One thing I have learned is that for me a sermon is never complete in its evolution until the final time I give it. I don’t preach every week, but on the weeks I do I am going to try to go backwards from sermon to text to complete the cycle before moving on, so here is the sermon from July 22:
Psalm 23 (NRSV)
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
Mark 6 (NRSV)
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
One thing I’ve learned in my eight years of ministry as a pastor is that God definitely has a sense of humor, and I quickly thought after reading these texts initially-‘great I’m going to preach on all the distractions that make it challenging to follow God’ to which God responded, ‘OK distractions, you want distractions I can give you distractions!’ And so in a week with a wedding and a funeral, where I spent more time in the hospital visiting people than at my desk trying to work on all the things that I felt like I needed to get done, and my first week back from vacation where I have both my kids with me I set off to write on set of ideas, but God and sitting with Psalm 23 and the 6th chapter of Mark changed that.
Now I am a person who grew up with the rise of computer technology and so I am very comfortable with digital media. I don’t think for example that texting has made us unable to have face to face conversations or that most people have substituted friend on Facebook for real friendships, but I do know how many distractions there can be out there.
Richard Lischer, a Lutheran pastor who teaches at Duke, in his 2005 book the End of Words makes the statement that the average American is subjected to over 6,000 messages per day, which may sound like a lot, but when you take into account all the advertisements you hear and see on billboards, the computer, radio and television, the songs you listen to on whatever media you use, the websites you visit, the shows you watch on TV, movies you watch, conversations you have verbally or digitally, as well as all the emails, tweets, blogs, facebook posts, etc. you see in a typical day, and maybe that number is too low. Yet as a Christian we talk about a group of stories we call gospel and we hope that they can pierce all the noise and become a part of other people’s stories. We are still at the stage where we may know how to use all the technology that surrounds us in our daily lives, but we are still trying to figure out what it means—and yet this is not a new phenomena. In the 1960s Martin Luther King, Jr. could state that “we have allowed our technology to outpace our theology.” And we find ourselves in that continual struggle to make sense of ourselves and our relationship to God and others in a rapidly changing world. We try to make sense of our theology, but there are so many distractions, so much that has changed (even if not consciously) how we think about ourselves. Sometimes I think we have all these wonderful tools for information and communication, but we sometimes find ourselves addicted to them. I know I have certainly had times where I have looked at my smart phone wondering if there was a personal or work email I needed to check, something on facebook that someone had messaged me, some text I was waiting for, or (novel idea for a phone) whether I had missed any calls and I find myself checking it even on vacation even when I know that most of what will show up is not very important.
Another of Richard Lischer’s insightful statements was that the ‘first casualty of the information age was truth.’ We are surrounded my facts, opinions, data and yet we have lost much of the beauty, passion, experimentation and honestly the ability to accept failure in this world of data. Most of us have had the experience of trying to make a decision and then going back, even once we are pretty sure of what the course of action we are going to take is, and getting more data…but the reality is that beyond a point data does not help us make better decisions, it becomes a tool to postpone making a decision. Sometimes data also can be construed in a way that is deceptive or sensationalized in order to attract attention. In an earlier post I look at the data behind the article in the Omaha World-Herald “Are We Losing Faith in Religion?” but the reality when you look at the data there has been a loss of faith in everything they surveyed in recent years, even the military, police and small businesses which are the only three institutions that scored better than organized religion. Yet we live in a world where we like data, and Gallup is one of the many sources that help us gather data (in the hope that we can make better decision) but there has been a shift to where we are the decision makers, we are the center, the world revolves around us.
Psalm 23 is one of the most familiar passages of scripture, but also one of the most alien to most of us. The idea that God is our shepherd sounds nice, but ultimately we view ourselves as the decision makers. We are not worried about what we are going to eat, where we are going to sleep, our own protection and security: we build our lives around providing these things for ourselves. If you are like me you know where the next week’s worth of meals are coming from because you went to the grocery store and your freezer is stocked. In addition to this the rent is paid, so we know where we will sleep. It is only when something shakes up our life and we feel like we aren’t in control that we can understand what it means for the Lord to be our shepherd.
In a way it is like we’ve gone back in time. In the 1500s, it was a time of great change, in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue so in the 1500s the new world was being explored. In Europe a monk named Martin Luther was stirring up what would become the reformation which would drastically change not only religion but education and the political structure of Europe. Finally there was this guy named Copernicus who had the audacity to suggest and demonstrate that instead of the sun and stars and planets revolving around the earth that instead the sun was at the center and the earth revolved around it. Most people of his time thought he was crazy, Luther included, but it is very rare to find an adult today that doesn’t understand the earth as a planet in rotation around the sun. Yet I think all the data we find ourselves surrounded by allows us to think we are the center and everything rotates around us and is held together by our own gravitational pull. But if the Lord is my shepherd, then God is at the center and we rotate around God and we are just one of the many who are caught up in the gravitational field that God exerts.
To spend a little more time with the agricultural image of Psalm 23, when I was on vacation with my family at their home in Bandera my sister Kelly has horses and goats and some other animals as well, but with animals if you have food you (or more precisely the food you hold) are the most critical things in the world. Well, Kelly and I had brought back some oats from the feed store for the horses and the horses were in another part of their property and we thought maybe we can sneak in and put the feed away without them noticing, so we drove my sisters truck onto the property all the way to the buildings where she stores the feed, begin unloading and then we are noticed. The horses realize the truck is here, they’re unloading something out of it, and they must have FOOD!!! And so the horses come at a gallop across the yard, desperate for some of the food we are unloading. Kelly manages to keep the horses away while we I finish unloading, but there is something to this…and this is where I think we come into the reading for Mark from today, because even though we may not become single minded for food like a horse or goat might, when we have a need if someone can provide that we will do anything to get there.
