Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
I hope you'll pardon me if I start with a shameless plug, as the gospel passage for this Sunday and my reading of it play a substantial role in the Connect course I wrote with John de Beer, one of the founders of the Education for Ministry (EFM) program.
Connect is a six-week exploration of what it can mean to connect to a Eucharistic community. It takes place in small groups that invite participants to gather over a dinner to reflect on and share their own stories, and to explore what it might mean to see those stories in context of the larger story of God's love and redemption of the world. The experience of gathering, breaking bread, inviting, experiencing, and acknowledging God's presence among the gathered community, and exploring what God's call might be to each of us is in itself a sacramental experience that helps unchurched participants, should they decide to join the congregation for worship, understand and have made personal connection with the liturgy of the Eucharist.
One of the most interesting things about Connect for me is that we have released it on an "open source" basis. You don't have to pay anything at all to download it or use it; you do, however, commit to sharing any adaptations or modifications you make to it on the same basis as Connect itself is distributed. The practical advantages of "open source" development and distribution are clear from what they've done for programs like the Firefox web browser, which can offer extensive support from others who use the product and innumerable "plug-ins" and translations that make it more stable and more useful to more people. That's my hope for distributing Connect on an "open source" basis -- and I hope it will inspire others developing resources to do the same.
I also have a theological reason for this approach to Connect's "open source" way. The dinners in Connect are designed to give people an experience of what they're hearing about in Jesus' ministry. They are welcomed to a community that understands that they have gifts to offer the community, including their story, and that encourages them to offer their gifts. They experience a small taste of what it's like to be in a community that lives as one Body and shares with one another as freely and graciously as God is with us. And I think those messages are also underscored by Connect being "open source." As developers of the course, we're sharing what wisdom we've got, but we assume that you all have gifts that could make it much better, and appropriate for use in far more communities. Because Connect is "open source," those who have expressed interest in versions for university campuses, Native American communities, Australian cultural settings, and numerous other communities have been free -- applauded, even -- for taking the Connect materials, modifying them appropriately, and letting us know what you've done and how it worked.
In short, rather than seeing evangelism and Christian formation as a "pie" of a market with all of us competing for slices, we've started, continued in, and pray to finish faithful to a central point in Jesus' teaching and ministry:
God's love and grace are so abundant as to be inexhaustible, and the more we enter into that, the more we joyfully seek to extend that kind of grace to others, and with all of God's good gifts. I'm not talking about feeling 'guilted' into generosity toward others, about being generous so God will notice and finally give us love and approval we've found to be too rare in our lives, or about trying to earn some kind of generosity medal that will help us get some other limited and valuable commodity, like others' respect.
I'm talking about a personal transformation that can transform the world: I'm talking about LIVING with a deep sense that there is more than enough of "the good stuff" -- the things our truest selves, the people we were made to be in Christ, want, need, and enjoy. I'm talking about an end to the constant, creeping anxiety I've seen so much pastorally in communities -- especially the wealthiest and most powerful communities (so many of which are filled with wealthy people so overextended financially to afford those grand homes in the neighborhoods with the good schools that they are a single paycheck from bankruptcy) -- as we worry about whether we have or can accumulate enough to shield ourselves and our loved ones from illness, danger, and deprivation. I'm talking about the kind of emotional freedom and deep peace that comes when we no longer feel the need to worry about whether we can get enough love, peace, or approval. I'm not talking about what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace"; I know the cost of discipleship can be steep in worldly terms. It's more than worth it, though -- not only because the shallow "peace" and "freedom" we get from accumulating resources and respectability for ourselves isn't nearly what it's cracked up to be, but also and more importantly because the abundance of real joy, peace, and love we can find following Jesus really can give us the true, eternal, and abundant life for which we thirst, and can let us start living into it now.
What I'm talking about it illustrated very well in this Sunday's gospel.
As Jesus comes across the fishers on the lake of Gennesaret, it's not hard to see how they could have concerns weighing profoundly on them. These are poor fishers. Every day as they go to their boats, they have to be wondering to themselves, "Will I catch enough fish today?" They have families to feed, and on top of that they have to get access to and repair the boats, get and maintain the nets. Fishing rights on the lake could cost them nearly half of a catch, and they were often paid far less than their catch was worth besides. Life was precarious at best, and it wasn't always at its best. One storm, one rotten stroke of luck could spell disaster.
So every day, a nagging worry: "Will we catch enough fish today to survive?"
And then Jesus calls them. They respond, and let down their nets once more. And in an instant, the central question in their life changes.
They have caught such abundance that they can't spare a moment to ask the now-ridiculous question of "Will we catch enough fish for my family to survive?" -- the far more urgent question is "Can we gather enough people to take in this abundance such that it doesn't swamp the boat?" Their lives are forever changed; as Jesus says, "from now on, you will be catching people."
