Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"Where Are Your Keys?" Pentecost 10, Year A

Romans 12:1-8
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Matthew 16:13-20
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Human One is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Child of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but our Creator in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the realm of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Will you pray with me? Loving God, be known to each of us as you are—teach us to speak your truth for ourselves and to others about you. Give us grace to show your presence in us to the world around us, that your realm may come on earth. In your many names we pray, amen.
I am beginning an ambitious project—reading all of John Meier’s “Jesus: A Marginal Jew,” which is four volumes (and counting!)—a study of the historical Jesus. It is one way, as Meier says, of answering the question that Jesus is asking Peter: “Who do they say I am? Who do YOU say I am?”
Jesus isn’t just asking Peter—in asking Peter, Jesus asks all of us. “Who do you say that I am?”
Many people have ideas about who Jesus was and is; there are shelves and shelves of books, hours’ worth of internet pages, many many seminary courses and Bible studies and discussion groups trying to come to grips with this question: Who is Jesus?
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “You’re right, Peter! Everyone else—James, Judas, Mark, Levi, John—make a note of that. Peter is right.” Rather, Jesus says that Peter has spoken from his own heart—not what has miraculously revealed to him nor what other people have told him to say, but what he himself believes.
This can be so hard—to come to this conclusion, first of all—to know who Jesus is for us. It will probably change over time—I know that who my Jesus is has changed for me. Not in the basics—the only Child of God, my Saviour—but in the ways that I think about him. When I was young, he was a trusted teacher, too; and then he became an encourager, a support and lifeline when life became challenging; and at times he’s been like an older brother, or a guide, or a companion. He’s all those and more now.
I had to decide it on my own, though. Parroting what others say may be convenient and easy, and may even seem like the right thing to do, if those other people are trustworthy people—admired teachers or pastors, spiritual writers, even the Bible. But ultimately, when Jesus asks us that question, he is asking us as individuals. He’s not asking who Oswald Chambers thinks he is, or Joel Osteen or John Crossan or Gene Robinson, or your parents. He is asking you—Steven, Martha, Joyce, who do you say I am? John, Cathy, Dale, who am I? It is your answer Jesus wants, not what the scribes or St. Luke or anyone else say. He  is asking you—he wants your response.
Our response matters—what we say, what we believe, is what matters to Jesus. In the end, what we do, how we act, depends not on what we can repeat of what others believe but what we ourselves believe, because that is what shapes how we act.  A person can repeat what, say, Thomas Merton says about the need for solitude and prayer and meditation—they can say that Merton is right, absolutely it is important and everyone should take time for solitary prayer every day. But if they don’t do that, if they even actively choose not to, by taking time that could go to prayer and consciously saying, “no, I am going to do something else,” then clearly they don’t really believe that. If they did, they would act on it.
So what we believe—truly, in our hearts—about Jesus shapes how we behave, what we do about Jesus in our lives. It is, literally, the key to heaven—to an ever-closer relationship with God. This is, I think, what Jesus means when he tells Peter that he holds the keys to heaven. It’s not meant as a general statement—that Peter decides who comes into heaven, into that claser relationship. It has a more specific meaning—for Peter alone. That verse about the church—the word actually means community or congregation—there was no church at the time Jesus spoke. Jesus is saying that Peter’s clarity of understanding would be the foundation of the community; his insight into who Jesus is will be the basis of belief for the community.
We all have keyrings—some of them very full, like mine. I have two keys for my apartment and one for the mail box,  several keys for the church—door keys, an alarm key, a file key—a set of keys to my mother’s apartment, a key to my other mailbox… Some of us keep those keys on separate rings so we don’t have to carry all of them all the time—a set for work, a set for home, a set for church, maybe.
There’s a set of keys we should all have—those keys to God’s realm—our own understanding, our own faith claim, about who Jesus is to us and what he means to us. It’s not easy to come to that statement—it takes thought and internal wrestling, and discussion with others on that journey. Notice Peter couldn’t make that statement right after he met Jesus. The truth is that being a Christian is not about easy answers being handed out on a plate. Anyone who says that it’s plain and simple and easy is not being honest. It’s not easy, it’s not as simple as people want to make it.
The basics are simple yes—Jesus is the child of God, human and divine, who taught us that love of each other—our neighbours—and love of God are the most important things in the world. But putting those into action, actually using those as guidelines to live our lives by—that’s the tough part. Sometimes that love of neighbour doesn’t look very sweet and cuddly—you’ve heard of tough love? Often, even when it’s the gentle sweet kind, it isn’t returned or reciprocated—ever shovelled a walkway for a neighbour in the winter and not gotten even a “thank you?” But the thing is, the importance of loving neighbours, of caring for each other, is not that the other person will be generous and loving back. We care for our neighbours because it is the right thing to do, it is what Jesus has commanded us to do. We do it because we know it is right, not because we will be compensated. It would be nice if our caring were recognised and reciprocated, but it’s not why we do these things.
So—where are your keys? What is it you believe, rock bottom, about Jesus and who he was and is? Not what others have told you, not what sounds logical to you, but what do you—in your own heart—believe? Those are your keys to God’s realm.
But simply having them isn’t all there is. What do keys do? Sometimes they keep things or people in, like prisons. Sometimes they keep people or things out, like safes.  What do our keys do?
Do they keep people out, maybe people we are uncomfortable with, so we don’t have to deal with them.? Or do they open doors so other people hear or see or understand about what we believe?
In all God’s names, amen.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Friday Five--Road Trip!

