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Luke 4:1-13

May 3, 2016

 

Jesus’ Temptations

Luke 4:1-13

This reading about Jesus’ temptations and how he responded to them makes it sound easy.  Are you facing a tough decision?  Just turn to the Bible and let it tell you what to do or what to say.   That sounds good, until we consider that certain Islamic clerics turn to Scripture, too, and it guides them to raise up suicide bombers.  Closer to home, Christian clergy turn to Scripture and it guides them to condemn homosexuality or ordaining women.  For centuries Christians turned to Scripture and it guided them to oppress Jews.  Is there a proper way to use the Bible for guidance?

Let me frame that question with a story.  This happened to Rachel Naomi Remen, a pediatric oncologist at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California.  A 12-year-old girl came to Dr. Remen with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymph nodes.  The girl, her mother, and her father, who was an Orthodox rabbi, had come all the way from New York for radiation treatment at the linear accelerator.

The treatment’s effectiveness depended on a series of treatments, timed a precise number of days apart.  According to the girl’s treatment schedule, the eighth treatment would fall on Yom Kippur.  The father came to Dr. Remen to explain that Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year.  His faith strictly forbids handling money on this day, riding in cars, or using electricity.  In short, his daughter could not come to her treatment on that day.

Told that the timing of the treatments was critical to his daughter’s recovery, the father replied angrily that God’s laws superseded any human law.  He reminded Dr. Remen of the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac.  She insisted, and the father said he would consult his own rabbi in New York, the man who headed his sect of Orthodox Judaism.

On the morning of Yom Kippur, Dr. Remen found the girl in her waiting room.  Looking questioningly at the father, the doctor learned that the Great Teacher, himself, had telephoned the father immediately upon receiving his letter.  The Great Teacher told the father to order a taxi for the girl on Yom Kippur, and not only that, but he, the father, was to ride with her.  The father protested:  No, I cannot break the Law!  The Great Teacher was adamant.  The father needed to show his daughter that even a truly holy man could ride in a car on the holiest of days in order to preserve life.  The Great Teacher said something else.  He told the father how important it was that his daughter not feel separated from God by breaking the Law; because that feeling could undermine her healing.

This story makes clear: it is not a straightforward  matter to use Scripture for guidance.  How did Jesus succeed so well?  A partial answer to that question came to me recently when I read a book by Richard Rohr, called Falling Upward.  Rohr is a Roman Catholic monk in his early 70’s with at least 50 years of spiritual exploration and teaching behind him.

Rohr distinguishes two stages in human life: first, building a container, and second, providing it with contents.  We build the container through such things as learning to control our impulses, obeying parents and other authorities, respecting the laws of church and state.  At this first stage we need our religion to make absolute truth claims; we need certitude, order, constancy, control, safety, insurance policies.

If we are successful at building the “container” we will go into the second stage, the content stage, with a strong identity and a principled ethical sense — a solid foundation.  We could call the first stage law and the second stage freedom.  Both are necessary for spiritual growth.  The test of true spiritual maturity is this: can we transcend the container stage and at the same time include it?  Jesus understood this, for he said,  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill [the law].  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

I have sympathy for those who are still focused on building the container.  They need to take the Bible literally and live under its authority.  They want to be able to stand on God’s promises, as given in Scripture.  And they wonder:  if not everything written in Scripture is to be taken at face value, then what can we take?  What can we trust?  They are living under a false sense of all or nothing.  How do we get beyond that — learn to trust without clinging to the false security of literalism?

I think of Brother Roger, the founder of the Taizé Community.  He was one of the spiritual giants of the Christian church in the last century.  Stuart and I spent a week at Taizé in 2003 and I remember vividly how he said with the utmost certainty and authority, “God can only love.”  Where did he get that bedrock conviction?  Given all the contradictory pictures of God in the Bible, how did he boil it down to that one conclusion?

He must have started out, as any of us must, building a container — that is, letting the words of Scripture form him and inform him.  Then World War II came along with all the ambiguities that entails.  He found he had to shift — shift from experiencing the presence of God solely in the words of the Bible to experiencing the presence of God also behind the words.

Let me give you an illustration.  My brother has a ranch high in the Rocky Mountains where a pure spring bubbles up in the midst of a boggy meadow.  We had to search for a long time through thickets of willow bushes, through a maze of muddy trickles, through the hoof prints of cows and their droppings to find it.  Then there it was: the source, the clearest, sweetest tasting water you can imagine.  To follow Brother Roger, it’s as if we have to search through the words of the Bible, which have been colored  and distorted by human handling, to find the source — the Presence behind it all.

