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