Steal Away

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Steal away!  Steal away!  Steal away to Jesus.
Steal away!  Steal away home.  O Lord, I long to come home.

My Lord, he calls me.  He calls me by the thunder.
The trumpet sounds within-a-my soul.  O Lord, I long to come home.

Green trees are bending.  We sinners stand a-trembling.
The trumpet sounds within-a-my soul.  O Lord, I long to come home.

8th Sunday after Pentecost

July 22, 2012

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Peder Stenslie

The action in today’s Gospel lesson is set against a backdrop of frenetic chaos.  The disciples have just returned from being out on their own for several days.  I’m sure they were dirty, tired and hungry.  They are unable, however, to find rest or a quiet place to talk to Jesus about their experiences.  This is because of the incredible crowds of people that have come to see Jesus. 

Jesus tries to get the disciples to a deserted place so they can have some time alone to rest and recharge… and so he can talk to them about what happened while they were on their own.  But there’s no escaping the crowds.  With so many eyes following everything Jesus does, wherever Jesus goes, the crowds follow.  When he and the disciples arrive at the place they thought would be quiet and deserted, they discover that the crowds saw where they were going and actually beat them there.

If I were Jesus, I would have been highly frustrated and annoyed.  But that’s not what happens.  Instead we get that beautiful verse 34:  “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

After that, Jesus and the disciples… still looking for a quiet place to rest… sail to yet another location, but there’s no peace there either.  They are again overwhelmed with crowds of people who know who he is.  They come to him, looking for healing.

All these people are determined to get themselves to Jesus.  All these people have to see him… find out what he’s about.  They want healing for their lives. 

The people, of course, are right to do this.  They understand that nothing can compare to what Jesus brings to their lives. Christ gives life and healing.  And so they drop what they are doing and they go to him.  Only a fool would miss out on that.

The African American spiritual the kids sang before the sermon carries a similar theme.  “Steal away… steal away to Jesus.” The expression, “steal away” isn’t used much anymore but it means getting away to some place in a bold, but stealthy, manner.

The singer of that song knows where she needs to be.  She knows where she belongs.  And she is determined to get herself there.  She will not be denied.  In the midst of her trouble, she will “steal away to Jesus.”

Over the 24 years I’ve been a member of this congregation, I’ve said goodbye to many, many students who have left Y.C.C. to return to life on the outside.  The big question, of course, that faces them before they leave is the same one that faces you.  What will your life be like now?  What will you do?  Who will you hang out with?  What will you give your effort and energy to?

Will you heed the call of your creator and “steal away…” make the bold and daring move to a new life… to things and people that will give you a future… that will give you hope… that will help you become strong and healthy?

Or will you be lazy, foolish and cowardly… and just return to those familiar people, places and ways that have already weakened and hurt you?  It seems like an obvious choice; but, unfortunately, it’s not.  Many youth just can’t see or think straight about this.

A couple years ago, a student who was preparing to leave asked to talk to me a few times before he left.  As we talked about his future, I was astounded… and disappointed… at how he was already making excuses for not living smart, not trying hard and not changing his life.  He was going to hang out with the same friends.  He knew he shouldn’t, but he said he would probably use again… just a little though… keep it under control.  He was sure that wouldn’t be a problem. 

He said he planned to go to school and get a job; but no big hurry.  He was just going to chill for a while and hang out with friends and family.  He was very confident it would all work out fine.

I could see that there would be no stealing away here; just a return to the old and familiar.  There would be no new life, just the same old trouble.

And that’s how it played out.  I recently got an update on what’s going on in his life.   It’s predictable and depressing.  He has no job.  He’s not going to school.  He’s in trouble with the law.  He fathered a child but can’t see him because there’s a restraining order on him.  He’s sad and hurt about his messed up family.  He’s angry, blaming others for the consequences of his choices and behavior. 

Worst of all, he’s not there for a son who needs a real father.  There’s one more boy who will grow up without a father to show him the way.  He’s not there for a woman who needs a strong partner in raising a child.  He’s too busy being a child himself.  There are broken, wounded hearts all around…

Few in our history have known more pain and sorrow than the African American slaves who once populated the plantations of the south.  That’s why their songs of faith are so powerful today.  Out of lives of grief, they proclaimed the promise and power of God’s call to new life.

An interesting fact about many African American Spirituals, like “Steal Away,” is that they often carried a double meaning.   In addition to being powerful songs of religious faith, they contained coded clues and practical hints as to how people – when they were ready – should make their break for freedom. 

For example, in “Steal Away,” the singer describes the signs…  “Green trees are bending,” and “He calls me by the thunder.”  These phrases reminded the slave that it was during spring thunderstorms that (s)he should make their escape.  For numerous reasons, that would increase the chance that their flight to new life would succeed.

We are reminded that finding our way to new life requires more than just wishing.  It requires that we take smart, practical steps that make new life possible.  It requires that we take risks in order to make new life happen.  It requires that at some point we actually gotta move!  We gotta leave our old life so that new life is possible.

The words of these spirituals contain yet another precious gem.  It is the bold confidence that God is calling them to new life.  It is the firm assurance that God loves them and is drawing them forward to something good beyond what they’ve ever known.  It is the solid certainty that they were meant for more than a life of slavery.

“My Lord, he calls me…” the slave sings.  Think of what it means to know that.  “My Lord, he calls me.”  In the midst of all my trouble and pain, I know the creator of all that is loves me and calls me forward, away from abuse and grief, to the life I was created for.  Hearing that call, trusting in that love, I can find the strength to “steal away” to new life in Christ… a life of freedom, love and faith.

That is the promise reflected in today’s Gospel lesson and echoed in the words of the old slave spiritual.

Steal away to Jesus… because that is where we belong.  That is where new life is found.  And that is where wounded and grieving hearts are made whole.