What would it mean for us to hear Jesus' call to a similar transformation? I'd like to dream aloud about that a bit.
What would my life look like if I always looked with joy upon others' accomplishments, and without the slightest niggling doubt of whether they mean that others will grab limited slots for (you name it -- ordination, employment, perception of "hipness")?
What would my household budget look like if it was guided more by a concern for others' immediate needs to sustain life than by a worry of what would happen to me if my car broke down, I got sick with something that would leave me with bills I couldn't pay, or I didn't have money for tuition?
What would church politics look like if the basis for our every plan was the certain knowledge that God is providing what we need for our participation in God's mission, and therefore there is no need to grasp at what others have? If we believed and lived the conviction that God's grace and love are such that we don't have to choose any population to shut out or shout down, and can afford to "strive to outdo one another in showing honor," as St. Paul writes in Romans 12:10? What if we took energy spent on competing for shares of budgets and used it to foster generosity to increase them?
What would the world look like if those of us who seek to follow Jesus let him transform our lives around the central question, "How will we gather enough people to share God's abundance?"
Among other things, I suspect that the Millennium Development Goals would then seem less like an audacious vision we hope to achieve IF (and only if) everything goes smoothly and no other needs arise, and more like a helpful, albeit modest, first step. Fully funding them would be a given -- we NEED all of these people, all of these children of God, to take in the abundance God gives! We can't afford to lose a single one to what U2's singer Bono calls "stupid poverty" -- this poverty that we can eliminate with resources we've got. And there is no one too conservative or too progressive or too anything else to justify ignoring or slighting their gifts. I have faith that God has given each and every one of us something else in immeasurable, overflowing abundance, and that's compassion.
That might sound hard to believe at first. Steve Cook has done an outstanding job in his post this week on Isaiah 6 sketching some of the ways in which we can choose a path that desensitizes us to both the pain and the gifts of those around us in a way that can become a vicious circle (as U2 puts it, "You become a monster / so the monster will not break you"). Each one of us has the capacity to experience God's compassion for us, and when we do, we will find it an urgent need every day to find others to help take it in and extend it to others in turn.
Thanks be to God!
[And if you're curious about Connect, you can get more information on it and on the other two parts of the Klesis (from the Greek word for "call") program to which it belongs and can download Connect for free here.]
Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Our Hebrew bible reading for this Sunday just might win some kind of prize for "most tenuous connection to the gospel reading in a Christian lectionary" -- at least, if the intended connection is that bit at the end: "For as a young man married a young woman, / so shall your builder marry you, / and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, / so shall your God rejoice over you." If that's the intended connection, than this Sunday our lectionary implies that John's story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana is somehow about marriage -- much as our current Book of Common Prayer liturgies for marriage imply, and equally unhelpfully. What a ridiculous line of reasoning, to say that because Jesus went to a wedding once, he meant to proclaim marriage as a particularly preferable or blessed state! There's a great deal in scripture to suggest that, as Genesis puts it, "it is not good for the human being to be alone," and that marriage is a vocation for many that is a blessing not just to the couple, but to the world, as their relationship energizes them for ministry. But the focus of this bit of John 2 we're reading this Sunday isn't about commending marriage any more than it is about commending drunkenness (which also happened at that gathering in Cana, and -- unlike the marriage, was actually facilitated by Jesus' actions).
I'd like to think, though, that our lectionary editors had more than a superficial word association around weddings in mind when selecting this portion of Isaiah 62 for this Sunday, and I think a connection is there that can be made with a great deal more integrity.
This Sunday's reading from Isaiah comes from a section ("Third Isaiah") that's difficult to locate precisely in time or circumstance; especially as someone whose speciality is in New Testament, I'm loathe to depend too much on any of its proposed locations when reading the text. But some things about its concerns are clear enough from internal evidence. Third Isaiah speaks to people seeking to honor the God of Israel, but the world of the text is populated also by foreigners. Enemies who threaten are present in cultural memory if not in immediate time and space, but we also see an audacious vision of God, "coming to gather all nations and tongues" (Isaiah 66:18). We see hope.
I'm not talking about the kind of hope we often mean when we use the word; I'm not talking about an idle kind of wishing for something that we dare not invest too much in emotionally, let alone order our lives around. I'm talking about a vision focused on God's intention with such intensity that it reads all human history in the context of God's action. That sounds a little abstract, but I'm talking about something that speaks so powerfully to godly imagination that it's got truly compelling consequences in the tangible world. When I talk about hope this week, I'm talking about the choice -- and in my experience, it's a conscious choice -- to embrace God's vision for the world with conviction that reorders our priorities on every level, making choices that would otherwise seem difficult or nonsensical not merely intelligible, but powerful to the point of being contagious in community. I'm talking about choosing expectation that orders action.
I'm talking about it this week after ruminating a great deal about the connections Isaiah (and not just Third Isaiah) makes between expectation and action. Those of us who spend time in churches over Advent and Christmas hear a fair amount of prophetic expectation. The longing of God's people for redemption is a major theme in many an Advent sermon. But I'm often left thinking that we underplay how God's people were called to respond to that expectation, despite how strong that is as a theme in the prophetic writings we're reading. Isaiah doesn't present hope as something that prompts sighs of powerlessness, but as something that inspires powerful action. When we enter into prophetic hope, our choice to look for God's coming redemption prompts us in the present to live more deeply into what we proclaim as the future God intends and is bringing about among us. In other words, Isaiah's hope for peace is strongly connected to embrace of God's sabbath now. The prophetic vision we share of God gathering all nations and all tongues calls upon God's people in the present to remove vengeance from the realm of human responsibility, to go amongst the nations only to invite and gather. That's hardly what the kings of the world consider sensible foreign policy, but prophetic vision doesn't place trust in or order lives around worldly kings; it calls upon us to stake our very lives on God's rule.
New Testament texts pick up this prophetic vision, often picking up a theme that will pop up a lot in the weeks to come: that NOW, in Jesus' work among us, that rule of God has come upon and is seeping through this world. I think John's story of the wedding at Cana belongs in that tradition. Normally, wedding guests would have not only provided the wine for the celebration, but also would have sent it ahead of time. The family that lacked the resources, in terms of extended family and friends at least as much as any other kind, to provide for the feasting would be left to their shame. But Mary has a thought that's crazy by conventional reckoning: what if the authority Jesus is already starting to exercise in calling followers is a sign that the feasting we anticipated at the redemption of God's people -- the redemption Isaiah metaphorically compares to the joy and freely shared plenty of a wedding feast -- is something that starts NOW?
And so Mary has a word with her son. It's a risk; this is not a private setting by any stretch, Jesus could be left in a compromised position, and as Jesus' mother, Mary's own standing is tied to her son's. She speaks up, and we get our first "sign" in the Gospel According to John. It's not just a sign of Jesus' identity; it's a sign of the times, a sign that God's redemption is happening here and now in Jesus' work.
It's a prophetic sign that, like Isaiah's prophetic vision, calls for action. It calls followers of Jesus in Corinth divided along lines that few could cross -- of ethnicity, wealth, social status, and gender, for starters -- to break bread together and work to support and empower one another as members of one body, united in one Holy Spirit to engage in one mission, God's mission. The challenge of living together in this way is no small task, with challenges not only from within, of uniting such different people, but from without, as such free association across traditional divisions inspired Christians' neighbors and sometimes even family members to see these gatherings as subversive of social order, or even of God's intent. That kind of living brought persecution as well as deep joy.
But if, as prophets like Isaiah proclaimed, the future God intends will gather people of all nations, and if, as Christian prophets were saying, Jesus' eating and drinking as well as his teaching and healing, his death and his resurrection, were signs of God's future breaking into our present, then what other way of life could make sense? And if we know and are seeking to follow Jesus, if we have tasted the wine that God's anointed brings to the feast and have seen his glory, how else would we live? We pray, and we seek to live into what we pray: that we and all God's people may be so illumined, so set afire to live as God's people in our sharing of God's word and sacraments, that our life together may be a proclamation of the Word and a sacrament of God's redemption to the very ends of the earth. Let our lifting of Jesus' cup in our worship remind us that our whole lives are to celebrate our Lord's work in the present until the day of its full realization.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 18, Year B
Mark 7:31-37 - link to NRSV text
(See also the RCL reading of Mark 7:24-37)
This Sunday's gospel in the RCL poses difficulties from a variety of angles. Jesus encounters a Gentile woman who wants him to heal her daughter. He says no, essentially calls her and all Gentiles dogs, and states firmly that his mission is only to Israel. She argues with him. He then agrees to heal her daughter. What happened?
One thing that has happened in this encounter is that when Jesus answers the woman, regardless of what specifically he says he is recognizing the woman's right to speak with him. Just by making the request, she is implying -- albeit perhaps solely out of desperation -- that she has a right to claim his time and power. By arguing, she implies that she is worthy of challenging him. And by answering, Jesus affirms that she has that status in his eyes. This is a profoundly counter-cultural recognition of her dignity. But then Jesus insults her by calling her and her people dogs (and no, there's no trick of Greek translation that makes it about cute little puppies -- Jesus is calling her people scavengers of the lowest sort).
But then, to all appearances, Jesus changed his mind -- not only about healing one girl, but about his mission. This bothers a lot of people; most sermons I've heard that have taken up this aspect of the story have suggested that Jesus really knew all along that his mission was to Gentiles as well as Jews, and that he was only pretending to think otherwise to help the woman increase her faith, or to further demonstrate his power, or some other reason.
Personally, I find this reading offensive as well as unconvincing. If Jesus changed his mind, then Jesus can't be the kind of eternally changeless "unmoved mover," to use Plato's phrase, that a lot of people present God as being. But if Jesus didn't change his mind and was just saying things he didn't believe so that he could accomplish some other end, then Jesus is a liar -- and a pretty cruel one at that, since the poor woman is clearly worried about her child.
And besides, who -- besides Plato -- says that Jesus isn't allowed to change his mind, to learn something he didn't know before? Learning is part of what it means to be human, I'd say. Try to turn Jesus into someone who knew everything and could do anything from day one and you'll quickly get drawn into fairly silly speculation about how Jesus could have spouted the full Sermon on the Mount (and in any language to boot!) on the day he was born, but faked being able to talk only like the baby he was -- perhaps so he wouldn't give away his secret identity, a la Clark Kent's having to hold back from running at full speed on Smallville. That kind of speculation is evident in some of the later gospels outside the Christian canon, but it's not in any of our canonical gospels, which consistently portray Jesus as a real, honest-to-gosh human being who as a baby needed his diapers changed and who, like the rest of us, learned to walk and talk and function by playing and otherwise interacting with his mother and other people.
In other words, Jesus had to learn words and speech when he was a child. As Luke puts it, "the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom" (Luke 2:40). Jesus changed, not only getting taller and physically stronger, but learning things he didn't know before. If that idea is offensive, it's the offensiveness of the Incarnation, of the idea that God could dwell among us in the flesh. Human beings aren't born knowing and doing everything they will ever be able to know and do. They learn and grow, and in particular, they learn and grow in relationship. Jesus did too -- all his life, as human beings do. Indeed, I might even go so far as to say that part of being made in God's image means that we become more fully ourselves in relationship. Knowing others and loving others changes us, teaching things we didn't know before and helping us to grow into the fullness of our identity and vocation, and our capacity to grow in relationship comes from a God who experiences that too.
I know that doesn't fit in very well with that picture of God as an "unmoved mover," never experiencing a change of mind. But that picture is Plato's far more than it is our bible's. Our scriptures are full of stories of human beings trying to change God's mind. We call it intercessory prayer, and scripture shows it as working at least sometimes -- God is moved to show mercy, to act in deliverance because someone asked. Observing that raises a great many problems of theodicy, among other things, but there it is, scattered throughout our canonical writings anyway. And gosh, I'm glad it's there.
I'm glad because it is a wonderful corrective to our human tendencies toward arrogance and hardness of heart. Why should we listen to someone else's view on a matter of importance when we already know what the scriptures say, what those words mean, and therefore what the truth of the matter is? If any had the right to that kind of posture, it would be God. But if we take our scriptures seriously, we have to allow the possibility that God too is changed in relationship. That may sound radical, but I find that radical message in our scriptures, as God is moved after observing the destruction wreaked by the great flood to say "never again," and hangs God's bow -- God's weapon -- in the sky as a sign of God's permanent swearing off of such moves. God -- the one Plato presents as "unmoved mover"-- is MOVED to mercy, and makes a covenant of mercy with all of humanity.
Is it so radical, then, to think that Jesus, God's agent, might also be moved by his encounter with a Gentile woman seeking healing for her daughter? I don't think so -- and if I were preaching this Sunday on the RCL, I'd probably be preaching something along the lines of this: Thank God for people who aren't willing to take "no" for an answer -- even or especially "no" plus Godtalk, a particularly potent combination -- from powerful men, but who will push for compassion and mercy. They prove to us that even God isn't the sort to say, "God said it; I believe it; that settles it." They teach us something that we would have gathered anyway had we been paying attention when Jesus says, "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" and makes clear that the "perfect" he means isn't about stasis in a "right" position, but compassion toward righteous and unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:43-48). They teach us that no one should be so certain s/he's right that s/he cannot make room to listen, and to listen in a way that allows us to be changed by what we hear. They teach us that God is love, and it's a very poor lover who is eternally unmoved by her or his beloved.
So when Jesus encounters a man who is deaf and therefore mute -- someone who is unable to listen and therefore was unable to learn to speak -- Jesus is very well prepared.
"Be opened," he says. He says it not only with compassion for someone who has suffered, but also with the authority of one who has experienced that of what s/he speaks. That is, after all, what the persistence of the Gentile woman said to him when he was deaf to her cries and therefore unprepared to speak of God's love for all peoples. "Be opened" -- and Jesus was.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 12, Year B
2 Kings 2:1-15 - link to NRSV text
Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16 - link to NRSV text
Mark 6:45-52 - link to NRSV text
"They were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened" (Mark 6:52).
But what was it that they didn't understand? I've heard a lot of sermons over the years that suggest that the line of thinking that would have indicated Jesus' followers did understand would be something like this:
"Hey, this guy managed to make a few loaves and fishes feed thousands of people. He must be powerful. Heck, only God has that kind of power. I know ... he must be God!"
