A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, February 22, 2015 (1st in Lent)
Mark 1:32-39 GNT
A wonderful depiction of how those in the helping professions need to regularly get away for a time apart—to a place of sanctuary—is the movie titled What About Bob? What About Bob is the story of psychiatrist Dr. Leo Marvin (played by Richard Dreyfuss), who also happens to be an aspiring famous author. Opposite Dr. Marvin is a new and overly OCD, neurotic, multi-phobic patient, Bob Wiley (played by Bill Murray), who threatens to drive the good doctor crazy.
Well, Dr. Marvin is all set for a month-long summer family vacation in a small New Hampshire town. While there, he is scheduled for an interview with Good Morning America to promote his new book. Dr. Marvin gives patient Bob strict orders to not contact him while he is away. But the thought of Dr. Marvin’s prolonged absence is more than Bob can handle, so he connives his way past Dr. Marvin’s answering service and finds out exactly where Dr. Marvin and his family are vacationing, and he tracks them down. And so, throughout the family’s entire summer vacation, Bob weeds his way into all the family activities, becoming close friends with Dr. Marvin’s wife and kids. And the longer it goes, the healthier Bob becomes and the crazier Dr. Marvin becomes. In the end, Dr. Marvin totally loses touch with reality and ends up an invalid, while Bob has blossomed into a healthy, outgoing individual. In the process, Bob has sucked the life right out of Dr. Marvin.
As I noted at the beginning, the movie is a wonderful example, especially for those in the helping professions, of how we need to take care of ourselves by taking times apart. All of us—but especially those who deal with the problems of others day in and day out—need time away; need places of sanctuary.
“Sanctuary” is a concept rich in meaning that goes way back. We may most often think of “sanctuary” as a place of safety or refuge. Such it often is. But “sanctuary” can also signify a place of the Spirit, a place of soul restoration.
One message in the scripture passage I chose for this first Sunday in Lent is even the strongest individuals need sanctuary every now and then. One could rightly say that as Mark tells his story, which is repeated in other gospels as well, Jesus was in the helping profession. People constantly came to Jesus seeking healing, comfort, solace, or release from whatever demons that plagued them. If we can accept the gospel writers at face value, people pressed upon Jesus night and day to the extent that he could barely find time to rest. And so, in Mark’s story that I read to you, very early in the morning, long before sunrise, Jesus got up and went out of town to a deserted place, where he prayed. In other words, Jesus was seeking time apart. He was seeking a place of sanctuary. A place where he could be restored and rejuvenated. A place where he could rest his body, but also re-energize his soul. He needed that regularly, as we all do. One of the favorite places that Jesus was wont to retire to for prayer and renewal was the Garden of Gethsemane, a beautiful and peaceful grove of olive trees in the valley below Jerusalem. We should not forget that the traditional story for this first Sunday in Lent is that of Jesus going into the wilderness for a vision quest of sorts where he fasted and prayed for several days prior to beginning his ministry. As the gospels show, Jesus would return to the desert, wilderness, or lonely places, time and again.
Just as Jesus had his favorite places of sanctuary, so do we need a place of sanctuary that suits our needs. One of the books that I received for Christmas is by local author, J. Greg Johnson, and is titled Sanctuary: Meditations from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, it was this book that prompted and inspired today’s sermon. Johnson writes from a Christian perspective and blends his Christian thoughts with his own life journey, as well as information about various trails and historic places in the Great Smoky Mountains. He relates how for him the Great Smoky Mountains has proved to be a wonderful place of sanctuary and how he often has found solace, comfort, new insights, and new hope in the time he has spent there. In one of my favorite passages from the book, Johnson says, “Perhaps sanctuary is found not behind fortified walls and locked doors, like in the monastic days of old, but rather it is found in that place where we can open ourselves up, unlock those things we’ve kept closed up inside of us and tear down the walls that separate us from God and others. . . . Sanctuary is a place of grace, where unmerited and unconditional love flow freely, where acceptance is unquestioned and affirmation comes quickly and often” (Sanctuary, 151).1
I most like Johnson’s idea that “sanctuary is a place of grace.” I, too, have experienced a form of grace—a feeling of oneness and connection, inner peace, spiritual renewal in my own visits to the Great Smoky Mountains, Glacier National Park, Fall Creek Falls, and other places. I can also recall a summer afternoon many years ago when we were vacationing with our kids in the Florida Panhandle; an afternoon when I lay half awake and half asleep on the beach, listening to the tide roll in. As I did, I felt a unique sense of peace and oneness with the world.
The beginning of Lent can serve as an excellent reminder to us that all of us need places of spiritual renewal where we can be rejuvenated, be restored, experience new spiritual insights, find new hope; in short, find sanctuary. Robert Benson, in his book, Living Prayer, notes, “Every so often, a clock seems to go off in us, or a question, and we find ourselves hungry for some bit of silence and solitude and rest and quiet” (Living Prayer, 97).2 For some, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park may be that place of silence, solitude, rest, quiet, or sanctuary. But it need not be. Sanctuary for each of us can be found in any number of places and ways. Some may find sanctuary at a lakeside cabin or at the seashore. Some may find it hiking at the Arboretum, Frozen Head or Obed, or some other state or national park. Some may find sanctuary while gardening, or fishing, or reading, or traveling, or quilting, or baking, or painting, practicing Yoga, or making music, farming, or writing poetry. Some may find sanctuary reading the Bible or praying, sitting in a favorite chair in a special spot, or even coming to services here at this United Church.
Wherever and in whatever form each of us seeks sanctuary, the important thing is that we keep seeking it until we find it. The season of Lent has traditionally been a very intense spiritual time; a time of introspection, self-examination, soul preparation. Sometimes we may do this well in the company of others, as during Sunday morning worship services, adult Sunday school, or our Wednesdays in Lent study of the authentic letters of Paul. But for some of us, nothing takes the place of those times of solitude, those times apart, in lonely places or places of natural beauty, or places—like our chapel—that have a sense of the Sacred.
When the Bob Wileys of life—metaphorically speaking—just seem to be more than we can bare; when the world gets to be too much with us, as it often did with Jesus; when we feel like we are nearing our wit’s end, the end of our rope, or “on our last nerve,” as some say in New York; it is time for some sanctuary, some time apart. Such times of sanctuary can be times of rejuvenation and renewal, but also of new insights, renewed hope, and spiritual growth. May it be so for each of us during this Lenten season. Amen.
1J. Greg Johnson, Sanctuary: Meditations from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Flat Creek Publishing, 2009. 2Robert Benson, Living Prayer. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998.