JuLY 12, 2020, Scripture Readings and Sermon
Rev. Mark Hatch
There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law-- indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-14You are to be praised, O God, in Zion; to you shall vows be performed in Jerusalem.
To you that hear prayer shall all flesh come, because of their transgressions.
Our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out.
Happy are they whom you choose and draw to your courts to dwell there! they will be satisfied by the beauty of your house, by the holiness of your temple.
Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness, O God of our salvation, O Hope of all the ends of the earth and of the seas that are far away.
You make fast the mountains by your power; they are girded about with might.
You still the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the clamor of the peoples.
Those who dwell at the ends of the earth will tremble at your marvelous signs; you make the dawn and the dusk to sing for joy.
You visit the earth and water it abundantly; you make it very plenteous; the river of God is full of water.
You prepare the grain, for so you provide for the earth.
You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase.
You crown the year with your goodness, and your paths overflow with plenty.
May the fields of the wilderness be rich for grazing, and the hills be clothed with joy.
May the meadows cover themselves with flocks, and the valleys cloak themselves with grain; let them shout for joy and sing.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
Sermon: Would You?
THE LONELY PLACE
Listen again, for a moment, to what is for me the single most poignant and evocative line in today’s larger scripture reading: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” [Mark 1:35] Or, even better, even gentler, a little later, in another reference in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus includes others and invites those around him to: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” [Mark 6:31] How does that sound as a midsummer invitation, to you and to me and to us? How does that feel, as the seasons change, as the days are long, as life moves to its ancient rhythms, and as we reflect back and yet dream ahead?
And consider again just how busy Jesus has been, and perhaps on how busy and challenged we all have been, in an unusual time for him and for us. Leading up to this invitation to rest, we hear and read and marvel at the following: A preaching tour in Galilee, healing of a leper and of a paralytic and of a man with a withered hand, the radical dinner with tax collectors, and the calling of the Twelve. There is parable upon parable, the calming of the sea, and the healing of the demoniac. There is the girl restored, the healing of the woman, Jesus’ own rejection at Nazareth, and ultimately the so-called ‘Mission of the Twelve’. It is both thrilling and it is exhausting; we wish we could do all of it, and in many ways we are glad that we cannot. But the larger Gospel point is this – there has been a lot of ministry, and there will be a lot of ministry, but sometimes it is wise and good and sensible and even necessary, to take a break. To rest. To reflect. To re-set. To renew. To give thanks. And to prepare.
Whatever else we may project upon this man Jesus, and however else we may wish to imagine him and his ministry and the ministry of his disciples, and however we personally or collectively react to this remarkable avalanche of mission and spirit, one fact is clear from scripture: Jesus was intentional and deliberate, every so often, in stepping off the treadmill, getting away from the rat race, going off the grid, finding and making time to “come away”, to get away, to retreat, to refresh, to rethink, and to reimagine. “Everyone is searching for you”, he is told, somewhat breathlessly. All the more reason, I would argue, to withdraw, at least for a little while.
The apostles have been busy and so have we. Now is a time to take stock, catch breath, offer prayers, sit in contemplation, give thanks, take a nap, watch the night sky, breathe. Jesus has also been busy, and so this invitation to “come away” is as much for himself as it is for us. However we hear it on this summer morning, there can be no mistaking the intent -- If we do not take care of ourselves, how can we possibly hope to take care of the world and of others? In the same spirit, as one writer recently reminded us: ‘we are called not to perfection but to faithfulness’. That includes you and me.