Road trips. The ultimate childhood summer memory, at least for me, since I only went to "away" camp a couple of times and we didn't have a cottage anywhere.

Here are my Friday Five Road Trips!

Just like Mom's--except ours was a lovely metallic gold-bronze!
1. The first one that leaps to mind is a there-and-back-again from Michigan to Utah and back. It must have been three weeks worth of driving, entirely by my mother. I was only 16 and did not yet have my license (there not having been enough room in the driver's education class that spring). My grandmother was along, but it was probably for the best that she didnt drive. We drove out through Nebraska on I-80, through Lincoln to visit family of my mom's first husband (and my older sisters), then dropped south through Colorado, where we celebrated the US Bicentennial by driving through Estes Park and into Utah. We watched the fireworks in Washington DC on a motel TV that night. Then into Salt Lake to visit more family and for me to be outraged by a visit to the open-pit Kennicott Copper Mines (one of my purchases in Estes Park had been a copy of Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac, which I still think has some of the most beautiful prose ever written). From Salt Lake we went south-east to the Four Corners--where Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona meet. Then it was due east to Albequerque, where my mom had lived during her first marriage--she was able to drive directly to their house, an amazing feat of memory, considering it had been at least 25 years since she had been back there! From Albequerque, we headed east to Dallas to visit family (yes, my mother has a large family--she is one of nine siblings!), before (finally) booking it straight north for home. I remember much more of the trip before Dallas, which tells me that by Dallas I was ready for home! We had been living out of the car (and our suitcases) for what seemed like forever by this point--and even though it was a new car (with air conditioning! quite a luxury at the time, but I don't know what we would have done without it in the SouthWest), I was tired of it.

2. A couple years later, we made a similar trek. One of my sisters and my niece, her daughter (about two at the time), joined my mom and I. This time we headed more southerly, through Illinois, so I could check out a couple of colleges (and meet up with a former boyfriend, the last time I saw him; although we've recently reconnected on Facebook and he tells me Illinois was a terrible time in his life). Again, it was west through Nebraska and then south to Colorado, but this time we stopped in Ft. Collins to visit one of my other sisters. After a few days there, we all packed into the car again (with the addition of another sister who had been visiting the Ft. Collins sister), drove directly east to St. Louis to visit family before returning to Michigan. My memories of the trip west are of reading Shogun in the back seat next to my toddler niece in her carseat (now a professor history in the UK and one-time Rhodes scholar finalist). On the way back, I made the decision I needed to find a job for my senior year of high school--and within two weeks, I had one. Those were the days....

3. Inumerable trips back and forth to my grandmother's as a child. She lived about six hours from us, so we could leave right after school on a Friday, spend the weekend, leave after Sunday dinner, and get home in time for a good night's sleep before school. In the summer, of course, it was even easier.

4. Trips from Washington DC to Michigan when my son (a recent university graduate!!) was an infant. We would leave after dinner, about his bedtime, and drive through the night. It was a 10 hour drive, so we would arrive in time for dinner at my stepfather's favourite diner. Going home, it was our favourite diner near home....

5. When I lived in Germany in the early 80's, we made a tour of the area around the newly-erased border into what had been East Germany. The rebuilding had not yet begun, in fact there were still Soviet troops in one of the cities we visited (it felt very surreal when we realized the barracks we were driving past was flying the hammer and sickle, and those young men sitting on the windowsills drinking beers and smoking were Soviet soldiers). It's impossible to summarize that trip in a paragraph...such contrasts, such an unreal feeling that part, at least, of the Cold War was over.

No, that's not me--this is a just an image of Soviet soldiers I found.

Summer is almost over. If I want to add to this, I guess I'd better get moving (sorry!)...

Monday, August 15, 2011

"Lose the Label" August 14, 2011; Pentecost 9 Year A

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
I ask, then, has God rejected God’s people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.  God has not rejected God’s people whom God foreknew, for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.  Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.  For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that God may be merciful to all.

Matt 15: 21-28
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Teacher, Descendent of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Rabbi, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Rabbi, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Will you pray with me? You who know each of us by name, open our hearts to speak and hear your word for our lives and for the lives of those around us. Bless us with wisdom, understanding and compassion as we seek to serve others and bring your realm to this earth. In your many names, amen.

Facebook is a many-faceted thing. I find it can be a great way to keep up, at least somewhat, with friends and family, to share photos, to spread information, to keep people up to date on the church—and it can also be a terrible temptation to procrastination! But it also can be lifter of spirits, an energizer, when a friend I don’t get to talk to much usually sends an expected message or posts just the quote I needed to hear.

Yesterday I was trying to finalize this sermon—I knew what I wanted to say, what I needed to say—and then my friend posted a video that reminded me of one of my favourite musicians of all time.

His name is Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole, or Iz, as he is known—or was, because he died in 1997. I listened to some of his music, after that reminder, and as I listened, I realized how much his story has to say to us today.

Iz was born around the same time—within days—and in the same city, as President Obama—but their lives went in very different directions. Iz never went to college or university, and lived all his life in his beloved Hawai’ian  islands. He was morbidly obese from a fairly young age—and by morbidly, I mean more than 700 pounds at one point, 340 k on a 6’2” body. His chosen instrument was the ukulele—a native instrument generally used only for comedic effect outside of the Islands. He was a native, his mother was from the most undeveloped, most native island.

There’s nothing there to say he was anything special—that someone so obscure, with seemingly so little going for him could make any mark on the world, leave anything positive behind him.

There are all kinds of labels we could put on Iz; Hawai’ian, native, obscure, ignorant, unattractive, unhealthy, a joke.

And yet. His recordings of Over the Rainbow, What a Wonderful World and others of his songs have been used in movies, commercials, and have been on the top of all sorts of charts. When his ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean at Makua Beach, thousands were there, tossing leis and flowers from their outriggers, wading into the water to be closer to the canoe with his ashes, singing his songs, mourning his passing.

Iz’s music is timeless, haunting, moving. He sings about the simple things in life—love, hope, dreams. His life and example encouraged many young Hawai’ians who felt outcast or marginalised because of their native birth or because of Hawai’I’s isolation from the continental US. Iz’s music offered them a way to be proud of who they were, instead of ashamed, and the courage to work for a better life. One of his songs has become a political song; E Ala E.

