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.
The elders informed Samuel they would like a king to govern them. Yet the driving force behind this request was really a desire to be like other nations. Israel was a tribal confederacy, made up of twelve tribes, led by religious leaders whom God raises up to guide people-- such as Deborah and Samuel. This style of government was unlike their neighboring nations- Ammon, Moab, and the Philistines, who were governed by kings and lords. When the elders looked to the east and to the west, they saw nations with strong military might and clear leadership; when they looked within their own tribal confederacy, they saw Samuel, who seemed to be the last of the judges. In the eyes of the elders, it felt intolerable to live with such ambiguity about their future; how much better it would be to mimic the government of their neighboring nations. That desire to be like others can be so very strong.
To be clear, Samuel did not like this idea. He knew what was driving the elder’s request, and he recognized it was a problem. Samuel prayed to God. And God responded in a somewhat unexpected way. In essence, God says to Samuel: “Do what they ask. Samuel, this is not about you, or a reflection of your leadership. This is about the congregation of Israel. They have, once again, rejected me as their sovereign. This has been their pattern since I delivered them from Egypt. They repeatedly turn to other idols and away from our covenant.”
God advises Samuel to do what they ask, but to first warn the congregation and show them exactly what it means to be like other nations, with an earthly king to reign over them. Samuel returns to the elders, and he warns the congregation what their desire will bring them:
This congregation so longs to be like other nations, that they are willing to give up their freedom and the agency granted to them in their unique and liberating relationship with God, as outlined in their covenant. They believe that if they can simply be like other nations, all the ambiguity and uncertainty about their future will dissipate. The elders believe it will be worth the cost.
From where we stand today, we know that they are sacrificing everything to gain nothing. It feels so foolish, and desperately sad. At the same time, we know how strong that desire can be, to be like others, to want to take control of our lives so that the future feels less uncertain. The allure of such false promises can lead us to turn away from God, and not quite realize we’ve done so until much later.
Maybe it’s not so hard to imagine the elders hearing everything Samuel has to say, and still choosing to have a king. Maybe their desire is not exactly foolish. Their desire stems from fear and scarcity, instead of trust and hope in God.
In many ways, we are at a similar crossroad as the congregation in today’s passage. Like them, we have been through a great deal, as have all faith communities over the last fifteen months. Except the temptations and pulls are different. We are not longing to be like other nations, and appointing a king to make it happen. We are tempted by the false narrative that we can be what we once were, that we can somehow automatically go back to “normal” now that enough folks have shots in their arms. The desire that has the potential to hold us back from following Jesus and pursuing God’s dream is a desire to return to the way things were--whether that be the church of the 1950s, 1980s, 2000s, or even the church of January 2020.
Over these last fifteen months we have grown and we have changed-- as individuals and as a community. As the Rev. Stephanie Spellers writes in her latest book, The Church Cracked Open:
“God is breaking open this church and pouring us out- pouring out privilege, pouring out empire, pouring out racism and human arrogance- in order to remake us and use us to serve God’s dream for the whole world. We are the broken jar. It hurts and it sucks...and I think it is a gift.”
This breaking open may be positioning us to more fully engage in the work of God’s dream for this world, if we are willing to stick it out in the uncertainty, messiness, pain, and grief. Something glorious will grow if we dare stand in this fertile soil.
We are at an incredibly unique moment in time where it would be so easy to turn to God and say:
“Covid is winding down. Thanks for having our backs this past year, God, but we’ve got this under control now. We would like things to return to the familiar, and so, that is what we are going to do. Thanks again!”
Yet we know that is not the way of faith and love.
The way of faith and love is to always, always put God’s radical and extravagant dream of love before all else, and to stick to the mission God has called us into. Our own personal whims, whether they be that of the clergy or laity, need to be put aside. Modeling our church after what we believe we once were, or like other churches are, is taking our eyes off of God, and onto our human inclination to be in charge of our own future.
So how do we stay focused on the dream of God and our mission?
Through prayer. In a self-giving and self-emptying love of God and neighbor. In slowing down for sabbath moments or an entire day of sabbath, so that we might be more fully able to listen. Listen to God. Listen to our own inner voice. Listen to one another.
To that end, I want to invite us into two months of intentional prayer and reflection. To invite each of us to sit with, pray over, and reflect on a series of questions. You do not need to write them down; you will get an email with a Google Form listing these questions later today. You will have the month of June and July to sit with them, pray with them, and respond when you are ready. Then in August the clergy will compile the responses to see what themes emerge that God might be inviting us to pay particular attention to.
The hope is that this season will help prepare us...
