Monday, July 27, 2015

Making Miracles

How did he do it?  That's what we want to know, isn't it?  How did Jesus feed 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in a little town called Tabgha?

Theologians have debated this question since the moment it happened.  Some say that Jesus made fish and bread out of thin air--like Madrox, the Multiple Man, who can make copies of himself and anything he touches.

Madrox, the Multiple Man, as a member of X-Factor

Some say that the people had food on their own persons while out there in the Galilean countryside, knowing that they would be gone for a long time, and so they ate what they had, and together with the loaves and fish were able to be filled.

Still others claim that this story has nothing to do with food, but that Jesus himself fed and sustained them, that his presence and his words gave them the nourishment and strength they needed to continue on their journey.

Regardless of what theory one may ascribe to, they all agree on one thing:  this was a miracle.  That's a word we toss around a lot, isn't it?  The US beats the Soviet Union in a hockey game in 1980 and it's the Miracle on Ice.  The Tennessee Titans win a playoff game against the Buffalo Bills, and we call it the Music City Miracle.  Even DC comics has Mr. Miracle, a member of the Justice League who is gifted with great speed and strength.  (Yes, two comic book references in one post!)

Mr. Miracle

But what is a miracle exactly?  And what makes this story a miracle?  The Feeding of the 5000 is one of those stories found in all four of our canonical Gospels, but there is a wrinkle here in the Fourth Gospel that, I think, makes it a miracle.  Andrew tells Jesus that there is a boy there with five loaves and two fish.  This boy is not present in any of the other Gospels.  This boy is what makes the story a miracle.

The boy offers Jesus what he has to feed the multitudes.

All around him the boy is hearing voices like Andrew and Phillip, who are complaining that they won't be able to feed the multitudes, that what this boy is offering is not nearly enough.  Still, the boy offers what he has for the sake of this community of 5000, giving what he has to Jesus, and when he does so Jesus uses it and somehow, someway, manages to feed and nourish all those people.

Many have claimed that the boy is an allegory, that he isn't real.  This makes sense when we see that he only shows up here in the most recent of our Gospels, which would have used the writings from the communities of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and built upon them.  Still, whether the boy is real or not is immaterial.  The boy represents the crowd itself.  He represents you and me.  He represents anyone who hears the voice of Jesus and steps forward.  He is anyone who is willing to give what they have for the sake of someone else.

The boy reminds us that opportunities for the miraculous are all around us, if we only open our eyes and hearts and spirits to see them.  They happen when we show the courage and selflessness that he shows.  He reminds us that miracles are not something that just happen, they're something that people make happen.  Miracles don't happen when we clasp our hands together and pray for Jesus to come and give us something we want.  Jesus is not a cosmic vending machine!  Miracles happen when we who are the Body of Christ partner with our Lord and offer what we have to him for the sake of the Other.  It feels daunting at times--Phillip and Andrew show us that with how much they complain in the story.  And often times we feel like what we have to offer isn't nearly enough.  But this story reminds us that one person can, in fact, make a difference.  It reminds us that we can come to Jesus just as we are--however ill-equipped--and Jesus will use what we offer--however small it may seem.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu said it best:  we can't do it without God, but God won't do it without us.

It may seem too big, or we may tell ourselves that what we offer is too small.  Still, God does amazing things with the small.  When we receive Holy Communion, for example, we get but a small piece of bread, paper-thin and not very tasty.  And yet with that small morsel we are changed, strengthened, forgiven, and empowered.  It's a miracle!  Jesus does the same thing whenever we bring something to him.  He takes what we offer and, with us, makes miracles.

Every single person has something to offer?  What do you have to offer?  Maybe you have something to offer in your church community.  Or maybe in your town or city.  Maybe you have something to offer the world.  Whatever you offer--time, talent, treasure, whatever--amazing things will happen when you step out in faith and courage and offer what you have.  And that's because Jesus is in the middle of it, and when Jesus is in the middle of soothing, the hungry get fed, the poor find hope, the stranger is welcomed, and ordinary people do extraordinary things!

