Monday, July 27, 2009

Surprised by Bread

“Surprised by Bread” Sermon for 7.26.09
2 Samuel 11.1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3.14-21; John 6.1-21

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s Gospel: “He said to them, ‘It is I: do not be afraid.’”

Today we heard about two huge miracles performed by Jesus. Which is the huger? Would you rather have to feed 5,000 or walk on a stormy sea?

Let’s start with feeding the 5,000: What actually happened and can we believe it? Are we supposed to? There are those who see it as a parable of unselfishness: after the boy donated his picnic, everyone else was moved to share as well. I like to imagine their surprise at his na├»ve generosity and their desire to emulate it. That would be a miracle—both wonderful and God-pleasing! We aren’t even told the boy’s name or his age. Maybe he had gone up to Andrew and tugged on his sleeve. Maybe he spoke with Jesus, exchanging words that the boy never forgot. This is one of those tantalizing Biblical mini-dramas that offer real food for thought. We can never know the far-reaching consequences of a seemingly small gesture. I know that God loves such moments and loves us as we—sometimes unwittingly—offer them.

The story can also be a paradigm for the radical hospitality of social justice: a commitment, like that of our Lord, to work for Bread for the World, to insist that in Christ’s kingdom come to earth there is enough for all. I spent some time at our sister Methodist Church on Clinton Avenue in Kingston this week and was moved and energized by the throng, some fifty strong, that gathered at the Soup Kitchen for their midday meal. The kitchen staff is from the community, the blessing was said by a young girl probably in middle school, and the pastor not only greeted the people by name and spoke to many as her parishioners, but invited others to come to church.

But the Town of Esopus United Methodist Church practices radical hospitality and radical energy as well. You are once more preparing yourselves to feed and delight the town with the Apple Festival, and to support your church in so doing. I can’t wait to be part of it: 500 home-made pies! Breakfast and dinner! And last year, you carried on despite personal grief and loss. As one committee member said, with a kind of surprise, “We never know how we do it, but the next year, we do it again!” No one can tell me that such energy and devotion is not driven by faith.

Each of these readings can be justified. As I studied it this week, I realized what in the story made these readings possible. In the three other gospels, the disciples worry about feeding the crowd and suggest that Jesus send the people away. And in these other accounts, Jesus is busy either curing the sick or teaching the crowd for whom he feels loving concern.
Jesus is not on mission in the same way in John. The spotlight here is rather on the way Jesus takes charge of the feeding. He is the one who challenges the disciples by asking where they intend to buy bread for the crowd. I’ve been there with Philip: “No way we can afford that, not if we save for six months!” Andrew starts to see a solution. He has noticed the boy with the loaves and fishes—but he rejects it: “What are a few loaves and fish among so many people?”

Jesus neither sends the people away, nor ignores their needs. He calmly asks the disciples to make the people “recline,” as if for a banquet. He does not use the ordinary verb for “sit.” They get to recline on green grass, almost as though Jesus wants them to remember the green pastures from the 23rd Psalm. In gestures that anticipate the Eucharist, he takes those few loaves, gives thanks over them, and distributes them. We shift from calculations and worries about quantity—many/few, enough/not enough—to the quality of the feeding and are told that the people are satisfied. Here again, they might remember the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Last but not least, we are reminded of Moses feeding his crowd in the wilderness. Manna was provided, but if not consumed that day it became wormy. But Jesus’ flock gets to take leftovers home. We can imagine their surprise. Or perhaps by that time, the people simply understood their meal as a royal gift and understood as well that nothing from His meal need be wasted. I can see why they wanted to make him King. There must have been a special bond among those who had been there. I wonder how many of them realized that the bread and the fish that had been distributed were just the start and that Jesus’ bread could continue to surprise them.

The miracle of this story is not the miracle of multiplying these small resources. It is the miracle of feeding in a Eucharistic way. Satisfying as the Eucharist satisfies, as love satisfies. The miracle is that Jesus takes a small loaf and uses it as a sign of his unity with these people. He makes them one. This unity would exist if the crew were 5 million or 500 or 5. This is the divine surprise—that the numbers aren’t the point. The unity is.

With this fundamental understanding of Jesus’ sacramental action, anything and everything else can follow. And it does in the next episode when the disciples try to cross the Sea of Galilee. This is not simply another miracle. It is an extension of the feeding that the disciples have just witnessed. It is a revelation of what made the feeding possible.

Exhausted by the heavy sea and then even more terrified by the appearance of Jesus walking across that sea to them, these disciples are told what the crowd cannot yet understand. Jesus identifies himself to them with the same words that God had used to reassure Moses: “Say to the Israelites, I AM has sent me to you.” Here Jesus says, “It is I: do not be afraid. The one who satisfies the needs of so many vulnerable people will also protect you.” The story concludes with all we need to know: the boat reaches shore safely.

