Sermon: October 5, 2014

Sermon                                                                                                       October 5, 2014

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                           World Communion Sunday

Scripture: EXODUS 20:1-20 MSG

Introduction:  Even if you didn’t grow up in the church, I am willing to bet that you were familiar with the Ten Commandments, right?  And I have preached at least two other sermons on them during my sojourn with you, so there is no escaping a test this morning!  I am going to recite the first part of each commandment in order and I want you to fill in the blank:

I am God, your God.

1: You shall have no. . . other gods before me.

2: You shall make no. . . graven images.
3: You shall not take …the name of your God in vain.
4: You shall remember … the Sabbath day to keep it holy.
5: Honor your … father and mother.
6: You shall not  … kill.
7: You shall not commit… adultery.
8: You shall not …steal.
9: You shall not … lie, bare false witness.
10: You shall not covet your neighbor’s … house.
11:  You shall not covet your neighbor’s … wife/spouse.

12:  You shall not covet your neighbor’s . . . servants, animals, or anything else.

 

Left side: Exodus 20

Right side: Leviticus 19

Choir: Deuteronomy 5

Prayer

Gracious God – may the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our strength and our guide.  Amen.

Our Experience

>      You shall have no other gods before me. This seems to be fairly straight forward, doesn’t it?  In Hebrew times, gods were small statues, about ten or twelve inches high, often made out of wood. I can’t imagine that any of us have small pieces of wood in our homes that we worship. But before we start feeling too smug, we do have material possessions in our lives and in our homes that we do venerate and cling to in some situations more than we revere God.  I am pleased to report that I have closed out my storage unit and my piano is now safely residing in St. Paul’s library.  I do need to get Howlett to show it a little love to make up for all the years it sat shrouded in the dark, but it looks good and sounds fine. Why would anyone in their right mind store a piano for six years?  I mean, really!                        >       And as is spelled out in the next commandment that means no carved gods or goddesses, or plastic trinkets or metal bling or sports equipment of any ilk (not even that set of Big Bertha gold clubs)! I suspect this also means chocolate and coffee, too. . . .                                                     >       So let’s just move on to ”You shall not take the name of God in vain.” Whoa!  Some of us are in deep trouble already – preacher included. This couldn’t be any clearer: you shall not curse or swear. Lucky people that we are we live in a time when folks actually keep track of the outrageous number of swear words in the movies we see and the music we listen to. Even TV is allowing more obscenities to be spoken in its regular programming. The volume of filthy language that assaults us on a daily basis has grown enormously. I am not aware of any kind of movement to change this.  Are you?  It is all about the freedom of expression according to one 19 year old authority (Dayja) with whom I have had this conversation.             >       Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Choir, what does Deuteronomy 5 say about observing the Sabbath? There is to be no work on the Sabbath, including no work for one’s donkey, oxen, manservant, or maidservant. What day of the week is the Sabbath in this text? (Saturday) And as we know our Jewish friends still celebrate Saturday as their Sabbath as do Seventh Day Adventists. Do any of you happen to own a donkey or an ox? Do any of you have servants? Someone who comes and cleans your house, perhaps? How many of us have jobs that demand that we work on Sunday? Ralph George, the Bucks, Olabisi, Goldie, Jonathon – several of us! So this commandment at least as it is spelled out in Deuteronomy clearly refers to another culture and generation, but what does it mean for us today when we have to work on Sundays?                                                     This Commandment teaches us about the importance of rest and being with community particularly in worship. There needs to be a period of time for our bodies, minds and spirits to truly rest. We need a time to focus on this book, the Bible. We need to come together as a community to listen to the word together, pray together, sing together, worship together, and be together in the Spirit of Christ.  It is up to us to make that happen, preferably on Sunday morning at 11, but if not, then sometime during our week.                                                                                                >        Out of all the commandments perhaps the next one has taken the biggest hit.  Honor your father and your mother so that it will go well with you. October is Domestic Violence Awareness month and denizens of LA have just vicariously witnessed the shooting of Daniel Crespo, Mayor of Bell Gardens, by his wife following an argument and the alleged beating of their son by his father.  As more details are leaked to the press and law enforcement, it appears that this was a highly dysfunctional family.                  One of three mission goals established by the PC(USA) concerns reconciliation and peacemaking where there has been violence.  Knowing how important it is to reconcile our differences with our parents, I found myself pondering this week what that would look like for the Crespo family? Our Presbytery sponsored an event last weekend to address this very concern. This is the event that Mary, Lois and I attended last Saturday and it was very good, but we are still left to explore for ourselves what honoring our parents means in today’s world in which families are so badly fractured. >  You shall not murder. Just four simple words, but they hold so much complexity. There were two mothers on a panel last Saturday at the Presbytery event both of whom had lost their sons to senseless, wanton drive-by gun violence. We have been engaged in wars which went nuclear and hundreds of thousands were killed. 54,000 men were killed in one battle during the Civil War in essence brother killing brother. And the United States has far more people murdered than any other developed nation in the world and we have imprisoned more people for murder than any other modern industrial state. What is it about this commandment that we don’t get? And no one that I am aware of is addressing adequately the specter of black on black violence.

Our Experience Expanded

>      And we could ask the same questions about the next commandment: You shall not commit adultery. I can’t tell you the last time I performed a wedding for a couple that was not already living together.  I remember finding my mother crying in the bathroom one morning.  This was years ago.  I asked her what was wrong.  She sobbed that my brother was living in sin.  I ask her, “Which one?” meaning which brother.  She sobbed back “Adultery”. I sat her down and asked what was going on.  It seems that my brother Phil had moved in with his girlfriend Karen.  Before it was over all of my brothers lived with their girlfriends without benefit of marriage.  My mother was never truly OK with this but bless her heart, she claims to have eventually gotten used to the idea.        It helped when she liked the particular girlfriend!                                                                                          >       Is the next commandment just about shop lifting? Or does it have anything to do with 10% of the world’s population owning 90% of the earth’s resources? Do the rich steal from the poor when they keep the poor down and poor?  It is really clear to me that Jesus had very high expectations of those of us who have means and live well.  Do we always recognize that everything we have comes from God? How good are we at sharing what we have?  Our Stewardship and Finance Ministry Team has been asking us that question in various forms for the past five weeks as we commit to our annual St. Paul’s pledge campaign.                                                              >       When I was a small child we had a saying:  Liar, Liar pants on fire hanging on a telephone wire.  It was a way of calling someone out when we either thought they were lying or hoped that they were; decidedly an era before Wi-Fi and cyberspace!  I am not going to stand before you this morning and preach about bearing false witness against your neighbor. There isn’t anyone sitting in this sanctuary this morning who doesn’t know how wrong it is to lie to anyone about anything.                                       >       And the same thing could be said about another injunction: You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse. Lusting after or getting involved with someone who is already in a committed relationship has never made sense to me. Even having counseled with a number of my single, female friends who have gotten involved with married men, who then dumped them for someone else, I still don’t get it. Particularly when my friends act surprised! I have been told on a number of these occasions that the heart wants what the heart wants, to which I reply, God gave us heads to temper our hearts and some really good rules that it is terribly wise to follow.                  >      And last but by no means the least we are told not to covet that which belongs to our neighbors. I can remember as a twelve year old wanting a Barbie doll because several of my friends had them.  They had just come out in toy stores everywhere and they were very popular.  I was told that I was too old for a Barbie doll, any dolls for that matter. I learned years later that my mother also didn’t like the image that Barbie projected.  We didn’t have this conversation until well into my adulthood, but my mother knew Barbie would become a less than desirable icon for women and she was right. Possessions like cars, homes, clothing, boats, jewelry, vacations, cabins, and an opulent life style all become objects of our desire and, I fear, we are taught to be envious at any early age.

