Tuesday, July 21, 2009

If He Is Here, They Will Come

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 19, 2009
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.

Some of us likely will remember the Kevin Costner film of 20 years ago: Field of Dreams. The key line in that movie, which became one of those cultural by-words that stayed around for quite awhile, was, “If you build it, they will come.” I can tell you that far too many businesses as well as churches have learned the error of that thinking, that people will come just because there is a nice facility. In the end, it’s the hearts that live inside the building that attract or repel people.

Mark tells us that “they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.” But not for long. Every pastor can tell stories of dinners interrupted, conversations stopped short, attempts to dash home for a quick dinner frustrated by the insistent demands of people who come to the church looking for the help they think Jesus will make available to them. And if they spot you before they run into Jesus, well, that’s just how it goes.

I remember once reading about a pastor who “resigned from a suburban parish where relentless demands on his time and energy were beginning to wear him down. He left to become a missionary on the coast of Maine. In his new position he visits small clusters of Christians in remote locations. He reports that in many ways his ministry is the same as it always has been: he preaches, teaches, visits the sick. But there is this difference: between ports of call he travels long distances by boat. Between sermons he can listen to the wind. Before teaching another class he can study the horizon. After visiting the sick he is anointed with sea spray. Interspersed with his demanding pastoral duties he takes a watery road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”[1] I have heard of a pastor who takes a week every year to hike in the mountains alone. He asks his wife to save all the newspapers that have come during the week of his absence. Upon returning, he reads each newspaper. That way he can remind himself how readily the world and the people in it continue on without him.

Mark declares, “And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.” Doesn’t that sound good? In Mark's Gospel, Jesus and his disciples cross the Sea of Galilee so many times that it is hard to discern the pattern and motive behind the itinerary. Until the sixth chapter, that is, when the reason for the crossings is clear: the disciples need a break.[2] Following the teeming demands of ministry, the exhausted disciples were due for a retreat to charge their batteries. Sociologists call this “compassion fatigue.” Just prior to this, remember, “...many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Before the first spoonful of food had reached their mouths, here came the tap on the shoulder and the request, please, just this once, please help, won’t you help? So it was time for a discipleship retreat, and off they went to a deserted place. What a great plan. But no sooner had they tied up at the dock than “...many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.”

If Jesus is there, people will come. That’s how it has always been. Try any replacement for Jesus, anything that points to something other than Jesus, and the church ceases being a church. It is, at the last, the true test of a church. Over time, if Jesus is not present there, no one will come. Oh, it might take a long while for some who are just in the habit of coming around to stop, but over time it will happen.

I remember reading about a once-wealthy church in Pittsburgh. It was a large stone edifice, built in what we might think of as a sort of Presbyterian version of an English gothic style. It had huge, vaulted ceilings, and at one time was one of the largest open spaces under one roof of any building in the city. The lettering over the entrance where the arched Byzantine doors once stood now welcomes not worshipers, but people seeking a parking place: “Southside Parking Garage,” says the sign over the opening. With a straight face, the developer of the project said, “It was an ideal space for conversion.”[3]

Apparently this had been a church where people had parked for years: parked their money but not their bodies, parked their children but not their cars, and eventually the children grew up and nothing was parked there any more other than the left-over money of dead people, which kept the facility going on life support long after the heart had quit beating on its own. With the sort of funds they had, you could continue to offer programs for years without having to be bothered with a congregation. But in the end, the aging trustees, who were all that was left of the church, closed it anyway, since parking was all it was good for. Now it is truly a drive-in church.

I’ve been in other defunct churches. They always strike me as a sort of sad testimony, no matter how cheery — even inevitable — their transformation into some other kind of business. Neighborhoods change, people come and people go. But if the heart of Jesus had been celebrated and worshiped there, couldn’t the church have changed along with the neighborhood? This is what I always wonder. Often they are transformed into restaurants, another unintended symbol of the body of Christ which had once been gathered in those places around the communion table. I know of another church in New Jersey, founded by people who were mad at their former church, so they gathered in anger and separation. Ultimately, the next generations forgot what the fight had been about, and since fighting was the glue that had held it together, the church came apart. Literally, it’s beams and timbers were dismantled and reused in what are now many fine homes in the area.

