Sunday, July 23, 2006

Seventh Sunday of Pentecost
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Behold, the days come, saith Jehovah, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

This week's texts are filled with so many wonderful images it is difficult to even know where to start. Do we begin with the Old Testament promise that though the shepherds abandoned their flock, God will provide a Good Shepherd? Do we emphasize the comfort found in Psalm 23, a favored text for those in mourning? Do we look at the community of believers through the eyes of Paul who notes that all believers were once far from God, so now we should discover who needs to be included today? Or do we touch on the compassion of Christ as found in His love for the disciples and the crowds?

There must be a hundred sermons found in this week's lectionary 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. The joy of the lectionary is that there is a wealth of possibilities so that the congregation can hear God's grace no matter where they are today. Is the congregation in the midst of confusion? There is hope. Is the congregation in the midst of mourning? There is hope. Does the congregation need to be challenged to reach beyond themselves? There is hope. Are we afraid that there is no hope? By God's grace, there is always hope.

We have, very recently, dealt with the idea of God as a shepherd. It seems like just yesterday we had Psalm 23 and the Good Shepherd text from John in our lectionary. It might seem strange to do it all over again. Yet, the focus in today's scriptures is somewhat different. While Jesus is comparing himself to 'other shepherds' in both passages, this week is more secular in nature. The concern on Four Easter was the false prophets, false teachers. Today's scriptures seem to fit a broader range of leadership.

In Jeremiah, the shepherds who abandoned the people were Judah's rulers – both the king and his advisors. Zedekiah was not a powerful king – he had dominating advisors. We can't blame Judah's problems totally on Zedekiah. The nation's problems had been building over several generations. Each king allowed them to slip further and further from God. Finally, Jeremiah took this threatening word to king. It is interesting to note that the name of the king – Zedekiah – sounds much like the phrase translated "the Lord is our righteousness." The people thought that Zedekiah would save them from the Babylonians, but he had very little authority or power. Zedekiah was not the promised Savior.

I like the word play in this passage. Jeremiah tells them, "Therefore thus saith Jehovah, the God of Israel, against the shepherds that feed my people: Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them; behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith Jehovah." In other versions the word "visited" is translated "attended" or "bestowed." Jeremiah uses the same word to describe care and punishment. God will do exactly the same to the shepherds as they had done to the sheep – not visit, not attend, not bestow care. In other words, they will suffer the same lack of compassion as the sheep to whom they were given as leaders.

Yet, God never speaks threatening words without offering a promise. The promise is not meant to ease the burden on the guilty, but rather so that the godly will not despair in the midst of the suffering they will experience. "And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries whither I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and multiply." Times will be tough, but there hope beyond this day and this problem. Of course, the fulfillment of the promise would not happen for some time – the righteous Branch of David's line would be born in a manger in Bethlehem nearly six hundred years later. This promise gave hope to many generations, in the darkest of days, that one day the evil and unfaithful kings would be set aside for a perfect and righteous rule.

As we look to Psalm 23, we hear the promise in that line "thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death; I will fear no evil; for thou art with me." This is so comforting to those who mourn because we see our beloved friend walking through that valley of the shadow of death – their time on earth passing before us as they go through the unknown to the Promised Land. Yet, this verse can also be translated "though I walk through the darkest valley." While the ultimate fear is death, we all walk through valleys throughout our lives. 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.

All too often those valleys come at the hands of people to whom we have given our trust – our leaders. 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 to make a difference.

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. Unfortunately, we often get stuck in that valley because we forget that God is with us. We get stuck in the question, "Why me? Why this? Why now?"

Rabbi Harold Kushner was 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."

Psalm 23 also offers us a glimpse of God's concern for our whole beings. The Lord makes us rest in green pastures where there is plenty of food and clean water. He keeps us from evil and protects us from our enemies. He meets our physical and emotional needs. He gives us a home, a family and everything we need to survive. He gives us our identity.

That's exactly what we see Jesus doing in today's Gospel lesson. The passage has three different parts – the return of the twelve, compassion for the people without a shepherd and the miracles in Gennesaret. Here we see Jesus meeting the physical and emotional needs of the disciples, the crowds that were following them and then those who found them on 'the other side.' Jesus crossed borders and broke down walls to bring healing and wholeness to the world. He touched their flesh, their soul and their spirit.

We first hear about the apostles who have just returned from a preaching tour throughout Galilee. They were sent out two by two with authority over evil spirits. They preached repentance, cast out demons, anointed the sick with oil and healed them. Now they are back together most certainly excited about their experiences. They must have had some impact, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have time to get a bite to eat. They were even recognized. Now, we might think that it was just Jesus they were following, but the scriptures say that the crowd recognized "them" and ran ahead of "them." They had an impact and the people wanted more.

