Mission Improbable

Preached on 9 September 2018 at church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Proper 18 (thematic track)

Welcome back!
Welcome home.
Welcome.

Welcome back to church, whether it’s been a week or a season, or a decade.
Welcome back to the choir.  I think I speak for the whole congregation when I say we missed you; we’re glad you’re back.
Welcome back to a new program year, to Sunday School and Bible Study.

Welcome home to those who have been traveling.
Welcome home to those seeking a home.

Welcome.
Welcome to all who are seeking God’s grace; to all who are seeking God’s Word.
Welcome to all who seek God.

Last week, Wes and I took a few days of vacation and went up to Vancouver Island.  On the way home, when we crossed the border, there was something particularly sweet and touching when I heard the Border Agent say those words, “Welcome home,” as he sent us on our way.

This morning you heard different words of welcome in our opening liturgy.  I found this a while ago and thought it would be a good way to begin our new program year. It’s actually the end of the piece.  You’ll hear the beginning of it as our dismissal or sending at the end of the service.

It caught my attention because it encapsulates what we do here and this is a good time to do some reflection on our purpose, our mission and what we will do next.

As I said, this gathering and sending piece encapsulates something of what we do here each week.  We come, bringing ourselves, our whole selves, our joy and pain, our passion and energy, our fear and our longing.  We come bringing the cares and pain of the world.  All this we bring here to lay before and offer to God.

We come to be nourished and nurtured by God’s Holy Word, by the prayers, by the bread and wine of Holy Communion, by this community, it’s love and care and it’s holding us accountable.  We come to pray for the world, it’s pain and problems, and so to transform not only ourselves, but the world.

And we are sent back out to that world; back to the noise and the mess and confusion.  Back to the beauty and joy and majesty of God’s gracious gift in Creation.  We go out to share what we have received here; to never stop sharing.  The gifts God gives us never run out.

It is a bit vague though.  It takes some discernment to figure out specifically what’s next for us in this time and place.  And this is a good time in the life of the parish to do that work.  Now you may be thinking, but isn’t that what the profile committee just did?  Well, yes.

The profile committee is finishing up their work and preparing to turn the profile over to the search committee.  They have done a great job in describing where we are now and a bit of direction for the future.  It’s a snapshot in time; a great starting point for figuring out what’s next.  You see God’s call isn’t a “one and done” sort of thing.  Our call unfolds over our lifetime, and that is true for the life of a parish community as well.

The specifics of our mission change over time; and sometimes they can take dramatic turns.  It appears that was true for Jesus, as we see in today’s gospel, so why wouldn’t it be true for us?

In today’s gospel, we find Jesus way up north, on the coast, in Tyre.  He’s a long way from home and in gentile territory.  Syro-Phoenicia is right there.  Up until this point, he’s been staying pretty close to home in Galilee, crossing the lake several times, but primarily in Jewish territory.  Now he’s the outsider.  He’s trying to get away from the crowds, but it doesn’t work.

Here he is trying to have a quiet meal with his disciples when a woman shows up.  She’s a mother and she’s desperate.  Her daughter is possessed by a demon and she is absolutely positive that this man, Jesus, can help her.  I think anyone who has children can understand her desperation and that she will do anything get help for her child.

Jesus’ response is surprising, though.  He as much as calls her a dog, saying he didn’t come to save the likes of her but to save the children of Israel.  Huh.  But she is desperate.  She doesn’t meekly leave because she knows he can help.  But she doesn’t get into an argument saying she’s as good as they are.  No, it’s like she accepts his premise and then she points out that even the dogs get the crumbs.
“For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter,” he tells her.

Now a lot has been written and discussed and argued about this whole interaction.
How can Jesus be so mean?
Some claim he’s just “testing” her, or that it’s more light-hearted banter.  I doubt the mother thought it was light-hearted.  Others argue that Jesus is showing his humanity – he’s tired and cranky.

