Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Greetings everyone and welcome! As you know, I will be in New Orleans next week from Tuesday through Sunday with five of our young members at the nationwide ELCA Youth Gathering. I ask for your prayers for all of us in our travels and for our enrichment as we join in worship, learning and mission with over thirty thousand other folks from around the country. Needless to say, I will not be present on Sunday Morning. Rev. Kathryn Ellison will be presiding in my place. As always, she will have a good word for us and I encourage you to extend to her a warm welcome.
The texts for this week seem to focus on “shepherding” or “pastoral” leadership. The prophet Jeremiah delivers a scathing critique of Judah’s rulers whose leadership has exploited and scattered the people of Israel and then promises that God will raise up a “righteous Branch” from the house of David to restore peace and security to the people. Psalm 23, of course, speaks eloquently of the Lord as our Shepherd. In the Gospel, Jesus confronts a crowd of people all in very great need. These people arouse his compassion because they are “like sheep without a shepherd.” The lesson from Ephesians does not tie in thematically with the other lessons. Indeed, the second reading typically constitutes one of a series of readings from a particular epistle rather than a text selected to match a theme. Nevertheless, the author speaks about us gentile folks, who had no part in Israel or its covenant promises, being brought into (or herded into) that covenant through Christ. I must say that, as far as my own ministry is concerned, this Ephesians text is the most helpful model for me. I have never been comfortable with the term “Pastor,” which means “shepherd.” I am not the Good Shepherd. Jesus is. I recently read an article in the Christian Century in which the author (whose name escapes me) described his pastoral role as that of a sheep dog. I prefer that analogy. I am a lot like a sheep dog. I don’t know where the green pastures are or where to find the still waters. I can’t fight off the wolves or lead the flock through the valley of the shadow. Only the shepherd can do that. But I do know where the Shepherd is and I am certain that the Shepherd knows where he is going even if the rest of us, including the sheep dog, don’t. The sheep dog can herd the sheep to the Good Shepherd and keep them within the flock. He can seek them when they stray from the flock and keep the flock together. That sounds a lot more like what I do. The heavy lifting belongs to the Shepherd.
The prophet Jeremiah’s ministry took place during the last dark days of Jerusalem-as did that of Ezekiel (see notes from Pentecost 6). The little kingdom of Judah emerged from Assyrian domination around 640 B.C.E. under King Josiah and gained a large measure of power and independence. But that good fortune was not to last. Egypt and Babylonia soon rose up to fill the power vacuum left after Assyria’s fall. Josiah was slain in a fruitless battle with Egypt. The victorious Pharaoh Neco placed one of Josiah’ sons on the throne as his vassal. Shortly thereafter, in 605 B.C.E., the Babylonian empire under Nebuchadnezzer defeated Egypt and what was left of Assyria in the battle of Carchemish. Nebuchadnezzer occupied Judah in 597, placed an uncle of the king, Zedekiah, on the throne. Zedekiah, intent on restoring Judah to its former glory under King David, engaged in a diplomatic strategy of playing his Babylonian master off against Egypt. This was a dangerous game that Zedekiah ultimately lost. In reliance upon a promise of support from Egypt, Zedekiah led his nation in revolt against Babylonian domination. Egyptian support never came
and Jerusalem was surrounded, subjected to a brutal siege that ended with its destruction in 587 B.C.E.
This is the context in which we read Jeremiah’s criticism of the “shepherds” of Israel, that is, her rulers. . Jeremiah’s critique rests upon a tradition that saw the Davidic monarchy as the champion of justice, the protector of the poor and oppressed. e.g. Psalm 73:12. Yet in a hopeless effort to achieve national glory, the king and his minions disregarded the covenant at the heart of Judah’s existence. Judah’s kings took to worshiping the gods of other nations and relying upon international military alliances rather than on the Lord their God. The people of Judah suffered the horrific consequences of Judah’s misguided and self serving political agendas. They were killed in the crossfire of war, driven into exile and impoverished as a result of the Babylonian reprisals. Rather than protecting and caring for the sheep, the leaders disregarded their welfare, exploited and scattered them among the nations. Yet the prophecy ends with a word of promise. God finally will raise up from the line of David a “righteous branch.” Jeremiah continues to hope for a faithful descendent of David who, like David himself, will rule Judah with an eye toward caring for the sheep.
