We have plenty of examples of good leadership right here in the community of James and Andrew. Our clergy have led us thru an unprecedented pandemic and into a new world with love, companionship and eyes clear to the reality surrounding us (well, as clear as that reality could ever be!). Leaders of mission and liturgy teams have carried on thru it all, holding in delicate balance safety and the physical and spiritual needs of this community.
In contrast, we see the kind of leader David has become. Samuel warned us about this kind of king; one who shirks his duties and focuses on his own interests. He warned that such kings would send our sons to war, make servants of our daughters and take our harvest.
David’s leadership sins are quite straightforward: he avoided his duty (it was the season when kings went with their warriors to war), he stayed at home, he demonstrated idleness, and he gave in to his compulsions, he had sex with his best warrior’s wife and then manipulated events to cover up his sins.
Fast forward many troubled years and troubled leaders later and into this world steps Jesus. It seems he will have none of it. The people and the disciples clamor for his kingship and he repeatedly declines. Instead, he offers himself as a companion, a companion who will not just give us bread today, but one whose values and ideals can turn our hearts of stone to hearts of love and one with whom we can break bread forever.
It is always tempting to focus on the miracle in these stories, but I think that God is not present in the miracles or in the very bad things that happen in this world. What matters is not the miracle, but the presence, Jesus on the beach, in the boat, on the mountain, with us always, Jesus in the garden, in the kitchen and in the sanctuary.
He tried to teach that the needs of the world are never too great if we follow his direction: he instructed the disciples, told the people to sit down, took the small amount of food, blessed it and shared it. He showed that there was plenty for everyone with much left over; he challenged us to shift our consciousness from a mentality of scarcity to one of abundance. When I bring a small surplus of vegetables and flowers from my backyard garden and from your gardens to the gathering place, I am blown away by the carload of fresh vegetables that are taken to the food pantry in Turners Falls every week. Everyone’s donation is small, everyone gives as they are able. It is an abundant harvest. If you’ve ever watched an army of tiny ants build a nest or honeybees gather pollen, you can see how working together for the common good leads to all good things.
Jesus gives leadership advice: do the work, do it with love, and companionship, and maintain this attitude of abundance, even when you are feeling small and weak, and remember that I will be with you always.
Jesus was not interested in David’s kind of leadership. In fact, when the crowds clammored for him to be king, and actually tried to come by force to make him king, he does what he often does. He retreats to the mountain to pray, practicing a healthy rhythm of action and contemplation, a rhythm we might benefit from mimicking as Heather often reminds us. When the going gets rough for the disciples, the waters calm and they reach shore after they take Jesus into the boat.
Most of all, Jesus wanted us to understand that he would always be with us, he knew his fate and he knew what life would be like for us. We never needed an earthly king, if we want to feed and lead the world we need to follow a heavenly king.
“the king of love our shepherd is
His goodness faileth never,
We nothing lack if we are his
And he is ours forever.” Amen
We’ve all experienced unexpected disruptions, often just as we were getting ready to take some precious time for self care. It probably happens far more often than we would like to think about. Let’s face it, our lives are complex; our relationships matter; our work and ministries provide a sense of purpose, and so we do what we need to do.
So you can imagine what it must have been like for Jesus and the disciples when we meet them in today’s gospel.
Earlier in Mark 6, the twelve disciples were commissioned as apostles to go two by two in order to spread the good news of God’s love.* Now they’ve returned and are telling Jesus everything that has happened. Jesus' response is to immediately take them on retreat. He leads them to a deserted place for rest and renewal.
Throughout the scriptures the wilderness is a place for connecting with the divine presence of God. Many of us have experienced this firsthand, and routinely ensure we have time in the wilderness to encounter the divine presence of God within ourselves and within creation. We take long walks in lush green woods. We walk the beach and listen to the rhythm of the waves crashing on the shore. We kayak and are amazed at the liveliness of God’s creation always happening in the background, that so often goes unnoticed in the day to day. We sit down and take in the rolling hills in the distance. We dig our hands in the soil to connect with the food and flowers that will grace our table. We head off to retreat centers and campgrounds with beautiful views on every side.
Like the unexpected phone call or text that disrupts our plans for rest and renewal, the disciples and Jesus found swells of people were tracking their boat’s destination, and heading there on foot. It would have been understandable if Jesus felt frustrated by the interruption. We know he certainly expressed frustration from time to time.
Yet in the face of a great crowd of new followers and spiritually curious folk’, “...he had compassion for them, because they were a sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them...” (6:34).
He had compassion for them.
The authors of Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth offer a helpful definition of compassion.