...to be open to becoming who God is calling us to be
...to live as God is calling us to live
...to grow as God is calling us to grow
...and to go wherever God is calling us to go
All so we might help further God’s dream as we follow Jesus in the Way of Love.
The first set of questions is about our life as Saints James and Andrew:
The second set of questions is about your own journey. Over the last fifteen months:
To that end, Molly encouraged us to make a list of 100 things we are grateful for. If you haven’t made your list yet, take ten minutes and do it today. You will be glad you did. These lists proclaim the breadth and depth of God’s abundant generosity, as well as our call to live a life of gratitude.
Today’s psalm (104) reminds us that God’s generosity is not limited to humanity. In fact, God gives to every living thing, and all that has life is called to take a posture of gratitude towards our Creator.* The psalm describes the ecosystem of creation and proclaims, “...the earth is fully satisfied by the fruits of your works” (104:13b).
The psalmist goes on to describe the grass grown for flocks and herds, the trees full of sap, and the birds building nests in those very same trees (104: 14a, 17, 18). “Yonder is the great and wide sea with it’s living things too many to number, creatures both small and great”, including the sea monster playing in the waters (104:26-27). The psalmist tells us that all creatures-whether they be in the water, on land, or in the air- look to God (104:28).
Ultimately, this psalm is not about humanity. Rather we are one of many species and forms of life within the ecosystem.This is reflected in verse 25 when the psalmist writes:
“O Holy One, how manifold are all your works;
in wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures” (104:25).
Theologian J. Clinton McCann, Jr. explores this idea in depth, and writes:
“The psalm does not put humanity as the climax of creation, rather we are among the ‘all’ God created.”
He goes on to say,
“Our existence and the ongoing existence of the world are grounded in God’s commitment to and enjoyment of life.”
Not to overstate the obvious here, but this is not how our culture has shaped our understanding of our place in the order of creation. We have been taught in thought, word, and deed that the earth is here to serve us. And historically the Church has played a role in perpetuating that myth. Capitalism and individualism have gone to great lengths to perpetuate this false truth that the earth’s resources are infinite and that it is God’s intention for us to use the earth’s resources as we see fit.
Yet our ancestors in faith have something to teach us about the posture we take towards God and Creation. In his book Sabbath As Resistance, Walter Brueggemann writes about an important speech Moses gives to the Israelites as they prepare to conclude their forty year journey in the wilderness and enter the promised land.*
Forty years is a long time. It was long enough for the generation who had been enslaved by Pharaoh to have died off. Before their liberation and journey into the wilderness, that generation had only ever known the back breaking cycle of making more bricks, to build more structures, so Pharaoh might store more grain. Meanwhile, a new generation had been born, and while they heard the stories of the time in Egypt from their parents and grandparents, they had only ever known this time of covenant with God and wandering in the wilderness towards the promised land.
Moses was concerned that when they entered the promised land, they would forget what they had been liberated from in Egypt, and the life changing covenant they had entered into with God. He urged the Israelites to keep their covenant with God, and to maintain a posture of gratitude in the way they embodied their faith and lived their lives. To remember, it was God who had pulled them out of the deadly, back breaking cycle of making more bricks. The fertile soil in this new land would allow their people to prosper-- and that was what concerned Moses. He knew how easy it would be for the Israelites to settle down, growing and prospering, that they would eventually return to the pattern they knew all those years ago under Pharaoh- a cycle of constant work, driven to produce and take more and more.
“The new land will work so well that Israel will think they can manage on their own. They will be tempted to autonomy, without due reference to YHWH. And the reason they will be tempted by autonomy is that the new land will make them inordinately prosperous. Moses knows that prosperity breeds amnesia”(37).
Prosperity breeds amnesia.
Moses knew there was great risk of the Israelites forgetting their time trapped in the endless cycle of making more bricks. He knew they were at great risk of forgetting their covenant with God, especially God’s expectation that they cease from work one day each week so that God, the earth herself, and all of the species within creation could find rest and renewal.
We live in America. We know what prosperity looks like, and we also know how easily we can fall into that amnesia. Our prosperity leads us to forget much...
This psalm calls us back. On the Day of Pentecost, a day when we celebrate the many manifestations and experiences of the Holy Spirit. What if today as a Church we lean on the Holy Spirit to remind us that this Way of Love we are called into is not just for the people that walk on this earth, but for every form of life within Creation?
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry frequently reminds us that the kind of love we are talking about in the Way of Love is an ‘agape’ love. Agape is Greek for “love for the other--sacrificial love that seeks the good and well-being of others, of society, of the world” (14).* Sometimes when we hear the word “world” it is tempting to imagine all the people of the earth-- but as this psalm lifts up, we are but one small piece of the world. World is really just another word for creation.
