I am with The Church of the Nativity in Northborough for the second week in a row. The gospel reading for today is from the sixth chapter of Mark. Nativity records sermons, so you can listen to this sermon here or read the manuscript below.
At the beginning of the sixth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is going about all the villages around the Sea of Galilee doing this thing: through his preaching, teaching and healing ministry he points people toward the Kingdom of God. He is not asking them so much to believe something in their heads or even in their hearts as to see the world through new eyes, and to hear it with new ears. So he invites them to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air and the mustard seed. And to notice how that lady, who lives down the street and suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years, was healed. He tells all kinds of stories that stay with you – the kind of stories that encourage love of God and neighbor, like the one about the son who lost his way, but then was found, and there was veal piccata for everyone. (Or at least for everyone willing to come in from the porch and eat!) Then there is the terrorist who stopped by the side of the road to help a person in need, even when the man’s priest walked by.
Back at the beginning of the sixth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is going about the villages and doing all this amazing work, when he calls the twelve and he does something even more amazing. He tells them it’s their turn. He sends them out two by two and gives them authority over the unclean spirits. He says, in effect, this isn’t about me, it’s about us. It’s about how we are going to change the world together. He says, I’m not going to do this alone. I give you authority, I give you work to do in the world – so get to it. I’ll be with you.
He gives them instructions to travel lightly: “take nothing for the journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.” Just wear sandals and the clothes on your back. Don’t just travel lightly but be light – don’t get too bogged down. If someone doesn’t want you around, move on. Find a place that will welcome you and offer you hospitality. Proclaim the good news. And they do. I mean they are people like us – beginners in the school of the Lord’s service. They aren’t called to build a building and then stay inside of it; they are sent out into the world – two by two – with a message to share.
So that’s the back story to today’s gospel reading – interrupted (as we heard last weekend) by the beheading of John the Baptist. The apostles now come back to Jesus and gather around to reflect on the practice of ministry. They tell him what they have been out there doing. This is a very simple but effective model for learning that I remind you of in this time of transition at Nativity. Things do not go “on hold” until an interim arrives, and then a new rector. The work of sharing the good news is your work – our work as the baptized. Your task is to keep becoming the Nativity that God is calling you to be.
My youngest son is studying to be a Civil Engineer at Northeastern University. He has embraced their style of learning, which is a five-year program that includes three six-month co-ops. You study and then you go out, you go out and then you study, you go back out and then you return. I was a deputy last month to General Convention, the triennial gathering of our church’s bishops and lay and ordained leaders; we met in Salt Lake City this year where, as you know, the Church of Latter Day Saints has a strong presence. They take this text very seriously: sending out their young people two-by-two on mission as a rite of passage into adult faith. We may not agree with the Mormons on every theological point, but I admire that part of their practice. And I wonder what it would look like if Episcopalians were to go out two by two into the world to listen and learn and grow in faith by commending the faith that is in us? Some of you may know that part of the process of preparing for ordination is something called Clinical Pastoral Education – CPE. You work in a prison or a hospital – not a church – and you follow this same model that Jesus taught the disciples. You go out and visit people who have cancer and you listen to their stories, or you spend time in the ER, or you listen to a prisoner who was a good kid until she got into drugs. And then you come back together and you reflect on what you’ve learned.
So that is the model. That’s what’s going on in today’s gospel reading: the disciples have been out there putting their faith into practice and now they’ve returned to reflect on it, and Jesus says to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." This is, of course, the purpose of a retreat – not to run away from the world’s needs, but to re-fuel for the work God has given us to do. If we aren’t careful in ministry we can start running around doing and doing and doing, with no time even to eat. And so the disciples go away on a boat, to a deserted place by themselves, to reflect and rest and re-charge their batteries.
Here is the thing though: when followers of Jesus are on fire with the good news that spreads. It’s contagious. The crowds follow, the momentum is building. Jesus has compassion for the crowds because they are like sheep without a shepherd, and then I hope you will notice something – the lectionary skips over a whole bunch of verses (verses 35-52). Want to know what those are about?
