Year B Proper 13: What kind of messiah do you want?

Yesterday was outdoor worship on the lawn. There is no point in my trying to preach a traditional sermon with a bus stop at my back and birds on the wing, so we shared the responsibility of the gospel with one another. Here’s how that went.
There is an old saying in church circles: “Feed them and they will come.” Jesus says much the same to the people who track him down across the lake: “You are not here because you believe by the signs that I am doing that I am the Messiah. You are here because I fed you your fill of the loaves and the fishes.”

Which is, indeed, one way of getting the people’s attention. But it leads Jesus to push back a little bit. I think that he is asking them, during this whole exchange about bread and the signs of God: “What sort of Messiah are you looking for?”

When the people had been fed with the loaves and the fishes, they tried to capture Jesus to make him a king, but he slipped away. When they tracked him down, he confronted them, “Look! It’s not enough to want me to feed you miracles every day, loaves and fishes, manna and quail. There is more to the life of God, life with God, than the occasional miracle.”

Several years ago now, I read a story in the newspaper about a man who appeared before the judge for some petty crime. He had quite a record for petty crime, and the judge had little enough patience for him, handed down a fine and sent him on his way, but the man refused to go. “If you send me back out there,” he told the court, “I will carry on offending over and over again until you send me to prison. That’s where I want to go.”*

The people of Israel, freed from slavery, but complaining in the wilderness because making their own way into the promises of God proved to be no walk in the park; and no, it isn’t easy. Life can be difficult and challenging and hard. But it is our life, and God gives it to us, inviting us to live it in the company of Jesus, working together, rather than sitting on the mountainside waiting for a daily dose of manna and quail, imprisoned by our own helplessness, waiting on miracles.

*** So the question is raised, What kind of a Messiah are you looking for? Who do you want Jesus to be? What sign do you seek from him? ***

outdoor sermon 001Several themes emerged; they were less about what we wanted God to do, it turns out, and more about the character of God: one of peace, understanding, forgiveness, unconditional love. Oh, and a bit of guidance and keeping us out of mischief wouldn’t go amiss.

My own answer was that I was looking for some reassurance that we are moving towards the light. It’s not a complete answer, and it’s the answer for one day; it’s not, to be honest, an easy question.

***

Back in the wilderness, the people of Israel, set free from slavery, complain rightly that this has not solved all of their problems. They are still hungry, weary, far from home. They still fight with their in-laws, worry about their children, fall ill and fall down. Restless, they wonder if they are any better off choosing their own path than they were confined by the whims of the Pharaoh. And although God is gracious, providing a daily meal of manna and quail will solve only one of their problems.

Loaves and fishes, manna and quail, gifts from heaven, but Jesus invites the people surrounding him to work for the bread that doesn’t fail, that endures for eternal life, to strive for the rewards of faith, to labour for the kingdom of God. God will take care of us, every day, all of the way; that has been demonstrated from the Garden of Eden through the Exodus from Egypt to the feeding of the multitude on the mountainside and there are people here today who can tell you stories of how God has provided loaves and fishes, manna and quail, our daily bread. But what of the rest?

“We must no longer be children,” says Paul, “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”

We must grow up, we must grow in truth and love, if we are to build up the body of Christ, which is fed by love, love of God, love of neighbour, which is grounded in truth.

We hear the complaints of the people in the wilderness, because we ourselves are still wandering. We hear of injustice, of inequality; we hear the dull thud of violence that has become so commonplace that it is hardly noticed any more. We see the children still waiting for their daily bread, still hungry. What will we do? Wait for a miracle, or work together to build up the body of Christ, feed it with love, root it in truth?

*** So thinking about that messiah that we desire, who brings peace and comfort, the kingdom of God with all of its compassion and forgiveness and unconditional love: what is it that we are willing to do for it? How will we work for it? What are we willing to commit for the sake of building up the body of Christ? ***

outdoor sermon 002

We talked about how our baptismal covenant has some pretty good stuff in it: proclaiming the gospel in word and deed, seeking and serving Christ in all others, respecting the dignity of every person. It wasn’t an easy question either, though, it seemed.

We also talked about our spiritual practices: Bible study, prayer, showing up and sharing, listening. Speaking with our actions when our words seem to fall on deaf ears.

I confessed that my own answer seemed a bit anticlimactic; also a bit priesty. Keep praying, I had written. When I volunteered at a children’s hospital, I kept a prayer in my pocket: God be in my head, and in my understanding. God be in my mouth, and in my speaking. God be in my heart, and in my thinking. God be at mine end, and at my departing. It was a reminder to walk in love, to look with love, listen with love, speak only love, leave with love.

***

In some ways it is very simple: “This is the work of God,” says Jesus, “that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Of course, it is not always easy, day by day, to continue to grow in love, in truth, in trust, when there is still so much work to be done before we see the sun rise over the kingdom of God. But we see signs of it, and we are not left alone to wait, and we do not work alone.

The people of Israel had a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. They ate manna and quail. God did not leave them in the wilderness, even though their own feet had to carry them across.

We have one another, and the love that we share to build up the body of Christ. We have the bread of life and the cup of salvation that Jesus has given us. We have life, and life abundantly; we have all the signs that we need, even if we don’t see all of the miracles that we want, to assure us of God’s loving care for us, our daily bread.

“Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’”

Amen.

*Andrew now lives in a group home with others whose addictions have left them compromised in their ability to deal with daily life. Where love for one another dictates social as well as personal policy, even a little bit, humanity is deepened, and strengthened, and life looks a little brighter. Or so it seems to me.

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“a soft tongue can break bones” – Proverbs 25:15b

with all the tenderness
of a tiger’s tongue,
flaying soul from skin,
rasping marrow until, gasping,
you surrender all truth;
you would give your eye-teeth for such love.

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Unmiracle

A miracle is, by definition, unlikely to happen.

When our daughter was ten, I lost her in the woods.

She was ten, and actively honing her skills in defiance, contrariness, and flouncing. It was our first visit after moving away, over the ocean, and we had met up with friends for a picnic and playtime, and it was sunny. The afternoon was drawing to a close. We said goodbye, set off, we for our temporary home, they for the permanent nests we left behind. Daughter walked with them.

I had learned, by wearying trial and error, to pick my battles. Let her walk with them a while, then, pretend for a moment longer that this was home. At the brow of the hill, the emptiness of the field sweeping down to the edge of the woods took my breath away. She was gone.

I ran along the edge of the woods as well as I could with her siblings in tow. I dared not enter: if she was on one path and I chose another, we would never find one another between the thick darkness of the trees and brambles. I hurled her name as hard as I could between the branches, knowing that it was being swallowed before it was even out of sight by the thickets. I bellowed, over and over.

When they were three, we found a friend of hers walking away from his own front door, weeping with the all of the grief that only a three-year-old knows. “What’s wrong?” The words were hard to make out, but we divined that his parents had left him, left home, and that he had set out into the world to find them.

“That seems a bit unlikely,” I told him, and rang the doorbell. Mother came. Father had returned from work and gone upstairs to change; she had followed with a few words about their day; he had been playing in the living room beneath the stairs that, open-slatted, wound right out of there; but he hadn’t noticed them go. Looking up, he leapt straight to abandonment and set off to find and, if necessary, avenge them. We just happened to pass by.

A man came out of his house and looked at me strangely, bellowing like a bereaved milk cow at the woods, at the trees, into the dusk. I had no time nor breath to stop and explain.

After a nondescript division of time, she wandered out of the woods to our right. Until she saw my face, she had no idea that she was lost. We wept together.

I prayed for a miracle then, the other day, scanning the edges of woodland and scrub, for a child to wander out with all of the insouciant innocence of one who doesn’t even know that he is lost.

A miracle is, by definition, unlikely to happen.

