Proper 11, Year B, 2012

We disciples were so tired.

We hadn’t always been so tired.  When Jesus sent us out into the world two by two we were thrilled.

Jesus gave us power.  Real power, over unclean sprits.  We could feel the energy shoot through our arms when we practiced healing the sick exorcising demons.  Peter in particular, loved to find a good demon possessed person.  He loved the loud whoosh as he sent the demon flying.

When Jesus sent us out, we knew we were up for the challenge.  We might have been nobodies, fishermen and tax collectors, but now we had God on our side!  We had the magic touch.

We strutted into a nearby town and knocked boldly on a door.   It was slammed in our faces.  We tried again and again and eventually a desperate mom with a sick daughter let us in to her home.  The back room was dark.  We could barely make out this tiny girl lying on a pallet.  Suddenly, all our bravado was gone.  This mother didn’t care about how powerful we were, she just wanted her daughter well.  We held the girl’s hand and prayed more desperately than we ever had. In front of our eyes, the girl sat up, took a deep breath, and looked around disoriented for a minute.  When she saw her mother she ran to her and held on to her skirts.  She was perfectly healthy, just a little unnerved by two strange men in her house.

From then on, things were different.  We healed so many people.  You wouldn’t believe the problems people had.  Boils, blindness, leprosy, bad legs, lung diseases, any disfigurement you could imagine.  For days we did this, walking and healing; walking and healing.  Our strutting turned to dragging feet.  We were physical guys, but this was different.  We could haul fishing nets all day long, but fish don’t break your heart.

Eventually, it was time to go back to meet Jesus.  We made our goodbyes and dragged ourselves back to him.  We were so glad to see the other disciples.  Even Peter looked like the wind had been taken out of his sails a bit.  We just wanted some time to decompress. Jesus took one look at our bedraggled condition and immediately started leading us away to get some rest.

We got on the boat together and began to cross over.  Before we landed we could hear a weird buzz.  As we pulled in closer, the buzzing turned into the sound of human voices.  Hundreds of human voices.   On the shore were thousands of people as pitiful as the ones we had been healing.  Sad people, sick people, desperate people.  As soon as we got off the boat, their hands were on us, tugging, pushing.  People were climbing on top of one another just to put a hand on Jesus.

We kept expecting Jesus to get us out of there—to lead us away, but he didn’t.  Your lectionary may leave this out, but what Jesus did next was just infuriating.  He did not ask the crowd to leave, he didn’t find a private place for us to connect.  What did he do?  He invited the crowd—we are talking thousands of people—to sit down and eat!  That’s right, instead of giving us a retreat, suddenly he was expecting us to be waiters to a crowd of what must have been 5000 people!

This is how he was—no matter where we were, no matter how closely we needed to keep to a schedule, no matter what our original plan was, Jesus just couldn’t stand to see a hurting person.

I can’t describe adequately how overwhelming this was.  Once Jesus got really famous, everywhere we went, he was surrounded.  We were surrounded.  Hundreds of people every day asking things of him.  Hundreds of people every day begging him to change their lives.  It was like a plague of hope.  People who had been resigned to their lives for the first time thought there was a real chance that their lives might change.  That hope turned them into fierce, dogged, relentless pursuers of Jesus.

And Jesus loved them.  Even as they crowded us, and stepped on our toes, and ruined our plans, he felt only compassion for them.

But here’s the dirty secret.  Jesus couldn’t heal everyone.  Not because his healings were ineffective, not because he was unwilling.  No, the sheer numbers were just overwhelming.  For every hundred people he saw and healed, there were another hundred, two hundred, a thousand who showed up too late, or on the wrong day, or stood a little too far back in the crowd.

The crowds were like tidal waves, and Jesus could only deal with a bucket at a time.

And even once he gave us powers for healing and exorcising demons, we weren’t able to pick up the slack.  We did our best, but keeping up with the demand would have required an army of thousands.

Jesus never seemed anxious about this.  As much as his gut wrenched when he saw a particularly wounded soul, he never experienced despair.

We disciples were exhausted and discouraged, but Jesus just got more and more determined.

At the time, of course, we did not understand the big picture.  We saw how he poured himself out for these strangers, but we never could have predicted his end game.

We thought we needed more of him, more like him, or for him to work harder or more creatively, or to deputize more people.

Instead, Jesus walked toward Jesusalem.  Jesus handed himself over to the insecure, grasping, anxious hands of the enemy. The healer of the wounded became wounded himself.  He threw himself towards death and despair.  He poured himself out, completely.  We were devastated.

And then, that third day.  That third day, everything changed.  When he rose from the dead and showed himself to us, we finally got it.  In order to heal every person in the world, those in the world during his life time, and those after, Jesus had to change the rules.  Jesus needed to die so he could defeat death and all the suffering that comes along with it.  He needed to go to the source of the pain and the horror and trample it under his feet.  Human suffering might have been a tidal wave, but he was the Son of the One who created the oceans in the first place.  There was no limit to how far he was willing to go to bring healing to humankind.

We disciples knew what it was to be around Jesus, the living God.  We knew what it was like to be loved, to be healed, to share meals with the creator of the universe, come to earth.  In his death and resurrection, Jesus did more than bring healing to humankind, Jesus transformed the relationship between his Father and his Father’s creation.  Now all people could share the same intimacy with Jesus that we did.  Every Sunday across the planet, people share a meal with Jesus, much like the final meal he had with us.

Jesus shares himself with you, just as he shared himself with the crowds.  No matter how broken and needy you are, Jesus longs to heal you.  No matter how hungry your spirit is, Jesus longs to feed you.  No matter how lost you are, Jesus longs to be your shepherd.

We disciples knew Jesus for a few years, but you have your whole lives to get to know him.  But be careful, before you know it, you’ll be dropping your fishing nets and following him to the ends of the earth.  Getting to know Jesus is a risk, but trust me, it is a risk worth taking.

 

Proper 12, Year B, 2009

Have you ever tried to plan a party when only half the people you invited actually responded to your invitation?  I never know how many hor d’ouevres to make, how much wine and soda to buy, whether or not to borrow chairs from the neighbors.  I drive myself crazy worrying about whether I’ll have enough of everything to make my guests feel welcomed.

The poor disciples-in today’s Gospel reading, they are in a situation far more stressful than a cocktail party.  They have thousands of hungry people on an isolated hillside and Jesus is asking the disciples to feed the crowd.  The disciples know they do not have enough food.  They are not just a mini-quiche or glass of wine short, they have absolutely no food with them.  They could not even begin feeding the first row of the crowd.  Their fear that they do not have enough is a perfectly rational fear based on the evidence in front of them.

The apostle Andrew notes that the only food anyone has is five loaves of bread and a couple of fish that a child happens to have with him.  Somehow they persuade the child to give up his lunch and we all know what happens next.  When Jesus breaks that bread and tears those fish, somehow that not-enough food transforms into an abundant feast.  Instead of not being enough, the food just keeps coming and coming and coming.

Jesus takes the reality of a scarce situation and transforms it utterly.  Where there was want, there are now baskets of leftovers.  Where there was doubt, there is now wonder.

The crowd has gotten what they wanted.  Those who were sick were healed right before the scene in today’s gospel.  Now, those who were hungry are fed.  The crowd had needs and the crowd’s needs were met.  But these signs were not quite enough for the crowd-or the disciples-to “get” who Jesus was.  Instead of worshiping Jesus as Lord, the crowd’s reaction is to chase after Jesus and try to make him king.

Jesus is not an earthly King.  Jesus is not a magician.  Jesus is not Oprah in front a screaming crowd, giving away prizes.

The abundance Jesus offers is real, but the abundance Jesus offers is not the same thing as wish-fulfillment.

Jesus offers us abundance of life, not just abundance of stuff.  The crowd wanted more of Jesus, but not for the right reasons.  The crowd wanted more magic, more food.  The crowd wanted a world where Jesus was their King and his magic powers would give them everything they wanted.

Our passage today moves on to the story of Jesus walking on water and I don’t think the juxtaposition is accidental.  Jesus walking on the water is not about giving the disciples something they want.  Instead, Jesus shows them, in a new way, what it means that he is the Son of God.  Jesus wants to show them that his divinity is not about meeting their material or bodily needs, but is something beyond that, something even more wonderful than that.

Americans are living at a strange crossroads of abundance and scarcity.  Even though we live in the richest part of the world, we are feeling afraid about the economy.  We are grieving the loss of jobs and have a sinking feeling whenever we check the status of our retirement accounts.

At times, we, like the disciples, are convinced there is not enough.  There are not enough jobs available.  There is not enough money in the bank account.  There is not enough hopeful news to sustain us.

I know for me, from about September to April last year my prayers went something like this, “Please help me find a job in New Jersey.  Please help me find a job in New Jersey.  Puhleeeeze help me find a job in New Jersey.”  My anxiety drove my prayers to sound very much like the cries of the crowd in today’s Gospel reading.  “Help me, feed me, fix me!”

There is nothing wrong in sharing our deepest fears and desires with Jesus.  Jesus invites our lamentations.  He hears our prayers.  He comforts us.  He provides for us.  But there is more to Jesus than his role in responding to our needs.

Jesus, in his earthly ministry, always directed attention towards his Father, the Creator God.  Jesus redirects his followers from focusing on themselves and their own needs, to focusing on God.  When Jesus walked on the water towards his disciples, they could not help but be awed by the power of God to defy the laws of nature.  The act of walking on the water toward the disciples drew them out of themselves and helped them to worship Jesus as God, rather than Jesus as wish-granter.  Jesus showed them that the abundance of God is not just what God gives us, but is inherent in the very nature of God.  God is beyond everything we could want and everything we see.  God’s power stretches beyond our imagination and God’s love is deeper than we can desire.

Jesus walks toward us, too, and invites us to look up and out and to really see him for who he is.  Jesus offers us a life of true abundance–not of material possessions–but of relationship with our Creator.

There is something in that act of looking up, looking out towards God that helps us put our own anxious feelings in perspective.  When we remember the abundance of God’s love for us and for humanity throughout the millennia, we can re-evaluate our circumstances and see God all around us.

As Christians, our lives will not always be easy, but they can always be filled with joy and deep meaning.  Today at the [10:00 or this] service, we will welcome several children into the Christian family through baptism.  We know that throughout their lives, when they bring the broken, inadequate, not-enough pieces of their lives to God in prayer, somehow God will transform them into overflowing baskets of blessing.  God does this for us, too.  And when we realize we have enough-in fact, we have more than enough-we can start giving back to our families, communities and churches.

Thanks be to God.

Pentecost, Year A, 2008

As a child, I lived in Germany.  I was never fluent in German and so I had the luxury of tuning out conversations almost everywhere I went.  Whether I was at the beauty parlor, or a restaurant or walking along the street, I almost never knew if people were discussing politics, religion, or what they were having for dinner.  I never thought much about this language barrier until we would come back to the States for summer vacation.  Suddenly, I understood everything people were saying!  Sometimes it was loud and obnoxious, sometimes it was dull, and sometimes it was fascinating.  I remember one family dinner at a restaurant in Los Angeles, when my grandfather had to reprimand both my mother and me because we were both leaning back in our chairs, completely absorbed in the conversation happening at the table next to us.

Humans have been divided by language for as far as memory can reach.  Whether we were divided after the Tower of Babel or whether we just each developed our own set of words independently, the difference in understanding has had far reaching consequences.  Our lack of understanding each other’s language causes mistrust, suspicion, and even violence.

Our language is what we use to form images, then sentences, then ideas, then treatises, then Constitutions and Bibles and Korans. . .Language expresses the core of our identity as individuals and as people.  Misunderstandings between two languages can be humorous or serious.  We’ve all heard stories of American travelers abroad introducing their family member as “My noodle” rather than “my aunt” while speaking an unfamiliar language.  However, we as Americans have also seen the consequences of not speaking the language or understanding the culture as we get mired deeper and deeper in Iraq and Afghanistan, with very few Americans being trained in Farsi or Arabic.  Not being able to communicate can have deadly consequences.  Just take a look at the current regime in Myanmar.  Their unwillingness to be open, to invite those of other languages and backgrounds to enter their country has extended even to refusing many aid agencies from coming and distributing needed resources to the tens of thousands of Burmese suffering from the recent cyclone.

How wonderful then, that the first act of the Holy Spirit after it descended upon the disciples was to give them the gift of languages.  We think of the gift of speaking in tongues as incomprehensible babbling, but in this instance, when the flames of the Holy Spirit descend upon them, the disciples are given the gift of being able to communicate using all the languages of the many people living in Jerusalem.  The Holy Spirit’s first act is to bypass differences of nationalities and language and to ensure that everyone within earshot hears about what God has done.

Rather than descending on the Disciples and telling them how special they are and how this new religion is just for the few, for the chosen, for God’s favorites, the Holy Spirit invites everyone to the party.

And how do the people who receive the invitation to the party respond?

They assume the disciples are drunk!  Yes, once again, characters in the Bible respond exactly the way normal people would respond.  They don’t have epiphanies, at least not yet.  Nope, they look up from whatever they are doing and say, “What’s going on with THOSE guys?  They’ve got to be wasted, right?”  They have no idea that they are observing the beginning of an entire new religion.  They have no idea that these excited, goofy, babbling people will go on to be great leaders in a church that will reach nearly every country in the world.  They have no idea that people of all languages, of all backgrounds, of all cultures will encounter the risen Christ, that people of all backgrounds will experience the Holy Spirit.