Our Traditions

Does anyone care to guess how old the Ten Commandments are?  (3400 years). How many times have these commandments changed or been edited during the past 3400 years? (They have been tweaked, but there were no significant changes.) Why? (Because, it seems, human nature has not changed noticeably over the course of history.) Now, there have been all kinds of changes in the lives of human beings. Civilizations have changed. Knowledge has changed. Medicine has changed. Science and technology have changed. Politics and political systems have changed. Nations and borders have changed. Government has changed. Indeed, perpetual change is the mark of the human experience whether we like it or not.                              Meanwhile, even though all these social changes have been going on for 3400 years, human nature has not changed. Today, 3400 years later, as we have just been discussing, people still worship various gods, still swear and cuss, still don’t find time to worship, and we still have problems honoring our parents. Today, people still murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, and we still covet other peoples’ spouses and property. Change is all around us, but human nature seems to stay pretty much the same. People still need the Ten Commandments; the Ten Principles for human community, as much today are people did 3400 years ago.                                                       Every century, generation, denomination and society applies these Ten Moral Laws differently to their particular time in history. We find such differences of application within the scriptures themselves:

  • How many basic commandments are there? (Ten?) It depends on how you count. We have three recitations of the basic commandments in scripture: In Exodus 20, Leviticus 19, and Deuteronomy 5. In both Exodus and Deuteronomy, we do not have Ten Commandments but twelve. In the Lutheran Church list of the Ten Commandments there is no mention of the commandment about not making graven images.  How do you suppose they pulled that off?  Someone read us the fourth commandment from Exodus (20:8-11).  Now Deuteronomy (5:12-15). Now what happens to no graven images in Leviticus 19?  (It is one sentence [verse 4] and is elevated to the third commandment.)
  • The commandment not to kill can be either the 5th, 6th or 7th commandment, depending on how you number them. You shall not murder or kill, took merely four words in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, but what does Leviticus have to say about murder? (nothing)  In Leviticus commandments 1, 6, 7 and 10 are omitted but the commandment related to the Sabbath is mentioned twice (verses 3 and 30). Leviticus 19 starts with an admonition to “be holy because God is holy.” Now what do you suppose happened between Exodus and Deuteronomy and Leviticus that could account for the differences? (The emphasis shifted, new editors came on board with new or different problems to be solved.)

Re-mything Our Traditions

What I am suggesting to you today is that every generation and every culture needs to freshly apply the Ten Commandments to their own situation and wrestle with what the meaning of the commandments are for our daily lives. And I will be the first to admit that it is not always easy doing this.              In the first five books of the Bible, which are called the Law, (Torah) there are 613 laws, rules and regulations (mitzvoth) for human society. Would somebody from the Leviticus reader’s group like to take a guess at how many rules are mentioned just in this one chapter? (There are 34 very different and extremely varied rules including the rules for breeding animals, instructions about not cutting the hair on the side of men’s heads and no tattoos, rules not found in either of the lists from Exodus or Deuteronomy.)               Who can tell us how Jesus interpreted the Ten (or the Twelve) Commandments? Jesus said that there were only two commandments and the whole Old Testament rested squarely on these two commandments. “You shall love God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” For Jesus, “This was the first and greatest commandment.” Now, which text was Jesus sighting when he made this declaration?  Exodus, Deuteronomy or Leviticus?  For Jesus, this is the first and greatest commandment. But what is its source?  (Deuteronomy 6:5) And the second was like it for Jesus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Now where did Jesus find that commandment?  (Leviticus 19:18) This is a classic quid-pro-quo:  We cannot do for others what we cannot do for ourselves, so if we don’t like and take good care of ourselves we cannot possibly take care of others, but we also cannot take better care of ourselves then we are willing to take of others.  How radical and different do you think that sounded to those following Jesus?                                                                                  When God handed Moses the Ten Commandments all equally displayed on two tablets, Moses was really clueless about the impact that they would have on him, on the wandering Israelites, on their oppressors or on the rest of the world.  The fact that the Ten Commandments have endured seems to me to speak volumes both about their validity and their value to us.  God was in essence saying to us:  Take these two tablets and then call me in the morning.                                                                                                        The tablets that God gave to Moses and lots of consistent, daily prayer can indeed be used to cure the ills of the world; we just have to learn how to be faithful to them.  On this World Communion Sunday 2014, the world is a mess.  There is fighting everywhere and gun violence surrounds us.  3400 years later we still struggle with knowing what is right and acting on it.  Perhaps for just a moment as we participate in the Lord’s Supper with faithful people around the world we can be at peace both within ourselves and with others.  May that be our hope and our prayer.  Amen.

Prayer

We are good at rules: making them and then breaking them. Paul reminded us that, when we gain Christ Jesus as our Savior, we receive exactly what we need – forgiveness, grace, hope. Help us to be more faithful to God, that we might know God’s healing love for us! In God’s good grace we pray. Amen.

 

http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/old_test_series_moses.htm

 

Sermon: September 28, 2014

Sermon                                                                                           September 28, 2014

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                   16th Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture:  Matthew 21: 28-32

28 “Tell me what you think of this story: A man had two sons. He went up to the first and said, ‘Son, go out for the day and work in the vineyard.’

29 “The son answered, ‘I don’t want to.’ Later on he thought better of it and went.

30 “The father gave the same command to the second son. He answered, ‘Sure, glad to.’ But he never went.

31-32 “Which of the two sons did what the father asked?”

They said, “The first.”

Jesus said, “Yes, and I tell you that crooks and whores are going to precede you into God’s kingdom. John the Baptizer came to you showing you the right road. You priests turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change and believe him.

