Pentecost 9/Lectionary 17B, John 6:1-21

Today we heard the story in John’s Gospel of Jesus feeding about five thousand people using a grand total of five barley loaves and two fish and ending up with twelve full baskets of leftovers.

How did Jesus do it? Jesus playfully set up the scene when he asked Philip rhetorically, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip’s telling, realistic response was this: “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

Acknowledging that a child was in possession of five barley loaves and two fish, the disciple Andrew observed also with sober judgment, “What are they among so many people?”

Indeed, how on earth could Jesus make so much out of so little?

The Modern mind might be inclined to de-mythologize the miraculous nature of the feeding of the five thousand. Some have posited, for example, that the generosity of the boy in making available to Jesus his five loaves and two fish inspired the generosity of others in the crowd such that everybody ended up sharing enough so that everyone could eat enough to be satisfied. And the generous sharing was such that they ended up with leftovers.

Thus, we could easily reduce this story in John to what happens at church potlucks when members bring food to share – a dish to pass – among the whole crowd. Certainly, our common experience of potlucks is that there is usually more than enough to go around.

But I am not one to explain away this story, reducing it to ordinary experience. But it is also true that I am not inclined to zero in on the story as a miracle that reveals Jesus’ supernatural powers. I don’t deny the supernatural, or the miraculous, but at the same time, I don’t think the miracle is the point.

In fact, John does not refer to what Jesus did or other things he did in the gospel narrative as miracles. Rather, John refers to Jesus’ activity as signs. Healing the sick was a sign. Feeding the five thousand was a sign. And so it goes in John.

A sign points beyond itself to something else. A sign is not the thing itself, but is a signal alerting us to some other reality.

Pentecost 8/Lectionary 16, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The disciples had just returned from casting out many demons and curing the sick. Jesus and the disciples were much in demand among the crowds, so much so that they didn’t even have time to eat.

So it is that Jesus said to the disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” A lovely gesture from a loving teacher for his beleaguered students.

The crowds apparently caught wind of Jesus’ plan to go on retreat with his disciples. The crowds anticipated where Jesus and the disciples were headed, and arrived en masse before Jesus and his followers did.

If we take Jesus’ humanity seriously, and we must if indeed we confess that Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, Jesus must have experienced exhaustion and the depleting nature of overly demanding crowds.

Still, Mark reports that Jesus had compassion for the crowd, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew’s version of this story adds that the crowds were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus’ compassion – a gut wrenching expression of mercy – was offered as a gift to the needy crowds despite Jesus’ weariness.

Harassed, helpless, leaderless crowds – this was a reality about which Jeremiah prophesied as we heard in today’s first reading: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and have not attended to them.” (Jeremiah 23:1-2a)

Harassed, helpless, leaderless crowds – this speaks to realities of our days as well.

Pentecost 7/Lectionary 15B, Mark 6:14-29

This is one of those gospel readings where I want to put a question mark at the end of the concluding acclamation: the gospel of the Lord? That is to say, where is the good news in this passage, in this horrible story?

  • The tale of Herod beheading John the Baptist and why he did it has it all:
  • Herod as an arrogant leader puts on a boastful show at a birthday party he threw for himself, but is tormented by his insecurities about a preacher, John the Baptist, whom Herod had arrested and put into prison, but who also secretly intrigued Herod.
  • The story includes what we would at the very least call a boundary violation, if not a kind of incestuous abuse of a stepfather being sexually attracted to his step-daughter.
  • Then there’s Herod’s wife who had a grudge against John the Baptist because he preached that it was against religious law for her to marry Herod, her former brother-in-law.
  • There’s also the exploitation of a young woman who danced publicly in salacious ways.
  • Next, probably a drunken and driven by lust, Herod outrageously promised to give his step-daughter whatever she wanted, even half of his kingdom.
  • And there’s the conspiracy between mother and daughter to have John the Baptist killed.
  • All of which resulted in the horrific image of a righteous man’s severed head on a platter.

Made into a movie, this story certainly would be rated R, if not to say a pornographic X.

But this story does reveal in graphic detail what human beings are capable of. It reads like some of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Or those of Greek theater. Of novels and other artistic portrayals of the sordidness of the human condition. We are fascinated and repulsed at the same time.

