Monday, July 30, 2018

There Is Always Enough

How many of you remember playing Musical Chairs or the card game Spoons? he Do you know what both of those games have in common?  They're both based around the principle of scarcity. In Musical Chairs you've got several chairs set up in a circular pattern, the music plays, you and your friends walk or dance around the chairs, and when the music stops you try to find a chair to sit in, only there's always one less chair than there are folks playing, so someone always ends up without a chair, and if you're that someone, then you're out.  In Spoons you and several others dig through a bunch of cards in an attempt to get four of a kind.  If you succeed you pick up a spoon, but like Musical Chairs there's always one less spoon than people playing, so if you are out of luck and can't get a spoon, you're just plain out.  I find it somewhat ironic that we are entertained by games with the message that there is never enough for everyone, and children's games at that.

 Musical Chairs & Spoons.  Two games where there's never enough for everyone.

The very idea of scarcity is frightening, isn't it?  Think back to wintertime and the droves of people who raided the milk and bread aisles at the store.  How much could they actually need for such a relatively short period?  It doesn't really matter, though, because the fear of not having enough is what drove folks to stock up on way more than was necessary.  We do it with food, with money, with jobs, and all kinds of possessions that we are so afraid to lose.  We get way more than is necessary because we're afraid there won't be enough. The fear of not having enough, the fear of scarcity, is a powerful force.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, however, is not a story of scarcity.  It should be, but it isn't.  Think about it:  we're told once that Jesus was a carpenter, but he never actually works in the Gospels, so what's his income?  It isn't coming from his apostles, either, because they all leave their jobs, and even their families, to follow after him.  They don't have homes, they just wander around--Jesus makes note of this when he comments that the Son of Man has no place to lay his head--and most days they don't even know where their next meal is going to come from, they just have to rely on someone inviting them to dinner, like Simon the Leper or Mary and Martha.  Put any of us in the same situation, with no income, no regular housing, no idea how we're going to feed ourselves, and we would freak out, wouldn't we?  We would be preaching a Gospel of scarcity, of fear of not having enough, but blessedly this is not the message of Jesus' Gospel.

The word Gospel comes from the Greek evangelion, which means 'Good News'.  A message of scarcity is not good news, but a message of abundance is.  The great irony of the Gospel of Jesus is that the story of a homeless, jobless, itinerant preacher is actually a story of the abundance of God's grace and love and mercy.  This past Sunday we heard one such piece of that story, which highlights the message of abundance conveyed by the Gospel.  That story is the feeding of the 5000.

'Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”'
--John 6: 1-14

This is one of Jesus' most famous miracles, appearing in all four of the canonical Gospels.  The version in the Fourth Gospel, however, is a bit different.  Here we see two of Jesus' disciples--Philip and Andrew--assess the current situation from a place of scarcity.  They look upon the great crowd out there in the desert, and Philip comments that six months' wages wouldn't feed everyone.  Andrew points out that there is a boy with five loaves and two fish, but then he scoffs and pessimistically asks, "What are they among so many?"   Even those closest to Jesus can't help but be fearful of not having enough.  But you know who isn't fearful?  The boy.

A young boy brings what he has to Jesus.

He's only found in John's version of the story. This boy offers what he has, and he shares it, not only with Jesus but with the crowd as well.  This is the great miracle of this story, that out in the desert, tired and hungry, a single individual would be willing to share what he has for the sake of so large a community.  That kind of selflessness on behalf of a bunch of strangers is a true miracle!  The boy does not hoard what he has out of fear, like those who raid the milk and bread aisles.  He doesn't selfishly say, "Well, I guess the rest of you are just out of luck," like the kid playing Musical Chairs or Spoons.  This is the very definition of faithfulness:  bringing what we have to Jesus, offering it for the sake of others, and trusting that Jesus can and will use it.  The inclusion of the boy makes the sharing personal.  He is every person throughout history who has ever heard this story; he embodies Jesus' message of abundance and compels us to do the same because he is us.

