Sermon for Sunday, July 22, 2012
Proper 11 Year C
Psalm 23; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Amy Whitcomb Slemmer
Is anyone else surprised to find that it is July 22nd – the middle of the summer, actually — with only a few more summer days ahead of us than behind? That realization brought me up short this week. I have so many plans, and so much to do. As the preferred season of rest, fun, a presumed slower pace and relaxation, and to my mind — when done well — a time of rejuvenation. But here we are in the middle of it, and I have done far less than half of what I had planned.
I hope that you are in the middle of a successful summer that includes keeping your goals for R & R, family time and a more moderate pace, and that it includes just the right amount of visitors, guests and activity.
Mark’s gospel, as a rule, is short and full of activity and in today’s reading, we are in the middle of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry. Next week we will hear about the feeding the 5,000 and Jesus walking on water. But this morning the disciples have returned after being sent out to teach and heal, and they are back to tell Jesus what they have done. Imagine them eager to see one another and to catch up, share stories, food, and devotional time.
And Jesus says to them, “Come away to a deserted place, all by yourselves and rest for a while.” A divinely sanctioned vacation! Our Lord is inviting this group to step away from the hustle and bustle of their daily lives and find some Sabbath time, not unlike a summer break.
But we are told that their plan changes as a crowd gathers and in his compassion Jesus continues teaching and healing, even on what was to be his vacation.
In planning my summer schedule, I was very much looking forward to spending a week at our church’s General Convention – not that Indianapolis is analogous to the deserted place Jesus suggests, but I was excited to be away from work, to see friends and delegates from all over the country, to worship and break bread with thousands of fellow Episcopalians.
I will confess that I love general convention! To me it is the embodiment of how we as Episcopalians make choices, pray together and set our policies and guidelines. We get together once every three years (our Triennium) in a bicameral structure, with lay and clergy representatives organized as a House of Deputies and all of our Bishops as members of the House of Bishops.
The resolution for incorporating a liturgy for blessing same gender couples was adopted by a roll call vote in each house, and at the reading of the tally, the results were met with studied silence. For those who wanted to celebrate, there was respectful silence in deference to those for whom this was a difficult occasion. In fact each house stopped legislative business and prayed before voting. There were plenty of labyrinthine legislative maneuvers and highly charged statements made, but when votes were cast and decisions made, there was a level of civility that I wish we could translate to our national political stage.
It was a jammed packed week, thus Indianapolis did not provide the respite opportunity that I had hoped it would. In fact, the break neck pace and limited time for sleep caught up with me and many of your fellow Episcopalians, who found that one of the souvenirs that we brought home was an impressive respiratory virus.
Whether I had wanted to or not, I was forced to take time from work and my schedule to be away from people to heal. The idea in today’s Gospel of Jesus inviting the disciples away to rest is an incredibly attractive idea, but what happened next, when their respite was interrupted? What happened to the disciples and Jesus when they had planned for vacation, but instead, continued a pace? How did they find the reserves they needed to continue? For Jesus, probably not a problem, since we assume that God has boundless energy. But for the disciples, I wondered. And then I re-read the 23rd Psalm.
The 23rd Psalm, with its familiar and comforting words: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters” sounds wonderfully restful; and later it is clear that “He revives my soul.” And isn’t that what a vacation is supposed to do for us? Perhaps the disciples found that just being in Jesus’ presence gave them the energy and respite that they needed to go on and continue in their ministry.
We read this Psalm at funerals and memorial services to offer comfort and assurance that God is with us, even in difficulty, and that the souls for whom we grieve are with the Lord and have all that they need as they dwell with those saints who have gone before them. Last Saturday Bishop Shaw prayed this Psalm for us at Priscilla Houghton’s memorial service. It is full of promise – no matter what befalls us or happens, “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
As we grapple with the tragedy in Colorado and pray for the victims, family members and all who have been affected by this unspeakable evil – people truly surrounded by the shadow of death — among my prayers is that the words of this Psalm, which will surely be read and offered dozens of times over the coming days for the departed souls in Colorado — I hope that these words will be heard and will bring both comfort and reassurance.
The madness experienced in Aurora does not make any sense. Our friend and Acting Dean of the National Cathedral, the Rev. Dr. Frank Wade, has referred to this as an act of “empty evil.” It was an act of planned violence, in a familiar and seemingly safe setting. One more community gathering place that will forever more be viewed as a potentially dangerous place.
We ache for those parents who may have shared in their children’s summer excitement at going to a midnight movie they had waited months to see. We can’t imagine the horror of the family members of James Eagen Holmes, the accused gunman, and all who will grapple with the aftermath of this violence for the rest of their lives. We mourn for the people of Colorado who have seen yet another tragedy take place within their borders… to another one of their communities, in a setting that before Friday was one of the preferred safe activities that we would recommend for our children.
Public officials and others will get started immediately trying to prevent anything like this from happening again. But they will not be able to heal the breach of trust that allows us to gather together in community without the distraction of constant vigilance for our safety. There will be heated public debate about guns and weapons policies, mental illness and mental health services, parental responsibility and the responsibilities of academic institutions– and we’ll hear lots about the effects of violence in the media. But I invite us to think about finding comfort right now.
As we wonder – what can we do?— I know one thing we can do right now is to pray. As Christians we are called to pray for the victims, for the community, for the family members and for the accused (which I find challenging to do, but ultimately better than harboring malice or judgment toward a person I do not know.) I know prayer is powerful!
And I think that we must find time to connect with Jesus in quiet contemplation. So I invite us to not just believe what we hear in the words of the 23rd Psalm, but to lean into them. And in a very difficult time like this, I suggest that we lean hard, read them frequently, rely on them and seek newfound understanding and appreciation as we meditate and pray with these beautiful and familiar words.
Before Friday, I was going to remind us that we still have time to keep some of our planned goals as we have half of the summer before us. And I was going to invite each of us to read the 23rd Psalm an extra time or two this week to see if, even in our busy and over-subscribed summer schedule, we could find a glimmer of rest, rejuvenation or even a sense of our soul’s revival as we made extra time to spend with God. But now, I’d like to invite each of us to read this psalm not just for ourselves, but for those shocked souls in Colorado who may not even be able to hear the words right now, but who we pray will one day know that: God’s goodness and mercy will follow each of us, all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen