Monthly Archives: August 2014

Who is he and who are we?

But who do you say that I am?

You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

This is the classic revelation of Jesus’ identity by Peter, the revelation that happens approximately midway through each of the gospel stories told by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Jesus’ identity has implications for our identity. Jesus is about starting a movement to restore the world, and every person in it, to the glory God intends for us. As followers, we get to take on that mission, and to proclaim God’s mission of reconciliation and healing. Jesus’ invitation to follow is not like asking someone to follow us on Twitter or Instagram. For some of us everyday humans, the temptation to want followers simply for the sake of having followers is very great. I know.

Jesus gets excited about Peter’s identifying him as the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed one, to bring about the transformation of the world. Jesus gets excited about this because it means that Peter and the others will carry on the saving, reconciling movement he came to proclaim. Peter recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus confers upon him enormous authority. We have such authority conferred upon us by our baptism, and and simply by having a share in a community like this.

I came across a parable recently that illustrates how easily our identity and authority as followers of Jesus can get a little skewed. This is an oldie but goodie, and some of you may have heard it before. It was written during what some still consider to be the “glory days” of the Episcopal Church in the 1950.

lifesaverOn a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur, there was once a crude little life¬saving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for those who were lost. Some of those who were saved and various others in the surrounding area wanted to become associated with the station and gave of their time, money, and effort to support its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew. 

Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building.

Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on life-saving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in the club’s decorations, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club’s initiations were held. About this time a large ship wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwrecks could be cleaned up before coming inside.

At the next meeting, there was a split among the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon life¬saving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a life¬saving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station. So they did. 

As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that seacoast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown. 

Surely we would never say this parable reminds us of St. David’s, but I think we might agree that it’s an accurate designation of the evolution of the institutional church over many centuries. Do you recognize any parts of the story? I recognize the early days as being like the church in the Book of Acts. We have been reading the Book of Acts during the daily office these weeks—story after story of the church growing in amazing ways because people want to join in the church’s life-saving mission, and to give themselves to the movement Jesus founded.

I recognize myself, in how easy it is to get caught up in worries about paying for the heat or caring for linens, or choosing the right color of paint for the kitchen. These things can distract me from God’s mission. And, it is easy to confuse saving lives with saving the church.

I don’t know about you, but my life wasn’t saved because someone needed me to be part of their church so they could grow. Good thing, too, because at the time I started going to church, I had no money, no wonderful husband who loves to find his way around church kitchens, and no cute kid to liven up the Sunday school.

My life was saved by the surprising encounter with the holy that I experienced in the breaking and sharing of bread, and in the people who came to the table to share it with me. In a mysterious way, these things made my unholy life holy.

When we recognize Jesus as the Messiah, we recognize ourselves as disciples, followers committed to saving lives, helping broken people to become whole. This life-saving mission belongs to every single one of us in the same way that the electric bill and our children’s ministry and the music we sing and the bread and wine we are about to share belong to all of us. We are Peter, we are Jesus, we are life-savers.

Only drowning men can see Him

boat

Peter was a fisherman, raised on the shore, every day spent casting nets, every night repairing them; like his father, and his father’s father, hauling catch after catch. He thought he had seen all the fury the sea could summon, he thought he could weather any storm with his strong hand on the tiller.

That night the screams of the others were drowned in the pitch of the wind and the crash of the waves against the hull. The fear on their faces needed no voice. They pleaded with Peter, who stood surer on water than on land, to save them.

He had seen things that day he could not comprehend. He had seen bread and fish, barely enough to fill the bellies of the twelve, satisfy the hunger of thousands. He had seen the rabbi, who had at first sought refuge from the throngs embrace them and feed them one and all. It had been a good day, it had been a miraculous day in a string of miraculous days.

Yet here they were, in the ravages of the storm, the calm and fellowship and comfort of just a few hours before a like a distant dream.

Through the rain stinging his eyes, through the howling of the wind, he can see a figure on the sea. “We must have gone down, we must be dead”, he thinks. Then a flash lights up the sky like 1000 torches and Jesus’ unmistakable face comes into focus.

“How can it be?” Peter screams into the wind, “And how can you ask me to not be afraid? You must show me Rabbi, you show me how!”. And then Jesus beckons to Peter to join him in the storm.

Peter thinks: “Why, oh why must this always be so hard Rabbi? Why must I make this choice again and again and again. Why do you ask me to step from this boat, to ignore all the rules I have known and all the things I have been sure of and leave my boat?

