It is not that God’s Church has a mission, but that God’s Mission has a church.
I wish I could put that statement out there and just let you all think that I came up with it. But, in fact, I didn’t. The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Maryland made that statement, and you can find his sermon based on it on the Web at a site called “Sermons That Work.”
I think it is a great insight, and one particularly important to consider at times of transition in our lives and in the life of a church, like when beginning a new assignment or searching for a new rector. So hear it again:
It is not that God’s church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a church.
We church folks have a tendency to get such things reversed. We tend to talk about “the church’s mission” in and to the world.
And, yes, of course, it is in part just an easier way to talk about things. After all, the church is structured and organized to do certain things: to serve the spiritual needs of people, to spread the Gospel, to do various kinds of outreach, like disaster relief, soup kitchens, and so forth.
One could even argue that talking about these things as “the church’s mission” is a healthy way of taking responsibility and claiming ownership of the things we are called to do as the body of Jesus Christ in the world.
I would not deny or reject any of that. At the same time, it is also the case that the church has, throughout history, tended to get confused on this point. And when the church loses sight of its subordination to God’s Mission, when the church starts thinking it is pursuing its own mission, bad things tend to happen.
For one clear historical example, consider the Roman church’s shake-down of believers by putting a price on forgiveness. That was the practice known as the selling of indulgences, and it was the impetus and inspiration for the 95 theses Luther probably did not actuallynail to a church door, but did present to his Bishop along with a letter calling for open debate on the matter, and thereby kicked off the Protestant Reformation.
But we needn’t go so deep into history to find examples of religious institutions acting arrogantly, and taking over the role of God in seeking to make the world over in their own limited, exclusionary image. In recent years, we have seen a seemingly endless stream of religious fanaticism, Muslim and Christian especially, blowing up, gunning down, burning worship spaces… from the Middle East to New Zealand to Pittsburgh to St. Landry Parish, Louisiana.
Those are extreme examples, so let’s bring the point closer to home. If indeed we agree that God’s mission has a church, in general, then it’s not a huge step to recognize that the same is true for all of the church’s constituent parts: God’s mission has an Episcopal Church, God’s mission has a St. Alban’s and a St. Thomas’ and a Grace Episcopal Church and School, and on and on.
How does it re-orient our thinking to say that Grace Episcopal does not have a mission, but that God’s mission has us? What would count as evidence?
What do people see when they look at us? God’s mission at work in this community? Or… people focused on, distracted by… preserving a beautiful edifice, balancing the budget, how tall the fountain should be, the leaky roof, who’s on the search committee, the one “right” way to do liturgy… and myriad other things.
It even seems to me there’s some struggle of late about who Grace Episcopal belongs to: the people who pledge? the ones who have been here the longest? a simple majority of members… or of who was at a particular meeting? the vestry? the Bishop?
Here’s my answer: If Grace doesn’t belong to God’s mission, it has no business taking up prime real estate on this corner in this neighborhood in this community.
Do we think WE have a mission in the world? Or do we understand, accept and practice our faith in ways that make perfectly clear that God’s mission in the world has us?
Here’s another way to pose the question: If God’s mission were illegal in Monroe, La., would there be enough evidence to convict Grace Episcopal?
And now, one more step, even closer to home. Consider this: It is not that Bette Kauffman has a mission, but that God’s mission has a Bette Kauffman.
I thought about standing up here and naming names, but.. you can put your own name in the sentence. How does that distill your thinking? How might it adjust priorities for each of us?
We have lots of practice and experience in seeking to carry out our own mission in the world. Indeed, that is the primary job, for each of us, of our own precious, fragile ego.
I am reminded of a lesson I learned many years ago from a more experienced leader of people. I had just come to Monroe to be an academic department head at what was then Northeast Louisiana University. A senior administrator was giving me some insights into the various personalities of the faculty I was about to become the head of. (And, BTW, being an academic department head is The Original “herding cats” kind of job!)
At some point, in speaking about a particularly difficult personality, he said this: When you’re handed a 2x6, don’t waste time wishing it was a 2x4 or a 4x4, even if that’s what you really need. Instead, figure out what you can do with a 2x6.
Thank goodness, God is The Master at figuring out what to do with a bunch of odd-sized pieces of lumber… because that’s what we are… and not only odd-sized but rigid and stiff-necked, just like lumber!
