A sermon preached by the Reverend Deacon Jason A Burns
on 18 July 2021 [8 Pentecost]:
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Jeremiah was not a bullfrog and prophets don’t predict the future
It is rare that the lectionary readings have an obvious connection between them and today is no different. Jeremiah seems to be a message of doom and gloom and Mark’s message is clearly about healing.
Jeremiah was not a bullfrog, he was a prophet in ancient Israel in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, which means that he saw the lead up to the Babylonian invasion and conquest of the Kingdom of Judah and he was a religious leader during the early years of their captivity in Babylon. If we turn back a few chapters, we will find Jeremiah chastising the kings of Judah for choosing greed and power over justice and righteousness. Today’s brief passage is a passage of judgment, it is not a prediction, it is instead a statement of fact, as all prophetic writing is. Biblical prophets do not predict the future, they comment on the current state of their culture and society. What we heard today is a reiteration of the promise of redemption God made when Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden. God promised that creation would be restored through the sons of Eve, but from Jeremiah’s perspective the leadership of the Kingdom of Judah are well off the path to redemption and his message is a warning that they have gone in the wrong direction.
Mark’s message is entirely different, Jesus and his disciples are traveling about the countryside healing people and occasionally trying to get some rest. This is a message not only of healing, but of redemption fulfilled. Jesus is the son of Eve through which the world can be redeemed, and creation restored, but it isn’t a one and done kind of a thing, the redemption of the world will take a great deal of time and work. Jesus is the key to that redemption, but it is up to us to continue the work that he began.
The people who are chasing after Jesus in this account are desperate and they are afraid that their chance for healing, for redemption, is literally sailing away. This is a sign that the message of Christ is appealing to them and that they see value in having a relationship with God. They are willing to accept God’s healing grace and are willing to do most anything to access it, including cutting Jesus off from escape. Can you imagine the ushers blocking the doors and the rest of us circling up like a posse to make sure Jesus doesn’t get away? I think not! That would be entirely un-Episcopalian of us and frankly doesn’t particularly jive with our sense of what following Jesus looks like. I mean God is only available on Sunday between the hours of 9:45 and 11:15 and then only if everything is done in an orderly fashion, right?
I suspect that many of us might only associate Sunday morning and liturgy with God because that is really the only time we have to commit to the task, and we should not shame ourselves or one another for that because the truth is that it is hard to keep God in the forefront of our lives. It was hard for Jesus as well, which is why Mark makes a point of saying that Jesus and the disciples needed a break from their work. What I find interesting is that they needed a rest from being tirelessly immersed in ministry, whereas we need a constant reminder of the importance of doing ministry, which ironically is exactly what Jeremiah was doing for the people of Judah, he was reminding them that we need to keep God at the center of our lives if we want the promise of redemption to come about. His warnings sound quite severe, but let’s, once again, be clear, he is not a fortune teller he is not actually talking about a punishment from God because that would be inconsistent with everything we know about God as the source of all that is good. Jeremiah is simply stating facts. The kings of Judah have failed as leaders and God will judge them accordingly, but first God will gather the people back together and provide for them a new leader, one that will bring about justice in the world and restore creation to its former glory.
Ultimately our relationship with God and the degree to which we follow the teachings of Jesus is an individual decision and that, I think, is the point. God tried many times to redeem the Israelites through Kings and Prophets, but it never seemed to work, or it at least didn’t work in the long run. So instead, he sent Jesus to show each person that redemption comes in small packages, tied to individuals, not in grandiose national or global level programs. The failure of the kings of Judah shows us that it is not possible for a human ruler to lead us to God, it is only through a reliance on God’s grace that we can return to God.
The church is a human institution, created to give shape to what we believe we know about God, and to give us the mechanism necessary to pass that knowledge from one generation to another; institutions are not a replacement for God, and they are neither the only, nor the primary way to access God. What they are is a community, a support network, that aids us on our journey to be closer to God and to carryout God’s will of redemption and restoration. The kings of Judah gave more and more power to the temple, centralizing their kingdom’s relationship with God more and more instead of fostering the individual’s relationship with God and this is a part of what Jeremiah was railing against. The Judeans had passed responsibility for their faith to others, they became lazy and believed more in the institution of the temple than in God. Many communities of faith, likely all of them, go through a similar transformation, where they become more concerned with paying the bills than redeeming the world. This is not to say that paying the bills is not important, because if a community does not have the means to exist, it cannot do God’s work. So, we must find ways to keep our feet firmly planted in this world and all that it throws at us, while allowing our passions to flow in the direction of God. We must attend to the human part of being the church without allowing it to take over our mission; but we must also remember that God’s time is not our time, that the redemption and restoration of creation will not be accomplished quickly, which means we must have patience and we must be prepared to repent when we get distracted and just like the kings of Judah, we will get distracted; but the good news, the gospel, is that through Jesus we will find rest and redemption. Amen.