I once wrote to my former congregation about my visit to a small country parish in Wales during a vacation there. A sort of Stephen King cemetery surrounds this ancient building which exudes local history from every stone. And that may be part of the problem. It stands more like an artifact than a congregation. Sunday worship when we were there numbered 12, 4 of which were our party of not-very-competent Presbyterian-cum-Anglicans. The idea that a small church is a better place to become acquainted and feel at home was given the lie in this place.

But the very next week found us in London at St. Paul’s Cathedral for the 11:00 AM “sung mass.” It was high church at its best, and the Spirit was alive in the place, clearly a place of worship where all were welcomed and encouraged to take part. Jesus was there, and they came.

“They went away to a deserted place by themselves.” Sometimes this sounds like the very thing we need, to get away, to be alone. And sometimes we do. I know that many folks in congregations who don’t disappear in the winter for Palm Desert or similar warmer climes may be likely to be gone some time now during the summer. But such separation and self-tending is meant always to function as a servant of ministry, not as its main point. The disciples and Jesus were allowed precious little time to themselves in deserted places. The need of the world to be near Jesus was just too overpoweringly great.

“Mark says that Jesus and his disciples had come willingly to this deserted place. They were exhausted from ministry among the needy multitudes. They were seeking rest, retreat, a July vacation from the rigors of their work. Yet when they got to the deserted place, it was quickly filled with more multitudes who came clamoring after Jesus. The crowds did not come, like the disciples, in order to get away from life; they followed Jesus here because they were desperate to survive life. Jesus looked on them and quickly saw that they were harassed and helpless, ‘like sheep without a shepherd.’ Here were the oppressed, the hurting and the poor, come out to this desert hoping for a blessing from Jesus.”[4]

When Jesus got to the shore on the other side of the lake he saw that the great throng had anticipated his next move and was waiting there for him. When he looked out on them and had compassion on them because they looked to him for all the world like a bunch of bleating lambs whose shepherd had left them alone in the wilderness, he realized that this sorry gathering of people had been paying rent to absent theological landlords for far too long. He decided that he would teach them something right then and there about what it means to have a real shepherd. If we had been there, we would probably have been like the rest of the crowd, anticipating a free meal, or at least a healing or some other miracle. But Jesus didn’t do that, not yet. He first did what the Shepherd was called to do for his people. He “began to teach them many things.”

There is but one true teacher. The rest that we who have followed him have to add is but commentary. The ministry of the church is not in the hands of pastors, nor even boards and committees. Not now any more than it ever has been. It rests largely in your hands; your able, fallible, caring, failing, tentative, willing, reluctant hands. My long-time friend, Jim Wharton, who taught at the seminary at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, once pointed out that in the biblical story, God is singularly unimpressed by the differences between clergy and lay people on points of competence, fitness, equipment, credentials, or status. On one occasion, (in the book of Joshua) a rather harried prostitute named Rahab was able to minister to Israel; on another, a humble shepherd boy named David became minister to a king (I Samuel 16:14 ff); on another, a famous prophet named Elijah endured the indignity of receiving the ministry of a cackling flock of crows (I Kings 17:4 ff). The possibility of ministry is as near for any of God’s people as the next human being.[5]

Which brings us to the commissioning to which we have responded as Christian people.

Hospitality is among the highest marks of the presence of Jesus in a place, the New Testament is filled with testimonies to this fact. I have been through the mill with transients over 25 years of ministry, all pastors have, I have dealt with the con artists, the demanding ones that try to make you feel guilty, the ones who have a knack for showing up as you prepare to leave for a well-deserved hour at home before returning for the evening round of meetings. But sometimes, it is different, not a hand-out, as the ads used to say, but a hand.

So Mark’s gospel causes us to consider this today, this presence of our Lord in this place. Because we know that if the needy and the harassed and the helpless ones are among us in our community, our church and even our homes, surely Jesus cannot be far away. If they come, he is here, giving us the opportunity to be a blessing even as we seek to be blessed. Amen.

[1] “Watching from the Boat,” by Martin Copenhaver, Christian Century, June 29, 1994.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Thanks to my friend, Dr. George Chorba, for sharing stories of “converted” churches.
[4] “The Loving Shepherd,” a sermon by William Willimon, Duke University Chapel, 7/20/97. [5] Biblical Basis for Ministry, Earl E. Shelp et. al., Westminster Press, 1981, p. 61.