July 23, 2000
Jeremiah 23:1-6 and
[ Read the
texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
In our hi-tech, wired world, those companies that want to get ahead advertise 24x7x365 customer service. It's a full time, on call life for those who want to shoot to the top of the charts these days. The well equipped corporate executive or employee of our time carries a pager and a cell phone.
You've seen it haven't you?
You go to dinner at a restaurant and you hear a phone ringing. Someone at a table nearby pulls out a cell phone and begins a conversation that simply can not wait.
And everyone needs a pager - don't they? Pagers are being marketed today as a necessity - not a luxury. I have a neighbor whose daughter feels quite abused that she is the only one among her friends who does not have a pager. "How are my friends supposed to get hold of me when I'm not near a phone?" she pleaded with her mother as she threw up her hands in exasperation.
I knew it was only a matter of time, but it finally happened. Someone on the church council asked if I would like the church to buy a pager for me. "Gee thanks," I replied, "But I am still researching to discover if pagers might be an instrument of the devil!" If there was not a commandment about lying, I would have been tempted to say, "No thanks, my doctor told me they could interfere with my pacemaker."
Today's gospel lesson details an incredibly busy Jesus with his disciples. The Gospel of Mark, in particular, gives a view of Jesus always working and rarely able to take a break.
Listen to this account of one day in Jesus' life from early in the Gospel of Mark:
Now, I just have to wonder -- if Jesus came today, would he carry a pager? A cell phone? I can just see Peter with his cell phone dialing Jesus' pager. "Lord, everyone is looking for you, can you call us back right away!"
The Call to Rest
After Jesus has sent his disciples out in pairs on a mission of teaching and healing, he called them to a time of rest and renewal.
Jesus was calling his disciples to a practice he was familiar with. Serving others can be a draining task and Jesus was in ministry from sunup to sundown. He renewed his strength by separating himself from the cries and crises of the world and spending time with God in prayer. The disciples are now called away from the world to learn the source of strength for ministry.
The very first item in the shepherd's psalm is, "He makes me lie down..." Have you ever had a time when you were burning the candle on both ends, the demands of home and work were relentless -- and then you found yourself with the worst case of the flu or a cold ever? It seems to be built in - if we do not take time to rest - the Lord will, "...make us to lie down!"
No, Jesus would not carry a pager or a cell phone. While he was "waiting upon the Lord," the world would have to wait for him. His life and ministry clearly teach us that if we do not receive from God, we will have nothing to give for God.
The Call to Renewal
The call to rest goes much deeper than simple physical rest. It is in times of being led "beside still waters," that our spirits are refreshed and renewed.
"Be still, and know that I am God!" the Psalmist wrote. [46:10] One of the most familiar verses in the Old Testament has to do with renewal, "But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. [Is. 40:31]
There is a kind of current myth that infects our high tech culture. The pager and cell phone give the impression that people can be always available and always ready to serve. "Instant access" is the byword. "No waiting! I'm here for you at all times." The myth of constant availability and "no waiting" problem solving is an "Omnipotence" illusion.
God alone is the One who "never slumbers" and whose right arm never fails. We, on the other hand, not only need our sleep, but our right arm, our courage, our commitment and our strength fail if we do not take time for renewal.
Recent studies indicate that a
significant percentage of Americans
are sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation leaves us without the resources we
need to function effectively. Three of the reasons cited for sleep
deprivation according to a University of Nebraska Medical School study
One of the most serous effects of this constant state of tiredness for many people is automobile accidents. Next to alcohol, sleep deprivation is the leading cause of serious accident and injury.
Sleep deprivation is a good analogy for our spiritual lives. The same principles that apply to our physical life apply to the spiritual dimension. When we go without spiritual renewal, we are bound for something like an auto accident - a "crash" in the spiritual life. Without renewal of spirit we can not function properly in the spiritual dimension of life.
The bible uses the image of a "dry and thirsty land" to describe what we might call spirit deprivation. The causes are similar to the causes of spirit deprivation. We do not allow time for renewal. We worry excessively because we do not allow time for the prayer that can bring peace to our living. We allow the "noise" of this world to drown out the still small voice of God.
