Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost

RCL, Year B, Proper 11: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22;
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Listen to the sermon here.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a rock star?

I sure have.

It started when I was a little kid. Once I got over Glen Campbell’s hit single “Like a Rhinestone Cowboy” and had made my passage through Elton John’s “Greatest Hits,” I discovered The Who. And that was it. From then on, I wanted to be like John Entwistle, The Who’s electric bass player who transformed a background instrument into a booming, driving rock and roll force.

And so I took up the electric bass and the dream was born that one day, with the right group of guys (or gals), I’d hit the big time. I’d get to play through a wall of Marshall amplifiers in front of stadium-sized audiences, feeling each note played on the bass pulsating through my body in waves, the crowds of fans roaring with thunderous applause between songs on the set list. And to this day, I have to say that if Bono from U2 or Dave Grohl from Foo Fighters called me up to say, “Bryan, we really need a bass player for our upcoming tour. Can you do it?”, I’d be on the next plane out of Jackson.

Fortunately, my childhood and adolescent dreams of rock stardom have been tempered by reality. Based upon what I’ve learned, the rock-and-roll lifestyle can entail some major negatives. The pressure to put out a bigger hit than the last one only increases over time, and the critics are merciless. The time devoted to recording and touring schedules can tank marriages and family life. There’s no escaping from one’s stardom status, no going for a stroll around the block or shopping at Kroger or out to dinner incognito, all of which can reinforce an overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness. And it’s a lifestyle that can be dangerous, as the untimely deaths of many of the greats so tragically testify.

It may seem a bit odd, but I’ve come to believe that all of this gives us a window into how Jesus and his disciples might have felt in the midst of their active ministry. For by the 6th chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus has achieved a kind of superstar status. He can’t go anywhere without crowds of people recognizing and mobbing him. They just want to catch a glimpse of him or touch him or make a special request on his time and attention. It’s gotten so bad that, according to Mark, “they had no leisure even to eat” (Mk 6:31 NRSV). The needs and the demands are endless. Jesus and his disciples simply cannot keep this pace up without burning out. They need a break. They need to get away. And to make matters worse, this whole Kingdom of God preaching tour is starting to get dangerous. As we heard last week, Jesus’ warm-up act – the prophet John the Baptist – got his head chopped off for speaking truth to power. And Jesus himself is increasingly viewed as a threat to the social and religious powers-that-be. Even his own family and the folks back home in Nazareth think he’s lost his mind (can’t this guy get a real job?).

In response to all of this, Jesus invites his disciples to get away with him “to a deserted place” where they can “rest a while” (Mk 6:31 NRSV). He offers them a time-out for renewal. But like the paparazzi finding out that a celebrity is heading to the beach with friends, the crowds discover the plan and get there before Jesus and his disciples arrive. This vacation just isn’t going to happen.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I’ve made plans to do something important for myself or with my family or friends, something I’ve really been looking forward to doing, and those plans get wrecked, I’m not the most pleasant person to be around. So I’m struck by how Jesus responds. Instead of lashing out in irritation and disappointment, and instead of turning the boat around and trying to get away from all these people, Mark tells us that “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk 6:34 NRSV). Looking out into that sea of humanity, at all of the nameless faces yearning to see him, the hands reaching out to touch him, the voices crying out, “Jesus, help me!”, our Lord’s “heart was filled with pity” (Mk 6:34 TEV). And acting out of these deep feelings of compassion and pity, Jesus makes time to spend the rest of the day with these needy people. He heals the sick among them. He teaches them about the coming reign of God in which sorrow, sickness, suffering, and death will be vanquished by God’s love, mercy, and justice. He gives them hope for the future, a reason to keep on keeping on. And although we don’t hear it in this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus also takes five loaves and two fish and feeds them.

Under the circumstances, it’s amazing that Jesus had the energy and patience to do all of this. But unlike rock stars and other celebrities who, while they may be gifted and even generous persons, are still human, all-too-human, Jesus is a genuinely extraordinary person. Indeed, according to the faith of the Church, Jesus is not just a human being like you and me. Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. Jesus is true God from true God. As Episcopal theologian James Griffiss so aptly puts it, “Jesus Christ is God’s presence with us in a completely human life” [The Anglican Vision (Cowley, 1997), p. 80]. And that’s the difference between Jesus and the rest of us that makes a difference.

Griffiss spells it out like this:
When we look to Jesus as the truth about God and about our own lives, we believe we are shown that the holy and transcendent God comes to us in all that we have to go through. God comes to us and stays with us, not just as some fleeting presence, a stranger who drops in for a call, but as someone who abides with us in all that really matters in human life: joy, love, a desire for justice, courage, and forgiveness, as well as failure, pain, suffering, and death. … Belief in Jesus calls us to believe that God, the eternal and holy one, is with us in death as in life, in sorrow and in joy. This is what we mean when we say that we believe that God is with us in Jesus Christ [ibid., pp. 84, 86].
Jesus doesn’t come among us just to put on a show, then pack up his gear and leave town. Jesus comes among us to stay. And as the abiding presence of God with us, Jesus has an inexhaustible supply of compassion for human need and weakness. That doesn’t always mean we will be spared difficulties, loss, and heartache. But it does mean that we can rely on Jesus to help us deal with it. We can rely on Jesus to supply what we, as merely human beings, cannot come up with on our own. We can trust Jesus to provide guidance, support, and nourishment for our souls.

But the Christian life is not just about receiving the comfort and nurture of Christ. It’s also about transformation. It’s about the transformation of our hearts and minds so that our thinking, feeling, and acting conform to the One who responds to our neediness and failures with self-sacrificial compassion. It’s about giving ourselves to the world in love just as Jesus gave himself, even and especially when that means the death of our own wills for the sake of God’s will. It’s about receiving the power of God to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4 RSV), persons whose lives are changing more and more into the image and likeness of Christ.

And so we can count on Jesus to challenge us. Yes, we take comfort in the knowledge that God loves us just as we are. But God also loves us too much to let us stay that way. So we can count on Jesus to push us to grow. We can count on Jesus to push us beyond ourselves. We can count on him to challenge us to see in life’s inconveniences opportunities to seek and serve Christ in all persons, even when they annoy us, interrupt what we’re doing, or wreck our best-laid plans.

The inconveniences, interruptions, and brokenness of this world fill our Lord’s heart with compassion and move him to action. And he wants to transform us so that we can do the same.

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