Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Pastor Anke Deibler

  • Ezekiel 2:1-5
  • Psalm 123
  • 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
  • Mark 6:1-13

Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

My husband Eric and I got married in 1991. My Godfather is a Lutheran pastor and he presided over our wedding service. He used the image from today’s gospel for our wedding sermon: Jesus is sending out his disciples in pairs of two. And now Jesus was sending out Eric and me as a pair to be pastors.

Eric and I have always served together. Over the years, I have appreciated the wisdom of Jesus pairing up his disciples. Being messengers of the gospel can be lonesome and difficult, and it is good to have a partner to comfort, advise, and encourage. And being a disciple can be joyful and even exhilarating, and it is a blessing to have a partner to share these joys with.

For the last two months, Pastor Eric was on sabbatical. In order for him to have a true sabbatical, I did not tell him anything about what was going on at church.

This turned out to be the hardest part of his sabbatical for me. The added work load was doable, but not being able to share, not having that partner – that was tough.

Especially during the last two weeks. During those two weeks, a lot of stories of hurt, of families in pain, of illness were brought to me from people in our congregations or connected with our congregations. Additionally, there was one conflict in each congregation. And beyond our churches, there was the shooting of five journalists in Annapolis, the stabbing of little kids at a birthday party in Boise, Idaho, the pain of families of immigrants separated at the border, and the news of the retirement of supreme court justice Anthony Kennedy, which started an intense political fight over his replacement that heightened the tensions that already existed before.

I missed having my partner to talk to. I missed having his presence, his voice, his prayer, his wisdom, as I was dealing with all this. I missed that fellow disciple by my side.

“It is not good that man should be alone,” God declares in the beginning of the Bible. That is true in regard to life partnerships; that is true when it comes to raising children, as I am sure you parents here know; and that is true when we are sent into the world as disciples to share the gospel message. It would be hard to do alone.

That’s why God makes us part of a church through our baptism. Here we gather with fellow believers. Here we are encouraged and supported in our calling. Here we come to recharge, to get guidance, to listen to God’s word and eat at God’s table, to take a deep breath and rest in God’s presence, to be build up by the love of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

From here, we go back out into the world as messengers of God’s kingdom. And boy, does this world need to hear the message of God’s love and desire.

What guidelines does Jesus give his disciples as he sends them out?

The first thing is: travel lightly. Translated to today’s world, I take that to mean: Keep it simple. For many years, the church has copied the world around us and has fallen in love with big programs. I get brochures all the time for how to host a revival, how to engage nationally known speakers, how build that new multipurpose gym that is sure to attract people to your church.

But Jesus says: Keep it simple. Don’t carry too much baggage. Just focus on meeting people with love and the good news of Jesus Christ. That’s what it is all about.

Next Jesus tells his disciples to urge repentance. Sometimes people need to be told that they are missing the mark, missing God’s mark, and as a result hurting themselves, others, and the planet. This is a tough message to preach. Nobody likes being told they are going down the wrong path. People get defensive and angry. Yet God has always sent prophets to bring his people back to God, and today’s prophets are us.

I think it was Karl Barth who said that we must preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. God has something to say about what is going on in this nation and in this world, and we are God’s mouthpiece. When we see injustice, when we see racism, when we see ill treatment of the orphan and the widow and the stranger in our land, when we see the earth in distress, we are called to say something on behalf of God. We are called to name the demons out there and to urge our nation to repent.

Third, Jesus sends his disciples out to care for the sick. That sounds a little easier than preaching repentance, but it takes a different kind of toll. To enter the pain of another person can be hard on us. Visiting someone in the hospital, someone with a bad diagnosis, someone who is dying – that takes a lot of love and faith and hope. Jesus calls us to do this, because to the person being visited, that care makes the world of a difference and brings the presence of God to them.

Keep it simple, urge people back to the way of God, and care for the sick: That’s Jesus’ directive.

It is interesting that God has no delusions about our expected success rate. Jesus is quite open with his disciples that they will face rejection. God says to the Prophet Ezekiel: “The [people] are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord God.” Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.”

I find these words very comforting. For it is true, considering how many people we invite to church or tell about Jesus, our success rate is rather poor. In the business world we would be considered a failure.

Every other week, I preach at Zion Lutheran Church in downtown Baltimore. That church has a paid choir. Seven singers perform amazing music, but they are only there because they are paid for it. They come late in the service, in time for their first anthem, and leave as soon as the last anthem is sung.

Every other week for three years, they have heard me preach. Yet not one of them has ever joined the church or considered staying for the rest of the service or come to faith. Depressing.

But then, a few weeks ago a young couple from a shelter came to worship, obviously high on something, covered in tattoos. They have been back every Sunday since. They kneel at the communion table in deep devotion. They give us all hope that our ministry might not see a huge success rate, but that it is not in vain, either. Preaching the healing power of Christ, welcoming the lost, urging them onto a path of repentance that leads to God, is making a difference after all. Experiences like this give us the hope and encouragement to keep on ministering, to keep on following Jesus call for us.

In my sermon studies this week, I found the following quote, written half a century ago by Abraham Joshua Heschel:

It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeat. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.

          Could it be that our success rate in bringing people to Jesus is not greater than it is because we have been sidetracked from what is at the core of our calling? Have we been so caught up in infighting over who gets to be a pastor and which other denominations we can share communion with that people got bored with us? Have we been so set in our ways of worship and traditions that folks got alienated? Have we been so careful not to step on anyone’s toes that our message has become bland and meaningless?

This world is hurting. We all know people with cancer, people who have lost a loved one, people who struggle with addiction or finances. They need compassion and hope. We all hear the news of school shootings and rising suicide rates and wars with no end in sight. Our world needs guidance. We see people hurt by the rise of racism and homophobia among us. They need to hear of God’s love for all people.

And most of them do not know that they can find all those things here, in church. We need to bring it to them, at our work places, our sports arenas, our volunteer positions, our PTA meetings, our neighborhood associations.

Jesus still sends out disciples, including us, because the world still needs to be touched by the gospel.

Today, Jesus reminds us what really matters, what really can make the kingdom come to life and transform the world: keep it simple, urge people to return to God’s ways, and care for the sick and lost.

Today, Jesus unites us with bothers and sisters who can help us figure out this calling, apply it to real life, and support us as our partners in ministry.

Today, we celebrate two baptisms. We welcome two more children of God into God’s family of faith, and we are reminded that it is our baptism that saves us, not our success rate as missionaries.

Today, we eat at God’s table. In bread and wine, Jesus comes to us to nourish us, refresh us, and send us out again.

Today, Jesus renews our calling: go and announce to a hurting world: God loves you and the kingdom of God has come near. Amen.

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