Miracles are not just reserved for Jesus.  They are for you and me.  They are all around us, anytime we ask use the gifts God has given us to help build up the kingdom here on earth, and anything we offer something of ourselves for the benefit of others, no matter how small it may seem.  We can't do it without God, but God won't do it without us.  So let's offer what we have, brothers and sisters.  Let's make some miracles happen.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Let's Be Human Beings, Not Human Doings

"Jesus said to the apostles, 'Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest.'"
Mark 6: 31

The house in which I grew up in Flat Gap, VA had a basement, which was my sanctuary.  It was in that basement that you would find the cinderblock wall and baseboard heater that I beat up practicing my pitching.  You'd find (for many years) the only TV in the house.  You'd find a wood-burning stove by which I would warm myself and my dog Broderick in the winter time.  You'd find the ping-pong table, at which I would dominate!  And, of course, you would find my Transformers collection.  That basement, that sanctuary, was the place to which I would always return.  It didn't matter if I were in Kentucky, California, or South Carolina, I would always come back to that place.  It was where I could just be.  I didn't have to do anything when I was there.  It was my Sabbath Place.

Jesus called the apostles to find their Sabbath Place.  After having been sent out 2-by-2 the apostles return to Jesus, no doubt exhausted but still eager to tell him of all the things they had seen and done.  Jesus tells them to retreat, to come away and rest.  He does not tell them to somehow prove to him how well they did their jobs while they were out there.  He calls them to a place of refreshment, to a place where they can just be, even if for just a little while.

Sabbath is something that is mandated by God (it's the Fourth Commandment), yet it doesn't really have anything to do with Sundays.  Historically Christians still worked on Sundays, returning to the fields after their worship.  God's Sabbath, of course, is Saturday, the seventh day on which God rested.  As a Seventh Day Adventist once told me during my chaplaincy days, "Sundays or Saturdays, it doesn't matter.  God just wants to make sure we're taking time to rest."

Unfortunately, we have somehow developed a theology that says that over-functionality will lead us to a better seat in the Kingdom.  Folks, I got news for you:  we all get the same seat!  We all have the same place reserved at the banquet table with Jesus.  Over-functioning, working way too hard, in the hopes of gaining some kind of extra grace is a false theology.  We are saved by grace alone.  Simple as that.  Yet we live in a society that tells us to give 110% at our jobs, at our family lives, at whatever we do.  Guess what…we can't give 110%!  It's mathematically impossible!!  So why do we praise folks who do so?  Why do we think that we have to work until we are exhausted or until we physically, emotionally, and spiritually damage ourselves and those we love?

As someone told me in church yesterday, we're human doings now, not human beings.  I think that's the key.  We have become so concerned with doing the we have forgotten how to just be.  Case in point:  what's one of the first things you say to a person when you meet her?  "What do you do?"  It's because our society defines us by our jobs, our titles, and how hard we are working.  But God does not work that way.

God does not care for our titles, for our jobs.  God knows that there is nothing more that we can do to earn that eternal love and that place in the Kingdom.  God loves us just the way we are and wants us to focus more on being, rather than doing.

We do this by honoring our Sabbath.  Perhaps it's a day off that we take (mine is Friday).  Perhaps it's a vacation spot to which we retreat regularly.  Our parish has a little creek running by the church building, and many parishioners come by and simply sit at the creek and be.  I envy my clergy friends who insist on taking time each month to find rest and relaxation, perhaps at a monastery.  These folks know where their Sabbath Place is, and they make sure that they find the time to go there.

What is your Sabbath Place?  Wherever it is, make time to go there.  Go to the place where you don't have to worry about your labels, where you don't have to work so damn hard, where you can just be who God called you to be.  Know that God loves you just the way you are.  You don't have to try so hard!  Who you are is enough for God.  Let it be enough for you.  Take the time to rest.  Take the time for Sabbath.  Take the time to just be.  And that, brothers and sisters, is Good News indeed.