With Christ’s resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, our allegiances have changed.  Suddenly our identity rests not in language or nation, but in Christ.  Our loyalty is to the One who created all of us, and small differences in the way we speak become meaningless.

I spent the summer between my junior year and senior year of college in India.  Once, in the middle of a long conversation with a Christian single woman from Bho Pal, she stated, “I don’t think I’ll get married.  Indian Men are such MCPs.”  “MCPs?” I asked, excited to learn some native term, to go deeper into her experience of India.  “Yes, she replied, MCPs, Male Chauvinist Pigs.”  It is in small moments like these, when we interact with those of another culture that we realize we have far more in common than we might think.  All people long for security and love and meaning, whatever their background.

Our bishop co-adjustor, Shannon Johnston, has just returned from a very sobering visit to the Sudan.  He traveled to the Sudan in order to attend the consecration of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan’s new Arch-Bishop Daniel Deng Bul.  The clergy in this region met with Bishop Johnston just a few days after his return to Virginia, and he told us stories that made every hair on our bodies stand at attention.  As you no doubt have heard, the Sudan has undergone years of extreme violence.  There is conflict between the Muslim north and the Christian south and there is a separate set of tribal wars going on in the Darfur region.  The population and infrastructure of the Sudan has been decimated.  Children are starving, people live under whatever surface they can find, and militias prowl the streets, torturing and murdering at will.

Bishop Johnston explained to us that in the middle of this utter chaos and violence, The Episcopal Church of the Sudan, the second largest NGO in the country, has been a place of sanity as the church lives out principles of the Kingdom of God.  In the church, Sudanese can find love and friendship, and sometimes even safety.

Bishop Johnston told the story of meeting one Sudanese Bishop with scars all over his face and body.  He was told that this bishop had heard that seven people were being held prisoner in a home and tortured for absolutely no reason.  He went to the house and offered to buy the seven prisoners in exchange for himself.  He substituted his own body and was terribly tortured, all for the love of seven people he did not even know.

The Episcopal Church of the Sudan is the Sudan’s one real hope.  In the midst of awful conditions, the church has kept its humanity, kept its connection to God.  Unfortunately, the church is very low on resources, as is everyone in the Sudan.  They have no way to communicate with each other or to travel.  Bishop Johnston came back from his trip absolutely convicted that his first role as our Bishop was to create a relationship between our Diocese and the Archdiocese of the Sudan.  He sent them a check for computers and cell phones immediately upon his return and is now brainstorming other ways we can partner with the Sudan to help this ravaged country heal from its wounds.

We cannot fully understand what the Sudanese are going through.  They cannot understand the way we live our lives. If we were put in a room together, we might not be able to pick out a single common word.  But, none of that matters.  We are bound together by the same Jesus that sent the Holy Spirit to the waiting disciples.  We are bound by the same Holy Spirit that gave the Disciples the gift of languages-the gift of communication and connection.  We are bound to the Sudanese Church as tightly as we are bound to each other.

We are not the only Diocese helping the Sudan.  In fact, some of the Dioceses helping the Sudan are led by Bishops that want to break ties with the United States altogether, like the Bishops of Kenya and Uganda.  Bishop Johnston hopes that as we all respond to the Holy Spirit, and help the Church of the Sudan, that the Holy Spirit might also heal the wounds of the Anglican Communion and knit us all back together.

We are thousands of years removed from the day the Holy Spirit first fell on the disciples in Jerusalem, but we are part of the same journey.  We continue the ministry of Peter and James and John as we become entwined with the Church in all of its multi-lingual glory.  For our mission is the same:  to love our God as best we can and to invite others through the wide gates to do the same.

Amen.

Proper 11, Year B, 2006

Just a little rest.

That’s all Jesus and the disciples wanted: a little rest, a little quiet.  They had so much to say to each other.  So many days had passed since they had been together.  So much had happened. 

The disciples have been exercising their ministry for the first time.  Jesus sent them out two by two and they have been preaching, healing, and exorcising demons.  Jesus pushed them out of the nest and the disciples did not fail!-the disciples were so much braver than expected and the miracles actually worked!  With their own hands and God’s power the disciples were able to heal sick people!

In the meantime, Jesus had his own troubles to consider. His beloved friend and cousin, John, was brutally murdered by Herod.  Jesus wants to take time to mourn that loss and be together in a quiet place with his disciples.  Jesus and the disciples have been going at a breakneck pace-traveling, ministering, listening, teaching, healing.  . .they just need a little time to reconnect to each other.

