July 22, 2018
Mark 6:30-34 & 53-56
I’ve said it before: context is everything. In order to fully understand our Gospel reading today, we need to know the ‘rest of the story’. There are some very important events that happened leading up to this text and sandwiched in between.
The disciples had just returned from their mission, traveling far and wide, spreading the “good news”, casting out demons and healing the sick. They were weary and needed to debrief on their experiences. And then there is Jesus. He had just received word that his cousin, John the Baptist, was beheaded by Herod. He needed time to grieve. So, it makes sense that he said to the disciples: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” They all needed each other, time, space and solitude from the throngs of people and violence of their times. They needed to rest and regroup.
But what happened when they set out in their boat to go to a secluded shore? They’re followed. People raced along the shoreline to catch up with Jesus and his disciples. By the time Jesus and his motley crew reached shore, a huge crowd was gathered waiting for them. And as Jesus went ashore, he saw the crowd and “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd;”. Here is where I find the Common Lectionary a bit peculiar. Why leap from verse 34 to 53? By doing that we leap over the feeding of the 5,000. We also miss the narrative about Jesus later that night walking on water. You remember that story, right? Jesus needed to catch up with the disciples out in the boat. So, he walked out to them on the water. But when they saw him approaching they thought he was a ghost. Seeing their fear, he said to them: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Do any of these Gospel accounts strike a chord for you? Does any of it ring true for you? Is any of it hitting close to home? I see some nods of affirmation, a few no’s and some blank stares of bewilderment and fear, as if to say: “Dear God, don’t call on me!”. No worries. I won’t. Just what does any of this have to do with us? Well, I think there are some parallels.
Take Jesus’ observation: “They were like sheep without a shepherd.” Well, our ‘shepherd’ of the past 14 years is gone. Pastor Phil is moving on to a new call at Mt. Sinai-UCC in Rhode Island. Personally, I am going to miss him more than words can say. He’s been a tremendous mentor for me. And I know from listening to rumbles within our congregation that his absence leaves some folks feeling very uneasy, rudderless and worried about what’s going to happen from here. So, I guess we need to regroup too. But take heart. One of the greatest strengths of this church is the people. We have never been a pastor-centered church. Our leaders and members have contributed to the ministry of the church, side by side with our pastors. We have carried on, even when the pastor was away on sabbatical. The life of this church will go on. This is not our first rodeo. Pastors come and go. It’s the nature of church. And the Covenant Association of the United Church of Christ has our backs. The Rev. Dr. Campbell Lovett is working closely with our church’s leadership, incredible leadership I might add, to help us find an Interim Pastor and, eventually, a settled pastor. And the process to get from point A to point C is well thought out and tested. It works.
As Jesus said, as he approached the disciples adrift in the boat: “do not be afraid”. Christ is head of the Church. And he is with us, every moment of every day and he will be with us each step along the way of this journey. So, fear not! Trust in God. Lean on those everlasting arms and lean on one another. So long as we have God and one another, we will get through this. We’ve just gotta stick together. As the song says: “Where ever we go, whatever we do, we’re gonna go through it together.” This church, this community of faith has always risen to meet whatever challenges are before us. How? Each of us has gifts of the Spirit. Collectively, we have and will continue to use those gifts, to fulfill the needs and mission of our church, the Charlotte community and our world family. And that is precisely what the author of the letter to the Ephesians was getting at.
The new church-start in Ephesus was lost, confused, rudderless – a flock without a shepherd. You know, in those days of the early church, there were no pastors. Each was a community of faith for the sake of community. The apostles (the surviving disciples, and Paul and his companions) were the closest things to ministers. Still, they were just regular people. And they didn’t settle in one spot. They were wandering teachers and preachers of the Good News. Often their teaching, preaching, leadership, guidance and encouragement for new church starts had to be from a distance. They couldn’t be everywhere at once. There were too few of them for the multitudes of people joining The Way – that was the name of Christianity in its infancy. This was no easy task, especially when you consider that Christians were being persecuted by the hostile Roman Empire. Many died at the hands of the Romans. You see, the Romans were trying to keep the early church from gaining a foothold. Because if it did, Christianity could threaten the rule of the Empire. In fact, this letter to the Ephesians was probably written after Paul’s death. Others tried to carry on, writing in Paul’s name, because Paul was a well-known, recognizable and beloved leader in the early church.
Paul and all those who followed in his footsteps did their very best to spread the Good News of Christ Jesus, as well as guide and encourage communities of faith, like the Ephesians. So, in this letter that we have read a portion of today, the Ephesians are being reminded that Christ is the cornerstone of the Church. Christ is still and forever will be the cornerstone of the Church. Every Ephesian accepting Christ as their Savior and willing to follow his teachings were made One, in Christ Jesus. – a new humanity, new community of faithful followers from every walk of life imaginable. Jew, Greek, slave, free, young, old, sinner, saint – all united as one in Christ.
Are we so different? We come from all walks of life too. They had uncertainties. So do we. They had fears. So do we. They welcomed outsiders and offered radical hospitality. So do we. (Feed them and they will come.) The Ephesians were building a faith community, grounded and centered in Christ. So are we. And what they began thousands of years ago, we are continuing today. It goes without saying that they had far greater threats and obstacles to face and to overcome than we do. Yet, they remained united as a community in Christ. We worship the same God – a God who is forever faithful. We share one baptism and one faith – we’re in this together. The ministry of this church must go on, just as the work of Jesus and his disciples went on. And as we face the challenges that lie ahead, we need to remember to love God and to love one another. We need to take our rest, when we become weary. We need to support one another. And together, we will grow in faith and strengthen our community.
So, do not be afraid. Christ is with us. Christ is our peace. Thanks be to God. Amen.