Sunday, July 26, 2015

"What If?": John 6:1-21 - Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Bread Basket by DeFerrol Creative Commons Image on Flickr
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.  2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.  3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.  4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.  5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?"  6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.  7Philip answered him, "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little."  8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”  10Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.  11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.  12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, "Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost."  13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.  14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world."
             15When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
             16When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea,  17got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.  18The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.  19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified.  20But he said to them, "It is I; do not be afraid."  21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
My favorite childhood Bible story has always been the story of the feeding of the five thousand.

The reason is found in a simple illustration on the pages interleaved in my children’s Bible: of a little boy who gives his five loaves and two fish to Jesus.

That little boy doesn’t get too much attention in the text, which is a shame—because his generosity was a tremendous act of faith on his part that I could never picture myself doing as an adult in this situation…

What I can imagine is me stuffing that bread down my throat as fast as I could swallow it; hoping no one would notice.  [I’d leave the fish.  I don’t like fish].

As an adult, I worry: “what if this is the last food I’ll eat for a while?”  “What if the crowd turns rowdy and steals my food?” “What if I get lost in the desert and can’t find my way home?”

The child doesn’t ask “what if” questions…  The child trusts Jesus.  We adults, on the other hand, ask, “what if?”  The reason why is simple: all is not well with the world.

While our children watch Sesame Street, we watch 24-hour cable news—which reinforces what we already know to be true: that we inhabit a world of crime and violence; terrorism and civil unrest; scarcity and recession…  Not only must we look out for ourselves, we must constantly ensure that our children are safe, healthy, educated, and given their fair shot at the American dream.

Fear is out natural, human reaction to the state our world is in—and fear begins with all the “what if?” questions: “What if I get sick?”  “What if the economy tanks?”  “What if I lose my job?”  “What if ISIS attacks our country?”  “What if that candidate I despise gets elected president?”  “Are our schools safe?  Is our food safe?” 

We ask “what if” because survival is on the line!

Make no mistake—it’s not a sin to ask, “what if?”  It’s not a sin to worry or be afraid. 

It’s what we do with our fear that counts.  Fear has tremendous power to turn is in on ourselves.  It makes us vicious in protecting our own self-interests.  It drives us to treat our neighbors with contempt.  And, worst of all, it makes us greedy. 

It is the greedy who trample on people to acquire, consume, and hoard all they can eat at the buffet of life (maybe that’s better said “more than they can never eat.”

All the while, we pay no attention to the one in five children, and one in six adults who face hunger every day—all the while 70 billion tons of food goes to waste every year[1].

The crowds following Jesus knew something about food insecurity—and not merely because they were in the desert.  Most of them lived on the brink of hunger.  Then, a little boy brings his food to Jesus. 

Jesus takes the gifts in hand and gives thanks.  The bread and fish are distributed.  All five thousand eat their fill.  Twelve baskets of leftover pieces are collected, so that nothing is wasted.

We need to be clear that Jesus doesn’t merely solve a problem.  Jesus is revealing himself to be the bread of life for all the world to eat, so that all may partake of him and live forever. 

This is still happening, in our time, because this is a hungry world—and we are a hungry people.  We’re hungry for new life in a world full of death.  Our greed and wasteful consumption only exacerbates the problem.  And—there’s a billion people in the world with nothing to eat. 

But right here, right now—Jesus has come into our midst.  To all who are weary, broken, and afraid, he says “come and eat.”  To the sinners, he says “come and drink my forgiveness.” 

So we do as the boy does—we offer ourselves into the hands of Jesus: our hopes and dreams; our toils and cares; all that is precious and valuable.  With Jesus, we give thanks and pray that we and all that we have be transformed into all that God desires.  We eat and drink of the body and blood Jesus gives to us, so that we may become bread for all the world to share.

In offering ourselves, we offer up our worries and fears to Jesus just the same—which is a good thing.  We need to be rid of worry.  We need to be rid of all the “what ifs” that turn us into selfish, sullen, and ugly people.  When there’s worry, there’s no sense of trust in God, ourselves, or anyone else.  We’re always poor and we’re always threatened, even when we’re truly not. 

All that changes when we put ourselves in Jesus’ hands.  We eat and are satisfied by God’s abundance.  We define “belongings” in terms of relationships instead of stuff.  And—God’s people; our neighbors, are redeemed from the tyranny of hunger, hopelessness, and humiliation.   Any notion of “haves” and “have-nots” disappears because we all belong to Jesus.

So—the fish and the loaves are in your hands…  What will you do them?

