Sunday, July 19, 2015

Eighth Sunday of Pentecost
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-44

But now in Christ Jesus ye that once were far off are made nigh in the blood of Christ.

I have a confession to make, but you have to keep it between us: in all the years I have been active in churches, I have never served on the leadership council. Oh, I've had plenty of leadership roles, often relating to the women or children of the church. I've worked on committees and taken on projects. It isn't that I was never asked to serve on council, but I never felt it was the place where God was calling me to serve. I'm actually better at serving behind the scenes, accomplishing the work that needs to be done rather than making decisions.

It wasn't always easy. We have all had experiences in the church that have been disappointing and hurtful. We all know a council president who was focused more on his power and position than on God's will or what was right for the church. We all know the committee chair who has lots of ideas but who does not want to do any of the hard work. We all know a pastor who is so busy with the business of church that he has forgotten to be a shepherd to his sheep. We also know that none of us are perfect. It is important for us to remember that we are all sinners in need of a Savior, and that the Savior came to break down the barriers that we create between one another.

See, we live in a world where individuals will always have differences of opinion. We experience God's grace according to our circumstances. An orphan will understand the idea of our Father in a much different way than someone who grew up in a strong family and someone who experienced an abusive situation. That doesn't change God at all. God is God. He is the "I AM."

What it does change is the way we relate to one another. We think that everyone should see God as we do, but they can't. Those of us who grew up in a strong family environment simply can't understand why an abused child can't relate to God as a Father or why the orphan does not know how to live in a relationship with a Father figure. We can't see God through their eyes and we can't expect that they will see Him through ours. We can only dwell together as children of the God who is big enough to reach us all.

He reaches us through Jesus Christ our Lord. Jesus is the One who can break down all the barriers between us, who has revealed to us the one thing we have in common. We don't have to be the same to belong to God and to do His work in the world. We need those who see God from unique eyes to share their experiences so that we know that God is truly greater than we can ever imagine. Do we really want to worship a God who fits into our tiny little boxes?

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 under God the King. 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.

The passage from Ephesians specifically talks about the difference between Gentile and Jew, but we have our own borders and walls that can be broken down by the love of Christ. We separate ourselves for a multitude of reasons age, gender, race or creed. We also separate ourselves based on petty or trivial reasons. How many congregations live in tension between the group that wants red carpet and the group that wants blue? How many congregations are made up of different groups that can't seem to work together? Some folk think the mission of the church is to feed the poor and that we should focus on social justice and political issues. Others think that our mission is solely to take God's Word into the world. Yet others think church is to feed and care for the believers. To embrace one and ignore the others is to reject the full measure of God's calling for our lives. Jesus took care of the physical, mental and spiritual needs of His disciples even while caring for the physical, mental and spiritual needs of others. In just a few short lines in today's Gospel story, Jesus did it all.

The disciples finally returned from their journey that they began in our texts a few weeks ago. They were excited about all that they saw and did, but they were exhausted. They needed a break, although it seemed like the stream of people wanting to see them was endless. Jesus took them aside so that they could have something to eat and rest. Mark tells us that the people saw them and followed. The crowds weren't just following Jesus now; they knew that the disciples could also heal and cast out demons. They saw Him in their words and actions The Word of God was drawing people to the community of believers that Jesus created. He is the center, but He is building us all into one body, the Temple, His Temple. In Christ we are being built into one temple, the temple in which God dwells.

It is not always easy living in that temple. Unfortunately, the differences that separate us often lead us into places we would rather not go. There are dark valleys even in the heart of the church, as the differences between people are magnified by the passions of those called to serve. We are reminded of something in today's texts, though. God is with us through it all. He has never promised to make it easy, but He has promised to be there.

Our neighbor on the church pew or in the congregation down the street is no less or no more a Christian than us even if they see God and our mission differently. We were all once far away and now we are one, dwelling in the temple of God. Jesus did not come to accomplish the things that we have on our checklist or in our agenda. He didn't come just for the body or the mind or the spirit. He came to bring wholeness to our individual selves and to the world. He feeds us physically, mentally and spiritually. He heals our body, our mind and our spirit. He makes us whole as individuals and as the body of Christ. He has crossed the borders and broken down the walls that are meant to divide and separate.

There must be a hundred sermons found in this week's lectionary texts and I am certain that if you went to a hundred different churches you would hear them all. These topics or themes touch our lives very deeply; they reach us right where we are in this day. Are we confused? There is hope. Are we mourning? There is hope. Do we need to be challenged to reach beyond ourselves? There is hope. Are we afraid that there is no hope? By God's grace, there is always hope. There is hope even when we seem to be so fiercely divided because we have a common bond: Jesus Christ. Jesus is the promised Shepherd who would lead God's people according to His good and perfect will.

While there are those who might not be able to relate to the idea of God as Father, we can see in today's psalm that God is everything a Father is meant to be. He is the One who provides everything we need - food, water, shelter, guidance, protection and love. Did God hand us the keys to our home or go grocery shopping? Of course not. However we can trust that through good times and bad, God will be by our side. The ultimate fear is death, but we all walk through different types of valleys as we live in this world. 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 experience difficult times, things that affect our understanding of our neighbors, of the world and of our God.

Rabbi Harold Kushner was once interviewed by Bob Abernathy about his book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." He said, "The twenty-third Psalm is the answer to the question 'How do you live in a dangerous, unpredictable, frightening world?' People who have been hurt by life get stuck in 'the valley of the shadow,' and they don't know how to find their way out. And that's the role of God. The role of God is not to explain and justify but to comfort, to find people when they are living in darkness, take them by the hand, and show them how to find their way into the sunlight again." 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, whether He is like a Father or a Shepherd or a King. He is all of those and so much more.

And like the disciples, He calls and sends us out in the world to heal, cast out demons and share His Kingdom with others. Like the disciples, the world will begin to look to us, too. We must remember that we are not the Savior. It is exciting to see success as we do God's work but it is never our success. They might seem to be coming for us, but we must always remember that it is the Word of God that draws the world to the church.

We can't do it all, at least not by ourselves. But that is why God calls us into community -- one body made up of people from all sorts of different backgrounds with different gifts and passions. There is no reason why a church can't be both a social advocate and a teaching congregation even while meeting the spiritual needs of the believers. As a matter of fact, we should be all these things and more. However, we can't do it if we hold each other and these missions against one another. We have a common bond: Jesus Christ. It is by His blood that we are reconciled to God and drawn together as one body to do the amazing things He has called and sent us into the world to do.

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