 

Prayer                                                                                                                                 Speak to us, great God, through these scriptures. Remind us again of    your everlasting power. May we know your story and our place within      it. May we remember your mighty works and deeds, that we might   know that you are the God of all ages. May we claim your promise and   share your love. We are listening, God; speak to us today. Amen.

Our Experience

How many of us have made promises we didn’t keep?  Our intentions were good.  It made sense at the time and then something happened, things changed (our mind, the context, the situation) and we didn’t do what we had intended to do.

        What was the last promise you made to someone? ”Yes, honey, I’ll take out the trash after dinner.” Or “I promise we’ll give you a promotion in six months.”  Or “I’ll be there. I promise.” Or the promises we make to ourselves: I will start that diet next week.  And years of unmet New Year’s resolutions certainly spring to mind!
Most people make commitments to others all the time. The question is how often do we keep our promises? Is it really possible to follow through on every single commitment we make in life? How many pledges do we break and when faced with failure or at least falling short of our own expectations, how well do we handle it?
Just so we are clear, a promise, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is: “a declaration that one will do or refrain from doing something specified; or a legally binding declaration that gives the person to whom it is made a right to expect or to claim the performance or forbearance of a specified act.”  This second definition sounds like an Old Testament covenant between God and a well-intentioned Israelite to me.
Unfortunately when we don’t keep a promise to someone, it communicates to that person that we don’t value him or her. We have chosen to put something else ahead of our commitment to them. Even when we break small promises, others learn that they cannot count on us. Tiny fissures develop in relationships marked by broken promises.
We are not only communicating all of this to others, we are telling ourselves that we don’t value our own word. We think it is okay to let someone down, to say something we don’t mean, or to fail to follow through on something we said we would do. Not keeping a promise is the same as disrespecting ourselves. Ultimately it can harm our self-image, our self-esteem, and the quality of our life.
Our Experience Expanded                                                                   Now, some of us have the ability to make more commitments than we can keep.  I wrote this sermon last week while pondering a request from the Stated Clerk of our Synod to serve as the moderator of an Administrative Commission for one of our Korean churches.  This is a lot of work and it is a volunteer kind of thing so I found myself in serious prayer and discernment mode for almost 24 hours before deciding.                                                    I kept asking myself, why me? What do I bring to this request? These cross –cultural experiences with Korean Presbyterians have a steep learning curve for me! I always have to be very careful because God has imbued me with an abundance of altruism and good intentions. I have a birthday card from a dear friend pinned to the bulletin board in my office that states:  “I feel certain that given a cape and a nice tiara, I could save the world.”                       And, of course, haven’t we all taken on something for what we think we might receive. And are we or are we not above saying “yes” in the hope that someone will like us just a bit more.  Has anyone here ever told someone what you believed they wanted to hear so that they’d be happy?             Above all else I do believe that it is always important that we be honest with ourselves about why we are committing to something. I have even upon occasion asked myself, “What am I getting out this?” Just responding to that question can clue us in as to whether or not we should make the promise or take on the additional responsibility in the first place.                I am not always the best judge of this, particularly if I really want to do something, but I do ask myself, “Am I being realistic?” My life moves some days at the speed of light and I often have to pick and choose how I spend my time. Dayja has just moved back home and although she perceives herself to be totally independent, that isn’t necessarily my experience of living with her.  I do have a schedule to consider.  Ultimately it always seems to boil down to, “Is this a promise I can keep?”  Certainly it is always better to under-commit and over-deliver than over-promise and fall short.

And there is always the question:  What would Jesus do?  As cliché as it sounds, it is a spot on question.  What would Jesus do?

Our Tradition

Just before our parable passage this morning Jesus had entered Jerusalem and turned the tables in the temple of the moneychangers. The chief priests don’t like Jesus and constantly question his authority. Jesus flips this question of authority back onto the priests by asking a rhetorical question about the authority of his cousin John to baptize. It seems that John the Baptist was much loved by people and he was seen as a martyr at the hands of Herod’s rule. Now, the priests were far more concerned about their public image than they were about being consistent – a problem not unfamiliar to fundamentalist folks of any faith even to this day! Not wanting to make the crowds angry with them over not believing in John, they couldn’t answer the question Jesus had asked of them, and so Jesus refused to answer their question.                                                                   So, what does Jesus do?  He tells a parable!  Imagine! This is the parable of the two sons: We have a child whose change of mind results in following a parent’s request for help on the farm with faithfulness, while the other child who claims he wants to follow the instructions of his parents  doesn’t.

Jesus, whom we like to think likes everyone, appears not to like the priests any more than they like him. It is clear to most students of scripture that the hypocrisy of the priests is their ruin. These are the good guys, the keepers of the faith and the holders of tradition; but were they the good guys? It seems that Jesus had a very low tolerance for religious hypocrisy.  Jesus’ heart went out to the poor, the widows, the orphaned, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, people who had been left out on the margins of society. The priests were supposed to be serving God by serving the poor and oppressed, but they really served only themselves.

Re-mything Our Tradition                                                                                                                                    The parable of the two sons, is a metaphorical tale with a moral. The priests that Jesus is in dialogue with are put in the place of providing an answer that undermines their own authority and implicitly recognizes the establishment of a new one. Jesus has trapped the Good Guys.  If they answer his riddle, his questions, one way then x will happen, if they answer another way then y will happen.  Neither answer is to their liking.  The two groups are not so much representative of the “haves” and “have not’s” as they are of the fact that the chief priest and elders have lost touch with both God and the people while those whom they have identified as outsiders are the very ones who are speaking and living the truth. 1
What has this to do with us? We are in a time when within our churches and across much of the Christian world we are being challenged with the question of authority: ours and that of the church. We see “holy wars” fought diabolically because of someone’s interpretation of the Koran. There are still Christian churches that will not ordain woman based on their understanding of scripture and slavery was the order of the day for centuries in this country based primarily on a half dozen scripture passages from the Bible.                                                                                                  As people of faith somewhere, sometime we made a promise.  We said, “God, I promise to follow you, to serve you, to share your love your grace and you word with the world.”  We became part of a community of faith to help facilitate our promise where we could best hear of, be embraced by, be liberated with, and be responsible to the God who created, redeemed and sanctified us.
Shane Hipps in his excellent book, Selling Water by the River, has a wonderful quote that captures some of what is going on in our passage from Matthew: “Some, in an effort to protect and preserve the gospel message, have become like the guards in a museum, fueled by fear that its treasures could be damaged or stolen if they are not vigilant in their watch. They have mistaken the good news for an ancient artifact that needs to be protected. But that is not its nature. This dominion is a lot more like a tree. God is looking for gardeners, not guards. A guard is trained in a defensive stance of fear and suspicion. A gardener is motivated by love and creativity” (Selling Water by the River).
Perhaps this passage is challenging us to consider the ways we act as the second son. After all these years we are still the ones who are confronted daily by fresh and sometimes strange voices who are calling for a kind of faithfulness that seems foreign to us. All around us we, inheritors of a rich history, can hear the voice of Jesus in a strange cadence that perks up our ears while at the same time causes us discomfort. We desire a faithful response to God’s call but wind up as guards in a museum protecting a treasure.
There is also the possibility that we, as followers in the way of Jesus and as members of the church, may wind up like the first son; resisting the voice of God, fearing change and refusing to follow, but eventually working as master gardeners in an ever-growing garden.
Are we in need of fresh eyes and changed hearts in order to be faithful to the God revealed to us in Jesus? Should it be a constant challenge for us to follow a person who regularly confronted calcified authorities in order to bring about new life? Given the age of Christianity and its identification with so much of society in the western world, are we now in the position of the chief priests and elders? Have we become guards of an ancient treasure or are we gardeners growing both heirloom plants and sturdy hybrids, and adapting as the garden grows? 2