My father built this boat, shaped it with his sure hands. I see you there, doing the impossible, asking me to do the impossible too”.

Peter swings his leg over the side stepping into the blackness and chaos below.

___________________

In last week’s Gospel following Jesus was, literally, a picnic. The loaves and fishes, the giant Eucharist Jesus presided over just last week is now lost in a torrent, drowned out by claps of thunder and the wind howling in our ears.

Today we are reminded that we can not sit on our blankets in the sun and wait for God to come to us, to bring us what we need. Following Jesus means stepping out into the storm, the storm that surrounds us or the storm that rises within us. Following Jesus does not mean waiting for him to calm the seas.

Sometimes to find Jesus we have to wade through a sea of doubt and uncertainty. We have to enter those places that make is anxious and uncomfortable. We have to sit with someone who is grieving. We have to revisit old wounds to find healing. We have to learn the name of the woman on the corner who asks for spare change, those are the places where Jesus lives.

Sometimes following Jesus means leaving the picnic and walking into the hurricane. Sometimes following Jesus means you must keep walking forward even though you can only catch the faintest glimpse of him through the storm. The storm can be fear. The storm can be the kind of envy we heard in the Old Testament today in the story of Jacob and his brothers. The storm can be unexpected change or anxiety of addiction or illness or failure. The storm can happen to us or originate within us. The storm is all those things that make us want to close our eyes and cover our heads and retreat from God and each other.

But today’s Gospel teaches us that we have to resist that impulse, leave behind our fear and be courageous, we must loosen our hands from the gunwales of our boat and lift our head and look out into the fury that faces us.

We must try to leave behind the boat, we must try to resist the urge to hunker down in the face of the storm because otherwise we miss Jesus, who is standing with his hand outstretched ready to help us do the impossible.

Sometimes only when we are drowning can we really find faith, can we really see Jesus. I could not get Leonard Cohen to join us today, and did not want to subject you all to my poor attempts at rendering the song “Suzanne”, so I have asked Matthew to help me out on the audio portion of our program:

“And Jesus was a sailor

When he walked upon the water

And he spent a long time watching

From his lonely wooden tower

And when he knew for certain

Only drowning men could see him

He said ‘All men will be sailors then

Until the sea shall free them’

But he himself was broken

Long before the sky would open

Forsaken, almost human

He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him

And you want to travel blind

And you think maybe you’ll trust him

For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind.”

Leonard Cohen, “Suzanne”

And although I love the comfort and peace of the picnic, sometimes the faith that is forged this chaos is deeper and richer. In “Mortify our Wolves” Christian Wiman writes of the faith that we often find at our darkest moments, he says: “It takes a real jolt to get us to change our jobs, our relationships, our daily coffee consumption, for goodness sake—or, if we are wired that way, to change our addiction to change. How much more urgency is needed, how much more primal fear, to startle the heart out of its ruts and ruins. It’s true that God comes to the prophet Elijah not in the whirlwind, and not in the earthquake, and not in the fire that follows, but in the “still, small voice” that these ravages make plain. But the very wording of that passage makes it clear that the voice, though finally more powerful than the ravages it follows, is not altogether apart from them. That voice is always there, and for everyone. For some of us, unfortunately, it takes terror and pain to make us capable of hearing it”.

God is as much part of the storm as he is part of the picnic, but the God we find in the storm is sometimes harder to see because we have to dive into the chaos to find his hand.

It is love, and deeply profound faith, that gets Simon Peter to take that first step over the side of the vessel that represents all the reality he has ever known. It is faith, and love, that allows him to see the figure in the storm for what he truly is.

And yes Simon Peter falters, the winds of his old beliefs, his old life, rattle the connection to the man across the water. But Jesus is there, extending his hand.

________________________________

The great potluck: Matthew 14:13-21

Jesus said: They need not go away: you give them something to eat.

feeding5thousandThe kingdom of heaven is also like this: On a wide, sandy beach, a crowd of people are hungry for healing and hungry for food. A famous teacher and healer is in the midst of the crowd.

In the evening his students surround him and say: Teacher, send all these people back to the city where they can get something to eat.

The teacher replies: You can feed them right here.

But we barely have enough food for ourselves! (Sounds like some vestries I’ve worked with in the past—not here—when discussing funding outreach projects.)

The teacher takes what bread they have, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it back to them. There is enough for them to share with thousands of people, and no one goes hungry. The kingdom of God is like this.