“Compassion is the ‘quivering of the heart in response to another’s suffering’. It is the ability to ‘get inside the skin of another’ in order to respond with loving concern and care. Compassion is so deep and closely connected to others that the truly loving person breathes out compassion. The compassionate person identifies with the suffering of others in such a way that she or he makes a space within the heart, a womb of mercy, to allow suffering persons inside and to embrace them with arms of love.”**
The text says he had compassion for them, because they were a sheep without a shepherd.
This great crowd was without a shepherd, and this statement reflects a couple of things worth noting.
First, following the disciples commissioning, King Herod, a figure appointed by and responsible to the Roman Empire, ordered the murder of John the Baptist. John the Baptist was many things to many people in that region-- he was a teacher, a baptizer, and a prophet. He was a significant figure in the life of Jesus, an encourager who pronounced the coming of this Holy One who would lead a revolution, a transformative Way of Love. In other words, this was a loss for the swelling crowds and it was a personal loss for Jesus and his disciples. They were mourning a shepherd figure.
Second, shepherd was a term historically associated with kings, and so to say they were without a king, is to speak to the corrupt and selfish style of leadership modeled by King Herod, and the Roman Empire he represents. Jesus has compassion for his oppressed people, who were bone weary of living as a minority group shoved to the margins, a tolerated people in their own land. His compassion indicated what he represented in the Way of Love, and was an act of opposition to the political leadership of that time.
The social political landscape of that time was ripe and ready for Jesus of Nazareth's message of survival, endurance, forgiveness, love, and hope.*** As a result, these crowds swelled. The Jesus Movement rolled on from village to town to Jerusalem, igniting a forest fire that would heal and restore the soil of Israel.
Let’s be clear though. The lesson is not that we abandon all acts of self care when something more pressing or seemingly ‘holy’ needs us, because the scriptures also have a lot to say about the essential need and expectation that we care for our inner lives, as well as, practice sabbath.
Y’all are probably tired of me preaching about the sabbath, but I am going to harp on it until I take my last dying breath, because it is so counterintuitive in our culture.
Walter Bruegemann writes that, “Sabbath is taking time...time to be holy...time to be human.” ****
Our own Presiding Bishop Michael Curry writes, “The wisdom of the Sabbath is that it provides the opportunity to stop, pause, and notice the presence of God in the world, God in the other, God in ourselves.” *****
When we pause for sabbath, for retreat, for rest and renewal we are carving out the space to care for our inner lives. If we do not take care of our inner lives, it will interfere with our relationships and threaten the health of our work and ministries. Even though Jesus attempted to take the disciples on retreat, rather unsuccessfully, he actually prepared them for caring for their inner lives in the subtle instructions of their commissioning.
Jesus was very intentional to send the twelve out two by two, a critical reminder that we were never meant to go it alone. In order to accomplish God’s dream for this world we need to collaborate with others in every aspect of our lives. We were created to be in relationship, with God, one another, and ourselves. Our partners in life and in ministry walk beside us and can encourage us to take care of ourselves, and to nurture our inner lives.
Before departing Jesus also gives the twelve disciples incredibly precise instructions about what they can bring with them--only a staff. Now, maybe Jesus is simply concerned that the disciples are not overburdened by heavy packs, but I would argue Jesus’ real concern is that the disciples know not to carry around their burdens and instead trust them in the hands of God.
When we leave our homes and go about spreading God’s love in the way we teach, work, relate, play, and help our neighbors, we need to give our burdens to our loving Creator. If we are carrying around anger or fear, resistance to new ideas, preconceived notions about our neighbors, or are nursing old wounds, it will get in the way of the mission. It will cause harm to our relationships.
This is also why he instructs the disciples to shake off the dust from their sandals if they find they are unwelcomed in some places. Because when we experience rejection, we can let others' judgments cause chaos and upheaval in our inner lives, creating more burdens within, and drawing us still further from God’s dream. In other words, in order to go out into the world each day as a disciple, we have to be mindful of our inner lives.
Howard Thurman writes, “[Jesus] recognized with authentic realism that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of [their] inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys to [their] destiny”.******
To be disciples in the Way of Love, we need to take care of ourselves.
Nurturing and cultivating our inner lives on a daily basis will look different for each of us...
...maybe it is practicing meditation
....or setting aside quiet time for prayer or sitting with the scriptures
...or practicing mindfulness and bringing intention to every aspect of our day
...maybe it is creating music or art or a garden
...maybe it is yoga or running or moving outside
...or anything that helps us to feel more fully alive, healthy and whole in this world.
There will always be unexpected interruptions, and, if we can find routine and daily ways to care for the quality of our inner lives and hand our burdens to God, we will be able to meet those unexpected interruptions with compassion and grace.******* It will also leave us poised to maintain healthy relationships, which is essential to our survival.
