The world is a frightening place, and our call is frightening, too. But find a quiet place to listen for God, pray, and then get back out there to serve, because God is with you.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 15 B
Texts: Mark 6:14-29 (30-32 added); 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
There’s a striking difference in the strategy John the Baptist and Jesus used proclaiming God’s reign in the world.
John was fiery. He called those who came to hear him “families of snakes” and threatened them with divine destruction. He publicly called out a corrupt, sexually promiscuous ruler for his immorality.
Jesus did have a few angry moments, but mostly didn’t preach fire and brimstone. He spoke of God’s love. He called people to follow God with their whole lives, their hearts as well as their bodies. He spent time with those considered worthless or unredeemable.
But both of them were killed for their preaching and ministry. John was beheaded by a weak king who couldn’t bear to have people make fun of him. Jesus was executed by a weak governor who couldn’t stand up to threats of going over his head.
It’s risky living God’s Good News in the world.
Standing up for what’s right and just and holy gets you into trouble. Even today, people get arrested for it. Get beaten up by mobs. Or law enforcement officers.
“People” do. But do we? Are we even scratching the surface of following Jesus if we’re not getting into any difficulty for it? And what should we do – follow John’s blazing model? Jesus’ one-person-at-a-time way?
What does God need us to do, us, we who are here right now, in a world in which too many of God’s children are starving, oppressed, and abused, in a nation where families are separated from each other to prove a paranoid political point and children are traumatized, in a city where racial tension and inequity are constantly with us?
Our answer begins with Jesus’ reaction to today’s horrible story.
This is a turning point for Jesus.
After hearing of John’s death, Jesus and the disciples go to a deserted place by themselves. Jesus needed that time apart to contemplate and reflect on his path, in light of John’s brutal death. “If they kill John for preaching against the king, what will they do to me?” And he insists on his disciples coming. They, too, needed time to pray and think. John’s death made this very real for everyone following Jesus. If anyone thought this was just a walk in the park, now they knew it wasn’t.
So Jesus and the disciples separate from the crowds, pray, find quiet room to contemplate what they’ll do next.
And Jesus doesn’t decide to change his path. He decides to re-engage.
When the crowds eventually find him and the others in their quiet place, out in the wilderness, by the end of that day they’re all hungry, thousands of them, and have no food.
So Jesus does what Jesus does, he feeds them. He preaches God’s rule and reign. He does miracles. He calls people to follow. He also starts losing lots of disciples, but keeps at it.
He could have quit. Sent all the disciples home. If death happens to those who preach God’s reign, it will likely happen to Jesus. He knows this now, and soon starts predicting his own suffering and death. But he and some disciples keep going, in spite of the consequences they now understand. And that’s our entry into this story.
This is also our turning point.
Like Jesus and the others, we can have different strategies. Any of us might feel called, like John the Baptist or Dr. King, to stand up and cry out against rulers, against injustice. That’s always a faithful way of following, the prophetic way.
But then there’s Jesus’ strategy. He calls individuals to attend to their inner truth, their hearts. Jesus changes hearts, one by one, calls people to be transformed from within until they look like the love of God in their lives and actions. Jesus believes transformed people, people whose lives are not their own but are shaped by God’s powerful love, will change the world in ways that can’t be resisted. A society that is just and free, where all thrive, all have enough, all live in love with each other, and all care for the creation, a society that God dreams about, is seen as an idealistic impossibility by a cynical world. But Jesus knows if people’s hearts are actually changed, such a society and world are not only possible, they’re the only probability.
To put it in terms for today: we can protest tearing children away from their families at the border, and shame the president into rescinding the order and returning the children. That’s happening. That’s important. But a society filled with people shaped by God’s love would never use children as pawns to fuel paranoia and hatred and racism in the first place. That’s Jesus’ goal. Not only band-aids to fix individual injustices. A dramatic renewing of the heart of all God’s children for the healing of all things.
We see how things are now, like Jesus and the others. It’s time to find a quiet place and listen for God.
Because some kind of path needs to emerge here. Some strategy. As many have reminded us, deciding to do nothing is still deciding something. Doing nothing is saying all’s right with the world, and there’s nothing needed, no change, no justice, no peace. Doing nothing says we’ve never heard of God’s astonishing love for the world and God’s dream for a holy, healed, safe place for all God’s children to thrive.
Here each week it’s one of our quiet places to reflect on our role in a world that has terrifying stories like today’s Gospel as front-page news nearly every day. But it would be wise for you to find other places, too, to get away in prayer, to be with others who walk with you in faith. To reflect, pray, contemplate on what it is God needs of you this week, and what transformation God has done in you already that gives you the ability to do that work.
And then, when the crowds, when life finds you in that deserted place (and it will), go and do. Act. Engage.
But do it with King David in mind. The ark of the covenant, the sign of the presence of God, stolen years ago, is finally brought back to Israel’s heart, the tent of worship.
And David dances. He dances for joy in front of the ark as it comes up the roads, the joy of knowing God is in the midst of the people. That’s the conviction that sent Jesus back out, and the disciples. And now you.
You have met Christ Jesus and have been changed. He’s called you to follow, started to transform your heart to be in beat with God’s and is showing you a path to proclaim God’s Good News with your life.
And God is with you on the path. Whatever happens, whatever consequences you might face for faithfully serving God in love and mercy, for working for justice and God’s healing, know this: you can dance. Every day. Because God is with you in your serving, and will never leave you. Because God will make justice and righteousness flow down like waters as more and more hearts are changed. And because when you know God is with you, what else can you do but dance?
In the name of Jesus. Amen