For me personally, I love his music, and listen to it regularly. I don’t speak Hawai’ian, but the sounds of his voice and the music of the ukulele tell of peace and hope, breathe the beauty of the islands, and offer a vision of what could be.

So much for those labels.

We are used to having labels put on us, in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and allied community. Do we label other people? Of course we do.

Jesus labelled the Canaanite women who asked him to heal her daughter. She was female, an outsider, a Gentile; she was not “one of his kind.” Jesus says that God sent him only to the children of Israel…but she argues that. Even the ones who are seen as “less-than,” she says, get crumbs, a little something. No one is completely thrown out of God’s household—there’s a place for everyone.

And Jesus changes his thinking, opens his mind and his heart a bit more and heals her daughter.

Some commentators want us to think that Jesus didn’t really mean that he wouldn’t heal the child, that he was testing the disciples to see what they would say and how they would react; or that he was being ironic, and didn’t really mean it. I have a hard time with any of these readings. I think he did mean it, just like it reads. She was not someone he was prepared to help—she was not one of his “kind” and he wanted nothing to do with her problems.

Sometimes we forget that not only was Jesus wholly divine, he was also wholly human. Being completely human meant he made mistakes. Fewer than the rest of us, probably, but mistakes nonetheless. There is a tradition of so-called infancy gospels, written in the second and third century of our era, in which Jesus, as a boy, does things like push bullies out of windows and resurrect birds. He was a normal human child—hard as it may be for us to comprehend, as a baby he cried and needed his diaper changed. In fact, one of the reasons the infant Jesus is naked in so much Christian art to show that he was indeed a human being.

So…Jesus made an error of judgement; he labelled someone and excluded them from God’s blessing. What does he do when he realizes his mistake?

Does he make excuses—“I’m just doing what God sent me to do” or evade responsibility—“One of my disciples must have said that, I don’t agree with it, of course I’ll heal your daughter.” No. Does he try to say she must have misunderstood him, or that he meant something different? No.

He says, in effect, “I was wrong, and you are right. Of course I will heal your daughter.”

Paul, in the first reading,  from Romans, is making the same point this mother makes. God does not draw circles around God’s mercy. All God’s children receive God’s good gifts. Whether a person is born Hebrew or Greek, gay or straight, rich or not-so-rich…a violinist or ukulele player, a lawyer or a farmer, from Rome or New York or Calgary or Honolulu…makes no difference. All are God’s children and bear no labels before God, except one—“I am a child of God.”

It’s difficult for our human minds to grasp, but the Canaanite woman, Pilate, Paul, Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Stalin, Pierre Trudeau, Pol Pot, Mother Teresa, Iz, and you and I—we are all equally God’s beloved children.

It’s time we took those labels off ourselves and others.

Whatever the labels you see and you use—on others, on yourself—take them off. As a sign said at Pride—“Labels are for cans, not people.” When we label, we reduce people to being just what we label them—a stranger, instead of a mother seeking healing for her daughter. A crazy woman, instead of a person trying to follow God’s call to serve the poorest people. A huge man who plays a silly instrument, instead of a gifted musician with the ability to lead people beyond their own fears and despair.

My friends, remember this from today’s lessons from Paul and from Matthew’s gospel. Lose the label. You know those labels on mattresses that say “Do not remove under penalty of law?” They mean the store where you bought the mattress, not you. You can take it off. There are lots of labels we can remove when we look around us—old, young, ill, well, Christian, non-Christian, woman, man. Take off those labels and allow your sisters and brothers to reveal themselves as God made them to be, as they really are.

Lose the label.

