Monday, August 25, 2014

Who do you say He is?

     Our psalm today, 124, is taken from the fifth book and was part of what we call one of the psalms of ascents. It has been a bit of time since we talked specifically about the psalms, but everyone probably recalls that there are five books of psalms. Each book is related to a period of salvation history. Naturally, the fifth and last book is supposed to refer to that time when God has acted to redeem His people. It is called a psalm of ascent because it is one of the psalms which was sung by pilgrims on their way up the hill to Jerusalem. As a way of preparing themselves for worship and for passing the time, pilgrims would sing this series of psalms on the way up the road to Jerusalem. We might like to think we are the first to listen to music as we travel or work out, but the Jews had us beat by about 3000 years. The only difference was that the had no I-pods or phones. Heck, they did not even have walkmans!
     It is an appropriate song to sing as one heads to worship God in His Temple. The song calls to mind the saving acts of God. No specific acts are recalled in this psalm. The psalmist simply reminds the reader and hearers that had God not intervened, His people would have been overwhelmed. Their enemies would have swallowed them in their anger. Did the psalmist have our story about Pharaoh and Moses in mind? Perhaps. But it is likely the author is thinking of any of the “ites” attempted to conquer God's people. Perhaps the author even has in mind the Exile and other situations which do not come quickly to mind.
Interestingly, the psalmist switches from the discussion of enemies to a discussion of flood waters. Is the author referring to the Flood and Noah? It is possible. It is more than likely, however, the author is using ANE symbolism. Water, as we have discussed many times, was a sign of chaos, of disorder. One of the characteristics of Yahweh, as He broods over the waters in Genesis, is that He brings order to chaos. He gives meaning to chance and the random. Christians in the early Church continued this understanding. As we read a couple weeks ago, Jesus walked on water during a storm. Those of us studying the Book of Revelation will not be surprised that the end vision includes a “glassy” sea. Even Corinth derived much of its wealth as a portage city. It was safer and faster to port one's ship across the isthmus than to sail around the Greek peninsula. Rushing waters and floods came to be associated with the daily vicissitudes and travails of life. Such understanding, of course, is still in our own modern idioms. Ever known anyone drowning under the cares and concerns of life? If I asked for a show of hands, would any stay down at the mention of health or death? Would any stay down at the mention of issues of provision? At least none of us have any broken or difficult relationships, right? When the psalmist speaks of a torrent sweeping over us, we can relate.
     To this point, of course, we have only been speaking and thinking of those things which are personal. What of those floodwaters that rage around us, far beyond our control? We have riots to our south, riots like many of us have not seen since the 1960's. We live in a community that, although far from perfect, does not seem to have too many racial tensions. We live in a community that reflects, I think, the melting pot description of the United States. We live at a time when war has become a way of life for many of our families and our neighbors. How many names have appeared on our Intercessors' list this last decade? Now, no military family can watch events in Gaza or Ukraine or Iraq without wondering whether loved ones are headed toward deployment. Can we talk macro levels of provision? Have you seen what some are now calling Meade Pond? You and I know it as that big lake behind the Hoover Dam. Water levels are so low that some agricultural experts say as much as $2 billion worth of food production make be removed from our tables. You know what happens when supply shrinks and demands stays the same, right? Prices go up. Those of us who like steaks and hamburgers complain about the increase of meat prices this year thanks to last year's drought. Can you imagine the spike in prices if $2 billion in production is lost? Can you imagine the impact on food pantries, on Community Meal, on our families? Toss in an earthquake, a few tornadoes, flooding rains, forest fires, and mudslides, and we have a flood of biblical proportions!
     Some in the world have already lost hope. On our border, we have thousands of children who have fled home serving as political hot potatoes for federal and state officials around the country. I say lost hope because of some of the stories we are hearing. Imagine you have a pre-teen or barely-teen whom you love as any good parent should. Your solution to your problems for them is to scrape all your money, give it to strangers, and send your child hundreds of miles to the north. How bad would things have to be for you to send your children to the tundra from here by themselves? Oh, there is one last land mine to dodge: pretend that pre-teen / new teen is your daughter you are sending.  You are a faithful Roman Catholic, yet, you decide that the lesser evil is to have that talk with your twelve to fifteen year old daughter and put her on birth control. By that talk, I mean the rape talk. Honey, if you are lucky, you won't get pregnant when you get raped. If you are lucky, you won't get raped too many times. Suck it up, though. You need to make it to the United States. Here, of course, they become pawns of unconscionable politicians. How bad must things be for you to consider this scenario as a better alternative? What must your conditions be like that this seems like a good idea? Yes, we understand torrents. Yes, we understand floods. Yes, we understand death. Yes, we understand what the psalmist is saying.
     The psalmist, though, is not without hope. Always the psalmist is reminding the reader that all of Israel has depended upon the grace of God for their salvation. Had God not intervened, their enemies would have won. Had God not intervened in the situation described at the beginning of Exodus today, Egypt would have destroyed Israel. If not them, then maybe Assyria, or Babylon, or Philistine, or hunger, or some other catastrophe would be sure to have wipe them out. God has saved them at every turn, sometimes in spite of overwhelming odds, sometimes in spite of themselves.
     It is with this same understanding that Matthew has been speaking to us. In the Gospel that bears his name, Matthew has been testifying to us who this Jesus is. Three weeks ago we read about Jesus feeding the 5000 men, besides women and children. As I have mentioned, it was a messianic miracle. Jesus took Moses' manna and quail feedings one step further, with no intervention! Then, two weeks ago following that miracle, the Apostles encounter Jesus walking on the water in a storm. The significance of the miracle is not lost on us. Jesus commands the elements. Who but God does that? Better still, Jesus commands the water in the midst of a storm and even invites Peter to join Him. Last week we read of the offhanded exorcism He performs for the woman whose insight we remember each time we say the Prayer of Humble Access during Rite 1 worship. I say offhanded exorcism because Jesus does not give the exorcism any more thought than you and I might breathing or blinking. He says simply, “Let it be,” and it is! That is power! That is God.
     Our Gospel lesson today speaks to that permanent care and concern and protection of God exalted by the psalmist. Jesus takes His disciples to the eastern pagan spiritual heart of the Roman Empire. In front of the temples, and especially the temple dedicated to god on earth – Caesar, and asks who the people say that He is. The disciples share the opinions of the masses. Some say You are Elijah returned. Others claim You are John the Baptist. Others believe You are Jeremiah or one of the other prophets, sent to call us to return to Yahweh. Then, Jesus asks that incredible question. Who do you say that I am? Peter answers that He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. From that time forward, the lives of the disciples is fundamentally transformed. Yes, Peter and the other Apostles and disciples will still sin. They do not yet understand God's plan of salvation through Jesus Christ. Peter will deny Him three times. Judas will betray Him into the hands of the Temple elites. All will abandon Him in the Garden of Gesthemene. Even after His reported Resurrection, they will hide in a locked room, they will doubt. But, once they encounter the Resurrected Christ, all will be made clear. Peter will truly grow in faith to become that rock of which Jesus speaks. On that kind of faith, Jesus will build His Church and promises that not even Hell itself will prevail against Her!