That message that he embodies is that there is always enough, so long as we are willing to let what we already have pass through the hands of Jesus. Five loaves and two fish CAN feed 5000 people, not because Jesus performed a magic trick, but because the faith of a small child compelled that child  to give what he had to Jesus, and the result was that everyone was fed.  In our local community there are folks living into the witness of this boy, and our church plans to raise them up each week from now until Advent.  These local mission-outreach partners are doing all they can to offer what they have for the sake of others.  Two worth mentioning here are NetworX for Hope of Randolph County and Bread for the World.

NetworX began as an effort to address the issue of poverty in Randolph County, NC.  It consists of volunteers (called Allies), who give of their time to work with those in need (called Champions), helping them find holistic methods for addressing their needs, from joblessness to feeding their children.  It is only two years old, but already the effects are being seen in our community!

For more information on NetworX, click here .

Bread for the World is a national organization that seeks to raise awareness of hunger throughout the world by means of faith action, letter-writing campaigns, food drives, and local activism.  A chapter exists in Greensboro (about an half-hour away), and in September I hope to meet with local clergy here to get a chapter started for Randolph County.  

For more information on Bread for the World, click here .

I include these ministry partners of ours in this post to show that there are folks living into the example of that little boy--regular folks who look at the complex, harsh realities of issues such as poverty and hunger, and rather than be overwhelmed with fear or just throw money at the problem, they bring what they have to Jesus and meet the problems head-on with him.  And when that happens, miracles occur.

Brothers and sisters, do you realize that a miracle occurs in church every single week that takes the same form as the feeding of the 5000?  At our altars we take, bless, bread, and give ordinary bread and wine, pray together for them to be sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and then just a tiny piece of that bread and a little sip of that wine miraculously nourish us and fill us with Christ's grace.  This miracle of the Mass unites us to Christ and one another and gives us the strength to go out into the world to share his message of abundance.  If sharing just a little bread and wine can do that, imagine what we can do if, like that like that little boy, we shared our loaves of bread, our fish, our time, our resources with those who are in need, both stranger and friend alike.  Imagine what could happen if we focused less on the myth of scarcity and more on the truth of abundance, the truth that the hungry can be fed, the sick can be made well, and the poor can be given hope for their future if we are willing to let what we have pass through Jesus' hands and be offered for the sake of others.  If we could do that, well, that would be a miracle.

Miracles, it has been said, are not something that just happen, they're something that people make happen.  They happen when people put aside the fear of scarcity and embrace the abundance of Jesus' power to provide grace, mercy, and healing to this broken world.  And yes, it is broken, but it is not without hope.  Its hope lies in every person who steps out, like that little boy, and gives what they can on behalf of someone who is in need, offering the very things they are so afraid to lose.  That is the Good News, the Gospel, of Jesus.  It is a message of abundance because it is grounded in his abundant love, which is never, ever scarce, and never, ever runs out for anyone.  If we are willing to do our part and give what we've got to him, then through the power of his love there will always, always, be enough. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Beheading of John: A Warning With Good News

'King Herod heard of Jesus and his disciples, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.'
--Mark 6: 14-29

I have to admit that whenever this particular Gospel passage comes up on a Sunday morning I feel somewhat deceptive; after all, I proclaim before and after the reading that this is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, but there's no Jesus in the actual story!  As a matter of fact, this is the only passage of such length in any of the Gospels that does not immediately and directly focus on Jesus. What's more, it's not exactly a passage for which folks are anxious to hear a sermon or one on which most preachers are excited to preach.  Nevertheless, we do have it in our Sunday lectionary, which means there must be some kind of Good News in it.  So where are we to find that Good News?

