Saturday, July 28, 2018

Year B, Pentecost 10, John 6.1-21, Abundant Grace

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
One of the things Martin Luther taught us is how to pray.  In his catechism the following prayers are suggested:
Luther writes:
The children and servants should present themselves before the table with folded hands and good manners and say:
The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and gratify everything that lives with satisfaction.2 3
Then they should say the Lord’s Prayer and the following prayer:
Lord God, heavenly Father, bless us and these gifts you have given us, which we enjoy from your bountiful goodness, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
The Prayer of Thanks4
So too after the meal they should likewise fold their hands and politely say:
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is kind and his goodness endures forever. He gives food to all flesh. He gives the cattle their fodder, and feeds the young ravens who call on him. He does not take delight in the strength of the steed or take pleasure in anyone’s legs. The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him and who wait upon his goodness.5
Then they should say the Lord’s Prayer and the following prayer:
We thank you, Lord God our Father, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, for all the favor you show us, you who live and reign forever. Amen.
What a wonderful, prayerful, way to receive the blessing of food.
In our lessons for today we hear of God’s generous goodness, and the abundance that is offered to us.
Elisha offers the people food, a “small” amount, with the promise that the people shall eat and have some left over, and it was so.
In the Psalm we hear the words that Luther quoted, about God opening his hand and satisfying the needs of every living creature.
And then in the Gospel, again we have the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand with just a few loaves of bread, and two fish, a young lad’s lunch.
There are two distinct ways that these passages have been interpreted over the years.
The first way, has been to see the feeding that took place as extraordinary, a miracle, something quite beyond that which is naturally possible.
And the second way is to understand that rather than this being a miracle, a onetime manifestation of the power of God, this is in fact the way God always works if we but trust in him.
Underlying the understanding of this second way is the conviction that God has and will provide every living creature with all that we need.  Not necessarily all that we want, mind you, but all that we need.
It is our human nature to focus on all that we do not have, to fear that we will not have enough, and then to hoard that which we do have. 
The consequence of this is a self fulfilling prophesy.  If we believe that there will not be enough, there won’t be.  But if we trust that God has and will provide to each according to their need, there will be enough.
A wonderful and humorous example of this occurred in 1973,
The Great Toilet Paper Shortage.
Johnny Carson is credited in part with setting it off.  He made a joke during his monologue about a toilet paper shortage.
Everyone panicked.  They went to the stores and bought all that they could, and low and behold, there was none left on the shelves.
There actually never was a shortage at all, it was simply caused by a rumor and though at the end of the day, there wasn’t any toilet paper left in the stores, there was plenty in people’s pantries.
Unless of course, you were one of the poor blokes who didn’t hear Johnny Carson that night and didn’t get to the store in time to buy some.
In the end, the problem wasn’t one of supply, but of distribution.  There was plenty, it’s just that some had far more than they needed, and some were left without any.
Bread for the World, a Christian organization dedicated to the effort to end hunger in our world, both locally and abroad, has long maintained that the problem is not that there is not enough food; the problem is that it is not distributed to each according to their need.
They have interpreted Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand as a miracle of sharing and generosity, not a miracle of doing the impossible.
As Jesus lifted up the loaves and the fish, gifts from one boy’s lunch, others were motivated to share as well, and in the end there was an abundance.
One of the questions that we might ask, is which would be the greater miracle?
Would God’s multiplying the loaves and fish through an act of supernatural power be the greater miracle?
Or would God’s changing the hearts of those who were present so that they might all share and be satisfied be the greater miracle?
I suppose our answer to that question will in part be determined by whether we think it is easier to change the laws of nature than to change the human heart.
One of the issues is whether we live our lives with a spirit of scarcity, or abundance.
Do we believe that God satisfies the desire of every living thing, or do we believe that there is simply not enough to go around?
If we believe the latter, are we hoarders, making sure that we have stocked up to supply our need, even as others go wanting?