     Brothers and sisters, consider carefully, who do you say He is? Is He just a good teacher? Is He just a radical Rabbi? Is He just one of many who have tapped into a spiritual consciousness of the universe and been able to share it with us? Is He a charlatan? It is the most important answer you will ever give. If you believe Him to be anything other than the Christ, the Son of the Living God, as affirmed by Peter and Himself this morning, how do you hope to prevail in the floods that threaten your own life and the lives of those whom you love? If you believe Him to be only a good teacher, a radical social engineer, it makes sense that you work worship in when it suits you, that you serve the poor when it suits you, that you seek God and pray only when you are in the mood. If you believe Him to be just one of any number of wise men from whose conglomerated teachings you can develop your own spirituality, your own way of living, why seek Him in the Scriptures or in Bible Studies? If you believe Him to be just another religious charlatan, one preying off the prayers of the weak and gullible, why not worship the god Sealy Posturpedic or Starbucks or NY Times Crossword? If you believe Him to be anything other than the Son of the Living God, how will you stand against the floods that threaten you and yours?
     The question that He puts to His disciples is not academic. The question that He puts to His disciples is not theological? It is THE question of life and death, of hope and hopelessness!  If He is our Lord, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, we can stand against any number of evils and ills without fear of failure. We can seek to care for refugees on our borders, expect Him to intervene in answer to our prayers, to snatch us out of the fowler's snare. We can expect Him to act to glorify Himself in our faithful response, no matter the currents, no matter the snares. To be sure, we may not understand His ways all the time. In fact, I would suggest we usually respond to His call and function in ignorance. Just think, within about three centuries, the opulence that surround Him and His disciples will be conquered! For a time, like when the Temple is raised, God will look like a loser. For a time, like when the emperors choose to persecute Christians for whatever nefarious reasons, God will seem to be looking the other way. For a brief time, when our Lord hangs dead on a Cross, Hell will seem to have conquered!
But, Christians will throughout history respond as He calls. Many will lay down their lives, trusting He will snatch them from that fowler's snare we call death, in testimony of this revealed truth we discuss today. Many will travel to the ends of the world to fulfill the Great Commission which will be commanded at the end of this Gospel and which will be the focus of next year's diocesan plan. Some will even tend the sick and those left alone by the plague that will soon sweep Rome, paving the way for persecutions to begin to fall out of favor with the people and for an emperor to claim Him as Lord.
     Who do you say that He is? How do people know your answer? Do you claim Him as Son of the Living God and yet cannot find the time to fulfill the Great Commandment, placing any number of things above the worship of Him? Do you claim as the One who instructed us to come to Him like children, yet display a hardness of heart towards children in need that would make Pharaoh wince? Do you claim Him as Lord yet find yourself convincing yourself and those around you that your and their problems are unsolvable, unredeemable? Do you find yourself proclaiming He is a gracious Lord, yet convincing yourself that you are not worthy of His grace, His forgiveness? Do you proclaim Him as the perfect offering for your sins against God, yet unable to accept that His blood covers all your sins?
     Who do you say that He is? There is no more important question you will ever answer. So, Who is He in your life? Who do you say that He is?


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bearing light in the darkness, proclaiming redemption in the face of suffering . . .

     In one of those rare moments when I got to look ahead at the readings and sort of plan our conversation for the next few weeks, I had planned to preach this week on Jesus’ power over the supernatural.  We have been in a set of Matthew’s readings which force us to answer the question Who is this Jesus?  Matthew, of course, reminds us that Jesus claims to be the Messiah through his feeding of the 5000 men, besides women and children, with five loaves and two fish.  Jesus also claims to be God through His command over the elements of the earth, as demonstrated by His and Peter’s walking on water in the midst of the wind.  This week, I had intended to focus on Jesus’ overpowering command over the supernatural.  Three years ago, the last time this reading came up in the lectionary, I had focused on the woman’s correct knowledge concerning Jesus and His mission.  This time, I had intended to point out the dismissive nature with which He deals with the demon possessing her daughter.  No prayer, no conversation with the demon—He tells her it will be as she wishes, and the demon leaves her daughter.
     The problem with plans, of course, is that life sometimes gets in the way.  I may have a good idea, but you and those around us may need me to focus on another teaching in our readings.  As you all picked up from Facebook and no doubt gleaned because many of you are smart, the conversations around church this week were related to the death of Robin Williams.  Those of you around the church during the week realize that we serve a large number of addicts, some of whom are trying to control one addiction through the use of other substances.  Many of you also realize that we serve a number of mental ill individuals in our effort to bring the light of Christ into our community.  What many of you do not know, or perhaps choose to ignore in polite company, is the number of people whom we serve whose lives have been touched by suicide.  I know that, as I shared my ministry with those seeking God in the tragedies of their lives last week, they were certainly surprised by the number of “good Christians” whose lives had been touched by suicide.  
     Before I get to that point in my conversations, though, I need to do a bit of groundwork for you.  I am unyielding in my belief and proclamation that God redeems all things.  Naturally, I believe that because He claims it in Scripture, but I must say I have seen far too many redemptions of lives and events and evils in the world ever to accept that His promise is not true.  I say that, though, unabashedly and determinedly aware that God never trivializes our suffering.  The pain that we experience is real.  The hurt that we endure is real.  Nothing infuriates me more than flipping through the television channels or radio and seeing or hearing some preacher tell Christians that all their problems will go away if they will just worship Jesus.  That message is false.  That message is a lie.  And it takes most new Christians very little time to discover that suffering continues after we call upon the Lord.  If I asked for a show of hands, how many of us would claim that we are struggling with questions of disease and death?  How many are suffering with questions of provisions?  How many of us are struggling with questions of relationship?  How many of us wonder, because of those sufferings, whether we have been forgotten by God?  It is part of our human condition that we equate our current circumstances with how we think God sees us.  Heck, the book of Job was inspired specifically to teach us that such is not the case, just as this story in Genesis reminds us that God redeems our suffering.  He does not wash it away, He does not make it disappear; He simply promises that He will use our suffering for good and His glory.
     Place yourself in Joseph’s position in this narrative.  Joseph has been betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery.  He has been stripped of his favorite gift from his father Jacob.  He has been carried into Egypt and sold to a master.  He has the iron collar to chafe his skin and remind him while sleeping and awake that his life is not his own.  He has been forced to do all kinds of menial tasks.  For his faithfulness to God and his master in refusing to have sex with his mistress, was he rewarded?  Nope.  He was imprisoned again.  We forget the ANE assumption that what happened here on earth reflected the heavenly or celestial battles.  Were Yahweh strong enough, and were Joseph faithful enough, Joseph would have been delivered out of the hands of those who serve Ra.  The longer he persisted in his claims about Yahweh, the more the Egyptians would have teased him.  He has no hope of ever seeing his family.  That is some of the psychological and physical and emotional background of Joseph.
     Yet, what has happened.  Joseph’s work has been blessed.  When he is put in charge of the prison, what happens?  When he manages his master’s household, what happens?  God has been blessing his work, making him very valuable to his owner.  Eventually, his ability to interpret dreams is brought to Pharaoh.  It is a circuitous route to be sure.  A servant has to get up the courage to offer to the king of the world’s superpower of the day that he knows a slave who can interpret dreams.  Yet he does.  And Joseph is brought before Pharaoh.  Pharaoh has a dream that he wants interpreted.  All his magicians and advisers have been unable or unwilling to interpret the dream for Pharaoh.  The last thing Joseph wants, no doubt, is to present bad news to the Pharaoh.  What will he do to me if I tell him its meaning?  Yet, Joseph interprets the dream as God tells him.  Pharaoh recognizes the truth of Joseph’s interpretation and the courage it took to share it.  Pharaoh makes Joseph the keeper of his kingdom and the one in charge of his household.  To Joseph is given the unique responsibility of educating the princes as well as the preservation of the kingdom in the time of famine.  And, through God’s blessing, Joseph excels at both.
