It was back in 1990 when I picked up a tennis racquet for the first time since 1974. My wife Deb had suggested that I needed some exercise- that maybe I should think about getting into shape. Apparently she didn’t think that fishing was strenuous enough. By the way, if your spouse says you need to think about getting into shape, you need to... If your spouse says you might have a drinking problem, you do. If your spouse says you need to work on your relationship with each other, you better get to work... God gives us people who love us so that they can speak truth to us...
I had fond memories of tennis; I hadn’t been too bad at it. So I bought a new composite racquet (I couldn’t find my wooden racquet, my Wilson Jack Kramer- hadn’t seen it for years), called my friend Jeff, a phys ed teacher at the time, and asked if he would be interested in playing as I started to relearn the game.
It was a bright summer afternoon, and I walked onto the court, feeling reasonably confident. That feeling lasted for about five seconds. I was astonished at how much larger the court was- how much it had grown- over the last sixteen years. And how slow I had become trying to track down the ball...
Sweat pouring down my face, completely winded, increasingly frustrated by my own inability to do things I used to do easily, as I stooped over to pick up yet another ball I had failed to return, I heard my father’s voice in my head.
He was saying something that I had heard before, going all the way back to the time when I was five when he was teaching me to play baseball. A grounder had just bounced up and hit me in the nose. I threw my glove down and stomped on it, and my dad said, “Chris- who told you this was going to be easy???”
My tired, out of shape, older self snarled, “Thanks, Dad...” But I reached down, picked that tennis ball up, and grimly got back on the court...
One of those light hearted little life lessons that we learn over the years. And they stay with us, and transfer to other, more serious things. And it was that lesson I thought first of when I read the texts from Mark’s Gospel for today.
Mark 6: 1- 29 is a difficult text- both for those of us who hear it, and for all the characters Mark is telling us about...
First, Jesus is rejected, not by the Pharisees, but by the people in his own home town. These people know him and they are offended by his preaching in the synagogue. “Whoa- where’d he get to be such a preacher? Who does he think he is? We know he’s a carpenter, we know his family- his brothers and sisters, and he would preach to us???” Jesus’ own family seems to be among the critics...
I love Jesus’ answer- “Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin and in their own house...”
How do you know someone is an expert? Because they came at least fifty miles to share with you... The further you come, the more you know. When I teach in Argentina, or in India, or in Denmark, believe me, I am an expert...
Pastor Paul Youngdahl was an extraordinary man- knew tons of important stuff about how to see a church grow, how to serve the community, how to develop resources that would serve not only the folks at Mount Olivet, but people around the metro area. And if you asked him to share, he was more than willing, more than generous with his time.
But I had to ask. Like most of us who are good at what we do, he had been eager to share what he was learning, what he was doing, with pastors and church leaders. And when he offered, he was met with rejection: what you do has nothing to do with my life and my church- you’re Mt. Olivet; we could never do that... (Except Mt. Olivet hadn’t started as the largest church in the ELCA...)
One of the most creative and productive pastors in the whole US, and he was right here- in town, and most pastors wanted little to do with him. So he stopped offering over time, and waited for people to come to him. Often, God puts people who can help us, mentor us, right under our noses... It was just a five minute drive from Bethlehem to Mt. Olivet, and I learned a ton from Paul. Can you think of someone like that for you?
Because of the unbelief by those in his home town, Mark tells us, Jesus is unable to do mighty work there, except for a few healings. The very people who should have been most receptive are the ones who can’t accept him!
I love the really human reaction from Jesus: He marvels at their unbelief... And then he moves on... Who said it was going to be easy???
Mark then, as he likes to do, abruptly changes the scene. He calls the twelve and began to send them out two by two...
Now, in no way are the disciples ready to go out on their own. One of Mark’s recurring themes through the whole Gospel is that the disciples just don’t get who Jesus is.
As we have heard over the last weeks, Jesus preaches to them in parables, and they don’t get it; they don’t understand. Jesus has to explain things to them privately. They see Jesus at work, healing people, they are present when he calms the storm, and still they ask “Who is this, that even wind and sea obey him...”
And Jesus is about to turn them loose on the world- with his authority? But the story is structured in such a way as to drive home the fact that it is God at work through the ministry of the disciples. It is not about them; it is about God and God’s power!
They go two by two- ministry is always something done as a team; you’re never on your own... They have authority- their preaching is not some academic exercise, but a fundamental statement in the belief and in the power of God’s presence...
Jesus tells them what they can take with them- a staff, that is, a walking stick. No bread, no bag, no money... Messengers who try and provide for every eventuality have no need of faith- and show it. And how can they proclaim a God who meets your needs when by their own behavior, they saying they don’t believe it...
This is, in a way dramatically stated, a call for the disciples to trust God to meet their needs- in every way.
The disciples are learning early on that they can, if fact, trust in God- lessons that will be of enormous help when they begin the process of sharing the Good News of God’s love in Christ around the world.
God even provides for them when they are rejected. Look how Jesus tells them to shake off the dust from their feet as a “testimony” against the ones who rejected them. As Pastor Ben said on our website this week, this is less about judgment, and more about giving the disciples a fresh start when they begin again...
I have to remind you all once again that when the disciples called people to “repent,” they were calling them “to turn away from your old life to a new reality and loyalty that comes from following God.” They weren’t out there yelling “turn or burn,” “you’re gonna fry when we go to the sky...”