An Eastern icon of the Beheading of John the Baptizer

Like the prophets of old--Amos, Jeremiah, and others--John the Baptizer was called to preach truth to power.  As those folks had preached to the kings of ancient Israel, John preached repentance to King Herod of Judea--well, technically Herod was a tetrarch, which was a local puppet-king installed by the Roman Empire, but let's ignore that for now.  Herod had married his sister-in-law, which was not ok, and John called him out on it.  As if that weren't enough, Herod also had nearly every political opponent, including male members of his own household, killed so that he could retain a grip on his power.  Odds are John let him have it over that, too.  Eventually John's preaching landed him in prison, but there was something about him that caused Herod, who could've had John killed at any moment, to let him live; in fact, we're told by Mark that Herod enjoyed listening to John's ramblings, even though they sometimes confused him.  Something about Herod wanted to keep John alive, but when the banquet comes where Herod is hob-knobbing with his political base, he makes the error of promising to give his daughter anything she desires.  When she asks for John's head Mark tells us that Herod is deeply grieved, but he does it anyway.  Why? In order to please the crowd.  He knows killing John is wrong, yet he abandons his own morals out of a sense of loyalty to the people gathered at the banquet, in order to maintain his position among his political base.  He knows that if he goes back on his word he will lose their favor, and so his own morality is tossed out the window for his own political gain. That decision haunts him every day, which is why he fears Jesus, thinking he is John raised from the dead.

Herod and his actions are a sort-of foreshadowing of another significant political figure in the Gospels, Pontius Pilate.  Mark places this story where he does to give us a parallel of the conflict that is to come between Jesus and Pilate, which carries with him many of the same defining factors of the conflict between John and Herod.  Like Herod, Pilate holds considerable political power as the Roman Governor of Judea, and just as Herod does not want to kill John, Pilate shows great hesitancy in crucifying Jesus, which is something that all four Gospels agree upon, even though they each have different versions of the story.  It is that hesitancy that eventually would lead Pilate to be regarded as a saint by some early churches, including the Ethiopian Orthodox Church!  But also like Herod, Pilate's own morality is betrayed in the name of personal, political gain.  If he releases Jesus he risks the crowd becoming an angry mob, word will get back to Rome that he can't control the people in his territory, and he'll likely lose his position of power.  To appease his base, Pilate, like Herod, sacrifices his morality.   Of course now things are different, right?  There's not a single public figure who would sacrifice their morals and conscience in the name of personal gain?  Not one!!

Just gonna leave this image here of folks whom I am sure would never betray their morals for personal gain.

 OK, we all know that's not true.  Still not just the people in positions of great power, is it?  It's not just the public figures who betray their morals for their own selfish desires.  This Gospel stands out and asks a hard question of each of us:  how often do we do the same thing?  How often do we feel the tug to forego our morals, to set aside what we know is truly meet and right so to do, for the sake of pleasing others, maintaining the status quo, or satisfying a personal desire?

I wonder what it is that compels us to set aside those morals for the sake of gain.  We could say the devil made us do it, but that can be something of a cop out.  It is, however, appropriate to name that temptation for what it is:  sin.  It is sinful behavior for us to lay aside our conscience--that thing that John Henry Newman said was the voice of God within us--for the purpose of satisfying our own selfish and self-centered longings, particularly when they wound others.  But where from inside of ourselves does that sin originate?  For this we turn to the epistle reading from this past Sunday:

'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.'
--Ephesians 1: 3-14

The writer notes how God has given so many blessings to humanity--redemption, forgiveness, wisdom, and faith, to name a few, as well as an inheritance in Jesus Christ that, according to verse 6 in the letter, carries with it the responsibility to praise God's glory in all things and for all things.  That is the central responsibility for Christians, according to this letter.  If we are to praise God in all things and for all things and at all times, then this must mean that humanity is utterly dependent upon God and God alone.  It is God who accomplishes all things in us, which may seem like an assault on our Western notions of independence and autonomy--and would certainly aggravate the powerful men in the picture above-- but that is what it means to share in the inheritance of Christ.  As the Ephesians are being reminded of this fact, we can clearly see that men like Herod and Pilate did not get the memo.  For folks like them, their dependency is not on God but on their statues, on their appearance, on holding on to all the things they fear to lose, especially their power and privilege, and they will do anything to retain their power and privilege, even if it means betraying their own conscience.  Jiminy Crickett said to always let your conscience be your guide, right?  The moments when we forget that we are utterly dependent on God and forget to let our conscience, the voice of God, be our guide, are the moments when that sin takes hold and we manage to convince ourselves that it's perfectly fine to sacrifice our morals for personal desire or gain. When this letter and Gospel passage are put side-by-side, we can clearly see the message, like one of those old anti-drug posters:  if you want to share in the inheritance of Jesus don't be a loser like Herod! 

