The Basket of Broken Pieces that is Us

The Basket of Broken Pieces that is Us

Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, July 26, 2015, on Mark 6:32-44

Mark 6:32-44
And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.  Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.  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.  When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late;  send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.”  But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?”  And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.”  Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass.  So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties.  Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all.  And all ate and were filled;  and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish.  Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

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There is a scene in the book The Life of Pi in which Pi’s mother tells him a Hindu story.  Yashoda, foster mother of the baby Krishna once accused him of eating dirt.

‘Tut, tut, you naughty boy, you shouldn’t do that.’  ‘I didn’t eat dirt!’ ‘Yashoda said, ‘No? Well, then open your mouth.’ So Krishna opened his mouth. And what do you think Yashoda saw?  She saw in Krishna’s mouth the whole entire universe.”

It is a great story, in a book about stories, and about the question, which way of telling a story is the best?  I thought of that scene as I reflected on our text from Mark’s gospel, the feeding of the 5,000.  Why?  Because no good Hindu believer would imagine this story of Krishna was something literal that happened one day; it is deeply symbolic.  And the book, the Life of Pi itself asks the question: how do you read a story, especially a story in which God does something?

Well, this feeding story could be read literally.  In that case, it is a magic story that happened one day.  The result on that day was that hungry people were fed once.  The point of the story would be that Jesus had god-like miraculous power.

There are lots of hungry people in the world who missed that miracle that day because they were not there.  And there are people who are hungry all over the world today, and always have been throughout history, who missed that meal as well.  If this is just a story of a single meal, even with all the leftovers, it still leaves a lot of people out.

But I do not believe Mark told this story so that we would take it literally. It is bigger than that.  I think there is something with significance here – worldwide and deeply personal significance, so let us look at it.

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First, by feeding hungry people in the wilderness, Mark is showing us that God is working through Jesus like he did through Moses who gave the people manna from heaven.  But there is more going on here.  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus does two feeding miracles; this one, and in chapter 8.  Here he feeds 5,000, there he feeds 4,000.  Later in chapter 8, there is a fascinating conversation between Jesus and the disciples,  in a boat, that sheds light on the way in which Mark wants us to read these stories.  The subject in the boat is bread.  The disciples feel badly because thy did not bring loaves (plural), but only brought one loaf – not much among twelve grown men plus Jesus.

Listen to the discussion:

 [Jesus says] “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?   When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.”   “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.”  Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”  (Mark 8:18-21)

We are not from Palestine, so we can be forgiven for not catching the fact that the feeding of the 5,000 was on the Jewish side of the lake, while the feeding of the 4,000 was on the Gentile side.  That’s why there needed to be two feedings.

The whole story is loaded with symbols.  Even the word for baskets differ: when he feeds Jews, they pick up 12 baskets of leftovers, one for each tribe of Israel, using a Jewish word for basket.  When they pick up the leftovers on the other side, they use a Greek word for basket, and there are 7 left over, just as there were, according to Moses, 7 nations of Gentiles in the promised land that the Jews would conquer.  (Deut. 7:1)

The point  Jesus was making in the boat discussion was that many loaves were not needed; only one loaf was needed.  From one loaf, taken in gratitude, broken, and shared, there could be abundance for everyone, in fact, for the whole world – Jews and Gentiles – leaving no one out.

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One loaf is clearly a reference to a community, celebrating Eucharist together.  In the days of early Christianity, we should imagine groups meeting in house churches, probably comprised of 50 to 100 people at the most – the number of people who were grouped together for the meal.  What other point would there be in grouping people if you were simply going to feed everyone?  The point is, it looks like church; like a communion service.

Even the very verbs Mark uses are Eucharistic words.  Just like on the night of the Last Supper which we remember in the Eucharist, Jesus “took” the bread, “blessed, broke, and gave it” to his disciples.

Even the green grass they sat on is symbolic.  I have been to Palestine, and I want to tell you that in places where they do not have those irrigation hoses, there is no green grass to sit down on – especially in a place that was “deserted” – actually the word means “wilderness.”

But of course the image of the the desert springing to life with fresh vegetation is exactly how the  prophets pictured the new age when the kingdom of God would come (Ezek. 47).  So the people had green grass to sit down on, and on which to share broken bread together.  The Kingdom, or should we say, the realm of God had come.