Monday, July 13, 2015

We Need More Amoses

During the summer our Sunday morning readings bounce around from one book of the Old Testament to another.  Last week we were in Ezekiel, the week before that Wisdom of Solomon, and before that Job.  We don't stay long, only for one week.  We do this for thematic purposes--a theme in the Old Testament is then reflected in the Gospel for the day.  But this technique does not give us much time to assess what is going on in our Old Testament text.  So today I'd like us to take some time to get to know the prophet Amos.

The Holy Prophet Amos.

Amos is a pretty important person for a number of reasons.  He is the first literary prophet, which means that he is the first to have a book with his name attached to it; he begins the trend of prophetic witness actually being written down, somewhere around 750 BC.  He is a regular person, like you and me.  He’s not set aside for prophecy at an early age like Jeremiah or Samuel or John the Baptist.  Instead he’s a shepherd, called by God to preach.  

And he's called to preach in an interesting time. At this point in history the land that we call Israel today was split into two kingdoms.  There was the northern kingdom, called Israel, with its holy site in Bethel, the mountain where Jacob wrestled with God.  Meanwhile, there was the southern kingdom of Judah, with its holy site in Jerusalem, the temple that Solomon built for God to house the Ark of the Covenant.  The northern and southern kingdoms were not opposed to each other; in fact, King Jeroboam II in the north and King Uzziah in the south created a strong alliance with maximum taxation of trade and an increase in international relations.  History calls this the Second Golden Age--the first was the unified kingdom during David and Solomon's respective reigns. To put it simply:  things were pretty propsorous during this Second Golden Age.  

This is when Amos gets called by God while he’s living as a shepherd in the southern kingdom of Judah.  God taps him on the shoulder and tells him to go north, to Israel, to prophesy to King Jeroboam.  Think of Amos in this way:  he’s the crazy guy on the street of the major city, crying out to 'Repent!  Repent!' while all around him are folks in fancy clothes and businesses that are booming. Still, he keeps crying out all the louder that this is not the way things are supposed to be. 

Amos is a prophet of justice, one who felt that justice here on earth and the righteousness of God are one in the same because Amos knew that God is always moved by what happens in the world. Amos does not speak out against some kind of extraordinary evil like idolatry, but rather the everyday moral decay that goes on in people's regular lives.  While folks were walking around in those fancy clothes, they were neglecting the poor, forgetting the widows and orphans, the sick, the foreigners in their land.  Everyone that God had commanded them to remember and hold dear, they have abandoned for the sake of their own prosperity. 

Crazy Amos preaching repentance on the streets of a prosperous Israel.

So what do we usually do with the crazy guy on the street corner?  We ignore him.  And that is what King Jeroboam does when his priest, Amaziah, brings him word that Amos has preached that the king, will perish—King Jeroboam had winter and summer mansions and great riches that, according to Amos, called despised because they were obtained by the exploitation of the poor.  So even though Israel loved Jeroboam—the book of Kings actually praises him—Amos declares that he, and the whole kingdom of Israel, will be destroyed. Jeroboam has Amaziah simply tell Amos to go back to Judah, go back home to the south and earn his bread there. But Amos continues to speak out against Jeroboam and the northern kingdom.

And you know what?  He was right!  In 721 BC the northern kingdom is conquered by the Assyrians from the east, and in 587 the same fate happens to the southern kingdom, which is taken over by the Babylonians.  So what led to the downfall of these two kingdoms of God’s chosen people?  Well, if we heed the words of prophets like Amos, it was a lack of justice.

For Amos it was the little things that added up:  forgetting to take care of the poor, not welcoming the foreigner or stranger among us, the haves flaunting their wealth in front of the have nots. Amos was not preaching about theology.  He was preaching about people, about taking care of God’s people.  The sin that Amos spoke up so loudly against was pride in the worst sense—the kind of pride that builds up and looks out for only ourselves, instead of remembering that we are part of the larger family of the household of God.  I tell you what, we could use more Amoses today.  

