On Thursday as I was preparing my sermon for Sunday, I was feeling very inspired. I was inspired because I had experienced a lot of positive energy and enthusiasm about the service we participate in at FISH, the Emergency Voucher Program, and the Warming Shelter. I was feeling hopeful about things, and so I spent a little time at the piano with some books I hadn’t looked at in a while praying that my sermon would arrive. And there, in the book “Music by Heart” I found a little piece by Michael Hudson and Sandra Gay titled “Let the broken ones be healed”. From there, I not only started working on my sermon, but I also reworked the song for us to learn together. Let’s try it.
Let the broken ones be healed. Let the lost be found and fed.
These words resonated with me as I thought about our reading from Matthew; the lyrics seemed to fit so perfectly with the images that the gospel writer has given us. Here we have Jesus moved with compassion for those who had followed him out to the lakeshore, and he provides healing to those who have gathered. Then, as the end of the day draws near, instead of sending the people away, he instructs the disciples to feed them. This is not a story of abstract compassion, but a story of a specific response to those in need.
I remember hearing someone preach on this story of Jesus feeding the 5000, and they got themselves all tangled up in the details of the miracle. How did it happen? How could you possibly feed 5000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish? Did people bring their own food? Did someone sneak in extra goodies? Was the gospel writer elaborating?
But let’s not get tangled up.
Instead, let’s look at a couple of ways to understand this story.
First, we can understand it as a story of great compassion.
In Bible Study, we’ve been reading Karen Armstrong’s book “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life”. Last week, we began exploring step 6--Compassionate Actions. Armstrong tells a story about her arrival in the convent, and the Mother Superior was dying of cancer. Like all relationships, theirs had ups and downs. Armstrong recounts being called to her superior’s bedside, and that in this intimate moment between nuns, the superior said: “Sister...when you came, I was told that you might be a problem. But I want you to know that you have never been a trouble to me. You are a good girl, Sister. Remember I told you so”. Armstrong shares this story with the reader to illustrate that “one small act of kindness can turn a life around” (112).
Jesus instructing the disciples to gather the food that the people had brought and then distribute it in order to feed all those by the lakeshore...while it wasn’t a small action, it was an action of kindness that deeply impacted people. Jesus could have easily said yes to the disciples...yes, send these people home. Instead, he fed them. I can’t help but wonder...were there people there for whom this was the only meal they’d had all day?
When I think about the work that this community does at FISH, we are saying “yes” when no one else has. When you donate groceries, or put cans of food in the storage area, or prepare bags to be distributed, you are saying “yes”...your one small act of kindness changes a life in that moment.
We can also understand the story of the feeding of the 5000 about God’s partnership with us. If you look closely at Matthew, it isn’t Jesus who gathers up the loaves and fishes, it’s the disciples. Jesus blesses the food, but he doesn’t distribute it...that’s the work of the disciples.
I am reminded of hearing Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak about God needing us; that we were created so that we can be co-creators and partners with God. This story of the feeding of the 5000 is a perfect illustration of that very idea. Yes, Jesus could have prayed to God, and maybe, probably God would have sent down manna from heaven (like in the Old Testament), and then Jesus could have distributed it amongst the people. All that would have made for a wonderful miracle story too! But instead, God partnered with us. Through Jesus, God asks us what we have to offer, invites us to share it, and blesses us in our feeding of one another. As theologian Clifton Kirkpatrick states, “...if we join together in unity and faithfulness, God will be with us”.
And finally, here’s my favorite way to understand the story...training for discipleship. At first, the disciples want to send the people home. They saw a situation that was too big and overwhelming. How often have we observed a situation and thought “nope...too problematic...it’s just too much” and have decided to pack it up for the day? The events of the world and even in our local communities can feel this way. I know I often feel this way, and it’s always easier to say “not my problem” and move along.
But Jesus doesn’t let the disciples off the hook. He has shown compassion through the healing of those who had followed him out to the lakeshore, and now he’s teaching compassion to the disciples. Jesus invites the disciples to partner with him in feeding the gathered (here we are again with that lesson from Tutu), but he also empowers them to do their ministry. Jesus didn’t work alone, he worked through and with the disciples. This is what discipleship is about...concrete acts of love, justice and compassion as a way of expressing our faith and hope in Jesus.