What are we?  We are people who have promised to love and serve God.  Promises are important! They speak to who we are, they express our intentions, our good intentions, and the good assurances that come from our hearts, making us the good guys. It is up to us to make good promises and it is up to us to make our promises good. May it be so!  Amen.

Prayer

Great God, help us to go bravely and boldly into this world of confusion and pain, bringing your healing words of love and forgiveness. Help us to keep the promises we make and to be mindful of the power of mercy and grace in our lives because of your amazing love of us.  Amen.

                1 http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/september-28-2014.html                                                                 2 http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/september-28-2014.html

Sermon: September 7, 2014

 

Sermon:  “Where two or three________.”                      September 7, 2014

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                13th Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture:  Matthew 18:15-20 MSG

15-17 “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell her—work it out between the two of you. If she listens, you’ve made a friend. If she won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If she still won’t listen, tell the church. If she won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront her with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.

18-20 “Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, our Creator in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.”

 

Prayer

Creator of all worlds, we lift up our souls to you. All the earth is yours; all who dwell here are your children. We seek once more to experience your truth, to receive your blessing, to ascend above the limitations we have known. You are strong and mighty beyond our imagining. We aspire to become more than we have believed ourselves to be, individually and together. Amen.

Our Experience

I begin with a statement that will shock and amaze some of you: The church is full of troublesome people.  I once offered to teach a seminar for our presbytery on “Dealing with Difficult People.”  My work with the Mary Magdalene Project had convinced me that seminary did not prepare us for this particular fact of church life.  David Meekhof who was our General Presbyter at the time looked at me rather startled and then said something to the effect that it would be futile because no pastor would ever be willing to concede that some of his or her parishioners were troublemakers.  In other words I was wading into dangerous territory and the workshop never happened.

Speaking of dangerous words, Ann Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, talks about drive-by shootings of the mouth, words by which, in the course of an ordinary day, we take one another down.  Friends, strangers, family members, we are all survivors of these, and we are, when we least expect it, shooters. 1

Relating, reacting, refuting, reporting, rehearsing, redefining:  these are the uses of words; and these are the spiritual exercises we daily practice. Jesus trusts us to be honest and tender in the words we use perhaps for no other reason than we may at some point have to eat them.               Is it any wonder that Jesus admonishes us, saying it is not what we put into our mouths that pollutes us, but what comes out of our mouths, for he says, what comes out of the mouth comes out of the heart, and reveals to all the condition of the heart?  The very idea of this should make us stop and ponder every word we speak.

Our Experience Expanded

I want you to complete the following sentence:  Where two or three are gathered. . . . (a) Jesus will be in the midst of them, (b) there will be a church, (3) there will be conflict, (d) all of the above.                                     It seems that Jesus did not have high expectations of us:  Where two or three are gathered. . .  there he will be, for sure!  Where two or three are gathered. . .  there will be a church!  Where two or three are gathered. . . there will be conflict.  As I survey the world we live in I have to surmise that Jesus wasn’t too far off the mark. Just last week there was an article in the LA Times about a Methodist pastor now serving here in Southern California who last year was defrocked for officiating at the marriage of his gay son. This century began with a holy war and we have watched in horror as an angry Brit who has taken on the cause of the infidels we have so easily learned to loath beheaded two American journalists over the past two weeks.  During our Pastoral Prayers we will be praying for the people of Queragosh in Northern Iraq.  This oldest Christian sect has been the target of extermination by ISIS.  And rather than coming together for a common good our politicians can only come up with more rancor and malice, heaping coals of contempt on our President as if there was one simple answer or response to the myriad crisis in the world that would make it all better. . . not that the naysayers have workable solutions to any of these situations, either. Have you noticed? No one is saying to us that everything is going to be alright.

Our Traditions

According to Matthew Jesus gave pretty specific instructions about resolving arguments.  You sit down and talk about it.  And if there is no listening, no hearing, no change of heart or behavior you bring in someone else to sit down with you. And if that doesn’t work, you go back to the beginning and start the conversation all over again.                                    Agreed, this is not as easy as it sounds.  Ask the Market Basket cousins, Arthur T. and Arthur S.   Endless boardroom meetings seem only to make it worse and their boycotting employees certainly know whom they like the best. They have brought this company to its knees. Ask Congress.  Ask any couple getting a divorce if they tried talking, and many will say talking was what ended the marriage in the first place. Now, there can be no talking without listening. As for listening, well, it depends on how our hearts hear the other person:  as an enemy, as a wrong-doer, as someone we need to instruct, as a betrayer . . . or as a friend.                                               And we can take this to the next level.  How does a parent forgive the drunk driver who kills their daughter?  Frederick Buechner says of forgiveness,

To accept forgiveness means to admit that you’ve done something      wrong that needs to be forgiven . . . When somebody you’ve wronged        forgives you, you’re spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience. . .When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you’re spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded    pride. For both parties forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other’s presence. 2

How long we might ask, O God, before this forgiveness will bring peace to the hearts of the rejected and the forbidding?  How long before this forgiveness will arrive in the hearts of the pious in their prayers?  How long before this forgiveness will allow love to enter the hearts of Christians who are appalled by so many bedrooms, never their own?  How long before this forgiveness will arrive to allay the fears that drive Americans to purchase so many guns?  How long before we will be at peace inside our white and black and brown and yellow skins, and be glad in each other’s presence?  How long before the promise of every Lord’s Supper will become a lived reality?

Re-mything Our Traditions

On my birthday I sometimes splurge and buy a copy of the New York Times, find a quiet corner, get a cup of coffee and devour the paper from beginning to end.  This year was no exception.  It seems that Jo Nesbo had written an Op Ed piece earlier in the week which I had missed, but I did not miss the import of this response:

To the Editor:

In “Revenge, My Lovely” (Sunday Review, May 4), Jo Nesbo argues that insistence on revenge helps move civilization along. He implies but does not convince that forgiveness does the same thing.

