Sermon on Lectionary text for 17th Ordinary, John 6:1-21, July 26, 2009

Sit down!
Sit down!

Numb. 11:1-15;

John 6:1-21

Jesus: “Sit down!” (OK, that was easy)

When I was in high school I went to a youth camp in Michigan every year; one year the theme for the week was, “Obeying the Commands of Christ”.  We were told we should learn all of Jesus’ commands, and focus on obeying them.   It sounded reasonable on the surface, but looking back, it’s one of the perspectives that drove me away from fundamentalism.  The perspective of focusing on commands turns grace on its head and makes the entire focus of spirituality a drudgery of law-keeping.  Anyway, I don’t know how they came up with the list of Jesus’ commands we were supposed to obey, but they missed the one we have in this text today.  He told the people to sit down (v. 10).  They did.  This is the second easiest command to obey in the whole bible  – the first is of course, “be fruitful and multiply.”

Moses: fame and human side

Normally when we think about commands and laws in the bible, we think of Moses.  He was famous for many reasons, and going up to THE mountain, Sinai, and coming down with the torah, the law is what he is most famous for.  I love the whole Moses’ story – how on that first Passover night in Egypt, the Hebrew slaves were liberated from Pharaoh’s oppressive hand.  Moses led the people through the waters of the sea, and though they grumbled, he interceded and fed them with Manna in the wilderness – warning them not to try to save the leftovers.   (Exod. 16:19)

I love the story of Moses because the bible lets us see him in his frail, reluctant, self-doubting humanity as well as in his moments of true greatness.  We see him at the burning bush where God is trying to call him into service – but Moses isn’t so sure he has enough of what it takes to do the job, or even to be listened to by his own people.  God speaks out of the bush to Moses, saying

“I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”  (Exod 3:14 )

Later, he again questions his ability to keep leading, making God promise again that his presence will be with Moses.  Compassionately, God acquiesces:

And He said,

“My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.” (Exod. 33:14)

I’m certain that if people knew where Moses died, it would be one of the great religious shrines of all time – but of course Moses died alone, so we do not know where.  But Moses continued to live on for the people of Israel – not just in the fact that he gave them the torah, the law, but also in the expectation that he left behind.  Moses predicted that in the future, God would again raise up a prophet like himself!

I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.  (Deut. 18:18)

The expectation and its questions

A prophet like Moses?  The people in Jesus’ day had this expectation – and it filled them with questions.  “If such a prophet came, could there be a new exodus from foreign domination?  Could God’s people once again hear those reassuring words, “I AM” and know that he was with them, that he could again feed them when they were overwhelmed by their scarcity?  Could they again go through insurmountable barriers, like the sea – even in these new stormy times?  After all, nothing seemed less likely.  They were living in tough times, pawns in a foreign empire.  They even renamed their own sea of Galilee after dear Emperor Tiberius.

This is the situation in which we find ourselves as our gospel text opens.  Jesus went to the side of the sea of Galilee, or rather, “Tiberias,” with a large crowd.  John says he went up THE mountain – like Moses had done, and at the same time of the celebration of the first exodus, at Passover, he gave them a command, which they followed: sit down.  Is it any wonder that the next thing that happens is that the people in the wilderness are miraculously fed?  Is it even surprising that there are enough left overs so that each of the 12 tribes of Israel gets a “to go” basket?

Should we be surprised that the very next thing that happens is a crossing of the sea, of course in a storm?  And couldn’t we all by now predict  that we would hear the words from Jesus repeating the words God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, “I am” – which only makes sense to translate in English “It is I”?

The connection: our time of scarcity

What are we to take from this thickly layered text?

I believe this speaks powerfully to us today – being, as we are, in remarkably similar circumstances as those people who obeyed the command to sit on the grass that day.