Back in February, the vestry approved the Emergency Voucher Program to be facilitated here at St. Mark’s. So for the last five months or so, I’ve been working with the volunteers on how to distribute the vouchers to those in crisis who need emergency food, shelter, or transportation. The first lesson is to welcome the guest and listen. The second lesson is to be compassionate. The third lesson is to act. It’s actually pretty simple to help someone out who views their situation as too overwhelming and confusing. It’s not that hard to write a gas voucher for $20 or call a local hotel and secure a room for the night. But these simple acts of kindness can turn someone’s life around. By being a disciple in training, our volunteers have the opportunity to witness someone’s struggle and pain, and to offer compassionate action to help alleviate the crisis. Like the disciples at the lakeshore, the volunteers gather the resources and distribute them. And their work is blessed.
The feeding of the 5000 is indeed a miracle story. Not only in the sense that something amazing and otherworldly happened, but in the reality of people working together and having enough. Jesus, the disciples and the men, women and children at the lakeshore joined together in unity and faithfulness, and were partners with God.
Let the broken ones be healed. Let the lost be found and fed. Let the grace of God roll on, let the grace of God roll on.
This week’s news headlines have left me deeply troubled. The ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, the attack on Malaysian airlines flight 17, the severe weather faced by so many across the country...as we’d say in Adult Education where we’ve been praying the news, “help”. When we are faced with this kind of overwhelming grief and trouble, sometimes it’s easy to stand back and determine who’s “good” and who’s “bad”, who needs help and who deserves punishment. But these aren’t ultimately our judgments to make.
So given the events of the week, the gospel lesson for today has been a bit difficult for me; it can't be tidied up. I can't package it and present it nicely. It leaves me with too many unresolved questions. And if I wanted to be really honest, the gospel lesson makes it easy for me to stand in a place of self-righteous judgment and look at the world events through the lense of “I’m the wheat and they’re the weeds”. But I think it might be best to leave the sorting to God.
Let’s start with the reading from Genesis--the story of Jacob's ladder. This has become one of those beloved Old Testament stories, but I'm not sure most people know why other than we get this great visual of angels going up and down the escalator to heaven. But really this story challenges us because I think that from time to time many of us are like Jacob. We are smart folks who look out for our best interests...which isn't necessarily a bad thing, except when it means exploiting others. And that's what Jacob has done. He talked his hungry brother into giving over his birthright (inheritance) for a cup of lentil stew. No wonder Esau was angry! And so Jacob is a man on the run from his brother. He is fearful that his devious actions will catch up with him. And along his journey back to his mother's homeland, he stops to rest for the evening and has the most wonderful dream. In his dream, God says to him, "Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go...for I will not leave you". That is incredibly reassuring. When we hear this, we take comfort in knowing that God is with all of us...even if we're not perfect, even if we sometimes do bad things, even if we feel unworthy.
This dream is also a step in the right direction for Jacob. His spiritual journey to becoming a keeper of the covenant with God begins with this dream. He didn't know that God was present with him, and when he discovered this relationship, he gives thanks. It would be easy to stop there and ask "when is God present and how do we know it" or "how do we give thanks for God's presence with us". And my sermon would be neat and tidy, and we could all go home feeling good about ourselves.
But no. We're confronted by Jesus and his parable about the weeds and the wheat. To the original audience, this was a good news parable. But for us, I'm just not sure what to make of it. So let's take a look at the original audience. Who were they---they were the outcasts, the marginalized, the prostitutes, beggars and tax collectors. In their world, they would have been considered the weeds in a world of pious, law abiding Pharisees (the wheat). And yet, because Jesus teaches that the world is upside down, he puts his followers into the category of wheat and tells them that yes, because sometimes we can't differentiate between weeds and wheat, that we grow up together, and that it is up to God (the harvester) to pick out the weeds at the time of Judgment. And in this world, Jesus' followers would have been encouraged to persevere, knowing that one day they would be redeemed, and overcome their persecutions. And if I thought that we could honestly stand back and see ourselves as wheat, we would sing "We shall overcome" and go home feeling good about ourselves.
But I just don't think it's that easy. First of all, I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve acted like Jacob. In other words, I think that because we are the majority (let's face it---we're white, middle class Americans living in one of the most expensive communities in Oregon), we sometimes forget that the way we live our lives can be at the expense of others. Where does our food come from? Well, for some of us, we try to live organically and locally, but if you enjoy a good Reese's peanut butter cup like I do, well, you're participating in the slave labor of children in another country who make those candies. Where do your clothes come from? Are they made here in the US or in a sweatshop somewhere? Or what about your bottled water? Not only is it wasteful to not recycle, but by buying bottled water, you are contributing to corporations who take control of public water resources and turn the profits over to their stakeholders and executives, instead of contributing to the communities they are in. The list can go on and on. And sometimes when we are faced with these and other issues, we'd rather think it's not really our problem, or that the problem is too big to tackle. And so we go on about our business as usual. In other words, we don't pay attention to the dreams when God appears and says "I am with you and will not leave you...but you've got to make some changes in your life". Even when we hear the parable of the weeds and the wheat, we think, "well, there's redemption for us all...even if I'm a weed, I could become wheat later". But that's not what Jesus says! Jesus says that in the end, the weeds will be separated from the wheat and thrown into the fire. Now I don't know about you, but I don't want that to be how the judgment ends up for me! So what do we do?