Just replace the kid in the box with Herod and "take drugs" with "betray their morals" and you've got the point.

Here, then, is the Good News for us today.  In a world filled with Herods, with men and women who betray their conscience and sacrifice their morality on the altar of personal gain, may we have the grace to remember that everything we have, and everything we are, comes from God, and that it is God alone on whom we are dependent, not ourselves, and certainly not our status or appearance.  May we have the grace to listen to our conscience, to let it be our guide when it says, "Hey!  You may not want to do this or say that because it will hurt others and haunt you."  And lastly, may we have the grace to--in the words of that great sage Master Yoda---"let go of everything we fear to lose,"especially our power and privilege.  For when we can let them go and hold fast to that grace we can truly listen to the voice of God and share in the inheritance of Christ. 

We shoulda listened to this guy!

Monday, July 9, 2018

Transformation, Not Validation

As I write this hundreds of my Episcopal brothers and sisters are in Austin, TX for the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.  They've been there since last Thursday and will be there through this coming week.  The work of the bishops and elected deputies at the convention, which meets every three years, is to make policy on a church-wide scale, celebrate all that God is doing in the Episcopal Church, approve the budget for the next three years, and of course to dialogue--and often times debate--very serious issues relating to both the church and society.  It was at General Convention in 1976 that the ordination of women in the Church was approved, and it was at General Convention in 2015 that the Church approved a service for celebrating marriages among two people of the same gender.  Each time issues like these come up there are folks who speak for and against them.  Each one of those who speak is faithful, and each believes to their core that the voice with which they speak is a prayerful voice, one that is speaking God's truth.  The subject at this year's convention that has caused such a stir has been the vote on whether or not to adopt a new Book of Common Prayer.  While the final decision has not been made as of the posting of this blog, folks on both sides of the issue have been speaking with that same voice of faith, which has been calling them to stand in truth and speak that truth to the powers-that-be of our church.  Some of those speaking do so as if they are picking up the very mantle of truth-speaking laid down by the prophets.

The seal of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church

Speaking truth to power has long been the role of the prophets throughout the Abrahamic faiths.  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Jonah, Ezekiel, Jesus, and Muhammad all preached God's word to people in positions of great authority.  Some, like Jeremiah, were afraid; some, like Jonah, outright refused the position; some, like Jesus, were killed for what they said; and some, like Muhammad, had their words twisted and used for purposes which they never intended.  Even when people did not believe the prophet, they still could deny neither the fact that a prophet was among them, nor the authority with which he spoke--as God says to Ezekiel:  "Whether they hear or refuse to hear, they shall know that that there has been a prophet among them." (Ezekiel 2: 5) Theirs is the call to speak truth to the people, to call the people to a transformed life, even if their argument is never validated by said people.

It would be sorely unfair and the acme of foolishness to say that anyone today, including preachers, is a prophet like any of the prophets of old, but we who are people of faith are still called to be truth-tellers.  The problem, however, is that in many ways we live in post-truth time.  Y'all know exactly what I'm talking about! You try making a point to someone, maybe in person or in a post to Facebook, to which that person responds, "Actually, the truth is something different."  You come back with, "You're wrong, that's not the truth."  Suddenly, an argument breaks out over the very idea of truth, the very notion that there is a right and wrong.  The natural conclusion, then, is to say, well, we both have our truths and they're both correct, and then you walk away.  Sometimes, yes, more than one thing can be true, but the idea that truth is entirely subjective leads to a complete breakdown of communal life.  What's more, it breeds mistrust and animosity and is what caused many of those in power to refuse to even listen to the words of the prophets of old because they had already decided that their truth was more true than the prophet's truth.  This is what happens to Jesus when he goes home to Nazareth.