Brothers and sisters, I have invited us to a moment of profound humility. I have asked us to recognize that The Mission is God’s and that we are called–individually and as a church–to belong to God’s mission. I have invited us to consider that the biggest obstacle to our belonging fully to God’s mission is our investment in our own pet projects and opinions, and need to be right, and need for control.
And all that must die. We must relinquish our death grip on all that stuff of the ego… for God’s mission to truly HAVE US. Something always must die to make way for something new to be born. That’s the central story of our faith.
Let us be clear. Death and rebirth are never easy or pain free. But they are the way of the cross. They are the way of following Jesus.
The Gospel is always good news, and today’s Gospel lesson reminds us that love is the way—not only the way of life for us, the way of being church, but also the way others will know that we belong to God’s mission.
But the bit of good news I especially want to highlight this morning is the Revelation to John that was read as our Epistle lesson: See, the home of God is among mortals. What a glorious thought! Maybe a little terrifying, too, but… wow! This revelation is not only about some distant future, but about now, for the home of God is among us.
Then following that astonishing thought comes the line: And the one who is seated on the throne says, "See, I am making all things new."
That’s the hope and the promise I claim for us this morning. "See, I am making all things new."
Grace is still kind of in the painful, “feels like dying” part right now. But new life is coming and is already here. To paraphrase an old familiar song: New life is busting out all over. We are an Easter people.
And what do we do with that? Here’s how Br. David Vryhof of the Brothers of St. John the Evangelist puts it:
God’s mission is to radically transform the world. Our task, then, is to discern how we can be a radically transforming community in the world, embodying God’s values and giving the world a glimpse of God’s…vision [for humankind].
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Our lessons begin this evening with the story of the first Passover. God has heard the cry of the Israelites and is going to bring them out of bondage in the land of Egypt.
We know from Hebrew Scripture that the Israelites had multiplied and were about to surpass their oppressors in terms of population. But numbers alone had not prepared them for the great escape.
Moses had even taken matters into his own hands and killed an Egyptian overseer who was abusing an Israelite. But that act of individual courage—or foolhardiness, depending on your point of view—had consequences primarily for Moses himself. He had to flee into the desert.
For God’s plan to work, the Israelites were going to have to act in unison.
For a people to rise up and walk out of bondage, they must overcome personal fears and anxieties. They must throw off those feelings of isolation and helplessness and apathy that often overtake people in dire circumstances.
For any group of people to march into an unknown future, to go where God’s mission calls them to go, they must give up individual preferences, and set aside their own coping mechanisms and adaptations to the current situation. They must relinquish ways of thinking and practices tied to the past. Indeed, they must yield their very natural desire for control, their very egos, to the future of the community.
And so God planned for the Israelites a feast to be prepared and shared in a particular way that required people to come together and to work together as they never had before.
Each household had to secure a lamb, but smaller households had to join with a neighboring household. The lamb was to be male and 1 year old. It had to be apportioned exactly to the number of people who would eat it.
It had to be kept until the 14th day of the month. Then the entire congregation of Israelites had to come together to slaughter those lambs at twilight. Not at dawn or noon or whatever the traditional time for slaughtering livestock might have been, but at twilight.
The lamb had to be eaten that very night, and everyone, everyone, had to prepare and share the feast in the same way. The lamb was to be roasted, not boiled, with head, legs and inner organs intact. No place here for that plaintif cry, “But, dad, I don’t like roasted lamb!”
The Israelites were to be dressed to march… loins girded, sandals on their feet, staffs in hand. Can you imagine the problem if some had insisted on wearing their Sunday best for this feast, then had to flee into the desert wearing, say, high heels?!
(I can hear my mother in there somewhere: No, you will not wear your sneakers to the dinner table.)
God even dictated, through Moses and Aaron, that they were to eat standing up.
The first Passover was a radical act of community.. to prepare the people of Israel to rise up together and march off into the unknown. The first Passover was an answer to the need for cohesion among the Israelites, cohesion and the courage and faith to rise up, yield their own individual egos and preferences and dearly held practices—perhaps even strongly held views that they’d all be better off staying in Egypt!