My original question was this.  Is there a proper way to use the Bible for guidance?  To sum up what I’ve said, we never outgrow the need to read the Bible, but as we read we listen for the silence behind the words; for silence has been called God’s lap.  Think of a deep, interior silence as God’s lap.

Perhaps the Gospel account of Jesus’ temptations indulges in some shorthand.  It reads as if he snapped back his answers to Satan.  I think he waited in silence for who knows how long?  Then the verses that offered true guidance came to him.  But still, being spiritually mature, transcending and including the words of Scripture, he had to give up certainty and control.  He had to be willing to dwell in the mystery of God with all of the ambiguity that entails.  He had to embrace an unknown future.  The thing is, Jesus had been to the source, and this he learned and could count on: God can only love.

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SANCTIONS AND CONSEQUENCES

January 17, 2016

“I have a dream.”  All across the country this weekend people are being reminded of Martin Luther King Jr. and his historic speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.  We can almost recite from memory parts of that speech: “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children…[And] we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream…”

Today, however, it is the Episcopal Church that has the dream of making justice a reality for all of God’s children.  It is we Episcopalians who will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.  The prophet Amos spoke those stirring words in the 8th century BCE, and still, they are as stirring today as they were in the 8th century BCE or in 1963.

The steps of the Lincoln Memorial were King’s megaphone; ours are the mediaThe New York Times reported on last Thursday’s convocation at Canterbury Cathedral, where 37 archbishops from around the Anglican Communion suspended the Episcopal Church.  The headline read:  “Anglican Church Disciplines U.S. Episcopals Over Gay Marriage.”  What did the discipline entail?   For the next three years, Episcopal leaders will not be allowed to represent the Anglican Communion at meetings with other churches or other faiths, will not be appointed or elected to internal committees and will not be allowed to participate in decisions in the Anglican Communion “relating to doctrine or polity.”

For those of you who have not read the details, it’s important to emphasize what the Archbishop of Canterbury said.  He played down the decision.  “We don’t have the power to sanction anyone,” he said.  “It’s not a sanction; it’s a consequence,” he stressed.  Our own Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, said, “… it’s important to remember that we are still part of the Anglican Communion, we are the Episcopal Church.”

I want to make two points.  First, what a God-given opportunity this gives us to witness to our faith!  Second, how can we respond to this statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury?  He said, “The church’s provinces, while autonomous, are “interdependent” and obligated to one another not to deviate from doctrine.”

With regard to the first point, witnessing to our faith, Jesus commanded us, his followers, to reach out to people everywhere and let them know that life has a transcendent, eternal dimension; that there is a God and the nature of God is only to love; and that, as Martin Luther King wrote, “…there is something unfolding in the universe, whether one speaks of it as an unconscious process, or whether one speaks of it as unmoved mover, or whether someone speaks of it as a personal God. There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice….”

We followers of Jesus have had a tough time lately.  Christianity has been written off by much of the secular world; and even some of our own members are drifting away on Sunday mornings from the liturgy to the soccer fields.  But this week the media have given us a megaphone.  Suddenly the secular world has to hear that the Episcopal Church stands for justice and love; that our church believes Jesus’ message of mercy extends to all people, especially those who have been marginalized.

Our Presiding Bishop put it this way, “For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope.”  And he affirmed that the Episcopal Church will not go back on that.

One priest from Pasadena, California, is among the many who are speaking out.  She wrote in the Letters to the Editors section of the Times, “As a lifelong Episcopalian and a married lesbian priest, I think [the suspension is] not only an acceptable cost, it’s a badge of honor in some ways.”  Christianity, at least the Episcopal tradition, is going to seem a lot more relevant and important to people who had, before Thursday’s events, written us off.

But what about the second point?  We cannot simply rejoice about the opportunity this has given us to make public our faith and practice.  We must also take seriously the idea of mutual responsibility; that is, our denomination’s obligation to the other provinces not to deviate from doctrine.  How do we come to terms with this breach of our obligation?

We might think in terms of two stages of life, the formative stage and the transformative stage.  Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk, reads the story of how Moses received the Ten Commandments as symbolic of these two phases.  Commandments, rules, laws, and norms are essential during the formative stage of our life if we want to become mature adults with a strong identity and a reliable character.  So is obedience essential.