Have you ever been so involved in a project that you barely have time to breathe? Have you gone to a convention where every minute is scheduled full of exciting events, workshops and opportunities> You don't want to miss a minute of the action and you don't want to miss taking part in any of the activities, so you set aside the physiological needs like sleep and food to take part. We just came home from the ELCA National Youth Gathering that was in San Antonio, Texas this month. Our church had the privilege of being part of the Servant Corps, a group of volunteers who were assigned the duties of caring for the needs of the crowds. Our week saw 14,000 visitors. Our schedule was intense; it seemed like we were running from one venue to another.

At the end of the week, we were exhausted and exhilarated; I imagine it was much like what those disciples experienced. We do not know how long they were gone, but we do know that Jesus told them to rely on God and the communities to which they were sent to provide for their needs. Sometimes they were welcomed, housed and fed. Sometimes they were rejected and were forced to move on to another town. They surely knew what it was like to be hungry with sore feet. They knew what it was like to be rejected and how it feels to do thankless work. Yet, they also knew the joy that comes with preaching the good news of Christ. They saw miraculous things happen. They felt the power of God coursing through their veins. So did we.

And when it was all over, Jesus called us home and said, "Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while." He gave them rest in the story and He gave us rest after our time of service. It didn't last very long. Almost as soon as the new day dawned, it was time to go back to work. The same was true of the disciples. Even as they were making their escape, the people recognized them and ran ahead of them to the place where they would land.

Jesus had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. In our passage for today we only see Jesus teaching them. After a long day of listening, when they were tired and hungry, Jesus also fed their bellies. However, His compassion for the lost sheep led Him to teach them about many things. Their shepherds were not caring for them. Their shepherds had turned so far from God that they were unable to recognize Him. Jesus fulfilled the promise in Jeremiah. He gave them the Word of God. He also cared for their physical needs by miraculously feeding them, but that story is for another day.

So, we've seen Jesus meet the physical needs of the disciples and the soul needs of the crowd. In our passage for this week we skip two stories – the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on water – and find the crowds waiting for him. They had managed to get separated from the crowd. After feeding the five thousand, Jesus sent the disciples in a boat to the other side and he dismissed the crowd. He met up with them in the middle of the lake, surprising them by walking on the water. Finally, they crossed over to Gennesaret where the crowds recognized Jesus. They ran throughout the entire region, bringing the sick for healing.

Here we see Jesus touching their spirit even while He was healing their flesh. Mark writes, "And wheresoever he entered, into villages, or into cities, or into the country, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and besought him that they might touch if it were but the border of his garment: and as many as touched him were made whole." They were not just healed, they were made whole.

The passage says that the people sought Him out to touch the fringe of His garment. This fringe – or tassels – was commanded of God's people in Numbers 15:38. The tassels remind them of the commandments, the Law by which God has guided and protected His people since the days of Moses. Perhaps they sought to touch His tassels because they had heard about what happened to the bleeding woman just a short time ago. However, they also know what the tassels meant – a return to the covenantal care of the Good Shepherd. Like the shepherd who lays his sheep down in green pastures and provides all their needs, Jesus gives them rest and food physically, mentally and spiritually.

It is interesting then, to read Paul's message to the Ephesians. Paul writes, "…having abolished in the flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; that he might create in himself of the two one new man, so making peace…" Did God really abolish the commandments? No, what He abolished was the wall that was created between those who were given the Law of Moses and those who were separate. Until Jesus lived, God's chosen people – the Jews – were set apart by those ordinances. They were set apart by circumcision, by the dietary laws and even by the clothing they wore. Those tassels on their cloaks set them apart. Jesus did not ignore or reject those laws. He was wearing the tassels, after all. Instead, Jesus lived as an example of how to live the intent of those laws, in mercy and compassion for all people.

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, Jesus did it all.

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 these missions against one another.

Paul writes, "But now in Christ Jesus ye that once were far off are made nigh in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who made both one, and brake down the middle wall of partition." Jesus broke down walls and crossed borders. He reconciled people to God and to one another. He drew them together into one flock. On the cross Jesus destroyed the hostility that exists between people. Paul was specifically addresses the enmity between Gentile and Jew, but we have other hostilities to face in our world. Jesus broke those walls on the cross also.

Paul writes, "So then ye are no more strangers and sojourners, but ye are fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone; in whom each several building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit." 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 dark valleys are very often in the heart of the church, as the differences between people are magnified by the passions of those called to serve. Today as we hear the words of these scriptures and as we reach forth to touch the tassels on Jesus' cloak, we are reminded of these things. First of all, God is with us through it all. He has never promised to make it easy, but He has promised to be there. Secondly, we are reminded that all of us were once far from God, but Jesus made it possible for us to be reconciled to God. Our neighbor on the church pew that does not agree with our ideas or our passions is no less or no more a Christian. We were all once far away and now we are one, dwelling in the temple of God. Finally, we are reminded that Jesus came not just for the body, 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. Thanks be to God.

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