One of the problems that the world faces is the disparity between the rich and the poor.  It is getting worse, we are being told.  The rich are getting richer, the poor poorer.
Throughout history the disparity between the rich and the poor has often been the breeding ground for revolution and wars.
It’s no accident that in places like Africa and South America where there are such vast disparity between the rich and the poor that there is also such great political instability.
This difference between the rich and the poor was pointed out to me once as someone shared the experience of a foreign exchange student who went to Rio de Janeiro to study.
Her host family was well to do, the student realized.  But she had no idea just how well to do until one weekend when it was announced that they would go shopping as a family.  So Saturday morning they all boarded a private jet and flew to Paris to shop.
Families like this, in a land that also has millions living in abject poverty.

So the bottom line: 
One question that these texts raise is whether we are willing to be generous, as the young boy was generous, and to trust that as we share with one another there will be sufficient for all.
The second question is whether we do, in fact, have faith in God’s abundance, or are we convinced that there will not be enough.
Here I have a confession.
I’m an anxious worrier, at times.
The disparity that I have lived with over the course of my life is this:
Whenever I looked forward to the future, I have always been concerned that there would not be enough, that financial ruin was a distinct possibility, and wondered how we would ever make it.
And then, on the other hand, whenever I look back at my life, I’m struck with how there has in fact, always been plenty.
I haven’t always had everything I wanted, but I’ve never been without anything I needed.
At our pastor’s text study this last week, Seth, an intern who is completing his work and now will be waiting for a call and placement in a parish shared his experience.
He had shared his own anxiety about not knowing what the next few months would bring, and whether they’d have enough to get by.
His family simply responded, that “you are not alone, we will help you if you need it.”
Oh, Yeah, there is that.
This brings up another side to the story of the feeding of the five thousand.
We can talk about Jesus’ power in the blessing of the loaves.
And we can talk about the generosity of the young boy, and all who like him, shared what they had.
There is another issue though and that is this:  Are we willing to accept help and the generosity of others when we need it?  Or does our pride get in the way?
I’ve had to struggle with that.
On two separate occasions this last year my family has offered to help me out.
The last time it was a simple matter.  My sister recognized that my recent hospitalization and recovery would mean that I’d be off work for a week or so, and lose those wages.  This, together with the hospital bills would be a burden.
And so she offered to help.
Pride says “No, I can do it myself.”
Gratitude says “The eyes of all wait upon you, O LORD, and you give them their food in due season. You open wide your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.”
Can we receive with a gracious heart the gifts that God provides?
And then also, can we in turn, share out of our abundance?
One of the things I don’t remember ever hearing about in the story of the feeding of the five thousand, is this:
Imagine Jesus taking the loaves, blessing them, and then passing them out to the crowd.
Each one in turn, would receive the loaf, take what they needed, and then would pass it on. 
It’s what we call “paying it forward”.
As we have been blessed by the generosity of others, we too can be a blessing.
This is what it means to live in God’s grace.  Amen

Friday, July 13, 2018

Year B, Pentecost 8, Amos 7.7-15, Mark 6.14-29, Speaking Truth to Power

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Is there anyone in our land capable of speaking truth to power?
Or has truth itself fallen victim to appeasement?  Have we come to the point that all that matters is that we tell people what they want to hear?
“What is truth?”   Pilate asked Jesus.
                “What is truth?”
Instinctively, I think we know what we are doing.
Within the political realm, and throughout the news organizations of our day, we sell as truth what is purely bias.
We know, don’t we, that we will hear one thing if we listen to MSNBC, and quite another if we listen to FOX.  So we tune into that which we want to hear.
Who will speak truth to power?
When I ask that question, one way to hear it is “Who will speak the truth to our politicians?”
But this is a land in which the government is not one person who holds the reign of power.
Abraham Lincoln said it best when he concluded the Gettysburg Address with the words:
and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
If Lincoln’s words are true, that ours is a government by the people, for the people, and of the people, then the question is who will speak the truth to the people?