What happened inwardly to the disciples during that experience? Did they fully hear that the voice speaking to them was the voice of God? Did they grow closer to one another and to Jesus? As we read the story, do we realize that this is the voice that will satisfy us, that we can hear and trust and rely on?

The passage from Ephesians urges us not to be tossed and blown about in our faith. There is a clear command here. We are to grow up “in every way into him” who knits and joins us together into one body. And there is a promise as well. Christ is the head of this body. As we listen to his voice, this body of which we are a part will grow and build itself up in love.

Like the nameless people on the hillside, we can increasingly understand that the bread distributed is only the start. Jesus’ gifts will continue to surprise us and the world. They will challenge the way the world makes its calculations. The bread and the wine that we will partake in communion next week powerfully unite us with our Lord. But every day we can be surprised and changed by God’s presence among us, by God’s desire to feed and save us from harm. The ongoing miracle is that we belong to Him and through Him to one another.

Let us pray: Lord Jesus, you were the insignificant one who lived and died to give us a new way of numbering our fellow human beings: you called a negligible number of women and men to be your first followers; you blessed the five barley loaves and two small fishes of a boy for the feeding of a multitude; you gave significance and value to the one over against the ninety and nine; you promised your presence to the two or three who gather in your name: Continue to surprise us, teach us to do our arithmetic with you. Amen.
(Prayer adapted from John Carden’s A Procession of Prayers)
c. 1310

Monday, July 6, 2009

Thorns and Holy Ground

“Thorns and Holy Ground” Sermon for 7.05.09
2 Samuel 5.1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12.2-10; Mark 6.1-13

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s epistle: “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses…for whenever I am weak, then strong I am.”

I’m amazed by the demands placed upon all the people we meet in our Scripture this morning: the people in Jesus’ hometown and Jesus himself; the Corinthians whom Paul is addressing and also Paul. But perhaps these demands are also ones that we face….

We all know about jealousy in families and communities and about people not understanding one another—especially us. Then we get grumpy and we start talking about it. Today’s lesson from Mark asks us to remember just one more such experience in the life of Jesus. Jesus returns to his hometown and meets outright rejection. Hearing him preach in the synagogue, his neighbors are taken by surprise; they are awestruck and perhaps a little frightened. He is one of them and yet he has a power that they cannot fathom. Does it come from a good source or not? Can mighty works come from the work-worn hands of an ordinary craftsman? As amazement and suspicion ripen, his neighbors even suggest that he is illegitimate by calling him “Mary’s son.” For villagers of their time and place, they are acting predictably. Someone whose behavior separates him or her from others is seen as a cause of shame and dishonor.

In short, they are “scandalized by him.” Now this verb really means “stumbled.” They are stumbled by him. He is like a stone that trips them. I have a certain sympathy for these townsfolk. They are just ordinary people, trying to make sense of an extraordinary event that has intruded itself into their lives and for which their traditional explanations are inadequate. I don’t think I have the right to feel superior to them; chances are that at some point I must have done the same thing. Even though I know the end of Jesus’ story—know that those calloused hands will be stretched on the cross for me—haven’t I ever asked in some dark moment, “Who is this Jesus? Can I really put my hope in Him?”

In the second part of the passage, Jesus responds with that oft-quoted adage: “No prophet is without honor, except in his home town, among his own relatives, and in his own home.” Right. Except that the big word here is not so much “honor” but “prophet.” The Classical versions of this saying use a phrase like “no person is honored”; they don’t use “prophet.” Jesus is comparing himself to those rejected prophets in the Old Testament—Jeremiah, Amos—and to the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah who is despised and rejected. Prophets often make us uncomfortable: They speak for the outcast, for those who have no voice; they speak of God’s displeasure as well as God’s love; they live simply and don’t always fit in; they require our charity. Jesus understands all of this, although it may sadden him.

But then something happens that may initially have surprised Jesus: He is “unable to do any mighty deed, apart from healing a few sick people. And he was shocked at their unbelief.” Was he a kind of magician who had suddenly lost his power? Could their unbelief change Him? We know the answer. When we close our hearts to the power of God, when we reject a relationship with God, the mighty works that lead us to his love may not take place. God’s grace can always surprise and overwhelm us, but in this story, the resistance of pettiness, of tradition, maybe even of fear, is too strong. Sadly, these people were unable to perceive that an ordinary someone, someone who was fully human and who seemed so much like them, could also transcend and transform with holy power.

Isn’t this our daily challenge? To perceive both the human—the ordinary—and the divine—the extraordinary—at work in our world? To know Jesus as our Redeemer—our very own—and yet also to see Him in all those ordinary ones whom He would have us serve? At some point during my teaching this winter, I realized that I was viewing my students differently. I’ve always cared about them and I’ve been aware of pressures from family or from community, inner-city or highly affluent. Either can be tough.