The story of the beheading of John the Baptist is also descriptive of where we find ourselves in today’s world which has many sordid features. The kinds of things Herod and his court did still happen among public leaders, celebrities and sometimes also in the circumstances of our own families and the families of neighbors and coworkers. It’s the broken, sinful human condition.

One of the side benefits of the pandemic is that for those privileged, we’ve taken something of a hiatus from more active, direct involvement in this messy, fraught world of ours.

But now that the world is opening up again, we are also compelled to re-enter the fray. Some are dreading going back to it all.

Now that we are worshiping indoors again, and becoming more active, the concerns of the world are again directly on our doorstep. How are we called to respond to and engage this world?

The long and the short of it is that the mission field for the church today is fraught, is difficult.

Again, I ask, where is the good news in all of this?

The focus of the reading from Mark, even though it may not seem like it at first, is Jesus Christ. The focus is not Herod or Herodias, and not even John the Baptist. It was Jesus’ preaching and notoriety about that preaching that provoked again Herod’s anxiety and guilt and the re-telling by Mark of the story of the beheading of the baptizer.

That is to say, the good news is that Jesus enters into the fullness of fraught, human ugliness and is present there with a word from God.

It was the ugly world of Herod, a puppet ruler of Jewish territory occupied by the Roman Empire, that Jesus entered preaching and teaching and healing and exorcising demons all while proclaiming in word and deed that the dominion of God has come near.

The good news for us is that Jesus continues to enter this world, our world of fraught-ness.

Jesus continues to enter into our sordid world with a word: Jesus’ voice echoes through the scriptures and across the centuries and the great expanses of the globe with words in the languages of the nations that convict us of our sin, but which also graciously forgive us, and entrust us with the ministry of reconciliation.

We have heard again Christ’s word today, here in this place.

Jesus continues to enter into our world with a baptism by water, word and Spirit that initiates us into a share in his priesthood to nurture the healing and making wholesome our X-rated world.

Here in this place, we re-gathered with prayers of lament and praise, around the baptismal font where we have been initiated into Christ’s priestly ministry.

Jesus enters into our world with a meal, very much unlike the banquet Herod threw for himself on his birthday, a meal that offers the gift of Christ’s ongoing, real presence: This meal feeds us that we may be strengthened for the work entrusted to us to feed with healthy, spiritual food a malnourished world.

Here, at this table, we celebrate the meal of Christ, an antidote to the over-indulgence of the buffets of our decadent world.

In short, Jesus enters our world to be for us the plumb line described in the first reading from the prophet Amos. A plumb line, you’ll recall, is the string held down by a weight, a bob, to determine and define a precise vertical line. Jesus, as our plumb line, is the one who makes us right, righteous before God by grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

In other words, as we are called to enter the worldly fray by virtue of our baptism, we don’t do it by ourselves. Through the means of grace in word, water, bread and wine, Jesus fulfills the promises he made – “I will not leave you orphaned” and “lo, I am with you to the end of the age.”

And we are given gifts to do the work entrusted to us to seek to nurture God’s dominion.

Listen again to the words of gracious promise from today’s reading from Ephesians:

3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4just as God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that before God, we should be holy and blameless in love. 5God destined us for adoption as children through Jesus Christ; this was God’s good pleasure and will, 6to the praise of God’s glorious grace freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7In Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of God’s grace 8lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9God has made known to us the mystery of the divine will, according to God’s good pleasure set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. (Ephesians 1:3-10)

As we have formally today re-gathered as a congregation, buoyed up by these words of promise in Ephesians, let us be about God’s work of gathering all people around Christ that all may know and enjoy wholesomeness and healing, that human feasting would be known for justice and holiness and not salacious over-indulgence.

In Christ, let it be so. Amen.

Pentecost 6/Lectionary 14B, Mark 6:1-13

That Independence Day falls on a Sunday gives us occasion to think about the meaning of this day, with special attention perhaps to the nature of power in our nation these days.

Alas, for many today, it seems, the theme of independence can be reduced to rugged individualism, that I as a lone individual am independent from anybody else and can press my advantage and exercise my own power over any and all others at will.

Moreover, as we reflect on the state of our nation, and that of other nations in the world, we see a rise in a kind of populism that seems to prefer leaders to be radical individualist strongmen (and they almost always are men…) who exercise power by sheer force.