This lesson comes to us in the heat of a presidential contest that promises to be contentious and divisive. It is appropriate to ask what our “shepherds” are doing to unite and care for the flock. Does winning the election trump leadership? Is purely selfish political ambition driving those who would be our shepherds? Judah’s rulers were intent on restoring the former glory of Judah under David and Solomon. That vision was entirely unrealistic under the current political circumstances. Moreover, Jeremiah would have his people know that what they regarded as the “good old days,” were in God’s view a dismal failure in terms of covenant faithfulness. Therefore, Jeremiah had the task of telling his people that God would not support the nationalistic aspirations of its faithless rulers and their diplomatic duplicity. God sought faithfulness, trust and obedience-qualities for which Judah’s rulers with their real politic had little use.
Ultimately, Judah’s shepherds were responsible for misleading the people with a false hope. They promised glory without obedience; greatness without faithfulness; prosperity without sacrifice. I might be on dangerous ground here, but I believe that both presidential candidates are guilty in equal measure of this same sin. And I feel compelled to add that we, the people, share in the responsibility for this propagation of false hope. What we need are leaders that tell us the truth: that we face a crisis in the rising cost of medical care; that the gap between rich and poor is growing at an alarming rate; that more and more of our citizens are falling below the poverty line; that our disproportionate consumption of the earth’s resources is not sustainable. Further we need leaders who tell us that all of these problems are difficult and complex. Addressing them effectively will require sacrifice, hard work and profound changes in our lifestyles. But that is a message nobody wants to hear and we are not likely to elect a leader who brings us such unwelcome tidings. Instead, we elect leaders who tell us what we want to hear: that the solutions are simple and require nothing from us. We vote for people who tell us that we can have prosperity, security and peace without paying a penny more in taxes, without enduring any risk and without sacrificing an ounce of comfort. Of course, soon after putting these people in office it becomes clear to us that we have not elected the messiah, but another human being who cannot possibly keep the promises that had to be made to win the election. So when the next election rolls around, we angrily kick the false god we have made off the pedestal on which we placed it and set up another one in his place. I don’t see this deadly cycle ending until we finally face up to the truth. Our problems cannot be regulated out of existence nor will they miraculously disappear if only we let the free hand of the market economy do its magic. As long as we continue to believe in lies, we will continue to elect liars.
I don’t have any suggestions for fixing the political system in Washington (or Bergen County either, for that matter). All I can do is point to the righteous branch Jeremiah spoke of. He does not come to us with promises of easy fixes and miraculous cures. Rather, he calls us to the slow work of witnessing to God’s Kingdom and following him in a common life of service to one another. I have always been convinced that the one and only thing the church has to offer the world is a vision of God’s alternative for living together. Jesus did not preach easy solutions. To the contrary, “it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” “Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate that leads to destruction is wide.” “Whoever would be my disciple must deny himself, take up the cross and follow me.” I doubt Jesus could ever get himself elected to public office, but that is not a thing to which Jesus aspired. The reign of God is made known not in the seats of empire or the halls of congress, but in communities that spring from the righteous branch where “the least” of all people are valued the most, where the truth is spoken in love, where daily bread is enough and where the offer of hospitality is made to all people all the time. That is where the truth that sets us free is enacted. That is where the light from God’s future breaks into the darkness of the present age.
What more can I say about Psalm 23 than has already been said? The biggest problem we have with this reading is that it is so familiar that I sometimes think it goes over us without our even hearing it. For example, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need.” Really??? Let’s think about this. What if God were to appear and ask you personally, “Hey, do you need anything?” Do you think you would really say, “Nope. I’m good.” Though there is nothing I absolutely need to survive until the morning, I could think of plenty of things that it would be very helpful to have. Yet maybe that is the point. After all, Jesus teaches us to pray for today’s bread. That is the only material thing Jesus instructs us to pray for-essentially what most of us already have. The rest is not need, but merely appetite. Jesus says nothing about prayers for the satisfaction of our appetites.
One might well contrast the Lord as shepherd with the shepherds Jeremiah excoriates in the prior lesson. The Lord leads the sheep to what they need-which may not be with they want or think they need. The Lord does not promise to annihilate the enemies of the sheep, but teaches them to live abundantly and confidently in the presence of their enemies. The Lord does not promise that the way in which he leads the sheep will be easy or free from suffering and death. Rather, the Lord promises to be with the sheep in the valley of the shadow and to lead them even there.
