Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
If you took the time to read the appointed texts for today, you would perhaps have seen what I saw: there were numerous ideas worthy of exploration and meditation. I want to think with you this morning about two of those ideas gleaned from the reading from the prophet Jeremiah, the Psalm, and the Gospel lesson.
First, a few thoughts about rest; and second, what rest enables—specifically not so much for us as individuals, but as a church. For although we may know of our need for rest, we are not called to be sheep, but shepherds for a world sorely lacking in moral direction.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures….he restores my soul”, the Psalmist says. To his disciples after their first missionary efforts, pounding the paving stones of the roads of Galilee, encountering all the needs in the world, and feeling all the pressure to do something—so much that they had not even taken time to stop to eat as they should, Jesus says: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”
One of the reasons that worship space is called a “sanctuary”, is because it is meant to be a place of rest, and safety. Historically, sanctuary provided refuge even from the law, as a place of immunity from arrest. And this is one reason, among many, why I have always argued that guns have no place whatsoever inside a church. Concealed weapons inside a sanctuary offend the very notion of refuge, respite, protection, and rest. It is said that in Jerusalem, at the church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was said to have been buried, that the doorway was made intentionally tiny so that the crusaders could not enter on their war horses nor even in their armor with their weapons. I don’t think I will ever get over the fact that on my watch, so to speak, the state of Kentucky passed an amendment to the concealed-carry gun law to allow guns on church property. With whatever strength I have, I will continue, until I am no longer able, to get that travesty overturned, and also ban the sale of assault weapons, and other weapons of war, to the general public.
The church is meant to be a “sanctuary”, the green pastures where we may lie down and be surrounded by beauty, and community, and be safe. The church is meant to be that community, that place where souls are restored. Hence, enormous effort has always been made to make such sacred spaces beautiful…either in their simplicity, as here, or in ornate and stunning works of art. I suspect it also is why so many churches are known for their pot luck meals, and why kitchens are now a necessity for any self-respecting religious institution.
But let us move on with our thinking about rest: The great Jewish scholar of the prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel stressed always the value and virtue of the idea of the “Sabbath” in Jewish law, wrote: “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. …. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.”
Rabbi Heschel also says that the Sabbath teaches us to celebrate time, rather than space and matter. “Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath,” he says, we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day …to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.” [Heschel, Abraham J. I Asked for Wonder, pp. 34, 36]
The final purpose of rest seems obvious from our Gospel lesson….it is to return us to work. From the Genesis stories we can tell that it certainly wasn’t long before rescuing the human race became a full time job, God having many problems but unemployment never one of them! And saving the human race is our job too, our most urgent task. If we rest with God, we can also return with God to work.
Ironically, too many churches ARE deserted places these days, when so many of the under-50 crowd tell us that church is largely irrelevant due to the fact that we have spent too much time, perhaps, resting, or getting comforted without being equipped to take on the needs of the world. We have provided perhaps, too much sanctuary; or understood ourselves as helpless and as stupid as sheep.
One of the great personal sins, most of us have been taught, is arrogance, of thinking too highly of ourselves. I want to suggest that one of the seven deadly sins of the church in our own time is our propensity to think too little of itself, and that in the refusal to take stands, we have sold out. We deserve to die.
A shepherd gathers the scattered sheep, and so the apostles for each and every time, called to exercise a moral voice in a time of incredible diaspora, the exile from community and communal compassion and care for the good of all. No wonder the young think we are irrelevant. We have been, for too long, speechless and have failed to offer the unique “food” of moral vision, of compassion and kindness, of justice and the way of peace, to the world. Afraid of controversy and of alienating some, we have stood for nothing except our own desires to be like sheep.
It is too bad, I think, that the lectionary chose, this year, to skip over the story within this story, the story of the feeding of the 5000. The intervening verses left out of this morning’s Gospel lesson also skip over the story of Jesus walking across the sea of Galilee. However, If we had read, from verse 34 where Mark comments that “Jesus had compassion” for the great crowd who had chased after Jesus and the disciples, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd”, we would have heard: When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’ But he answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’”
In the previous story, we heard how Herod served a feast to his political cronies, topped with a final bloody serving of the head of John the Baptizer on a platter. That gruesome tale had interrupted the report of the disciples’ first mission, two by two, when they had called people to repentance, and healed many people. Our text today picks up that thread, with the apostles—one of two places where Mark calls the twelve by this name, a name that means those sent on a mission as advocates—gathering around Jesus whom the crowds are now pursuing. He calls them to rest in a deserted place. But when the crowd gathers, he sees again the vulnerability, the hunger of the people for some truth, meaning, moral guides, and so Mark uses the historic metaphor of shepherd for Jesus. And then, if we had read those next few verses, we would see that Jesus is passing on both the literal role of shepherd—to provide food and water for a literally hungry mass of people—and the spiritual role as well is implied. YOU GIVE THEM SOMETHING TO EAT.
The segments of this 6th chapter of Mark that we have read these past three Sundays are meant to remind us that the church, the remnant church, must be missional, or it utterly fails. Like the disciples, we too must speak with authority to offer moral hope, and to work to cure what is diseased, broken, and hungry in our world. The people of the way of Jesus, in those early days, understood that it needed to feed the hungry, literally with food, and minister to the sick, the frail, the vulnerable. They were to be the shepherds that God was raising up to bring the scattered back into communities of meaning, hope, justice, and compassion. They turned their world upside down doing just that.
So we too, in our own time, cannot just hang around the green pastures of our hallowed place of simple beauty like mindless sheep. Even the psalm acknowledges that human beings, cared for by this eternal Shepherd, will find themselves, from time to time, in the presence of enemies, will have to walk through dark valleys, and will be led to walk on the right paths.
All three texts this morning suggest that in the chaotic wilderness of our own time—when sad and sick individuals seek some terrible meaning for their existence through acts of violence, as happened this past week in Colorado, or when democracy and our national commitment to the common good finds the country enduring the corrosive acid of attack politics, vitriol, and half-truths—if we really believe that 23rd Psalm, then we are not meant to be silly sheep, but apostles, shepherds, disciples of the Way: calling the world, the scattered people, to repent their greed and narcissism; healing the sick and helping people find meaning and hope for their lives; making efforts to feed the hungry.
The proposed letter to other churches and to the body politic, that I circulated a couple of Sundays ago, calling for a return to civility and truthfulness is just one act, among many, that we as shepherds for greener pastures might undertake….along with bringing food for the hungry in our communities, both real food, and that food of compassion, kindness, and communal regard and respect that marks our little church.
Then, my friends, surely the days will come when, as Jeremiah hoped for his own time, political power will be wielded with wisdom, and there will be justice and righteousness in the land. Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives. May we have eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to understand, and the courage to fulfill our calling. Amen.