     Joseph is so good at the latter responsibility that people outside Egypt hear that Egypt has grain.  Jacob, Joseph’s father, sends his other sons to Egypt to buy grain.  As we might expect, Joseph torments his brothers.  He sets them up to look like thieves so that Benjamin will have to be brought to him.  All of this leads us to today’s reading.  Joseph could no longer control himself in front of everyone.  He sent them all away and revealed himself to his brothers.  Can you imagine their fear?  We sold him into slavery and now he has power of life and death over us and our families?  “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”  Joseph understands how his suffering has been used to God’s glory and the welfare of His people.  Did God want Joseph enslaved?  Of course not.  Did God want Joseph to feel isolated, abandoned, and whatever other emotions coursed through his heart and mind over those years?  Absolutely not.  But the same God who controls the supernatural through a simple word is powerful enough to work what is meant for evil to His glory.  That’s why when I pray over many of you during the Healing Service, I ask that you be given eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to understand how your suffering serves Him, absent the healing miracle for which we pray.  When people come in to ask why there is suffering in their life, I am always quick to remind them that we have been baptized into Jesus’ death and Resurrection.  We ought not be too surprised when God allows us to bear the burden of the Suffering Servant.  Hear carefully: God mourns with us when we suffer.  He only wants good things for us.  But when we are faced with the consequences of our sins or the sins of others, He is able to see us through.  Better than that, He can use what is meant for evil for good.
     Robin Williams’ death, I think, is a famous example of that process.  The visits this week came in two waves.  The initial wave of people seeking me out wanted to know if there was any hope for them.  Either they had contemplated suicide or been forced to face it by a loved one.  Many, as you might expect, had dealt with mental illness and addiction, mirroring the life they were hearing described on television.  The second group were the ones shocked and surprised to find out that Robin Williams was, by all accounts, an Episcopalian like us.  It is one thing to be suicidal, but how can a good Christian be suicidal?  How can a good Christian turn to something other than God to ease the pain?  How can a Christian community find hope in the midst of such tragedy, where the famous one rejected God and embraced the consequences of a mortal sin?  And if the rich and famous cannot deal with life, how can we?  As you can tell, there were a lot of underlying discussions.  People had heard at church that Williams was condemned because of his suicide.  People had heard discussed that he really wasn’t a good Christian because he continued to stumble so often in his life.  I did a ton of remedial work.  Specifically, though, I reminded them how our understanding of mental illness and addiction has changed over the years.  In the case of addictions, the brain is often altered.  Biochemically speaking, there are often measurable changes.  That’s why sufferers go through the problems of withdrawal.  The brain and the body physically crave the substances.
     Similarly, though, those who suffer from mental illness are not themselves always.  Often, something in the brain is not functioning as it was intended or it  is getting its wires “crossed.”  We want so badly to apply reason to the, by definition, unreasonable, but we cannot.  Why does he refuse to take his meds?  Why does she act that way sometimes?  And the Lord knows we are far more accepting of those who suffer from cancer than we are those who suffer from mental illness.  Survive cancer or or some other physical ailment and you can wear it like a badge of honor.  Make it through another day dealing with mental illness or addiction and . . . well, we won’t talk about that outside the support groups.  That’s why I love the anniversary cheers that come out of the Parish Hall each day.  In no way, shape, or form did our Lord intend for Robin Williams to suffer.  He is a good God who wanted only the best for Him.  I have no doubt, just as He did at the tomb of Lazarus, He weeps over the death of another of his sheep, a sheep who had been given the charism of making people laugh yet who had difficulty finding joy in his own circumstance.  Yet look at the national discussion this past week.  People have learned that even the rich and famous can suffer from mental illness.  Amazingly, even someone who could make us laugh as hard as he did can be living with pain and suffering to which we normal folks can relate.  The stigma associated with those two demons which plagued him are just a little less dark today, and we won’t even get into the discussion of addressing the behavior of the trolls on social media.  In the midst of this death, we can see glimmers of redemption.  And, if media reports are correct and he is an Episcopalian, some pastor somewhere will be offering the reminder to his family that, even at the grave, we make our Alleluias!  If he was a Christian, then we will likely one day be laughing at his antics in the Holy city.  We may not understand, we may not see the big picture, but we know that, in the end, God wins and that we will be glorified with Him!  I did not start this week expecting to preach the Gospel into so many lives affected by suicide, yet, God has been present powerfully, reminding those speaking with me, of His amazing Grace and His amazing power.
     And, unless you think God cares only for the lives and deaths of the rich and famous, I have used every one of your stories about the suicides in your lives this week.  I cannot tell you how their perception of us has changed this week, simply because I had walked this path with so many of you.  It may come as no surprise to most of you that we have a certain reputation among those whom we serve in His name.  It sure surprised them that so many of us had dealt with those issues which plagued Mr. Williams.  It gave many of them hope that you and I had found the comfort of the Holy Spirit in the midst of our tragedies.  Better still, we were not afraid to share our journeys, our fears, and His answers.
     Finally, in a lead up to these discussions, I had been thinking recently of Pat.  When the stone mason was here a few weeks ago asking about those whose names he was inscribing, we were talking how God had redeemed many of those loves and deaths on many levels.  But I found myself chuckling.  One of my best stories, I told him, was not being inscribed as his body was interred at the Arsenal.  I told him how the palliative care nurse finally could not take it any more and asked Pat if he knew he was dying.  Pat responded with a typical “Of course I know.”  She followed his answer up with a “then how can you be so . . . calm” response.  Pat was drugged a bit and within days of the end, so he asked her to ask his priest when she saw him next.  The priest would be able to explain it fully, without falling asleep from exhaustion.
     Unknowingly, I walked in later that day.  She shared her impressions of Pat and the conversation I just related.  So I shared with her Pat’s faith in our Lord Christ.  Unlike far too many nowadays, she knew the Gospel.  She confessed that her parents had made her go to church and Sunday School when she was young.  But the moment she moved out of the house on her own, she quit going.  She reflected a bit wistfully that she missed those times.  They were young, they believed they were loved, and things always had a way of working out, “you know?”  I nodded.  She missed those days.  
     It is not often that you all give me alley oops, but Pat’s life as he faced death sure had.  What made the opportunity even better from my perspective was that I was dealing with a young nurse who would, if her career continued along this path, be dealing with death and dying and families for many years to come.  I pointed that fact out to her, not to scare her, but to open her eyes to the life she had chosen or been called.  If this all that there is, I told her, then she was in for a world of despair and hopelessness.  She would, I had no doubt, long for the Pats as patients.  But more than that, I reminded her that one day, were she lucky, she would find herself in the same position as her patients.  How would she answer those questions of meaning and love for herself?  That is when, as they say, it got real.