[1] According to Feeding America,

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Breaking Busy: Mark 6:30–34, 53–56 - Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

fabcom_IMG_7024 by fabcom.  Creative commons image on flickr
30The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.  31He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  32And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.  33Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.  34As 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.  53When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.  54When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him,  55and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.  56And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
This past spring, I resolved to stop saying the word “busy,” because, quite frankly, I’d become sick of saying it—and hearing it.

I did a really good job not saying that word.  Life, however, stayed pretty much the same. 

Most days I’m bearing the weighty burdens of busyness and exhaustion…  But I find comfort in the fact that I and every other busy person in the world has much in common with Jesus and his disciples…

Today, Jesus is inviting them to go away to a deserted place to rest for a while—which they badly needed.  The disciples had just returned from villages and towns where Jesus had sent them.  But still, vast crowds of people were coming and going, and they permitted them “no leisure even to eat.”  Try as they did, there was no rest from the absolute deluge of human need that had literally followed them into the desert. 

I don’t think any of us will have trouble relating to what they were feeling in those moments: physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted.

It goes without saying that we need to be intentional about Sabbath.  We must step out of the endless cycle of trying to do more than can ever be done—and listen to Jesus.  We need Sabbath so that the Lord may restore our souls. 

But we need to go a bit further than that—because rest isn’t the focal point of our lives.  Work is—and almost all of our life’s priorities demand action.  

“Busy” isn’t a strong enough word to describe how we live.  In reality, we are religious in our pursuit of what matters most to us.  We’re religious about progress and success.  We’re religious about feeling secure and being in control.  We’re religious in defending ourselves and our interests against all enemies.  We’re religious about never missing out owning and experiencing the best of what’s around.  We’re religious about living a life that’s the envy of others. 

It is our human nature to religiously pursue that which Jesus has no part of.

Still—we wonder why we feel so empty; so frustrated; so bored even.  We wonder why we’re not happy. 

But here in the Gospel, we see a vast multitude of people who were beyond weary, hungry, and broken.  To Jesus, they were sheep without a shepherd.  Ultimately, Jesus will give them something more than food; more than rest; something more than a cure for their diseases.  Jesus gives them himself.  This goes for the crowds and the disciples.  Jesus their Savior; Jesus their healer; Jesus their bread; Jesus their Good Shepherd.

The challenge before us, then, is to understand that whatever it is we’re seeking—in our working, our resting, our playing, or our sleeping—is that if Jesus isn’t the focus and the desire at the heart of it all, you won’t find life—only death—and the fear, frustration, and weariness that precedes it.

Much of the time, we get so wrapped up in work, rest, and play on our terms, that Jesus is an afterthought.  We’re busy and we give him whatever’s left, if anything

It’s frustrating how the Christian life doesn’t lead us to magical disappearance of all that brings us fear, frustration, fatigue.  It doesn’t make our problems go away, nor does it secure for us a perennial prosperity.  The Christian life isn’t lived on the mountaintop—but down below, in the wild wilderness of the present.  Real life means burdens, trials, pains, and yes—busyness.  But Jesus is present in the midst of it all!  It matters to him that you’re weary and broken.  It matters to him that afraid.  It matters to him that you have to earn a living and care for your loved ones.  And it matters to him that you time for rest, Sabbath, space, and even leisure. 

Faith is God’s gift to you that you may see Christ with you, in it all.  Sometimes, you’ll see Christ in the hustle and bustle; other times in retreat.  Sometimes you’ll meet him when you least expect him; other times when you least want him.  Sometimes you’ll meet him in another’s need. 

That’s why the other side of faith is our deliberate commitment to surrender ourselves and everything that matters most into the hands of Jesus.  We jump out of the hamster wheel, trying desperately to attain and control what’s most important and guard ourselves against what threatens us, and put it all in the hands of Jesus.  We recognize our desperate need of Jesus in every single day, and pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us to where we ought to be.

Because when Jesus is your shepherd, you will lack nothing.  The days of busyness and the days of quiet will all become sacred—as Jesus loves you, and as Jesus uses your voices, your hands, your very lives to bring rest to the weary.

