Perhaps you’re aware that I’m a keen walker and general outdoor enthusiast. This hobby of mine has been exploited a number of times by some lovely people who have asked me to be a guide for their hikes; most times I have agreed to their request, because… why not? I’m a nice chap – I’m always happy to help those in need, particularly when it involves something within my personal range of interest. Anyway, there’s one massive and distinctive difference between teenage ramblers and more mature walkers: the latter eat when they stop for a break. Teenagers, however, tend to munch virtually all the time they’re walking. And that certainly keeps my dog, who always accompanies me on walks, on his toes! The nearly constant rustle of wrappers being ripped open makes my dog think there’s food coming his way (it isn’t); or he desperately tries to pick up crumbs that have fallen onto the ground – utterly fruitless attempts! Jokes aside, I’m quite impressed by the sheer amount of food consumed by teenagers on a hike. To make it funnier, whenever there’s a stop, even a really, really short one, teenagers are always able to pull even more food out of their rucksacks. Extraordinary! I’m astonished because I can walk for miles and miles and hours and hours without eating anything, and still have only a couple of sandwiches at lunchtime. All of which makes me a bit like the prophet Elijah from today’s first reading.
Confusion reigns in today’s gospel. Firstly, the people who were miraculously fed by Jesus – as we heard last Sunday – are confused by his sudden disappearance as well as that of his companions. Some of those people make an educated guess that Jesus might have gone to the fishing town of Capernaum, his Galilean base. So they sail across the lake and their guess is rewarded by finding Jesus in the local synagogue. They initiate a conversation with him, but the further they go, the more confused they get. They ask him questions, but his answers seem only to deepen their confusion. For them, as Israelites brought up in a culture where every aspect of life was regulated in fine detail by the religious law, Jesus’ ‘vagueness’ is confusing. And, let’s be honest, two thousand years later, Jesus’ speech is no less confusing to many of us, sitting in our local church. So, let’s try to chop up today’s gospel reading into small, digestible pieces and – hopefully – by the end of my speech confusion will have left this place.
Ever since the referendum two years ago Brexit has dominated the news, public debate and – in many cases – private conversation. Two years after the decision was made you might have expected the story to have gone cold and to slip out of public consciousness. Instead, Brexit remains a hot topic and it persistently occupies the headlines. Part of the ongoing discussion is the perception of Brexit as a political process. At one end of the spectrum it’s seen as the ultimate liberation, while at the other end Brexit is considered the ultimate folly. And, obviously, there are many opinions that fall between those two extremes. I’m not going to delve into such a discussion here; it’s not my job, and I’ll be happy to keep those few friends I still have here. I want to use the topic as a springboard to a much wider issue. Many commentators believe that Brexit has been driven by populism; the subliminal message of such opinions is that populism is bad and wrong.
‘He took pity on them.’ In these few words St Mark explains Jesus’ reaction to seeing the arrival of people determined to see him. But this short phrase also describes in a nutshell Jesus’ deepest reason, cause and purpose behind his mission. He is driven by his concern for those who ‘were like sheep without a shepherd.’ Jesus, the Son of God, became man because ‘He took pity on them.’ Jesus set off to preach the Kingdom of God because ‘He took pity on them.’ Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross because ‘He took pity on them.’ Jesus came back to life after His death because ‘He took pity on them.’ Jesus sent the Holy Spirit and established the Church because ‘He took pity on them.’ Jesus has continued to be actively present among us ever since then because ‘He took pity on them.’ Unlimited, inextinguishable compassion has been Jesus’ motivation and driving force.
We now have two new priests in the diocese. We believe that these men have been chosen by God. Their personal discernment was carefully examined and tested by the Church authorities over a number of years during their training and was finally confirmed by the very act of their Priestly Ordination just a couple of weeks ago. It certainly represents a personal achievement for each one of them. More importantly, they are now equipped with the powers required to carry out the mission that is much greater than them and which – as they will learn very quickly – seems to be Mission Impossible. That mission is described in today’s gospel: ‘They set off to preach repentance; and they cast out many devils and anointed many sick people with oil and cured them.’
Fifteen young men, all in their late twenties, entered their local cathedral church on a beautiful Saturday morning. A couple of hours later they left the cathedral as fifteen newly-ordained young priests. That happened twenty-one years ago, and one of those fifteen was me. When we left, the seminary was full, with about a hundred young men studying to follow in our footsteps in years to come. Last month, during my holiday in Poland, I learnt that there were only eighteen students in the same seminary, and not a single new application had been submitted. It was a rather shocking, but hardly a surprising piece of news! There doesn’t seem to be one single reason for the shortage of priestly vocations, whether in Poland or in Scotland. Most of the reasons can be identified, but only a few can be acted upon.
The NHS is present in the news daily. Certainly, this has been true over the last couple of weeks because this year marks the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the NHS. That ought to be something to celebrate, but more often than not, the NHS news stories appearing on our screens concern its alleged failings or problems. Only the most senior among us can remember the pre-NHS times and how massive the difference in medical care is between then and now. The level of healthcare provided in our country remains a distant or even unachievable dream in many other countries of the world. Yet, as we’ve got used to it, perhaps we have tended to become overly critical of “our” NHS. I’m not saying we ought to be ‘all praise and awe’ of it, but a degree of reality should colour our views.