     I wish I could stand before you today and speak of a glorious harvest.  I wish I could stand before you today and tell you that Pat’s death definitely led to rejoicing in heaven because God used it to reach a lost sheep.  The truth is I cannot.  There was a lot of water under her bridge.  Adults in her life had acted hypocritically.  She had made some unwise choices in her life.  She found herself wondering whether God still loved her despite herself.  God knows the boys and men in her life sure did not love her the way she craved, the way He does.  I could offer her that reassurance, but I could not make her choose to claim Him once again.  That decision we have to make for ourselves.  But as the stone mason said, I sure tilled that earth.  I worked the water and manure into the ground for a glorious harvest, just as I had with him.  It is hard to be reminded of God’s love and not be enthused to do the work He has given us to do.  Like me, he sure hopes she found Him.  Can you imagine her work, Pastor?  She is literally walking through the valley of the shadow of death day in and day out.  Can you imagine the hope His light in her life would bring to those folks?  Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I can.
     I have been a bit long-winded this morning.  I would like to say I am sorry, except I am not.  In the case of mental illness and addiction, we have far too much inculturation to overcome.  If I preached a simple “You all have suffered or have loved ones who have suffered from mental illness, addiction, and suicide, now go preach and teach hope!” you would quickly be overcome by the world.  Many of you consider yourselves just normal folks, nobody special.  After a challenge or three, many of you would hear that voice speaking to you instead of His.  Brothers and sisters, all of you who have been touched by those demons that plagued Robin Williams are the perfect spokespeople for God at this time.  You know the frustrations, the hurt, the pain, the anger, the shame, the silence, and the loss.  Those experiences have uniquely prepared each one of you to speak His peace, His life, and His love into those who are now suffering.  And the ongoing discussions about Robin Williams in our workplaces, our recreational spots, our meals with friends and colleagues, with all those whom God has placed in our lives provides us with an opportunity to speak into the shadows and darkness of their lives.  Best of all, we have been given the words of life, the words of hope, and the words of love.  Each of us gathered here can speak, not as some willy-nilly book smart professional, but as one who has lived what they are living, as one who has lived and survived.  Those of us who have contemplated suicide are the best to speak into that darkness.  Those of us who have struggled with addiction are perfect for speaking into the lives of those suffering the same.  Those of us who have struggled with mental illness are wonderful for reminding others that they do no suffer alone, they need not suffer in silence.  And all of us, all of us gathered here, know multiple people affected by mental illness, by addiction, and by suicide.  All of us.  As such, we are uniquely equipped to speak into society’s silence, to remind people of the needed care and love, and to remind others who are touch by these ills that neither are they alone.  Our Lord came that such evils might be redeemed.  Our Lord came that they might know He loves them, redeemed them, and has glorious plans for each one of them!  It is our job to remind them of His purpose for them, to walk through the shadows with them, to provide shoulders to cry on, and to join with them in moments of success and joy.  In other words, as a nation of priests in His eternal kingdom, it is our calling to help shepherd them to the Great Shepherd.
     Watching you, I see the squirms.  I understand that you are loathe to share such stories with me, let alone those with whom you worship, and even less alone with strangers.  Here’s the thing, though: in the Church we speak of fellowship.  We speak of that holy mystery where different people come together in singleness of mind and uniqueness of purpose under the Lordship of Christ.  You and I, by virtue of our sufferings, already have a unique fellowship with all those who suffer similarly.  Why would we ever not want to bring them into this fellowship, this fellowship that we share with the prophets, the Apostles, the martyrs, the matriarchs, the patriarchs, and all the other normal people just like us, through whom God has always chosen to act in salvation history?  Why would we ever be reticent to share that wonderful inheritance?
      And, let me forewarn you, just because you mean well, just because you respond faithfully, just because you are trying to live into the life of light that He has called you, don’t expect everyone’s circumstances to change dramatically or miraculously.  They might, or they might not.  In some of your cases, despite my faith and despite my professional training, I have still failed to reach you or your loved ones.  Our Lord came because many things, not just salvation, were beyond our understanding and our ability to fix.  You and I can do everything right from a human perspective, and still loved ones and strangers will suffer from addiction, still suffer from mental illness, and even consider suicide to be the only balm for their pain.  Faithfully responding to His call in our life in these issues does not guarantee a successful outcome, from a worldly perspective.  Faithfully responding, though, does remind us that all is in His hands and equips us to minster well to the family members of others.  More than once last week I found myself detailing my human failure as a pastor to two individuals who took their own life under my care.  You want to know what failure feels like?  Preach life and hope and bury someone who, by human measures, rejected your teaching and your preaching and took their own life.  But in those deep moments last week, I found His Spirit using those deaths even now.  Those in my office sobbed.  Heartwrenching, gut punching sobs.  Guilt.  Failure.  I should have done more.  Those contributed to the emotions being experienced.  And then, in the midst of their pain and anguish, it dawned on them: we really are normal people suffering through the same vicissitudes of life.  One of the guys commented he thought we were super saints until that very moment.  “I would never have guessed you all had the same closets with the same skeletons as us.”  So did Mr. Williams.
     By Thursday of this week, the angst of Robin William’s death had died down in this place.  The ripples from my conversations and their own with their pastors had a rippling, calming effect.  The 11th step in AA, as developed initially by Bill and Rev. Shoemaker — good Episcopalians, I might add — reminded them that they already knew what that they were hearing again.  God has promised.
     So here were are, reminded by our lectionary editors that God can redeem all things.  As all this shadow and darkness is swirling around in the world around us, and as we watch war on two continents and humanitarian crises on at least three, and as we watch natural disaster after natural disaster wreck havoc on those in the world around us, we are reminded that what humans intend for evil, God can use for good and His glory.  Oh, and the passage for us is specifically about slavery.  Ever feel like God is using a 2 x 4 to get His message across?
     Brothers and sisters, look around you.  You know the stories of addiction and of mental illness in your own lives and in the lives of those worshipping God with you today.  The world in which you have been given to preach life and hope is still struggling with the death of a beloved comedian and talented actor.  To the world, he seemed to have it all.  And still that was not enough to overcome his demons.  You have been forged, however, as iron is forged to be God’s mouthpiece in these discussions.  Unlike others in your workplaces, unlike others in your schools, unlike others with whom you socialize, you know the pain and the hurt and the doubt experienced by Mr. Williams and his loved ones.  Better still, you know the Healer to whom He turned.  Yes, it may look like failure right now.  Yes, it certainly seems tragic on this side of the grave.  But, we serve a God whose mercy is every bit as vast as His power, who promised never to abandon a sheep who sought Him, and who promised that, at the end, He and all those normal people whom He has called will be glorified!  I cannot encourage you enough, I cannot beg you enough, remember who you are and Who it is that calls you.
     Brothers and sisters, many in the world around us are living in darkness, living among the shadows.  The voice of our Lord’s enemy works hard to convince them they are unloved and alone.  We know better.  We have walked those paths with Him in our own lives.  We know that Jesus is the Messiah.  We know that He commands the very elements of earth.  We know that He commands even the demons with little more than a thought.  We know He has command of life over death.  Now, we have the opportunity to shine forth His light in the darkness around us.  While those in the world are groping, we have been glimpses of the healing He offers.  While those in the world struggle to find meaning and worth, we know the value and love with which He holds each individual.  While the world struggles with shame, we know He bears it gladly.  While those in the world struggle to find hope in the midst of pain and hurt and sadness, we know the redemption and hope that He offers.  This will not be easy work.  This will not be fun.  It will be cross-bearing.  But what is meant for evil, He will redeem for His glory and the welfare of all His people, just as He did for our Lord!


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Who is this Jesus? . . .