I keep learning about forgiveness from a group of lifers at the huge Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. They have learned that while terrible crimes cannot be forgotten, they can in some mystical way be forgiven. That forgiveness strengthens them to move toward productive lives inside the prison.

Many help younger inmates who will be released learn a marketable trade. Recently, I asked a small group of the lifers how I should respond to an acquaintance who believes that “we should lock ’em all up and throw away the key.”

“He was talking about you,” I said, expecting the men to join me in my anger. But to a man, they said I should forgive my acquaintance:

“We’ve done much worse, and God’s forgiven us.”

“When he knows that he’s forgiven, he’ll want the best for us, too.”

These men were given life sentences partly to satisfy society’s need for revenge. But it is their acceptance of forgiveness and their desire to pass it on that gives them — and us —hope; a civilizing kind of hope.

(Rev.) WILLIAM H. BARNWELL
New Orleans, May 5, 2014 3

We all know of churches that have been totally undone by backbiting and whisper campaigns. It can be devastating and not just to attendance and finances, but it’s devastating to the Christian witness emanating from a body of Christ. When that happens, the church ceases to be a place of forgiveness, grace, mercy and above all else safety. One might say that it ceases to be a church in any discernible fashion.                                                St. Paul’s understands that forgiveness is meant to be at the core of who we are, and we know that if we can’t do it between ourselves in the church, how can we ever be agents of reconciliation in the world? Right here, Jesus gives a clear blue-print for how our church can be a holy place in an unholy world where holy relationships can flourish. And, it’s something that we must keep practicing like it is in our DNA and we can’t imagine living any other way. For Jesus, there isn’t another way. Amen.

Prayer

God of constant mercy, who sent your son to save us: remind us of your goodness, increase your grace within us, that our thankfulness may grow, through Jesus Christ the one who forgives and saves.  Amen.

 

1 http://biteintheapple.com/

2 http://biteintheapple.com/

3 New York Times, May 5, 2014 Letters to the Editor

 

Sermon: August 24, 2014

Sermon                                                                                                       August 24, 2014

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture: Roman 12: 1-8

1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Prayer

God of love, open our hearts to each other. Give us the courage to resist oppression. Help us protect the world from evil. Give us the wisdom to see ourselves as we truly are. Give us the vision to see you and hear your voice.
Give us the courage to answer your call. Grant us the endurance to use our gifts for the purpose of your realm. Work your transforming love within us
that we may know your will and serve you with joy. Amen.

Our Experience

  • On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, an African American man was seen on a cell phone video being choked to death by New York City police with what appeared to have been excessive force, ostensibly for selling single cigarettes.

 

  • On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, a 17-year-old African American boy in Ferguson, Missouri, was shot in the back while holding his hands in the air indicating that he was unarmed. Both killings were perpetrated by white police officers.
  • In November 2012, Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old African American resident of Jacksonville, Florida, was killed by Michael David Dunn, a 45-year-old white man, for playing his music too loudly while sitting in a car. Dunn was convicted of attempted murder. He was not convicted of murder due to a hung jury. The “Stand Your Ground” defense was used in the Dunn case.

 

  • In July 2012, Chavis Carter, a 21-year-old African American who was handcuffed in the back of a police car in Jonesboro, Arkansas, is alleged to have shot himself in the head with a concealed weapon (while handcuffed). Questions remain as to the validity of police reports in Carter’s alleged suicide.

 

  • Oscar Grant was a 22-year-old African American man on a subway platform in Oakland, California. He was apprehended by police and shot dead while in custody on January 1, 2009. The white police officer was exonerated after saying he thought he had pulled his Taser.

 

  • Just two days after Michael Brown died in a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., another unarmed young African-American man was shot and killed by police here in Los Angeles. According to a statement released by the Los Angeles Police Department, 25-year-old Ezell Ford was stopped by two uniformed officers on Aug. 11. The officers attempted to speak with Mr. Ford, but police say he continued walking and made suspicious movements, including trying to conceal his hands. When the officers tried to stop him, police say, Mr. Ford “turned, grabbed one of the officers, and a struggle ensued,” during which both fell to the ground. Police say Mr. Ford tried to grab the gun from an officer’s holster, prompting the other officer to fire his weapon and the policeman on the ground to fire his backup weapon. The officers handcuffed Mr. Ford and paramedics took him to a hospital, where he later died.  According to Ezell’s mother he had a history of mental illness.

        The litany goes on and on. These high profile cases leave very little confidence in a rule of law or its capacity to examine the facts fairly and prosecute particularly white police officers for murder. So residents of Ferguson, Missouri, engage in what began as a peaceful resistance movement to demonstrate their deep anger, fear, and frustration over what they perceived to be one more police-killing of a young unarmed African American male.                                       

Our Experience Expanded

The killing of these and other African American males seems to be trapped in legal standards that justify such violence by giving persons the right to defend themselves with excessive force, even when it seems unwarranted. On July 13, 2013, a Florida jury exonerated George Zimmerman, a mixed-race man, of all charges related to the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. The George Zimmerman trial and verdict brought to the forefront the “Stand Your Ground” law which, in principle, gives a person the right to use deadly force in self-defense if he or she feels that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.[1]                                                                                 It is not enough for us as Christians to be appalled or sad while viewing what has happened the past two weeks in Ferguson, Missouri. And it cannot be thought of as a place beyond our own reality. I quote from J. Herbert Nelson’s blog on our Presbyterian Washington Office website:

        We must be clear that the issues of this shooting are deeper than       anything one trial can resolve. Yes, it is about the shattered hopes of a family that has lost a loved one, a loss which will reverberate for     generations. But it is also deeply and truly about the social sin of        prejudice, bigotry, and institutionalized racism, which is imbedded in    our social structures, our justice system, and the laws by which we   claim to offer freedom to each other. [2]

Our Traditions

Paul assures us at the end of our scripture passage from Romans this morning that “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.”  These words sound so common sense, so practical, so down to earth.  They make sense and yet we cannot seem to figure out a way to make them live or work or have being.            One of God’s greatest gifts to us is the gift of diversity!  Diversity was built into God’s original creation. We are the way we are (black, brown, white, yellow) by design.  Contrary to the first creation story we find in Genesis, God did not make just one white dude and then stop.  God filled the world with people of different cultures and races, who speak very different languages and eat different kinds of foods.  Some live in tents some live in houses.  Some ride camels and some walk.  It is a part of our DNA to be different and as Paul points out it is also part of who we are to be relational, to be part of a community, to be loved by others.  Just imagine what life would be like without those we love in it!                                   The idea of race and the concept of racism are strictly social constructs.  A surgeon removed Veronica’s gallbladder two weeks ago. He performs the exact same surgery he performed on Veronica on an Asian man or an Indian woman.  As human beings we may exhibit external differences –curly hair, slanted eyes, paler skin– but that is all cosmetic, in every other aspect we are identical.  It is our bodies, our inner selves that dictate our humanity.  What did our lesson from Paul say? For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”

