Seventh Sunday of Trinity
Readings: Jer. 23, 1-6; Ps 23; Eph.2 11-end; Mark 6, 30-34, 53-end
Hymns: For the beauty of the earth; Praise me now the word of grace; O Jesus I have promised; The King of love my shepherd is
In our lives, and also on the journey of faith, there will be points which, looking back, we can see as crucial in moving us from one path to another, or confirming the path we are on, times for choice, and times for waiting.
Many years ago, I visited South Australia as often as possible, from Brisbane and later Melbourne, researching religion and faith among Lutherans of German origin. It meant much church-going, Bible study and guild meeting, discussions in homes. Sin, not love, was on every tongue at that time -the balance is more even now- and like so many informants, I initially became despondent, especially as my own faith was having some ‘time out.’ One Sunday, I realised I could pop into the local Anglican church between a 9 am service in one Lutheran service and an 11am at another, and did so. Gentle old Father Ben was preaching on just this Sunday in 1987 or 8, on just this psalm, and his words were like gold: ‘You’re all doing fine: carry on trying to love your God and your neighbour as you try to love yourself, and you’ll be right.’ What a joy those simple words were to hear, enabling me to know that having taken wrong ways, and made bad choices, for which I was responsible, I was still accepted by God, and there was hope through Christ!
Father Ben didn’t tell us to make dramatic gestures, but rather to get on with our lives, always being in relation with God and ourselves, and with our neighbours as and when. Jesus felt that need for inactivity, especially for the disciples who, just back from their first outreach journey of teaching and healing, were excitedly detailing every event and action, every success and failure. They had probably given out more than they had received and Jesus could see that they were, as we might say, running on empty. Bernard of Clairvaux has a wonderful image for this:
‘The person who is wise sees life more as a bowl than a canal which pours out what it receives, whereas the bowl retains water until it is filled without loss to itself…You too must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts: do not try to be more generous than God…For if you are mean to yourselves, to whom will you be good?’
Wise indeed. So why did Jesus, having withdrawn to the quiet of the countryside, nevertheless go among the gathered crowds which followed him? He needed strength, he was already tired as we heard last week, yet he gave out that strength directly, in touching people, and indirectly when his clothing -which represented his essence- was touched, each touch being a giving of, and thus a taking from, his strength.
The reason he helped them was simple: they were without a leader, without a shepherd. Amos, whom we read last week, was a shepherd and had tried to lead people, but was ignored, whereas Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch, should have fulfilled the Middle Eastern image of a shepherd-king, but did not. Jeremiah, not usually an optimistic prophet, made the situation very clear. Israel’s bad behaviour, and rejection of God, had led to their exile, but they would be gathered safely back into the fold under effective shepherds, and eventually, under a just and righteous shepherd from the house of David. As well as verses such as Psalm 17s ‘Hide me under the shadow of your wing,’ and similar verses in Deuteronomy, the imagery of being gathered in safety reminds us of Jesus in both Luke and in Matthew, wanting to gather up people like chicks gathered up under the mother hen’s wing, if they were willing.
And that is crucial; if the lambs, chicks, people, are willing. Being enfolded in God’s love is the option offered, but like any option, at some point has to be decided upon and either rejected or accepted. It may seem a reasonable option, a no-brainer, to be cared for, accepted, protected. But part of the payment is to break down barriers between people, barriers which in Ephesians were seen as between Gentile and Jew, merging to form one humanity in the place of two, putting to death mutual hostility through the Cross, so that all are citizens, and each person who accepts the gift offered by God becomes a dwelling place for God.
But who is ‘each person?’ On Friday, saying Compline with others, we used intercessions from Iona. One ran: ‘We bring to God someone we find hard to forgive or trust.’ What if the person I cannot forgive or trust is myself? If that is the case, how are we to go forward? The answer from the texts is as simple to say as it can be difficult to practice: God in Trinity, God before me, God beside me, God within me, is my shepherd, ‘God renews my life –to use the Jewish translation – and my cup overflows.’
Jesus tried to stop the disciples draining themselves like a dried-out canal, but rather to let the waters of God fill their cup till it overflowed. Too often, love for God and the neighbour has been stressed to the exclusion of the self which is nonsensical- for if we do not love ourselves we cannot love others, merely glow from their gratefulness. Compassion moves us to help others, but respect for ourselves as loveable and forgivable must equally move us to rest until our bowl is full, and there is water aplenty for others. Truly then we are dwelling in the house of the Lord, and the Lord dwells in us.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg 19th July, 2015