So, Jesus and the disciples get in a boat and head to a deserted place. 

Before they can get there, though, followers of Jesus figure out where they are traveling and beat them there!

By the time Jesus and his friends get to the deserted place, it is already packed with people hungry for a little of Jesus’ teaching. 

Jesus has to make a decision.  Taking time out to pray and to rest is a very important part of Jesus ministry.  He knows he needs to reconnect with God and his disciples, but there are thousands of people clamoring for his attentions.  Jesus makes the decision, for the moment, to choose his followers over himself.

Jesus gives them the spiritual food they are looking for and begins to teach.  Before too long though, the crowd starts to get hungry.  The disciples get edgy, because they know it costs nine months salary to feed 5,000 men, and there were women and children there, too! 

We all know what happens next. Jesus uses bread and fish that the crowd already has and miraculously multiplies it to give it to his followers. 

The NRSV translation of the text we read today, says that Jesus gave the bread and fish to his disciples, but the NAU translation says that Jesus “kept giving” the loaves and fishes to his disciples.

Jesus “kept giving”.  What a powerful image.  Jesus was tired and sad, but instead of turning away from the crowd, he turned towards them.  Instead of giving them what they needed in one fell swoop, he gave to the crowd over and over and over again.

Jesus gives to us, too.

For whatever crisis we face, somewhere, deep inside us, we have all we need.  Just like the crowd already had a few fish and a couple loaves of bread, we have a small kernel of what we need already planted inside us. 

Whether we need strength to carry on in a difficult time in our lives, or courage to make a leap of faith, or creativity to work our way out of a corner, we already have what we need.

If we offer that kernel to Jesus, he will transform it through his love and give it back to us hundredfold.

I think about the local teacher who felt a desire in her heart to help disadvantaged kids experience farm life.  This woman continued to teach part time, and after much prayer and many conversations, started an after school program.  Children are brought to her farm in Ivy, where they are taught basic gardening, cooking, swimming and other skills.  This program, called Graceworks, has continued year after year, creating a generation of kids who have a set of rich experiences that will inform the rest of their lives.

What kills me about this lady, is that she has FIVE children of her own.  Five.  You know she wasn’t sitting around her house saying, “Man, am I bored.  I need a hobby.”  Her sense of call came despite the exhaustion that must come from working and having a house full of children. 

Rather than seeing herself as depleted from all this, she saw herself as enriched.  She already had all she needed:  a farm, a love for children, a background in education and an understanding family.  What Jesus gave her was the vision, energy and networks she needed to make her dream a reality.

What have you been longing for or dreaming of that seemed just too impossible? 

Do you want to go back to school as an adult?  Get out of an abusive relationship? Take better care of your health?  Start a new ministry? 

You already have what you need inside of you. 

All you need is to pray and be open to Jesus working in ways you might not expect.

The disciples could only see one solution to their problems:  to buy food.  This panicked them, because they knew they did not have the money they needed to provide for the thousands of people at their feet.  Jesus showed them another way, an unusual way, a miraculous way, and Jesus will show us those ways, too.  Like the director of Graceworks, Jesus will give us creativity and strength when there is no earthly reason why we should have them.

Our lesson today shows us that we can feel free to follow Jesus, and persistently ask for what we want.  We don’t always do this.

The world is in such a crisis right now, with wars and global warming and floods and drought, that sometimes we shy away from Jesus.  We want to give him space to deal with the big problems the world faces.  We don’t want to bother him with our petty prayers.

But remember that pushy crowd–Even though Jesus was facing a personal crisis, he did not send the crowd away. Jesus ministered to them. Jesus performed a miracle for them.

Yes, the world is in crisis-an awful crisis-but if we stop praying, then it will be harder for us to hear Jesus.  And the crisis is not going to resolve itself.  We are going to have to help resolve it, and Jesus will show us how through our prayers.  If we stop praying, the crisis will only get worse.  Like the disciples, we Christians continue the legacy of healing into the modern age. 

We don’t need to be afraid to bother Jesus, to interrupt him.  Jesus does an excellent job of taking care of himself.  The verse that follows the passage we read today tells us that after Jesus feeds the 5000, he gently dismisses the crowd, then takes time to go up the mountain to pray.  Jesus loves us passionately enough to pour his energies into feeding us, but he also knows when to refuel.

We resist Jesus for many reasons.  We resist the blessings that Jesus wants to continually give to us, to keep giving to us, but Jesus keeps inviting us to accept them, gently nudging us to trust him, to live into the joy he has prepared for us.

Who are we to reject such an invitation?