     I know we have a tough time trying to grasp the fullness of God.  In one sense, it is a waste of our time because we know we are doomed to fail.  How can the finite grasp the infinite?  How can the created ever hope to grasp the Creator?  In another sense though, we are obliged to try.  After all, God has revealed Himself to us through His Word in the Bible and through His Son, our Lord Christ.  Clearly, He wants us to know certain things about Him.  And that makes sense.  How could we be effective ambassadors if we did not know Him well.  This week, among the other qualities which Matthew wants us to consider, I had to laugh at God’s humor and sense of irony.
     As background to this week’s readings, a couple interesting discussions were taking place around the church, both locally and wider.  In the wider church, a priest had done an article discussing the lack of church planting by our wider church.  This discussion is taking place as we consider our numerical decline in light of the Great Commission.  Of the so-called mainline denominations, our church is the absolute worst at net-planting churches over the last three decades or so.  There are vibrant Episcopal churches being planted around the country (VA and TX immediately come to my mind—Bishop Scarfe and Dean-President Moore sent me and Rev. Bywater to learn how from VA while in seminary); unfortunately, there are also a lot of churches being closed.  His paper looked at claims such as a clergy shortage, as our fondness to attack small issues rather than large, and at the belief that our wineskins no longer speak to the culture in which we find ourselves engaged.  You can read the first part of the article on the paper, and some of the comments, at .  For my money, the author answers his own question in his summary sentence of the third paragraph in the article.  Thankfully, many Episcopalians no longer believe that Christ is the exclusive path to God.  If Episcopalians no longer believe that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, then it makes sense that we are not really planting churches in unchurched areas.  After all, if one can be reconciled to God through means other than Christ, why have a Christian church?  Why pay any attention to the Great Commission?  Why bother baptizing and making disciples?  Why waste resources on things like buildings?
     While that conversation was occurring in the wider church, another was occurring locally.  Specifically, a Muslim lady approached me early in the week about explaining my faith to her.  She had been reading the Koran and had made the uncomfortable discovery that much of what she was being taught was not in the Koran.  She had mentioned this crisis of faith to some friends.  One was familiar with me through my work with AA and recommended that she speak with me.  Apparently, they think I am respectful of the denominational differences that exist among Christians.  I am quick to explain what and why we do what we do, but I don’t seem to be arrogant in their experience.  Anyway, she wanted to know if I could explain why I believe the prophet Jesus to be worthy of following, as opposed to the prophet Mohammed.  I suppose, had I accepted the thankful position of the author, there would have been no need to waste my or her time explaining Christ.  Had I accepted his premise, I could have sent her on her way with some sort of “oh, it really does not matter whom you choose to follow, only that you follow someone” platitude and been done.  Listening to your chuckles, I know you know me far better than that.
     What you may not know about me is that I am probably a bit more driven when it comes to evangelizing women correctly than many men.  In my time at St. Alban’s, I have had the opportunity to speak with a number of battered women, a number of human trafficking survivors, and even a number of women of others denominational expressions who are, quite simply, victimized by horrible theology which declares, at its root, that women are responsible for sin and that only men can work against it.  I am vastly over-simplifying things, but underlying many of these behaviors and teachings is the idea that Eve, and all her daughters, are responsible for sin.  In this understanding, men would be good were it not for the women tempting or angering them.  Women should be active in Sunday School and hospitality but leave the real work of church or the home to the men.  Not that we need reminding around St. Alban’s, but let me remind us: at no time does Scripture require or suggest that women need to repent of being women.  Do women sin?  Of course.  But, here’s a newsflash, we men are responsible for our own sins.  No woman makes us sin.  We are accountable to God for our own actions and sins.  We men must repent of our unwillingness to do as God instructs and claim the mercy of the Cross and the hope of the Resurrection for ourselves.  Just as must women.
     Now, imagine those two conversations in light of our Psalm, our portion of Romans, and our portion of Matthew’s Gospel today.  How would you answer those questions?  How would you explain our denominational abandonment of the Great Commission, at least as expressed through a big decline in numbers and a willingness to plant churches?  How would you answer the Muslim lady’s question regarding the person and work of Jesus?  And, can you imagine the timing of the questions?  As these are being lived out in the world around us, the lectionary editors some time in the past chose these readings for this, the ninth Sunday after Pentecost as these conversations are happening around us and amongst us.
     I ask how you would answer specifically because that is precisely the question being addressed by Matthew in this part of his Gospel.  Last week, we read of our Lord’s compassion and ability to provide sustenance to His people through the miracle of the five loaves and two fish.  As I mentioned in passing last week, the loaves and fishes miracle is messianic in nature.  Moses had to intercede with God to provide mana and quail.  No one, and I mean no one, thought Moses had the power to provide for the people of God.  And Moses himself, in Deuteronomy, even prophesied that God would raise up from among His people His own prophet.  Jesus, though, does not appeal to God in the loaves and fishes.  He takes the food, He blesses the food, He breaks the bread, and He distributes the bread and fish.  There is no appeal, no hocus pocus.  He is providing for His people in the wilderness.  And such is His provision, such is His abundance, that there are twelve baskets of leftovers after the 5000 men, besides women and children, eat!  In John’s account of this miracle, the people want to make Jesus king right then and there.  Why?  Because He has provided food in the wilderness, just as God said the Messiah would.
     This week, we get this wonderful story that immediately follows.  Jesus makes His disciples and get into the boat and head for the other side.  Why?  We are not told, but I suspect it is human nature.  When I experience those mountain top moments of faith, I hate to move on.  In that, I share a same focus as Peter and the others.  Raise a guy from near death?  Participate in the harvest for our Lord?  Loaves and fishes at Community Meal?  Yep.  I want to focus only on those successes and avoid what I think are mundane or even failures.
     The disciples, we are told, make some headway against the wind and storm.  Clearly, though, they are unable to make it to the other side before Jesus finishes praying.  When Jesus finishes communing with the Father, He heads out across the Sea of Galilee.  In this miracle, Jesus is more than claiming mastery over the elements of earth.  As impressive as it would be to see someone walking on water, think of the spiritual significance.  I have reminded you from time to time that many in the ANE viewed water as a symbol of chaos.  If you lived among the coast, you know the suddenness with which the weather can change.  Storms can roll in, fog can roll in; storms can end, fog can dissipate.  Heck, a beach that is safe one moment may seem to develop a rip current suddenly and without warning.  When God broods over the waters in Genesis, part of the theological claim is that God is bringing order to chaos.  To what seems haphazard, He gives meaning.  To what seems evil or out of control, He works for our good!
     Anyway, Jesus finishes praying and heads over to the other side where He has directed His disciples to go.  Unlike His disciples, who must take a boat or walk around, Jesus simply walks across the lake on the water.  As if that is not miracle enough for you, remember, Jesus is walking on water in the midst of a storm.  The wind and the waves are causing these experienced fishermen some difficulty.  But here comes Jesus, plain as day.  As walking on water in not a common everyday experience, the disciples are shocked.  They believe Jesus to be a ghost.  You can imagine the panic.
     Jesus, once again using the words of the burning bush, tells them it is He and not to be afraid.  Apparently, the disciples are a bit dubious.  Peter tells Jesus to prove He is not a ghost.  “Command me to come to you.”  Jesus does.  Peter gets out of the boat and walks to Jesus.