But that's not really the issue, and that's not how Jesus' followers would have thought or ought to have thought. Jesus' followers knew something that I think we also know intuitively -- and if not intuitively, by cold hard experience in the world:
Not all power in this world is used benevolently.
A lot of it isn't. Indeed, we tend not to think of power when we have it, or when it's used to our benefit; we think about it a lot when it's being used against us. That's also when we tend to think about justice as a category; power is used to an end with which we don't agree, and nine times out of ten we'll call it unjust, or at least unfair. Ask any teenager, and you'll probably hear a lot about it: the powers of this world can be capricious or malevolent ("out to get you") as well as just and good. This, by the way, is one of the reasons I so much enjoy ministry alongside teens. They're willing to speak up when they think they see power used capriciously or destructively; they understand that the powerful aren't necessarily good, and often they haven't bought in to the idea that the distribution of power in the world is pretty much as it ought to be.
Jesus' followers certainly knew that. You'd have to be living under a rock since infancy not to see it. The Roman Empire occupied not just Palestine, but the whole world as they knew it, and they cared mostly if not entirely about whether taxes were paid, commerce uninterrupted (see the "taxes paid" point), trouble minimized, and their power acknowledged as supreme on earth (sounds familiar, actually -- the same could be said of most empires). The same goals applied when it came to appointing local authorities -- building a city dedicated to the glory of Caesar (and paid for with taxes on the poor, not from compromising the lifestyles of the rich -- another phenomenon that sounds familiar to us) earned you a lot more points in the competition for Rome's favor than sweating about the welfare of peasants. And spiritual powers came in the same range as worldly ones -- some good, many capricious or malevolent. When a wonder-worker came to town, people would be asking not whether maybe he did it with wires or mirrors, but whether it was done with good or evil power. Miracles proved power, not goodness or godliness, and levitating around the town square would inspire more fear than worship or trust.
That's a theme we see in Mark from the beginning of Jesus' ministry. It comes up explicitly in Mark 3:20-27, when the scribes from Jerusalem question whether Jesus is casting out demons with the power of other evil spirits, and comes into play in many explanations of the so-called "messianic secret" in Mark -- Jesus' telling those healed by him not to tell others. But I've been thinking lately that the "Beelzebub controversy" in Mark 3 is a part of a broader theme prominent in Mark: the theme of power and its proper and godly use. It's a theme that comes up repeatedly, and on the day before our moving van arrives, I don't have time to treat it with anywhere near the attention it deserves, except to point to the discussion that sets the context for Jesus' journey to Jerusalem and the Cross, namely Mark 10:32-45, in which Jesus talks about death at the hands of Gentiles and new life to follow, and answers the request of James and John to sit at his right and left with what I believe is the centerpiece of Jesus' teaching in the gospel of Mark:
You know that among the nations those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
So what does all this have to do with this Sunday's gospel? Our lectionary editors' wise choice of Hebrew bible readings for this week is a clue: the way in which Jesus uses his power over waters and the deep evokes, as does Elijah's parting the Jordan, the story of the Exodus, of a tiny and enslaved people being led out of slavery to a worldly power and into the desert where they are free to become a people who use power differently -- to feed the poor and care for the widow and orphan, or, as the prophet Micah sums up what Israel was formed as a people to do, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. What Jesus' followers didn't understand about the loaves wasn't that they showed that Jesus had access to power -- Jesus' enemies said that much.
What they didn't understand was what their response ought to be. They didn't understand what it meant that God was, through Jesus, feeding all the people such that each had enough and no one accumulated too much -- much as God fed the Israelites in the desert with manna. They didn't understand that God's power over winds and waters in Jesus was like the parting of the Red Sea. They didn't understand that in Jesus, God was fulfilling the promise of Deuteronomy 18:15-19 to raise up a prophet like Moses to do what Moses did. They didn't understand that what God was and is doing through Jesus is no less than forming a motley and marginalized crowd into a people, one people, God's people -- a people called to do with power what Jesus does with his: healing, empowering, self-giving even to the Cross, to knit together a whole Body joined in love and building up its weakest members.
That's who we are -- what we have been freed through Jesus to become.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 9, Year B
Once more, I've written the lectionary reflection for The Witness, and you can find it here:
Proper 14, Year A
I remember when I was an undergrad, this story bothered me. It seemed to me that Peter was getting chewed out for not having enough faith, and I didn't see why he deserved that. My college chaplain proposed that Peter was getting chewed out because, despite Jesus' directing them to go to the other side, none of them should have been afraid that anything ill would befall them on the way. After all, Jesus didn't say, "go on ahead ... there's an evil ghost who's going to attack you, and I don't want to be around for the carnage," right?