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One more bit of symbolism will be helpful to see.  Jesus, Mark tells us, looked at these hungry people with compassion, and observed that they were like “sheep without a shepherd.”  Last week we spent time on the concept that the Lord is our shepherd.  But there are several layers involved in this image, and I want to share another with you now.

The prophet Ezekiel is where Jesus first heard that phrase, “sheep without a shepherd.”  In Ezekiel’s day, it was a comment about the failure of the leadership to meet the people’s needs.  The shepherds were the people in government.  And their failure was proven by the fact that some sheep were getting fat at the expense of the other sheep who did not have enough.

Listen to how Ezekiel describes the situation:

“Son of Man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?  3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.  4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezek. 34:2-4)

Jesus saw the poor hungry people of his day and gave the same assessment.  They were like sheep without a shepherd.  The leaders who were supposed to “let justice roll down like waters,” who had the obligation to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, were caring only for themselves.

You may remember that this story of an impromptu banquet in the suddenly-verdant wilderness comes right after the story of king Herod’s sumptuous banquet.  That meal ended with John the baptist’s head on a platter.  Ancient Jewish historian Josephus tells us that Herod felt threatened by John’s messianic preaching and the organized peasants, gathering in large groups, who followed him, anticipating a change.  (see Binding the Strong Man, p. 208).  Organized sheep make unjust shepherds nervous.

“You feed them”

The central moment in the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is the conversation  between the compassionate Jesus and the disciples.  They notice, and point out that the people are hungry – they are not without compassion too.  So Jesus tells them to feed the people. But based on economic realities, there is not enough. It is impossible. I can just hear someone saying, “Well, you know, Jesus, I am a business man and I look at this from a business perspective.  The market is what it is;  the price of bread is set by the forces of supply and demand.”  The market does not care that people are hungry.

So their solution was to tell Jesus,

“send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.”

Treat them as autonomous, individual consumers, and throw them to the mercy of the market.

Jesus’ Alternative Vision

But Jesus has an entirely alternative vision.  Jesus’ vision is of a new community that operates by radically different values.
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He creates groups of 50’s and 100’s – not on the basis of family ties or even friendship.  These people who were attracted to Jesus could well have been absolute strangers to each other, but these strangers were now organized into these new groups.  These flash communities were sized just right so that everyone could take the Eucharist from one single loaf.  One loaf, as Jesus told the men in the boat, is enough, when it is the bread of Eucharist.

Eucharist,” by the way, simply means “thanksgiving.”  When a community of strangers gathers to break bread together, and by doing so, identifies itself as a community of people brought together by Jesus, they become family.   And when they break bread with thanksgiving, they are proclaiming  a whole life-orientation of gratitude.  They are thankful because they know that everything is gift.  Every mouthful of bread, every sip of wine, every denarius in their money pouch, comes from God, the Heavenly Abba who cares equally for the birds of the sky and the lilies of the field.

A community of strangers who have been made in to a family of gratitude experiences a miracle: the impossible becomes possible.  Instead of the context of alien wilderness, they create a context of green grass that just begs you to go get the blanket and the picnic basket and the ice-cream.  Instead of an economy of personal hoarding and scarcity, they live into the vision of a shared humanity and abundance.

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Now, we are that community.  We are that group of strangers who have been made into a family by the alluring call of Jesus.  We have responded to that allurement; we know ourselves as followers of Jesus.  Now, we are the body of Christ.  Just as the bread of the Eucharist is Christ’s body, broken for us, so now as the body of Christ, we offer ourselves to be broken on behalf of a hungry world.  We are those baskets of broken bread – not whole bread, but broken.

Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus tells us; blessed are those with broken hearts who see suffering, and feel compassion.  Who first feel compassion, and then who respond.  Blessed are those whose brokenness has been shared with other broken people, and whose life is offered on behalf of others who still have hungry bellies and hungry hearts.  Blessed are those who hold the shepherds in government responsible for providing for all of the sheep, not just for the elite 1%.

A New Vision for Humanity

So this is not a story about one magic meal on one day.  This is a story of a new vision for humanity.   It is a radical change.  It is like a new creation – which is probably why Paul liked to call Jesus the new Adam.

Like an ice-cream cone with two scoops, there are two enticing allurements for us here.  The first is the vision of us as a community of followers of Jesus.  We are offered a vision of living as a community of radical hospitality, radical openness to strangers, to others, radical inclusion offered on the assumption that whom God has brought together, God has brought together.  And based on the depth dimension that we have all experienced, that when the stranger is embraced with hospitality instead of hostility, the impossible becomes possible, a new future is created, and God becomes present.

