8 Pentecost B, 2021: No Place for a Story

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Texts for Preaching
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56; “The Place for No Story” by Robinson Jeffers

I do not usually talk about poets
in a sermon,
and to be honest,
though I am a student of poems
I am not a student of poets.
Mostly I could care less about poets.

But today I want to start
with a brief nod to Robinson Jeffers
because he was a Jeremiah.
I have talked about Jeremiah a lot,
and as Jeff Hodde might tease me,
I like to talk about Jeremiah and Isaiah
more than Jesus.

The readings for the past couple of weeks
and in the next few as well,
put an emphasis on prophets
and prophetic mission.

Jeffers is an example of a modern prophet
and worth noting.
He was the son of a Presbyterian minister
and biblical scholar, poor boy,
and he became a student of medicine,
anthropology, literature, classic languages,
and forestry.
Oh, and he graduated
with an undergraduate degree at 18.
That is not to say you have to be brilliant
to be a prophet.
That is just one of his gifts — if indeed it is a gift.

Anyway, to make a long story short,
Jeffers turned to writing poetry and plays full time
and developed what he called
the philosophy of “inhumanism.”

He thought that human beings
had been jilted by God
because of our obsession with ourselves
that had led to so many crimes against nature.
Think Jeremiah:
“‘How terrible it will be for the leaders of Judah,
who are scattering and destroying my people,’
says the Lord.”

“They are responsible for the people, so the Lord, the God of Israel, says to them:
‘You have scattered my people and forced them away and not taken care of them.
So I will punish you for the evil things you have done.’”

Well, Jeffers’ fame and poetry
reached a zenith before WWII
but in the extreme patriotism of wartime
and the Red Scare following it,
he was criticized as unpatriotic
and his strong denunciation of war
and its extreme destruction of nature
made him a target.

Like Jeremiah who was thrown down a well
and left to die,
Jeffers was shunned for his prophetic rage
against American imperialism
and his philosophical shift
from human
to not-human.

He is an example of a modern prophet.
The title of that poem,
“The Place for No Story”
is to say,
look at this spectacular natural scene —
it is a place that human presence
will only dilute
if not destroy.
Stay out, get away, leave it alone.
This place
is for its own sake
not for human consumption.

Well, whether or not you can go along
with his non-anthropomorphic philosophy,
and his God that has not one iota of humanity,
or his bitter critique of American imperialism,
he is an example of the voice
crying in the wilderness.

And by wilderness,
the bible does not mean nature’s emptiness
so much as the landscape of human power
and the carnage human power
leaves everywhere it goes.
Any voice that speaks in its midst,
against the interests of human power,
will be an endangered voice.
We see that playing out on the streets today
and just about anywhere
the clash of powers
exercises their implements of coercion.

So the prophetic tradition
gives us the image of walking upstrea
against the traditional exercise of human power —
whether that is in the halls of government,
banking, commerce, military,
or the church.
Jesus stands
and teaches
in that tradition.

The reading we have today from the lectionary
cuts out a big piece of a larger story
that demonstrates Jesus’ prophetic nature.
You can see that it skips from verse 34 to 53.

What we see in these missing verses
is that a prophet does not bath
in shallow companionship
nor seek fame and fortune.

In Mark, Jesus is always trying to get away
from the crowds
and escape to “lonely” places.
In other words,
where people are not.
Think Robinson Jeffers
and “The Place for No Story.”
Jesus wants to get to a place
and do something that will have no story
associated with it.
BUT, when the needs of people arrive
he always responds — no matter how tired
or how fierce his own longings.
The verses we read today
are followed by a feeding of 5000 story.
But the end of that story
is what always hits me.

“Immediately” it says,
as soon as the people were done eating,
Jesus sends his disciples
to the other side of the lake.”
What does he do then?
He stays there to say good bye
to each one of the 5000.
He stays there
to send them home one by one
before dark,
and makes sure
the very last person is addressed.

Only then,
after everyone has gone,
does he go get his needs met.
What it says literally, is:
“After sending them away, (his disciples
already gone), he went into the hills to pray.”

That scene is followed
by Jesus walking on water in the dark,
to catch up with the disciples
still rowing to the other side.

But then the cycle starts all over again:
A lonely place gets crowded
with people flocking to have their needs met
by Jesus,
Jesus addressing them the best he can,
Jesus teaching them, which
is what he had come to do,
and then finding another
lonely place.

do not get me wrong.
I am not saying we all have to be Jesus.
That is an awful notion
that traditional Christianity
has foisted upon us.
It is not our task to be Jesus.
We are not supposed to be little Jesuses.
Our task is to learn from him
and be ourselves.

Our task is to learn from him,
and the other prophets,
and become better version of ourselves.

We will not all be
Robinson Jeffers
or Mary Oliver
or Wendell Berry —
prophets able to voice the sacred
as it calls to us from out of the natural world.

We previously
or currently
have stood inside banks,
city councils,
military corridors,
engineering companies,
behind the bar or the register,
inside classrooms,
at desks
inside or outside the offices of power,
on assembly lines
of looking down at the machinery
from the air conditioned window of management.

Wherever we have stood
or currently stand,
the sacred calls out to us
and pleads
to be voiced.

It isn’t a plea so much as a word —
a word with our name on it.
It is left up to us to voice it or not.
But left unvoiced,
the sacred warns us
we will have contributed to
the banishment
or the exile…
or the destruction
or the end
or whatever it is
the sacred has tried to warn us about.

The voice that calls us by name,
from out of the past
or in this moment,
wants our voice to speak for it
and our lives to live for it
and to help make us a better version of ourselves.

That is what prophetic means,
and that is what,
these days,
the prophet does.