Re-mything Our Traditions

I found these words in the 1998 PC(USA) policy “Facing Racism:  In Search of the Beloved Community”,

        “. . . indeed the entire Christian community, must recommit to the      struggle for racial justice. Churches must provide a moral compass for         the nation by getting involved in shaping public policies that will move       our nation towards justice, peace, and reconciliation. As we stand on        the verge of a new century, racism remains resilient and resurgent.    While the social policies and pronouncements of denominations   continue to     emphasize inclusiveness and justice, these do not translate        in the hearts and minds of Christians who participate in the electoral    and political process. Christians are passive in the face of attacks on    affirmative action and the adoption of regressive social policies at the     local, state, and national levels. There is a growing awareness that a         new understanding of racism is needed that takes into consideration    the centrality of power in the institutionalization and perpetuation of       racism. There is also an awareness that the methodologies that   brought us to where we are will not take us where we need to go in         the next century. If we are to build on past accomplishments, we must do a new analysis of racism within the current context of the nation.   This will inform the direction we must take in the next century and   provide guidance as to how we might get there.[3]

 

Sixteen years later gun violence permeates every aspect of our society. Thirty-thousand people are killed in the United States each year by guns. Young African-American men are disproportionally represented among intentional shooting victims. [4] When the shooter is a police officer, who is expected to be the symbol of safety and security in the city and to be trained to limit the use of force—our mourning and concern are deepened and demand justice.                                                                        This is a statement released last week by CLUE states:

“Those whom society gives license to wield violence must be held to    the highest standards and the closest scrutiny. Violence must be         deployed only as the absolutely last measure after all other avenues       have been exhausted. When these guidelines are abrogated, swift punishment must be meted out so that the community does not labor         long under the impression that there are “differing weights” and         “differing measures,” nor be given to think that African American lives      are worth less than others.”  [5]

It is difficult for some of us to view police officers as perpetrators of gun violence. Many of our historic views of police are shaped by “Officer Friendly” [6] and/or the sacrificial efforts of first-responders during the 911 attacks on the World Trade Center. However, let us not forget that police are human beings who face the same fears, uncertainties, struggles, pains, prejudices, and frailties as every other human being. Their jobs are demanding and accompanying pressures from home and other parts of their lives may not always be neatly compartmentalized. They leave for work every new shift with no guarantee that a call they take that day might not find them confronting an angry young man with an assault weapon like the two officers this past week in San Bernardino.

The fact remains that each time a law enforcement officer or anyone else for that matter fires a gun a potential act of gun violence occurs. Press reports indicated that Michael Brown was unarmed and walking away from the officer with his hands raised in the air when he was killed. If these news reports are correct the police officer murdered a 17-year-old boy. And if the news reports about the handing down of used military equipment to local police departments doesn’t make our blood run cold, I’m not sure what would.

St. Paul’s is a body of believers, a community of Christ. We are also a part of a greater community that is riddled with violence; a metro urban complex of people and problems brought about by poverty, broken families, failed education, an out of order mental health system and generations of neglect, hopelessness and despair. J. Herbert Nelson states that “We in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) must become proactive in calling people together to address the violence that is evidenced in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, (and I would add southern California) each time a person is killed in whatever community. The epidemic of deaths due to gun violence in our country – 30,000 per year – is representative of a war zone every day. Community cannot be built with the threats of extreme force and military-grade weapons. Community is established through respectful dialogue, intentional relationship building, and interpersonal engagement. We must demilitarize our local police forces.” [7] 

So what do we at St. Paul’s do about this?  (1)  We stop denying that this is not our problem.  Yes, I totally understand that I am preaching to a primarily African American congregation, but not only do you live with the vulnerability of being black in an often volatile world, but every one of us  harbors attitudes of racism, prejudice and contempt towards others — Hispanics, Asians, the homeless, the mentally ill.  We must work deliberately to let those prejudices go!                                                                            (2) We must educate and train ourselves to understand that maybe there are other ways to see the world.  We do not have to resign ourselves to the belief that we are powerless even though we may often feel totally overwhelmed by the world around us or that we are safe and this does not affect us. We must also forgo the embrace of stereotypes.

(3) And then we set a goal for ourselves of not seeing race or color.  Yes, we can certainly recognize the differences in others, but we must no longer give it the power to destroy or dictate bad or violent decisions.  One way to do this is to put ourselves in others shoes.  What does Baldwin Village look like to Dayja’s friend Marilyn who has lived there all her life?  What does Dayja’s life in Santa Monica look like to Marilyn and vice versa?  What does putting on a Kevlar vest to start your work day as a police officer feel like?   What kind of psychological impact, if any, does it carry with it?  What must it feel like to grow up in the US as an African American male?                  And (4) we give our gifts, we share what we have and what we are with others. Paul reminds us that we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.  How much do we have to reciprocate to make up for or just break even on that kind of generosity?  If our gift is prophecy, it is in proportion to our faith. That means BIG faith, BIG prophecy and conversely little faith, small prophecy.  If our gift isministry, then it is through ministering that we are fulfilled and the love of God reaches others. It is through our ministry that the world becomes a better place, or not. . . Ahhh, teaching!  How many teachers do we have in this congregation?  And trust me, even if you have retired from the profession, the gift is still with you. And we have a room full of exhorters! In exhortation, in sharing our opinions, our concerns, our doubts, our fears, our hopes our faith and our dreams, we realize God’s plan for our lives.  And if your gift is that of the generosity, and you know who you are, know that it is appreciated. Paul also includes the gift of leadership, but he adds a vital characteristic of leadership: diligence. To that I would add conscientiousness and carefulness – not in hedging our bets which I preached about a couple of weeks ago, but in kindness and tenderness. Paul wraps it all up with the gift of compassion exhibited in, of all things, cheerfulness. What a difference a laugh or a smile can make!  How, as the body of Christ, the hands and feet of God, can we make our world a better, safer place?  Only by sharing our gifts.

Prayer

I have within the past couple of years discovered the novelist and poet Wendell Berry.  I find reading his poems and essays can help me make sense out of the craziness that sometimes bombards my life.  I am going to share with you his poem The Peace of Wild Things, as I close my message this morning:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and I am free. [8]

May it be so for all of us!  Amen.