Busyness is a fact of life.  We all need rest—but make no mistake: no one can truly rest unless you rest in Jesus.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Gospel You Can't Refuse: Mark 6:14-29 - Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin (Stairwell) by LenDog 64.  Creative Commons image on flickr.
14King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him."  15But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old."  16But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised."
             17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her.  18For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife."  19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not,  20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.  21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee.  22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it."  23And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom."  24She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer."  25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter."  26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.  27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison,  28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.  29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. (NRSV)
Back in 1979, when the Lutheran Book of Worship, or “green hymnal” was published, there was a man who took great offense to the book—specifically, the Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness, which reads:
“We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”
In his heart and mind, this was untrue.  In fact, he stood up before the annual synod assembly and boldly declared before a thousand of his fellow Lutherans: “I am not a sinner.”  But that’s not the worst of it…  With a black felt-tip marker, he went through all the hymnals in his church and blacked out those sentences.

Obviously, this was a truth about himself that he couldn’t bear to swallow.  It makes me wonder how that compared to being forced to pay for 150 new copies of the hymnal to replace the ones he’d mangled…
While we find amusement in the hubris of someone who should’ve known better, there’s nothing to laugh about in the Soap Opera of Buffoonery that comes to us in today’s Gospel.

Today, Mark takes us straight into the halls of power in Judea.  John the Baptizer is in prison for insulting the honor of King Herod Antipas and his wife Herodias. 

It came to pass when Herod coveted—wooed, and ultimately married his brother’s wife.  I should also point out that the House of Herod was such a mess that Herodias was also his niece. 

John the Baptist spoke out publicly against Herod for his blatant violation of the sixth and ninth commandments—and since there was no First Amendment in those days, John’s words landed him in prison. 

However, Herod had taken quite a liking to John.  He listened to John.  He protected John—because he believed John to be genuine a man of God.

Then one day, Herod threw a birthday party for himself, and invited all the who’s who of his kingdom.  Then came Herodias Salome—Herod’s grand-niece and now his step-daughter.  She dances before the king, pleasing him so much that he foolishly swears an oath to give her whatever she wants, up to half his kingdom.

Not knowing how to respond to his lavish offer, the girl goes to her mother—who sees her husband’s dim-witted oath as her golden opportunity to get back at John for having insulted her honor.  So Herodias takes her mother’s request back to her step-father.  The king was deeply grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he does not refuse her.  The rest of the story will be written by the blood of a righteous man. 

We could truthfully say that the moral of this story is that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and go on our way through the remainder of the liturgy.  But there’s so much more to it than that.

Sometimes God speaks truths that we don’t want to hear.  Today’s Gospel exposes the deepest, darkest truth of who we are: it declares that we are all sinners—and that it is our nature to deny this.

Most of us are comfortable admitting that we’re not perfect and that we make mistakes—but that’s usually about as far as it goes.  In our minds, sinners are the people most unlike ourselves: they live in the rough parts of town; and/or, they walk the halls of power and privilege.  They’re the ones who kill, lie, cheat, steal, and do things we’d never think of doing.  They have no conscience.

As far as you and I are concerned, it’s an insult to our honor to suggest that we’re unrighteous. “Don’t tell me I’m sinning when I set my priorities and spend my money.” “Don’t tell me my lifestyle is ruining the planet and contributing to human suffering.”  “Don’t question my beliefs, my lifestyle, my attitudes, or my sincerity.”  “Don’t tell me I have to give up the things I cling to for my happiness and security.”  “Don’t tell me that I need repentance.”

If we say we have no sin—and believe that to be truth—we, too, are calling out the guards, sending them to crucify Jesus for daring to speak such a thing about you. 

But the good news of this dark story is the light of God’s love, shining into the deepest darkness of our sinful hearts.  God’s answer to our sin is the crucified and living Christ.  Contrary to how we may feel, God is not out to destroy us for our unrighteousness.  God wants to give us the gift of repentance—a death through which God gives new life.  You can ignore the Gospel, but you can’t silence it.  Nothing can stop God’s Kingdom that comes, not with terror— but with mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. 

Don’t think for a second that Herod and Herodias were happy, secure, and in control.  They were in a hell of paranoia and fear as they desperately held onto their privilege and honor.  God doesn’t want that for you. 

Make no mistake—repentance comes at a great cost.  For starters, you must embrace the fact that you have no righteousness of your own to claim before God.  You’re letting go lives and lifestyles you’ve always known; letting go of your need to be happy, secure, and in control. At the same time, you’re embracing new urgencies; new attitudes; new ways of thinking and doing. 

So challenge yourself today: before you come to the table, ask yourself: “Am I a sinner?  Do I need God to reveal my sins?  Do I need forgiveness?  And—do I trust God to change who I am and how I live to bring me to something better?

