Sunday, July 19, 2009

Lectionary 16
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.

We went on vacation last week. I took along my laptop and my resources with every intention to continue writing even while we were there to rest, but it didnít happen. We were there to rest, and we had a wonderful time doing so. We were in West Texas, stayed in Alpine and traveled to places like Fort Davis and Big Bend to enjoy the history and the nature. We visited the McDonald Observatory, a ghost town and searched for the Marfa mystery lights (we saw them.) The landscape in that area of Texas, particularly in Big Bend National Park, is mountainous and desert, along with the Rio Grande. It is spectacular. Every turn or rise of the hill brought us to a brand new scene, each more incredible than the last.

One thing I learned during this past trip is that our God loves bling. On Tuesday night we attended a star party at the McDonald Observatory. The crowd gathered at an amphitheater and we listened as one of their hosts pointed out the different stars and constellations. He had an amazing laser pointer that reached three miles, so he was able to show us exactly the star he was talking about. He talked about the Zodiak, not from an astrological point of view, but from an astronomical point of view. They are very different. During his presentation I kept thinking that the sky was filled with twinkling diamonds, so carefully and purposely placed that we can know the time of year just by which stars are seen. After the presentation, we were free to view some of the cosmic bodies through telescopes. They had several pointing toward Saturn, others pointed toward the moon and yet others pointed to some of the cloud nebulas visible in the sky. It was truly amazing to see these bodies in more detail than is possible with the naked eye, and I thanked God for creating such an incredible universe.

Our awe wasnít limited to the twinkling stars. Though Texas mountains might not be as tall as those in other states, they rise to impressive heights none the less. Set in the middle of a desert, the mountains are covered with flora and fauna that thrive in arid climates. We saw coyote, snakes, lizards, road runners, buzzards and even a peregrine falcon. Since the mountains were built by volcanic activity, many were covered with great rock clusters. The cliffs were decorated with layers of different colored rock. We didnít see any of the bears or mountain lions reported to live in the area. The mountains that rise south of the Rio Grande in Mexico are as beautiful as those on the U.S. side, reminding us that Godís creativity knows no borders.

The Rio Grande, at least where we saw it, was not a terribly impressive river. It was not very wide; an average baseball player could easily throw a ball across the water in most places. What makes the river incredible is its length, which reaches nearly the entire length of the Texas border to Mexico. It is also incredible because it cuts through some of the most beautiful canyons in the world. With walls towering a thousand feet above the surface of the water, we are reminded of the power of that small ribbon of water flowing through those mountains. The river was a little muddy from recent showers in the area, but it still shimmered in the sunshine and reminded us of the continuity of Godís grace, taking those life giving waters where they will be used to sustain Godís living creatures along the way.

So, despite the fact that I didnít get the chance to write last week, God was never far from us. We saw in the stars, mountains, desert and river how much God loves His creation. He loves the whole world so much that Heís given us not only the things that we need, but also beauty and wisdom in those parts that seem desolate and out of the way. Heís given us that bling that makes our life fuller and more precious.

It is good to rest, to take time to see God beyond the words and know His presence everywhere. Jesus knew how important it was to rest because He gave His disciples a chance to rest after they had done some incredible work for the Kingdom. Yet, in this passage we are reminded that Jesus doesnít stop even when we do. Heís always there. God is always there, working in the world bringing healing and peace. Sometimes it is in those moments when we are stopped, when our hands and feet are not moving, when we can truly be made whole. Then we can go back to work, to share the Gospel message with the world.

Through it all, we know that God is with us. What a wonderful reminder of this we have in this weekís psalm. Though it is used so often, Psalm 23 gives so much comfort and hope to Godís people that it never gets old. While we were away, we hiked through a short canyon. It was no more than 20 feet wide at its widest point, sometimes as small as five feet wide, with walls towering above us. This canyon obviously gets water pouring through it during times of rainfall, and perhaps even just a few days before we were there. We were stopped by an impassible puddle nearly at the end of the canyon. There is no escape if you get caught off guard. There are no ledges on which to stand, no holds for your hands. If you are caught in the canyon when it rains, there is no doubt that youíll end up in the Rio Grande at the end of it. The danger is very real.