Martin Luther King spoke with Amos’ voice when he said the arch of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.  Pope Francis spoke with Amos’ voice when he said a little bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just. Nowadays the loudest religioust voices are  crying for us to do anything but be just.  All they do is keep making the walls that separate us higher and higher.  Amos took a sledgehammer and preached a breaking down of those walls, a call to our common life, a call to remember that we are in this thing together.  There should be no distinction between rich and poor, men and women, foreigner and natural-born citizen, Amos says. Today I suspect Amos would speak up against the growing chasm between denominations, he would speak up against preachers who create cults of the personality around themselves, to the point where you can’t tell where they end and the people in the pews begin, he would speak up against the wealthiest among us who keep accumulating because they think that somehow it’s a sign of God’s blessing, while they’re sharing none of it with those in need.  He would speak up for justice and equality for all God’s people, for all God’s creation.  We need a few more Amoses today.  

I don’t expect us to go on the street corners of the big cities and preach, 'Repent!  Repent!'  We are not called to be prophets. Prophets are a special breed, and very few get out of their job alive.  But we ARE called to bear witness to God's justice here on earth and to cry out for justice and do all that we can to work for a world that embodies God’s justice.  We are called to cry out for the chasms to shrink, for the respect and dignity of every human being to be honored, and for us to care for this creation that God has given into our care. We are called to do the little things in our day to day lives  that remember God’s justice. We are called to remember, as Amos would have us do, that we are in this thing together.  Thanks be to God for Amos, who reminds us of that fact, and let us be inspired by the spirit of the prophet to cry out with abandon for justice for all of God’s broken world. We need more Amoses.  Will you be one?  

Monday, July 6, 2015

You Can't Go Home Again

*This post is taken from my Sunday sermon on July 5, 2015 at Good Shepherd, Asheboro*

"They said, 'Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon.  And are not his sisters here with us?'  And they took offense at him.  Then Jesus said, 'Prophets are not without honor except, in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.'  And he could do no deeds of power there."
--Mark 6: 3-5a

You've heard the phrase, "You can't go home again," right?  Today we see how the Gospel interprets this phrase.  I experienced what this phrase really means back in the summer of 2009 when I packed up a van and left my childhood home in Flat Gap, VA and drove with my folks to General Seminary in the middle of Manhatten.  As we pulled out of the driveway, I knew I would never come home again, and I cried for a good portion of the first leg of the trip.  I was like a three year old who had has his favorite toy taken away from him, and I was scared.  My sadness and my fear were because I knew that in a matter of months my dad would be selling that house, the one he and my grandfather built, and would move from the northern end of Wise County down to the southern end.  In my case I could not literally go home again because home would no longer be home; in fact, I know who currently lives in our old house--one of my old high school teammates--and I could not think of anyone better to be there.  Still, I am not the same person I was when I grew up at 5531 Hale Gap Road, and that place is not the same place it once was.  

My childhood home in Flat Gap.  I moved away in the summer of 2009, just a few months before it was sold.

It took me a while to realize that that is how God works.  That is how God's story is told.  It is told with forward movement, with a voice that calls us to look to the future.  While God does beckon us to remember the past--think about the Exodus story and how often Israel is called to remember it--we are not meant to dwell in the past or let it define us--were that the case, the Israelites would have remained slaves in Egypt.  We are not meant to focus so much on the past, and, maybe, we are not meant to go home again; after all, God went home again, and it wasn't very pretty.

Jesus returns to Nazareth after having spent several months in Galilee building up his ministry.  We don't know why he came home, but we do know that when he did so he was met with hostility.  The folks in his hometown no longer recognized the person in front of them.  This was supposed to be the carpenter, not some fantastic prophet.  The Jesus they knew from before was not the Jesus standing in front of them.  The town Jesus knew was no longer his home.  All of this made the people scared, and when people get scared they often get angry; in fact, in Luke's version of this story the people get so angry at this new Jesus that they try to kill him by throwing him off a cliff!  It's obvious in Jesus' case that one really cannot go home again, and after this story Jesus never does return to Nazareth.  

