Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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The park bench

Dec 16, 2012

Sermon from the 2012 Bishop's Retreat
St. Mark 1:32-39

Years ago one of my great joys was going with our daughter Debbie to the park. Our little trips gave Lois a break from both of us and time to focus on Debbie's baby brother, Justin. And it gave us time together. It did not take her long to discover the pleasure of the hand-cranked-wood-and-pipe-merry-go-round. It did not take me long to convince her to try the swing set instead. Because, well, you know: while the meery-go-round was wonderful for the push-ee, it left much be desired for the push-er!

She loved the swing set, especially when she learned to pump! Up and down, her little legs swinging, the wind blowing her hair. And I loved it, too. I would go and sit on the nearby park bench, watching Debbie and the other children.

And it was there I learned the wisdom of going to a deserted place like Jesus did in this Gospel. Because Debbie's swinger-ecstasy would sometimes be swinger-agony as her concentration lagged, and her grip loosened, and she would fly from the swing to her knees. Now never was this tragedy as traumatic as it appeared. She would run -- but sometimes limp for dramatic effect -- over to the park bench to be consoled by the presence of a parent, by Daddy's embrace, by the amazingly curative power of a kiss even on knees that were not bleeding. Sometimes she sought my consolation when the pressing presence of other children threatened her and sometimes she just came over to make sure I was there.  

She would come to the park bench. It is to the park bench that we, sisters and brothers, come now. It was to the park bench that Jesus retreated.

In the middle of sentences loaded with action -- healing suffering people, casting out demons, responding to impatient disciples, preaching from town to town, in the midst of that we hear these quiet words: "In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed."

In the center of breathless activity, we hear a restful, cleansing sigh. Surrounded by hours of movement we find a moment of quiet stillness. In the heart of great involvement there are words about withdrawal. After much togetherness there is solitude. In the midst of action there is prayer.

The more I hear this nearly silent sentence locked in between loud words of action, the more I have the sense that part of the secret of Jesus' ministry is in that deserted place, in that retreat to the park bench to be with his Abba.

There he is given the courage to follow God's will and not human will...to speak God's word and not human words...to do God's work and not the deeds of human devising...It is in that deserted place, at that park bench, where Jesus enters into intimacy with his Abba, that his ministry is shaped.

Dear sisters and brothers: without that deserted place with God, our lives are in danger.

Without silence, words lose their meaning. Without listening, speaking no longer heals. Without distance, closeness cannot cure. Without a deserted place, our actions, however kind and sacred, become empty gestures. The careful balance of speech and silence, withdrawal and involvement, distance and closeness, solitude and community...the balance forms the basis for ministry. That careful balance is the gift given at the park bench.

That's why it is so important that we are here. There's so much to do, especially in these times. In our culture we are expected by others and ourselves to accomplish something. And for more than a few of us, that something is akin to working for FEMA or the Red Cross. We think about ourselves in terms of our contribution to life, and we feel a call to that: to give advice, to comfort, to teach, to lead, to preach.

And while this commitment to our call can be healthy, it can also be a sign of how far we really are from the Shalom God desires for us. When we start being impressed by the results of our work or even the longing for results, we slowly come to the erroneous conviction that life is one large scoreboard where God is totaling up points to measure our worth. And soon we are selling our souls to the grade-givers...soon we are not only in the world but of it...soon we become what people make us. We're intelligent because of an A on that test. We're helpful because someone says Thank You. We're likable because someone likes us. We're indispensable because someone thinks we are important. We're worthy because we have successes.

And the more we allow accomplishments -- the results of our actions or even the hope for those results -- to become the criteria of our worth, the more we are going to walk on tip-toe with our radar on, never sure we'll be able to live up to the expectations.

For beneath the seemingly healthy stress on result-producing ministry, many of us walk around with the constant fear that we are not as smart or as good or as lovable or worthwhile as we want our congregations or our superiors or our families or our God to believe. This corroding fear that our human weaknesses might be discovered prevents community and creativity and, in fact, limits even our witness to the Gospel. When we have sold our identity to the judges of this world, the grass is always greener somewhere else, we become restless because what we need is affirmation and praise, we become isolated because friendship and love are impossible without a mutual vulnerability and we just can't take that chance.

Jesus went to a deserted place and there he prayed. There he was reminded that all he was and had was gift...that all the word he spoke came from his Abba...that all the works he did were the works of the One who had sent him. In that deserted place -- that park bench -- Jesus was made free even to fail...even to die.

A life without a deserted place, a life without a quiet center, easily becomes destructive. When we cling to the results of our action as our only way of self-identification, then we become possessive and defensive and tend to look at other people as enemies to be kept at a distance rather than friends with whom we share the gift of life.

But at the park bench, consoled by Abba's presence, held in God's arms, kissed by divine healing -- we slowly discover that we are not what we accomplished or conquer. We are what is given to us.

At the park bench we listen to the One who spoke to us before we could form a word, who healed us before we could make any gesture to help, who set us free long before we could free others, who loved us long before we could love anyone.

At the park bench we discover that we are worth far more than the sum total of our accomplishments.

At the park bench we recognize that the healing words we speak are not just our own but are given to us...that the love we haltingly express is in fact God's love...that the new life we share is not a property we cling to but a gift freely given which in turn is given again by us.

At the park bench we find that we are part of a community of faith in which there is no need to defend but much to share, a community in which we work hard but are not destroyed by the lack of results, a community in which we remind ourselves that to the eyes of the One to whom we flee for consolation, we are transparent, weak, needy...yet that One says: "It's OK. Don't be afraid. You're all right. You are mine."

"In the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place and there he prayed."    

From that place Jesus went on to proclaim the message born in intimacy with his Abba...words of comfort and consolation, of hope and warning, of unity and division. And within a few years that messaged helped bring about his rejection and death. But the loving God who had spoken to him and held him and kissed him at the park bench raised him up as the sign and source of hope and new life, that sign which we celebrate now in this Holy Communion.

Oh, I know, this place is not so deserted as, perhaps, we would like or need. But I also know that you have been swinging on that scary swing set, haven't you? You are weary of the other children surrounding you, aren't you? You've fallen and scraped your knees once too often and you feel bruised, perhaps bloodied, don't you?

Here...now...and, I pray, over these hours we are together, there is a deserted place for you, a park bench where you can know and feel the presence and the embrace and the kiss which your Abba has for you.


Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo



disaster relief
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