However, we reach a point in our development where we are ready for an “open system and a larger horizon.” as Richard Rohr puts it, “so that the soul, the heart, and the mind do not close down inside of small and constricted space.”  This is the transformative stage, symbolized, as Richard Rohr sees it, when Moses received the second set of Commandments.  They may have read the same, but Moses, himself, was no longer the same.  He had developed into the transformative phase of life and become a real leader and prophet.  Only after he breaks the first set of Commandments and receives the second set does he see God’s glory, and only afterwards does his face shine.  Put it this way:  Moses came to understand that he could eat the apple, as God intended him to do, when both he and the apple were ripe.

This line of thought does not absolve us from the possibility that the Episcopal Church acted in error.  Maybe the apple was not ripe when our General Convention voted last summer to adopt a liturgy for gay marriage.  Maybe we should not have eaten.  This is the agony of being human: it’s always possible we made a mistake.

Let me close by returning to Paul’s words to the Corinthians.  “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit….”  The Episcopal Church firmly believes we have been given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good; we have been given the utterance of wisdom and knowledge; we have been given faith by the same Spirit.  The Episcopal Church believes this; and equally it affirms the motto of Pope John XXIII:  “In essentials unity; in nonessentials liberty; and in all things, charity.”  To those who disagree with us: charity.  To those who would like to sanction us: charity.  In all things charity!

HOLY NAME

January 11, 2016

The Danish have an old folk saying, “A beloved child has many names.”   When I heard that I thought of my grandfather who loved me very much.  He used to call me Susie Q, or Sunshine, but my favorite was Skeezix, after the comic strip kid in “Gasoline Alley.”  Skeezix, I knew, served as  code for “I love you.”

I’m drawing your attention to names, because one of the important feasts of the church year – the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus — falls in January, but rarely a Sunday.  So this sermon will  focus on the spiritual importance of names, including our own.  I’ll use this verse from Scripture: Revelation 2:17, where God says: “To everyone who conquers I will give … a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.”  Mysterious, isn’t it?

First we need to ask what is meant by, “…to everyone who conquers.”  Have we conquered?  Are we in that group to receive a white stone and a new name?  Here’s the test.  Have I wrestled with my faith?  Have I doubted some of its teachings?  If the answer is: “no, I have never doubted; I have never needed to wrestle with my faith,” then I have not yet conquered.  Religion has not yet done its transforming work in me.  I are not yet ready to receive my white stone and new name.

On the other hand, suppose I answered, “yes, I’ve wrestled and I didn’t get any answers, so I’ve given up.”  This also amounts to failing the test.  So who will conquer and be given a new name?  Those who doubted their faith, questioned their faith, wrestled with it, got nowhere, and still wrestled on.  “O, God, if you are a God of love how is there so much suffering in the world?”  “O, God, if you are a God who answers prayers, why did my child die?”  “O God, can non-believers be saved?”  “O God, are you even real?”  Mature faith questions and doubts but keeps on living by faith.  Mature faith knows doubts and questions will arise to the very end; it knows that only in wrestling with them can we grow spiritually; it knows that conquering does not mean achieving answers, but overcoming the temptation to quit wrestling.

Let’s make no mistake.  This is not about who is saved and who is not; this is not about who is out and who is in.  We are all in.  We are all saved.  We are all loved equally, infinitely.  That’s a given.

We may be sure that Jesus conquered.  Who else in history wrestled with God so intensely, so intimately, so incessantly?  Who else achieved such spiritual insight that he could call God, Papa?  Say that he and the Father are one?  Even trust that in going to the cross he would triumph?  So how did the white stone and the new name play out in Jesus’ life?

I reconstruct Jesus’ life this way.  When he was born they named him Jesus, meaning Salvation.  He grew up with an unusual aptitude for questioning his faith.  Remember how his parents found him at the age of 12 at the temple in Jerusalem, debating with the elders and amazing them with his insights?  Then as a young adult, longing for an even closer walk with God, he went to John the Baptist.  There, at his baptism, he received the white stone with his secret name.  I picture the stone as a smooth, river-rounded stone that would fit in the palm of his hand.

Here we have to stop and acknowledge that the book of Revelation speaks in symbols, images, and metaphors.  A stone stands as a perennial symbol for truth, bespeaking what is solid and enduring.  In this sense it also serves as a symbol for our true selves – not our personalities or values or opinions, but for our deepest, eternal, true identity.  Even if we’ve never thought about this symbolism, many of us can remember picking up a particular stone, noticing its special attraction, and taking it home as a keepsake.  If someone asked us why, we’d probably say: it brings me comfort.