Furthermore, there is a tendency these days to rely on military approaches to dilemmas sometimes to the exclusion of diplomatic solutions.

Today is a national holiday, but it’s also Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the day of assembly for God’s people – and thanks be to God that we are doing it in person indoors in our more usual ways in our beloved church building!

Thus, we are beckoned also to turn our attention to the approach to power exhibited by Jesus as seen in today’s readings which bear witness to Christ and his ways.

To be sure, there is generally a human tendency to attempt to create Jesus in our own image. Even Jesus’ closest followers wanted him to be someone he wasn’t, that is, a political revolutionary who would assume power in traditional human ways, namely, by force.

Some Christians in our own day call for a muscular Jesus who reflects the mores of our current socio-political culture more than traits of a prince of peace.

Hence the importance of looking at the scriptures closely and carefully to see what they in fact suggest about Jesus’ approach to power.

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 27, 2021
Mark 5:21-43

The holy gospel according to Mark. Glory to you, O Lord.

21When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw Jesus, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” 24So Jesus went with him.
    And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’ ” 32Jesus looked all around to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
    35While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41Jesus took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43Jesus strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

We all have our varied experiences of crowds – at sporting events, festivals, political rallies, marches, clogged freeways in our cars, sometimes even church events.

And we all have our particular reactions and responses to crowds. Some find them exhilarating. Others can feel claustrophobic when confronted by so many people. And many points in between on a continuum.

After sixteen months of physical distancing because of the pandemic, being in a crowd, especially one where people are not wearing face masks, would probably feel very disorienting to many of us, myself included.

I invite you to recall an experience of your being in a crowd of people. Get in touch with your memories of the physical sensation of being there, perhaps especially the sensate overstimulation of it all.

Now let’s place ourselves in our mind’s eye in the story from today’s gospel reading from Mark. As you hear the highlights of the story again, feel the energy of the throngs of people and goings on.

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 20, 2021
Mark 4:35-41

The holy gospel according to Mark. Glory to you, O Lord.

35When evening had come, Jesus said to the disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Many years ago, I had a wonderful boat ride on a very placid Sea of Galilee while on a tour of the Holy Land with a group of Lutheran pastors. It was idyllic as we celebrated Holy Communion on the boat – a replica of ones Jesus and his disciples might have used centuries ago.

But we were told how storms could suddenly rage down the mountain valleys to turn a normally placid, shallow lake into a churning, dangerous sea.

That’s the kind of storm Jesus and the disciples found themselves in as reported in today’s story from Mark’s Gospel.

In the biblical worldview, the sea was a metaphor for a place of danger, of unknown, malevolent creatures and forces, a symbol of chaos and evil.

Thus, we can find ourselves in storming metaphorical seas on the boats of our lives individually, communally in the church, and in nation and world.

Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 13, 2021
Mark 4:26-34

The holy gospel according to Mark. Glory to you, O Lord.

26Jesus said, “The dominion of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, the sower does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once the sower goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
    30Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the dominion of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
    33With many such parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Many of you who are watching this sermon video or reading the text of this week’s sermon, for one reason or another, have not yet had occasion to be with us in our outdoor church for Sunday worship in person. This is just to let you know that it’s been quite something, a lovely thing, to be gathered again as God’s people and to do so outdoors around our community garden, our “Plot Against Hunger,” which harvests vegetables for those who are hungry in our community.

When we gather outdoors around our vegetable garden, we are a living parable, a parable in action, rather like the parables of Jesus recorded in Mark’s gospel passage for today – the parable of scattering seed on the ground and the beloved parable of the mustard seed. As I proceed with this proclamation, I risk allegorizing the parables – a “no, no” according to biblical scholars. Perhaps at my best, my musings will continue the parables’ expansive meanings.

Thus, I invite you to reflect with me. In our “Plot Against Hunger,” our congregation’s gardeners literally scatter the seeds – or plant the seedlings – and they go home to sleep and get up the next morning, and so it goes for the weeks and the months of the growing season.

This earth on our church property produces of itself, the stalks, the head, the grain in the head. Then comes harvest time when our gardeners gather the produce to offer it all to community organizations who then distribute it to those in need.

