Monday, July 20, 2009

"Away by themselves to a solitary place"

Our lectionary editors found themselves in a bit of a quandry with chapter 6. So, they chopped it up into several different readings and, for those of us that read the Bible, mixed up the order of events. It is an understandable effort. A lot of events and teachings occur in chapter 6 of Mark. The Twelve are sent out, John the Baptist is killed, the Twelve return to report to Jesus all their successes, Jesus and His disciples go away for a quiet moment, Jesus feeds the 5000 men plus the women and children, Jesus walks on water, and a multitude of people are healed just in 56 verses! Talk about a busy chapter.

But our section this week pulled out one important teaching that I think we as the church and we as His disciples are notoriously bad at following. "The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest." So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place." How often do we take a rest and just bask in the presence of our Lord? How often? Once, twice, maybe three times a year? It is an understandable failure on our part. We are busy beyond belief. Kids have school and sports and parties, parents have jobs and clubs and kids to shuttle, workers have jobs (and let's face it, nobody feels comfortable telling the boss "no" in this economic situation. And we all need to work our exercise in there somehow. Who has time to rest? Who has time to bask in God's presence?

Yet that rest, that basking, that prayerful solitude is of such importance that Jesus often sends His disciples away in private. Why? Part of the reason, I think, is so that His disciples can recover from the physical and mental demands of ministry in His name. The world has such need. And His faithful disciples must see no end to their work, no end until His coming again, that is. That weariness, of course, can cause us to forget ourselves. When we are drained physically and menatlly, we forget who we are. And we are called always to remember that we are His brothers and His sisters. We are called to remember that He is our Father in heaven! And so the rest period, the prayer and the worship, allows us to remember who we are.

But a second reason I think that we are commanded to rest is to remind us of whom we serve. The need in the world is so great, and we are so insignificant. Those of you who volunteer at the church office sometimes know better than most just how much need there is. Were we not rested, were we not spending time in prayer in worship, it would be far too easy for us to forget whom we serve and send people away empty-handed. Sabbath time may allow us the opportunity to remember who we are, but it should also remind us of who He is! Our Father in heaven is the Creator of heaven and earth. Nothing can thwart His will. And so, bathed in the knowledge that we are His and that He can accomplish all things, we can be sent out to face a needy world.

Part of the reason I think that chapter 6 of Mark has so much happening and in such a seemingly jumbled order is that it reflects the life of a disciple of Jesus. When we begin to see with His eyes, to hear with His voice, to have a circumsized heart like our Master's, we begin to see just how large the task really is. Worse, we begin to see just how pathetic we are to meet the need. People are always hungry, but who has the time to cook that many meals? Women and children are always being abused, but who has the time or money to find and to provide safe housing? Utilities are always being shut off, insurance is always being cancelled, cars are always being repossessed, but who has the resources to provide all those things. And what about the needs that are not as physical? People need guidance and counselling. Some want to hear the Gospel. Many just need to hear that God loves even them! The list goes on and on and on. The temptation for us is to send the needy away empty, lacking whatever need they have. Like the Twelve with the feeding of the 5000, we might very well see no way to ever meet all the need. We might be sorely tempted to shrug our shoulders and say to Him, "Lord, I/we do not have enough to meet the need that you have caused us to see."

But you and I are called to do more than lament the world's condition. You and I are called to meet material needs where He gives us ability and to minister to all the spiritual needs at the base of so many social ills. You and I are called to live with a faith that believes He can accomplish all things, no matter the odds. You and I are called to live with a faith which believes that lives can be transformed, that the world can be transformed. And so, Jesus commands us to seek Him in solitude, to seek Him in prayer, to praise Him in worship that we might be restored and better equipped for the ministries He has given us. Yes, the need is great. But God is sufficient to meet every single need we encounter. You and I sometimes need that time of solitude with Him to be reminded of that simple, but important fact.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Doubts, and God's response . . .