     The story is told by Matthew to help us understand who Jesus is.  Matthew has already told us the story of the loaves and fishes, a miracle that claims messianic identity for Jesus.  This miracle demonstrates what?  Command over the elements of earth.  Not only is Jesus able to walk on water that is being thrashed a bit by big winds, but He is also able to command a disciple to come to Him over that tumult.  Who has such command over the elements of earth?  God!  Matthew is reminding us that Jesus is not just a messiah, a deliverer of God’s people in the sense of Moses or Joseph or a few others in the Old Testament.  Matthew is testifying to us through this miracle that Jesus is God.  He will further confirm that testimony by sharing with us Jesus’ power over demons and the supernatural and, finally, even death!  Matthew’s testimony differs significantly from what the Jews expected of God and His messiah.  Jesus is not just a military leader coming to free His people from oppression.  Jesus is not just a kingly figure coming to rule according to and to teach God’s people His ways.  Jesus is not just a prophet coming to call God’s people back into right relationship with the Lord.  Jesus is God with us!  Emmanuel!  Incarnate!
     Who do you say He is?  It is the most important answer you or I or any other human being who walks this earth will ever give.  If Matthew’s testimony is true, Jesus is God and Messiah.  if Matthew’s testimony is true, Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  If the testimony of all those who have preceded us in our faith is true, Jesus is the exclusive path of God.  And such makes sense.  If “spiritual but not religious,” if “ atheist,” if “I worship nature,” if “I worship Molech,” if “I worship Ba’al,” does lead to God outside of Christ, what kind of sick God do we worship?  Why allow His Son, His Beloved, to die for our sins?  What purpose does His Passion serve?  What point does His Crucifixion make?  And why is His Resurrection significant?  Why are not others raising from the dead and testifying to us “Hey, it does not really matter what path you follow, they all lead to God.”?  Why should we accept the role of suffering servants?  Why should we claim to follow the Suffering Servant?
     Back to the application of that truth this week.  The Muslim lady who came in was having a crisis of faith.  She wanted to understand why what she read in the Koran was not what she was taught in her mosque.  More to the point, if those who were charged with instructing her properly were mis-teaching or, worse, lying to her, what else were they getting wrong?  Our conversation, which lasted quite a while, finally came down to the answer to that question, “Who do you think He is?”.  I shared with her these miracles (hey, they were on my mind) and their significance.  Jesus was not just a fallen prophet.  He was the fulfillment of God’s redemption of humanity, all humanity.  Not just men, men and women and boys and girls and young and old.  “How do you know what you believe is true?”  Because God confirmed it in the Resurrection!  Either those hundreds of people were deluded when they saw Him before His Ascension, or He was raised from the dead.  Either St. Paul made the dumbest career choice after the journey to Damascus, or He really met the Risen Christ.  All these disciples witnessed a Risen Christ!  It fundamentally changed who they were.  Matthew was a traitor, a tax collector.  Peter.  Poor Peter.  No Apostle has more ups and downs, more highs and lows, than that wonderful fisherman who got out of the boat.  Paul went from being the chief persecutor of those who called Jesus Lord to being the chief proponent, the chief ambassador, to those outside the Jewish faith.  How do we explain those transformations?  How do we explain those tectonic shifts?  How do we account for their sudden ability to speak before authorities?  How do we account for their abilities to work miracles in His name?  How do we account for their willingness to die for Jesus?  He was the God Incarnate Messiah.
     What if my conversation, though, reflected the truth claim of the author of the paper examining why we fail to plant churches?  What if I truly believed that we had moved beyond the understanding that Jesus was not the exclusive path?  How would I have answered her?  Go back to your mosque.  The truth really isn’t that important.  There really is no difference in what the prophets have taught.  If we really have moved beyond that understanding of who Christ is, it is logically consistent that we should not plant churches.  Heck, it is logically consistent that people should not want to get out of bed on Sundays and worship with us.  If His identity is unimportant, if His role in salvation history is marginal, why sacrifice any time, any talents, any resources for Him and His Mission?  Why risk being teased and becoming the butt of jokes for being a “Jesus freak”?  Why believe that we even have a message of incredible good news for the world?  Why make the sacrifices and courageous decisions called for by Paul in our readings today?  Why feed the hungry in His name?  Why minister to those imprisoned in His name?  Why pray about the storms swirling in the world around us?  Why care about war?  Why care about refugees?  Why bet your soul on a Savior who might not matter?
     One last thing, in my passion today, in my efforts to be a faithful and good shepherd, I may seem hard and unyielding.  As to the question of who Jesus is, I am unapologetically hard.  I have staked my eternal life on the truth of His offer of salvation, and I have encouraged you and countless others to do the same.  I began this sermon, though, discussing the vastness of God.  I may know that Christ is the answer that the lady is seeking, but I understand the need to share His Gospel winsomely, gently.  Our miracle today reminds us that God’s power is equaled by His compassion and His mercy.  What happens to Peter when He loses His focus?  What happens when Peter quits focusing on Jesus and notices the swirl of the storm?  He begins to sink.  Immediately, once Peter realizes what has happened, He calls out to Jesus to save Him.  How does Jesus respond?  Does Jesus condemn Peter for his “little faith”?  Does Jesus say to Peter, “Hey stupid, you were fine when you focused on Me.  You should have kept your focus.  Now drown as you deserve.”?  Does Jesus in any way condemn Peter for sinking?  No.  He reaches out His hand to Peter and lifts him out of the tumult.  His power to save is equaled by His willingness to save, even to save those who have failed Him.
     Some of you gathered here today can relate to Peter.  Some of you have done amazing things for God’s glory and witnessed the mountaintop highs of your faith in your life.  Similarly, though, all of us have failed Him.  All of us have come up short.  All of us have demonstrated our “little faith” in our circumstances and begun to sink.  Perhaps the storm in our life was a brush with disease and death.  Maybe the tempest in our life was a question of provision.  Maybe the swirl of the storm in our life was the seduction of false teaching or simply forgetting who Jesus is.  Maybe we have experienced a number of storms which exposed our little faith.  It does not matter!  Jesus still, despite our failures, despite our little faith, willingly and lovingly reaches out that hand of forgiveness and redemption to each one of us, just has He did for Peter.  Jesus still willingly and lovingly wants to pull you up from the storm and save you!  Better still, He willingly reaches out that hand to all who would claim Him Lord and Savior.  In that sense, our faith is not exclusive.  It is open to all.  And it is our sacred responsibility and obligation, out of thankful and joyful hearts, to share His Gospel with all whom He has put in our paths and in our lives.  Who do you say to them that He is?  Is He just a nice guy, one path among dozens and dozens to God?  Or is He the God Incarnate, Man divine, who commands you to walk into the teeth of storms and tempests for His honor and glory?  The God who promised that you and I and all who walk the path set before us with Him as Lord, will do even greater things than these?  The God who gave up His own life, that you and I and all who call Him Lord might live forever?



Friday, August 8, 2014

Loaves & Fishes and a mother-in-law's rice . . .

     I hadn’t had a chance to relate the story due to a family death and a family celebration, but it seemed to good not to share in light of this week’s passage on the loaves and fishes miracle.  Between the services three weeks ago, a gentleman walked in and asked if we still tried hard to feed the hungry.  He hadn’t seen anything on AFM in some time and wondered whether we’d given it up.  Assuming he was looking for some assistance, we started telling him about SmartChoice.  He got excited and interrupted us and asked if we could use some rice with the boxes of food.  Expecting a couple bags of rice, I told him we would make sure it got to the hungry.  He took off for his car.