At the time (before I'd taken any New Testament courses, among other things), this seemed like a perfectly good reading to me -- so much so that I repeated it to many others, with the moral of "if you get a word from Jesus to do something, you can anticipate success."
Let me start this week's blog entry by apologizing to everyone to whom I said that, or anything like it. That's the sort of thing that only very young (or young in the faith, anyway) people and people in frenetic denial can say with a straight face. Or maybe I'm just talking about myself when I say that just about every week between then and now I've had plentiful opportunities to fail, and many times to fail in spectacular fashion ... and I'm not one to squander opportunities.
So I can identify with Peter, and especially with that sinking feeling (literally!) he must have had just before he cried out to Jesus to save him. But I don't think that my natural sympathies for Peter form the only reason to think that he's been given rather a bad rap by many interpreters of this passage (e.g., my college chaplain). After all, what does "faith" mean anyway, and how much of it does one need?
The first thing I think it's important to clear up is that "faith" or "belief," at least in the biblical sense of those terms, doesn't connote belief in a particular outcome or intellectual assent to a proposition so much as it suggests trust in and allegiance to a person. Believing in Jesus does not mean believing that we'll be "successful" (however we define that!) in a particular enterprise if it was Jesus calling us to do it, and having faith IN Jesus doesn't imply signing off on a list of statements ABOUT Jesus. Having faith in Jesus means, in my view, a willingness to follow Jesus -- not because we believe that we've already got the rest of the story plotted out once we've made that decision, but because we take seriously that Jesus is Lord, and the ultimate in good ones. As I've preached on before, having faith doesn't mean convincing ourselves that we're convinced of something. Faith isn't an activity of the brain so much as of the heart, and then I mean it not in the sense of drumming up some kind of feeling, but of pumping blood to ones feet and hands.
In other words, faith is about doing. A faithful person eventually gets to the point at which s/he can say to God, "I don't know where you're going, but I know that wherever it is, I'd rather be drowning with you than be crowned by somebody else." That kind of trust in Jesus, in my experience, comes from experience with the person of Jesus. The kind of trust I have in Jesus has come as I've experienced Jesus' generosity and mercy, so much that I'm pretty sure that if Jesus is involved, then following Jesus is where I'm going to experience the most of the goodness and mercy God has to offer. That process of building confidence, of getting to know Jesus such that I'm understanding more deeply just how much I can trust Jesus is a major ingredient in what I call the journey of faith.
But when I say that faith is like that function of the heart that gets blood to hands and feet, what I mean is that faith starts with action, with taking a step, with taking a risk. The best intentions in the world don't do much without action, but taking that step, even with the worst of intentions, just might give you the experience of meeting God on the road, on (or in) the sea.
There's no better evidence for that than the story of Jonah. Jonah just might go down as the whiniest prophet in history. He had no intention of saving anyone. He didn't even intend to follow God's direction, but when the seas got rough, he knew that it was time to step out of the boat. Just about everything that Jonah has said up to this point indicates no faith, no trust that God's will could mean anything good for him, but when his life is at stake, he calls out to the very god he's been running from. That suggests to me that despite all his protestations of how much God's will means only ill fortune to him, underneath all that is both a trust that God will take care of his fellow travellers (as Jonah 1:11-12 indicates) and that God will deliver him (as Jonah's poem in this Sunday's readings indicate). By the end of the story, we understand that every step he took, even Jonah's whiny rebellion, came in some sense from a deep sense (and sometimes an unwelcome sense!) that God will extend mercy, that God's mercy will be the final word.
That trust, that willingness to risk stepping outside the boat, is how I think of faith. And Peter has that. So why does Jesus address him as "you of little faith"? Not because of the faith he lacks, but because of the faith he has. Peter has a little faith. Jesus addresses his followers as people of "little faith" repeatedly in Matthew's gospel (e.g., Matthew 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 16:8, and 17:20), but following the last of those, he says, "if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you" (Matthew 17:20).
So how much faith do you need to make a difference in your life, or even to change the world? Not much, by some ways of reckoning. You don't have to talk yourself into absolute confidence that anything in particular will happen. That's a good thing, since none of us -- not even, or perhaps ESPECIALLY not those who shout most loudly about knowing exactly what God's specific plans for everyone are -- really knows the future, or even the heart of another person. Faith isn't about knowing, though.
Faith is willingness to risk. It's willingness to take that step out of the boat, whether you think you'll sink or skate. It proceeds from the kind of love that, despite all of the butterflies in one's stomach, makes a person willing to be the first to say "I love you" in a relationship -- not because of a certain expectation of a particular reply, but because of the possibilities that saying "I love you" opens. Reading a biblical expression of that kind of faith makes me think of a passage (one I've used in preaching before) from Sara Maitland's short story "Dragon Dreams" (found in her collection Angel Maker):
When [you] died I knew that there was no safety, anywhere, and I will not sacrifice to false gods. There is no safety, but there is wildness and joy, there is love and life within the danger. I love you. I want to be with you. ... I refuse to believe that we only get one chance. This letter is just a start. I am going to hunt you down now in all the lovely desolate places of the world. ... there I will be waiting for you. Please come. Please come soon.