The only thing is change.  As Ryoji Kaji said, "the act of living is an embracement of change."  Life is about transitioning, and we are going through the same transitions as our forebears, the same transitions through which our children will go.  The same was true for Jesus. He knew life was about change and growth, about God doing something new.  But once again we find that, when confronted with his fearful generation, he is met with anger and folks who--literally--want to push this new thing of God over a cliff.

There was a documentary made in 2008, which I highly recommend, called Prodigal Sons.  It's by filmmaker Kimberly Reed and tells her story of going home for a high school reunion, focusing on her reuniting with old friends and especially with her estranged brother Marc.  But here's the kicker:  this story is actually the first time Kim goes home because the last time she was there she was called Paul and was the quarterback and captain of the football team.  The film is an excellent look at what happens when our past and our present come into contact and do not get along.  Like Jesus, Kim faces folks who cannot accept this new person in front of them.  See, in the case of Paul, he never actually did come home.  And when Kimberly came home in his place she was met with anger, fear, and an unwillingness to accept this new person and move forward with this new thing God was doing.

Poster for filmmaker Kimberly Reed's 2008 documentary Prodigal Sons.

Certainly Jesus is not telling us that we should NEVER go home, nor is that the point of Ms. Reed's documentary  I love going back to Wise County and seeing family and friends, and I'm sure that you have a special place to which you like to return or children that you love having come home for a visit.  The gospel Truth for us, however, is that sometimes God does something new in our lives, brings about a change, and rather than dwell on our past, God calls us to move forward, to be changed "from glory into glory," as that great hymn says.  Sometimes, as we move forward, as we are changed by God, we are met with the kind of hostility that Jesus knew in Nazareth and that Kimberly Reed knew when she went home.  And sometimes we are the ones who cannot accept the change.  Sometimes we are the people in Nazareth or the people in Kimberly Reed's hometown, and we struggle with accepting this new thing that God is doing.  

We know what this is like in the Episcopal Church.  We've been hearing the voice of God calling us to change for 40 years!  We heard God calling us to change in 1974 when we ordained women for the first time, and in 1979 when we ratified that "new" prayer book, and again in 2003 when we consecrated Gene Robinson the first openly gay bishop in Christendom, and once more the next year when we made Katherine Jefferts Schori the first female primate in Christendom.  In each case there were those of us who could not seem to accept the change, who were afraid.  Yet God was in the midst of the change, constantly calling us and moving us forward, changing us from glory into glory.  And God will continue to do so, especially in light of new resolutions coming out of our General Convention recently.

So I'd like us to ask ourselves:  what change is God doing in my life?  Where might God be pulling me?  What might God be asking me to let go of, so that I am not dwelling on the past but am moving forward with Jesus as my guide?  Or what change is happening in my life that I cannot seem to accept? How can I move forward with God's grace through such a transition?

What the folks in Nazareth could not see, what the folks in Kimberly Reed's hometown could not see, (and what I could not see as the van moved out of my driveway and on its way to New York) was the holiness in the newness.  In all of those cases it was near impossible to see God at work in this crazy new thing.  But do you know why God is constantly doing something new?  It's because God is not through with you!  If God were through with you, God would just leave you sitting there.  But because God is tugging you in new directions means that God still has work for you, still has a vision for you, still wants you to be changed from glory into glory.  

Do not forget that whatever changes and chances life throws at you, God is in the midst of it.  God is at work in whatever crazy transitions you might find yourself in.  We may not be able to go home again, but that's because our home is with God.  And God never leaves us!  God is always calling us forward, always walking beside us, always doing something new and exciting in our lives.  Know that God is with you as you continue to move forward.  Because God is not through with you!