For the first time since the Great Depression, we are living in times of scarcity where there used to be abundance.  Many people have lost homes, jobs, security, pensions, and for some, also hope.  But speaking of  economic scarcity only scratches the surface of the scarcity-issues we face in these times.  We are living in a time when even the Baptists are loosing church members, not to mention the fact that the Presbyterian Church has  just seen its biggest single-year decline on record.  To make matters worse, we are told that the new generation does not plan to take their parents’ place in churches in the future.  And to top it off, time itself is also scarce in churches like ours in which, according to our recent survey, the average age is 75.

What are we going to do?  Is there a way out of this scarcity-crisis?

I believe that the answer is qualified “yes, if.”  The answer is “no,” if we think we will be saved simply by economics.  I certainly hope that the economy can turn around quickly so that the suffering caused by this crisis can be alleviated, but even if it does get better, that will not solve the problems of the church, or our own sense of being alone at sea, at night in a storm.   We can no more be saved by economics than those people in Jesus’ day could have been saved by making him king – which is what they wanted to do.

The answer is “yes,” there is a way out of this scarcity-crisis, “if”.  If we are indeed willing to sit down on the grass and allow our Lord to feed us.  The solution to our scarcity-panic is to stop long enough, to hear what this new Moses has to say to us on THE mountain.  Listen to the very words used of him that day:

Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; (v.11 )

He took bread, he gave thanks, and he gave/distributed it to his disciples.  This is Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist – which means “thanksgiving” (in fact, this is the only eucharist that John records).

How will we, the frightened disciples who will frequently find ourselves at sea in a night-storm, ever hear his reassuring voice saying, “I AM who I AM; don’t be afraid”?  (v. 20)  We will know his presences as we sit still long enough for him to feed us at his table, together.

Assessments: what do we have?

It will never look like there is enough to go around.   There will always be overwhelming needs.  We will look around at our resources and we will ask, where are we going to get enough?  We will assess our possibilities and we will always come up with amounts too small to overcome the degree of scarcity we perceive.  And the resources we could pull together to try to meet the need would indeed be the equivalent of a paltry pair of fish and a miniscule amount of bread, if we were sitting there on the grass alone.  But we are not alone.   Jesus is here.  We are not in the storm alone; Jesus is here.  God is present, here and now.

What we need is only for people who are willing to be the boy, to come forward with what they have, and offer it up, to get the ball rolling.  And this is exactly what is happening right now among us in an amazing way!

Being the boy with the little lunch

It has been a wonder for me to see people in this congregation step up and say, in effect, like that little boy with the lunch said, “Here is what I have been given: I’m willing to let the Lord multiply it.”   People have stepped forward to take leadership and participate meaningfully across the spectrum of this congregation’s ministry teams: from property and worship to fellowship and mission, from membership and communication to administration and congregational care, and Christian education — where we still need more participation.

Not only that, there are new initiatives being born right now, starting with the Acts 16:5 Initiative group.  There is a new plan being developed for small groups, and another for increasing our community visibility, and for outreach.

This may indeed be a time of national scarcity, but we are not allowing scarcity to define us. We are defined by the fact that our Lord is with us, and he is giving us himself again and again, in the breaking of the bread, with the result that we have even more than we need for ourselves.  In fact, we have substantial quantities left over to share with others – exactly as he wants us to do.

Sermon on Lectionary text for 16th Ordinary B, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Fringe People

waiting
waiting for healing

This past week I have been having a lot of fun following the experiences of the youth group from the church in Cincinnati (that I became a Presbyterian in) as they went to Budapest, Hungary and led a youth day-camp in a city church there.  I have been able to look at over 200 pictures that their youth director has posted on his Facebook page.  It has brought back a flood of memories; we were frequently in and out of Budapest over the dozen years we spent as missionaries, first in Romania then in Croatia.  I recognized most of the places in those pictures, and I could feel the joy of their discovery of that beautiful city and its wonderful people.

The last pictures were of their arrival back at the Cincinnati airport – lots of pictures of hugs from awaiting parents.  The youth looked rather tired.

