Now it is so that on a first read through there may not appear to be much that actually ‘preaches’ in this week’s Gospel. Indeed, the folks who put together our lectionary selections completely skipped over the vivid scene of Jesus feeding the five thousand (not counting the women and children) with five loaves of bread and a couple of fish not to mention Jesus walking on water, leaving us with only the book-ends in this section of Mark 6 to ponder. Oh, one could certainly consider the gift of “a deserted place all by ourselves where we might rest awhile.” Only the problem is that Jesus and his disciples never actually get that much needed break as the crowds get there ahead of them. And you could certainly spend some time on Jesus’ compassion for the crowds, for they, like you and I, are often those “sheep without a shepherd…” Either way, this time through I got caught by the image that comes to us at the end of this chapter of Mark. I got to wondering at what it must have looked like, felt like, sounded like, yes, even smelled like to have all those sick people lying in the marketplaces just waiting for even a brush with the healer, with Jesus.
I had read through this section several times and found myself jarred by it — those sick and suffering people on their mats being carried into a place where the sick were, I expect, not often seen. Rather these were places where normally trading took place, where public discourse was encouraged, where friends and neighbors met — but these public squares would surely be a far cry from anything resembling a hospital! My thoughts came into focus when I read Elizabeth Webb’s Commentary in Working Preacher where she describes this as “A Kingdom Economy” — where those in need of healing become more important than ‘business as usual.’ And so this is where I find my ‘Gospel call’ this week.
For can’t you just imagine the reaction of those who were accustomed to ‘business as usual’ in the marketplace? I, for one, have to believe that some among them would have protested the presence of all those sick people (and their families and friends) clogging up the walkway making it difficult if not impossible for those who came to market to buy or to trade to get close enough to do so! Or voicing their concern that the sights and sounds and smells of such suffering would put off the appetites of those who might otherwise have made a purchase!
Now in my world today, I cannot say that I know what would be comparable to the ‘agora,’ the marketplace, of Jesus’ time. And yet, I don’t think we have to go that far to find meaning in the possibility placed before us now. I mean, just imagine what would it look like if this were to happen even in many of our church buildings! In fact, the echoes of this ring especially clear for me in this way:
I, for one, can remember a time when church buildings were in at least one way, very public places. Indeed, when I was a child most churches in the community I called home stood open twenty four hours a day. If one was so inclined, one could enter at any hour of the day or night. That much has surely changed. And today, given the anxiety raised over violence in many of our communities, the congregation I serve is moving towards implementing technology which will surely keep us ‘safer’ — or at least as ‘safe’ as we can be, but if we are not careful will threaten to cut us off entirely from those very sorts of people who were carried to Jesus in the marketplaces so long ago.
And yet it is so that our church buildings do not have to have security cameras and automatic locks to be less than what today’s Gospel in ‘a kingdom economy’ would have them be. Too often we take much (perhaps too much?0 pride in the appearance of the building, the cleanliness of the carpet, the shine on our stained glass windows. Too often these become more valuable (and, yes, certainly more easy to control) than efforts to make our precious places of worship fully accessible to those who need them, who need us, who need Jesus most of all.
And so this week as I preach I will be pondering with my people what it looks like for us to be a place which reflects those public marketplaces of Jesus’ day, particularly as they were lined with the sick and the suffering and those who loved them enough to get them there… As I do so, I may consider one or all of these…
- The fact that where we gather for worship Holy Communion is celebrated weekly and all are welcome and all are fed whether it is their first time or thousandth time, whether they can get to the altar rail or not, whether their preference is gluten free or grape juice or wine… For this is ‘God’s Kingdom Economy…’
- The chaos and the mess experienced a few weeks back when due to rain, Vacation Bible School had to be moved inside for several days alongside the fact that decades later we hear about cherished memories of those who now bring their children because of their own cherished memories of this experience when they were young. Members or not… ‘For this is God’s Kingdom Economy…’
- The opportunity before us in the days to come to host a funeral lunch for a member of the community. The death is that of a young person whose life ended too soon. Her dad is my precious friend who is pastor of a neighboring, primarily African American, congregation. They have the space for worship but they do not have the room for both worship and for the lunch. And so yes, as a sign of the deepening relationship between two worshiping communities which could not be more different from one another, we will welcome them into our space, into our kitchen, into our social hall and we will love them as best we can… ‘For this is God’s Kingdom Economy…’
No, the place I am serving is nowhere near where today’s images call us to be, but we are beginning to hear and comprehend and to respond to the call to emulate what it means to be participants in ‘God’s Kingdom Economy,’ bit by bit, step by step. I will offer these images as both signs of where we are and as encouragement to become more and more reflections of God’s intent for us. And I am grateful that at least we are this far, even while I recognize how far we have yet to go…
- Does it make sense to you to hear this week’s Gospel as a way to consider how we might be called to use our often less than public church buildings in new or different ways? Why or why not?
- What examples, positive or negative, might you use to bring this point across? For instance, where is your congregation on the journey to becoming more and more a reflection of “God’s Kingdom Economy?”
- If you cannot find examples in your congregation, how might these images call us to reflect on other public places in your community? The Public Library (where the homeless often congregate)? Our public schools (where all children are to be educated)? The emergency room of your local hospital (where all are supposed to be treated)? What others come to mind?