Except that on the day we hiked, there was no chance of rain. As a matter of fact, it was sunny and very warm. The sunbeams lit the canyon and there was a breeze blowing through that made it cooler than the desert just a few feet away. It was a pleasant place to be. That is how we should feel living in the care of our Father, and it is the way the psalmist felt when writing the psalm. ďThough I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.Ē We had no cares that day, except perhaps the heat, but even then we knew we were only feet away from our car. The sheep know they are safe when the shepherd is nearby. The crowds knew they had hope when they saw Jesus. This is the key to life: living in faith, trusting in the God who is never far away.

And this is the one thing we have in common as people of faith. God is our common bond. Even moreso, the blood of Christ is what binds us together. Many people believe in some sort of God, but believing in some sort of God is not something that break down the walls between people. As a matter of fact, the differences in how we believe are often the very things that build walls between us.

It was that way for the people in Paulís day. The Jews were unique in the world. The pagans had their own beliefs. But then Jesus came and changed things dramatically. They began to believe in the same thing. Unfortunately, they still saw the differences that kept them apart. The Jews did not feel comfortable giving up living according to their laws and religious practices. They even wanted to require the new Christians to convert to Judaism first before they could be welcomed into the Christian community.

The Jews and the pagan Christians had nothing in common. They came from very different backgrounds and had very different ideas about life and the world. However, Jesus Christ offered something new: a common denominator between very different people. In Christ both the Jews and the pagan Christians were part of the same family. They became citizens of the same kingdom. Despite their differences, they had something greater that could bond them together: the blood of Christ. This is very good news for those of us who were once strangers to the mercy of God. We are given by grace the joy and peace and hope found in Christ, joined together with everyone who has also heard and believed in Jesus Christ as one body despite our differences.

I was talking with someone yesterday about what it is like being actively involved in the leadership of a church. He told me that he is really not interested in serving on council anymore because heís seen what happens behind the scenes and he doesnít like it. Heís noticed that his small town church isnít a church anymore: it is a business. I had to agree and admit that some of my disillusioning moments in church have been when Iíve been caught up in that Ďbusinessí of Ďdoing church.í It is heartbreaking what people are willing to argue about and how they are willing to treat one another until they get their own way.

What is leadership? I suppose in many ways this is the big question of our day. When we are watching corporations fall apart because of poor leadership and politicians of every stripe questioned about their decisions in their public and private lives. We even see it happening in churches and families. What is the right way to lead a group of people? What is the best thing to do for the sake of the group and for those outside the group? How many leaders are really concerned about their people? How many are concerned about their own power and position?

Jeremiah passes on a word of warning to the leaders in Isreal: they have failed to care for Godís people and God is ready to take over and he will take care of everyone, including the leaders. Unfortunately for them, He will take care of them by calling them to account. They will experience the same measure of care they gave to those who were given to them. What if the leaders had to live according to the same expectations as they place as burdens on their people? It seems that many leaders live by the adage, ďDo as I say, not as I do.Ē What if they had to live according to their own words? Would things be any different?

Many leaders forget that they are not the top of the food chain or that they will not remain on top forever. Then what happens? What happens when the abusive father becomes old and unable to care for himself? Does he receive the same mercy he gave to his children? Does the corporate CEO stay in power by stepping on the little people who make the company work? The good leader is the one who realizes that the burden is on his or her shoulder. When they take care of those who are in their care, then they will do everything they can to make their leader successful.

Jesus never worried about His power and position. As a matter of fact, He spent a great deal of time running away from the crowdís desire to make Him an earthly king. His concern was for the people, to ensure that they received the kind of care that God desired for them. He was in a right relationship with both those who were under His care and His Father in Heaven. Thatís what makes good leadership, an understanding that although one is the Master, He is also the Servant. Perhaps we could use more leaders like that in our world today, in corporate leadership and politics and the church and in our homes.

