July 22, 2018

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost Year B

Fifty four years ago, this month, the iconic movie, “A Hard Day’s Night,” debuted to the enthusiastic delight of Beatles fans everywhere! Scenes of the newly famous English rock group, running through the streets of their hometown, Liverpool, being chased by raucous crowds of fans while they catch a train to London, only to be mobbed as soon as they get off the train and we’re off again. Always looking for a respite from their sudden popularity, and always in slap-stick, Charlie Chaplin action. Whew! No rest for the most popular music group in history!

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for awhile.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.

Long before the Beatles’ hit movie, Jesus and his disciples encountered a similar phenomenon. Everywhere they went, they were soon recognized, and the crowds couldn’t get enough of this new Rabbi and his new teaching, not to mention the miracles that accompanied him wherever he went. So it seems Jesus offer of rest is interrupted at every turn and the disciples, who had just returned from their own exhausted missionary journey through the countryside, proclaiming the arrival of God’s reign in Jesus, were at the mercy of their teacher’s popularity.

Jesus saw the crowd, and the scripture says, “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd;” That word compassion literally means “to suffer with,” Jesus shared in their suffering; he had such empathy for others that he entered into their suffering. And what did Jesus do, in response to their pain, “he began to teach them many things.” Wait a minute, all these suffering people and Jesus’ response is to teach them? So somehow their suffering was related to not understanding some things about God and what God was doing in their world. And by better understanding who God is and what Jesus was doing to bring about a new reign of God among them, their suffering may be relieved? Or maybe their suffering would be understood in a new context.

Have you noticed that when you pray, sometimes you don’t get what you pray for, or in the way you pray for it? In fact, many times we think God not only doesn’t answer our prayers, but may not even hear us? Maybe what Jesus was trying to get the people of his day to understand is the same paradigm shift we need today – namely, that God doesn’t necessarily remove us from uncomfortable situations, but is with us in the midst of them, in order to help us see that this reign of God is spiritual and not temporal.

By spiritual, I don’t mean we have to wait for it until we die; no, not at all. But, by spiritual, I mean that God’s reign is an interior reality, more than an external one. That God’s reign is manifested in our hearts and in how we live our lives so that even in the midst of the most severe difficulties we experience God’s presence and peace, a peace that passes all understanding. And by living our lives following Jesus, we bring God’s kingdom with us into the suffering of the world, just like Jesus and his disciples did.

That’s why it’s important for us to have our own spiritual practice, a practice of listening to God in the midst of our busy lives, just like the disciples. This liturgy we re-enact each week, reinforces the way of Jesus, hearing God’s word and feasting at God’s table feed us with the spiritual resources we need, so that little by little we are transformed more and more into the people who God has created us to be. The people who are “built together into a dwelling place for God,”as the Apostle Paul says to the Ephesians.

This is not primarily an individualistic enterprise that we undertake apart from each other, but this is a corporate call, to come together as one body “to love and serve the Lord.”

As the reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians continues, Jesus has broken down the dividing wall, that he might create one new humanity, bringing peace where there was once hostility. This is why in the early church the greatest sin was not an individual one, like murder or adultery, but schism – the rending of the body of Christ, the division of the Church.

Finally, Jeremiah finishes his condemnation of the leaders of Israel with a “woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter” God’s sheep. Zedekiah was the king of Israel at this time, a puppet of the Babylonians, serving their interests rather than God’s. And God’s promise is that God will raise up good shepherds for the people who will do what our Psalm for the day says, and restore our souls, so that we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

One of the interesting plays on words that Jeremiah incorporates into this passage is with the meaning of the King’s name. Zedekiah is literally translated “righteous is God” in the singular, meaning the king is the representative of God’s righteousness, which in itself is ironic since Zedekiah is serving his own interests in subservience to the ruling Babylonians, not the God of Israel. But at the end of this passage, Jeremiah reverses this phrase and says that God will raise up a new king, a righteous branch, and he will execute righteousness and justice, unlike Zedekiah.

And rather than the singular, “righteous is God,” this king will be called, “The Lord is our righteousness.” Right relationship with God will be dispensed to the entire community and it will be a plurality who will find their source and unity in the one whom God raises up.

Of course, in the early Christian community, they saw this prophesy fulfilled in Jesus. He is the righteous branch raised up in David’s line. He is the good shepherd in whom we find still waters and good pasture. He is the one who gathers the flock out of all the lands where they have been scattered. And it is in Jesus, where we all find a place where God dwells with us and we with one another, in peace.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.