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the sermon for

the seventh sunday after pentecost

19 July, 2009


Mark 6:30-34 , Mark 6:53-56

Believing isn't for living in the wilderness.
It's for serving the crowd!

The building - about thirty miles north of downtown Phoenix - started out as a resort-of-sorts called the Adobe Inn.  Later, it served as a corporate retreat - one of those little perks for midwest executives of a national diet company!  But, in 1992, it was purchased by Malcolm Estrem, the man that invented the hot chocolate machines used in most Denny's and McDonald's restaurants.  And he gave that building as a gift to the Grand Canyon Synod of the E.L.C.A. as its very, own retreat center.

Heated outdoor swimming pool.  Hot tub.  Individual rooms with fireplaces, private balconies, mountain views, mini-refrigerators, and mini-bars.  One of those real "suffering-for-Jesus" kind of places!

Well, today, that building - near the intersection of Tranquil Trail and Nonchalant Avenue - is known as Spirit in the Desert Lutheran Retreat Center.  And back in 1992 when it all began, there was a verse used to help share the vision for such a lavish, luxurious offering.  Mark.  Chapter six.  Verse thirty-one.  "[Jesus] said to [his disciples], 'Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.'"

"Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."

That verse was on everything!  Letters!  Pamphlets!  Brochures!  Articles!  But, it caught my attention.

This past week, thinking about that verse again, I realized something.  It was there - in a deserted place - that Mark began his gospel!  "...  the voice of one crying out...  in a deserted place..."  John the baptizer appeared...  in a deserted place...  The Spirit drove Jesus out...  into a deserted place...  It was there...  in a deserted place...  he remained for forty days...  And just a handful of verses later, we're told that "in the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out...  to a deserted place...  and there he prayed..."

And, then, came the leper.  After he was made clean, the man went out - and contrary to Jesus' orders - he began to tell everyone what Jesus had done for him.  And from that point on, Jesus was unable to go into a town openly, but stayed out...  in a deserted place...

Six times in the first chapter that "deserted place" is mentioned.  And it's not used again until this morning...  rather, until the passage we read this morning.  Mark.  Chapter six.  Verse thirty-one.

"Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."

The implication is that there's a rhythm to faith.  Like a heartbeat.  Like the tide.  There are times when we go out and there's times when we come in.  There's times when we're together and there's times when we're apart.  There's time for rest and recuperation and there's time for work and for sacrifice.  With that in mind, it was a perfect verse for publicizing a retreat ministry.

"Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."

Even thought I'd hardly classify Carefree, AZ - especially today! - as a deserted place!

But, you know, even back then, I had a problem.  I had a problem with using those particular words in that way.  You see, they don't quite fit the picture Christ's mission and ministry.  They don't quite fit the picture of the mission and ministry of Christ's people.  Not if we read what comes next in the passage...

"33Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them..."  Jesus invites his companions to go out...  to get away...  all by themselves...  to a deserted place...  But when they get there, that deserted place doesn't exist!  Instead, it's full...  Instead, it's full of people!  And when Jesus sees the crowd, he's moved with compassion.  And he begins to teach them many things.

That crowd is so hungry...  That crowd is so famished...  for something...  for someone...  to believe in, that they see Jesus leave and they run along the shore to be there when Jesus arrives.  There would never, ever be a "getting away" again.  There would never, ever be a "deserted" place.  In fact, from this point on, Mark never uses the word.  Not for Jesus.  Not for Jesus' followers.

No.  Faith has to do with people.  Believing has to do with being with...  with being for...  And that crowd knew that...  even if we, every now and then, forget.  Faith isn't about being alone...  even if it's "me and god" standing together on some mountaintop.  Faith is about being part of a community...  Faith is about being part of a crowd...  And Jesus understood that.  That's why, instead of getting angry at the intrusion, he was moved with compassion.  He understood that the people that made up that great crowd needed to know that their lives mattered to someone.  They needed to know that their dreams - no matter how small...  no matter how ordinary...  They needed to know that their dreams...  that their tears...  meant something.  They needed to know that they were seen...  that they were heard...  They needed to know that when they died...  someone would miss them...  someone would remember...

The truth is that we can't do what god wants us to do in a deserted place.  We can't do what Jesus has done.  We need people!  Lots and lots and lots of people!  We need them as much - if not more - than they need us!  And it's kinda funny...  I don't think they need us for the reasons we think they need us.  Just look at that crowd.  They didn't need Jesus to worship god better.  They didn't go after Jesus because Jesus sang better hymns...  because Jesus said better prayers...  I don't think they ran ahead because Jesus had a better youth group than anyone else.  And they didn't go after him because he could give them something to eat...  or pay their bills...

They went after Jesus...  They went ahead of Jesus...  simply because they needed to see their reflection in his eyes.  They needed to see their reflection in his eyes.  They knew what it was like to be used.  They knew what it was like to be overlooked...   to be forgotten...  They knew what it was like to be tolerated and taken for granted.  And what Christ brought them was respect!  Appreciation and respect!  And when that gift was given, all those deserted places disappeared.  They were no more.

"Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."  It sounds so right.  It sounds so good.  But, the truth is, when we get there, all that will await us is a great crowd...  if we do what Jesus has done!  Because faith is not about being alone.  Faith is about being with lothers...  with one...  with two...  with forty...  with thousands...  Faith is about that grace...  that charity...  that love...  that brings people together...  that keeps people together...  Sure, sometimes it's nice to be alone.  Sometimes, it may...  perhaps...  even be needed.  But that solitude is the exception...  the exception and not the rule.  Because that is not when...  that is not where...  life happens.  Not on a mountaintop above the clouds.  Not at a retreat center in the desert foothills.  Faith happens among people.

"Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."  "But as they came ashore,  they saw a great crowd...  And they had compassion on them...  And they began to teach them many things..."  My friends, that is our mission.  And that is our ministry.  And that...  that is our retreat, as well!

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the sermon for

the sixth sunday after pentecost

12 July, 2009

Mark 6

John the baptizer wasn't meant to serve as an example...
but as a contradiction!

By now, I've forgotten which of my professors at seminary said it.  The one teaching the bible class that morning.  But I remember what he said to us...  about this particular passage...  "There can't be any more pitiful verse in all of scripture than this one."  Mark.  Chapter 6.   Verse 29.  The image we're left with is heartbreaking...

"When his [- John's -] disciples heard about it [- about John's death -], they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb."

"When [John's] disciples heard about [John's death], they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb."

John had been one of the most popular figures in Judea at the time of Jesus.  In some ways...  probably in most ways... more popular than even Jesus himself.  Mark starts out his gospel with the baptizer's preaching.

"4John the baptizer," he writes, "appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins."

Of course, Jesus was one of them.  Jesus was one of them.  And, then, in a mouthful of verses, it all came crashing down.  Herod - not the Herod, by the way, of the Christmas story - Herod Antipas, one of Herod the Great's sons - had John arrested.  John opposed Herod's marriage to his step-brother's wife Herodias.  And Herodias had a grudge against John.  She wanted him dead.  Then came the party...  and the dancing...  and the promise...  In the end, John was dead.

"When his disciples heard  about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb."

I can only imagine what they were feeling...  on that last, final journey to the grave.  Step...  by step...  by step...  by step...  John was gone.  John, the baptizer...  John, the prophet...  was now John, the martyr...

But, you know, as I was reading through the passage...  as I was thinking about that final, pitiful verse...  I realized something.  No matter how unjust...  no matter how wrong...  no matter how terrible...  no matter how traumatic...  John's death had absolutely no redeeming value!  John's death had no redeeming value!  His death didn't change a thing.  His dying didn't transform anyone.  Nobody was saved.  Nobody was rescued.  Nobody was delivered.  When all was said and done, everything...  everything and everyone...  stayed the same.

John was a famous person.  He was popular.  People came from far and wide just to hear what he had to say...  to see what he had to do...  He challenged the most powerful in the land.  And, then...  he was gone.  He was gone.  That's what makes that last verse even sadder...  even more pathetic...  "When his disciples heard  about it [John's death], they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb."  A dark...  a hollow...  an empty tomb.

You see, John lived his life according to the law.  When he preached, he preached hell and damnation.  When he preached, he preached fire and brimstone.  Mark records only one line from his message.  And, undoubtedly, he baptizes that line into the proclamation of the church - making it fitting...  proper...  But the other gospels - Matthew, Luke, John - elaborate.

"You brood of vipers," he said to the Pharisees...  to the Sadducees...  who came to be baptized.  "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? ...  10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree...  that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  11I baptize you with water..., but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me...  [and he] will baptize you with [wind] and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

That is John's message!  That's what everyone who came out to him heard.  There was nothing...  There was nothing soft or gentle about it.  His words are hard and they are harsh.  And when he died, that was the end of it.  Nothing changed.  The world remained the same.  Because there was no power in what he said.  There was no power in what he said.

John was the kind of prophet the world expected.  John was the kind of prophet the world wanted.  John was willing to die for the law.  But he was unable to die for people.  John was willing to die...  pointing fingers...  making accusations...  holding people accountable...  But he was unable to die to forgive them of their sins.  John didn't know how to turn the other cheek...  or to go the extra mile...  or to do unto others...  He was rigid.  He was inflexible.  So when he died...  nothing.. .  no one...  not even his nearest...  his dearest...  was different.

You see, faith...  "new testament" faith...  "jesus" faith...  is not believing in the law, but believing in the love!  Faith...  "new testament" faith...  "jesus" faith...  isn't about commandments.  It's about compassion.  Faith...  "new testament" faith...  "jesus" faith...  isn't etched in stone.  It's written on flesh and blood.

Yes, Jesus went to John like everyone else.  To see him.  To hear him.  And, yes.  Jesus, like so many others, was baptized in the river.  But the truth of the matter is that Jesus...  Jesus went far beyond anything John offered...  far beyond anything John could dream of...    And their deaths - John's death...  Jesus' death...  are witnesses to that difference.  John's death had no redeeming...  no rescuing...  no saving value.  But Jesus'...  Jesus' suffering and Jesus' dying and Jesus' burial changed lives...  changed history...  forever!

Instead of pointing fingers, Jesus held out his hands.  Instead of making accusations, Jesus spoke promises.  Instead of laying down the law...  Instead of giving people hell...  Jesus took creation in his arms and held it tight.

In chapter three of Mark, there's another story.  Jesus is in a synagogue.  Jesus and a man with a withered hand.  And Mark tells us, "[The people] watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath... ."

Jesus said to the man, "Come forward."  And then, he asked the congregation a question.  "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?"  The congregation didn't say a word.  And Mark writes, "He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart... ."  "He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart... ."  For Jesus, people...  people always came first.  People always COME first!  And love...  love always and forever trumps the law!  Especially at times...  in places...  like this!

"When [John's] disciples heard about [John's death], they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb."  My friends, it's a pitiful image.  But no more pitiful than the life that preceded it.  Faith is not about following the law.  Faith is about loving people...  putting others before everything else.  For, you see, in the end, it's that faith...  it's that love...  that will change lives...  it's that faith...  that love...  that will change the world...  even when...  especially when...  we are dangling on a cross.
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