The Gospel of Mark can really be summed up in one word: busy. There’s an anxiousness to Mark’s writing that is palpable, a sense of urgency that is ever-present. In fact, it’s not too much to say that Mark’s Gospel is perhaps the busiest of the four Gospels. Throughout it we see a sense of immediacy. At every turn, Jesus and his disciples try but they can’t get any rest, because the people follow their boat on foot, recognize Jesus before he disembarks, and his disciples and he must always immediately get to work. The people busy themselves bringing the sick on matts, bringing them from all the surrounding region, and the people crowd in on Jesus, just hoping to be able to touch him and receive a healing by that touch. These people know that they have a need, and they know that they ought to have it fulfilled now, immediately, while they have the chance. In fact, one of Mark’s favorite words throughout his Gospel is euthus, which literally means, “immediately.”

Such busy-ness is certainly not unfamiliar to us today. One thing that has changed, though, is our conscious embrace of our busy-ness. A generation ago, if I were to ask you how you’re doing, you would most likely have responded, “I’m fine, and you?” That was the usual exchange. Today, though, how are people likely to respond? As a priest and pastor, I hear this all the time: I’m busy. I’m just so busy. And as a priest who serves in the Washington, D.C. area, busy-ness is a part of the lifestyle here, where some of us are natives, but many of us are transplants who came to our nation’s capital in order to make our mark, as they say, and making one’s mark is a busy endeavor indeed. This sense of busy-ness seems to invade, even infect, every aspect of our lives.

There’s a fine example of this extreme form of busy-ness going on right now, as I write. Some of you may be aware of this. It’s the tail-end of admissions season, and parents are in the final throes of scrambling and jockeying to get their children into what they feel are just the right sort of schools. And I’m not talking about college. I’m not even talking about high school. I’m talking about preschool admissions!

Years ago, Paul Walker referenced this in one of his wonderful talks at the Mockingbird Conference in Birmingham, Alabama. He said that there were parents in his congregation who were just beside themselves, worried about getting their toddlers into just the right sort of preschool, because getting into just the right sort of preschool, these parents believed, should lead to getting into just the right sort of primary school. And getting into just the right sort of primary school should naturally lead to getting into just the right sort of college. And getting into just the right sort of college is the holy grail for these parents, because they believe it will lead to their child landing just the right sort of career, meeting just the right sort of spouse, and having just the right sort of children.

Of course, those children will themselves need to get into…just the right sort of preschools. So the wheel in the sky keeps on turning, and it will continue to turn, until you and I may or may not end up in just the right sort of graveyards. This is what it looks like when we live according to the dictates of the busy-ness our society has embraced.

But being busy has always been part of human nature. We’re certainly more conscious of it today, but it was always there. I remember Paul Zahl used to describe this busy-ness of human nature in terms of an old-fashioned bench vice. One arm of the vice is everything we know we ought to be doing, and the other is everything we want or need. And there we live, pinned between the jaws, and our busy-ness in the end is really just a desperate fight for us to be freed from the pressure of the vice, to be freed from the struggle, and to be able to have some peace, perhaps even a little contentment. This of course is simply what it looks like for us to live our lives according to dictates of the Law, but fortunately for us, this is also where the Gospel of Jesus Christ begins to take shape for us.

Mark tells us that at one point Jesus looked with compassion upon the crowds, for he saw them as sheep without a shepherd. Which is ironic, because Jesus the Good Shepherd was standing right there before them.  They didn’t recognize him, though. How could they? They were too busy. They were still caught in the vice.  They recognized that they needed something. And they recognized that they ought to do whatever they had to do in order to have their need satisfied. There’s the vice. But they couldn’t quite recognize that in Jesus, all of our needs and wants can ultimately be satisfied, and the feeling of condemnation we feel when we fail at doing all that we ought to do can ultimately be once and forever broken.

Freedom from the vice has been made available to us through our new standing with God, now that Jesus Christ is our shepherd. Paul speaks of this in his Letter to the Ephesians, about how we as gentiles, who were once far off, have now been brought near by the blood of Christ. We’ve been brought into the same status as God’s covenant people, and the result is that all of the busy-ness, all of the striving, all of the fighting for what’s mine, all of the goals that we will never meet or fulfill, all of that ends in Jesus, who brings us near to God so that he can be our peace.

We long to be freed from the vice, and the witness of the Gospel is that Jesus is the one shepherd who can lead us out of it for good.

This freedom from the vice comes through the grace of God shown for us in the Cross of Christ. Jesus the Good Shepherd leads us into this grace, but it is a journey that takes us through the event of the Cross. And that’s a funny word, grace. There are many words of the Christian faith that have become defaced and degraded through their use and abuse by various televangelists and so-called faith healers; Thornton Wilder once said so. But this is curiously not so with grace. That one little syllable still carries a heavy weight of comfort and peace for us when we hear it.

Frederick Buechner once pointed out that a crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.

He said that the grace of God means something like this: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. And maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift, too.

Maybe that’s ultimately how the Good Shepherd leads us.