In the name of the one who loves all of us, amen.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

"A House of Prayer for All Nations--That Means You" August 7, 2011--Pride Sunday in River City

Isaiah 56:1-7
Thus says our God: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.  Happy is the human who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil.  Do not let the foreigner joined to God say, "The Holy One will surely separate me from God’s people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree."   For thus says our God: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,  I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.   And the foreigners who join themselves to the Holy One, to minister to God, to love the name of God, and to be God’s servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant-- these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Mark 11:15-19
 Then Jesus and his disciples came to Jerusalem. And Jesus entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers."  And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.  And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

I would ask you to pray with and for me. Holy One of all nations, be with us now. Open our hearts, minds and spirits to the truth you would have us hear. Give us grace to see as you see—to know that all human beings are your children, that all are welcome in your house, at your table of grace—that you do not exclude, hate or deny anyone. Open our eyes to your presence in all those around us, even those who hurt us or anger us; may we see and understand with your heart and your love. In your many names, amen.

A house of prayer for all nations. Isaiah quotes God saying it, Jesus repeats it.

All nations.

We know, most of us, where we belong.  Sometimes we cross those borders—as they say, everyone is Irish on March 17! But we know where we belong—we have our certainties of kinship and tribe. For those of you who are gay, bisexual or lesbian, do you remember the first time you went to an LGBT gathering? Maybe it was the women’s potluck, or a bar; perhaps it was a friend’s party. Do you remember the sense of belonging, suddenly? Of knowing, “yes, these are my people and I am home.”

I have felt the same way in other situations too—have you? I’ll admit to a large dollop of geekiness and say I felt that way the first time I stepped into a science fiction convention. I feel that way in some churches, too—and always in book stores.

Maybe for you it’s a yoga studio, or a stage; or your garden. For others, a sailboat, a barn, a woodshop.

It’s that sense of knowing that you are home—that you are among your own who love and support you and even if they disagree with you, are allied with you.  There might be internal disagreements, but woe betide the outsider who dares to attack one of you!

That’s a tribe—our tribe, as the moderator—the head—of Metropolitan Community Churches, Rev. Nancy Wilson put it.

But—and this is what Jesus is pointing out here—God’s place is for all people. Tribes and divisions do not matter in God’s house, because all those borders and boundaries are transcended before God, who created all of us, without borders or limits.

Jesus was not upset and offended that there was commerce going on in the Temple—it was necessary for the people to buy animals for the sacrifices and to obtain the temple coins for their donations. He’s angry because outrageous profits are being made at the expense of the people. “Thieves,” he calls the sellers. Not that they were selling, but that they were taking more than they should. And by selling at high prices, they were drawing lines around who could afford to worship God as they were commanded—they were making it impossible for some people to be able to fulfill God’s laws.

Jesus did not exclude on the basis of income or station in life. Now, I have to be honest here and admit that yes, for a good part of his ministry Jesus did limit his teaching to his fellow Jewish people—but he learned from a woman who challenged him—the Syro-Phonecian woman—who said to him, in effect, “You may insult me and call me a dog, but even a dog is part of the household and deserves to be cared for.” And Jesus realised she was right, and opened his teaching to all people. And always, he was in the company of marginalized people—the poor, the homeless, sex workers, fishermen, widows—the ones on the edges of polite society.

“God’s house should be a house of prayer for all people.”

There are some today who would close God’s house to certain people—people who don’t speak the same language, or live in the same country, or marry the same people as they do. People who are different, in other words. Such people are drawing the lines of tribes too closely. Instead of support and care, their boundaries of tribe, of nation, are strangling and suffocating. Too many churches deny the gifts of their own people, because they are—well, you name it. Women, or they don’t speak the “right” language, or they are gay, or not from the “right” country or don’t have skin the “right” colour, or they are lesbian, or transgender or not educated or… Humans can come up with amazing lists of people they feel are not worthy.

But that is not God’s plan; it is not God’s intention that anyone be turned away from God’s house. All of us are welcome in God’s house, part of God’s family. Even those whom the world despises—or maybe especially those the world despises—will be elevated, welcomed, into God’s house of prayer.

God does not turn anyone away. If you have been told you are not “good enough” in some way, that you must change who you are, that you may not express who you are in church—turn away from those who tell you that. Because God made you as you are—beautiful, amazing, and good. Yes, there are behaviours we need to change—we all have actions and deeds we are ashamed of, when we have hurt others, or been untrue to our own standards and morals. But we should not be ashamed of who God made us to be, whether we are made lesbian, disabled,  straight, black,  left-handed, bisexual, Latino, gay, red-headed, transgendered, two-spirited…any of the ways the world likes to slot people away, mark them as less-than, different and unworthy.