I preached yesterday on the miracles of Elisha, who proclaimed to a woman a child, and who returned him to her from the lip of the grave; who assured her by word and by deed that God is good, that God’s mercy is not retractable, nor insufficient, nor thwarted by death. And I believe it; but even as I spoke, I knew that there were some who hated me, if only for a moment, for saying so.

Where is our miracle? they murmured. Why not one more? Why not for us?

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.

It is the prayer of ordinary, everyday life, ex deus ex machina, lived in the empty, rolling wilderness of unmiracle, whose natives spend the rest of their days snagging on the edges of briared thickets, searching for signs of hope.

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Year B Proper 12: Breaking bread

“All things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee,” many of us grew up intoning at every Offertory presentation. We are familiar with the concept that all that we have is of God, and that there is nothing we can offer back to God that God has not already given us.

But this story breaks that circle wide open; its arc is much more expansive than we imagine.

The man from Baal-shalishah, an evocative name in itself, suggesting a history of paganism and heathen ways; this man knows the covenant of God with the people of God. He recognizes that everything that he has is of God, and in the absence of a temple, a priest, an altar in the place where he lives, he brings to the prophet the offering of first fruits designated by the Law as a sacrifice to God, a few barley loaves as a thank-offering for the sustaining nature of God’s creative power; a blessing on God for the life with which God has blessed him.

And God, working through the prophet, offers these gifts right back to God’s people.

We offer to God only what God has given us, and God offers it right back, multiplied and stretched out and shared out, in an act of divine grace and mercy.

The context of Elisha’s little miracle is one of famine and fear. The country is at war, besieged by bad politics, and worse, by bad weather. There is little food to be found, and little hope. Just before this happens, a pot of soup is spoiled by the addition of a poisonous gourd, and the whole company falls into despair, because there is nothing else for them to eat.

“There is death in the pot,” they cry, death either way, either by hunger or by harmful herbs. But Elisha adds the antidote, and all is well.

Just before that, he offers a picture of enduring mercy, following grace with grace. After declaring a child to a woman who wants one badly, after the child is born and grown and has an accident in the field, dying in his mother’s arms, Elisha returns, and somehow, by some miracle, returns the child to his mother. God’s mercy, Elisha proclaims in word and in deed, is not limited, is not reversed or taken away.

God’s mercy abounds, and expands, and gives back tenfold, twentyfold, infinitely more than we can offer or expect.

So the child is cared for, the company is fed, and there is more left over.

In the story told by John, a little boy brings to Jesus his few barley loaves and a couple of fish. There is a large crowd following, because of the acts of mercy that Jesus has already done. In a context of fear and faith, wondering where God is in the midst of the empire, the fall of Israel, he heals many, offering grace and mercy to those in pain, in need, in hunger for the love of God. And still there is more. The child offers what he has to Jesus, that which has been given to him for his own sustenance. And Jesus offers it back to the people following, stretched out and multiplied and shared out in an act of divine grace and mercy. And there is more left over.

That which we have been given, we offer back to God at the altar: our faith, our hope, our lives and the first fruits of our labour. And God offers it back, to be stretched out and multiplied and shared out in acts of mercy and of grace.

The gracious act of God in creation and redemption and the sustaining of the earth does not come full circle with our offerings at the altar, despite the neatness of our words, despite even their truth: “All things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee.”

The circle is wider than that; much wider. God breaks open our little ways of thinking, our little thank-offerings, and throws them wide into the world, expanding the arc of mercy, grace, abundance, beyond our measure, beyond our view, beyond our expectation.

Jesus, when he perceives that the people are about to make him their king, slips away; he will not let the circle become closed, contained, curtailed. He has not come for the few, or even for the multitude on the mountainside, but for the sake of the whole world.

It seems as though our default position is one of fear of famine. We hold tightly to what we have, in case there is not enough to go around. We may offer to include God in our gracious circle: “all things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee,” but God forbid that God should then give away the gifts that we have brought so earnestly out of the goodness of our hearts.