So at his baptism Jesus realized there was more to himself than he thought; he became aware of a deeper life within him, what we could call his true self, his eternal life.  The book of Revelation symbolizes this with a white stone.

What, then, about the new name that “no one knows except the one who receives it?”  Here again we are dealing with symbolism.  This new name is not a sound, and it cannot be written.  Think of it as your soul’s fingerprint — a code God lovingly imprinted to identify you, uniquely.  No one ever born or ever to-be-born has that same fingerprint.  Even identical twins, immediately after they’re born, do not have the same fingerprints.  So each of us is a unique, never-to-be-repeated expression of God’s love and saving power.

Why do I put it that way?  We know that Jesus’ given name means Salvation.  But what was the secret name written on his white stone?  That name told how God saves.  This is true for all of us.  My “new name” is my “action” name.  It tells how I, uniquely, will play a part in God’s saving action.  In Jesus’ case perhaps his secret name was “Trampling Down Death by Death,” as it says in the Prayer Book.  We cannot know.  Only Jesus and God know.

This helps me understand why the white stone and the new name are only received once we have conquered.  It requires a mature faith, a tested faith, to be ready to play a conscious, intentional part in God’s salvation.  Why?  Because until I am ready to live for the good of others and not for myself alone, I can only be of limited service.  I am not yet ready to seek out the fingerprint on my soul, and discern how I, uniquely, am called to serve.

Let me give you a rather obvious example of someone who gave evidence early on of where to seek for her new, secret name.  The primatologist, Jane Goodall, is known for her study of chimpanzees and for her love of animals and nature.  Jane grew up in London.  When she was 18 months old she lovingly collected earth worms, brought them home, and at night took them to bed with her.  We cannot know her secret name, but we might guess, in a general way, the unique part God called her to play in God’s salvation.

What about us?  Thomas Merton once wrote, “Every man has a vocation to be someone: but he must understand clearly that in order to fulfill this vocation he can only be one person: himself.”  This is not telling us we must earn that stone and secret name.  God assigned those to us before we were born.  God longs to give them to us; longs for us to be ready to receive them.  Some of us receive them early in life, some late; some receive them clearly, some have to keep groping.  No one is turned away.  Ever.

The fact that we are here in church suggests that all of us continue to wrestle with our faith.  We are ready to receive a white stone and a new name.  Some of us know our new name already.  Some of us are still seeking to discern it more clearly.  Yet all of us do play a part in God’s saving action.  The inexpressible beauty of living by our soul’s secret name may be compared to the fierce joy of hearing God’s all-loving voice call us each by that once-given, intimate name.  Hearing my grandfather call me Skeezix was only a tiny foretaste.

Mark 10:46-52

October 27, 2015

Let’s go through the story of Bartimaeus a second time and highlight some details we may have overlooked.  For instance, we see that only Jesus and his disciples entered Jericho, but a large crowd tagged along on their way out.  Was it that Jesus won many new disciples in Jericho?  Perhaps a few; but most of the crowd were curiosity seekers, like the throngs that would tag along after a circus.  They hoped to see some wonders.

Another detail.  Is there anyone here who has not passed a beggar sitting on the sidewalk?  We may place some cash in their hand, or even stop and chat briefly, but we all know that nothing we can give will alter their situation significantly.  They need more than funds.  In fact, for them some of the most basic human needs are lacking — the need for respect, for self-esteem, the need to be able to contribute, and above all, the need to belong.  Actually, we don’t need to be a Bartimaeus to suffer acute loneliness or a sense of uselessness; and many successful people harbor and hide an absence of self-worth.

Another detail.  When Jesus called for him, Bartimaeus threw off his cloak.   He left it lying there beside the road, his warm covering at night, his shelter from the sun, his protection from sand storms and rain, his pockets for food and whatever wealth he had.  He would have been like a hermit crab, pried cruelly out of its shell.

A final detail.  Jesus said, “your faith has made you well.”  Here the Greek word translated well cannot be understood as cured or even healed.  A good translation might be, complete, whole and secure.  “Your faith has made you complete, whole, and thus secure.”  Picture an arch: until the keystone is dropped into place, the arch can collapse, because it isn’t complete.  Faith is that keystone in the arch of our lives..

With these details in mind, let’s ask ourselves what Jesus meant when he said faith; “Your faith has made you complete, whole, and secure.”  What did Jesus see in Bartimaeus that he recognized as faith?