When we give in to the shaming of these people, these institutions that dare to call themselves Godly, we are denying the very gifts of God in our lives—the gift of who we are as God made us. When we hide who we are, who we love, how we know we should be living, we are saying that God screwed up, that we are not as we should be—that we are mistakes, we are errors. God, my sisters and brothers, does not make trash.

Everyone of you is fearfully and wonderfully made, in the very image of God—beautiful, lovely in God’s sight, worthy of love and life and all the gifts God has to offer you—a partner who loves you truly, a life of fulfillment, hope and peace, friends who care and support you, a community of mutual support, an amazing world to live in—and a loving God of grace to love and worship.

A house of prayer for all nations. That means you and me, brothers and sisters—everyone of us here in this tent, on this riverfront, in this city, this nation, this continent, this world. All of us—straight, Muslim, two-spirited, poor, Christian, black, bisexual, disabled, Buddhist, lesbian, educated, rich, Latino, Jewish, gay, Asian, unionized or not—every one of us has a place in God’s house of prayer, at God’s table, at God’s feast.  God created each of us in love, and that love welcomes us home to this feast of hope and joy in God’s house, which is for all nations.

Remember this, sisters and brothers. Next time you are made to feel that you are less than—whether it is because of your skin colour, the language you speak, who you love, how you earn a living—whatever it is—know that God made you as you are, intended you to be as you are, and declared you good. Claim that goodness, that God spark in yourself, that knowledge that God made and loves and claims you as God’s own and do not allow yourself to be turned away from God’s house, for it is for all nations—even yours, even ours, even theirs—for all nations.

In the name of our loving God, amen.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Loaves and Fishes: What's in Your Basket? July 31, 2011, Pentecost 7

Romans 9:1-5
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Matthew 14:13-21
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Will you pray with me? Generous God, open our hearts so that we might share all that we have and are, even when we think it’s not enough, not good enough or is not needed. Open our eyes to the treasures we have within us—gifts, talents, graces, abilities, parts of us we don’t really think are even worthy of mention—but gifts and abilities our sisters and brothers need desperately. Give us courage to share them, to use them in your service, that we may see your realm on earth. In the name of your child, Jesus, our saviour, guide and friend, amen.

A little more than a year after I moved to River City, a friend called me. She had struck up a friendship with a young man—a youth, really, all of 16 or 17 years old—who hung out in the same coffee-shop she did. He had come to trust her and told her his story. When she heard it, she contacted me. He had been evicted from his parents’ home because he was gay and now had nowhere to go. She and I both knew what often happens to gay youth in that situation and she was trying to help him find an alternative to the streets. I knew of an inexpensive apartment that was available, and when I spoke to the landlord—who had often volunteered with Bog Brothers/Big Sisters and knew the score too—he was willing to rent it for what the youth received for rent from social services. So the young man had a safe place to live, but no employment and nothing to put in his apartment.  Another member of the community offered him an apprenticeship in his chosen field and mentored him, monitoring his schoolwork as well as his training. Our church helped furnish his apartment, everything from lamps to towels and dishes. Other community members, gay and straight, brought clothes, furniture, advice and support.This young man was surrounded by caring people who gave of what they had. He thrived and is now on his own, doing well in his chosen profession elsewhere in Canada.

Loaves and fishes.

None of us alone could have helped him in any meaningful way. But together, as a community—a chance friend in the coffee shop, a small business owner, church members, a landlord, neighbours—we came together and offered him a second chance, an alternative view of the world, new options in how to live and how to treat others. When he was first kicked out, living in the only place he thought he could afford, with crack pipes in the tub in the shared washroom and no locks on the doors, I am sure he thought the situation was hopeless, that there was no way out for him. And then he found that many people wanted to help him. There was a way.

