"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Barley Bread of Life

2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-19

Ephesians 3:14-21

John 6:1-21

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 Proper 12, Year B

“I’m just not being fed.” That is the sentence that all priests dread hearing from their flock. I remember saying it myself once, as I left a parish in which I had not found my place as a lay person. Now that I look back on it, my life was probably so chaotic and unhappy at the time that I would have had trouble finding what I needed in any church. But back then, I blamed the parish, writing it off as a spiritual desert in which there was no proper food to be found--not for my soul, anyway.
          I’m not surprised that the story of Jesus feeding the 5000 is the only one of Jesus’ miracles to find its way into all four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell some version of it. Being fed by God is one of our deepest universal human desires. To be fed is to be filled, to lose the sense of senselessness that plagues us, to be satisfied, to be loved, to be “enough.” We even hear echoes of God’s power to feed us in today’s Hebrew Scriptures, as God empowers Elisha to feed hundreds with a sack of grain, and the psalmist exults: “God, you open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature.”
It’s not hard for us to see how the metaphor of food speaks to the spiritual hunger that gnaws at the heart of every human being. We miss out if we merely “ooh and ah” over the miraculous story of a few loaves of bread and a few fish satisfying a crowd of thousands. The Gospel writers want us to reflect, instead, on our deep and universal hunger for God and the ways in which Jesus gives us the spiritual food for which we long. In John’s account, for example, the emphasis on the crowds being seated on green grass (despite the lack of truly green grass on those brown hills of Palestine) is meant to draw us straight to the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures… He restores my soul.” Jesus is doing more than feeding the crowds in this story: He is restoring their souls.[1] Furthermore, the explicit use of the liturgical actions found in our most ancient Eucharistic prayers (Jesus taking the loaves, giving thanks, and giving them to the disciples) is meant to refer us to the Eucharist, the meal at which Jesus still appears and feeds our souls today.
          The interesting thing in John’s version of this feeding story is that he focuses on the reactions of the disciples, especially Philip and Andrew. John portrays Jesus as always in control of the situation, but poor Philip and Andrew are clearly unprepared and clueless. Jesus uses the mess in which they find themselves in order to teach them a vivid lesson about ministry. Perhaps it is also a lesson for us, in our quest to feed others and to be fed by God?
          Jesus first asks Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” As one who usually sees the glass half-empty myself, I can smile knowingly at Philip’s cynical—yet probably quite realistic—answer to Jesus’ query. Even if they had the unimaginably huge sum of 6 months’ wages, mumbles Philip, it would still not be enough money to buy food to feed all of the hungry people. Like many of us in our ministries, Philip gives up quickly in a crisis. It is easy to shrug our shoulders helplessly before the immensity of the problems that engulf our communities.
          Then Andrew speaks up, this time at least with an attempt at a solution. He has found a boy with some bread and two fish. He points the boy out to Jesus as a source of food … then, embarrassed at his own naivete, he quickly adds: “But what is this bit of food among so many people.” After all, who likes to look simple and impractical? How often have you fearfully offered a response during a brainstorming session, adding a quiet, “but this is probably a dumb idea …” in order to avoid potential criticism?
          Jesus does not respond to either disciple’s discouragement, however. Note that he also doesn’t give them a pep talk or a sermon. He doesn’t use words at all. In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets before him, he responds with a sign. He shows them the power and presence of God—a presence that they have not been seeing or reckoning with. What’s surprising in Jesus’ sign is that it does not involve producing a sumptuous feast with a wave of his hand. If Jesus is God, why doesn’t he whip up the celestial banquet of fine wines and rich marrow that we read about at funerals from the book of Isaiah? Strangely, Jesus feeds his people with barley loaves and salted sardines.
          John explicitly tells us that the five small loaves that the young boy carries are made of barley, the cheapest grain available at the time and the normal food of animals and poor folks. It is rough, dry bread—an ordinary meal at best. The two small salted fish might add some moisture and flavor to the bread but are barely sufficient for one boy’s daily meal. In feeding a crowd of 5000 with one boy’s dry barley bread and sardines, Jesus opens the disciples’ eyes—and ours—to God’s action and presence in the most unexpected of places. While the disciples are looking for Jesus to conjure piles of silver with which they could purchase a feast, God is waiting to fill them up with a peasant boy’s lunch.
          There is an icon of the Virgin Mary called, “The Virgin of the Sign.” In this icon a small image of Jesus waits encircled within Mary’s body. It shows us that Jesus is often hidden, silently praying, within the Church, within us, and within the most unlikely places in our world. Rowan Williams points out that the Church doesn’t necessarily draw its strength from its leaders or their pious prayers but from the prayer and experience of those it least values in its public life. Moreover, he adds that it is perhaps those rejected and ignored parts of ourselves that are the places in which Christ can appear. We expect God to work in the parts of ourselves that are on the right track, the parts that are prepared, the parts that always have enough of whatever is needed for the tasks at hand.[2] We fret when we can’t seem to access this perfection. But by God’s Grace, God has prepared nourishment and restoration for our souls deep within simple, common things—deep within our own imperfections, too.
The disciples had to learn to see God in coarse bread before they could either feed or be fed. As we look around the world, panicked and unprepared, can we too see the strange God hidden in the ordinary? Hidden in the people and places that we so easily overlook? Outside of our walls and beyond the boundaries of propriety? Part and parcel of our own most hated flaws? Within the heavy silences of what seems like unanswered prayer?
When I was a postulant for Holy Orders, always coming to my bishop with worries and obstacles, real or imagined, he would shake his head laughing and say, “Anne, you sure are a mess, but somehow God is working through you!” Isn’t that the same for all of us? Look at little St. Thomas this past week, a small group of volunteers feeding 14 energetic children from Zachary Taylor Elementary School with food for stomach, mind, and soul—and at the same time being fed by God with the blessings that spring from self-giving love. I remember when Carolyn Warnick and I sat in my office four years ago and thought about doing a summer “reading camp,” wondering how we would pull it off with a handful of retirees, no experience with this kind of thing, and no funding. Like Phillip and Andrew, we looked around at our surroundings and shook our heads with worry. But Carolyn and her team took the barley bread that they had and handed it to Jesus—and he blessed it, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it back—and it was enough.
Are you being fed in this parish? Are you being fed in your lives? Jesus doesn’t want any of us to go hungry. I pray that we will be able to see Jesus in the barley bread on our table, and that we may be brave enough to point out that bread to Jesus, and in his Name, to take it, to give thanks for it, and to do the unexpected with it—even to do that for which we are not, and will never be, prepared. 
 The Virgin of the Sign