Unfortunately - pastors and lay leaders in the church are not exempt from the burnout anyone will experience if they do not find time for renewal. Spiritual burnout is one of the most significant factors for the powerlessness of the church in many quarters. We resemble the dry and thirsty land of Psalm 63:1
Dr. Joan Delaplane, director of the D.Min. program in homiletics at St. Louis University, commented, during a lecture to pastors, "A well cared for pastor is the finest gift you can give to a congregation." [Berger Lectures, University of Dubuque Theological Seminary - April 2000]
Caring for ourselves is the one place those of us who labor in the Lord's vineyard tend to cheat - as clergy or laypersons. When those who give leadership to the church do not care for themselves, it is not a question of if the church and its leaders will suffer the consequences - but when those consequences will surface.
Just as a well cared for pastor is the finest gift that can be given to the church, so it is also true that the finest gift a congregation can give to its leaders is an insistence that they take time for spiritual renewal.
No Jesus would not carry a pager or a cell phone. And I believe he would ask his followers who do carry those things to put them down for an hour a day, an afternoon a week and a day a month - so they could spend the time alone with him. ¹
The Call to Return
The spiritual retreat is just that. A retreat. The world will call us back soon enough - indeed it will usually call us back too soon. Just as we must become available to God for spiritual renewal, so we must become available once again to the anguish of a broken world for its healing and renewal.
In our gospel lesson today, the retreat Jesus wanted for his followers did not fully get off the ground. In the midst of a busy schedule when there was not even time to sit down for a meal, Jesus and his disciples take a boat and head out for a time of "rest." It turned out that the boat ride was the only seclusion they got.
[I have a friend who used this gospel story as his proof text for buying a sailboat. While sailing on lake Michigan, he could spend time in reflection and renewal. "People from all over the parish will be at the office when I get back," he would chuckle.]
When Jesus and his disciples got to their retreat destination, the world was already waiting. Wherever he went, there was teaching and healing to be done. Jesus and his disciples lived lives of tension and delicate balance between receiving from God and giving for God. The one can not take place without the other.
There would be times, like the experience on the Mount of Transfiguration when they did get away from the world for a time, but there was always the descent after the ascent. As long as the followers of Jesus are in the world they are to be present to the world as Jesus Christ himself would be. And they are to be available to God while they are in the world. There will be a rhythmic flow in our lives of the call to rest, call to renewal and call to return. In this sense, the Christian life is like a three legged stool. If any is weak, the whole will finally collapse.
Would Jesus carry a pager?
Probably not. And yet, his life was a model of active engagement with the needs of the world while living out ministry enabling engagement with the Lord God. Priorities in balance!
Well - should we who follow Christ today - and especially we who serve in active ministry carry pagers?
We can't condemn such things any more than we can condemn four wheel transportation because Jesus did not drive a pickup truck.
The key issue is, can we keep our priorities in line and model a healthy life balance while carrying a pager? A good question to ask is, "Am I as anxious to be in touch with God as I am to be in touch with the world?"
May God be gracious and give us strength to live a life of healthy balance -- with or without a pager!
¹[This is my personal minimum for spiritual renewal. This is not my day off (to do what anyone else does on the weekend - get a haircut, mow the lawn, run errands, go fishing, etc. This is for intentional personal spiritual renewal. The time I left this off because the church was, too busy, too large, to demanding... was the time I burned out. FWIW]
Connections in the Text
The primary message of the texts is that of the Great Shepherd who leads us "beside still waters." Jeremiah speaks of the shepherd in terms of the ministry of caring for God's people, except that this message is directed against irresponsible shepherds. "Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!" The focus of the epistle is the reconciling work of Jesus (who is the Great Shepherd) in joining all of God's people together in the community of faith - or here the analogy of the "spiritual dwelling place for God." In the gospel, Jesus takes his disciples aside for a retreat, but there is no rest for the weary as the people discover the disciples and the Lord. The shepherd is busy caring for the flock.
Our focal point in the full text sermon will be on the issue of "coming away to a deserted place all buy yourselves." One of the most important gifts we can give to our congregations is a well cared for pastor.
The call of Jeremiah is centered in the "Word of the Lord." The phrase "thus says the Lord," is used by Jeremiah more than any other book in the bible. It is used 150 times as compared with Isaiah which uses the phrase 35 times. Ezekiel comes closer with 126 uses of the phrase.
