Sermon: July 22, 2018 – Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev Greg Wooley
What a delight this morning to have TWO baptisms in our worship service. And on this day when the waters of baptism call us to consider once more, what it means to have Christ’s mission of love in the world dwell within us, we have this gospel lesson in which Jesus encounters people who are coming to him with the desire for a new direction in their lives. I think there’s a pretty solid intersection there, so let’s explore it.
This summer, while Shannon and I were on our long holiday road-trip, I had the most remarkable experience. All my life I have heard other people talking about constellations, and I’ve seen the diagrams of Ursa Minor and Ursa Major, but the light/dark contrast of my vision has always been so poor that I’ve just needed to nod, and lie, and say, “oh yeah, there it is, there.” But then a year ago, I had cataract surgery in my right eye, so at least one of my eyes is pretty good, and one night in northern Minnesota, the sky was clear and the stars were bright. I covered my dull eye and looked skyward and for the first time I can remember, the north star shouted out to me, the brighter stars popped, those patterns that the rest of you have described for decades actually appeared to me and it was thrilling. And once I could actually see these things, what also made sense was the use of the stars for navigation: I could imagine Polaris guiding me northward, or escaped slaves in the underground railroad days singing “just follow the drinking gourd” as they relied on the big dipper to lead them to freedom. What an amazing gift, to look up and see something showing us the way.
Whether it’s looking to the stars, or following a compass or GPS or road map, it’s important to have something or someone to show us the way. In life, we often talk about one’s “moral compass” and calibrating that compass is one of the big tasks facing our young parents in the years ahead as they help their little ones learn how to find their own way in the world. It’s also, traditionally, been a task the Church is involved in…with mixed results, we must admit.
Jesus understood this need for a guidance system we can rely on, as evidenced in today’s gospel reading. It’s kind of a funny reading, as it has a beginning, in which Jesus and the disciples take some retreat time in a boat on Galilee, then come ashore to engage a gathering throng – then we skip over a significant event in the middle (the loaves & fishes, or feeding the multitude), which we didn’t hear this morning but will hear next Sunday – then the reading concludes, with them landing the boat one more time, this time on the other shore, once again met by people with needs. In all of this, the pivotal verse for me is verse 33: “as he [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
Sheep without a shepherd. Not the most flattering of images, but seen through the eyes of Jesus, whom we know as Good Shepherd, it was all about identifying and meeting needs and he saw a group that needed deep intervention. At this point in their shared mission, Jesus had already sent his disciples into the villages around Galilee, to bring hope and healing to working-class farmers, fishers, tradespeople and others on the margins. As we understand it, this would have truly been a ministry among peers, for Jesus himself came from a background in the trades, and several of his inner circle were fishermen. There was no hierarchical power dynamic here, with educated, externally-funded experts blowing into town with status and all the answers for these poor, uneducated folk; no, this mission was all on the same plane, of the people, for the people – much like CYAN’s great tagline here in Canmore, “for young adults, by young adults.” What was offered by Jesus and his crew was guidance that would have sounded like, “I know what life looks like from this angle, and from this very angle, I see a life that can be fulfilling, and affirming, and enlivening for you and your family and your community.” This was lived testimonial, of the best kind.
As the disciples returned from that mission, Jesus could see right away what their greatest needs were and Mark 6:31 puts it this way “Jesus said to them, ’Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while,’ for many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.’” Clearly, there had been uptake of what the disciples were putting out there: they were bringing God’s healing intention to people, along with Jesus’ radical words of reconciliation and inclusive community, and many of the Galileans knew this was what they had been yearning for. Jesus saw that his friends weren’t getting even a moment to themselves, to think, to reflect, to eat, and by pushing off from shore he got them what they needed.
This peaceful breather would be short-lived, however, for once it was time to come ashore, people were magnetically drawn to Jesus and the disciples: sheep without a shepherd who wanted to be shepherded…and again Jesus, doing what God repeatedly does, sees what is needed and enters into that space. While the metaphor of sheep and shepherd can easily devolve into something unhelpful and very much based on a hierarchical power dynamic, that’s not what moved Jesus then and it’s not what moves the Divine presence in our lives now. Jesus was moved by the expressed human needs, of people who were well aware that they didn’t know a way out of their present circumstances, and were seeking his compassionate touch in the present and wise counsel for the future.
The world we live in has no shortage of things to be concerned about: climate change, massive human migration, a widening gap between the ultra-rich and the poorest of the poor, electorates that are drawn to electing bombastic isolationists, the list goes on. And on the list of biggies, in the northern hemisphere in particular, is this phenomenon that Jesus called “sheep without a shepherd.” As lives become more and more customized, personalized and individualized, they are also drifting into isolation… and loneliness.. and despair… and it’s hard to know what to do about it. As we rely more and more on what sportswriter Dave Schilling calls the “carnival barker in your pocket, at all times beeping and vibrating and shouting at you” we are distracted by a steady stream of piecemeal information, and the sense of an overall structure, some agreed-upon standards, and a horizon line that we can actually head towards, is hard to identify. It’s not only hard to set one’s moral compass, it’s hard to know where to even find one.
And in the midst of that, now as he was way back when, in Christ Jesus. It would be ridiculous for me to propose that organized religion has all the answers to our quest for a moral compass that is relevant to our day, but I do want to put in a good word for turning toward the compassionate, durable, transformative presence of Christ. While the Church as a whole either gets slammed as an old-fashioned troublemaker, or added to a pile of ignorable vestiges from days gone by along with Eaton’s, Zellers, Sears, Blockbuster, 8-track players and broadcast TV stations, I can think of no better place than Church to meet progressive people of different ages and stages, different backgrounds, different life experiences and understandings, to help one to figure out their life’s goals and directions. And because we, as a congregation, do understand ourselves as being organically connected to Jesus Christ, we aren’t just shepherdless sheep. In Jesus of Nazareth, people have for two thousand years been given a window to see what God hopes for in our lives: hearts that seek a world where everyone, EVERYone, has fair opportunity for a satisfying life; souls that seek reconciliation where there is brokenness; hands that reach out in healing where there is worry or grief or woundedness; voices that speak up for the invisible ones who are relegated to the shadowy corners of society. In Baptism, those things become part of us and each day we rise, Christ is renewed in us. Christianity, when reliant on Christ Jesus, still has the ability to offer the same kind of peer-to-peer support that Jesus and his disciples did, responsive to the actual needs of people’s lives rather than imaginary or diversionary agendas, loving beyond the boundaries of our Facebook friendships. That’s my hope for us as a congregation, that’s my hope for the United Church of Canada as our General Council meets this week to make some significant decisions about the future shape of our denomination. We are called to see things through the perceptive, compassionate, clear-minded eyes of Jesus as we seek direction in our own lives, and as we embrace all who come with questions and hopes and their own unique wisdom to add to the mix.
And so, on this day of new beginnings, whether we’re still damp from the baptismal font or have known Jesus all our lives, we turn once more to Christ in our needs. We trust one another as companions on this journey. We look around for those who do not yet perceive this as a safe or relevant place, and engage the questions and worries of their lives. And we know that in the love of Christ, we encounter all that we need to break us out of our individual silos of safety, into the grand adventure of life together in the Spirit. Thanks be to God, Amen.
Canmore Young Adult Network, http://cyancanmore.ca/
© 2018 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church