     When he returned, he was carrying a box of rice.  “I have fifty-two pounds, I think.  Where should I put it?”  I told him we would place it around the altar and offer it in thanksgiving to God today.  I also got Nathan to help, and Scott volunteered.  Then, I told him, we’d see about getting it into the bellies of the needy.
     “You don’t think you will have a problem?” he asked.
     “Not at all,” I assured him.
     Of course, I could not help myself.  I wanted to know why he bought fifty pounds of rice for the hungry, not knowing how he was going to distribute it.
     “It wasn’t me.  It was my mom.”
     No doubt we all looked confused, so he went on.
     “I married an Asian girl.  Mom knows that she cooks a lot of rice, so, from time to time, she buys us rice to help out.  The problem is that she buys the wrong kind of rice.  Did you know that there are dozens and dozens of kinds of rice for cooking?” he asked.
     I am proud to say that I did.  Heck, it hadn’t been a couple months since I found out there were different kinds of Basmati rice thanks to an incorrect purchase on my part.
     “Anyway, she keeps buying us this rice.  My wife thanks her for the rice, and she keeps it in the boxes.  We decided we have enough to make a difference for some people, and you all came to mind.  We weren’t sure if you still did it, but you guys sure helped out a lot of people with that Angel Food.  So my wife sent me here this morning.”
     All of us present shared a thank you and laugh at his story.  Parishioners invited him to coffee and to church.  He declined.  Before he could make his escape, I asked him if he wanted a donation receipt for his taxes.  Without pausing to think, he should his head and said no.  I asked if he was sure.
     “I did not buy it, pastor, so I do not deserve the credit.  if anyone deserved the write-off, it’s mom.  But then I have to deal with explaining why we had to give her rice away.  That will make things wonderful for my wife, if you know what I mean?”
     All of us with mothers and mothers-in-law nodding knowingly.  Some of us even chuckled.
     “Anyway, it’s best if it’s anonymous.  Thanks for letting me help you all, though.”
     We thanked him as he headed out.  Those of us around the table remarked how people really pay attention when you do good things around here.  As the priest, I reminded them that people are attracted to that counter-cultural message of the Gospel, that they cannot help being intrigued by a faithful life or lives being lived out before them.  There were nods and other comments before the conversations turned back to the usual Sunday morning fare.
     I used the example, though, later that week with the stone mason.  We were chatting about how people need miracles.  Some do.  But so many of us miss the miracles in front of our eyes.  Like Paul’s, our eyes our full of scales.  But as the last couple weeks have gone on, the story could have been used for other readings.  We know that all things work together for good for those who love God — Imagine!  God is so powerful that He can redeem not only death, but the potential for misunderstanding between in-laws!
     And then there was the loaves and fishes miracle in our midst.  No, it was not like that which we often experience at the Community Meal, where the food stretches and stretches.  But, to the recipients, it is every bit the same kind of miracle.  We have given what we can and more, and still the need before us is vast.  And then, out of the blue, in walks fifty-two pounds of rice.  Why?  Because they noticed our faithful service of the hungry.  Fifty-two pounds of rice won’t assuage all the hungry in Davenport, but it sure will fill all those who received it.
     I shared the story with Judy, as she stopped by church to pick up our food offerings.  She couldn’t wait to share it with her sisters and brothers who help run the Food Pantry at New Hope Presbyterian a few blocks over.  “Sometimes, we get a little dejected by all the need, you know?  These minor miracles sure are a Godsend to us when we are down in the dumps about our impact.”  I reminded her there are no minor miracles.  For those who got to eat this week thanks to their faithful labors, this was every bit as big as the loaves and fishes from Matthew this week.  She laughed as she headed out, renewed once again by His faithfulness for service, as were we all.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

More than enough to meet our needs . . .

     The feeding of the 5000 story in Matthew’s Gospel today is the only miracle, aside from the Resurrection, which occurs in all four Gospels.  Think about that for just a second.  We have talked at some length over the different purposes, the different lessons to be conveyed, of each of the writers.  We have, at times, discussed the synoptic problem, and we have also considered how John’s account differs from the other three.  Except for the Resurrection of our Lord Christ, only the feeding of the 5000 men, besides women and children, makes it into each of the Gospels.  Why do you think that is?
     It is important to remember where the story occurs in Matthew’s account.  Jesus has been rejected by His hometown.  Then, Herod has beheaded John the Baptizer.  John’s disciples have buried his body and come and told Jesus.  Jesus’ mourning, as a cousin of John, is certainly understandable.  From a human perspective, we can understand His desire to to mourn in private.  But think a bit about His feelings as God.  The king has killed His prophet.  Worse, the king has killed the Herald of the Messiah.  We know from other passages that our Lord mourns over Jerusalem’s unfaithfulness.  How He has longed to gather Jerusalem under His wings like a mother hen!  For centuries, God’s people have had to deal with His silence.  Now, He has sent a prophet and the king, the king, the very person who was tasked by God with leading His people in a right relationship with Him has silenced the corrective or interpretative voice!  Worse, this voice was the herald of the Anointed One.  Can you imagine the divine frustration?  Can you imagine the hurt?  The betrayal (yet again)?  It is no wonder that He goes off to be by Himself for a bit.
     Of course, Jesus cannot avoid the crowds for too long.  His fame has spread.  He comes ashore to a great crowd.  Rather than resenting the crowd for interrupting His solitude and mourning, Jesus has compassion on them and heals the sick.  Towards the end of the day, though, His disciples come to Him and encourage Him to send the crowds away.  Their advice is, again, understandable.  It is late in the day.  There are a lot of people, 5000 men besides women and children.  And they lack the food to feed everyone.  Jesus needs to send the people away, else they will be obliged to care for their needs.
     Jesus tells them to feed the crowd, but the disciples declare it is impossible.  There are only five loaves and two fish among them.  That won’t even feed Jesus and His disciples well.  Undeterred, Jesus tells them to bring Him the fish and the loaves.
     What follows is a precursor to the Eucharist that we are about to share, which is, in turn, a mere appetizer to the Wedding Feast to which we are all called.  Jesus takes the food, looks to heaven, and blesses them.  He then breaks the bread and gives it to the disciples to pass out to the crowd.  Everyone, we are told, gets their fill.  Everyone eats and is satisfied.  In fact, everyone is so satisfied that there are twelve baskets of food taken up at the end.  The miracle, as we have discussed, is messianic in nature.  Although we might miss its significance in our Christian understanding, the Jews present would have immediately understood its significance.  Jesus takes Moses’ manna miracle and does one better.  It is a miracle that proclaims Jesus will provide for His people Himself.  Moses intervened with God, and the manna was left behind each morning with the dew.  No one thought the manna was Moses’ doing.  Everyone knew it was Yahweh keeping His promise.  Jesus, though, has blessed, broken, and distributed the meal before their eyes.  It will be one of those miracles which cause the people to wonder whether He is the Messiah.  And it is a claim made by Jesus regarding His identity.  That is not to say everyone will realize the significance of the miracle.  Jesus will chastise His disciples for forgetting this very miracle in just a couple chapters when He speaks about yeast.  More specifically, He will chastise His disciples for forgetting the lessons of this miracle.
