Sunday, July 22, 2018

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

For he is our peace, who made both one, and broke down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in the flesh the hostility, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man of the two, making peace; and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, having killed the hostility thereby.

Reese Witherspoon played a very blonde sorority girl named Elle Woods who was madly in love with an aspiring lawyer and politician in the movie ďLegally Blonde.Ē When it was time to graduate and move on to post-graduate work, Warner dumped Elle to find a more appropriate woman to be his partner in life. He went on to Harvard Law School, renewed a relationship with Vivian, and old girlfriend who fit the mold perfectly of the politicianís serious wife. Meanwhile, Elle was not willing to give up so easily, so despite her supposed lack of intelligence, she was accepted at Harvard and she began Law School to pursue Warner in his new life.

Needless to say, Vivian did not like Elle at all. Elle was the former girlfriend, the competition for Warnerís heart and life. They were completely different women. Elle was happy and enthusiastic, interested in fashion, parties and celebrity. Vivian was more serious, the daughter of a powerful northeastern family who understood propriety and power. The conflict between the two women was funny as east met west in stereotypical ways.

The two women eventually found a common denominator, which happened to be the very thing that had originally kept them apart. As Elle discovered that Law was really a place she could not only succeed but also thrive, Vivian saw her more as a peer rather than a competitor. In one scene, the two women were sharing some thoughts about a case they were working on together and they began to talk about Warner. Vivian found Elle to be a compassionate listener, offering some insight into Warnerís past and personality. They laughed about his failures together. By the end of the movie, Warner saw Elle as the serious and powerful woman that he really wanted, but she refused him. Meanwhile, Vivian realized that Warner was not the man for her. He lost both and the two women became the best of friends.

Have you ever had a relationship like that of Elle and Vivian? Was there ever anyone who was so different from you that you thought you would never get along? You may not have experienced conflict, but there were no common interests on which to build a friendship. If we are truly honest, we will all admit that there are sometimes people that we simply canít stand to be around. We often find that we do have something in common and those people can become our best friends. The key is finding the common denominator.

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. The Jews even had rules to avoid relationships with the pagans in the land where they lived. 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.

Some of my most difficult relationships, however, have been in the Church. 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.

We live in a world where individuals will always have differences of opinion. We experience Godís 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 or someone who experienced abuse. That doesnít change God at all. God is God. He is I AM. We see Him through the eyes of our own experiences and our own little corner of the world. Our common denominator, Jesus Christ, gives us new eyes and a new attitude. Though we might not like everyone, we love them because it is His will for us to do so. 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.

The passage from Ephesians specifically talks about the differences between Gentile and Jew, but we have our own borders and walls that can be broken down by the love of Christ. We recently celebrated the life and ministry of a pastor who had served our congregation for over twenty years. The pastor retired three years ago, and the church underwent tremendous strain and upheaval for those years. As is proper, that pastor removed himself from our community to give the congregation room to make the decisions necessary to move ahead. We called a wonderful pastor, made some other staff changes and for the past couple years have been growing in faith and discipleship. It didnít happen without struggle, of course. People left because they were angry about one decision or another. After three years, we seem to have made good decisions. Some of those who left are slowly returning. The retired pastor has been honored with the title Pastor Emeritus, and is now going to fellowship with us again. It was time; he gave the community time to overcome those challenges, to establish relationships with new staff and to figure out the vision for our future. He allowed us to move on without him as we made those tough decisions and now he can be with us as we move forward.

He is a humble man, willing to step aside to give another room to establish the ministry he can do in our congregation. This is the example of a good shepherd. Former pastors all too often refuse to let go. They donít like to see changes to the work they began. After twenty years, our former pastor had much about which to be proud. Some of that has changed dramatically. Yet, he is happy to see the good, if different, work that is being done today. Those former pastors who canít let go fight to keep the status quo, making it impossible for the new pastor to do what he or she is called to do. I know pastors who have experienced this; they didnít last long in those congregations. The former pastors arenít doing the work of shepherding; they are serving their own needs and egos.

