I did NOT apply this to General Convention or The Episcopal Church in today's sermon. And I think we get into all kinds of spiritual trouble by trying to analogize... "Hmmm... John stands for my manifestly holy position, and that makes Herod those creeps who disagree with me..."
But there are parallels - non-partisan parallels - with the denomination. Hard feelings and grudges snuffing out godliness. Ambivalence about God's word - we are interested but are afraid of it. Personalities and personal agendas vaunted against God's message. Bombastic "playing to the crowd" taking away our better choices. Whispers and manipulations. Unintended consequences. Death and grief.
That said, here's the sermon... and it's more about how Jesus' responded to John's death and how that opens a way forward for those who will take it.
Sermon for July 12, 2009
Fr. Timothy Fountain
The death of John the Baptist is one of those events that makes the Bible ring true.
No “happy ending” or “closure.”
Not good propaganda if the church was trying to gain members or manipulate behavior. (No earthly reward for being good).
Just a stark look at human foolishness, suffering and evil.
But what happens after this gives us insight into Jesus and the way he wants us to live in this fallen world – turning away from ourselves and toward God through worship, spiritual growth, pastoral care, and service to others.
First, Jesus shows us our need of rest and refreshment in God (Worship)
A. Mark, Matthew and Luke all report that Jesus “went to a lonely place.” Matthew makes it clear that Jesus was doing this for himself as well as his disciples, who had been out witnessing to the towns and needed a rest. Jesus’ divine nature was offended at the injustice of John’s death; Jesus’ humanity grieved for someone he loved.
B. When we come to church services, we have the chance to suspend our problems and labors, and to come into the presence of God. Most Biblical reports of Jesus “in lonely places” show him in prayer. God’s law in the IV Commandment calls for “keeping the Sabbath” by refraining from work and receiving God’s refreshment as we worship Him.
Second, Jesus shows us that problems don’t stop his power to guide spiritual growth.
A. When a crowd shows up in “the lonely place,” Mark says that Jesus “taught them many things.” He then imparted his spiritual power to his disciples, having them take part in a miraculous feeding of the crowd.
B. John reports this feeding as well, and tells us that Jesus “tested” his followers with questions about how to feed the crowd before revealing more of his spiritual power to them. Even when there are exhausting challenges going on in our lives, Jesus is finding opportunities to guide our spiritual growth.
Third, Jesus shows us that even our dark moments have possibilities to give pastoral care.
A. When the crowd intrudes on his efforts to rest and pray, Jesus responds with tender care. Luke says he “welcomed them;” Matthew and Mark say he “had compassion on them.” All four New Testament Gospels agree that he “healed their sick.”
B. John tells us that when the crowd had been fed, they wanted to make Jesus their earthly king. But Jesus went up a mountain alone to pray, so the people wouldn’t be misled about his purpose. Giving pastoral care can tempt us to be puffed up, but if we do it right, we point people beyond us and toward God. With Christ’s power, we can do this even when our own needs are on hold.
Fourth, Jesus shows us that service to others lifts us out of our problems and sets us back on the path that God wants us to take.
A. The turning point in “the lonely place” is the need of the crowd to be fed and sent safely home. The response to this need, the miraculous feeding of 5,000, releases Jesus and his disciples to go back to preaching the Good News.
B. Matthew, Mark and John tell us that after feeding the people, Jesus put his disciples back into their boats and they headed out. Serving others “puts Jesus first” in our lives and helps him take authority over our distractions.
Although it is not easy to read, our lesson from Ephesians also makes the point that we find the way of life by focusing on God. The lesson points us to God’s choices, God’s will, God’s grace, God’s mysteries, God’s plan, God’s timing, God’s pleasure, God’s word – and how by turning us toward Himself through the blood of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, God the Father makes us his “own people, to the praise of his glory.”
If that’s too rich to digest, let me share a wonderful bit of testimony that came to me from one of you by email:
In doing some soul-searching, I think that my “confusion” lies in that I’m dwelling on “me.” What I feel I need, what I want, how “I” feel. Instead of that focus, I need to focus on God’s kingdom and what He wants for me to do for Him. Hopefully He will reveal His plans for me.
May the Holy Spirit move all of us to search our souls, and in so doing spot ways that we are “confused” by staring at ourselves and our concerns. May we turn instead toward the one with an awesome and eternal plan for us, our great, loving and patient God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.