They had to yield all of that, and more, in order to leave their homes, risk everything, and march into the dark and unknown desert. And God, in great wisdom, understood that radical acts of community can’t be a one-time thing.
This day shall be a day of remembrance for you, God said. Youshall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
Fast forward a few thousand years. The followers of Jesus are about to enter into a different kind of wilderness—the wilderness of betrayal and grief and loss. Jesus has been telling them what is coming. But they don’t get it.
I am not being at all critical of the disciples here. I’m pretty sure, in their shoes, I would not have gotten it either. I suspect their incomprehension was part denial, and part, well, incomprehension. After all, no human had ever risen from the dead…
But wait. What about Lazarus? They witnessed that! So maybe it was all denial, which is an amazing thing. Denial can blind us to things in ourselves that are unbelievably obvious to others.
Whatever the reason the disciples are clueless, but Jesus knows what’s coming. Notice how concerned John is with “knowing” in tonight’s Gospel lesson, and not in the sense of knowing facts, but in the sense of understanding.
“Jesus knew that his hour had come,” John writes. “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands” got up, took a basin and washed their feet.
Jesus knew also that the disciples did not understand. He acknowledges as much when Peter challenges him, and after he has washed their feet, he explain again in simple terms so that they might begin to understand.
But most of all, Jesus knows that the events about to happen had the power to shatter the little community of believers gathered around him, to tear them apart and scatter them to the four winds.
And so, on this night of remembrance of God’s radical act of community that brought the Israelites out of Egypt, through the wilderness, through hunger and rebelliousness against God and deadly disputes among themselves, and, yes, even moments of wishing they were back in Egypt, slaves but with food and a roof over their heads---
On this holy night of remembrance, Jesus institutes a new radical act of community. Very soon, we will consecrate bread and wine, and we will share, once again, our communal feast of Christ’s body and blood, our own radical act of community.
So I’ve just drawn a bridge between God’s institution of the first Passover, and Jesus’ institution of Holy Communion, and that connection is real and appropriate. At the same time, it is important to note that the first Passover was designed to separate the Israelites from the Egyptians, and to form them as a people and a nation, God’s own people and nation.
Jesus came to proclaim a new covenant. The Gospel according to Jesus Christ is a message of love and reconciliation and inclusion. Notice that as Jesus institutes our most holy act of sharing his body and blood, and models for us the servanthood of love by washing feet, he includes even his betrayer.
We are called by Jesus the Christ into an ever more radical form of community. Yes, it is a community of people who love one another and uphold one another in prayer and fellowship.
But like Jesus the Christ on the cross, his community faces outward. It spreads its arms to the world. It transforms evil by loving it to death. It practices community by inviting everyone to the table.
Radical community takes the table—the holy feast of love and forgiveness and reconciliation—to the hungry, the isolated, the stranger. It is community that carries the light of Christ into the world.
Soon we will strip the altar bare and begin our own march into the darkness of Good Friday, following Jesus the Christ. We will do it fortified by our communal feast, our radical act of community, and the knowledge that the blazing light of Easter awaits on the other side.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, AMEN
My 7th Graders at Grace Episcopal Middle School did a research paper as one of their 3rdQuarter requirements. They are studying the New Testament, so the list of topics they could choose from included a number of parables.
I received several papers on The Prodigal Son, but one stood out. Indeed, if only I hadn’t handed that paper back to Brandon a week and a half ago, with a nice big “100” and smiley face on, I could read it to you today, sit down, and know that you had heard a perfectly good sermon.
I encourage the 7thGraders to not just review and summarize for their papers, but to question and to reflect on what they have studied and researched. And it was Brandon’s last paragraph of reflection that made his paper stand out. It went like this….
When I first read this story, Brandon said, I didn’t like it. It upset me. It did not seem fair to the older son who had stayed home and worked and helped his father. That would be me. I’m the older son, Brandon said, and I thought he was right to be upset at his father for being so generous toward the sinful younger son.
But the more I thought about it, Brandon went on, the more I realized the father was right to forgive the younger son. The father gave the younger son a second chance, and everyone should get a second chance. We all make mistakes.
Prodigal Son by Kristi Valiant
Not bad for a 7thGrader, huh? And I’m right there with Brandon when I read this story. And I venture to guess I’m not the only one who really wants the older son to be the hero of the story!
Where I would push Brandon a little bit is on his numbering of chances. I am confident someday he will recognize that with God, we all get unlimited chances. Each and every moment, and when we draw our last breath, God is waiting with one more chance.
But Jesus was unrelenting in his criticism of self-righteousness, which is what we have on display in the older son.
Timothy Keller is a Presbyterian pastor who has written a quite good little book on this parable. It’s called “The Prodigal God,” his point being that it is the father who is “recklessly extravagant” in love and forgiveness and willing to spend everything to welcome home his lost son.
Keller also points out that in patriarchal society, which was the context of the telling of this story, the older son’s insolence in chastising his father is at least as disrespectful—perhaps more—than the younger son in asking for his inheritance and then spending it on wine, women and song.
But there’s something else in this story that really popped when I read it again—for the umpteenth time—in beginning to prepare for this sermon. Isn’t that what draws us to Holy Scripture over and over again? No matter how often we have read a story or a passage, something new can grab us…. just when we are finally ready or, perhaps, most need to hear it.
So I’m reading the dialogue between older son and father, and suddenly…. my own voice is ringing in my ears. Look at this with me. The older son has discovered the party and is standing outside, angry and resentful. The father comes out to reason with him.
Now that in itself is more evidence of the prodigal love and grace of the father. The patriarch of the family is not obligated to try to reason with a petulant child, to leave his guests, the side of the son who has miraculously returned to life, to go outside to deal with a temper tantrum.., but he does.
The older son reminds his father of his hard work, his obedience, and he criticizes his father for not showing his gratitude. Then he says, But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!
“This son of yours.” Can’t you just hear the contempt dripping from those words!
And the father comes back, Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.
“This brother of yours.” What a different spin that puts on things.
You see, I think, in this contentious age, we have gotten quite good at righteous language that distances us from each other.
Here’s how I heard my own voice in that exchange between the father and the son.
Not so long ago, sometime in the past year or two, I was having a conversation with someone about a person whose manner of life is extremely distasteful to me. Indeed, I see that person as lacking a moral compass altogether.
But at some point in the conversation, I began to feel kind of bad about my criticism, like I was being rather unchristian, if you will. And so I said, by way of ending the conversation, “But he is a child of God, a lost child of God, but a child of God nevertheless.”
And I remember feeling some satisfaction that I had remembered my Good Christian manners and said that.
But it was distancing language. And confronting the fact that the very person I was being critical of is my brother in the family of God is a whole ‘nother matter.
Yes, we are all children of God. But that makes us brothers and sisters with and in Jesus the Christ. Siblings.
What difference does that make? How is it different, down in the gut where we measure such things, to say that the person I am at cross purposes with, or whose lifestyle or decisions or views or behavior or whatever I find problematic… is not merely another child of God, but my brother or my sister in Christ?
I’m not sure I can answer that for myself; I certainly can’t answer it for you. So I’m going to leave this sermon up in the air , just like Jesus left this story up in the air.
Each of us must decide. Will we stand outside, the disgruntled older son or daughter, wearing our righteousness like armor? Being right at the expense of being in community? Or will we go in to the party, embrace our brothers and sisters in Christ, even those, especially those with whom we most disagree?
The door is open. God knows who we are.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, La., 19 August 2018
What can possibly be left to say about bread?
I mean, three weeks ago, I preached about how Jesus fed 5,000 people with two loaves by transforming the hearts of people. And we have been talking about bread ever since.
You might recall that two weeks ago, Mthr Petrula helped us see that Jesus’ miracle was not just about physical bread for physical bodies, but also about spiritual bread for our spiritual lives.
Last week, the Bishop urged us to not get so bogged down in the mundane that we miss the mystery of God incarnate in ordinary things—like a morsel of bread.
If I might be so bold as to put myself in the company of such excellent preachers.., three fine sermons on the meaning of bread.
And yet here I am, tasked with preaching about bread! I console myself with this thought: I’m preaching about bread yet again for a very good reason. And that’s because Jesus did a miraculous thing.., and then apparently spent days and multiple encounters explaining it, and making the connection—and the distinction—between bread for the belly and the bread of life.
Notice also the language in today’s Gospel. It is the most extreme yet! “Eat my flesh and drink my blood and if you don’t, you have no life in you. My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats me will live…."
