23 July 2012

Sermon on Mark 6 from Sunday, July 22: "Discipleship when life happens"

I've recently started work as a part-time assistant for pastoral care at St. Paul's Parish on K Street in Washington, DC. As I say in this sermon, "life happened" (and also death) early Friday morning in Aurora, CO. So my first sermon in this new position took an unexpected turn. Please continue to pray for all those affected by Friday's shootings.

PDF | Audio | Text:

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (Proper 11, Year B, RCL)

Our gospel passage this morning is more than a little confusing. I think our first task has to be just figuring out what’s going on. The gospel writer Mark can be hard enough to follow, and today the job is made more difficult by the designers of the lectionary. So take a deep breath and think back with me, if you can, to our readings from the last two weeks. Recall that Jesus had sent out the twelve two by two, to cast out spirits, heal the sick, and proclaim repentance. Next came last week’s strange interlude about John the Baptist, Herodius, the dance, and the head on the platter. And then, just like that, we’re back to the apostles without a word of warning. So the first thing to remember is that the apostles have “gathered around Jesus,” as we heard in the first verse today, because they’ve returned from their journey and want to tell him how it went.

They give what must have been a rather fabulous report, considering the nature of the work Jesus empowered them to do. And then Jesus says this: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” It must have been like music to their ears. After all, they’d traveled days or maybe weeks with no supplies. So imagine the disciples’ surprise and frustration when they arrive and find that a crowd had seen them going and rushed ahead to their formerly deserted place. They’d been promised a retreat alone, and they ended up hemmed in by a crowd full of sheep without a shepherd. But filled with compassion and apparently tireless, their master rolls up his sleeves and begins to teach them many things.

So how did the disciples handle it?  And what did Jesus teach the crowd?  Here’s where things get really confusing. The next line we heard this morning was this: “When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.” What?  First they get out of the boat and watch Jesus start teaching, and now they’ve crossed over to the other side of the lake?  Notice that we’re missing almost twenty verses here. At first it seemed to me that whoever chopped this story up got a little overzealous. Indeed, the part they removed was hardly insignificant: it’s the feeding of the five thousand followed immediately by Jesus walking on water. These are important details that help us understand the flow of the story, however familiar they are to us and however long they would take to read, or chant.

So why the huge jump?  I thought. How could the designers of the lectionary screw up a Sunday reading so badly?  Surely it’s not too much to ask that the story make sense. But then I read on ahead from the line about having crossed over: “When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized [Jesus], and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. …[They] begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” Now this is sounding familiar. I think we’re starting to hear a theme of faithful service amid frustration and fatigue. Part of what the lectionary emphasizes, it seems to me, is that after having their retreat interrupted, Jesus and his disciples attended to the needs of those who interrupted it. And then, yes, they headed off somewhere else to attend to still more people in need.

Disciples, I am sorry to say, are always on call. The apostles weren’t told, “Put down your nets and follow me, except on weekends, federal holidays, and three personal days that do not carry over to the following year.” No, our baptismal promises do not come with blackout dates, and the needs of the world are stubbornly indifferent to how much overtime we’ve put in lately.

Those of you who are parents probably understand this reality better than anybody, and those of us who remember or are still living what we put our parents through can probably come to a second-hand understanding. I’m thinking in particular of a summer afternoon when my family pulled into our Florida home after two days on I-95 returning from a trip to New York. I was seven, and my sister was four, if that gives you some idea of what kind of days these had been. But despite the terrible timing, I chose that day to throw an absolute fit about wanting to go see our local minor league baseball team. For reasons I still do not fully understand, my father relented. Now that’s a pretty tame example, but you parents can all name much more inconvenient or even desperate instances of when, as they say, “life happened.” You can’t control when your child gets sick, fails a test at school, breaks up with that first boyfriend or girlfriend, wrecks the car, or worse. Life happens, and you respond the best way you know how whenver you have to, because that’s what it means to be a parent.

Maybe that’s the lesson Jesus teaches his disciples in this morning’s piecemeal passage and that its addled editors are trying to teach us. The twelve got into that boat with every intention of caring for themselves for a while, but they got out knowing that Jesus and they had a job to do and that the grace of God and the presence of their master would carry them along. Life happened, and they responded as well as they could, because that’s what it means to be a disciple.