So-- fellow disciples, this week I invite us to spend some time reflecting.
What if we each took an inventory in the coming week to ask ourselves:
* Today’s passage is Mark 6:30-34; 53-56. This sermon reflects on events throughout the entire chapter of Mark 6.
**Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth by Ilia Delio, Keith Douglass Warner, and Pamela Wood in 2008. Quote is taken from pg. 135. In portions of this quote, they are quoting and expanding on an idea by Joyce Rupp in her book The Cup of Our Life: A Guide for Spiritual Growth, pg 110.
*** Read more about the idea of Christianity as a ‘technique for survival’ in Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited. See pages 18-25.
****Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, pg 87.
***** Bishop Michael Curry in Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times, pg 161.
****** Howard Thurman’s, Jesus and the Disinherited, pg 18.
******* Here are some resources if you are looking for some guidance on how to cultivate and care for your inner life. The clergy are also always happy to meet with you to discuss.
This is one of the very few stories in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus is not mentioned. Instead, the plot revolves around two men – John the Baptist and Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet king of Galilee, and two women – Queen Herodias, formerly married to Herod’s brother Philip, and Herod’s niece/stepdaughter.
John the Baptist was a man of conviction – determined that he had been called by God to prepare the way of the Messiah with a call to repentance.
King Herod Antipas was a conflicted man – seeking his own power and glory, while at the same time trying to keep the peace in Galilee, avoiding any conflict that would force a Roman intervention in his territory.
John the Baptist was a prophet, cut from the mold of the great figures of the Hebrew Scriptures, a profile in courage, if you will, expressed by his unswerving commitment to speak the truth to power, always a dangerous undertaking. John confronted the King over what he deemed an adulterous marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias, to John a moral outrage.
The Baptist’s loud and close judgment so angered the blushing bride that she was determined to destroy him, if given a chance. Some scholars think King Herod put John in prison to keep the Queen and her henchmen from killing him, a kind of protective custody. Despite John’s rebuke, King Herod Antipas still feared and respected the prophet, considering him a man of sincerity and goodness. Mark says Herod liked to listen to John.
If we look back to the Baptism of Jesus, like so many other stories in the New Testament, this account tends to change progressively with each Gospel, with each gospel writer having a slightly different version of just who Jesus was. Our earliest Gospel writer here, Mark, never mentions things like virgin birth, donkey ride to Bethlehem, pre-existence, or any of that stuff. In Mark’s version of the baptism, John does the baptizing of Jesus, but maybe like a game of telephone, by the time the story gets past Matthew and Luke and over to John’s gospel, Jesus sort of just is baptized, with John only there to hang around as a witness. Something all four gospels agree on, though, is that John proclaims the start of Jesus’s ministry. It’s clear that Jesus’s entry into the world is closely tied to this guy.
Remember that John the Baptist is the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah who were thought too old to have children. And Jesus’s mother, Mary, seems to be the niece of Elizabeth, so John and Jesus were cousins.
Christians pretty much by definition believe that Jesus is devine, but, like the Gospel writers, not everybody agrees just when this divinity happened. (Some say at birth, some say at the baptism, some when he ascended into heaven, and others say pre-existing and always.) Mark clearly believes that Jesus was annointed to be the son of God at his baptism, with the spirit of God descending on him then. So Mark begins his story, his gospel, at the baptism because that’s where he believes Jesus’s importance begins.
A couple of decades after Mark’s Gospel was written, some people perhaps wanted more of an origin story for Jesus, (“where did he come from?) and Matthew provided that, including the new idea that Jesus was born of a virgin. So, decades after Mark’s story, we hear that Jesus was the only or unique son of God from the very beginning of time.
It seems to me that this pre-existent concept made this baptism thing kind of awkward (and perhaps why John’s gospel essentially leaves it out). For if Jesus was miraculous already at conception, why did he need his sins washed free or did John the Baptist have some kind of spiritual authority over him, making him greater than Jesus? How would that be? So Matthew adds a protest when Jesus is to be baptized by John who says “I need to be baptized by you.”
While the Gospel of John doesn’t really say that Jesus was baptized at all, there’s still a traditional association of Jesus with the Baptist that had to be accounted for, so the Baptist acts as a star witness. John the Baptist’s main job becomes telling people about Jesus but not hogging the spotlight. Here are a few of the things John shouts from the rooftops about Jesus:
It’s pretty dramatic stuff.
