Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
I want to share this morning a particular warm, summer memory from my early days.
We were at a church camp. We were finishing up our day and were playing one last game. It may have been tag, or our more elaborate favorite, fox and hounds, or some new game, I don’t remember which, but there was a “get ready, get set, go” called and a group of about 12 children took off running scattered into the woods.
It was a sparse grove of tall hardwoods that seemed to have spilled out of a thicker forest beyond. I took the lead ahead of my two best friends. We were strategizing and giggling as we ran. I was pushing myself to run as fast as I could, probably trying to beat the boys to whatever the goal was, when it happened.
I stopped cold and realized that dusk is much darker in the woods than in the meadow I had just run from. I was suddenly afraid to go on and turned to tell my friends but they were gone. It was as if they had vanished into thin air. I guess they found the ball, or whatever the goal of the game was or the game had ended, and they had returned to the meadow. But I was left behind. I could see no one. In fact, I was very much alone in the dark woods. I could hear voices in the distance, but they seemed miles away. I stood there frozen, aware only of my panting breath and the touch of a cool evening breeze from the river nearby.
All I had to do was follow the voices back to our camp where my mother would hug me and my father would carry me to the car. All I had to do was follow the still laughing voices of my siblings and friends. And I did.
But for that brief moment, I was lost. And I knew it. And I realized how easy it would be to get lost for good and not have such an easy way finding home.
The gospel lesson this morning from Mark is about following Jesus and getting found.
The twelve were went out in the previous chapter. I didn’t focus on that part last week but focused instead on the idea that we are each adopted by God and each other and that we must seek God’s guidance through vulnerability. That we can accomplish this by learning to be child-like, though not child-ish.
Today there are themes in all these readings of shepherding a flock: David was a shepherd and Jesus is described as the Good Shepherd, and there are also themes of the authority of God and the need for disciples of Jesus to rest. There is also a message of unity in the face of division which is found in all of these stories but emphasized in the Epistle reading.
In the Gospel lesson, the editors cut out two big stories. There are 19 verses missing here. These verses include the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’s walk on the water. If we tried to tackle all of that we’d be here until 3:00 this afternoon! So we are meant to look at these other themes instead.
So, let’s start with the division theme and work our way back to the idea of rest.
The letter to the Ephesians insists in this second chapter that those folks drawing lines in the sand and creating division should stop. It is sort of a cease and desist letter, this chapter. As you know the context is that Gentiles, who were pejoratively called “the uncircumcised” by the Jewish Christians in the early church were, at the time this was written, feeling a bit unwelcome. To clarify, it helps to think of how these Jews must have felt. They had been a part of a nation with one God for many centuries and now they have been inundated with newcomers. These newcomers have no sense of what it means to be Jewish, much less even believe in God. They have no respect for Jewish sacraments or laws and seem like unwanted distant cousins at the family reunion. So they began to squabble about what sorts of values and background was to be expected of a Christian. And the church has been squabbling about this ever sense!
So, Paul wrote a cease and desist letter pleading with them to stop squabbling about who is welcome and who is not. Because, Christ has created a new covenant, a new church, “a new humanity” as Paul put it. And I love this phrase at the end, which indicates that in Christ there is a new temple and that temple is the body of Christ, “in whom (we) also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
David had built himself a house and worried that God was living in a tent. God said in reply, essentially, that God didn’t need a house. Paul tells us that houses are for people too but that this new temple is not a building at all, but a way of life in Christ and it is a whole new place to call home.
But what have we to come home to? The Church is still so divided. Christians on one side of the divide insist they are Right and act like school yard bullies insisting everyone get in line with their theological practices. Folks on the extreme other side have left the church and come to the decision that we can love good lives as good people and do good works without prayer or belief even.
Both are missing the point of discipleship. Religious practice is not about living a good life of feel good action nor is it about feeling powerful through doctrine and dogma.
I read an article this week that described and interviewed members of an international organization called The Sunday Assembly. This is described as “a growing secular community, where people get many of the elements you would expect from church, but with no doctrine or religion.” Essentially, it is church for atheists. They get together on Sunday mornings, sing together and share stories of inspiration in their lives. I think that’s lovely.
It is interesting to me though that most of those quoted said they were raised in the church, became disillusioned, or at least disappointed with the church at some point due to hierarchical power abuse or perceived hypocritical behavior on the part of church folks and left. They are right. There is much power abuse and hypocritical behavior in the church. That’s because we’re a bunch of messy humans.
