A sermon for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost

We usually think of time as linear, by which I mean that it goes forward in a straight line:, today, tomorrow, next month, next year. For some of us, life might consist of some zigs and zags, but we think of time as just always going forward.

But actually in our lives, there are also cycles, circles, and in some ways, as we’re moving forward, we’re also going through these cycles again and again. So we have the cycle of the seasons. We have that cycle that repeats every year, with new life springing forth in spring, maturing in summer, dying, or at least going into some kind of hibernation in the fall, and resting through the winter. And we begin again with the same cycle when the next spring comes.

In the church, in the liturgical calendar, we have a similar kind of cycle, beginning in Advent, and we go through that period of waiting with longing for God to enter the world incarnate in Jesus. We celebrate his birth. We go through Lent, and Easter, and now we’re in Pentecost. It’s a similar cycle, in some ways, to the seasons in nature, but its purpose is a little bit different. It’s educational, and it’s also meant to remind us that God’s time is eternal. That in some ways, the life of Christ is always happening. All of these things are happening constantly. God is always coming into the world. The resurrection is always happening.

So we also have a cycle in nature of day and night, of waking and sleeping. We go about our lives in the world, and at night, we go home, and if we’re lucky, we sleep. And science is teaching us that that sleep isn’t just a nothing happening time, that even though we’re unaware of it, really important things are happening. Our brains are actually reorganizing themselves. Our bodies are both resting and repairing things that need to be repaired. And hopefully, we wake up refreshed and begin a new day and begin the cycle over and over again.

Well, there’s a similar cycle to that in the spiritual life, as well. It’s the cycle of prayer, of reflection and quiet and being still with God, alternating with the cycle of going out into the world and being active, living our faith. And in the same way that science is teaching us that if we don’t get sleep, sleep deprivation builds up, and it’s really very dangerous—we can’t function properly in the world without that sleep—in the same way that we risk sleep deprivation if we don’t have enough sleep, we risk soul deprivation if we don’t have enough time of reflection and quiet and being still with God.

And we see that cycle in today’s Gospel. You have to kind of connect all this. Feels a little bit like a TV serial. Today’s Gospel is the conclusion of a story that began two weeks ago, when Jesus sent the Apostles out two by two to do his work in the world. And today, in the Gospel, we hear that they finally have come back from that. And they are just as excited as can be. He listens to them. They tell him everything that happened, and we can just, I think, imagine what that level of excitement was like. I mean, if you’ve ever been a kid or had a kid where you get finally to do what you’ve been learning, to go out and do it yourself and realize that you can do it, even though you might have made some mistakes or you might reflect and see that you could have done some things better, basically, you’ve accomplished the mission. And you have that power in you to do that.

So they’re back, and He’s listening, and they’re telling him all about it, and the next thing he says is, “Come away and rest.” He realizes that they need the rest part of that cycle. They need the quiet. They need the reflection. And so he tries to take them to a quiet place. Life often has other ideas for us, and the people figure out where they’re going in the boats, and before the boats get there, the people have all run around. So when they get there, there’s a crowd waiting for them. And they minister to the crowd.

And yet, that doesn’t mean that they don’t need that rest and reflection. Today is actually sometimes jokingly called by the commentators, it’s called Bad Shepherd Sunday. We have Good Shepherd Sunday on the fourth Sunday of Easter, when we hear the reading about the Good Shepherd, and we celebrate Jesus as Good Shepherd. Here, we celebrate ourselves as a parish. That’s when we have annual meeting.

But today’s readings have a lot of those shepherd references, but we begin with that reading from Jeremiah, which shows us what Bad Shepherds look like. The shepherd image is an ancient metaphor for the leaders of Israel. And sometimes they were good, and sometimes they were bad. And the promise of the Good Shepherd is finally fulfilled in the arrival of Jesus, who, when He gets there to the shore and finds that crowd waiting for Him, what we’re told is he has compassion on them, because he saw them as being like sheep without a shepherd.

So if you want a homework assignment, take your leaflet home. If you look at the Gospel reading, you’ll see that there’s a big gap. It’s read as a continuous thing, but there’s a part that’s missing. Go back and open to the sixth chapter of Mark and you’ll see what Jesus provides, out of His compassion for His people. The feeding, the teaching, the healing, the giving them what they need. And you’ll also see that Jesus Himself realizes that he needs to go away and pray. He needs that time of reflection. So before he goes on and meets the apostles and the disciples at the end, he hasn’t given up on that time away, that time of silence, and he goes to pray before He joins them.

So coming back to the cycle of action and prayer, of business and reflection, one of the things that came out of general convention; we didn’t talk too much about it last week, but our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, has put out an invitation to a cycle that is a little bit more complicated. I might need my cheat sheet to get it right.

His cycle is turn, learn … I do need my cheat sheet. Turn, learn, pray, worship, bless, go and rest. The turning is pausing every day to turn toward Jesus, turn toward God by reading and reflecting, he suggests, on the Scriptures. That’s the learning, the reading.

And praying is dwelling intentionally with God every day. Worship is a weekly gathering, because prayer and worship aren’t quite the same thing. That personal reflection has a stillness to it that’s missing here in church. This church gathering has a joy in being together that isn’t quite fulfilled in our private prayer.

Bless is to share, to share faith and to share what we have, to unselfishly give. Go is to go out into the world and live like Jesus, he says. And finally, rest. To come back to receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration.

I think that we need this cycle. So let me say one more thing about this. This is actually, maybe substituted for the announcement. Because this is a follow-up to what we were talking about last week, with what happened at General Convention, I have switched things around a little bit. So in our faith enrichment time, I have a video of Michael Curry’s invitation, and some handouts, and we’ll talk about this cycle that he proposes, and how we can life it in our lives, and how we can make it part of our life as a parish. I’m interested in your own practices and how you see that happening.

So the last two weeks, we have done it as the whole group. I really am going take us this week, unless everybody rises up and protests, I am going take us off into the other smaller part of the parish hall, because I’m pretty sure that maybe not everybody’s interested in this, but I hope that some people will be. So join me at coffee hour.

Anyway, so going back to spiritual practices and the cycle of prayer and action. I think we need this now, more than ever. I think that what’s going on in the world has brought us to a state of anxiety which cuts across the board, and depending sort of who you are and where you are, you might he anxious about different things, but in my conversations with people, and in my reading, I just perceive this level of anxiety that I don’t think I’ve ever been aware of before or seen before.

And the way to deal with that anxiety, and this ties into next week’s faith enrichment on the Unafraidseries, the way to deal with it is to be grounded in God. And to take ourselves apart and intentionally be still and rest. We pray. Pray is sort of an active conversation with God, often, but it also can be just a receptive silence, a quietness, a stilling of our hearts and a letting go of our concerns.

Some of us are activists and we are always out there doing things in the world, and we need to be reminded that we need to take time to let our hearts rest and be still. And some of us are, shall I say, we’re mystics, and we’re really good at that praying, at that quiet time, and we need to be reminded that the flip side of that is our action in the world. And all of us, I think, get out of balance sometimes and need to get back into balance.

Sure, it’s fine to come into church and think of this as a retreat from the world, but we remember that at the end, we go back out, and what we do in here is preparation for what we do out there. It’s fine for us to be activists who are out there living our faith, speaking prophetically, doing what we can in the world, and we need to remember that we need to stop sometimes and bring the concerns of the world back into church, back into our own personal stillness.

Now, more than ever. Now, more than ever. What we do in church prepares us to be in the world, and what we do in the world is what we bring when we come to church.