Archive for August, 2014


August 3, 2014

Genesis 32:22-31, Matthew 14:13-21

Do you ever puzzle over why more people don’t come to church — not just Trinity Church, but any church?  I do.  Here’s one hypothesis, based on my own experience.  My introduction to religion came from my Presbyterian grandfather, who read to me from a book you may have known too: Hurlburt’s Story of the Bible for Young and Old.  As a small child I learned about the Garden of Eden, Noah’s ark, the crossing of the Red Sea, the valley of dry bones, and so forth.  At that age, packing two of every kind of animal into a boat seemed no more amazing to me than seeing a chick hatch or an airplane fly.  They were wonderful stories.

When I got older I saw how ridiculous those stories are — no better than fairy tales, certainly nothing to base a religion upon, much less a life.  As do many people, I turned in other directions to find meaning, joy and excitement in my life.  It was years before I took another look at the Bible.

Coming at it from a more mature outlook, I saw that the Bible has what would seem to be an impossible task.  It has to tell people about God and draw them into a loving relationship with God.  What makes it impossible?  That one book needs to speak to little children and sages, brilliant minds and dull, prosperous people and poor, dying and living.  What other book has ever done that?  No wonder we say the Bible is inspired!

How is it done?  Take the reading we just heard from Genesis.  It’s a terrific drama isn’t it?  Any child would be fascinated.  Yet it also stands as a foundation of Judaism.  How so?  You recall that after Jacob spent the night struggling against the angel, he became known as Israel, meaning one who wrestles with God.   The story conveys a powerful message; namely, God rewards those who wrestle with God.  And how do we wrestle with God?  One way is to wrestle with the stories.  It’s a time-honored spiritual practice.  Stories like these are meant to deliver spiritual truths that cannot be learned by direct telling.

The story of Abraham and Sarah is an example.  Sarah was 90 years old when God visited them and promised that Sarah would bear a son.  We could let the story drop there and say to ourselves that with God nothing is impossible.  That would be a true interpretation, but it didn’t call for much wrestling.  Suppose we don’t let go at that, but keep wrestling with the story.  Might it yield a deeper truth: that is, we are never too old or too weak to bring forth new life?  The baby can be a metaphor.

I recall the story of an old and very ill monk.  His head ached so fiercely that he really could not get up off of the cot in his cell; but every day he saw visitors.  People came to him from all over, asking for his guidance and asking for his prayers.  Many left his cell — we could put it this way — born again.  New-borns can take an infinite number of forms.  Because we wrestled this truth out of a story, a sacred story, we do not merely believe, but we actually feel that we, too, can give birth to new life.  It empowers us.

What about the story of the feeding of the 5,000?  I’m sure it has turned a few people away from Christianity.  Some (and I was one of them) simply don’t believe it, and say religion is for the simple minded.  For others it’s simply a wonder, like Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not.  They say to themselves, “It seems improbable, but so is the story of the man who, as Ripley tells us, could bounce down a flight of stairs on his head.”  The response is a shrug: so what?  What makes a story sacred, is not whether it is factual or not, but whether it has power to transform us.  Stories with that kind of power are called true stories.

Efforts have been made to make the story of the feeding of the 5,000  sound factual.  For instance, some have suggested that all the people had brought some bread, which they had kept in their robes out of the sun.  When lunch time came no one wanted to take out her or his bread, thinking they couldn’t share with so many.  Then the disciples came around offering all they had, and it broke the dam.  All the others brought forth their bread.  That’s a logical explanation, but there’s little to transform us in that story!

Of course, it could have been a miracle, as described.  It is certainly within the power of God to do that.  But again, so what?  How different is that from something we could read about in Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not?  As a people of faith, descended from Israel, the God Wrestler, we need to hold on to that story of the feeding of the 5,000, in all its strangeness, until it blesses us.

Here is one approach.  Remember that this Gospel account was written after the Last Supper, after the institution of the Eucharist.  We cannot hear the story of the feeding of the 5,000 apart from that other story: the feeding of the twelve.  What was Jesus doing at the Last Supper?  He was meeting the very deepest need of humankind — the need to belong.  That need springs straight from the soul, whose basic nature is relationship.

We can have all the world has to offer — status, achievements, possessions — yet without a sense of belonging it all seems empty or pointless.  This is especially true today.  As one person put it, “Technology pretends to unite us, yet more often than not all it delivers are simulated relationships.”  Babies die, even if all their physical needs are met, yet their need to belong is not met.  Of course, all of us do belong, always; nothing can take that away from us.  What we lack is an awareness that we belong, not only to each other, but to God.

This makes bread a supremely important symbol.  ‘Companionship,’ as you know, means breaking bread together — pan being the Latin word for bread.  To invite someone to share a meal is to say in effect, “You belong.”  So on the night before he died, Jesus took a loaf of bread, symbolizing himself — symbolizing all of humanity.  He broke it, meaning that he would die — meaning, too, that humanity itself is fragmented.  He passed out the broken pieces for those present to eat; and he told them that whenever they repeated that action they should do so “in re-membrance of me.”  It is a powerful way of enacting the core truth: you are one; you belong; you are part of God’s body.  In the vast tapestry of eternity yours, too, is an essential thread.

However we explain the feeding of the 5,000, this we cannot doubt: in that event Jesus was teaching his disciples to pass on to others what he was passing on to them — on the surface it was bread, but deeper than that, it was the sure and certain knowledge that they belong.  At the Last Supper Jesus would create a ritual to embody that teaching and carry it forward to all time.  We belong to each other; we belong to all of humankind; we belong to God.  And he wasn’t just telling them in so many words, he enacted it, he made them experience and feel its truth.

So I remain puzzled.  Why don’t more people come to church?  A recent article in The Wall Street Journal pointed out that, since the 1980’s, the number of lonely Americans has doubled to 40%.  The need is there, stronger than ever.

Perhaps Trinity Saugerties, taking to heart the deeper truth of Sarah’s story, will give birth to a new ministry, possibly a ministry to the lonely.  What form might that take?  We must wrestle with God, and keep wrestling, until God blesses us with a vision for our future.