The other scoop is how our community blesses the entire world.  Never before has there been such time in which it is so urgent that we be a model of that new humanity.  The most obvious place to start is with people who are literally poor and hungry.  We are the kind of people who look at the world as Jesus taught us to: with compassion.  Compassion leads us to share our resources until all are fed.  But we do not stop with private charity.  We ask the follow up question: why are people still hungry?  What systems need to change so that hunger and poverty can be eliminated?

Our community is called to bless the world in other ways as well.  With all of the divisions and hostility in our country and in the world, we have the role of reconcilers.  We are called to live into this new vision of a new humanity by our steadfast commitment to ending discrimination of all kinds – against LGBTQ people, against people of other races, against immigrants, yes, and including against people of other religions; yes, including Muslims.

We are not going to join the ranks of the cynics nor of the doomsayers. We have been given the gift of a vision of hope for a future that God is creating every day.  So we must be a community that faces this future with the fitness and energy of those who have been doing their daily workouts, our regular Christian practices like prayer, meditation, and the sacraments, which strengthen us for our mission.

We are Jesus-followers.  Bread, broken for the hungry.  A family with an amazing, hopeful purpose.

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The “is” and “so” of Faith

The “is” and “so” of Faith

Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, July 19, 2015, on Psalm 23 & Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Psalm 23

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 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.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

I do not know how your days go, but it seems often that what I think I am going to do is  not actually what I end up doing.  Thursday I was going to work on the minutes of the last session meeting, but someone needed help getting a browser  plug-in installed to print out some sheet music, and there was a huge pool of water in the men’s room to deal with.

Well, we, who have our days rearranged for us, are in good company.  Jesus’ day went entirely differently than the rest and relaxation he had planned in this text from Mark’s gospel.  Jesus, it seems, had a rhythm of ministry and withdrawal, which he led his disciples to practice as well.   All faithful Jewish people are grounded in the rhythm of work and sabbath; service and rest.

Unplugging

We often talk about the practices of a Christian.  Jesus models for us the practice of active service, and of intentionally making space for the Spirit by pulling back for solitude and silence.  I believe that the more connected we are technologically,  especially users of smart phones, with all of the alerts and notifications we receive, the more we require unplugging for times of silence, meditation and prayer.

Even for the rest of us, without smart phones, we have plenty of reasons to need to pay attention to our spiritual lives.  We are are constantly made aware of the  disturbing and upsetting news of the world, even terrible things that happen nearby.    The more anxiety we feel, the more we require silence, meditation, and prayer in our lives as a regular, daily practice.  Jesus is our model.

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So we plan for times of spiritual renewal, but life does not always go the way we plan.  We can learn from Jesus here too.  We see Jesus being open to the Spirit leading him into experiences he did not anticipate, even which he tried to avoid, as the crowds he wanted to escape found him.

He responded to this interruption in his plans the way a person who is in touch with the Spirit does.  A person who has spent hours in silence, in prayer, in mindfulness meditation has learned to be present to the present moment and to accept what is happening, non-judgmentally.  Which is what Jesus did, in this story.  Mark tells us:

“he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd”

So often we experience irritation and frustration when the unexpected happens.  But that is not the only way to live; it is merely the default way.  There is another path.

We can learn to look at life, even the unexpected and difficult parts of life and receive them non-judgmentally.  We can learn to say, “O, this is what is happening now” instead of reacting with resentment.   This is not automatic.  That kind of spiritual maturity is the fruit of a life spent cultivating daily spiritual practices.

To receive the moment as it is, non-judgmentally, is what it means to trust.  Trust that even what appears chaotic and pointless will be OK.  Where does this trust come from – we will watch this unfold in Jesus’ experience.

Jesus’ Inner Life

Back to the story, we see Jesus responding with compassion to an interruption.  I love the way Mark describes his reaction to seeing the needy crowds. Mark gives us a rare glimpse of Jesus’ inner life.  He could have told us simply what Jesus did as he responded to the needs in front of him by touching them.  Or he could have also mentioned Jesus’ feelings about them – his compassion.
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But Mark went one step further and told us about the image or the metaphor in Jesus’ mind as he looked with compassion and responded with his healing touch.  He looked at the people as shepherd-less sheep.   Not just as sheep, but as sheep who had no shepherd.

