(a sermon for June 26, 2016, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost; 2nd in a series, based on Mark 3:7-12 and John 2:1-12)
Here’s an undeniable truth of life: No matter what time of year it is, there’s still stuff you gotta do!
I guess I’ve always held a highly idealized view of what summertime ought to be; basically that the days should be long and warm, and the living should be easy! Things need to slow down, work and responsibility certainly ought to be at a minimum, and there should be ample time allowed for simply sitting out on the dock watching the world go by!
That’s the dream, to be sure; however, the reality is that summer carries with it its own framework of responsibility: lawns have to be mown, for instance, and gardens need tending; and unless you happen to be on vacation, retired and/or independently wealthy, there still is that little matter of having to earn a living, no matter how nice it might be outside! Bottom line is that summertime, or anytime for that matter, there’s still stuff you gotta do!
I was struck that at the end of last week’s reading of scripture – where Jesus goes to that “solitary place” early in the morning to pray –the disciples come looking for Jesus just so they can tell him that there are things that he needs to be doing. “Everyone is searching for you,” (1:37) they say; there are people with diseases and demons, people who are lining up with questions and concerns and wondering where you are and if you’re coming! And it’s at this moment that Jesus’ quiet moments of spiritual renewal come to an end.
In all honesty, if I’d been there I might have asked why we couldn’t just remain in that place of solitude and prayer for a little while longer, or at the very least why we needed to go full tilt into the business of the day; or at least just ease into things! But Jesus knew better; he understood that “proclaim[ing] the message… is what [he] came out to do.” (v. 38) And so he got up, and went to do the “stuff” that needed to be done; and the truth is, his work was only just beginning.
That’s what we learn in our first reading today, from Mark’s Gospel: that there was now “a great multitude from Galilee follow[ing] him;” and not only that, but now there were people from throughout the region seeking him out in great numbers. David Lose, of Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, points out that by now “the whole people of Palestine recognize [Jesus] as someone very special. Jesus has become, in today’s terms, a rock star;” to the point where now the disciples have “to take precautions to avoid [his] being crushed by his fans.” Everywhere that Jesus goes it immediately becomes an event, often bordering on a mob scene; all because now people are starting to see who Jesus is and what he can do! There are many similar scenes throughout the gospels; where Jesus and his followers walking through a village, and suddenly, there’s this throng of people pressing in on him; asking him to heal their diseases, asking him if their lives might somehow be restored, asking him again and again if their hope and their faith is real.
This is how it goes for Jesus every day, day in and day out! There’s always more people, always more to do; and you have to wonder if Jesus ever felt like the message he was called to proclaim was getting lost somewhere in midst of all of those daily distractions!
Perhaps that’s part of what was behind that little exchange between Jesus and his mother that we find in our other reading this morning, the story of the Wedding in Cana from John. This is when Mary comes to Jesus to let him know that the wedding planners for this event had run out of wine; the subtext here being, Jesus, if you wouldn’t mind… it would be a really nice thing if you could make some wine and get these people out of an awkward situation… just do it for me! And to this Jesus responds – rather abruptly – “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” “This isn’t my time. Don’t push me,” is how The Message translates that; and for me that says it all! Now, biblical scholars are quick to tell us that this exchange has to do with Jesus not wanting to “go public,” so to speak, too early in “reveal[ing] his glory,” and that’s certainly true; but I think ultimately it’s more than that. Because even this early in Jesus’ ministry, he began to realize that all these requests, these miracles, these distractions could easily keep him – and everyone else – from what those miracles were meant to represent!
And the thing is, you and I can understand that. After all, who among us cannot name a time when our life’s obligations and opportunities became so voluminous and overwhelming that we risked losing the reasons why we took on those commitments in the first place? You see it all the time: parents who work so hard to provide the best for their children, yet never end up having enough time to spend with them; people who put every bit of heart and soul into their jobs for the sake of professional advancement, only to find out that they’ve never really found any fulfillment whatsoever in the work; any of us who put everything we have into some kind of task, or goal, or cause and then discover that our single-minded devotion to that thing – whatever it happens to be – only served to obliterate everything else that ever mattered!
It’s so very easy, you see, for us to become distracted from what’s truly important. The fact is, there’s always stuff you gotta do – stuff you want to do – but if you’re not careful you can be so distracted that you miss the real point of life and of living!
Jesus does understand this; and in both of our texts this morning, he answers the distraction by turning his attention to that which he came to do. In John, water does indeed turn to wine, “the first of his signs… [that] revealed his glory.” And in Mark, Jesus simply moves forward on his mission: “cur[ing] many,” calling out “unclean spirits,” and later on, appointing the twelve to proclaim that same message; his same message! The point here is that Jesus’ response to these distractions that would seek to overwhelm him and pull him away from his ministry was to affirm and redirect his efforts so that it would fall in line with his Father’s will for him and for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.