I think if we go back to the image of the planets rotating around the sun for a second we also need to understand that it isn’t just planets out there, there is a lot of other stuff, and not everything has a nice elliptical orbit where is stays at roughly the same distance from the earth. There are asteroids, comets and other bodies that get pulled close to the sun for a time and then draw away and they cross the orbits of the planets and sometimes there are collisions. Well if the Lord is our center of gravity, it would make sense that there are people who in times of need are drawn closer, they know they have a need for food, for healing, to make sense of something in their lives and so they are drawn close and sometimes they cross our path. Now among planets there is a collision, but among people they call this ministry.
As I approach Mark 6, the disciples have just returned from where Jesus sent them out to the surrounding towns and communities to proclaim the kingdom of God has drawn near, to heal their sick and cast out demons, and they stayed wherever they were welcomed. Now they have returned and they are tired, they want a break and yet people keep coming. They are drawn to Jesus, they have needs, they want to be around him, and they don’t even have time to eat because so many people have been drawn near, and you can almost hear in the text the disciples saying, “MAKE THEM GO AWAY!” and Jesus tries to break away but the need is so great and the people are looking for the Lord who is their shepherd.
Now I approach the disciples’ position based on my own experiences and when I hear they didn’t even have time to eat I am taken back to my time in the Army when I was a staff officer for 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry and I was both one of the officers that ran then Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and I was one of the primary planning officers-which is a really bad combination. You see when you aren’t running operations you are planning and when you aren’t planning you are typically running an operation and if we went on a rotation to one of the training centers, you would typically spend 14 days actively involved in what is called ‘the box’ where you were fighting against another unit and it would be broken into a 9 day and 5 day portion. During the first 9 days there are numerous battles, and although I am sure I may have dosed off at times, I never laid down to go to sleep, and there were times when the meals were delivered but if I was planning I wouldn’t take a break, and by the end of the first nine days I was physically and mentally exhausted and they gave us a 14 hour break (because the next five days are live fire with real bullets, shells, and missiles) and I remember lying down and I remember someone shaking me to wake me up. Now I’m not saying the disciples are that tired, but they want a break, they want to get away.
All these people they are drawn to Jesus, and these are the distractions that God places in our way to pay attention to. I remember a story that Nate Frambach, my advisor from seminary told me where in his first call he felt he had to get a sermon completed, or a class ready or be ready for a meeting that night and then someone would come into the office and want to talk, of someone would call needing to pray, or someone would be in the hospital needing to be visited. Initially he thought of these to the ministry he was supposed to be doing but at some point he realized that these were his ministry. These were the place where he and Jesus and another person had been brought together and sometimes more than any sermon or class that was his ministry. Now I’m not going to say that I understood that coming out of seminary but I do now.
One thing I have learned is that for God people are more important than our border, boundaries, ideas, projects or anything else we may want to place in a higher position. This was reinforced for me back in 2009, I was at a synod assembly and it was one of those meetings where an issue that was important to the church I was serving was being debated and yet I also knew that Bill Johnston was back in Edmond, Oklahoma and his artificial heart was failing him. Bill had an artificial heart the entire time I served in Oklahoma up to that point, and he was a big man- a former basketball player and so the odds of an donor heart becoming available were slim and so I was caught between the debate (even an important debate) and Bill and his family. Now even though I agonized over this at this point, I’m more certain than even that I made the right choice to journey back from Tulsa to Edmond, to be there with Bill and Velta and his family in his last days and then to be with them and the congregation as they grieved. No matter what issue it is, people are more important.
One last story and then I’ll close (if you’ve read my blog before it is the story that is in Something Different a Farm without Fences). In Kendra Creasy Dean’s book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (which is an interesting book in its own right) she includes this story from an African Christian:
You Americans think of Christianity as a farm with a fence. Your question is, ‘Are you inside the fence or outside of it?’ We Africans think differently. We think of Christianity as a farm with no fence. Our question is, ‘Are you heading towards the farm or away from it?’ “The church’s identity is not defined primarily by its edges, but by its center: focused on Christ, the sole source of our identity, no intruder poses a threat. No alien hops the fence, because there is no fence.
I think there is something to this, and going back to the image of the solar system, if the center is Christ our orbits are probably not going to keep us the same distance away all the time, we will be drawn closer and drift farther away and in the midst of our journey we will encounter others. So I suppose the issue is not whether we are distracted or not, but what are the things we are allowing to distract us? Are they people that God has placed in our path? Or is it the unending noise and data that can distract us and make us think everything revolves around and depends upon us. In the last verse of Psalm 23 I think we find one more important note and it is a note that can get lost in translation: Surely the Lord’s goodness and mercy (this is the Hebrew word Hesed, the word that is used to talk about God’s compassion, love , mercy and grace) shall Pursue (this is one of those words that is more about actively seeking or pursuing rather than merely following) me all the days of my life. Flipping one more time to the sun and the solar system, the planets and comets and asteroids are all drawn inward by the force of the sun’s gravity, and even at point where we may be drifting away from the center God’s goodness and mercy continue to pursue us and draw us in.