And even if we are well-versed in botany and all the natural sciences, there is still a good deal of wonder and mystery about how all of this fertile growth happens, just as the parable says. Of the growth, the parable in Mark reports, “the sower knows not how.” And yet it happens, thanks be to God.

Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 6, 2021
Mark 3:20-35

The holy gospel according to Mark. Glory to you, O Lord.

Jesus went home; 20and the crowd came together again, so that Jesus and the disciples could not even eat. 21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23And Jesus called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24If a dominion is divided against itself, that dominion cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against Satan and is divided, Satan cannot stand, but is coming to an end. 27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
    28Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—30for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
    31Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

We were in fifth or sixth grade when my friend, Danny, introduced me to the verse from the Bible that appears in today’s gospel reading from Mark: “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

I’m sure I had no idea of what blasphemy meant, but I certainly knew it was not good! Danny was not accusing me, but informing me, maybe giving me a warning. But I was a very scrupulous child and serious about the Christian faith, so it didn’t take much to ignite the flame of fear. The idea of an unforgivable sin set me on a real tailspin for a while. Had I somehow sinned against the Holy Spirit and thus would not be forgiven?
That question with its possible answer was un-nerving to me in my vulnerability as a child who was eager to do the right things.

And that’s exactly how evil works and what evil does – it accuses us falsely, and scripture is easily warped, misused, and abused in the service of evil and its false accusations.

The Holy Trinity, May 30, 2021
John 3:1-17

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish people. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the dominion of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to Jesus, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the dominion of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to Jesus, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
    11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son-of-Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son-of-Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
    16“For God loved the world in this way, that God gave the Son, the only begotten one, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
    17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Last weekend, we returned to the fullness of our sacramental life as a congregation outdoors. On the Vigil of Pentecost, we celebrated the baptism of Axel Norwood Hedberg in the company of his extended family and some members from Resurrection. On the Day of Pentecost, we celebrated Holy Communion for the first time in over a year of fasting from our Eucharistic feasting.

Today’s readings for Holy Trinity Sunday help us make sense of what went on last weekend and what continues in our midst today as we celebrate the worshipful fullness of our life together.

Yes, today’s festival of the Trinity commemorates a doctrine, a teaching about God. But more significantly today’s festival celebrates the realities of the living God as we remember, acknowledge, confess and give praise to the God in three persons whom we’ve come to know through Jesus Christ.

So, let’s delve into today’s readings for the light that they shed on our sacramental life.

Day of Pentecost, May 23, 2021
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said,] 26“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, the Advocate will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.
    16:4b“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to the one who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send the Advocate to you. 8And having come, the Advocate will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.
    12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, you will be guided into all the truth; for the Spirit will not speak out of the Spirit’s own authority, but will speak whatever the Spirit hears, and will declare to you the things that are to come. 14The Spirit will glorify me, taking what is mine and declaring it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Jesus said to the disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, you will be guided into all the truth.” (John 16:12-13a)

I believe that this statement from Jesus recorded by John is among the most important in the Christian scriptures because it points to the evolving and unfolding qualities of the history of the church and of our understandings of the faith.

That is to say, the Spirit of truth has indeed been guiding Christians in the church into all the truth for some two thousand years.

This Spirit guided the church into truth in the development of the canon of scriptures, the books of the Bible that we hold dear.

This Spirit was at work in the early and ancient Councils of the church that led to the articulation of the Nicene, Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds, which are summaries of Christian truth that we still confess and to which we still adhere.

Which is to say, the Spirit of truth nurtured the church’s understanding of Christ as fully human and fully divine.

The Spirit of truth guided the development of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, one God in three persons, a focus for our time together next week on Trinity Sunday, and the name of God into whom we are baptized.

Fast forward a few centuries… I believe that the Spirit of truth was vocal in the dynamics in Christian life that led to the Reformation in the West when the centrality of the doctrine of justification by grace effective through faith was recovered.

Advancing a few more centuries, I also believe that the Spirit of truth helped pave the way for the ordination of women, and the inclusion in the church’s ministries of persons from the LGBTQIA+ communities.

And more. You get the point. These highlights of church history are very much a partial listing of how, I believe, the Holy Spirit has been guiding Christians in the church into all the truth for two millennia, just as Jesus promised as reported in John’s gospel.

This guiding light of truth we celebrate on this Day of Pentecost.

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