Well, I think we have to be intentional about the way we live in relationship with one another. It wasn't so long ago that this country was overtaken by weeds, and we were able to persevere through the Civil Rights movement, acknowledging the humanity and dignity of all our brothers and sisters. And we're still going through these types of weedy moments in our local communities and in the larger, global community. Sometimes we're the weeds perpetrating the injustice, and sometimes, we’re the wheat that has to persevere. Either way, we have to do better, stand taller, and trust that God knows us and is present to us. As the psalmist says, God knows our comings in and goings out. God is here all the time. And it is through God's grace that we are able to say "Search me out, O God, and know my heart...Look well whether there be any wickedness in me and lead me in the way that is everlasting".
Proper 10 July 12, 2014
Just because I grew up on a farm doesn’t mean I know anything about farming. I have memories of tractors and fields and really hot summer days. I remember the smell of tobacco barns where we cured the tobacco before taking it to auction. I can remember sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table, shucking corn with the other women in the family. I can remember my father and the other men move irrigation pipes along the fields. Over dinner, we’d watch the farm report on tv to find out the going prices for soybeans before going back to finish up the day’s work. Farming was both a science and a business. There wasn’t time or money or seeds to waste.
For years I have struggled with this parable of the Sower from Matthew 13. It didn’t make sense to me because of the context in which I grew up...no sane farmer would dare waste so much seed; it isn’t good business and it isn’t good farming.
According to the story that Jesus tells those who have gathered on the shore, there are four types of soil--hardened, shallow, thorny and good. Now before we go any further, I want to change the word for “good” to “fertile”. The word “good” is often used as a judgment about a person, place or thing--she’s a “good” girl, he’s a “bad” boy. So let’s not complicate matters and just think of one of the types of soil as “fertile” instead of “good”. Ok? Now back to the soil.
In the story, as the farmer is scattering seeds, some fall into the walking path and the birds come along and eat the seeds. What does this tell us? It tells us that the ground was hard and packed, the soil was incapable of absorbing the seed. It may have been dusty and untended. The seeds were exposed and quickly eat up by the birds.
As the farmer continued his work, other seeds fell along parts of the ground that were rocky. There is soil there, but it isn’t rich and fertile, so when the seeds begin to grow, they aren’t able to really take root. These seedlings wither away and aren’t able to produce plants.
The seeds that fell among the thorny bushes and weeds weren’t able to survive either...while they may have started to take root, they are overtaken by the other plants and don’t produce.
And then there are the seeds that were planted in fertile soil that grow into productive stalks of wheat. These seeds were absorbed by the soil and nurtured. These seeds were able to take root and go through all the necessary developmental stages of plant life. These seedlings had enough water and sun to grow and be healthy. These seeds were neither better nor worse than the other seeds, but the soil and the environmental conditions made all the difference.
What if this parable of the sower is about those early Jesus followers and now us? What if the listener isn’t the sower or the seeds, but the soil? What if the story is about how to receive the Good News? Can we imagine people being like soil?
There are some who have become hardened by life and incapable of absorbing the love, forgiveness and grace of God. There are some who are receptive to God in times of crisis, but when the sun shines again and life is good, their roots--their seedling faith--withers away. And there are some who have become cynical and prickly with others and God, and so as living examples of God’s grace begin to spring up around them, their negativity and nay-saying choke the life out of others.
If we only had the story of the difficult soil and seeds that were unsuccessful, then there would be no hope in this story. If we imagined ourselves as the soil, we would find ourselves under nourished, over exposed, and any Good News quickly devoured. But that’s not the end of the story of the farmer and his seeds. Not only does some seed get scattered along the way, but some of it does take root! Some of it is absorbed by the fertile ground and allowed to grow.
The “good” or “fertile” soil is representative of those who have an open heart and mind to God’s grace, forgiveness and love. This fertile soil is permeable enough to allow for not just the seeds to take root, but it also has the capacity for rain, sun and nurturing. The fertile soil not only receives all that it needs, but is also able to give back through the production of wheat...and according to the parable, the wheat production is rather miraculous--as much as a hundred-fold!