So the Gospel of John has no real baptism, and no temptation by Satan in the wilderness. In Mark and the other synoptic gospels though, Jesus seems more a very special man, who can be meaningfully tested because he might fail the test; In John, if he’s already divine, what would be the point? Perhaps it’s easiest to pick just one Gospel to read,
Today’s story about the Baptist’s execution happens in all four Gospels. Mark’s version here foreshadows Jesus’ own death by the hands of a political, if sympathetic, figure, and is the only version of the four in which Jesus was not the primary subject.1
However one understands the relationship between John and Jesus, one thing is certain: agents of God who challenge those in power usually suffer significant consequences.
Although Jesus is not mentioned, he is the key to understanding this story, which appears in Mark’s Gospel at the very point where Jesus’s fame and success is growing exponentially. John’s death here is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ Passion. The Baptist’s speaking truth to power brings his destruction, and we know that it will be no different for Jesus. Substitute Pontius Pilate for King Herod and execution by a cross rather than a sword, but the end will be the same.
Today’s Gospel lesson reminds us that the task of following Jesus is not easy. The road is rocky and resistance can be expected. We still live in a world where those entrusted with political power live in fear that their authority will be challenged. Our leaders today may not be as outwardly wicked as King Herod, they often seem just as spineless, and just as willing to compromise truth, justice, and compassion if they think it will get them or keep them in office.
Herod could have made a different choice here, but power, prestige, and self-aggrandizement had overtaken God in his life. Though our lesson says he loved to listen to John the Baptist, he would not risk his reputation and the respect of the people in order to spare John’s life.
I think there’s a warning here. We are always in danger of making choices that undermine our faith and align us not with God’s kingdom, but rather with the powers of this world. A little compromise here … a little laziness there … and suddenly we wake up in a place that is far removed from where we should be standing as faithful, committed followers of Jesus.
Our lives are filled with choices. Herod chose loyalty to his kingdom and the power it afforded him. He presided over a banquet of death. Jesus calls us to belong to Him, speaking the truth no matter the cost, working as best we can to bring justice for all, and living lives of compassion and concern for those in need.
Jesus calls us to live beyond ourselves. Let’s strive to do so with God’s help. Amen.
I see a theme in this mornings readings and it has to do with us and our tendency to look at everything through the lens of how we fit into the world and society around us. Sometimes that blinds us.
In our first reading from 2 Samuel this morning we find David unifying the tribes of Judah and all the tribes of Israel under his leadership as king. Saul has been killed and there has been a considerable amount of political intrigue and assassination in arriving at this time. The elders of the tribes of Israel came to David to tell him they wanted him as their king and at the ripe old age of 30 David became king of all of Israel.
We then skip over the conquest of Jerusalem and arrive at David’s triumphant entry into the city. David declares the name of the city to be the City of David. In these times, naming something declared ownership over it and I find it interesting that although David has relied on the Lord for every move he has made on the battlefield and his ministration over the tribes of Judah, he now claims Jerusalem in his name and not the name of the Lord. I see David becoming more interested in his stature beginning at this point as you might expect a king would do. After conquering the city, a house of cedar is built for David and he continues the conquest of the lands around him, with the Lord’s blessing and guidance. He has risen to a pinnacle of power.
It is said that 2 Samuel marks David’s success and struggles. The book is divided almost in half, at Chapter 11 between his successes and struggles. At Chapter 11 David’s lust for Bathsheba sends him down the torturous road of actions against the Lord. All of that is a story for another day. The importance I see in our reading this morning is that David puts a whole lot more of David into his own story at this point, foreshadowing his path into struggles.
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians follows on the heels of the still young church in Corinth struggling with men Paul identifies as false teachers and an undermining of Paul’s authority to speak for God. Paul had gotten the church in Corinth established and had sent three letters to them one of which has been lost to history. His first letter in our bible is actually Paul’s second letter and is addressing questions that have risen among the faithful. Between what we know as 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians some voices Paul identified as false teachers rose up to say Paul was too strict, he had no real authority, his teachings were bogus and there were better, easier ways to God.
When we catch up with Paul in this morning’s reading at Chapter 12, he is in the precarious position of having to boast about himself in order to show his authority. Keep in mind he does not want to boast about himself as he believes he should only boast in the Lord. He said that in 1 Corinthians and earlier in this letter.
In Acts14:19-20, “Jews from Antioch and Iconium” attempt to stone Paul and leave him for dead but he regains consciousness and escapes the area. In our reading this morning Paul recounts the testimony of “a man in Christ” who had an encounter with heaven. Many theologians think it is evident Paul is talking about himself here. Some also believe that the event that precipitated this vision was Paul’s attempted stoning. He had a near death experience. The point I think is important this morning is that Paul did all he could to boast about himself, having had a heavenly experience, but not appear boastful and thus un-Christlike by speaking about himself in the third person.