Finally, when it comes to “dwelling in the house of the Lord forever,” I think we have a parallel in the letter to the Ephesians which emphasizes “being in Christ.” Being “in Christ,” is for the author of Ephesians living in community with the people called together by the good news of Jesus, the church. According to Ephesians, “the blessings in the heavenly places,” “the forgiveness of our sins” and the mystery of God’s will all are revealed within the community of persons called out to live faithfully, truthfully and obediently with Jesus. See Sermon of July 15th at http://tlcbogotanj.org/
This text is a poignant reminder that we in the church are, as St. Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “wild olive shoots” that were grafted into the cultivated olive garden of Israel. This reminder is important because historically there has been a lot of bad theology out there suggesting that somehow the church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people. This understanding is further exacerbated by our reference to the Hebrew Scriptures as the “Old Testament.” This might suggest that the covenant with Israel is obsolete, that Old Testament history is a story of failure that had to be corrected and replaced by the New Testament. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. The God who raised Jesus from death is the same God that brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt and into the promised land. The covenant, it must be emphasized, was with Abraham and Sarah and their descendents. We gentiles come into the picture for one reason and one reason only: Jesus, the messiah of Israel, invites us in. As Paul makes very clear in his letter to the Romans, God has not revoked the covenant promises made to Israel. Israel still is God’s people and no less so merely because in God’s mercy the benefits of those promises have been extended to us gentiles through Jesus.
Of course, this passage also emphasizes once again that the flesh and blood church, the communion of saints, is the place where God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is made manifest. It is in the church that the mystery of God’s intent for all creation is revealed.
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1302&cmpgn=5244
Nothing infuriates me more than when the lectionary people take their unholy pruning shears to the scriptures and begin cutting and pasting together a reading made up of selective verses. That is exactly what has been done here. Between verses 34 and 53 we have Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand and his appearing to the disciples in the midst of the Sea of Galilee walking on the water. I suppose this was done because we will be hearing John’s account of the feeding in next week’s gospel. I can understand why one would not want to place these two parallel stories back to back. Still, it seems to me that it would have been better to select another Markan reading that would not have required such brutal surgery. That said, the lesson is what it is. So I will take it as it comes, though I cannot ignore the feeding of the five thousand or the encounter on the Sea of Galilee as they both have an impact on the meaning of the text.
It is highly significant that chapter 6 begins with Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth which is followed by his sending out the Twelve to preach and heal. This mission activity appears to have alerted Herod Antipas to the Jesus movement and he is convinced that his old nemesis, John the Baptizer, has been raised. Our text for Sunday begins with the disciples returning from their mission and what appears to be a retreat for debriefing. Jesus and his disciples go out to a “lonely place” only to find that the crowds have gotten there ahead of them. Jesus finds the people much the way Jeremiah found them six centuries earlier-like sheep without a shepherd. It is significant that, just as the disciples relied upon the hospitality of the towns they visited in their mission, so now the crowd is hungry and in need of hospitality. The disciples suggest sending the people away to fend for themselves, but Jesus insists that they be shown the same hospitality the disciples were shown on their mission trip. Five loaves and two fish seem inadequate for such an undertaking but, when placed in Jesus’ hands, they turn out to be more than enough. The reading ends as it began-with crowds of people seeking Jesus.
More than anything else, these verses illustrate for us what it means to be a follower of Jesus. At the very center of discipleship is hospitality-the willingness to make space, share necessities and take time for the neighbor. Sometimes I wonder whether our life as a congregation adequately reflects this radical hospitality that Mark paints for us in the gospel lesson. Indeed, sometimes I wonder whether it exists at all. That is one reason why I attend the Ekklesia Project Gathering each year. I always discover different forms of church life and different expressions of what faithfulness to the gospel looks like. One such expression is Church of the Sojourners. The Church of the Sojourners is a live-together church community of about thirty people of various ages and backgrounds located in San Francisco. The congregation resides in four large houses and shares money and resources. Worship is held in homes rather than in a church building. Members eat five meals together every week, spend time together and take vacations together. In the church’s own words:
“Here at Church of the Sojourners, we seek to respond to Christ’s call by living together family-style, sharing our homes, resources, and friendship, our weaknesses as well as our strengths—not because living together is a requirement of committed discipleship, but because it is one real way we have found to provide us with numerous daily opportunities for forgiveness, humility, service, gratitude, worship, prayer, and other practicalities of sainthood which help build us into “the full measure of the stature of Christ.”
Obviously, this is not a model that every community can emulate. Nevertheless, it represents a challeng for us to examine our own ways of being the church in our community and think about ways to find deeper and more faithful expressions of our faith. I encourage you to visit the website for Church of the Sojourners at http://churchofthesojourners.wordpress.com/