I was with a group of St. Paul’s parishioners this week who have learned this lesson far better than I have, learned it over years of faithful, Christ-centered service. Reflecting on the shape of their ministry, they named the frustrations of DC metro traffic, the difficulty of finding volunteers for certain work, and the sense we all get that the ministry Jesus calls us to is simply unrelenting: “no respite” was a common refrain. But they also spoke of the ways they were refreshed by “seeing delight in others,” by “the opportunity to stimulate excitement,” and by “watching others grow and develop” in faith and service. The abundant grace of God is such that sometimes the Holy Spirit breaks into our dreariest moments of tedium and exhaustion and helps us find peace and light among it all.

Now, none of this is to say that the disciples in today’s lesson didn’t genuinely need that retreat time. They did, and we do. But our call, it seems to me, is to be open and discerning when life happens. Sometimes, we really do need to push that boat back from the shore and find a new, genuinely deserted place to recharge our batteries. There may be no blackout dates for disciples, but there are some days when we won’t be of much use anyway. At other times, though, the need is so overwhelming that we can feel the risen Christ walking beside us, nudging us into service as his strong hands and compassionate heart in desperate times.

Yesterday morning, I visited the website of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Aurora, CO. “Summer time and the living is easy,” the home page read. You better believe that’s because the people of St. Martin’s have more pressing things to do right now than update the parish website. Congregations throughout the area have thrown open their doors to those whose shock and grief at Friday’s murders have drawn them out to stand vigil with their neighbors. The wounds to their community, and to the whole human family, are deep. We will all be tending to those wounds for some time, especially Coloradans, who have also been battered by the recent wildfires and who still carry scars from killings all too similar in Littleton in 1999. The images of smoke and gunfire, the harrowing stories of fortunate survivors, and the laments of the bereaved are painfully familiar. No, the living won’t be easy in Colorado for quite some time, regardless of what the calendar says, regardless of who is on vacation.

Where do they find the strength, and where will we, in the face of this senseless act, and in the face of the more mundane changes and chances that threaten each day to sap our energy and hope in God’s promises?  Well, we’ll find it in each other, to be sure, which is why we heard over and over again this weekend that mental health workers, pastoral caregivers, and concerned citizens everywhere are reaching out to those who need it. During another recent crisis, my seminary Hebrew teacher used this expression to describe what we do in our most desperate times: “we huddle.” I hope you’ll take some time this afternoon to huddle with anyone you think might be particularly confused, hurt, or frightened by Friday morning’s terrible, sickening attack. If you’re one of those people, please know that you are not alone and that your response is nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to be taken lightly. Please don’t be afraid to ask for the help you need. We’ll all find strength in each other.

But we Christians witness to another power stronger still, and it’s what brought many of us here this morning. As one pastor, who happens to be speaking right now to a congregation in Colorado, said Friday, “Obviously, the affected families don’t need a theological treatise right now; they desperately need the very real presence of Jesus in their lives, and that’s what our church and many others are helping them experience.” When life and death happen in the worst ways, we huddle with each other, and we huddle around Christ. “The apostles gathered around Jesus,” Mark tells us, and so should we. We huddle in this familiar place, we bring our sadness and confusion, we pray, we break bread.” In so doing, we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives, allowing the living Christ to breath his life into us anew. We reach out and touch not his cloak but his very body, and we receive in some way the healing power that flows from him. Gathering around Jesus is how the apostles received the strength and courage to keep on getting out of that boat despite fatigue and frustration. And it’s how the grace of God will get us through these times and worse. If you don’t believe me, look around you in this holy huddle. There are people in this church who have been to hell and back. Life and death happened to them at the worst possible times, and they are disciples still, serving the Lord of Life who heals and strengthens all of us, come what may.

So pray for the people of Aurora this week. Pray for James Holmes. Pray for each other. And pray for the church whose mission is to bind up the broken-hearted and help share the healing love of Christ with everyone who waits for him on the shore.