The word of the Lord is particularly strong against shepherds who do not shepherd! "Woe to the shepherds..." is directed at the whole leadership of Israel. God will raise up a shepherd who will restore the people of God to their place in the care of God. "The days are surely coming," introduces a hope for the final regathering of Israel which awaits eschatalogical fulfillment. When Messiah comes in glory, "...Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety."
Responsibility for the scattering of Israel and the eventual fall of the whole nation is laid at the feet of the nations leaders. The depth of human sin is plumbed in the Messianic expectation delivered by the prophets. Restoration will take nothing less than the direct intervention of God into human affairs.
The eventual salvation of the people of God can only be seen in glimpse here and there and a vision now and then. The whole panorama of salvation can be seen clearly only in the whole of God's word as we have come to know it in the biblical drama.
One theme - that of the Shepherd's authentic ministry - is the heart of this week's lessons.
Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56
The two sections of text from Mark six are intended to point to the incredible sea of human need Jesus faced. This is the lost humanity the Shepherd of Israel comes to rescue.
Our full text sermon takes a turn to the issue of spiritual rest and renewal which Jesus calls his disciples to, but the center of the texts for today look to the great need that is out there. We choose the direction of the sermon intentionally, because we are so vulnerable to ignore the need within than we are the need without.
There are times when the selections of the common lectionary are a bit forced. This week is one of them. The intervening verses in Mark tell the story of the feeding of the multitude and the coming of Jesus to the disciples on the stormy sea. The events which take place are at the heart of our theme of rest, renewal and return.
This pericope shows a Jesus who is determined to have time alone with God no matter what is taking place in the world around him. He is also the One who has power over the world and its treacherous events. There is a strong relationship between Jesus' inner life and his relationship to outer events. Though we are not Messiah and do not walk on the sea, we can expect Messianic power in the ministry we've been given - if we pay attention to the inner places God requires to bring us to spiritual health.
Another factor in the verses which are skipped over is the theme of the inability of the disciples to "understand" and the ways in which Jesus is continually teaching and modeling the ways of spiritual health.
There will be "one shepherd" The grief of the Hebrew scriptures is the division of God's people into two nations and the eventual fall of both. Ezekiel shows the desire of the Lord to bring all the children of God back into one flock. "My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes." [Ezek. 37:24] This David is, of course, the Messianic David of Israel's longing. When Jesus comes, he widens the scope of God's salvific intent. "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd." [John 10:16]
With the life, death and resurrection of Christ, the redeeming work of the Lord has brought about a depth of reconciliation that can only come from God. It is "all who call upon the name of the Lord..." who are included.
This text takes the issue of the inner life of the disciple a step further into the inner life of the community of disciples. The lesson focuses on the unity in Christ which is the mark of the redeemed community. It is no longer just "me and Jesus," but all of us together - Jew and Gentile - male and female - rich and poor - all of God's people who are, "...built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God."
There is strong encouragement here to take the theme of a call to rest, a call to renewal and a call to return - to the "life together" dimension of the church.
A Call To Worship (Based on Psalm 23) *
Leader: We come to praise your name,
Shepherd of our souls!
A Prayer of Confession
Almighty God, too often have we returned your amazing love for us with indifference. The demands of this world have pressed upon us and we have turned away from the source than can bring us rest and renewal. Our ears have been dulled and our spirits have become like a dry and thirsty land where no water is. O loving God, call us to yourself in these moments of worship. Give us courage and strength to repent and turn to you and receive forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
Beloved in Christ, hear the
words of the prophet, "...let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon."
Receive the good news that in Jesus Christ we are forgiven.
A Prayer of Thanksgiving
Almighty God, we thank you that in your great love you have called us together to hear your voice and be fed with the spiritual food you alone can give.
We give thanks for the joy that comes to our hearts when we are open to your spirit and open to the cries of broken hearts which call us to serve you. We are grateful to know that you have called us together to shape us more fully into partners with our Lord Jesus Christ in ministry to this world.
For the love of family, friends and a host of sisters and brothers in the family of Christ, we praise and glorify your name. We are surrounded by blessings we could never number and joys we could never name.
Living God, we express our gratitude to you and ask for your continuing work in our hearts that we might become more deeply committed to each other and to the work of your Son our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
A Prayer Of Dedication *
Great is your name O Lord, and great are the gifts you give to us moment by moment in all the days of our living. May the gifts we present to you today be blessed and transformed into life changing ministry for Jesus' sake. Amen.