And for a person who has been formed spiritually in the traditions, the texts, and the practices of Israel, the only response is to do what God does: to be there for the shepherd-less ones; to show up in their lives and to touch them with your presence and compassion.  There is tremendous healing in this.

The Experience of Trust

Jesus was, as we have said, formed spiritually by the traditions, the texts and the practices of Israel.  Today we read one of the most loved texts in the Hebrew bible, the 23rd Psalm.  “The Lord,” which translates, Yahweh (Israel’s name for God) “is my shepherd.”

This may well be the only statement of faith you need.  This is that ground of trust that Jesus had.  He knew that as he lived his days, both the ones that went as planned and the ones filled with the unexpected, a Shepherd was guiding him.

So far, I have spoken of small interruptions and irritations that are opportunities either for resentment and irritation, or for trusting acceptance, but we need to go deeper.  It is not just traffic jams, long lines, or a ruined vacation days that we have to deal with, but far more difficult challenges to faith.  Family issues, health issues, financial issues; life is hard.

Trusting that there is a Shepherd there for us is made complicated by the fact that if he is there guiding, we do not see him.  His work is not at all obvious.  Especially when tragedy strikes us or those whom we love, it looks as though there is no shepherd at all.

How do we trust in those times?  How do we trust in the Shepherd, as Jesus did, when the difficulty is not just a crowd of needy people interrupting a day of rest, but a crowd of angry people shouting, “crucify him”?

How, in other words, do we trust when the diagnosis is bad?  When the relationship falls apart?  When the figures just do not add up?  When it is life and death?  When it feels like we are in an abyss, without solid ground?

I believe we all want to be people who have peace, who are content, who face life’s biggest challenges from a place of trust and calm.  We can be that kind of person, but only after cultivating trust in the daily doses of difficulty that life serves up to us.  Spiritual practices bear fruit, but there is no short-cutting the growing season.  Trusting that there is a shepherd guiding us when it is life and death is possible for those who nurture their spiritual lives in the every day.

The Uncanny Depth Dimension in History

I believe we can be helped to trust the Shepherd if we stand back and take a broader perspective than our own little lives.  There is an uncanny positive direction to history, that it helps to remember.
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Dr. King, famously said that

“the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” 

It is true.  More people today, than ever before, live in free, democratic countries.

In our country, we keep inching closer to the ideal of equality for everyone.   We keep seeing legal obstructions to equality fall, and symbols of discrimination are being pulled down from flagpoles across the country.

But it is not so easy.  The moral arc that is long and bends towards justice, only looks like a smooth line from a great distance.  Up close, it is a zig-zag line.  We make moral progress by taking two steps forward and one back.  We end slavery and follow it with Jim Crow.

We  elect a black president and think race relations  are getting better, until we see news of cell phone videos showing things that shock and horrify us.  Even as some flags come down, others go up.

The job is unfinished.  And yet, progress has been made.  It is as if something deeper is going on than chaos and randomness.   There is a depth dimension that points to something at work beneath the surface.

As John Haught has said so well,

In the final analysis, the depth is the ultimate support, absolute security, unrestricted love, eternal care.”  (What is God? p. 18)

In other words,

Yahweh, God, the Lord, is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

That is what Jesus trusted, and how he was able to trust in the face of everything he went through, from the interruptions, to the cross.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Jesus, grounded in the traditions, the texts, and the practices of Israel, the rhythms of work and Sabbath rest, the teachings of Torah, the prophets and the psalms, the   communal experiences of pilgrimage and festival, was ultimately grounded in God; grounded in trust that he was under the Shepherd’s care.

So we too, grounded in the traditions, texts and practices of the church can tell our story in this particular way.  It is a journey story.  It is a complicated story.  It is a deep and mysterious story, but it is a story of a journey towards home; our true home, in God, guided by the Shepherd.

This story gives us the courage to trust, and fills us with compassion.  We trust that our interrupted lives are not chaotic, but guided.  And we look with compassion on every place of suffering, every situation of shepherd-less-ness and, as Jesus taught by example, we too respond with a reaching touch of healing.

Organized for Compassionate Action

I love the way the Jesus story shows us both a vision of personal compassionate touch and of organized, strategic ministry.  In this scene the people come to Jesus for his personal ministry.  But recently we saw that Jesus strategically organized the disciples into pairs and sent them out with a plan for healing ministries.   Justice and care often require organization and strategy.