The problem with democracy is that people hear what they want to hear, and believe what they want to believe, and rarely does anyone concern themselves with the question of truth.
We know our bias, and embrace it, but will we listen to the truth when it is spoken?
Even if it is God who speaks that word of truth?
Case in point:
One example.
Scientists are alarmed at the rate at which the world is warming, and the melting of the polar ice caps.  They warn of a drastic rise in the sea levels, and other calamities of nature that will result.  Of this there is almost universal agreement among scientists.
Now when we hear that, we are divided.  We see it as a matter of bias, and believe what we want to believe, and are content with that.
But truth is truth.
Either the ice is melting or it is not.
Either the oceans are rising or they are not.
Will it take Miami being underwater for us to recognize this truth? 
Will we heed the words of the prophets in our midst?  Or for that matter will it be the scientists themselves that will look like fools in the end?
This is not a new problem.
Prophets have never been welcome.
In our Gospel lesson John the Baptist is beheaded.  Herod had thrown him into prison because John had spoken the truth to Herod, a word of judgment against him.
And yet Herod had grown somewhat fond of John.
Mark tells us that “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”
I’d suggest to you that Herod was attracted to John, because at a very deep level, he recognized that John spoke a word of integrity, of truth, God’s word.
And even though John’s words were sometimes against Herod, himself, Herod found the truth to be somewhat satisfying. 
When you’re surrounded by “Yes men” having someone who speaks the truth can be refreshing.
Yet that did not prevent Herod from beheading John in the end, for his wife was not fond at all about hearing John speak the truth.
Amos is another prophet who spoke the truth.
His word was not welcome.
Amaziah, the “King’s prophet”, the preacher who the king liked to hear, said to Amos:
"O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom."
It is a temple of the kingdom.  Civil religion.
One of the rules of civil religion is that you tell the people what they want to hear, not what they need to hear.
In our country, the civil religion that we all adhere to in one way or another is best expressed in the simple phrase: “God bless America.”
Likewise, we outright reject the words of anyone who speaks otherwise.  For example, when Pastor Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor for some twenty years, used the phrase “God damns America” to express the judgment of God against our sinfulness, there was outrage across the nation, and even Obama had to severe his ties with Wright.
Wright had violated one of the tenants of American Civil religion, namely that “God blesses America”, by suggesting that God was judging America for its sins.
Amos answered Amaziah:  "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel. '
The word Amos prophesied was hard for Israel to hear:
Thus says the Lord:  For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—
7 they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way;
And again Amos writes:
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever- flowing stream.
A prophet, a true prophet, speaks the truth to power, and most often is rejected.  It’s hard to make a living as a prophet.  You are more likely to get fired or killed.
Amos’ word that he spoke to Israel was one that called for justice and righteousness, especially for the sake of the poor in the land.
More than any other theme in the Bible, God’s concern for the poor and outcast is one that the prophets constantly return to.
It’s a word that the rich and powerful in Israel refused to listen to, and the result, according to the prophets, was the demise of the nation.
The Kingdom which they thought would last forever was destroyed and its people taken into captivity.
If “God bless America” is one tenant of American Civil religion, “It’s the economy, stupid!” is another.
In other words, we understand God’s blessing of America in terms of economic prosperity.
To an extent, I think we are all guilty here.
I know I am.
Many of you know, for example, that I am not one of Donald Trump’s biggest fans.  I didn’t like him as a reality TV star, and I certainly don’t like him as a president.
But you know what I do a lot, these days.
I check the stock market.  I have a pension, and so I watch the stock market.
And you know what will really make me happy in the end? 
I’d be delighted if the stock market rose another 20 to 25% by the time I retired.
The most difficult question for me to ask myself in this regard pertains to this:
I’m sixty one, and most likely won’t retire fully until 70.  Eight years.  Trump maybe president for 6 more of those years. 
What will concern me the most?
Will the way we treat the poor, or the immigrant, or minorities, or any other group really matter?
