St Mark's, West Frankfort--Mark 6:30-34, 50-56; Jeremiah 23:1-6, Ephesians 2:11-22, Psalm 23
I probably don’t say it often enough, but I have great fun being the Bishop of Springfield, and Sunday mornings are always the highlight of my week. There’s no greater joy than breaking open the Word of God and then breaking open the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation for God’s people in this diocese. It’s certainly the best job I’ve ever had and may actually be the best job anywhere! But it’s also a demanding job, as you might imagine. It is certainly the most demanding job I have ever had. But it’s not like there are just a couple or three huge parts of my ministry that are particularly challenging. Rather, it’s the sheer massive number of little things that sometimes get me down—things that might take only five or ten minutes of my time, but are really important to somebody, and then multiply that by a factor of dozens on any given day. Hardly anybody wants a real big piece of me, but a whole lot of people want a very small one! Together, all those little things add up to a fairly substantial burden. But then, just when I’m tempted to feel sorry for myself, I’m in front of a group of youth, or parishioners gathered for a Lenten meal, or, especially, a congregation on a Sunday morning, and I’m reminded why I do what I do, and know it as one of the deepest joys of my life, and I get a fresh burst of energy.
As we read the gospels, we see over and over again that Jesus and the apostles had a quite similar experience. Mark tells us in this morning’s reading that they had “no leisure even to eat.” As Mother Sherry will testify, most everyone who was at General Convention a couple of weeks ago can identify with that! Jesus tries to take them on a long weekend away, but to no avail. The demands are inescapable. The crowds—hordes, actually—the hordes just follow them wherever they go. If they get in a boat and row across the lake, the people scurry on foot to meet them on the other shore. We could perhaps be sympathetic if Jesus were to express some irritation about this. But he never does. Rather, Mark tells us, “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus may have felt put upon, but if he did so much as sigh or roll his eyes, Mark doesn’t tell us about it. So we don’t know the details of what Jesus thought or felt, beyond the mention of compassion, but we do know what he did: He taught the people. Most likely, he taught them what they already knew. He probably broke open for them the Hebrew scriptures that they were already familiar with. And he wasn’t being a slacker in doing this, because we all need to be told what we already know, quite frequently, in most cases.
That’s the purpose and benefit of liturgical prayer, of knowing the shape and the content of our prayers even before we start praying. For instance, I recommend that every Anglican Christian, every Episcopalian, pray some version of the Daily Office on a regular basis … in fact, daily! The facts of your life may not permit you to use the full-blown forms for Morning and Evening Prayer right out of the Prayer Book, but there are plenty of ways to adapt what’s there to your particular circumstances. Why do I recommend this? Because praying the Daily Office teaches us the grammar and vocabulary of our faith. It tells us what we already know and then it tells us again, making its mark on our souls over years and decades of repetition. The same goes for Sunday Mass: The prayers we offer here today are in a book—only a tiny bit might be spontaneous at the Prayers of the People. And most of these prayers we hear week after week, over and over again. We know them, and yet we come to church, we need to come to church, and learn once again what we already know. Human beings can be pretty thick-headed, and liturgical prayer bangs away at our thick skulls until what we need to know and remember—what will get us to heaven and enable us to look God in the eye—until that all gets into us and stays there.
In the liturgy of the Eucharist, Jesus feeds us, first by teaching us, just as he did in the wilderness for those sheep without a shepherd. That’s what the readings and the sermon at the Eucharist are about (and, if liturgy is well-planned and we pay attention, the hymns as well).
Now, I’m sure the shepherdless sheep were grateful for the teaching that Jesus game them, but I’m also pretty sure they wanted more. They were sick and in pain and deformed and they wanted health and wholeness. Many of them were poor; life was a daily grind for them, and they wanted to thrive and flourish. Isn’t that actually what we all want? So, in addition to teaching, Jesus healed; he interacted with them in ways that touched not just their minds and their hearts, but their bodies as well, the incarnate, enfleshed reality of their lives.
Jesus does the same for us as we continue with the Eucharist, even this morning. In a few minutes, we will take some bread and some wine, along with our monetary gifts, and place them here on the altar. That act of gathering and taking, which we call the Offertory, is profoundly symbolic. When we do this, we’re not just putting bread and wine and money on the altar; we are putting ourselves on the altar. That’s the reason we don’t just use stalks of wheat and clusters of grapes for communion (aside from the fact that stalks of wheat are inedible!). Those are the gifts that God gives us in nature. Bread represents what human hands and human skill have done with the gift of wheat. Wine represents what human hands and human skill have done with the gift of grapes. The checks and cash in the offering plates represent our lives, our selves, our souls and bodies. So we place ourselves on the altar, where Jesus, through the words and actions of the celebrant, blesses us, and gives us back the selves we have offered him, now changed into his own Body and Blood, the very deathless and divine life of the Holy Trinity. Holy Communion will not fix a broken ankle or make lung cancer go into spontaneous remission. But it will put us squarely in the path of God’s grace-filled action on our behalf. It will put us in the way of God’s mercy, of God's relentless intention and desire to redeem the world. And it also, even if for a few moments, lifts us out of the realm in which broken ankles and cancerous lungs even concern us. We are lifted out of time and space and brought into the courts of the Living God, into heaven itself.
In the Eucharist, Jesus feeds his people. He feeds us in Word and he feeds us in Sacrament. He is our shepherd, as we prayed in the 23rd Psalm, even as he was in the Galilean wilderness, echoing and embodying the shepherding ministry that we find in various parts of the Old Testament, including this morning’s passage from Jeremiah. And the liturgy itself—the routine and repetitive words we say and things we do—the liturgy itself a sort of compressed ZIP file that you download from the internet and then have to click on and open before you can see all the various files it contains. The liturgy is a data-compressed symbol for the pastoral care of the bishop for the diocese, the pastoral care of the local priest for Christ’s people, and the pastoral care of Christ’s people for a broken world. As the Lord is our shepherd, we, together, demonstrate that shepherding ministry by being agents of reconciliation, as St Paul wrote to the Ephesians in what we heard a little bit ago. Through us, God engages his ongoing mission of reconciling all people to himself and to one another in Jesus his Son. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.