That airport reunion moment is a lot like the moment we start with in this gospel text.  Mark allows us to see the personal interaction between the apostles that have just returned from their mission work.  Jesus had sent them out, two by two, on their first mission trip, and now they are back together (Mark 6:8).  They have not been able to post any pictures of the trip on Facebook, so all they can do is tell Jesus about “all they had done and taught” (6:30).

I want so badly to log-on to their “profile pages” and look at their pictures – or at least  for Mark to keep his camera rolling and stay with this scene long enough so that we can hear about how it went, what they experienced, what they learned, but those frames lie on the cutting-room floor as mark jumps to the end of the discussion as Jesus, very compassionately, says to them,

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while. (v. 31)

Rest

If they were going to have anything to offer the people in ministry, they needed time to rest, a sabbath of time-off, time specifically to be with Jesus.  It was not that their work was done, that everyone who had come looking for Jesus had been taken care of – in fact just the opposite: so many were still coming they did not even have time to order the pizza (v. 31).

Jesus knows that there is a rhythm between work and rest that has been structured into the universe.  Every plant, every animal, and everyone of us has been made to need both times of activity and periods of rest and renewal.  It is part of the rhythm of creation; six days of labor, and the a Sabbath for rest.  There is a time for active service, and then there is the need to withdraw in order to be with God.  So they got into the boat, pushed off and eventually came to shore.  But people there recognized them and came with their needs.

What is Jesus going to do now? His retreat has been interrupted; plans for a nice quite time have been spoiled.  It would be understandable to feel irritated, even to the point of being resentful, but that is not Jesus’ response.  Mark lets us see into Jesus’  mind as he shows us Jesus noticing the condition of the people

As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (v. 34)

Compassion

Jesus was motivated by compassion; he saw people suffering and it moved him.  He cared.  He had the same exact experience that God had when he heard the cries of the Israelite people enslaved by Pharaoh in Egypt.

Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, (Ex. 3:7)

Just as Jesus had learned the rhythm of work and rest that the Creator had built into the universe, so he had also learned why: the answer is compassion.  The Creator of every man, woman and child in his image loves each and every one of them.  When they suffer, their cries reach his ears; he cares, and he responds.

I think we can take great comfort in the knowledge that when we suffer, we know that God sees and that he cares.  He is not indifferent to the things that cause us pain, grief, sadness; he looks, with compassion.

Now at this point in the story of Jesus out there with the suffering crowds, something unexpected but powerful happens.  Jesus looks at them with compassion, recognizing that they are like sheep without a shepherd – and he responds: by what?  healing?  feeding them?  No, although he has been doing that  just recently, rather, this time Mark tells us Jesus’ compassion leads him to “teach…many things.” (v. 34)

Teaching many things

Mark again ends the scene before we get to hear the juicy stuff.  What did he teach them?  I want to say to Mark, “ Look, if you don’t have time to show us the hole lesson Jesus taught, how about just the main points of the outline?”  But he doesn’t even summarize; those frames too are on the cutting room floor.

So why tell us that Jesus taught them without telling us what he taught them?  Because this whole story that Mark is telling us is the teaching!  We are meant to learn the lessons Jesus taught by means of living.  This is powerful.  Compassion is behind everything Jesus does.  First in this text it was Jesus’ compassion for his weary disciples that motivated him to arrange for a time of rest after their mission trip.  He cared about them and he knew they needed quite time to re-connect with God in order to serve people out of a full heart.

And then when the needy crowds found them, again it was compassion that was in his eyes.  Their suffering moved him.  This is the lesson we are meant to learn from Jesus the teacher of “many things.”  God cares when people suffer – so God’s people care when people suffer.

Healing

What was the result of Jesus out there with those needy people, being compassionate towards them?  Healing.  The presence of God’s compassion among suffering people always has a healing effect.   Compassion is so powerfully healing that all you have to do is get a glancing brush with the fringes of a compassionate person’s tunic to feel its power.