In the Revised Standard Version of the bible, a little old but hardly outdated, all these scriptural passages read in a deceptively but beautifully different way. I invite you to listen carefully: from Matthew ~ ‘Jesus withdrew in a boat to a “lonely place by himself”; from Mark ~ ‘come away, Jesus says, to a “lonely place”…and rest awhile.’ And today’s passage, with that subtle yet crucial difference ~ “a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed…”
It will probably not surprise any of you that I actually prefer this word, this language, this image, this sentiment, and this feeling. Even though I harbor terrible and enduring fears of loneliness, on the other hand I love to be alone. Subtle as it may sound, these are two very different ways of being. I cherish those times and places of solitude and apart-ness, not because they are punitive places into which I have been cast but because they are “alone times” which I have sought. These are not stark and sterile places to which I have been banished, but they are introspective and “alone places” where I have found God and where God has dared to find me. Many, many years ago, on a High School reunion questionnaire, we were all asked the same, single question: “In your opinion what is the single greatest problem facing America?” Without any hesitation, with immediacy and certainty, almost reflexively, I answered: “loneliness”. For no disease, no malady, no social ailment of any kind have I ever encountered that is more corrosive and destructive and insidious and life draining. And yet, in the context of the religious and spiritual life of which we are all a part, whenever I am asked “what is your single greatest personal longing or desire?” I answer, without hesitation, “time to be alone”. For this, quite apart and utterly different from loneliness, is a cherished gift and a kind of sacred space, not least in this age of anxiety and confusion and dissonance. Not least, in my relationship with God.
In the simplest sense, I am not sure that I could even begin to understand the nature of communities or friendships or apostleship or ministry or even basic citizenship without getting away from all of it, deliberately and clearly, now and then, so as to gain perspective. As I shared recently, I am not sure that I really began to appreciate or treasure certain people, places, values, grace or the Holy Spirit until I went away from it or from them. In the midst of my rejection or my removal there arose a kind of clarity and acceptance that was and remains a great and precious offering. My guess is that in his wisdom and vision Jesus knows that this must be true as well in Galilee as it is for us and for his Disciples; that such removal and distance and perspective and restoration is arguably one of the greatest spiritual gifts which we give ourselves and one another. Perhaps most complex to grasp yet just as compelling is the understanding that these lonely and deserted places are as much right within our hearts and within our souls as they are literal, physical, far away and distant environs. I am convinced that the capacity to seek and to find and to claim some place to “come away” to, some desert or wilderness or ‘prayer spot’ or meditation center deep within ourselves without ever leaving town or homestead, is an essential challenge and a deep foundation of the spiritual life.
And what is it about a lonely or deserted place which is ultimately of such great and tender and enduring value? What is it about the wilderness which we choose or the wilderness into which we are invited or the wilderness into which we are cast that is of such merit and power and beauty and honor? Quite simply, as we have seen from the beginning of scripture, the wilderness and the desert and the lonely place are precisely the locale where God works miracles. It is in the very midst of such apparent scarcity and dryness and “apartness” that God provides abundance and satiation - the voice from a burning bush, manna from heaven, water from a stone, a night star to direct the wanderer. It is in those very times of being away that God intervenes to show and guide and equip and encourage us for the new way forward, onward, upward, and outward, whether wrestling with an angel through a long and sleepless night or facing Satan and the many temptations of the material world. It is in the lonely place when we learn, once again, that we are never alone. And it is in those seemingly empty places that we learn, yet again, that there is always more than enough. This larger passage from Mark’s Gospel (as well as Matthew’s) includes the feeding of the 5000, but in a strangely understated way we almost come to view such miracles as standard, a normal, Godly, celestial sign of abundance which always emerges from the wilderness, whether it be the wilderness of a terribly broken world or the quiet and lovely wilderness of a prayerful and alone self.
Here in this place where we are to “rest a while”, here in this place where we have come because we have not yet even had “leisure to eat”, here in this place where we have “come away”, if even for a little while, to pray, here in this deserted or lonely place -- here we shall find God, and as I said before, here shall God find us. And out of such a time and place, out of your life and mine, out of stillness and solitude, out of contemplation and reflection, out of simple rest and soothing quiet, here shall miracles emerge both large and small. We have seen it all before, from Exodus to Southwick and everywhere in between. And we shall see it again.
Here, in the deserted and lonely place we have seen the miracle of God’s spirit in others. And now, here in this deserted and lonely place, we shall see and feel and receive the miracle of God’s renewal right here, right now, tomorrow and forever, right within ourselves. ~ Amen.