The truth of our sin is a truth that sets us free—because God is mercy, compassion, and love.  This may not be the Gospel we want or the Jesus we want—but it is Gospel we can’t refuse.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Grace Enough: 2 Corinthians 6:1-10 - Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Worship by spaceamoeba.  Creative Commons Image on
2I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.  3And I know that such a person — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows —  4was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.  5On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.  6But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me,  7even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.  8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,  9but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
There are few experiences in life as priceless as visiting a gym for the first time.

The reason being is, at the second you walk in, your attention immediately goes to the person running effortlessly on a treadmill at a ludicrous speed.  Then there’s the guy grunting like a dinosaur as he’s deadlifting a barbell weighing more than even you do, picking it up over his head, and then throwing it down to the floor to an atomic explosion of sound that rocks the building.  One national fitness chain calls this “gym-timidation,” and rightfully so—because those persons make you feel so weak and out of shape that you believe you’re pretty much doomed to failure.

Let’s be frank—nobody wants to be feel weak, and we especially don’t want to be weak.  Weakness is a terrible thing—because you feel like less of a person.  You lack the strength and abilities that others have—or that you used to have.  You can’t help yourself.  You’re not in control of what’s happening to you.  All the while, you have to live in a world that celebrates strength—strength of body; strength of mind; strength of will, and especially: self-sufficiency

We 21st century Christians especially celebrate strength of faith.  That’s probably why, when we look at Jesus’ healing stories, the message we get is “have enough faith, be a good person, and you’ll get healed!”  Name it and claim it.  Believe God, and you’ll move mountains.  Believe God for a house.  Believe God for a miracle!

A famous TV preacher recently told his congregation that he “believed God for a $65 million Gulfstream jet.”

Who does not desire the faith to move mountains, and dance through all life’s problems with your hands and your hands held high, with nary a doubt?

But listen to what the Apostle Paul has to say about weakness…

In today’s second reading, Paul writes rather vaguely of a spiritual experience that put him into a state of pure ecstasy.  A person in Christ was caught up to the third heaven, to see and hear things no mortal is permitted to repeat.  This was for Paul what we would call a mountaintop experience of faith.  But just then, a thorn was given to him in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.  Three times Paul prayed for God to take it away, but God said “no.” 

Who among us does not share in that experience?  I know I do.  You’re praying and trying to “believe God” for just a little bit of help; a little bit of relief; a little bit of peace and comfort.  But still, you feel as though you are just one breath away from falling apart.  No strength, no peace, no control—and what is there to believe about God except that God is absent?

The darkest times of our lives are so often going to be those times when we’re tormented by our weakness; when we feel as though we’re at the mercy of what tomorrow will bring. 

But listen to God’s answer to Paul’s prayers: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” 

These words sound as utter foolishness until we hear them in light of the cross.  In the weakness and humiliation of the cross, there was grace—that cleanses us from sin.  There was power—that destroyed death and the devil.  God’s love for us isn’t merely revealed, but poured out in the blood that flowed from Jesus’ wounds.  Salvation is God’s power made perfect in weakness.

It is for those reasons that we need to rethink prosperity and success; power and strength.  These are all illusions.  Control is an illusion.  Sin and death can swoop in at any time and strike any one of us down.

We also need to rethink weakness and vulnerability—and not only in light of the struggles in our own lives, but in light of the ways we see the world changing and not for the better.  With global and domestic terrorism, economic instability, and the so-called “culture wars” boiling over following the decisions of the Supreme Court, fear is spreading like wildfire across our society.  Fear is the most irrational of all human emotions—because it makes us do stupid things. 

It’s time to stop being afraid.  It’s time to embrace our weakness and vulnerability—because that is where God’s power lies.  Where there is weakness and vulnerability, there is grace.  There is Christ.  That’s how we can be at peace when the world is not at peace.  That’s how we can rest in hope even when we’re staring death in the face.  That’s how we can live in love for others in the worst circumstances. 

The riches of grace arise when Christian love is shared among those who are weak and vulnerable.  The riches of grace are found as we give ourselves away as bread for the hungry; as drink for the thirsty; as a voice to the voiceless.  It’s grace that destroys poverty, racism, and all the meaningless conflicts and blame games tearing our nation apart. 

God is in control.  You are blessed to live in complete and total dependence on God’s grace in every circumstance of life.  The certainty of God’s faithfulness is revealed in all the uncertainties of life. 

It’s time to believe God to be who God is—gracious and mercy.  Believe God’s grace to be sufficient for you.  Believe God’s power to be made perfect in weakness.