Paul further demonstrates his humility in saying that he was given a thorn in his side. That thorn in his side has been interpreted in recent times as some sort of sickness or weakness. He prayed “three times” for the thorn to be removed but the answer he received was that there is strength in weakness. Don’t get too big for your britches Paul, you are stronger when your ego is small.
And how does this all connect with our Gospel this morning? I am glad you asked. Jesus goes to his hometown, Nazareth, and attempts to carry out his ministry there. It’s not working. Some come to him believing he can cure them and they are cured. Most do not believe and Jesus is dumbfound by their failure to believe. As a result no great works are accomplished. So what the heck can be happening here?
The people in the village can’t figure out how this carpenter got the authority to say the things he is saying. He’s a carpenter! He has lived here with us all of his life and now he comes to the synagogue and spouts all this stuff! Who the heck does he think he is? He’s just Mary’s son and we know all his brothers and sisters. Who the heck does he think he is?
Maybe the question really is “What makes him think he’s so much better than I am? I have lived in the same place he has and heard the same things he has. Where does he get off thinking he’s better than me?” There’s that darned ego we saw rising up in David and trying to be beat down by Paul. The obstacle to Jesus’ ministry in Nazareth is the inability of the villagers to put aside their egos and accept that maybe this guy they always knew might have something worthwhile to share. Jealousy? Maybe. Hurt pride? Yeah that fits. Perhaps for some, they would have had to swallow an earlier statement that “at least I’m not a carpenter” when talking about their position in the community of Nazareth. In a village or a town or a state or a country, standing is a hard thing to obtain and an even harder thing to lose.
I think the important thing to see here is that no great thing was accomplished because the people of Nazareth didn’t join with Jesus. Let me say that again. No great thing was accomplished because no one joined with Jesus.
So I think the common theme in this morning’s readings is ego and how it can get in the way of great works. And what does that have to do with the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . “ As we read, hear, or speak those words on the fourth of July, don’t they sound a little hollow? I read recently about a woman making a presentation concerning race and racism and if we were in person today I would do what she did. Instead I will tell you what she did. She asked the people in her white audience to stand if they would like to trade places with a person of color. No one stood. She asked the question again. No one stood. She asked the question a third time saying come on now someone out there must want to trade places. No one stood. Then she said that the fact that no one stood made it pretty darn clear that all of them know what racial prejudice is and the pain that is born of it. She did not need to speak about that because they all, every one of them, knew. And in knowing they bore responsibility to make things change.
My wife Charlie and I are taking part in the program Sacred Ground in Franklin County here at Sts. James and Andrew. I think the hardest part of the program is coming to grips with the things that have been done in our names for our benefit. I think it is the hardest thing because the place where we white people are standing, our place in our community is supported by benefits we have or had, that came at the expense of others and most often of others of color. And to make it even more difficult the history of those benefits have been very carefully hidden in the history we were fed as we were growing up. I think very little of the writing of that history was done with malice toward anyone. I think it was done because we could make ourselves a little better off or a little better thought of if we white people could just hide that little piece of history.
My parents didn’t own slaves and as far as I can trace my ancestry none of my ancestors owned slaves but they certainly benefitted from slavery. My grandfather had a really good job as a bus driver because many of the people who worked in the cotton mills in my home town and county took the bus to get to work. Those mills existed because of the cheap labor and before that the slave labor in the cotton fields. My other grandfather had a really good job building transformers for the industry that rose to prominence as a result of cheap and before that, slave labor. My parents got off to a good start because of those good jobs, because of cheap labor. And I got off to a good start because my parents got off to a good start. That is my thorn, sort of like Paul’s, keeping me humble. Interestingly this thorn in my side only exists because I made an effort to educate myself about racism in America and how it came about. I had to put in some effort to uncover my advantage as a white male and come to grips with it. I have to want to participate with Jesus to make this the kind of world God wants it to be, to paraphrase our Presiding Bishop.
I firmly believe that we can accomplish “great works” if we can put aside our egos and fears and join together in believing the things that Jesus taught. I believe we can make the phrase “all people are created equal” ring true if we all join together to make all people equal in our actions and in our voices and in our votes. Like the people in Nazareth, I believe we white people might have to swallow a little bit of our pride, accept our past words, disparaging people of color, as being racist, accept that we have benefited from white privilege and begin working with our brothers and sisters of color to achieve equality.
Most especially I believe that we can do these things because of the Lord’s answer to Paul’s prayers to be released from the his thorn, “My grace is sufficient for you, My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Amen
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