It is an attitude of fear, of famine that sustains the tight circles of privilege, and of discrimination.

It is an attitude of fear, of famine that perpetuates cycles of violence visited on those who might otherwise expect to share our resources, our circles, our lives.

It is an attitude of fear, of famine that withers our imaginations, closes our minds and our hearts to the expansive nature of God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s goodness.

Breaking open the circle, breaking through the barriers of fear of famine, trusting God’s providence means breaking out of old ways, breaking down old walls, breaking through social barriers and fearful reticence, learning to offer our blessings back to God, not for the sake of the offering itself, but participating in the work of God.

As long as our offerings, our thanks, our praise, our prayers; as long as our faith is between ourselves and God and the gatepost, the circle remains closed, the bread remains unbroken, the miracle remains buried, sealed in the stone cold tomb, a victim of fear, of famine.

When we recognize that all that we do here at the altar, here in the coffee hour, here in the garden, here in the food pantry, here at the hot meal, here in our hearts; when we break open our hearts and bring our offerings not to close the circle but to participate in the work of God, to share God’s blessings with the world, stretched and multiplied, without holding back, without fear; then the stone is rolled away, the miracle breaks through into the light of day.

We will talk more about bread, in the coming weeks, and a lot more about what it means to break it open, stretch our limits, share it out, beyond our reach or our imagination.

For now, how did it feel, do you think, to be that man, with his little offering of first fruits, brought out of duty, out of gratitude, out of defiance of the famine, out of trust in the faithful abundance of God, when he saw what God did with his little barley loaves?

What did the child tell his mother when she asked him, “Did you eat all of the lunch I packed for you?”

Our faith is not a private, closed matter between ourselves and God and the gatepost.

Our parish is not a small circle of friends, but a kernel, a seed, a first fruit with the potential to grow into something magnificent, miraculous, when it is offered back to God without reservation, without expectation, without fear; when the circle is broken open, stretched out, shared out, for the sake of everyone whom God loves, whom God has created, whom God sustains.

The prayer of Paul is this,

that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

It is too much, too big, too high and too deep for one person, one small circle to grasp. The fullness of God would overflow us and drown us if we tried to contain it by ourselves, slight vessels that we are.

May we embrace it anyway, and find ourselves broken open with the bread; broken open in our hearts; breaking way beyond ourselves and our imaginations, the inbreaking miracle of God’s abundant grace. Amen.

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Empty churches

Mary, the mother church,
eking out milk to last the week;
Monday morning, spent, she rests
convalescent, quiet

A void of another kind,
Shakespeare’s tomb hastily built into Babel;
who sees the stranger seeking sanctuary
from its old iron face?

St Teilo’s silence echoes another place
where love was consecrated,
death given its due;
the air shivers, ghost-breath cold.

And at last the sea, an empty horizon never failing
its salt-water promise of salvation.

The sanctuary ring on the door of Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon. Dating from the 1200s, one who touched the ring could claim 37 days' sanctuary from the church which now holds Shakespeare's tomb.

The sanctuary ring on the door of Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon. Dating from the 1200s, one who touched the ring could claim 37 days’ sanctuary from the church which now holds Shakespeare’s tomb.

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Family entertainment

“Off with his head!” cried the Queen of Hearts.
It had all begun much earlier, with
a powerless princess, pawn pushed about
in a dizzying dance by the Queen and her King;
the Bishop turned slantwise away, his excited
disapproval of the King’s headstrong rush
to consummate his pleasure, while his Kinghts
pawed the ground and tossed their tails.

His head was the bloodier sacrifice,
but she the one who would live to regret it,
raging through life, her humiliation blazing 
Red: “Off with his head!” cried the Queen.

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Innocents

three little girls, pink suits and brown bodies,

shrieking false fear under the sprinkler

while hoses play over the flames,

prayers rising like hot steam

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