Is it any wonder the early Christians were accused of cannibalism? More to the point, why is Jesus so adamant about this? Why does he use such… visceral language to talk about something that surely is not to be taken literally?!
So here’s what I think is going on in this extraordinary passage: Jesus is teaching incarnation. Jesus is trying to tell us that the world we experience as so separate from God isn’t at all. Jesus is trying to tell us that the life we experience as so mundane and... profaneisn’t at all.
Here’s what I think can be said yet again about bread. And wine. And everything else. Jesus is in it. Always has been, always will be. Just take a bight. He’s here. He’s all around. He’s already as much “in you” as the last meal you ate. That’s incarnation.
A few years ago—in 2009, to be exact—I spent a couple weeks traveling in Europe. One of the places I went was Nuremberg, Germany, the attraction there being the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi Party at events in Nuremberg. I spent a day there at a most amazing museum trying to absorb not only the horrors of the Holocaust and World Wart II, but also the unflinching, exhausting and redemptive efforts of Germans to come to terms with that ugly, evil chapter of their history.
By my analysis, the Germans learned a very valuable lesson from that experience, namely that the only way to deal with the sins of the parents is to face them honestly, know them fully, claim them publicly and teach all of it to the next generation. I’m sure there’s a sermon in there somewhere!
But for the moment, I turn to St. Sebald’s, an awesomely beautiful church in the heart of Nuremberg. St. Sebald’s was bombed nearly into oblivion by the Allies near the end of World War II. It has been partially restored, but evidence of the devastation of the bombs was retained and built into the structure as an ongoing reminder and teacher of the lessons of the past.
Wandering through St. Sebald’s, absorbing beauty, reading placards explaining the past, making photos with my iPhone…, I came to a stop at a corner where the transept met the nave. Looking up at the majestically arching columns and ceiling vaults, I saw a painting hanging on one of the columns rather high over my head.
It was one of those paintings common in European churches: A nativity triptych featuring the Holy Family in the middle, the Magi on one side panel and the shepherds on the other.
How odd, I thought. What is that painting doing up there? It’s almost as if it’s not meant for human eyes!
And as I stood there gazing up, I was struck by the pleading quality of all of it: the architecture, the painting, as if to say “Here God, we’ve built this space for you, and every inch of it reaches for you, yearns for you. We’ve even hung a picture here to show you this is your home. Please, please come and be with us!”
Already Here, by Bette J. Kauffman
Much later, at home, I’m on my computer looking at my photos from the trip. And as I go through them, I pause at the picture of that painting high on a column and re-live that moment at St. Sebald’s. This time, the words that come to mind are these: “But you were already here.” You, God, were already here. Before the war, through the bombing, in the very stones and glass… you, God, were already here.
Do you know where I got that? Do you know who first said something like that?
Let me remind you. The story is in Genesis Chapter 28. Jacob is on the road. He stops for the night, uses a stone for a pillow, and dreams of angels ascending and descending on a ladder reaching from earth to heaven. And God comes to him and makes him promises, the last of which is the most important: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…”
Then comes Genesis 28:16: Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’
And Jacob builds an altar, anoints it, names the place BethEL, eats bread, and goes on his way.
Jacob, the ancestor of Jesus, was discovering incarnation! And Jesus, in the radical language of today’s Gospel, is making himself part and parcel of it. Here’s how Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and author, explains it:
What was personified in the body of Jesus was a manifestation of this one universal truth: Matter is, and has always been, the hiding place for Spirit, forever offering itself to be discovered anew.
I have since had many of what I have come to call “You, God, are already here” moments. It’s like the Bishop said last week: I can only hold on to the acute awareness of God’s presence in and around me for about a nanosecond.
Then it’s gone. Then I have to discover it anew.
Why is that? Why is it so hard for humans to hold on to the knowledge that God lives in and among us?
I think there’s a couple reasons. One is that acute awareness of the presence of God overwhelms our senses. It’s like the psalmist says, more than once: Your precepts are too wonderful for me. The knowledge of you is more than my mind can bear.
Another is that we’re kind of not always sure we want that level of intimacy with God! I mean, we put some pretty awful stuff in our mouths! And some pretty awful stuff comes out of our mouths!
Intimacy with God should be kneeling in a church receiving the Eucharist, not stuffing myself with beer and boudin and bad-mouthing my neighbor, right?