Loaves and fishes.

I have some sympathy for Jesus here. He’s just heard that Herod has executed Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. He’s been preaching to his followers for days. He’s tried to go off by himself to mourn his losses and rest, to no avail. And now his disciples want him to feed this crowd?

But patiently, Jesus teaches them that they can do more than they think they can—important preparation for when he will no longer be with them . “You feed them,” he says to the disciples. He wants them to look around, take the initiative, find the way where there seems to be no way—to find out what the people—the congregation—have to share. Not what they, the disciples, can conjure out of the air or make themselves—but what they can find in the congregation, the people.

Loaves and fishes.

We do the same thing—we are so much like the disciples. We think there is no way out—we think there are no options, no solution. We’re hungry for—what? Healing—physical, emotional, spiritual. We are looking for friendship, or hope, a job, spiritual insight, love, or maybe a release from addiction. Maybe we’re in an unhealthy relationship or struggling with grief. We tell ourselves we can’t do what we need to do to change the situation—we can’t leave the relationship because of our financial situation, or our physical illness is chronic and can’t be cured, or we are terrified of life without whatever our chosen substance of abuse is (food, nicotine, drugs, alcohol)—and we’re right. We can’t change the situation, not on our own. But with God, and with a community, there is nothing we cannot do. If we look to our community, we will find the hope and support and love we need. It is there we will find brothers and sisters who also struggle with addictions, who will support us with the tough love we need to leave those addictions behind. It is among our friends in community we will find understanding of the spiritual struggles we face, and new insight—as we can offer them insight. The people around us can offer emotional strength and support as we struggle free of the unhealthy relationship, as we come to terms with our chronic illnesses and learn to live with them. Those around us—in these very chairs, and the ones who could not be here today but whom we know and love—they offer exactly what we need.

And the other side of that coin is that we offer them what they need, too. It is your smile, your hug, that reminds a despairing brother that he is good, and not the terrible person he is told he is by the faith tradition he grew up in. It’s your conversation over coffee that lets the person struggling with cancer know that she is not alone in her fear and despair. It’s your hands helping a person move from an unhealthy living situation; it’s your story, shared over a meal, that gives a sister courage to resist the siren call of her addiction.

Loaves and fishes.

Jesus didn’t turn stones into bread and snakes into fish. He did not provide the loaves and fishes. The disciples didn’t go into town and buy fish and bread. They didn’t provide the food either. The community, the people, those listening to Jesus—they shared what they had. It started with those five loaves and two fish; but it was enough. The disciples went to them and asked—which means they became friends with them, shared with them, were part of the community themselves—because you can’t ask that sort of thing of strangers.

We each have gifts, talents, skills—something we can share with others. Perhaps it’s the gift of music, or of preaching; maybe it’s administration, or simply listening. Maybe it’s the gift of organizing or the ability to analyze a situation and see what path is most productive. Perhaps we are powerful pray-ers, or good cooks; maybe we love hands-on repair and construction work. We may not even think of it as a gift, or as anything special. But every one of us has something to give, and every one of our gifts is needed.

It’s no mistake that we gather around a table to share a meal as part of our community gathering—communion, the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist.  Every family reunion, large or small, is focussed on food—Aunt Kay’s potato salad, Uncle Sam’s fried chicken, Mom’s brownies. I visited a website recently that featured churches which had been converted into homes—and they were very creatively done, I must say. Almost without exception, the chancel—the part of the church where the altar usually is—was used in  the homes as the dining area. Even the non-religious recognise that sharing a meal is sacred, a way of being intimate, of tightening those bonds of family, friendship and love that connect a community.

Loaves and fishes. Share yours with God’s people.

Loaves and fishes. Receive the gifts of God’s people as they seek to lift you up.

In the name of our ever-generous God, amen.

Clarence Darrow--Beyond Scopes and Leopold & Loeb

Personalities fascinate me--people do. One way I try to understand history and places is through people--which is why I love good histor...