And for those of us who are walking with Jesus on this summer day, friends; well, that would seem to be a good strategy as well.
I don’t think that I’ve ever shared with you that for a period of time a few years ago, I actually served as a police chaplain. It really wasn’t quite as exciting as that sounds; our local police department wanted to have some connection with the pastors in our community in times of crisis; and that really didn’t happen all that often. But they did give me a badge (which was kind of cool, I’ll admit), and I got to do a ride-along once or twice; so it was worthwhile.
Well, one day they called and asked if I might assist the police with what they described as a sensitive matter. It seemed that there was this elderly woman who had been living in a house with her brother; but the two of them had not been getting along, and there had already been several “domestic disturbance” calls to that house! Long story short, the woman had finally decided to move out, and had found an apartment just outside of town; and, they asked, since she doesn’t have a car would you mind, please, going to pick her up and giving her a ride? The officer assured me she was sweet and harmless and I’d be doing the department a big favor if I could just do this; and though it was a busy day for me, I said, yes, I can do that; after all, this shouldn’t take too long.
Well, I went to pick her up, and as promised here was this sweet elderly lady waiting for me. I introduced myself, put her few belongings in the back of my car, and she sat down beside me in the front seat. And when I said something to the effect that we’d have her in her new place in no time, she replied, “Well, I actually can’t get into to my apartment for an hour and a half; and I’m kind of hungry. Could we go get something to eat? There’s a new hot dog place out on the main road… do you know it?” Okay… Well, it was lunchtime, so a few minutes later, we’re eating hot dogs and fries together; and she’s telling me all about herself and her life, about her low-life brother and about how she needed a new start.
It was a nice lunch, and a good conversation; and the beauty part was that by the time we got back to the car, it was just about time to get this woman to her apartment. However, it was at this precise moment that she announced to me, “I think I need some underwear… There’s a sale on underwear at R.H. Reny’s in Biddeford… can you take me there?” Twenty minutes later, we’re in downtown Biddeford, and she’s in the store buying underwear while I’m waiting in the car (what can I say, it wasn’t that far out of my way!). I must confess that by now I’m thinking, well, no wonder the police called me for this (!); they don’t have time to waste driving this woman all over the county! And I’m starting to think of all the things that are back at home not getting done; and getting all antsy and irritated in the process. I certainly didn’t need this kind of distraction because I’m busy enough as it is!
Anyway, she finally gets back in the car, and as I pull out to drive her directly to her apartment, she says, “You know what I’d really like? An ice cream sundae… didn’t we pass a Friendly’s on the way over here?” And I said, “Aren’t you supposed to meet your landlord? You said an hour and a half, and we’re pretty late as it is!” She replied, “Did I say an hour and a half? I meant that we’re supposed to meet him at four!” And of course, it’s only three! Now, I wanted to say, “No, I’m sorry, I can’t do that, I don’t have time; we’ll have to find out someplace to wait.” I wanted to say, “Good grief, I’m a pastor, not a taxi driver!” But I said nothing… we went to Friendly’s for ice cream… and by the way? The whole time I’m with her – every minute in the car, every moment between bites – she’s talking… telling me more about herself than I probably needed to know… and I’m listening, but not altogether gladly. There was ton of stuff I had to do back home; a million ways I could be spending this particular afternoon more effectively; other, better places I could be than here!
I’m quite lost in my inner grumbling when I’ve realized that she’s paused for a moment; and then, with a tear in her own eye, looks me squarely into mine and says, “I know I’m asking a lot of you. But you know, I don’t ever have anyone to talk to who actually cares enough to listen to me.”
At that moment I was utterly humbled by the realization that I’d spent this whole afternoon totally distracted: not by that woman and our shared trek across southern Maine; but rather by my own misguided sense of what was truly important. Here I was called to be a pastor to this perfect stranger; it was the whole reason I’d come, so to speak; but because of my self-distractions, I’d nearly missed the opportunity to minister in Christ’s name to this one in need.
We’re spending this summer day with Jesus, and it’s a day filled with things to do, people to see, love to share. It never seems to end; but when we ask our Lord about this, about when things might slow down and life might go a little easier, he simply smiles and answers, “This is what I came out to do.”
And if you follow me, this is what you’re called to do, too.
Beloved, you and I are called to this wonderful, incredible and sometimes overwhelming ministry of love and care in Jesus’ name. Let our prayer be that none of us become so distracted that we miss out on the wonder of that.
May all that we do lead us to confess Christ’s holy name, and proclaim that our…
…thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry