When the World Wont’ Go Away
Mark 6.30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things….
Mark 6.53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
There are a lot of nuggets we could look at this morning in our gospel lesson from the 6th chapter of Mark. We could talk about the disciples’ enthusiasm as they return from their first mission. We could look at the parts of the chapter that are cut out of the middle of this morning’s text— how Jesus uses the disciples to feed 5000 with a few loaves and fish. Right after that, also pulled out of this morning’s chapter and saved for another day is the story of Jesus walking on water. There’s a lot in this chapter we could talk about.
I was planning to focus on those words, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” I was planning to talk about how important it is when you’re doing the hard work of ministry to take a retreat now and then, even if it’s a mini retreat. I was going to talk about how even when you plan your retreat with the best intentions and take steps to protect that sacred time alone with Jesus, the world can run ahead of you and be waiting for you when you get there. As people who bear the compassion of Christ we need to remember that even in our retreat places we will probably run into the world’s great, never-ending hunger in one way or another because even today the people of our world are like sheep without a shepherd.
Sheep without a shepherd. That’s actually a veiled political statement in Mark’s gospel, and it would be worth a conversation some time to talk about the Messianic promise hidden in that terse little phrase and how no emperor, no appointed governor, no high priest, and nobody we elect can ever fill that slot— it’s a space created by God to be filled by God— by Emmanuel, God with us.
I was going to talk about what to do when the world won’t go away, about how Jesus still finds time to go up to the mountain to pray. I was going to use this time and this text to talk about Gloria Dei’s Strategic Planning Team and how we are now thinking of ourselves as the Mission Discernment Team because we’ve realized that our very first and most important job is to take time to listen to Jesus, to listen to the Spirit, and carefully to try to discern what Christ is calling us to be as a congregation, where Christ is calling us to go, what Christ is calling us to do. We realize that when we know more about that we can get on with the business of strategy, but if we don’t know where Christ is calling us to go, then even if we do a meticulous job of planning we’ll be planning a trip to nowhere. And we realize, of course, that the Spirit may change our plans midstream.
Things happen that change your plans. That, too, is a lesson from today’s gospel. The disciples never do arrive at Bethsaida. The wind fights them all night. They make no headway at all, stuck in the middle of the lake until Jesus gets in the boat with them— and that’s worth noting— we don’t make any headway until Jesus gets in the boat. Notice, too, that when they give up on getting to Bethsaida and pull ashore at Genessaret, Jesus seems perfectly okay with that. And there’s a crowd waiting there, too.
I was going to touch on all those things this morning. I was going to talk about how the need of the world is always there and it’s our job in Christ to meet that need, but that it’s also important to take a break. I was going to talk about how to take a deep breath and get on with it when the world won’t go away.
And then the world did something worse than simply not go away. On Friday morning the insanity and anxiety of the world exploded in our faces once again with horrifying violence in a mass shooting in Aurora, CO.
I confess that part of me wants to use this moment to talk about our nation’s love affair with guns and what it says about us that so many followers of the Prince of Peace have such a passion for these lethal instruments of mayhem. I would like to raise the question about why it is that so many followers of Jesus, persons of genuine faith, resist efforts to more effectively register and control these instruments which are, quite simply, designed for killing. I would like to tell you about my own experience with guns, about the death of my friend, Dennis, when we were only 12 years old, about the death of Meri’s Uncle Orren. I would like to ask how many times we have to live through Aurora and Seal Beach and Columbine before we insist on some kind of stronger preventive action.
But now is not the time to start a conversation that would almost surely be divisive and the fact is, we have bigger questions in front of us because of Aurora. The wounds of our own grief over what happened here in Seal Beach only 10 months ago are reopened for many of us this morning. I suspect that many of you feel the way I do this morning— not so much like a disciple of Jesus, full of adrenaline for our mission— but like one of those sheep without a shepherd.
I want to share with you an article that appeared yesterday in the Huffington Post. It’s entitled An Open Letter to All Who Suffer From the Shooting in Aurora. It was written by Pastor Meghan Johnston Aelabouni, the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Fort Collins, Colorado.
You don’t know me. I’m a pastor at a Lutheran congregation 65 miles north of you, in Fort Collins. You may have your own pastor, or rabbi, or imam. You may not believe in God. But I am also your neighbor–and like many of your neighbors in Colorado and across the country, my heart breaks for you today.
We, your neighbors, may not have been in that movie theater, but we could have been. It could have been our children, our friends. We want to share words of sympathy, but we know no words can erase what has happened to you, as you grieve for the dead and wait in hospitals for news of the injured. What words we do share may bring little comfort.
I am only one of many voices who will speak to you, and about you, in the days to come. As a pastor, a parent, and a neighbor, here is what I want to say.
To the victims, the survivors, and their loved ones: I am so sorry. I cannot imagine the terror of being inside the theater in those deadly moments, or the anxiety of not knowing at first whether someone you loved was among the victims. I pray for the hospital staff and emergency personnel who continue to treat your wounds, and I pray for your healing. And for those who have received the worst possible news, the news of death, my head bows in sorrow.
In the coming days and weeks, you will probably encounter well-meaning people who will say to you, it is all part of God’s plan, even if we don’t understand it now. Everything happens for a reason. If these words are helpful for you to hear, I’m glad. But if these words tear at already-raw places in you and fill you with anger or despair, please know this: not all people of faith believe these things. I do not believe them.
The God I know in Jesus Christ does not use natural disasters or human-caused massacres to reward some and punish others. I believe God is able to reach into sin and death and pull out healing and life; this is a different thing from engineering tragedy for a so-called greater purpose. The God I serve and proclaim to others does not cause or desire human suffering.
I also suspect many of you, like us, may be asking why. Why did this happen? The media and the justice system will do their best to answer this question in the literal sense, trying to determine why James Holmes apparently entered a movie theater and began shooting at random. In a sense, however, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, because even if we get a “why”–an explanation from the shooter, or a more comprehensive understanding of the circumstances that comes with time–these answers will still not be enough.
In its deepest sense, the question “why?” is not a request for a logical explanation; no logical explanation will justify or make sense of what is indefensible and senseless. It is a cry of the heart, an expression of grief. It is a cry as ancient as it was new again this morning. In the Bible, it is “Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).
As a person of faith, I say to you: there is holiness in grief, in tears and in anger. In the refusal to be comforted, there is the understanding that these bullets have torn a rent not only in individual lives but also in the fabric of life itself, in an understanding of community as it ought to be. Such refusal proves that we have glimpsed and can imagine a better way of being together in the world. The fact that this event is one of many tragedies and episodes of suffering around the world doesn’t diminish its magnitude; in many ways, it makes it sadder.
One of the twelve dead in the Aurora shooting was aspiring Colorado sportscaster Jessica (Ghawi) Redfield. On June 5, after she had narrowly missed being present at a similar shooting at a Toronto mall, she blogged about the event, asking, “Who would go into a mall full of thousands of innocent people and open fire? Is this really the world we live in?”
Is this the world we live in? Yes. And no. It is a world in which evil and tragedy erupt with shocking frequency and brutal intensity. It is a world in which, despite our attempts to separate “good people” from “bad people,” the truth in writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s words stands: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”
And yet, this is also a world in which immense kindness and compassion can wash over us in times of greatest need. For those whose trust in humanity has been shattered today: as you remember a young man bursting into a place of supposed safety and turning it into a place of destruction, may you also remember communities, places of worship, neighborhoods and individuals bursting into this situation with love and support. May these times testify not to the power of evil to destroy community, but to the greater power drawing a community together to stand with one another. I call that greater power God; but whether or not we share the same faith, let us share that commitment to life and love that render hatred and evil ultimately powerless.
In the end, whatever his motives, Mr. Holmes will have neither the first nor the last word. Nor will I. That honor belongs, I believe, to the indestructible love of God. It belongs also to Jessica Redfield, whose life was ended, but whose witness was not destroyed:
“we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath…every moment we have to live our life is a blessing.”
To Jessica and our beloved dead: rest in peace, and may perpetual light shine upon you.
One of my heroes, Fred Rogers— we all knew him as Mr. Rogers— Fred Rogers once wrote, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers— so many caring people in the world.”
Look for the helpers. When tragedy erupts, when violence explodes in our faces, look for the helpers. In fact, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be the helpers. We are the ones called by God to wade into the mayhem to help. It is our hands God uses to care for the wounds. It is our voices God uses to speak comfort. It is our arms God uses to embrace. It is our shoulder that God uses to receive the tears of those who weep.
In his address to the nation in the aftermath of this horrible violence, President Obama said, “If there is anything to take away from this tragedy, it’s the reminder that life is very fragile. Our time here is limited and it is precious. And what matters most at the end of the day is not the small things; it’s not the trivial things, which so often consume us and our daily lives. Ultimately, it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.”
Ultimately, what matters is how we treat one another, how well we love one another. That means that we who follow Jesus, who try to love the world as he loved and loves the world, will always have our work waiting for us. We are the helpers. We are the ones who carry the compassion and love of Christ into the heart of disaster. The world is still full of sheep without a shepherd. There will always be disasters. There will always be insane acts of violence. The world won’t go away. It is always there, reaching out with its hungers and its needs. And yes, as we do this work of Christ and reach out to the world’s never-ending hunger, sometimes we need to take a break. But if the world suddenly explodes even when you’re trying to take that break, then stop, take a deep breath, and find a way to love it.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.