_______________

[1] “In the United States, stand-your-ground law removes a duty to retreat from the elements self-defense. The concept sometimes exists in statutory law and sometimes through common law precedents. “Stand Your Ground” laws effectively extend the Castle Doctrine to any place someone has a right to be. Forty-six states in the United States have adopted the castle doctrine, stating that a person has no duty to retreat when their home is attacked. Twenty-two states go a step further, removing the duty of retreat from other locations. “Stand Your Ground”, “Line in the Sand” or “No Duty to Retreat” laws thus state that a person has no duty or other requirement to abandon a place in which he has a right to be, or to give up ground to an assailant. Under such laws, there is no duty to retreat from anywhere the defender may legally be. Other restrictions may still exist; such as when in public, a person must be carrying firearms in a legal manner, whether concealed or openly.” Definition cited from the Wikipedia article, “Stand-your-ground law,” accessed on Aug. 20, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stand-your-ground_law.

 

[2] http://officeofpublicwitness.blogspot.com/

[3] See Facing Racism: A Vision of the Beloved Community, approved by the 211th General Assembly (1999) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), developed by the Initiative Team on Racism and Racial Violence. Available for download at:http://www.pcusa.org/resource/facing-racism-vision-beloved-community/

[4] See e.g. Moore DC, Yoneda ZT, Powell M, Howard DL, Jahangir AA, Archer KR, Ehrenfeld JM, Obremskey WT, Sethi MK. Gunshot victims at a major level I trauma center: a study of 343,866 emergency department visits. The Journal of emergency medicine. 2013 Mar 3;44(3). 585-91.

[5] http://www.cluela.org/

[6] “Officer Friendly is a model program to acquaint children and young adults with law enforcement officials as a part of a community relations campaign. The program was especially popular in the United States from the 1960s to the 1980s, but it continues in some police departments.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Officer_Friendly

 

[7]  http://officeofpublicwitness.blogspot.com/

[8] by Wendell Berry

 

Sermon: August 3, 2014

Sermon:  Hedging Our Bets                                                  August 3, 2014

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                   Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture:  Matthew 14:13-21 The Message (MSG)

Supper for Five Thousand

13-14 When Jesus got the news, he slipped away by boat to an out-of-the-way place to be by himself. But unsuccessfully—someone saw him and the word got around. Soon a lot of people from the nearby villages walked around the lake to where he was. When he saw them coming, he was overcome with pity and healed their sick.

15 Toward evening the disciples approached him. “We’re out in the country and it’s getting late. Dismiss the people so they can go to the villages and get some supper.”

16 But Jesus said, “There is no need to dismiss them. You give them supper.”

17 “All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish,” they said.

18-21 Jesus said, “Bring them here.” Then he had the people sit on the grass. He took the five loaves and two fish, lifted his face to heaven in prayer, blessed, broke, and gave the bread to the disciples. The disciples then gave the food to the congregation. They all ate their fill. They gathered twelve baskets of leftovers. About five thousand were fed.

Prayer

Gracious God, we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from your mouth. Make us hungry for this heavenly food, that it may nourish us today in the ways of eternal life; through Jesus Christ, the bread of heaven. Amen.

Our Experience

Last week on NPR they did an interview with Rachel Howzell Hall, the

black writer and author of a series of crime novels, the latest of which is titled “Land of Shadows” featuring police detective Lou Norton.  Rachel was born and raised across the street from St. Paul’s in “The Jungle”.  Ten years ago she was diagnosed with a very rare form of breast cancer and she was pregnant.  Today she is alive and well and the mother of a very vibrant 10 year old daughter.  Her attitude about life changed as she came to grips with being a cancer survivor, the author of five best selling books and a mother.  In the course of the radio interview she stated that she no longer “hedges her bets.”         It’s all about living life to its fullest for her.                                   I had already started to think about my sermon for this week when I heard the interview with Rachel and this made me consider differently Jesus’ directives to his disciples; to think about this story from Matthew’s Gospel in a different way. I started to wonder about the motives of Jesus.  I wondered if he was just messing with his disciples, trying to trick them or catch them off guard?                                                                                               Then by extension is he trying to disrupt our sense of tidiness, decency and order; our penchant for cause and effect. The disciples were indeed thinking linearly. Their approach was practical. “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” The disciples were hedging their bets. The place was deserted. There is no food for miles around.  It was late. It was time to go home. They were done here. What more do you want? Come on now, Jesus. These people need to fend for themselves.       You could probably mouth the words with me!                                                  Before us this morning is a major lesson in discipleship, Discipleship 101, to be exact. This is what I love about Matthew’s gospel. Discipleship is from the get-go. Jesus expected his follows back then and us today to give our very best, all the time, even when faced with impossible situations and yes, discipleship is rarely tidy or convenient. What we will be asked to live out, to do for others and when may just be a miracle itself. 1   What was that expression stapled to our bulletins a couple of weeks ago?  Yes, if. . .  not no because!

Our Experience Expanded

There is no just getting by with Jesus. Jesus uses the disciples, even when they would rather be looking out for their own needs, to tend the needs of these thousands of men, women, and children. Using words and actions foreshadowing the Last Supper, Matthew depicts what happens when you move from a worldview of scarcity – “we have nothing here but five loaves and fishes” – to one of abundance – “thank you, God, for these five loaves and two fish.” Whatever the initial skepticism, or doubt, or hedging of bets, or self-preoccupation, the disciples were caught up in Jesus’ words of abundance and gratitude and they begin to distribute to these thousands of people what they have and in so doing they participate in the wonder and joy that “all ate and were filled.” God used even these reluctant disciples to care for the poor and hungry that God loves so much.                                 And that miracle continues. When a college-grad shuns a high-paying job in order to teach disadvantaged kids, God’s miracles continue. When a parent puts dreams of an academic career to the side to care for a special-needs child, God is working that same kind of miracle. When one student stands up against bullies in defense of another student, the God of compassion is again miraculously revealed. When a fledgling community of faith makes a promise that no one that comes to its doors will be turned away hungry, God is still at work performing miracles through disciples eager, reluctant, and everything in between; miracles that easily rival those reported in today’s reading from Matthew.                                 Because the real wonder of this story is that it continues: God still cares deeply and passionately for those who are most vulnerable – the poor, the immigrant, the hungry – and God continues to rely on us to care for them. What does it say in our very own mission statement?  “We are the hands and feet of God.  We are the only Jesus most folks will ever meet.”  Just think about that.  I want each of you during this coming week to take notice of God working through you or another family member or a friend or a co-worker or a total stranger to care for the vulnerable. Then I want you to bring back those miracles to this worship service next Sunday and during the Call to Discipleship I want two or three of you to stand up and share what you saw or felt or experienced this week. Are a couple of you willing to do that?                                                                                                                 Following my message this morning we are going to share communion together and I probably don’t need to point out the similarity between the scenes from our scripture lesson this morning and Jesus sending his disciples off to feed thousands. We have been fed by God’s heavenly food and in response it is expected that we will go and do likewise, sharing God’s love with all we meet and especially with those in deepest need.