Can we say that Jesus meant Bartimaeus’s trust in Jesus’ power to restore his sight?  Possibly, but look at it from Jesus’ point of view.  Here is a man Jesus has never met, with whom he has no relationship, who suddenly jumps up, and most irresponsibly casts aside his cloak, and — solely on the basis of Jesus’ reputation — asks to see again.  It could well be the action of a credulous fool, on a par with people who sell all they have and head for a mountain top, because they believe the world is about to end.  Jesus wouldn’t have called that faith; more likely credulity.

But Jesus was noticing something else.  He would have known the price of being blind and a beggar.  It means being a social outcast.  If we have any doubt look at the way the members of the crowd tried to shut Bartimaeus up.  In their eyes he was beneath their notice, and certainly beneath Jesus’ notice.  So on the one hand, Jesus would have guessed his loneliness, his lack of self-esteem, and how prone he would be to depression.

On the other hand,  Bartimaeus did not act that way!  On the contrary, he expected that Jesus would want to see him.  He shouted out to Jesus, confident that he had every right to Jesus’ attention.  And when the crowd around Jesus snarled at him to shut up, he wasn’t cowed.  His self-assurance gave him the élan to shout more insistently.  So Jesus was drawn up short.  In other words, he confronted an experience at odds with his expectations, and he realized something deeper was going on.  Put it this way: Jesus saw that his cloak was not Bartimaeus’s security.

Let’s review.  First the blind man was led to Jesus.  Then Jesus said, “Go, the deep faith you already have has made you complete, whole and secure.”  Maybe that was all Bartimaeus needed: for a spiritual authority to confirm what he knew in his bones.  He knew that in God’s eyes he stood on a level with everyone, and like everyone, he was unique and uniquely loved.  He knew he had gifts of love and service to offer on a par with anyone else’s.  He knew that nothing could ever separate him from God’s love, and that was all that mattered in the end.  He knew all that, because God was a personal presence for him.  And Jesus recognized that as faith.

After that we are told that Bartimaeus regained his sight.  Shall we leave it at that?  Shall we leave it that Jesus, the wonder worker, performed a miracle?  Wowed the crowds?  No surprise then, that people were avid to tag along for the show!  But suppose the Gospel wants us to look deeper — to see that Jesus wasn’t about doing wonders, but about transforming the human heart?  To see that the real action is not “out there” but “in here”?

I’ve long thought that parishes should identify themselves, not as churches, but as vision clinics.  Every one of us is blind to one degree or another.  We come to church to say with Bartimaeus, “Let me see again.”  What are we really asking for?  What did Jesus do for Bartimaeus that we want too?

Let me answer that question and close with this story.  Stuart and I have two friends who live in London now, but were born, raised, and educated in Syria.  They have watched with horror as nearly four million Syrians have left the country and nearly eight million are living as refugees within Syria.  In Syria this past summer they did what they could for 200 frightened children, who had fled from all over Syria, and who were living in shelters in Latakia.  Our friends created a summer camp.  Every day they gave the children lunch and snacks.  One day the lunches included a hamburger for each child.  One little girl refused to eat her hamburger.  Asked why, she replied that she wanted to take it home to share with her family — her family of ten people living in one room.

We can hear that story as if it were a wonder story, and indeed it is.  In our mind’s eye we watch in amazement as one puny hamburger gets divided ten ways.  And we watch in equal amazement as a small child acts with extreme generosity.  But those are the stories “out there.”  What is the story “in here”?

The real miracle cannot be seen, for it is not the child’s generosity. In fact, the child was not being generous.  The child simply did not see herself as separate from those she loved.  We don’t think of our right hand being generous when it washes the left hand, or when it puts food in our mouth or washes our face.  I believe this is what Jesus meant when he said in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

It is not a wonder or even a miracle as we become like little children.  It is a transformation, a process — sometimes sudden, sometimes slow — that is invisible, except for those who, as Jesus said, “have eyes to see.”  I submit that this is what the Gospel means when it tells us that Bartimaeus “regained his sight.”  All of us experience the oneness of all things when we are little children.  Then gradually the world’s blindness overtakes us.

Like Bartimaeus, we want to say, “My teacher, let me see again.”  I invite us to make it our mantra — a centering phrase as we go through our day.  For we go, not as tag alongs, but as followers on the Way, people of faith — complete, whole and secure — knowing that what Jesus did for Bartimaeus he can do for us.  Amen.

SUNDAY, AUGUST 3, 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.

I Kings 18:20-39, Luke 7:1-10

June 3, 2013

This morning I want to build on the reading from the Book of Kings to talk about praying to God for help.  Does God answer prayer?  If so, why some prayers and not others?  Is prayer really effective? (more…)