But what struck me was not why these folks left the church. Again, I can’t blame them. It was that they still long for community. One member put it this way:
"It's a secular gathering but we do things that look a bit like church. We sing, we have speakers, we have reflection, we have cake and coffee. It's for all these people who like to do that but don't want to do it in church for whatever reason.”
This is one extreme side of the spectrum I’m talking about. We want to feel inspired and not bullied and we want to feel a part of community. But just feeling good is missing the point of discipleship.
While I’d rather be with these folks than the bullies on the other extreme of the spectrum what both are missing is the transformation that comes from dedicating oneself to God, from dedicating oneself to daily seeking the ways of a mystery that is beyond all knowing, of practicing a seeking of this love force in all ways of being. Discipleship gets you out of your SELF.
The other writer I was drawn to this week is a seminary professor who leans toward the values of these secular seekers. The critique of this scholar is that he takes political issues in his commentaries to the extreme of not really talking about scripture anymore. So, I don’t really like him and I can’t pronounce his name either.
But then he said something in his reflections on today’s gospel that stopped me in my tracks. He suggested that most people who call themselves Christians and proclaim Jesus as Lord and themselves as disciples of Jesus are really secular too. He said that:
“Many Christians don’t have a sense of what a spiritual life is. Is it prayer? Is it reading the Bible? Is it being guided spiritually by someone?”
“Since we don’t have much of an idea what a spiritual practice might be, Christians tend to have a very secular sense of the spirit and tend to correlate spiritual life with daily stuff we love, such as cooking, reading, walking the dog, and so on. Very few understand that spiritual disciplines actually entail painful processes of learning to listen and to deal with our desires and our death drive.”
Interesting choice of words, huh? He goes on . . .
“Some Christians think that spirituality is only about justice and they throw themselves into works of justice that will change the world and themselves.”
“The question for us here is: What spirit do we follow? The Spirit of God or the spirit of the world? Are we enticed to serve the god of (of the world) or the Spirit of God? This is our ongoing struggle.”
“Jesus is attentive to the practices of his disciples and is aware of the pulling and pushing we all go through daily. We can easily fall into the cosmetic treatment of the spirit with spiritual lotions, smoky prayers and healing baths while announcing that this kind of caring for oneself is a political act.
“But we can also fall into the trap of working hard for the cause of justice without attending to our souls and our spiritual and emotional needs. (Prof. Carvalhaes) think(s) this latter group is the one Jesus is concerned with and talking to here -- those who do not stop to think, to meditate, to ponder, to wonder, to pay attention, to pray. To those, Jesus says: ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’”
“Jesus is telling us that we have to pause and pay attention to our hearts, to our movements and to how we are living our lives. Without a strong spiritual life, oriented by daily spiritual practices of prayer and meditation, of pause and loneliness, we cannot do all the work we need to do and we cannot be all that we are called to be. A heart without action is ineffective, and an action without a heart is empty. Jesus is calling us to have a compassionate heart and to do strong actions of justice. Both things! Together!” (adapted from Cláudio Carvalhaes http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3737)
So, Prof. Carvalhaes inspired me with these words. He inspired me to consider ways I can lead you toward a more spiritual practice of self care, spiritual self care.
He reminded me that old adage about the difference between doing and being. We are so very busy in this life, in these days. We are desperate for some down time and we don’t even know it. But I’m suggesting that coming to church rather than staying away is the better way to find rest and renewal. “ Come away to a deserted place” is not an invitation to what we have come to think of as recreation – though picnics and boat rides and camping trips and the like are also good for us – Jesus invites us to come away to rest and to pray in order to be renewed for the work of the Kingdom.
My dream is that we can gather as a community - all of us - everyone who is a part of this parish -every Sunday. Well, nearly every Sunday. My dream is for us to get better at praying and listening for the Spirit to guide us. There is always room for more rest in this life. If we can increase our time spent in prayer – together - we can follow the one Good Shepherd. In this way we can find new ways to rest and renew our souls. In this way we can find inspiration from this community - through common prayer. In this way we can grow - not just in numbers, but in clarity about God’s call for us as a parish. In this way we can develop better beacons in our souls that steer us toward home when we feel lost.