A number of people asked me in the couple weeks before my vacation if it was worth it? Did I really believe it? So often the world seems to be winning this spiritual battle that we are in. Some complaints are more corporate in nature. We labor to feed the hungry at Community Meal and through Angel Food, and what result do we see? We seem to do a fair share of helping the needy through the Discretionary Funds and other efforts; yet what impact do we really have for the Kingdom? For some, the concerns are more personal. I have faithfully followed Jesus, but I have no job security. I have attended church except for when I am sick, but His storehouses have not been opened for me. I have sought hard a faithful relationship with Him, but He has not sent me someone special to share my life. And some simply complain about the world and its treatment of Christians. Make a joke about a Muslim around the water cooler, and the thought police descend in full SWAT gear. Make a joke about a Roman Catholic priest or and evangelical Christian, and the laughter is deafening. So, should we believe Him? Do we really think He will win?

Our reading this week ought to give us great comfort. John the Baptist has been called to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. His life has been consecrated utterly to God. And what does John get for His faithfulness, for his determination to obey God? We read about his reward this week. He gets imprisoned. He gets examined by the king. Finally, at the whim of a girl and her mom, he loses his head and his life. It is not the fairy tale ending that the world demands. It also might not be the answer that we want. You mean if I follow God, I might get imprisoned and beheaded?

In a way, Mark’s story of John the Baptist’s death serves to keep us grounded in the real world. Yes, Jesus has given us the Great Commission. Yes, He has sent us out to preach salvation in His name and to bring healing and restoration to the world. Yes, we can accomplish amazing things in His name. But, as Herod and Herodias reminds us, the world does not care. In fact, the world and even His Church is often rebelling aganst the only One who can save them.
As we learned this week, John the Baptist is killed. Though Herod knows that John is a holy man, though Herod knows that complicity in John’s death will cost him dearly with the Lord, Herod chooses to allow John’s death. The plans of Herodias finally come to fruition. And, seemingly, all is lost.

Yet, in our passage from last week we learn an important lesson. God is always raising up more to follow. Where John has gone first, preaching repentence to Israel, twelve more have now been sent by Jesus. Herod, the very representative of the powers of Rome, has allowed an innocent man to be killed. Seemingly all is lost. But twelve men have returned rejoicing that they have been given enormous responisbility and power! Theirs is the mission of bringing into peoples lives the Gospel of health and salvation in the name of Jesus, the Christ.

Sometimes, it is hard for us to see past our sufferings. We want so desperately to experience the fairy tale ending. We want so desperately to live happily ever after. And, we are promised that such will be our story, in His good time. For now, however, we are sent into the world to preach healing in His name, to be salt and light in the world, simply to be faithful. The rest of the work, as it ever has been, is up to God. So, in spite of illness, we proclaim His healing touch. In spite of our our lacks, we proclaim His bounty. In spite of our sins, we proclaim His mercy. And in spite of death, we proclaim the Resurrection eternal life in His presence.

John’s story reminds us that the world can oppose us, that the powers that be can oppose us, that even our loved ones can oppose us. But the story also serves to remind us that God cannot be thwarted by the world. When one of His servants die, God raises him or her to new life, and God sends even more to take their place. So, do I think He will win in the end? If He can ressurect a man from the dead or cause us to talk about the successful beheading of another disciple some 2000 years later, I am certain He can see all of us us safely to the end.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Happy Dependence Day!

Sometimes, I complain about the seeming lack of logic on the part of the lectionary editors. Far too often they seem to have skipped over pertinent pericopes (I recognize it is really difficult to cover the entirety of Scripture in three years), but every now and again their editing and God’s timing aligns perfectly. We often talk about the counter-cultural message of the Gospel, but nowhere is that message any more opposed to our American culture than in our readings from Corinthians this week. Yesterday, July 4, we celebrated our independence. Many of us watched fireworks, grilled out, and (as we are all faithful Episcopalians) drank a bit more than normal. If we paid any attentions to newspapers and television, we may have noticed tea parties happening around the country (protesting our taxes), and we may have read or listened to some political speeches talking about the preeminence of our land and just how fortunate we are to live in this country. It all may be true, but our lesson this week runs counter to those claims. The day after we celebrate our independence, God reminds us of our total dependence upon Him.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul received these words in answer to a specific prayer request that he made three times to God. Paul had a particular sin or physical ailment, a thorn in the flesh, that was bothering him. This man, who had met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus and was, by all accounts, the greatest evangelist in the early church, asked God to remove the thorn. Given all the work he was doing on behalf of God, you and I might say it was not an unreasonable request. Paul was faithful. Paul was hard working. Paul had something that distracted him from his purpose. And so he asked God to remove the thorn.