And that's why I take hope and not condemnation away from reading the stories of Jonah, and Peter, and the rest of God's reluctant prophets and Jesus' wavering disciples. They didn't have it all together, and they didn't fully understand or consistently appreciate what they eventually would proclaim. But the steps they took, however cluelessly or clumsily, made space in which they and others could encounter God's mercy, giving rise to generations of risk-taking and faith arising -- the kind of faith, shared across the Body fo Christ, that could not only move mountains, but turn mountains and valleys to plains.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 13, Year A
Have you ever wondered why it is that, when we gather as the church to remember Jesus, we do it with a meal? If you think about it, it could have been anything. We could have built statues to remember Jesus, or held a dance. We could have made it a poetry reading, a teach-in, a weekly golf tournament -- but we didn't. When we gather as the church, our central act together in remembrance of Jesus is to have a meal -- the Eucharistic meal.
I know, it doesn't seem like much. I have a friend who likes to say that when he receives one of those communion wafers, he finds it easier to believe that it's really Jesus' body than he finds it trying to believe it's really bread. But this is supposed to be a meal -- a feast, even. An abundant and lavish one, held in remembrance of someone -- Jesus of Nazareth -- who had a reputation for being, as the Irish scholar John Dominic Crossan puts it, "a party animal." We have a feast to remember Jesus, complete with breaking out the wine (which really ought to be our best stuff) before noon on a Sunday, because Jesus was remembered as "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Matthew 11:19 -- and by the way, I've already lodged with my next of kin that if I have an epitaph of any kind, it's going to be that verse) -- in other words, a party animal.
This is not the Jesus a lot of us grew up with, whose hair may have been a little long for our parents' taste, but whose name came up mostly when our parents wanted us to behave, hang out with the right kind of people, behave like the good citizens they may have (rather naively) thought we were. So how could I justify saying that Jesus was well-known as a party animal?
For starters, there's Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34, the source of that quote I gave earlier calling Jesus "a glutton and a drunkard" in the company of the wrong sort of person. And then there's this Sunday's gospel as a case in point.
I know that this isn't what people usually talk about when they talk about the feeding of the five thousand. When people talk about this story, they usually talk about the miracle, by which they mean the multiplication of the loaves. Admittedly, that part of the story is pretty impressive. Not only did God's power produce enough food to feed five thousand people -- not counting the women and children, as Matthew emphatically points out (Matthew 14:21) -- but there were twelve baskets of leftovers. Twelve baskets, like twelve tribes of Israel -- in effect, this story tells us that there was such plenty represented in this feast that there were enough leftovers to fill doggie bags for all of God's people. Truly impressive stuff!
But I'm not going to say much more about that miracle of the multiplying loaves because there are a couple of miracles in this story that I think are even more impressive, even more miraculous demonstrations of God's power acting in Jesus' ministry.
To set the scene for those, it's important to know that in Jesus' culture, people really took seriously the old maxim that "you are what you eat," and not from a nutritional viewpoint. I'm talking about purity, about keeping kosher. You are what you eat; if you want to be seen as a kosher kind of guy, the right kind of person, you've got to eat the right kind of food. This might initially sound like a fairly simple matter: if it's pork for dinner, you just keep passing the plate. But if you've ever had a serious food allergy -- or if you've ever had a guest who did -- you know just how complicated things can get. Who knew that peanut oil was in some brands of ice cream?
If it's really important to you, there are only two ways to be sure that what you're getting is kosher. One is to be in the kitchen, not only hovering over everything on the ingredient list, but making sure beforehand that no surface has been contaminated. The other is dicier: if you know your host family very, very well, and if you know for SURE that they know how to keep their kitchen and what you can and can't eat, you just might be able to trust them to prepare a meal you can safely eat.
So there it is: keep a close eye on every ingredient and how it's prepared, or at the very least make absolutely sure that you don't eat with anyone who really knows how to prepare it all AND who really understands how important it is to do it right, and you just might be able to share a meal.
And then think of this with respect to the story in this Sunday's gospel:
NOBODY KNEW WHERE THE FOOD CAME FROM.
Imagine those five thousand people at Jesus' spontaneous dinner party whispering: does anyone know who baked the bread? What kind of fish was this? Was it cleaned? This was some kid's lunch??! Does anyone know who his mother is? That would say something about whether the food is OK ...