But the students I tutored this time were a particularly intense group. Someone would be assigned to me after expulsion, but I was rarely given the details. I would simply meet a silent, awkward teen at the library. As we worked together, a relationship would develop and then I would hear the stories, sometimes first from parents. My growing awareness of them as wonderful, potential students with whom I loved working—whatever their academic ability—grew as strongly as my awareness of some very poor and possibly unresolved choices on their parts.

There was my 10th-grader fighting alcohol addiction, and my 8th-grader who gave birth three days after her fifteenth birthday, and my 18-year old senior who had to turn himself in for a (grown-up) prison sentence just hours after writing my exam on environmental social studies. There were others whose bodies were challenging them: one wheelchair-bound because of untreated Lyme disease and one with whom I worked on Saturdays and Sundays since he was in Philadelphia during the week receiving radiation therapy. Struggling with their own sense of failure or despair, these were all—on some real level—just ordinary teens. More than that, they were my precious students, blooming and learning and proud of themselves, understanding our one-on-one sessions together as an opportunity they had not had before. For me, it was a holy time, made all the more so because of this curious blend of failure and success.

There is a not dissimilar meeting between the holy and the earthly in Paul’s words to the Corinthians that we heard this morning. The Corinthians were pushing Paul to the limit and he was forced to establish his authority by reporting a vision beyond all visions that has been given him and by insisting that he also had experienced real pain. He does so wonderfully by confiding—in the third person—the experience of being carried up into heaven: “I know a person in Christ….” He could boast about this and he does, but not on his own behalf. He boasts only on behalf of his weaknesses in comparison to God’s grace and strength.

Moreover he reminds the Corinthians that “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me.” Presumably this was to help him keep humility and perspective. The term that Paul uses is pretty graphic since it means a pointed stake, the kind one would use to impale a prisoner or build a barricade for defense. Just as Jesus alluded to the prophets in commenting on his hometown, so Paul may be comparing himself to Job, a just man whom Satan hopes to corrupt. Paul has begged God three times to remove this affliction, but God does not, and Paul has come to believe that this is one more way in which God shows that Grace is sufficient. So Paul feels that he can even boast about his weakness because the power of Christ is sustaining him

This is pretty strong stuff, but there have been times when I have felt there was a stake poking away at my life. Maybe you have too? Paul’s thorn may allow us—ordinary us—to identify with this extraordinary servant of God. “If we see in that weakness, as he did, the way for God’s power to be vigorously at work, then we, like Paul, can be God’s agents” (p. 167 NIB). Paul’s thorn can also help us keep our perspective: We each do pretty terrific things. I sometimes think of myself as the Little Red Hen. You remember: “Well,” said the Little Red Hen, “I will do it myself.” And she did! But it is always God’s strength reaching through us into the world. And on the other hand, when we are discouraged, exhausted, frightened, we must not give up, for God’s power is equally made perfect precisely in this weakness.

I wonder too whether it’s not important for us, on this joyful morning, to link Paul’s thorn to the hurt and shock of our Lord in his own hometown. This is a morning that is full of new beginnings for the Town of Esopus UMC and for each of us here. We are sure to bump up against one another’s ordinariness and weaknesses and thorns. But these need not trip us. If we stumble over them, we can pick ourselves up. As a people, let’s try to remember that we are both ordinary and blessed by God, standing on ground that God makes holy. As we open ourselves to fuller relationship to Christ and, through Christ, to one another, we can transform the here and now.

There is a hymn that speaks of grain once scattered on the hillside that is made one through the sacramental breaking of our bread (UMH #565). For us too as we start on our journey together this morning, it is fitting that we begin the celebration of our oneness with Christ, with one another, and with the world, with the gifts of ordinary grape juice and bread.

Let us pray: We thank you for the extraordinary gifts that you are constantly showering us with. Help us to travel lightly enough so that we may recognize these gifts in ourselves and others. Keep us from pride, discouragement, and unbelief. Guide us in keeping this precious church, set in this beautiful town, a beacon and a place of holy ground! Amen.
c. 1667

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Letter of Introduction

Dear People of Christ,

I think telling you what has meant the most to me is the best way for us to begin to get acquainted: Church has always been central to my life, along with singing and music. Over the years, I have also loved teaching, first in colleges and then on the elementary and secondary levels. Since Divinity School, I have been working with homebound students, both those who, because of illness, are unable to go to school, and those who have been invited to leave; I also prepare students for college entrance. All of this work has been a rewarding ministry for me.

I cherish my family, including the memory of those who have been called home, especially my beloved Karl. My passion for nurturing has included foster children and the donkeys, sheep, goats, ducks and geese on my small farm in Easton, CT, “Ducks in a Row.” (I hope they are!) I honor God’s earth and all its creatures, including plants and the waters that support life. But I am also a bookworm, especially fond of literature, history, and theology. I write and paint whenever I have the chance.

Pastor Dora