They were showing with their lives that God, God’s love, presence and healing can be trusted; they were calling people to new, significant and powerful lives...
The twelve stand as an example for you and for me: when are you ready for a new undertaking? When you do it, and learn how, in the process of doing it...
Their being willing to try shows a strong belief and trust in God before they leave for their mission! Before coming to Bethlehem, I had never been a senior pastor. Was I ready for it? I had a doubt or two (or eleven). You thought I was, and in the stepping out and trying- in going to work, I learned I was, in fact, ready.
Those of you who are teachers, were you ready when you walked into that class room for the first time? Business people, how about you? Musicians? Each of us- all of us can be prepared, but it is in the doing that the readiness is established, as the disciples demonstrate. Be open, then, if you are asked to serve around here in a new capacity... Stretch your wings and see how God will use you.
The disciples model for you and for me that God can be trusted- that God will meet our needs, both spiritual and material. And here’s an amazing thing: when you trust in God to meet your needs, God does.
The disciples show us that people who don’t completely “get it-” people just like you and me, can learn to live for and serve God for their lives- and have tremendous impact on the world. It’s not easy to live for an audience of one- of trusting completely in God. But who said it would be easy?
Our readings end today with the horrific story of the death of John the Baptist- one of the more lurid stories in all the Bible. It reminds us all of the consequences of being as completely selfish and self absorbed as King Herod is- making a foolish promise and then being shamed into fulfilling it with the death of an innocent man...
But Mark is also preparing us for what will happen to Jesus in this story: as John the Baptist is arrested and put to death, we know that the same thing will happen to Jesus... And note that there is even reference to Resurrection, as the word gets back to Herod about the amazing things Jesus is doing, and he starts to believe that John the Baptist has been raised...
The way Mark places this story- the disciples are out on their mission, and Jesus is alone, is, it seems to me, an invitation to reflect on how Jesus must have felt as he heard about his cousin’s death...
He knows what he is doing is dangerous- that his ministry of teaching, preaching and healing is getting the attention of the religious leaders of his day, and not in a positive way. He knows that he will soon be headed for Jerusalem, and as he tells his disciples in Chapter 8, that “the son of Man must suffer many things, be rejected...and be killed and after three days rise...”
Jesus’ Mission is impossibly difficult. Did he, at this moment, have second thoughts? We know he did in the Garden of Gethsemane- that he asked God to take the cup from him, but then, as he must have done now, he prayed “not my will, but yours be done...” It’s another incredibly human moment that we see today.
Because Jesus was willing to live out his Mission; because he was willing to go to the cross and suffer death, for you and for me and for every person who has ever lived and will ever live, and because God raised him from the dead as He had promised, you and I are assured of his living presence every day of our lives, through our deaths and forever.
In our baptisms, you and I are given the precious gift of the Holy Spirit- Jesus’ Spirit to live within us forever. (That’s the gift little Noelle/Natalie received this morning)
And in response to that gift, you and I are called into Jesus’ continuing mission- to care for the sick and unloved, the poor and the oppressed, as Jesus did; to show with our lives that each person is a valued and valuable child of God, as Jesus did.
You and I are called to be Christ to our neighbors- the only Christ that some people shall ever see!
There will be times when it is a difficult mission- we live in a world where it can be hard to live and proclaim the Good News of our Risen Savior, where Jesus’ values collide head on with those we see all around us.
But again- whoever said it would be easy? As I say all the time, “easy” has never been the promise! The promise is the presence of our God through everything, good and bad, forever and always!
The more we live in and into that presence, the more we learn to trust in God for everything- for all we have, for all we do, and for all we are, the more we can see God working in our lives and in our world- all around us!
And we start the way I began working myself back into shape when I walked out onto that tennis court- by doing it, step by step, using faith muscles we may not know we have, and that may ache for a bit as we exercise them... It’s time we may not be used to spending. But it is well worth the effort; God’s presence will become a reality for you!
Let me give you a practical suggestion- a bit of homework this week- if you’re already doing something like this, great. Find fifteen minutes. Begin by praying the Lord’s Prayer, then read Mark 6: 1- 29- our reading today. Do it each day. And ask yourself these questions: what questions do you have when you read it? Where are the gaps in the story? And finally, how does this text connect with you. Then pray the Lord’s Prayer again, sentence by sentence...
The more you practice, the more you grow, the better you will be able to see God’s presence- the presence that has always been there. And when the time comes when things are not so easy- when life gets difficult- times that happen to each and every one of us, you will discover that it is in knowing God is walking with you that will see you through it... That’s God’s promise; that’s Good News!
Loving God: We are grateful for your presence in our lives, even though sometimes it is hard to remember and our path is difficult. Use your Spirit to help us trust that you are there for us and with us- and that our job and our joy is to bear witness to your promise and your glory as we serve the people you bring us each day. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Commit random acts of kindness and senseless beauty
In a world of tragedies and joys, then and now, Jesus points us to a truly counter-cultural path.
Sunday’s prayer of the day:Almighty and merciful God, in our baptism you call us to proclaim the coming of your kingdom. Give us the courage you gave the apostles, that we may faithfully witness to your love and peace in every circumstance of life, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.