We want God to be in places WE find godly. We really don’t want God to be in that which we find ugly or simply mundane. We especially don’t want God to be in people who hurt us, or who don’t think and behave the way we think they should.
Fortunately, we don’t get to choose. God is already here, within and among us. Or, as a meme I found and shared on Facebook last week says, “God loves everyone whether you like it or not.”
Our choice in the matter of incarnation is to ignore, deny, cover up and try to build a wall separating ourselves from God within and around us and in our neighbors. Or we can seek God in ourselves and each other and all of Creation, and thereby, slowly, over time, become what we receive.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.
A few weeks ago, I introduced you to Eric Law, an Episcopal priest and author of several books, including “Holy Currencies: 6 Blessings for Sustainable Missional Ministries.” A few years ago, Fr. Law was the keynote speaker and workshop leader for the triennial assembly of the Association for Episcopal Deacons, which I attended.
To kick off his workshop, Law had the assembled deacons—as I recall, approximately a hundred of us—play a silly little game that ended up making a big point. We were handed bookmarks printed with the Holy Currencies logo. Some people got none, some got 2 or 3 and a few got 5 or 6.
Then, Law said, this game has just two rules. 1) If someone gives you a bookmark, you must take it, and 2) the person who ends up with none.. is the winner. When I give the signal, Law said, you will have 10 minutes to give away all of your bookmarks.
Well, I don’t remember if anyone won that game. And I don’t remember how many bookmarks I ended up with, but I’m pretty sure it was more than I started with. I got down to zero a couple times, but no sooner had I done so than someone would come along and thrust a bunch into my hand.
Now, you might be thinking, “Well, duh! The rules of the game were set up to make sure that happens!” And, indeed, they were. The value of the game was not that it was a “fair” or “objective” test of anything. The value of the game.. was in what it revealed about how humans think!
The first few minutes of the game, I was being totally rational and measured. My plan was to give one bookmark to each of however many people I needed to, to get rid of them all. That way I could spread my generosity over the maximum number of people. And if anyone gave me a bookmark—“a” bookmark; I was assuming everyone else would be as rational as I—I would find one more person to give it to.
There was a moment in Eric Law’s silly little game when I was flooded with two thoughts: 1) The enormity of what Jesus asks of us, namely that we be ready to give it all away—to sell all we have and give to the poor; and 2) the powerful human tendency to gather, to collect, to keep, to secure our future, indeed, to hoard.
Today's Gospel lesson is about exactly that. Perhaps today’s miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 is the greatest miracle Jesus performs. Greater than bringing dead things to life because that happens all the time. That’s a pattern of the universe. We see it happen before our eyes every spring.
I imagine many people think the feeding of the 5,000 is about Jesus multiplying molecules of bread and fish such that 5 loaves and 2 fishes magically turned into hundreds of loaves and fishes. That’s what I was raised to think it was about.
But.. how’s that even a miracle? That wouldn’t be a miracle. That would be God showing off! Surely the creator of the universe can multiply molecules of bread and fish without breaking a sweat!
It is certainly an appealing idea. God has superhero powers; God made the rules of the universe, therefore God can break them any time God wants to.
The problem with that, of course, is we’re left to struggle with the question: Since God can do that without breaking a sweat, why doesn’t God do it more often?
Why do people go hungry in a world of plenty? If God is good and loves us all, why doesn’t God fix the Middle East, or the refugee crisis? For that matter, why must children on the south side of Monroe play in dirty, trash-littered streets among burned out and boarded up houses?
The answer is pretty clear: Our God chooses to work through humans—US—in all of our misbegotten glory. We are beautifully and wondrously made…, and yet fearful. We see scarcity instead of God's abundance. We are insecure; we worry. And, yes, sometimes we are judgmental, afraid of helping the "wrong person," someone we deem unworthy of our help.
You see, I think the real appeal of the notion of God as multiplier of molecules of bread and fish is that it leaves humans completely off the hook. Oh, that we had a show-off God! Would that not make life a whole lot easier for us?
We could use our prayers to direct God to where a miracle is needed, then wait for God to fix whatever needs fixing: the violent Middle East, the children collecting on our southern border fleeing violence and starvation in their own countries, the gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. economy, sick people who have neither money nor medical insurance.
