Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 25th, 2021


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Our Gospel reading for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost has clearly omitted a major section in the middle of the sixth chapter of Mark, some 20 verses, so as to let the focus fall on Jesus boat crossing with his disciples/apostles and his compassion on the crowds seeking to be in his healing presence.

Left out here in Mark is the feeding of the five thousand, followed by a terrifying sea crossing where Jesus walks on the water and reassures his closest disciples.

This same sequence is found in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, one of those places where John and Mark have a similar arrangement—feeding of five thousand, and walking on the sea. There, in John, it leads onto fuller discourses about the bread from heaven.

In Year B, Mark’s year, the lectionary has chosen to let John speak at this point next Sunday, taking over from Mark, since they share the same sequence, and to bring into association as well the rich treasure house of feeding stories from the OT. Manna in the wilderness, Elisha multiplying scarce resources, and so forth. For five Sundays running. I will say more about this next week but note that Mark’s omitted section is not like unto last Sunday’s excision from 2 Samuel 6. Rather it occurs so as to offer space for the 4th Gospel to speak, otherwise not represented in the three-year Matthew, Mark, Luke cycle except on occasions like this. It brings a complementary word and also in this case a much a fuller one.

The transition from the death of John the Baptist, which we heard last Sunday, to today’s scene is only roughly provided in Mark. The disciples of John come and take care of his executed body (v. 29). The apostles of Jesus, as Mark calls them here, return from their successful missionary work and give report (V. 30). Yet the death of John hangs in the air, so to say. Jesus will begin to focus on his chosen twelve, after John’s death and his disciples mourning of him. The apostles go with Jesus into a desert place. The reference to sheep without a shepherd tracks closely the words of Moses in the wilderness, as provided in Numbers 27. Moses is about to die. He will not enter the promise land. God provides Joshua as his replacement, in compassion and in response to Moses’ request, seeing that “the people are like sheep with a shepherd.” Shepherd will become a general term for proper leadership, focused on the Davidic monarchy, but also encompassing the Moses foundational teaching-and-leading role in the wilderness. Moses too provides miraculous food for the sheep he shepherds. Jesus is about to feed five thousand. Jesus ends the retreat with his apostles to come ashore and have compassion. To give instruction, torah. To feed.

We cross over the feeding story that follows and the harrowing boat trip and land with Jesus on the western side of the sea of Galilee. The crowds throng Jesus wherever he goes, here bringing their sick, seeking like the woman with the flow of blood, only to touch his garment. And so be healed. The call for secrecy, a theme in Mark’s Gospel, cannot succeed in anything but slowing down the crowds by a trickle.

This is a Sunday where the Old Testament readings from Tracks 1 and 2 actually both suit the Gospel. Jeremiah speaks of a history of bad shepherds, in his frame of reference meaning the Davidic kings that have ruled over Judah, and for a brief time, the United Kingdom of David and Solomon. We have come to the end. The exile is near. The kings’ negligence over centuries of God’s patience has left the flock scattered. But God’s promises to David are not in vain even as the shepherds have with but rare exception—Hezekiah, Josiah—failed. God will be shepherd for the season of bringing home the scattered flock. This sequence matches the movement of the Psalter as a whole work. Book Three sees the end of the monarchy and the promises to David dashed to the ground. So the end of Psalm 89 whose first section only has been chosen for today’s reading. In Book 4 the Lord is King. And in the final book five psalms of ascent bespeak the ongoing hopes and pledges for David, Zion, God’s people, all nations and a renewed creation of endless alleluia.

In Jeremiah’s words: “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

The personal gathering, shepherding by God himself undergirds all that he means to pledge to David. To the degree that in coming days, this Son of David will himself be the LORD our righteousness, the good shepherd, the compassionate Jesus the crowds press forward to touch so as to but touch his garment and be healed.

Psalm 89 underscores the promises to David and all his lineage. I will punish them for all their transgressions. Even to the point of casting them off, as the end of the psalm soberly laments. But Psalm 89 is not the last word of the Psalter. And its “I will not take my love from him” and “his line will endure forever” override his punishing for a season, and indeed point ahead to Jesus Christ himself. The good shepherd. Psalm 23 captures this well. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, because in the Lord my shepherd, the Lord God, the Lord Jesus, I shall not be in want. David’s psalm become out own.

The reading from Ephesians moves us to chapter two and one of the most important asides in all the New Testament. Here Paul raises his eyes to speak directly to one group only: those previously outside the covenants of promise, strangers, without Christ and without God in the world. All those of us who listen in on God’s life with Israel, in the promises of 2 Samuel, in Psalm 23, Psalm 89, Jeremiah, and in Jesus with his chosen fellow Israelites. Whatever reconciling work God was doing in Jesus Christ, he did with one cross, not two. And in that one cross, God redeemed his people, and brought near those of us far off. Whatever dividing line existed by which God elected and promised and planned the future of good shepherds for his people Israel, involved equally the creating of new citizens, the issuing of library cards so we outsiders might read and see ourselves within the life and promises of Israel. The Holy Spirit makes this so. One new humanity made of two formerly, elected and adopted, with Jesus Christ the cornerstone.

The lectionary brings us into range and inclusion of all God has been saying to his people. A foundation of apostles and prophets, a symphony of prophetic witness, the OT, and an according testament now to be called New. Elder and Younger. Enduring and according. Promise and fulfillment. One Lord Good Shepherd in whom mercy and truth have embraced. The table spread before us, arcing over the valley of the shadow of death itself, is this Lord in whom all want is turned into praise and thanksgiving. Wherever he went, those in need had only to touch the hem of his garment to be healed. In him is our peace. For in his flesh he has made us into one new humanity. A new temple, the church, built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

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