God modeled the Way of Love in the story of creation and in the covenant at Sinai.
Jesus of Nazareth showed us how to walk the Way of Love throughout his ministry.
The resurrected Christ calls us to walk the Way of Love.
Today, the Holy Spirit empowers us to embody that sacrificial Way of Love for the good of neighbor, society, and every living thing within creation.
If this psalm does nothing else for us today, may it be to teach us we are but one of many majestic forms of life within creation that God treasures; and as such, we are called to live in unity with this ecosystem, to care for and love it. The psalmist writes of the Holy One,
“...you ride on the wings of the wind. You make the winds your messengers…” (104:3b-4a).
This Pentecost, my prayer is that as a Church we will embrace a posture of gratitude towards our Creator, and that each time the wind touches our skin we will remember the Holy Spirit is with us. A gift to empower and sustain us as we live out the sacrificial Way of Love by caring deeply for the welfare of our planet, and every species we share this ecosystem with-- whether they be chickens, leviathans, or even mosquitos.
May it be so.
In today’s lesson from John’s gospel, Jesus is in the midst of his farewell discourse; his final meal with the disciples before his arrest, trial, death, and burial. Jesus repeatedly draws from the natural world to illustrate the character of God, and God’s care for us. Tonight is no different.
Jesus tells the disciples, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (15:5).
Throughout the entire discourse, Jesus actually uses the word ‘abide’ nine different times. Somehow he must know the fear that will consume the disciples in the days ahead. Even though they do not realize it at this moment, soon the disciples will scatter, abandon the cause, deny him, and hide out together in a state of complete fear.
Yet Jesus is the vine; and as followers of the Way, we are the branches. We are called to abide in that relationship. The disciples carried these words within, and eventually they could lean in and be present with an openness and willingness once again. When we are able to be present to God in our own journey and when we are able to be present to God as a community, we will bear much fruit. Fruit that will last. The Vinegrower sees what is possible when we are open and willing to God and one another.
We have experienced this before as a community. In December 2016, we opened our hearts to the possibility of growing deeper in our relationship as former St. James and St. Andrew. Four months later, we emerged as a new community-- as James and Andrew. That would not have been possible had any of us resisted. Had any one of the pastors or vestry leaders or groups of parishioners said, NO, and put up walls, we would not be here today. Instead we leaned in; we chose to abide; and we were open to see what might be possible. We trusted the process, and let the Spirit be our guide. Only the Vinegrower could have possibly seen such potential in us.
Jesus goes on to tell his disciples, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (15:6).
While it has been interpreted this way, Jesus is not referring to hell. Rather Jesus is describing the state of fear and feeling of being cut off the disciples will experience when they scatter in the days ahead. Jesus is telling the disciples and us, this is what happens when we resist authentic relationships; when we choose to cut ourselves off from Christ or community.
A funny thing happens when we close ourselves off to protect or defend ourselves from vulnerability or chance. The more we put up walls and resist, the more distance we put between ourselves and what we long for. We become a fortress, preventing transformation and possibility, closing ourselves off from the potential God knows rests within our branches. The end result of such self-sabotage is loneliness, as we struggle to have our own way instead of God’s way.
It is a little bit like being lost. I have been known to get lost in the woods. Some times that has left me feeling a bit anxious or uncertain, other times it has been scary, and a couple of times it has become downright dangerous. Yet there have been many more times when I have gone into the woods and I get lost in the beauty of the trees I walk beside. The trees become my companions, and together we get lost in the majesty and glory of our mutual Creator. In those moments of being lost, I feel whole and completely connected to the vine. I feel myself open to whatever possibilities might lay before me. I am able to trust God’s process, and feel really compelled to lean into my relationships with those I care for and community life.
Another way to think about it is our body’s posture as we approach God. Are our hands out in front of us, indicating to God or our community that they must STOP and stay back. Or are we able to try on that orans position we refer to in liturgy, where we hold our arms up and open to God and possibilities. When we abide, we keep our arms wide open.
What posture are we holding towards God today?
When has our own ego, or anxiety, or fear closed us off from the possibilities God dreams for us?
When in our lives have we offered ourselves willingly to God?
What possibilities grew from that openness?
As followers of the Way of Love, Jesus is our vine, and the Creator is our Vinegrower. We are the branches. As branches we are called to approach our relationship with God and our community of faith with a real openness. A willingness to be vulnerable and be changed, to embrace the possibilities of our potential.
As we walk into the next week, I want to invite each of us into some reflection.
Where are we on this vine?
How do we feel about that place and posture?
What might the Vinegrower be asking of us?
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