The miraculous transformation we typically focus on in this story is the transformation of the loaves and fishes, from a small amount of food into an unbelievable amount of food. It has been said that what actually happened was that everyone pitched in the little bit they had, to transform crumbs into a generous meal. A big huge potluck of leftovers. Everyone in the story is transformed by their own simple acts of generosity.

Jesus is not so much performing a miracle as modeling for us God’s abundance that happens every time we share. Jesus does not create bread out of thin air, he takes what has been offered to him and transforms it into more than enough for everyone.

Then there is the transformation of the disciples. In the beginning they are members of Jesus’ inner circle, gathering around him and saying “it’s getting late—send all of this riff-raff away.” I’m guessing we’ve all been in situations where we don’t like a crowd. This scene reminds me, sadly, of so many small churches I know, whose words say they want to grow, but they don’t want their church to grow so much that everyone doesn’t know each other’s name or, heaven forbid, that someone else sits in their seat.

loavesJesus is having none of it, and says: “You give them something to eat.” “We don’t have enough,” they say. “Give it to me,” Jesus says. I picture him rolling his eyes and muttering: “Do I have to do everything?” He takes the bread, blesses it, and gives it to his disciples, so that it is indeed they, not he, who do the feeding.

With the bread Jesus has blessed, the disciples turn outward. They are no longer the inner circle around Jesus, but are sent out to do the work of the kingdom. They are transformed from passive followers to ministers of the gospel.

How do we get transformed from being passive followers of Jesus into ministers of the Gospel? Sometimes our personal attachment to familiar community—a nearly universal human trait, I think—gets in the way of what it means to be a faithful Christian.

Our baptism is our commission to do kingdom work. The five baptismal promises are our “instruction manual” for the Christian life, if we ever need a refresher about doing the work of the kingdom.

But what about our own experience? Think about a time when you have been taken out of yourself, beyond your own understanding of your Christian identity? Jeanne has a story about driving around Portland in the snow with a pot of homemade soup, looking for someone to give it to, and how that experience has formed and shaped her sense of connection with the needs of the world. I remember years ago, long before going to seminary, talking with a rather difficult, unhappy woman on the phone and saying—you know, the way we do—“I’ll keep you in my prayers.” She said “I want you to pray for me right now, out loud!” That was not what I expected to hear, and it was humbling and good. I changed the way I looked at being an emissary of Jesus. James told me about the first preacher he consistently listened to in college, whose words made him feel that he was not doing enough to further the kingdom of God. The preacher pushed him, every week, to go out and connect with the world in deeper ways.

I came across a blog post recently about body image and fitness (because I read that stuff in my spare time J) and the refrain of the post was “You are enough.” We all love to hear this, right? You are enough. And we are. But in this gospel, I think Jesus is saying something different. I think Jesus is saying “It is not enough for you, my inner circle of faithful, beloved disciples, to sit at my feet and be nurtured by me in the holy intimacy you never seem to get enough of. Don’t you get that this is not what this is about? You give them something to eat.”

This conversation is—I hope—a defining moment in the life of each of the disciples. It is also a defining moment in the life of their community, a moment when together they saw their identity as a community in a new way. Some of us had that experience last week when we moved outside for Gospel on the Grass. Because of Linda’s very fine reflection that invited our reflections on the Kingdom of God, some of us began to imagine our calling as a community not just to discover the kingdom around us, but to be the Kingdom of God.

mosaicToday’s gospel story is a story about the Kingdom of God unfolding before the disciples’ very eyes, unfolding before our eyes, and it is also a Eucharistic story. The bread that Jesus shares with his disciples, and that they then share with thousands, becomes this amazing abundance because it is blessed (a holy word for given thanks for), broken, and shared. Jesus doesn’t just give them something to eat, he gives thanks for gathered crumbs, breaks loaves into pieces, and gives them to the disciples, commissioning them to become themselves givers. Small, simple gifts like loaves and fishes turn into extravagant abundance.

Just as scarcity becomes abundance for the disciples in this morning’s gospel, it can become abundance for us. Are we willing to offer to God the only thing we have left? Sometimes this means giving up the crumbs of our crowded days, our broken relationships, or our whole lives. Are we willing to give thanks for those gifts, break them open, and share them? This is what it means to live Eucharistically: to allow our broken selves to be a blessing to others.

As we pray together, and as we share holy food and drink in this intimacy of this holy table, I hope you’ll pray and come to the table with these questions: who needs something to eat? What broken thing can I share with them?