     What are the lessons of this miracle?  Assuredly, it is one of those miracles which testify to His messianic purpose.  It is also one of those stories which teach us a bit about the heart of Jesus.  So often people tend to think of God, if they think of Him at all, as some sort of bearded judge over space and time.  The stories of a Zeus-like figure ready to zap us with lightning bolts probably describes how many people view God, if they even think of Him at all.  Yet here is Jesus, showing compassion in the midst of His mourning, and healing people.  It is a tender scene, a scene which out to help convince us of our Lord’s love of us.
     I think for us at St. Alban’s, though, the most important lesson is one of perspective or vision.  The disciples rightfully look out among the crowd and see tremendous need.  Something as simple as feeding the crowd overtaxes their meager resources.  We can relate to meager human resources.  I wonder whether our budget has moved very much in the 50+ years the parish has been around.  Very few members over the years have come from means, and none have been wealthy enough not to worry about money.  That is part of the reason why Richard made prayer such an important part of this parish.  In many ways, as a group, we deserve a pat on the back for some jobs well done in the face of overwhelming need.  Community Meal comes to mind, of course.  For nearly 47 years the parish has provided sit down meals for the hungry and homeless and hobos in our community.  That, my friends, is a LOT of food.  That is a lot of buying, a lot of cooking, and a lot of serving.  I was telling another group this week how Thelma had insisted that the food be things that we serve at our own tables at home.  I told them that Jesus would get the same food at the Meal Site that He would at our own tables were He to drop in unexpectedly.  How many churches do that?  It is challenging work.
     Other ministries, though, address the enormous needs in our community.  Grant, Sarah and others have taken on the UnderWear because We care campaign with a determination that no one in our communities should ever lack for something as basic as underwear.  I won’t steal Grant’s thunder yet, but the amount of underwear they are aiming to collect this year is hysterically large.  Anti-Human Trafficking efforts have gotten us incredible attention from the wider church and the wider community.  I still chuckle at the audacity of a $100,000 revenue church fighting a $35 Billion industry.  But look at the difference we have already made, and nobody can claim it really was us.  All we did was respond faithfully to oppression.  Think AFM and now Smart Choice.  True, we are stretching budgets rather than giving away, but people like Michelle, Vern, Robin, Polly, Connie, and Sue have donated a lot of time helping people order; and it would be easier to name people who did not help distribute food than did in the courses of this ministry.  Collectively, we are helping fight obesity in our community through TOPS.  You want a real lost cause?  Try and convince Americans that we need to lose weight!  Addiction?  Yeah, it’s a huge problem in our community and we are fighting that.  Slumlords?  Yep.  We are there fighting that from time to time.  The working poor?  Well, if I had a dollar for every time I helped with gasoline, with rent, with a meal, with a utility, I’d have more dollars to help more people!  None of us expect to solve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis ourselves, but how many of us our praying to God each day that the sons of Isaac and the sons of Ishmael experience the joy and laughter the two of them shared prior to Sarah’s decision?  And, we do not live on a border state, nor do we have the political clout to force the Congress and President to get their collective heads out of their Balaam’s asses, but I do expect that some of us will answer the call of Nora, if the mayor’s plan is implemented and some refugees are brought to the QCA (assuming she needs the help of some Protestants!  lol).
     We do a good job, maybe even a great job, as a congregation when it comes to one of the important lessons of this Gospel.  We see the overwhelming need around us, but we recognize that we serve a God who has far more available than there is need.  In fact, we serve a God who can meet needs abundantly, and at times we do that very well.  Some of our meals have brought the hungry to tears.  They tell me often how this or that reminds them of their grandma or mom’s cooking.  And I have lost count of the number of conversations that I have there that begin with “why do you all feed me/us like this?” or “why do you all feed them like that?”  And it is appropriate that we think of that meal in light of this reading.  How many of us have noticed a loaves and fishes miracle while serving there?  In 47 years, has anybody ever gone away without getting their fill, whether 35 or 109 or anywhere in between show up?  Yes, as a group, we do a good job.
     But, how many of us are like the Apostles in this story?  How many of us see these ministries unfold before our eyes and forget to apply the lessons to our own lives?  Have you ever noticed that each of the Apostles had a basket of leftovers?  In the face of overwhelming need and lack of human provision, each Apostle has a basket of leftovers of his own.  God has acted wondrously before their eyes, and they miss the significance of the event for their personal lives.    How often do we make the same mistake?
     How many of us worry about our food, even after watch God work loaves and fishes miracles before our own eyes repeatedly?  How many of us worry about our bills, even after watching God stretch resources amazingly to help those in need?  How many of us worry about diseases and injuries, even though we have witnessed, we have seen with our own eyes, miraculous healings?  How many of us have wondered whether God truly cared, only to have a reading come up at just the right time or someone give just the right encouraging word?  How many of us have panicked at the thought of our death or the death of a loved one in Christ, even though we have experienced and witnessed the Risen Christ and know we and they will rise again with Him in glory?  How many of us, when faced with perceived emergencies in our lives, look to anyone but God for a solution?
     The lessons of the fish and loaves is not academic, brothers and sisters.  The need is every bit as real as we believe it is.  In fact, the need may be even greater because so many have no real idea of their own need.  God’s provision, though, is vaster by orders of magnitude than any need.  God can meet needs, meet them abundantly, have leftovers to teach His people lessons, and still He has more!  There is no end to His power, His grace, or His love.  And He has called each of us to live in the certainty of that reality, that the size of human need is immeasurable, but that the size of human need pales by comparison to the abundance of God.  Better still, He wants to bless us with that abundance as firstborn heirs!
     Sitting here today, you may well have been nodding along with me.  Those of you active in ministries can testify to God’s provision and faithfulness in those ministries.  But, if you found yourself nodding in agreement that you do not trust God in your personal affairs, why?  What is it about your faith, your relationship with the Lord who feeds thousands from five loaves and two fishes, who casts out demons, who commands the very elements of earth, who raises the dead to new life that prevents you from trusting Him in your affairs?  Do you think there is a limit to His blessing?  Do you think there is a limit to His patience?  Do you think there is a limit to His attentiveness?  Do you think there is a limit to His willingness to forgive you?  Our story today reminds us that the Lord meets the needs of His people willingly.  For those who hungered, He fed; yet in the same motion, He provided evidence of His abundance so that His Apostles and disciples would never think He was not up to the task.  Better still, He reminds us that when we fail, we are in good company.  We stand with all the Apostles and disciples who stood with Him at every miracle.  All He demands is that we repent and try again to let our faith in Him be our guide.  The rest is up to Him.
     Perhaps, sitting here today, you may have heard for the first time of God’s compassion, God’s grace, and God’s power.  Perhaps, sitting here today, you long to belong.  You long to be loved by God and to love God.  Perhaps, you recognize you have ineffective faith and desire a faith more worthy of the One who feeds in this story.  That, too, is ok.  You see, like those in the crowd, our Lord has compassion on all those who need, all those who long, all those who desire to be a part of His kingdom.  All of us begin like Peter.  We all see and long for our Lord to call us out onto the stormy waters.  We all long to accomplish great things in His honor and to His glory.  Scarier still, though, most of us sink from time to time.  It is only through that constant walk in faith, over time, where Jesus demonstrates His incredible faithfulness to us, that we are transformed into heralds of His kingdom, ambassadors of His grace and power, and firstborn inheritors of His blessings.