Or will everything be cool if I can retire comfortably?
American civil religion is all about God blessing America with prosperity. 
And to a degree, most of us buy into that.
But who are the prophets in our midst?
Are there people like John the Baptist whose call to repentance would prepare the way of the Lord?
Are there people like Amos, not a religious professional by any means, but a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees that was called to speak the truth to power?
Many a pastor would fancy themselves to be a prophet.
I mean, after all, we are called to speak God’s Word, are we not?
You’d probably be concerned about my humility if I began every sermon with “Thus saith the Lord. . .” but at the same time, we believe that pastors should not be speaking anything but God’s word.  Kind of a tension there.
Yet we are kind of like Amaziah.  We are paid prophets.  And that means that we are hesitant to speak the truth, because, among other things, we are concerned about our pay checks and the status of our pension account.
But the truth is the truth.  It’s not a matter of personal bias.
God is either concerned for the poor, and for justice and righteousness, or he is not.
God’s will matters.  Or it does not.
Will we heed the words of the prophets God sends to us or will we ignore them?
And if we hear God’s word, we will act according to it?
It’s this last question that is the most difficult.
I may believe that global warming is as dire as they say, but does that belief change the way I live?
I may believe that God’s concern is for justice and righteousness for the poor, but does that affect my own pension account and checkbook?
I may believe that God speaks a word of judgment to his people from time to time, but will I hear that word of judgment as a word spoken to me, and will I repent?
When we hear God’s word, are we willing to consider changing our lives to conform to it?
That’s the question.
Belief apart from action is rather meaningless.
And yet to continue to do the same thing and expect a different result is insanity. 
If we want to experience the blessings of God we need to conform our lives to his will.
Otherwise it will be a word of judgment that we hear from the likes of Amos or John.
And that’s a word we don’t want to hear, none of us.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Year B, Pentecost 7, 2 Cor 12.2-10, Thorns

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
In all of the scripture, there is probably nothing that has produced more idle speculation than these verses.
What was that “thorn in the flesh” that tormented the Apostle Paul?
The simplest and most straightforward suggestion is that Paul is referring to his impaired vision, a situation he wrote about elsewhere, or another unknown physical weakness.
Others have suggested that Paul’s thorn in the flesh refers to his enemies, or specifically, the enemies of the Gospel.  Throughout Paul’s career he was followed about by those he refers to as “Judaizers, Christians who maintained that God’s grace was not sufficient in and of itself, but that we also needed to follow the Law of Moses, and earn God’s grace through our obedience.  (By the way, that is an oxymoron—if you have to earn it, it isn’t grace.)
This understanding has some particular merit in that these people were in fact “messengers” and Paul would have understood their message as having come from Satan, not God. 
Still others have claimed Paul is talking about another part of his life – the fact he has no wife or family, unhappiness about his sexuality or frustration that Jewish people are not accepting Christ.  Perhaps, for example, it could be that his thorn in the flesh was the guilt he felt for having persecuted the Church prior to his conversion.
We simply do not know.
Paul doesn’t tell us.
What he does tell us about that ‘thorn’ is that he prayed multiple times that God might remove it, but instead was told “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Perhaps the reason Paul does not tell us what HIS particular ‘thorn in the flesh’ is because it would have been a distraction.  It would have caused us to focus on Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ and not recognize our own.
Human weakness,
It’s not something we are proud of.
And most of the time we, like Paul, would prefer not to name our greatest weaknesses.  We don’t want to speak of those ‘messages from Satan’ that haunt us.
And who among us would not like to see them just go away.
I am one who has struggled with addiction.
I started smoking when I was 19, and haven’t yet been able to break the habit, though I’m trying now.
I became addicted to a prescription drug I was put on, Ativan, or Lorazapam.  This drug is so addictive that the current protocol for ceasing to take it is to wean someone off of it over the course of a year.  When I quit taking it, I simply went cold turkey, cutting the dose in half for a couple of weeks, and then stopping.
