Preached on 22 July 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11, Year B, Thematic track
What distinguishes the church from other charitable organizations, social service agencies, or organizations working for social justice? I would say it’s that we do acts of charity and we strive for justice and peace in response to God’s invitation, to God’s call. We understand ourselves to be continuing the mission that Jesus began two thousand years ago; a mission that has continued through Jesus’ disciples, guided by the Holy Spirit, from those early days in first century Palestine all around the world and all the way to today.
It’s not that our way or our motivation is better. And it’s not that we are the only ones called by God or following God, but that is, I think what we do. And today, I would like to focus on what we do as disciples of Jesus, as apostles sent out to continue the work God gives us to do, as we say in our prayers each week.
Now, hearing God’s call, responding to Christ’s invitation, following the guidance of the Holy Spirit; that requires discernment.
You see, you can’t steer a parked car.
By the same token, you can’t guide someone who is hurtling down the road at breakneck speed, darting in and out, going so fast that there isn’t time to read the signs much less say, “turn here.” And there certainly isn’t a chance to double check the address to make sure you’re headed for the right goal.
There’s a lot of middle ground between standing still and reckless driving.
Discernment happens through a rhythm of prayer and meditation and action and reflection. Asking through prayer, what God would have us do and listening for a response, not only in the quiet of meditation but in our lives, in the news, in our community. What’s happening? What stirs us? What catches us up short? What stops us in our tracks?
Then we move, we act, we do what we think God might be calling us to do. Remember God can’t steer a parked car, it has to be moving.
The final step before beginning the rhythm again is to pause and reflect on our action. How was God present? What were the fruits? Part of the reflection is the return to prayer, asking for God’s response and guidance.
We find this same rhythm in much of Jesus’ ministry. We see it in his guidance of the disciples. A couple weeks ago, we heard him send them out in pairs, remember? They were to go and be guests, taking no supplies, no bag, no money, not even a change of clothes. They were sent out to proclaim the kingdom of God, to heal the sick and cast out demons.
Today, we come into the story just after they have come back. Can’t you just feel the excitement in the air as they each tell the others all their experiences? And Jesus says to them, ‘come away to a lonely place, a deserted place, all by yourselves to rest for a while.” It’s time to pause and reflect.
They didn’t get much time, though, just the journey on the boat. By the time they got to the other shore, the people were waiting for them.
That’s what life is like though, isn’t it? In their case, God’s call is right in front of them. Jesus is moved by compassion and begins to teach the crowds.
The lectionary skips around a bit in today’s reading. What it leaves out is that after a long day of teaching, the disciples point out that the people must be hungry; they tell Jesus to send them away to go buy themselves something to eat. But Jesus tells the disciples that they should feed them. And here we have Mark’s story of the feeding of the 5,0000, in which it is the disciples who feed the people.
Again, we would see the rhythm of acting and then pausing to reflect. As soon as the crowd is fed, Jesus sends the disciples ahead in the boat while he goes apart to pray. That night, he joins them, walking across the lake.
The lectionary starts up again when they reach shore. The crowds come, bringing the sick to be healed.
Sometimes the demands seem relentless. For Jesus. For us. Whether it’s the demands of home and family, a family member who is ill or disabled and truly needs a lot of care, for example, or the demands of the endless stream of needs that are always before us in our community, in the news, in our facebook feed. We can’t even begin to do it all.
But the thing is, we can do some. What is it that God would have us do? How do we discern? We discern by entering into the rhythm. And we can enter into that rhythm at any point in the cycle.
We have to remember, though, that God can’t steer a parked car; nor can God navigate one that’s hurtling down the highway at breakneck speed with a driver who’s ignoring all the signs along the way.
In the end, you see, it’s not about us. It’s Jesus who invites us to serve. It’s Jesus who invites us to rest and reflect. It is Jesus who sends the Holy Spirit to guide us and empower us, and to equip us to do the work we are given to do. God is already there, going before us, waiting to meet us in the poor, the needy, the marginalized, those to whom we are sent. God is surrounding us and filling us with God’s grace and love. That’s what distinguishes the church.
Thanks be to God.