But that's not how God works. It IS up to us. And the problem almost never is an absolute shortage of molecules of anything. The problem is maldistribution. Whether we’re talking food or cash or health care or relative freedom from violence, the problem is not shortage, it’s maldistribution: some have and protect, others don’t and suffer.
Here’s a story that was told to me by a woman who volunteers at the Shepherd’s Center, a joint outreach ministry of the churches in St. Joseph, La. The Shepherd’s Center is a store that offers used clothing, household goods and so forth at very low prices—nickels, quarters, dollars—to the many residents of St. Joseph who live in poverty.
One evening two volunteers had just closed shop after a long day, but just as they were about to slip out the back door and home to their families, they heard a knock on the front door. One of the volunteers said to the other, “You go on. I’ll go tell them we’re closed for the day and to come back tomorrow.”
The other volunteer said, “Oh, no, you go ahead. I’ll go find out what they want.” So she did, and at the front door she found a woman standing there wearing the most tattered, broken down, worn out shoes she had ever seen.
The woman explained that she had no other shoes; this was her only footwear and they were so worn she could barely keep them on her feet. Could the Shepherd Center help her?
The volunteer said, “I’m sure we have something here that will fit you,” and the search commenced. Some time later, the volunteer had gone through all of the shoes on display in the store, and then had gone back to the staging area and was in the process of going through boxes of donated stuff that had not yet been unpacked… but had come up empty-handed.
By this time the woman who needed shoes was apologizing and saying, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll be okay.” But the volunteer looked around and spied one more box in the corner that had not yet been searched. “Hold on,” she said. “Let me check that one.”
She grabbed the box and dumped its contents onto the floor, and lo and behold, out tumbled a brand new pair of sneakers. And they fit!
In telling me this story, the volunteer concluded, “It was a God thing.” And I agree. It was a God thing.
But I don’t believe for one moment that "the God thing" in this instance was God creating sneaker molecules out of nothing and hiding them inside that box of stuff for the volunteer to find. What God did is transform the heart of a woman, such that when she was confronted with another human being in need, she saw Jesus. And Jesus needed shoes.
And so she set aside her own tiredness, family time and convenience, and persisted.
She did not need to know if the other woman was deserving or not, had no money through bad decision-making or not, was in need because she was lazy… or not. She saw Jesus, and Jesus needed shoes.
Brothers and sisters, the world does not need more molecules of anything. The world needs human hearts that have fallen into the hands of God and been transformed. That’s the miracle looking for a place to happen… Every. Single. Time.
In the name of God, father, son and holy spirit, AMEN.
My house is full of treasure. NOT the kind of treasure any treasure hunter worth his or her salt would want! But treasure, nonetheless.
For example, on the window sill in my bedroom is a reddish, grayish rock from Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. That rock was lugged all the way home to me by Joe and Cathi Roberts… just because I asked for it when I learned they were going there a few years ago. A treasure for sure.
Another treasure in my house is a section of armadillo tail from a road kill, picked clean by an army of ants and other tiny critters… such that the extraordinary underlying boney architecture is fully revealed. What in the world is up with that?! Treasure!
I picked up one of my treasures and brought it with me this morning. I know it is too small for you to see, but I’ll have it in my pocket at the back of the church should you want a close look.
It’s a small, lumpy, rather modest looking little rock.. about the size of a meatball. What makes this rock treasure—as if being small, brown and lumpy weren’t enough… What makes this rock treasure is that it has a heart-shaped hole in the side. It’s a rock with a heart*.
This little treasure has appeared in more than one sermon over the years. And that is because I have come to see it as an apt metaphor for the relationship between we humans and God.
We too are small—in comparison to God. We’re kind of lumpy, each having our own annoying bad habits and character flaws that irritate the dickens out of our family and friends. And we can be pretty hard hearted! Or, as God was inclined to say throughout the Hebrew Scriptures whenever the Israelites got on his last nerve: You are a stiff-necked people!
We are. But not because we are evil, or a mistake of creation, or—as my late husband used to say—a “waste of skin.” Far from it. God made us and we are good.