The personal becomes political when compassion addresses large scale issues like mass incarceration, racism, discrimination, poverty, climate change, and war.  People who are grounded in the Shepherd’s story become parts of movements of change in solidarity with the shepherd-less ones.   There is, we know, a depth dimension to what we do together that is far greater than any of us could accomplish alone.

This is the “is” and the “so” of faith.  The Lord IS my shepherd, we say, SO, we are not in want.  Instead, like Jesus, we are engaged.  We are engaged in the traditions, texts and practices of a Christian.  We are engaged in both mission and in contemplation; in service and in Sabbath.

And we are also engaged in shepherding ministries of compassion, including the compassion that can only be accomplished by the organized, strategic work for justice and peace.

Ultimately, we are grounded in faith, trusting, waiting, searching, and always, hoping.

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Passing it On

Passing it On

Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, B, July 5, 2015 on  Mark 6:1-13

Mark 6: 1-13

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the his son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 2.12.46 PM

We have enjoyed watching the TV series called “Turn: Washington’s Spies.”  Set in the days of the American War of Independence, it is about spies who worked for General Washington.  The drama starts in 1776 in Setauket, New York  which was under  British occupation.  British troops were everywhere.  Resistance was dangerous.

It was also a time in which insults to honor were settled by duals with pistols, as happens in this story.  Insulting someone’s honor was taken with utmost seriousness.

The occupation of the land by foreign troops, the hopes for independence and the culture of  honor and shame are all parts of the story we read from Mark’s gospel.  The land of Israel, like the American colonies, was under foreign occupation: Roman troops were everywhere and were not at all reluctant to punish sedition.

Every Israelite longed to be out from under the boot of the Roman Empire, to be free and independent in their own land.   They wanted their kingdom back.  And many were willing to go to war to get it back.

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Into this context, Jesus is born.  He grows up the son of a peasant carpenter from a small insignificant village in Galilee among the working poor.  He goes to synagogue every Sabbath where they read Torah and the prophets, sing the Psalms, and pray.  They pray to the God of Moses, who led the exodus from Egyptian imperial oppression.  To the God of Abraham who turned from idols to  worship the one true God.  They prayed to the God of creation, the ultimate Source of all being.

We know almost nothing about Jesus’ experience of childhood and youth, but by the time we get stories about his adult life, we see a person who is deeply spiritual.  He spends long periods in silent prayer and meditation, sometimes all night long.  He is a person of compassion, willing to be attentive and fully present to suffering people.  And Jesus has a clear sense of calling.  He knows what his purpose is.  He lives as one totally connected to the Source of all being.  He is fond of calling that ultimate Source of being “Abba,” Father.  His connection is personal and even intimate.

What comes from this connection?  It is complicated.  Some of it makes Jesus well liked – even amazing to people.  At the same time, it alienates Jesus from some; even makes them angry.

Reacting to Jesus’ Vision

On the positive side, Jesus’ presence is a healing presence for many.  He touches people in unique ways with the power of God’s energy flowing through him.  He refuses to alienate anyone – he even goes out of his way to cross over to the Gentile side of the lake, to touch impure people and to remove social and even religious purity-barriers, as we have seen in the last few weeks of reading the gospel of Mark.

And Jesus has an amazing vision for he future.  He lives in the days of monarchies, so he calls his vision the kingdom of God.  It is a vision of shalom; of goodness, of reconciliation and wholeness.  Most remarkable is that for Jesus, the future has arrived.  The time is fulfilled.  The kingdom of God is at hand, and for those who accept this vision, it changes everything.

I wish we knew how Jesus arrived at this amazing vision, but we can see where it came from.  If you look back on the story of Israel told in Israel’s scripture, you can see patterns emerging, or evolving.  You can see trajectories.   The nation that is comprised of liberated slaves are formed into a community by covenant, under Moses.

Israel’s Odd Prophets

They worship their liberating God through sacrifice, as many ancient peoples did.  But Israel had these odd, outlier people called prophets who had remarkable spiritual insight, who said that there was more to it.  God, the Creator, the ultimate Source of being did not actually need sacrifices.  What God wanted was justice, mercy and compassion.

God wanted liberation for humans at a deep level.  God wanted liberation from selfishness, from greed, from violence.  The Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 3.24.00 PMprophets had an amazing vision of a future of shalom, of peace between nations, of swords beaten into plows and spears into pruning hooks.  It was a world-encompassing vision by prophets who knew that this was the only possible world that the Source of all being could desire.