Can we imagine being like this fertile soil--capable of receiving God’s love, forgiveness and healing, and then sharing that grace in our lives with others? Are we fertile soil for God’s seeds of grace? Are we willing to nurture the gifts we’ve been given by God--our skills, talents and resources--so that they can be gifts for others? In the novel “Singing in the Comeback Choir”, Bebe Moore Campbell writes, “Some of us have that empty-barrel faith. Walking around expecting things to run out. Expecting that there isn’t enough air, enough water. Expecting that someone is going to do you wrong. The God I serve told me to expect the best, that there is enough for everybody.”1
This is the miracle of the parable of the Sower...that there is more than enough of God’s love, forgiveness, nurturing and healing grace to go around regardless of the soil conditions--the conditions of our hearts. And when we allow ourselves to be fertile soil for the Good News of God through Christ, we are able to share our abundance with others.
Bartlett, David L.; Taylor, Barbara Brown (2011-05-31). Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16) (Kindle Locations 8558-8561). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
There are 613 commandments in the Jewish tradition. 613. That’s a lot of commandments. Of these 613 commandments, 248 of them are “positive” --meaning that they are acts to perform (for example in Exodus 23:25 “to pray every day”). The remaining 365 are “negative” --meaning things to abstain from (for example, not cooking meat and milk together from Exodus 23:19). You can also divide the commandments into categories around purity, worship, and relationships. Most scholars believe that the Torah was intended to be a guide for people living in community in relationship to God. You could think of it as a morality code for holy living.
By the time of Jesus, the Torah was still very important—Jesus was a Jew, after all, and had been taught in the synagogue and knew the commandments. Throughout the New Testament he quotes the Hebrew Scriptures, and even says that he has come to fulfil the Law. But Jesus also lived at a time when religion and politics had created an unholy union. The Romans were occupying Jewish territory and to keep the peace, Jewish authorities often had to make concessions to Roman officials. Many of the Jewish authority had also become corrupt with power and were exclusionary of those who were seen as “outsiders”. The letter of the law had become more important than the spirit of the law. And this is the heavy burden of the yoke that Jesus refers to in Matthew 11.
When Jesus says “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” he isn’t talking to the outsiders this time. Instead, he’s talking to those who have tried to maintain their Jewish identity under the corruption of the temple authority, but have found it to be more burdensome than life giving. He’s inviting those who may have questioned his authority, who have towed the party line of the temple, and found that there were more hurdles and stumbling blocks in their paths. They have become exhausted in trying to maintain righteousness in a system of ever-expanding demands of legalism, and here is Jesus welcoming them.
The legalism which corrupted religious teaching at the time set people up for failure. It had become a system of “do all these things and you will be significant before and loved by God”, which puts conditions on God’s love. This is the heavy burden of which Jesus speaks…that we have to “prove” ourselves worthy before God; that we have to somehow “earn” God’s love.
Jesus invites those who are tired of having to prove themselves worthy to a life of unconditional love and grace—a love that a parent has for a child, a love that a Creator has for the created, a love that is boundless, eternal and forgiving. The yoke that Jesus offers, the commandment that Jesus constantly calls us to observe is to love God and our neighbor. It’s not an “if/then” rewards and punishment system, it’s not a “ten steps to follow” program…it’s a call to be in relationship with God and one another.
The New English Bible translation of this passage reads that Jesus’ yoke is “good to bear” instead of my yoke is easy. I think this is an important difference. “Easy” implies that things can be taken care of simply, in a snap, without any thought. “Good to bear” implies that it shapes us, makes us intentional about our relationships and actions, and calls us to live in balance and with integrity. As Rev. James Liggett wrote it’s a yoke that “fits, it’s the right size, so it works – it leads to God, and it brings with it wholeness and a peace that can be found nowhere else.”
Being a follower of Jesus is rarely easy. For his early friends and followers, it was often scary from both a religious and political perspective because it called them to a life that was rather counter-cultural—eating with the unclean, welcoming the stranger, healing on the Sabbath. For us today, being a follower of Jesus isn’t any easier. In our context it’s still counter-cultural, sometimes at odds with the world around us, but without the same fears—welcoming the stranger, feeding the poor, respecting the dignity of every human being. What separates us from the social service agencies and other humanitarian and philanthropic efforts is that we do what we do because we are carrying the yoke of Jesus—the yoke that calls us to love God and our neighbor; the yoke that Jesus modeled for us and the Spirit empowers us to carry.
We are constantly welcomed by Jesus to carry this yoke, but it’s up to us to accept the invitation. My prayer is that we all heed the welcome and carry the yoke that is good to bear.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.