'Jesus came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 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 to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.'
--Mark 6: 1-13

Jesus' going home was not for a quick visit to see his family, or some walk through the nostalgia of his childhood.  He takes his disciples with him and goes to the synagogue to teach, which means he is there standing in the authority that God has given to him, but when he opens his mouth and speaks the religious leaders and other people gathered are unable to hear his truth.  They have already decided that this man, this boy as they know him, cannot possibly be qualified enough to speak God's truth to them.  Who is he to tell them how to live their lives; after all, he's been living most of the past year or so in Capernaum, not Nazareth?  The resistance on the part of Nazarenes bears striking resemblance to that of the people who are quick to denounce the truth-speakers, to tell them that their version of what's true is just as valid.  What, then, is Jesus to do when caught in this kind of situation?  What is any of us to do when we are trapped with someone who refuses to listen to us, or who disrespects us when we have the courage the speak?

The solution that Jesus offers comes in the instructions that he gives to his disciples after the encounter with the folks in his hometown.  He sends the twelve out two-by-two.  I often wonder how those pairs were done--did the disciples choose their partner or did Jesus choose for them, and if so who ended up with Judas?  He sends them together to not only remind them that they are not alone in their ministry, but also in order that they may have support.  Imagine if Peter and Matthew were paired together.  If they go into Peter's hometown and the folks reject him, Matthew will be there for support, and vice versa when they go to Matthew's town.  Moreover, that partner would be there not to simply agree with everything, but perhaps even to challenge the other somewhat.  You wanna tell me the person paired with Judas didn't push against the stuff he was likely saying?  Not only are they to go together--that is, in community--but notice what they are to take--or rather, what they are not to take.  Their travel is to be light--they will only carry a staff and no change of clothes--and they are not to take any worldly possessions that could hinder or hold them back--no money, no bread.  They are, in a very real way, stripped of everything except their partner and the words that God will speak and the works that God will perform through them.  In these instructions from Jesus we may very well find a model for how to navigate this post-truth world of ours.

We have all found ourselves in situations where the other person simply does not want to hear what we have to say, and at worst disrespects us for even trying to say it.  I suspect that all of of us who have found ourselves in those situations have been tempted to trade blows with such a person. But if we keep trading blows, trying to one-up each other and going mad attempting to prove our truth to the other, then the cycle will never end.  What if, instead of trading blows and arguing loudly (or passive-aggressively on Facebook) over whose truth is and THE truth, we look to Jesus and the disciples as our guides.  Jesus doesn't argue with the people in the Nazareth synagogue, even though he could have and would have been right.  Instead, he continues to stand in his own authority,  What if we stood in our baptismal authority to seek, serve, respect and love?  When Jesus sends out the twelve he sends them in pairs, so what if we remembered that we are not alone and sought the insight of a brother or sister who might be able to support or challenge us?  And just as the twelve went on their journey carrying little baggage, what if we could drop the baggage that weighs us down--our fears, our prejudices, our refusal to change or to accept our own faults and failings?  Perhaps by doing so we can make a crack in the hardened heart of the person or persons with whom we are in disagreement.  Or perhaps not.  The result, whether or not our truth is validated, is quite irrelevant.  The point is that by taking up Jesus' example and applying his instructions to the disciples to our own lives our very spirits undergo a transformation, and we become more and more Christ-like ourselves. That is the point!  It's not about proving you are right and the other is wrong, especially in a world in which no one seems to ever be willing to admit they are wrong.  Instead, it is about the inner journey toward a life that is grounded in Jesus, a life that seeks to become more like Jesus.  This is, after all, why we take Communion each week, as St. Augustine put it:  "We eat the Body of Christ in order that we may be the Body of Christ."  That transformation, not the validation of our personal truth, is the point.  For our brothers and sisters at General Convention, who are engaged in some hard conversations, and for all of us who find ourselves in such precarious spots on a daily basis, our goal is transformation, not validation.

So the next time you find yourself in a situation where you are called to speak the truth, or when you are caught in a conversation with someone who keeps putting you down for speaking the truth, or you're faced with someone who is so completely wrong but incapable of budging from their own truth, use Jesus and the disciples as your model for how to handle it.  Don't trade blows.  Don't disrespect or belittle.  Continue to stand.  Lean on those in your community who can stand with you.  Let go of the baggage that keeps you from standing.  And remember that the transformation of your very self, not the affirmation of your argument, is what God is calling you toward in those moments.  For that is what it means to take up the mantle of the prophets.