Telling Our Stories

+ A sermon for online worship on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 16B) with Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA and Northlake Lutheran Church, Kenmore, WA on July 18, 2021 +

Text: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56


“How are you doing?” “What’s going on?” “What’s new?”

These simple questions are staples of small talk.


I mean, after a year and a half of pandemic lockdown, I have realized that I’ve kind of forgotten how to, you know, interact with people. How to meet people for the first time. How to have conversations.

So, especially since this is the last time Holy Cross is scheduled to worship online—since we’re coming back in person next week, maybe seeing each other in the flesh for basically the first time in well over a year, I’m kind of mentally preparing myself to answer those types of questions again.

So, let’s see if I remember how to do this.
“Hey, how’re you doing?”
“Hey! I’m doing fine, how are you?”
“I’m good! What’s new?”
“Oh, not much. Same old, same old.”

That’s how it goes, right?
That’s how we have conversations with each other?
Ok, maybe not.
Maybe we can just skip the small talk this time.
I’m really hoping that we can have deeper conversations than those surface level questions when we see each other again.
Because a lot has happened in the past year and a half!
We have a lot to talk about!
So, I hope we will be excited to share all the highlights of that time: new grandchildren and family members, new homes and new pets, new hobbies we’ve picked up and new ways to make our voices heard.
And, as we keep talking, as we reunite and reengage in our relationships with each other, we may also start to admit that the past year was really tough too.
Not that any of us will likely look back at the past year and a half as only good, but sometimes we need some time to admit and talk about our struggles.
How we felt lonely and isolated.
How we lost our jobs.
How we said goodbye to loved ones.
How we got sick.
How our certainties were shattered.
How we desperately tried to maintain hope.
Because a lot of that happened too.

When we come back in person, we may come back with a jumble of emotions within us.
Some good, some bad, some just hard to describe.
We may need some time to reflect on all that has happened.
To explore our feelings as we share the stories of our lives during the pandemic times.
It may take time to process everything, to feel like we are ready to move forward.
But I think that this is an important first step—a holy time, a holy process, when we can reflect on what has been, rejoice and cry together, and prepare for whatever comes next.
And when I say it’s holy, I mean it.
Not only are these emotions and anxieties holy because they are part of how God has wired us to be, not only are these conversations and reunions holy because we are working to reunite the Body of Christ, this is holy because it follows the example given to us by Jesus in our gospel reading today.

You may or may not remember, but two weeks ago, we heard in our gospel lesson how Jesus sent out the Twelve to be apostles in the world.
We heard how Jesus, “began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics…So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
Then last week, we heard a kind of interlude about the execution of John the Baptist, but today, our gospel picks up with, “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.”
That means the ones who had been sent out had come back and were telling Jesus the stories of everything that had happened to them during that time.

And wow, what stories they must have had!
I mean, they had been sent out without much notice, without much in the way of training or provisions, dropped in the deep end with only Jesus’ example to guide them.
I’m sure they didn’t feel ready for those uncertain and unusual times.
I bet they missed their fellow apostles too.
But somehow, they got through it.

JESUS MAFA. Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

I wonder if, when they came back together, they were just so excited to share the highlights of what they had seen—their healing, their proclamations, their witnessing to the Kingdom of God that is at hand.
And maybe, as they got more comfortable with each other again, they shared the more difficult moments, too.
Their loneliness.
The times they failed to connect with people.
The doubts they grappled with along the way.
There was a lot to share.
But I’m struck with how Jesus responds to it all.
As the stories flow out, as the burdens of shortcomings are shared, as they work through that strange jumble of emotions, Jesus, the great storyteller and preacher simply listens.
I mean, he even suggests they go away, go on a kind of retreat, so they can tell these stories, reunite with each other, rest and restore themselves, focus on this holy time and prepare for the work that is ahead of them.
Because, even as the disciples were resting on retreat, they were suddenly surrounded by people who were looking for their help—a reminder of the work they had yet to do.
But after their experiences in the world, after their time away, I wonder if they felt better equipped for the ministry they shared, better prepared to do that work together.

I wonder too, if when they had been sent out, if any of the apostles felt like how Jesus would describe that crowd—as sheep without a shepherd.
Like they didn’t know where to go or how to do what they had been tasked with.
Like they had been abandoned.
I know that I have felt that way sometimes during the past year and a half.
Like a leader who didn’t know where we were going.
Like I had been tasked with new challenges I felt unprepared to tackle.
Like I was alone, isolated, exiled. Maybe some of you felt that way too.
Sometimes, I admit, that I looked for someone to blame. I’d blame our nation’s leaders for a slow, disjointed, inadequate response to the virus.
I’d blame our denominational leaders, wishing they could give clearer directives and instructions for how we should move forward.
I’d blame myself for all my failings, my hopelessness, and my good intentions that went awry.
And I’d wish that Jesus would just come and fix it all.

Today we also hear from the Prophet Jeremiah a message to the people as they are about to go into exile.
And, wow that message starts with a bang: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.”
Woe to the leaders who failed!
You have brought destruction on the people!
And I admit, it can be really easy to focus on that first part, right?
To hear this as a text of judgment and condemnation.
But as I reflected on this text this week, I noticed that most of this prophecy is not about the leaders, really.
It’s clear they have failed.
It’s clear that the people are dealing with the consequences.
And while I know that it can feel almost cathartic to blame someone for the problems we’re facing, it’s as if the Prophet is saying what good is it to focus on the leaders’ failings now?
Because more than anything, this message is focused not on the leaders, but on the ordinary people.
It’s a proclamation of hope to those people who are now facing an uncertain future, a time when they probably feel shepherd-less and abandoned.
It’s a promise that, even as they go into exile, that God is going with them.
That even if they can’t always recognize it, God is always with them.
And not only that, it’s a steadfast promise that God will bring the people back home again.
That God isn’t finished with them yet.
That God is going to do something new in their midst—that they won’t return to the old way of doing things, the old “normal” they were used to, because God will raise up new shepherds, righteous leaders, that will lead the people into the new future God has in store for them.

As we start coming back together in person, returning from our time when the church was deployed into the world, when we were in our own sort of exile, I look forward to our holy time of regathering.
I am excited to hear our stories, to hear the challenges we faced and the difficulties we have overcome.
And as we listen to those stories, I look forward to glimpsing where God has been active in our lives during the past year and a half, even if we couldn’t always recognize it on our own.
To see where God was with us in the excitement and the sorrows, the pain and the joy.
To see where we have changed and grown, where God has been equipping us in our own way for what lies ahead so we can start to see together how God is leading us into a new future.
A reminder that we cannot go back to the old ways of doing things, the practices and failings that brought us to this place, but, leaving behind the assumptions and inadequacies of the past, we can walk together into a new tomorrow.

When we do come back in person, whether it’s next week or in the weeks ahead, we may find ourselves dealing with all sorts of uncertainties—uncertainties around us, uncertainties within us, uncertainties of how we even interact with each other again.
But no matter what happens, no matter the jumble of emotions within us, we can be certain that it is our shepherd, Jesus, who is gathering us together, who is inviting us to share our stories and listening as we do, who is gathering us for a holy time of rest and renewal, and who then is leading us back out into our new world to do God’s work together.

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