You and I and the rest of the world might expect a loving God to remove that thorn from so devoted a disciple. You and I and the world might even feel that God owed it to Paul to remove the thorn out of a sense of justice or compassion. And for those reasons and others, God’s answer to Paul seems a bit harsh to our ears. What kind of God makes His best followers suffer? What kind of loving God ignores the pleas of his inner circle of disciples?

Often, when first begin our journey with God, we expect Him to eliminate all the difficulties and temptations in our lives. We want to serve Him; we want to love Him. He must know this; He must want this. And so, when the world throws its best at us as new Christians, we are sorely disappointed in God. We wonder why He allows us to continue to experience life’s vicissitudes and temptations. We wonder if He really cares about us.

What may strike us as a bit stranger is Paul’s response. Rather than whine or complain about God’s response, Paul seems to accept God’s answer (though, admittedly, he did ask three times for the thorn to be removed). Paul accepts that God knows best and that he is better off for the thorn. How can this be?

Sometimes, we delude ourselves into thinking that we are captains of our own ships, masters of our own domains, and basically in charge of all that we do. The world encourages us to think that, and it is often this aspect of the Gospel that we find most challenging. What do you mean I need only to have faith? What must I do to earn salvation? What must I do to merit salvation? Certainly, the Corinthians would have related to us in that way. The city of Corinth was fabulously wealthy by ANE standards. Small businesses thrived. And many citizens were even citizens of Rome. And now this God expects us to trust Him in everything? He expects us to believe that we are not in charge of our lives?

Yet that is precisely what God demands of us. He wants us to see that our efforts are futile. Our efforts end in failure and death. We are so impotent that we cannot save ourselves, no matter our standing, no matter our power, no matter our wealth. And, as Paul would likely share with us, God’s grace is most obvious when we are at our weakest in life. When we know we cannot fix our situation, when we cannot possibly redeem our sins--that is precisely when we can see God’s sovereign hand at work in our lives! Paul understood this; Paul tried to teach the church at Corinth and us all this.

And, lest you think that God did not know best, think of the benefit of the thorn which He allowed to continue to plague Paul. How many times do we see God’s leaders quit focusing on God’s grace and begin to think it is them that is responsible for their current standing? There may be a televangelist untouched by scandal, but they sure seem to be in the minority. How many church leaders do we know that breached the trust of their of their congregation and stole funds, abused their power, slept with congregants? By leaving the thorn, God reminded Paul each and every day of the importance of His grace in Paul’s life. Would that we always remembered the importance of His grace!

Perhaps you have a thorn or two in your life. Perhaps there is a "no" from God that you wish He'd change to a "yes." I know I sometimes feel I have an entire bramble. But the truth is that each of our thorns, each of our bramble bushes, can serve as those daily reminders to us of our utter and complete dependence upon His grace in our lives. Like Paul, we can be reminded of our weaknesses so that we glory all the more in His strength.

Yesterday, we celebrated our independence and birth. Rightly we celebrated that our Founding Fathers and Mothers threw off the yoke of tyranny and created a land that is the goal of so many in our world today. Today, however, we celebrate the grace of our Lord, who calls us always to remember that we are totally, entirely, and without exception dependent upon His grace in our life. As you celebrate your independence this weekend, celebrate the fact that He call calls you to a dependent relationship which lasts eternity. "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”