relationships with nature.  The second is the realm of our relationships with art.  And the third is the realm of our relationships with other human beings.  In each realm, in each place of encounter, there is a sad potential for objectifying the other and living in “I – it” relationship with that which is around us.  I'll leave it to you to conjure examples.  But, in each of these potentially broad places, there is also an opportunity to know God’s presence and to apprehend a “Thou” both in and through our day to day experiences.  This is but a blurry snap-shot of a very deep, provocative and highly recommended book, but it serves to give a clearer picture of those broad places in which we may find ourselves set by God. By all means, “I-thou” relationships invite us to grow and expand our spiritual awareness.  In the course of a day, at work or at play, whether through an encounter with a ladybug, through a visit to a museum or a moment with a street artist, or over a tall glass of lemonade with a friend or a stranger, these are some of the places wherein we can participate in an “I-Thou” relationship with God, to carry on that deeper and expansive conversation, to call out and to be answered. 


Broad places make room to hold God’s beauty in all its diversity, God’s truth in all its complexity. Broad places make room for us and even Jesus to recognize our human limitations and frailty and that of others.  Broad places have room to embrace all of who we are, warts and all. Broad places allow for memories and stories and hopes to unfold without being rushed. They make room for genuine conversation like the amazing one I had on Friday that lasted over 3 hours all while strolling the neighborhood!  Broad places allow us to notice and be attentive to things we would otherwise miss.  Broad places are above all else spaces of grace and gratitude!


In a country that has become terrifyingly more restrained at our borders especially, with boots on the necks of persons of color, children in cages and detention centers, and ongoing threats of border walls, we can quickly diagnose these abhorrent conditions as matters of bad policy. And yet I fear there is a deeper spiritual malaise in the hearts of the policy makers and enforcers, a narrowing and a strait-jacketing of care and compassion that is leaving them and us unable to set our feet in the broad places where love and mercy and truth can breathe and live and run free.  The more I ponder these broad places, the more uncomfortable I feel waiting in lines of any kind - at airports, at restaurants, at shows, at security gates. Waiting in lines for access to exclusive destinations are anathema to the scriptures we’ve shared today!  For God has a broad place that is waiting for us -  no lines, no waiting, just wide open welcome!


Over the course of this summer, I pray each of us, especially those who find themselves in some narrow strait of life right now, may open our hearts and let God help ix set your feet down in something like a broad place. Let God help you find that realm where the “we” becomes “I” and where “it” becomes “Thou”.  Read a book, whether deep or frivolous, or try to drink in some street music.  Take an extra ten minutes, for quiet prayer or meditation, whether in the early morning sun or in the extended twilight.  Ask a neighbor to join you for a Sunday stroll.  Or, perhaps its enough for today, to God give thanks for this broad place, this day of sabbath, this hour of worship.  Out of my distress I called on God;
 God answered me and set me in a broad place. God so sets all of our feet!  Right here. Right now.  Anytime and anywhere.  Amen.



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