So Jesus grew up reading Moses, and the Psalms, drinking in the insights of the prophets, and communing with God, the ultimate source of all being.

This is why, like some of the prophets before him, Jesus offended people too.  There are those for whom a world-wide vision was against their parochial self-interest.  There were those who did not long for the days of shalom, but who wanted to go to war.  They did not want the kingdom of God, they wanted the kingdom of David back.

Long ago, the prophet Jeremiah got thrown into a pit where he was expected to die because he told the people of his day not to go to war with the invading Babylonians.  And similarly, Jesus offended the nascent zealots of his day by resisting their quest for a new war of liberation against Rome.

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The story we read today shows glimpses of Jesus and the way he was received, both positively and negatively.  People liked his sermons in the synagogue, but they had issues with his agenda.  In that honor-and-shame-obsessed culture, they tried to insult Jesus.  They did not call him a new prophet, but rather a lowly carpenter.  They did not call him Joseph’s son, as patrilineal custom dictated.  They called him Mary’s son.  They mocked his family, his brothers and sisters.

Jesus got the insult.  He said,

“Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown”

But he did not call anyone to a dual or get into an ego contest.  His sense of self was far deeper than their ego insults could touch.  His response was the non-violent response of a contemplative.  He simply moved on.

Jesus’ Two-leveled Mission

There were two levels to Jesus’ mission.  First, he wanted people to come to know and love God, the ultimate source of being has he did.  He taught people to pray “Our Father in heaven” meaning our Father who is Divine; God.  Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 3.39.56 PM

He taught people to be spiritually oriented.  To come to understand that their truest selves were not their external labels and roles, their time-bound and culture-bound identities, but that their true identities were that they were God’s progeny; God’s children, in fact, at one with God.

Jesus wanted people to understand that their relationship to God was not about guilt and shame, taboo and law, but about redeeming love and ultimate trust.

This is exactly what we need still today; to be spiritually connected to the source of all being, to God, whom we know is for us, not against us.  To finally know ourselves at one with God, to experience God’s presence in the present.

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Spirituality is the first level.  But it does not stop there; it cannot stop there.  As soon as God is known this way, everything else changes.  It changes the way we relate to all other humans in the world.  They are not aliens to us if we share a common source, a common Father.   We cannot be indifferent to their needs, their pain, their conditions anymore than we are indifferent to the pain in our own families.  We become people of compassion.

Did you happen to see that piece that was carried on a popular news channel in which a white reporter in a sharp suit interviewed homeless black people living in Grand Central Station?  It was so, so sad.  This man went up to people who had no homes to live in, completely devoid of any compassion, and smugly coaxed them to reveal how dehumanized their lives had become.   Then he interviewed white people who complained of how inconvenient these homeless people made their lives.  Then he discussed the piece with the popular news anchor – all without one single word of pity, understanding or compassion, let alone analysis of root causes nor proposals for solutions.

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Friends, we are called to a far higher standard.  Just as Jesus sent out his disciples to pass on the vision of the kingdom, the realm of God, so we are here for a purpose.  Just as their ministry was a ministry of healing, so we are called to be God’s agents of practical care and compassion to the suffering.

Just as they cast out demons, so we are called to confront all the ways in which evil manifests itself in our day: the way the evil of greed and corruption infects our economic and political lives.  The way the evil of discrimination and racism continues to claim victims.  The way the evil of apathy infects us and allows us to turn away from people in poverty, and to ignore the cruel absurdity of mass incarceration.

Let us be the people who embrace Jesus’ vision.  Let us be people of deep spirituality.  Let us practice our faith intentionally by daily prayer and meditation, by regular worship and sacraments, and gathering together as a community in fellowship.  And let us be a community that passes it on in practical mission to our world.

Our perspective, since it seeks to be Jesus’ perspective, may run afoul of popular perspectives.  We may have to take some heat for being scandalized by heartless reports about homeless people.  We may take some flack for being the ones willing to stand up for equality for LGBT people and for  pressing for an end to racism and all its politely tolerated symbols.

We may, like Jesus and his disciples, find some people unwilling to embrace the world as it looks from the perspective of the Source of all Being. But we will not be baited by negativity.  We will live as hope-filled followers of Jesus, as children of the Father, as those who know we are one with God, our source and our destination