But that didn't happen. Five thousand people took one guy's word for it -- not a family member, not their best friend, not even someone they knew well, and sat down to eat food when -- I mean this literally -- God only knows where it came from. That's what makes me say that this Jesus wasn't just some guy, and breaking bread with Jesus isn't just a midmorning snack. Jesus is someone who changes lives when we encounter them. Five thousand people -- not counting the women and children -- found their lives so transformed in encountering Jesus that all of their fears of dangers to be avoided gave way to enthusiasm for sharing the feast before them.
Think about the kind of trust Jesus must have engendered in people to get that kind of response. That's real, life-changing spiritual power in Jesus' presence, a miracle at least as impressive as the multiplying loaves.
But that isn't the end of it. There's one more miracle in this story, and I think it's the most impressive one of all. The first miracle was the one we usually talk about -- the mutiplication of the loaves. The second one was the kind of miraculous trust Jesus inspired in those who came to him, the trust that made everyone there willing to forget about years of "you are what you eat" conditioning to accept bread from Jesus without knowing or asking about where it came from and whether it was safe or kosher.
The third miracle is in some ways an extension of the second one, from a rule extended from the rule that the second miracle made moot. In Jesus' culture, it wasn't just "you are what you eat"; it was also "you are who you eat with." Some of that was just a logical extension of purity observance. Imagine the scene of that spontaneous dinner party in this Sunday's gospel, and imagine that you'd just experienced that second miracle of being able to trust Jesus to provide you with food that's good. But Jesus isn't the peanut vendor at the ballpark; he didn't hurl individual portions with miraculous accuracy directly to you. Strangers brought the bread to Jesus, who blessed and broke them ... and handed them to the disciples, who handed them to others in the crowd, who handed them to others, and so on across countless pairs of hands before it got to you. Take that bread, and you're taking into yourself not just whatever was in the field where the wheat was grown and in the kitchen when it was baked, but also what was on the hands of every other person in that crowd.
That's reason enough to be skittish about who you eat with, but that's not all. There's also the business of honor, crucial in Jesus' culture. People's perception of how honorable you and your family were determined whether were willing to do business with you, to consider allowing their daughter to marry your son, to acknowledge you as a person worth acknowledging. And "you are who you eat with" was the operative rule that said that your character would be assumed to be the same as that of those you ate with. Eat impure food, and you're impure. Eat with a rebellious son or a tax collector and you're not going to be seen as being any more honorable than they are.
But along that hillside, over five thousand people were willing to receive not only Jesus and the bread that he blessed, but also the strangers with whom they shared it. Every one of them became, on that dusty hillside, one with every other. This was a completely spontaneous dinner, so there was no checking the guest list or asking for credentials. Distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, priest and tax collector -- indeed, all the distinctions around which wars were fought between nations, families, and brothers -- just didn't count any more.
And I'm not just saying that in the kind of naive way that lets a college-educated white person wear a t-shirt that says "Love Sees No Color" because the privilege accorded to her because of the color of her skin means she doesn't have to pay attention to race. I'm talking about that radical force that turns mountains and valleys to plains, bringing down the mighty and raising the lowly. I'm talking about real change, a world in which a child from any neighborhood in Baltimore has the same chance at education, self-esteem, and all of the privileges we so often take for granted as a child from the suburbs. I'm talking about a world in which a child from any village in the Sudan has access to the running water and lights to read by at night that children from across Baltimore take for granted.
That's what I'm talking about when I talk about a world in which we experience that third miracle from Jesus' lakeside feast. We have been called to Jesus' table to meet and trust Jesus, to accept all of the gifts offered and blessed by Jesus, and then to take in all that Jesus offers us -- the bread that not only heals and nourishes us as individuals, but binds us indissolubly with everyone whom Jesus calls to the feast. We're called to trust that God's power has blessed us with not only the gifts we need to build up this community, but with the power to see that ALL of God's children are fed.
That's what we're doing when we come to this table, and it gives us the strength and courage that we need to be bread for the world, the Body of Christ given for the world. One sermon can't lay out how each one of us is called to live into that mystery, that miracle. It may be in working for racial reconciliation and real empowerment for the poor in Baltimore, banding together with Christians across the city to use the power that privilege gives us to end some of the injustice of white privilege. Perhaps we're called to learn more about what we could do to further Millennium Development Goals, calling on our government to deliver on promises to provide what's needed -- less than ONE percent of our nation's budget -- to end extreme poverty in this generation -- or to Make Trade Fair for farmers in developing countries who aren't allowed to compete on even ground.
Of course, that would take a miracle. But we break bread in remembrance of Jesus, who with God's power, with every time he broke bread, and with his life and ministry brought people together in miraculous ways. Five thousand people, not counting the women and children, experienced that miraculous power in the breaking of the bread. In our breaking of the bread at Jesus' table, we are made one with and called out not only for the hungry thousands counted, but for the ones not counted by those in power. This feast is for every woman and child and man, and it's happening NOW.
Thanks be to God!