The feeding of the five thousand. Actually, in this case their decision seems reasonable because the same story will appear next weekend from John’s Gospel. It’s a story that appears in all four gospels – as our bishop loves to remind people. You can tell he’s not on the lectionary committee because it if was up to him we’d read this story EVERY week. But since I won’t be with you next weekend let me preview it with you, because this is where it fits in as Mark tells the story.
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. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.”
The disciples, even these disciples who have been out on mission, who have been preaching and teaching and healing and participating in the Reign of God – even these disciples are stunned. “You give them something to eat,” he says.
At the top of our bulletins when I served at St. Francis, Holden, it said, the rector, Rich Simpson. But above that it said, “the ministers of St. Francis Church – all the people.” Those words were on the bulletins before I arrived and as far as I know they are still there today. The names of the rectors changed over the years: Whepley, Scruton, Simpson, Perkins. But the ministers are still “all the people.”
You give them something to eat. You go visit the sick. You go serve the hungry at Worcester Fellowship or Mustard Seed or down the street. You go out, two by two whenever possible because ministry is always easier with a partner, and do the work God has given this parish to do. If there is one message I want to leave you all with this summer in this in-between time before your interim arrives it is this: you are not “on hold.” You are still and maybe more than ever in a time of potential spiritual growth, called to grow and serve and love and heal and teach and be the Body of Christ. Rectors are important, but probably not so important as we sometimes like to think. The health of a congregation is not primarily about the rector, but about the people of God and the work God gives us to do. The big problem with clericalism is that we can get over-focused on the priest.
So go. You give them something to eat. Continue, if you’ve been active here, to do what you have been doing. If you’ve been on the sidelines, step up and ask, “how can I be of assistance?” Where are the gaps? We should take some comfort in the fact that the disciples said to Jesus, “what? Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” They were as unsure of themselves as we often are. But do you remember what Jesus says? Basically it is this: do an inventory of what you have. Don’t focus on what you don’t have, focus on what you do have and let me work with that. Five loaves and two fish. Good enough. Plenty, even. I can work with that! Because that is five more loaves than zero and two more fish than zero. So don’t say “we have nothing to give them.” Give them what you have.
Give what you have, my sisters and brothers. Share what you have, and let God fill in the rest. Give thanks for what you do have and sit down and break it and give it and let God do God’s abundant multiplying thing with it. You may well be surprised that there will not just be enough, but that there will be leftovers.
Back to our previously scheduled gospel reading. I was channeling my inner +Doug Fisher there, and couldn’t resist the feeding of the 5000! As I said, you’ll hear the story again next week, or at least John’s version of it. In any case, after all that and this incredible story of abundance, they cross over to Gennesaret and moor the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized Jesus and of course they start rushing about and bringing the sick to him on mats because people see that something is up. People were healed.
This is the amazing thing about Jesus. He doesn’t collect sick people. He heals them. He doesn’t foster codependence. He tells them to take up their mats and walk. He says “follow me.” Sometimes we want to say, “I’m not good at that, I’m too weak, too bruised, too hurt, too scared, too timid, too shy, too sick…” And Jesus says, “Take heart. Get up. Follow me.” And then he sends us because at least in part the good news is that together, as the whole people of God, we can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. With God’s help.
I take great comfort in knowing that in all four gospels the disciples get it wrong as often as they get it right, but Jesus doesn’t give up on them. He likes risk takers. He encourages boldness. This week I sat with the vestry and the profile and search committees for more than two hours. But the gist of what I said is this: encourage each other, find your voices, claim your ministries. This season ahead is not a passive waiting time for a rector to come and save you, but is more like Advent: a time of hopeful, watchful expectation. This is a season to identify or re-identify the work that lies ahead, and from that place to then seek a rector to join you who can help you in that work. The last fifteen years or so have brought you to this point and Len deserves your thanks for having labored in this part of God’s vineyard. But the next fifteen years doesn’t require Len; they will require someone else with different gifts. Open yourselves to that next chapter, not by sitting by idly, but by laboring on and by working together.
You give them something to eat. And may God bless you abundantly in so doing.