The problem is that Ativan works on the same receptors in the brain as alcohol, and so “cross addiction” is a real risk.
That’s when drinking became a problem for me.
When I stopped taking Ativan, I started drinking heavily in order to replace it, without realizing what I was doing.  I didn’t have a clue.
But that addiction, I’ve been freed from.  No more drinking, no more cravings of any sort, I’m free.
In this case, I prayed to God to remove that from me, and God did.
Paul’s experience with his own thorn in the flesh is that it was not removed through prayer, but that the answer was that it would remain, for God’s grace is sufficient and his power is made perfect in weakness.

The other night I had a very vivid dream. 
I won’t go into all the details, lest you be tempted to psychoanalyze me—good luck with that, by the way.
But what was present in the dream were numerous individuals from over the course of my life, individuals who had an impact of one sort or another on me, and the strongest most profound part of the dream is that I relieved those emotions, going back to childhood.
The most troubling of all of those individuals was the band director, whom I had adored, but who had behaved toward me in an abusive and inappropriate manner.
For me, I think that such scars of my childhood may be my ‘thorn in the flesh’.  And no matter how hard I pray, or how many years of therapy I receive, they remain. 
One of the more interesting emotional legacies of this experience in childhood is my beard.  When I first grew my beard, this band director, on the last day I saw him, expressed his disapproval and specifically was angry that I was “covering up my cute face”.  I have not shaved since.  Emotional scars.
Oh, I’ve dealt with them in some ways, I’ve come to recognize them for what they are, I’ve named them, and tried to resolve the powerful emotions around them.
But the scars remain.
So much so that at times I’d like to shout out to the world that “When you hurt a child, it’s their whole life that is at risk!  You cannot undo the harm that has been done.”
The shame, the guilt, the feelings of unworthiness last a lifetime.
Would that God would remove these thorns in our flesh from us.
And yet they have become a part of who we are, and there is no longer anyway that one can change that.
To put it differently, the day I die, my life will have been colored from the beginning to the end, by those experiences of childhood.  The trauma shaped my very identity.
Some of our deepest convictions come about because of these childhood experiences.
For example, over the last few weeks we’ve talked about the separation of children from their immigrant parents at our border. 
The depth of my concern for those children arises in no small part because of the pain I have myself experienced as a child.  It goes beyond reason and is filled with a passion that can only be the result of profound personal experience.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
This is God’s response to Paul, and to each of us who have experienced that ‘thorn in the flesh’ that torments us.
My grace is sufficient for you.”
Grace is the power of God to redeem and transform the lives of human beings, so often overcome by their weaknesses, and to make them pure and holy, untainted by human sin, and free from all shame.
Amid all the pain that remains from childhood, I think that grace is most evident when we learn again to love the child within us.
When I first recognized that abuse for what it was, I remember lamenting the fact that I was a good kid, and didn’t deserve it.
Grace was not far off in that moment.
Grace is God’s declaration that we are indeed, holy and precious in his sight, “good kids”, but here is where the difference lies, who need not do anything to deserve it.
Children are not loved because they have done something to deserve it.
Children are not loved because they are as yet, untainted by sin.
Children are loved solely because the God who created them is loving.
And it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.
Paul says that his ‘thorn in the flesh’ is a messenger of Satan.
It is Satan, and the ‘evil world’ we too often live in, that say we are not lovable.  We are not worthy.
Whatever our ‘thorn’ maybe, the message the world sends is too often one of shame or inadequacy.
Like Paul, we look around us and see others who seem to be spiritual giants, having had incredible experiences like being caught up into the third heaven, and we feel so small in comparison.
But in the face of all these negative messages, that come from Satan, I’m reminded of the words from the Spiritual, “There is a Balm in Gilead”, which declare:
If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus and say, "He died for all."
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Grace is the power of God to ‘heal the sin sick soul.’
What more can be said?
What more needs to be said?