In Psalm 23 we hear the promise in that line ďthough I walk through the valley of the shadow of death; I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.Ē This verse can also be translated ďthough I walk through the darkest valley.Ē While the ultimate fear is death, we all walk through valleys during our lifetimes. We walk through the valleys of illness, broken relationships, and financial insecurity. We walk through the valleys of doubt, confusion, and pain. We walk through the valleys of anger, hatred and fear. We walk through the valleys that are caused by the differences between people.

All too often those valleys come at the hands of the people to whom we have given our trustóour leaders, the shepherds gifted and called to guide us. How many people fear walking on the street at night because the police have not been able to control the violence in our cities? How many people are angry because politicians are not accomplishing the work we have elected them to accomplish? How many times have we been disappointed by leaders who have lied, cheated and stolen from us? These are valley times; times when we feel there is no hope for tomorrow. It is in these times when we feel alone, afraid, uncertain. We fear because we see the evil around us and feel completely powerless.

So, while the Psalm is a wonderful reminder of the hope we have beyond that valley of the shadow of death, we must also recognize the comfort it provides for us as we go through the dark valleys of our lives. When the shepherds who have been appointed to our care do not attend to us, we are not alone. The God of all compassion is there in the midst of it all. When we feel our leaders have failed us, we do not need to despair, for God is ready to take over. We are reminded, however, that if we are the leaders that have failed we may have to experience the same hardship with which we have burdened others.

I suppose thatís not such good news, especially since we are all fallible human beings. We all make mistakes. We all cause suffering in the lives of other people. We all make bad decisions that cause problems for the people with whom we are called to live and work and serve. Sometimes the valleys we have to walk through are valleys weíve brought on by our own failing. And so, in the midst of the bad news, we are brought right back to the good news: God is with us.

And we are bound together, despite our failings, by the blood of Christ.

We donít always like everyone with whom we are called to work for Godís kingdom. Sometimes our disagreements are impossible to overcome. Oh, we fight about the silliest things like what color we should paint the office or which type of wine we should serve at communion. But there are much deeper issues that need to be dealt with for us to work together. My disappointment came when I was serving on a committee to update the constitution of our church. I was amazed at the issues about which some members were unwilling to discuss, and how little understanding of both our church and the scriptures they had. They liked the rules as they were written because it gave power to the people they wanted in power. Unfortunately, the committee disbanded because we were unable to come to any agreement.

Yet, the hope is found in the reality that we continued to worship God together. I suppose one day the document will be fixed, the lessons will be learned and the people will be united by more than just the blood of Christ. But even when there is no agreement, there is unity because God is with us in the midst of it all.

In the Gospel lesson, the disciples returned after visiting the villages and sharing the Good News with the people. They were excited about all they had done. But they were also exhausted, and the people did not stop coming. Jesus knew they could not continue at that pace forever, so He took them away from the crowds to rest. He gave them a vacation, however brief, during which they did not have to worry about the needs of others. Is it selfish to take that time? Are those shepherds who walk away for a week or a month like the shepherds in Jeremiah who destroy and scattered the sheep? I have to admit that Iíve worried about my readers when Iíve gone on vacation. Will my time away be an inconvenience to them? Will it harm them in some way? Will someone miss a word of hope or encouragement I might have given if I hadnít been so selfish as to go away and rest?

And yet, even while the needy crowds are gathering around the disciples, Jesus takes them away for a moment of peace and quiet and rest. We canít do it all. In reality, it is when we become burned out that we make our greatest mistakes. Did those shepherds willfully destroy the flock or were they too tired to do what is good and right and true? So, Jesus calls us away briefly to rest and remember, to see God in the world around us and to hear His voice more clearly. We canít learn all the lessons we need by being immersed continually in the work. We need to get away, to see Godís bling, to be refreshed by the beauty of Godís creation and the grace of Godís presence in our world.

When we are gone, whether it is for a day or week or years, God will not let our flock disappear. He is with them, too. He doesnít forget those in need. He doesnít dismiss any of our needs, even when our greatest need is rest. He makes us lay down in green pastures to rest and recuperate so that we can go again into the world to serve Him and those to whom weíve been sent to share the blood of Christ and the mercy of God in word and deed.

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