The presence of God’s people who have learned to be compassionate is a healing presence.  Just as we experience healing as we understand God’s compassionate response to our suffering, so we become vehicles of healing as we respond compassionately to needs around us.

Concrete compassion

Now, I’m not one for solutions that look like posters of rainbows, butterflies and unicorns under shooting stars.  Compassion has to be meaningful or else it’s useless.   This is the moment at which we step back from this story and ask ourselves: if we are called to learn from Jesus and therefore to respond to the needs of our world with compassion, what concrete forms will that take?  I know you are thinking that I’m going to start talking about the Christian Service Center right now, aren’t you?   Well I could, and that would be completely correct to do – what a concrete way of showing compassion!

Crowds coming?  What crowds?

But something else struck me as I was reflecting on Mark’s text before us today.  Crowds of people were coming out to the middle of nowhere to meet Jesus because his reputation for healing was mushrooming.  Of course they were.  Everyone suffers; everyone needs healing compassion; why wouldn’t there be crowds coming?

But now, 2,000 years after Jesus stepped off of that boat onto the Gennesaret shore, the church has a reputation all her own.  And what is the effect of our reputation in the world?  Crowds of people are cutting their grass and reading the paper on Sunday mornings, while we have seating to spare.  Why is that?

Is it that there is no suffering going on in these pretty homes and in those families?  Is it because everyone has discovered peace, contentment and tranquility that healing is not required?  Or is it simply that they have no reason they can see to believe that’s what we are offering?

The truth is, I believe, that after 2,000 years, the church has a huge reputation to live down.  We have, over the years, not, as a rule, been the source of access to God’s healing compassion.  Rather we have been strong on judgment, condemnation and exclusion of fringe people.

As a result, no, there are not crowds coming to us.  That leads me to only one conclusion: we have to find ways to go to them.  We have to step out of our boat – step out of the church building that they are not coming to and meet them on their terms, where they are.

The future: less, not more

If there are lots of people who are old enough now to own a nice home with a lawn to mow on Sunday morning and who read the Sunday paper who do not believe the church has anything healing to offer – and there are – there are exponentially more people who are coming up behind them in the next generation who are not yet home-owners who have already decided that they don’t need a lawn-excuse to feel free from church on Sunday mornings.  They don’t even read print versions of newspapers anyway – they get their information online.   If the crowds are staying away from us now, in this generation, it is the multitudes that will be staying away in the next.  If we are disciples who have learned the lesson Jesus taught, then we must learn to take his compassion to suffering people in new ways.

Neighborhood-based groups

Right now we are in the beginning stages of developing a strategy for meeting together in small groups in our homes, exactly for the purpose of getting out into the communities where we live – where other people like us are living – who need to get close enough to someone with Jesus’ compassion to brush the fringes.  They may not come in our church door today, but they may well come in the door to our living rooms.

This home-group system is part of the Acts 16:5 Initiative that we are engaged in.  The whole premise of this Initiative is that we do indeed have something to offer – we have touched the fringes; we have experienced some of the healing that God’s compassion brings – and we will experience more of it in community with other people who are on the same journey.   And the second premise of the Acts 16:5 Initiative is that as time goes on, less and less people will identify the church – the building under steeples and behind stained glass, as a place to start looking for the healing compassion that they long for.  Just like Jesus, we need to take God’s compassion out to where they are – out to the fringes.  The first step is one we need to make in their direction.

This is only one concrete implication of learning Jesus’ compassion for people.  There are as many implications as there are issues; every time we encounter humans, made in God’s image, we as disciples of Jesus Christ, as learners and followers of Jesus, are committed to finding compassionate solutions – from poverty and health care reform, to housing, education, and all the rest.  We are people of compassion because we have learned to see the world the way Jesus does, and to respond compassionately.