Our Traditions

Our passage from Matthew is truly remarkable.  This particular story is found in all four of the Gospels and it occurs twice in Matthew and in Mark.  No other story in scripture gets this kind of play.  Two of the Gospels have birth narratives, only one has the story of Lazarus being raised from the grave, only one has the story of the Prodigal Son, but this story – the feeding of five thousand is found in all four gospels and repeated in two of them.  How important do you think that makes it?                                            Perhaps it would help to know that just prior to this story in Matthew John the Baptizer was executed as a terrorist by the authorities because they thought he was inciting people to riot against the empire.  Remember that John and Jesus were cousins and their mother’s had been pregnant at the same time so they were close.  After Jesus hears about John he goes off in a boat trying to “get to a lonely place to be by himself.”  He no doubt wants to pray, to grieve. Matthew leads us to believe that the hills were crawling with people who had already heard stories about Jesus and his healing skills and his storytelling and so they came after him with their sick and injured family members and friends.  According to some scholars, the numbers could have been as high as fifteen to twenty thousand.  Note they would not have counted the women and children in those days so that could have conceivably doubled or tripled the number of people seeking Jesus. And we are told that Jesus, as much as he needed to get away and be by himself for a while had compassion on these people and healed them. 2

Re-mything our Traditions

It is the end of the day and everyone is hungry. The disciples had only packed a basic peasant’s picnic of a few loaves and fishes – notice there is no young boy with food in this telling of the story.  So what are they to do about all the others? The disciples give Jesus a fairly standard response, at least to our way of thinking.  They said, send the people into the surrounding towns and let them buy their own food. Now, if we stop to think about it that would have been impossible.  First of all, these people were poor and sick. It probably took everything they had to get to Jesus and that is why they were following Jesus.  Homelessness and extreme poverty were at crises levels in Jesus’ day.  Under Roman rule the transfer of wealth out of impoverished areas into wealthier ones had decimated the rural areas where Jesus did most of his ministry.  For these destitute people this wandering prophet was a rare, but welcome hope. As politically charged and ineffective as our social structures are today, they had nothing even close to our welfare, food stamps or Affordable Care Act at the time of Jesus.                   Another important point made by Stan Duncan in his weekly blog is that even if they all immediately left and rushed to the surrounding towns to buy something (assuming, of course, they had money to make purchases) the towns would have been overwhelmed and flooded, and incapable of servicing them. 3                                                                                             Have you ever noticed how it seems that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?  Apparently the disciples weren’t aware of this and when Jesus responded to their suggestion that all these hungry folks head for the nearest 7/11, they must have been flummoxed by the response of Jesus telling them that the hungry people didn’t have to go away.  In what appears to be a very matter-of-fact instruction Jesustells the disciples (and us) to just feed them.  They complained a bit about that.  They reminded Jesus that they only had five loves and two fishes.                                         Let me tell you, it is ever so challenging to preach this story knowing that here in the US we have an epidemic of obesity.  A couple of years ago when Michelle Obama started her “Healthy Eating” program, several school systems did indeed start instituting healthier foods in their meal programs, but parents in some states exploded in anger.  They were quoted as saying that this is a free country and if our kids want to gorge themselves on sugar and fat they should have the right to do so.  I hope that we have all been mortified by the reception extended to the children streaming into the US from Central America.  I find myself asking, “How bad must it be in a parent’s world for them to place their child into the care of a total stranger and give that stranger hard-earned money to deliver that child to yet other strangers in a foreign land in hopes of realizing a better and safer life?” And how can we, the most prosperous country in the world, say to these children, there isn’t enough to go around and you have to go straight back to whatever hell it was you were trying to escape.                                              The first response of the Biblical disciples was to worry about not having enough, about having too little to offer.  There are thousands of people out there, and our resources are so miniscule. Jesus’ response was quite simple, “share what you have and let’s see what happens.” The disciples, like those folks in Murrieta and other places around the country are crying scarcity:  we don’t have enough to go around.                                      This is a very brief exchange between Jesus and his followers.  I would have thought that there might have been greater protestation:  We don’t have enough to go around.  We can’t feed all of these people with our meager picnic.  We hear these same arguments today.  We are less and less willing to care for our own poor people. We claim we can’t afford to give hungry people Food Stamps (SNAP) or WIC, or we begrudgingly offer free school lunch programs in low income neighborhoods.  Jesus, on the other hand, had a theology of abundance:  share what you have because God provides everything.                                                                                      It is true we can’t feed everyone.  And yes, there will always be suffering.  We can’t make it go away.  We can’t end it for everyone, everywhere forever.  Jesus certainly did not feed all the people in the world, nor did he try. But that is no reason to not do anything and let those we can help suffer or even die.                                                                             There is a story that I love.  It is about a guy out on the beach after a really big storm and he is walking along the beach throwing starfish after starfish back into the ocean. A friend comes up to him and points out the obvious fact that there is no way this man can save all these starfish, he can’t even make a big difference. Then he asks what this man possibly hopes to accomplish. The man picked up a starfish and agreed with his friend that what he had said is true, but then he added, “It makes a big difference to this one,” and he threw another starfish back into the water.           Which of the two aspects of our story from Matthew is the greater miracle?  Feeding people with bread and fish or turning around the hearts of others and teaching them how to share?  Which is the greater miracle for us?  Is it for Jesus to do all the work for us, or for Jesus to change our hearts and enable us to do for him?                                                                 We have been blessed with this gorgeous new sanctuary.  God has been very good to us.  Our partnership with the fine folks at Bethesda Presbyterian Church was divinely orchestrated and inspired.  Now, what do you think Jesus is saying to us?  I can assure you that we do not need to hedge our bets. We have the ability to reach out and change this community. We have enough people to spread the word about God’s love and the grace of Jesus, it really only takes one. Sure, we could always use more, but if we have a theology of abundance, our approach is to say “yes, if. . . not no because”.  We believe that we can make a difference and that we will not only see miracles, but we will be miracles. May it be so! Amen.

Prayer

Most wonderful God, in you there are always more blessings than we can imagine. Please give to us that generous spirit that places all that we have at your disposal. Then by the love of Christ, let it be multiplied in ways we cannot measure or control. For the welfare of humanity and the glory of your name we pray through Jesus our brother. Amen!

 

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1 http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3293

2 http://homebynow.blogspot.com/2014/07/enough.html

 

3 http://homebynow.blogspot.com/2014/07/enough.html