But we are also often painfully aware of our smallness and ultimate powerlessness. We cannot stop bad things from happening, and we know it. We are wounded by the inevitable challenges and suffering of human life. We are hurt by others who betray our friendship, who hurt us with their words that seem to deny our point of view or what we hold dear. And we harden our hearts.
But like this rock, we have a God-shaped hole in the side of our tiny, frightened, lumpy human hearts. Nothing can fill that hole except God… because God put it there with great love and tenderness as a homing device, to help us remember to whom we belong.
Oh, we do try to fill it with other things! Possessions. Money. That ideal job, the perfect spouse—who always turns out to be not quite perfect, just like us. A magnificent house, a political party or ideology, loyalty to our nation, even our beautiful church building or our liturgy—all of these can become idolatries, which is to say things we try to use to make life meaningful, satisfying, less frightening, more predictable, safe and secure.
And none of them will ever work for very long. Because the hole in our heart is God-shaped and can never be filled with anything other than God.
Emily Dickinson is one of my favorite poets--a woman of few but perfectly chosen words. Here’s her poem titled “To Fill a Gap”:
To fill a Gap Insert the Thing that caused it— Block it up With Other—and 'twill yawn the more— You cannot solder an Abyss With Air.
Human life separate from God is an abyss, and no matter how hard and fast we seek to stuff that abyss with all those things other than God, the more hollow and empty we will be. And I do believe idolatry—putting nation or political party or social status or financial security—at the center of our lives and priorities and aspirations is The Major Sickness of our society today. It is surely a large part of the hurtful divisions that afflict us.., the difficulty we have finding common ground with those with whom we disagree.
Estranged from God, we are sheep without a shepherd. That’s why we are driven to seek God. That’s why the people in today’s Gospel story hounded Jesus, chased after him such that he couldn’t even stop and enjoy a mean. They literally ran around the Sea to meet his boat on the other side.
And he had compassion on them. We—the people within the fold of the Episcopal Branch of God’s Church—WE are among the truly blessed because we know that in searching for and seeking God, we will find unconditional love and mercy and forgiveness.
Not everyone knows that! Not even all Christians know that! Some branches of the Christian faith teach a God of wrath, a judgmental God who is just waiting for us to do something wrong in order to smite us.
A few years ago when we consecrated Jake Owensby to be the 4th Bishop of Western Louisiana, I had the exquisite privilege of serving Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori as her chaplain for the several days she was in Louisiana. Imagine that! Hanging out with the PB for two and a half days!
And she told me this story: She was walking through an airport one day, making a short connection between flights on one of the many trips a presiding bishop must make around the country. And a man, a complete stranger to her, came alongside as she was walking and asked if she was a “pastor.”
She said, “yes,” but explained that she really had to keep walking or she would miss her flight. So the man walked alongside her and she did pastoral counseling as they strode through the airport.
The man’s problem was that he had cheated on his wife. And he wanted to know, “Will God ever forgive me?”
I didn’t ask Bishop Katherine what she said to him. It would not have been appropriate to ask. But I think I know.
I’m pretty sure she said something along the lines of this: “God has already forgiven you. Our God of compassion is waiting with open arms for you to turn and accept.. love, mercy and forgiveness.
Your wife, on the other hand, might need some persuasion.” Or words to that effect!
The whole point of Jesus’ life and death is to teach us compassion, and not just for our own families, friends, neighbors who look and think like us. That’s the easy part. That’s practice for the hard stuff.
#UMANI - Medici Senza Frontiere - YouTube
We followers of Jesus are called specifically to love our enemies and pray for those who hurt us. We are called to welcome the stranger, to treat those from other lands as if they are one of us, to care for the poor, the sick, and the prisoner.
We have a God-shaped hole in the side of our heart that compels us to seek the compassion and healing love of God for ourselves. But then a mysterious and wonderful thing happens. When we allow God to fill that hole, our hard little hearts soften, expand, open up.. to people of all sorts and Creation—all of it.
Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” And then he added, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses …to the ends of the earth.”
Imagine that: Love to the ends of the earth! Love from our God-filled hearts to the world. So be it. Come Lord Jesus.
(The video above is from the website of Doctors without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres, a charity I support as often as I can. It needs no translation so far as I can tell.)
*My book of sermons published in 2016 is titled "A Rock with a Heart: Finding Heaven on Earth." I have copies available for $20, of which $3 goes to my ministry fund.