[1] John Shea, Eating with the Bridegroom: The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, Year B (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005), 190.
[2] Rowan Williams, Ponder these Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2012).

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Can Tired Disciples Learn to Dance?

Proper 11, Year B

Jeremiah 23: 1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34; 53-56

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. 

Barely does Jesus get both feet on the shore of the lake before desperate people start to swarm around him. I can picture them now: men limping on abscessed legs; women holding limp children in their arms; young men covered in battle scars; childless brides; babies with blind eyes covered in flies; teens with raving demons in their heads; widows bent low with grief. Human beings dark and light, Roman and Jew, citizen and slave; all coming to be healed by Jesus; all filled with great need and deep hurt; all irresistibly drawn to the compassionate power that burns within him; all focused on the hope for healing that drives them hungrily across the countryside.
          Our Gospel tells us that all of these suffering people touch Jesus’ cloak and are healed. Thanks be to God! But then what happens? Do they continue to hang around? And I wonder what the disciples think? They are supposed to be spending some peaceful time with Jesus, themselves. They have been working hard, helping Jesus to heal the crowds, walking from dusty town to dusty town, watching and trying to understand what their Master expects from them. They have been hosting funeral receptions, teaching kids from Zachary Taylor, hauling food to the food pantry, setting up apartments for refugees, and going to way too many committee meetings. They were probably excited and relieved to get Jesus all to themselves for once, to stop helping and to get some private explanations, to have their souls fed with the wisdom of Jesus’ words and the love in Jesus’ eyes. The disciples have needs, too, after all. They are hungry for God, too. But they don’t seem to get their promised time alone with Jesus. Here come those crowds--the hurting, hungry crowds in all of their maddening diversity. And there goes Jesus, responding to them with compassion, reaching out to all of these needy strangers.
          In these days of ever-smaller congregations, we church-disciples feel the pull between getting our own spiritual needs met and reaching out to others, between caring for our community and doing God’s work in the world. On the one hand, our hearts are fed when we get to talk only with each other at Coffee Hour and at the Peace. Our souls are fed when we worship in a familiar way: when we sing the songs that we know and love and repeat the liturgies that we all remember. We strengthen our community when we meet those that we know and love to do a common project, when we laugh over familiar stories during a bible study, when we combine our energy to reach out to our beloved elders in need, or to those fellow disciples who are hurting. Jesus loves his Church and surely wants to feed and strengthen us.
          And yet, we church disciples see the crowds out there beyond our community, those crowds with needs that just keep coming. We know that Jesus loves them, too. We know that Jesus has compassion on them, too. We know that Jesus wants us to turn outward to welcome them with compassion in his name. But, Lord, sometimes we’re tired of showing all that hospitality. We’re tired of explaining things to those who might not understand. We’re tired of welcoming those who might want to do things differently than we do. We’re tired of the unending succession of needs that pushes in on us as soon as we get out of the boat.
In the early days of Christianity, the big split in the church was between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians. The Jewish Christians were like the disciples, comfortable among themselves, keeping their familiar ways, enjoying their homogeneous group. But the throngs of non-Jews kept coming to Jesus—coming from all over the Roman Empire, with new languages, customs, and understandings. Surrounded by these Gentile throngs, the Jewish Christians must have longed to get away with Jesus to a quiet place. And the non-Jewish Christians in places like Ephesus, far from Jerusalem and its Jewish ways, must have longed to have Jesus to themselves, as well. When Paul writes to the quarreling church in Ephesus, he tells them that their peace can only be found in their common citizenship as followers of a crucified Lord. There are no true outsiders in the Christian community because Jesus’ self-giving love reaches out to each and every one: to those who are far off, as to those who are near. Jesus died for the needs of the whole world, and in him, we are all lifted up into God’s presence and put on equal footing.
John Shea points out that compassion becomes tiring when it is based on difference. If we see ourselves as superior people, lifting up the poor downtrodden outsider, then such lifting is heavy indeed, and can become difficult over time. If our compassion is rooted in our sameness with others, however, and we see ourselves as opening ourselves up to our equals, connecting with another child of God who is just like me, a sinner dependent upon Jesus Christ, then our compassion can flow freely, without the need for lifting anyone up to our level.[1]
This all came together for me this week, when I went with my Swiss relatives to the old Shaker colony at Pleasant Hill, outside of Danville. The Shakers were a utopian Christian community that flourished in a number of locations in the United States during the 19th century. Their name comes from the ecstatic dancing, or “shaking,” that filled their common worship on Sundays. While I’ve been to Pleasant Hill several times, there is one piece of information that I had somehow always missed. This week, I was surprised to learn that these 19th-century Southerners believed in the total equality of blacks and whites, at a time when most church-going Christians were still arguing for the superiority of the white race. Moreover, the Shakers put their beliefs into practice! When a slave-owning family would join the Shaker community, they would be required to welcome their slaves as free members of the Shaker family, on equal standing with their former masters. Master and slave would from then on share work, food, and life together. Can you imagine the transformation of long-standing attitudes that such a change would have occasioned on both sides? Many neighbors were so threatened by the radical nature of the Shakers’ position that they threatened them with violence, burning their fields and ostracizing them. Still, at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, black and white Shakers continued to live and work side by side as equals. They called each other “brother” and “sister,” and they shared their money and their goods. Whatever their faults and peculiarities as a community, the Shakers do seem to have modeled the peace, strength, and welcome that come from seeing each person as equal in Christ Jesus. While our own denomination was mired in the muck of slavery, the Shaker community was building the house of God, with Christ as the cornerstone. It’s no wonder that they could sing with such joy about the “gift to be free, the gift to come down where we ought to be…”
          And there’s more! The Shakers had four ministers, or religious leaders, in each community: two women and two men. Their ministers did not preach or lead the liturgy on Sundays, though. They weren’t even in the room with the rest of the congregants! Instead, they were upstairs, in the room over the church gathering, peeking through small windows down into the assembly below. While the believers and their guests were singing, and praying, and dancing their ecstatic dances, the ministers were watching: watching the newcomers for signs of interest or enlightenment; watching the long-standing community members for signs of hurt, absence, or sorrow. After the service was over, it was their job to go look after their flock, acting on what they saw, reaching out both to the inner circle and to the crowds who came to find Jesus there. It made me wonder: how would it energize our tired communities, if we truly believed that Jesus is watching us like those Shaker ministers, assessing the needs of the old and new believers alike, his heart melting with compassion at what he sees. How strong would we be if we truly believed that he is here with us in this place, the cornerstone of all that we are and all that we do, offering to each of us everything that we need, a shepherd who can both seek out the lost sheep and feed the 99 back home in the pen? Perhaps then we would feel free enough in our relationships to one another to join in the Good News of the Shakers’ song: “When true simplicity is gain’d, to bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d. To turn, turn will be our delight, till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.”

[1] John Shea, Eating with the Bridegroom: The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, Year B (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005), 185.