Christians are human. We make mistakes. We feel emotions. We get angry, hurt, frustrated. We are opinionated. We think we know best. Christian leaders are as human as the rest of us.

What is leadership? We canít turn on the news without hearing people question the leaders of our day. It doesnít matter what segment of our society: political, religious, education, corporate. We 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 passed on a word of warning to the leaders in Israel: they failed to care for Godís people and God was ready to take over. God 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 placed 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.

Our old pastor knew his time as finished and he stepped away. George Washington was offered the title of king, but he refused, knowing that his time as president was only temporary. Both were more concerned about the welfare of those to whom they were charged to lead, and because they had this attitude, the people who surrounded them loved them and worked for the best interest of all.

Jesus never worried about His power and position. As a matter of fact, He rejected the call to become an earthly king. His concern was for the people; He wanted 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.

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 todayís Gospel story, Jesus did it all.

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 Godís 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 Godís people according to His good and perfect will.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we see that particularly in the Gospel passage for today. In this story, Jesus greets the returning apostles who have been out in the world sharing the grace of God. They saw amazing things. They did amazing things. They were exhilarated, but also exhausted. Jesus knew they needed to rest. He led them to the boat and took them to a quiet place, but the people saw them.

Now, if you were Jesus, what would you do? He was faced with a difficult decision. The apostles needed to rest, but the people chasing them needed a shepherd. It might seem like Jesus is shirking His duties as their shepherd by turning to help the crowds. In this text, however, we see how Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise in Jeremiah. He was the shepherd who would care for the flock that the leaders ignored. He stepped in where He was needed and did what He needed to do. He took care of the sheep who were desperate to find a shepherd. Wherever Jesus went the people needed Him, not just to do the miracles but to be the fulfillment of the promise. They needed a shepherd, they needed a Messiah.

Of course, we know that not everyone believed that He was the Messiah. Not everyone followed Him. Some ran to Him on these occasions just to get what they could out of Him, but Jesus served for the sake of the Father. Whether they understood or not, Jesus had to do what Heíd been sent to do, and that was give the Kingdom to the people. Since many of the Jews rejected Jesus, the message was given to others. Many Gentiles heard and believed. Because Jesus became the shepherd of Psalm 23, we have the forgiveness and grace that we need to be part of that Kingdom.

Our leaders will fail. We will still get thirsty, hungry, tired, lost, hurt and lonely, but we can rest in the knowledge that Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He is the fulfillment of the promise. He is the Messiah. He has given us the forgiveness and made us part of the Kingdom so we can walk in faith and do the work He has called us to do. As we trust Him, and walk by faith, we will see that He can do extraordinary things in the world and He will do them through us.

We wonít like everyone with whom we are called to work for Godís kingdom. Sometimes our disagreements will be impossible to overcome. 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. Yet, our hope is not found in the earthly decisions we have to make together, but in the reality that we are gathered together to worship God. I suppose one day 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.

This weekís texts are filled with so many wonderful images. There is the Old Testament promise that though the shepherds abandon their flock, God will provide a Good Shepherd. We are comforted by Psalm 23, especially when we are dealing with difficult things in our lives. We see the community of believers through the eyes of Paul who notes that all believers were once far from God, but God draws us together. Who needs to be included in our fellowship today? The Gospel lesson show us the compassion of Christ as found in His love for the disciples and the crowds.

The Gospel lesson begins with the disciples returning from their journey into the country to share the Gospel that we heard 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 werenít just following Jesus now; they knew that the disciples could also heal and cast out demons, too. 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 was building the disciples into one body, and He continues to build us into that Temple, His Temple. In Christ we are bound together as one.

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 todayís 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 didnít come just for the body or the mind or the spirit. He came to bring wholeness to each of us 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.

We canít do it all by ourselves. That is why God calls us into community; we are one body made up of people from all sorts of different backgrounds with different gifts and passions. We canít do what we are called to do it if we hold each other and our idea of mission 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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