People go back and forth about whether the mother changed Jesus’ mind or if he intended to help her all along.  One could also ask if Jesus chose to help her or did God do it without his intervention and Jesus simply told her what had already happened.
When it comes down to it, though, any of those scenarios can speak to us and our own lives and mission.  We don’t have to get our knickers in a knot over it.  What does God’s Word say to us this time?

This story is seen as kind of a turning point in Jesus’ ministry.  Again, people ask what did Jesus know about his mission and when did he know it.  Does it matter?  His mission unfolds and expands as he goes along.  Here we see it expand well outside the bounds of the house of Israel and the territory of Israel – what might have been seen as a highly improbably mission.

Next, we see him go to the Decapolis where he heals a man who is deaf an unable to speak.  This, too is outside of Jewish territory.

Jesus’ mission expands throughout his ministry.  So does ours.  God’s call is continually unfolding before us.  Using the profile as our jumping off point, where is God calling us now?  What is our next “Mission Improbable?”

So, welcome.
Welcome to God’s mission.

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What Gives You Life? – Bread of Life Part 5

Preached on 26 August 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Proper 16 (thematic track)

What gives you life?
As we go through our days, we each have a variety of interactions with people, activities and tasks.  Some of them are life-giving.  They build us up, give us joy or satisfaction; they make us feel alive.

Others are life-draining or even deadening.  They drag us down and drain us emotionally and/or spiritually.
What is life-giving one day may be life-draining on another day.

Often, we find our relationships with special people to be life-giving.  Or it may be something we do that truly makes a difference in someone’s life or something that gives us a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction that gives us life.  Even things that are difficult, challenging, and exhausting can be life-giving.

On the other hand, pointless tasks, mind-numbing activities or difficult interactions with people can be life-draining.

In today’s gospel, we hear Jesus and Peter talking about what gives life.  We have come, at last, to the final section of the Bread of Life discourse in John’s gospel.  Today, we see the people’s response.  The reading begins with the last few verses from last week’s reading, where Jesus talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood; about abiding in him and drawing life from him.

Today we learn that this has all taken place at the synagogue in Capernaum; no wonder the Jewish leaders are upset.

It seems that it’s all just a bit too much for most of the crowd.  These are people who have been following him.  They followed him to the grassy knoll where he fed them bread and fish.  Then they followed him across the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum, to the synagogue where he delivers this discourse.  Jesus makes some pretty bold claims, talking about manna and bread from heaven.  He claims to be living bread that has come from heaven; that he is from God, that he is God, and that he will return to heaven.  Then there is the bit about actually eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

They start grumbling (like the Israelites in the desert).  “This is difficult,” they say, “who can accept it?”  Another translation puts it, “This is intolerable!”

At this point, Jesus stops talking about bread and begins talking about the spirit and life.  But it’s all too much.  Many of those who have been following him turn and leave.

So Jesus asks the Twelve if they want to leave as well.  And we hear Peter’s confession of faith.  “Where would we go?  You have the words of life.  You are the Holy One of God.”

Following Jesus, discipleship is hard; the teaching is difficult – but it is life-giving in a way he has never known before.

It’s important to remember that the crowd following Jesus are faithful Jews.  They know the law and the teachings, but they have no experience of the sacraments; they know nothing of the crucifixion or resurrection or ascension of Jesus.  What he is saying is abhorrent to them; it is an offense to what they have been taught.

John’s original audience, however, is seeing this with post-resurrection eyes, with post-ascension eyes.  They have tasted the bread and wine of the Eucharist.  We have the benefit of 2,000 years of Christian tradition and practice.  In fact, it may be so familiar to us that we have become rather blasé about what we do at this table each Sunday morning; about what God does at this table each Sunday morning.
Can we, with Peter, proclaim, “Lord, You have the words of eternal life?”

Going back to where we started, What gives you life?

I encourage you to try the spiritual practice of the examen.  Each evening, spend some time with God in reviewing your day.  When did you feel truly alive? Most loved and loving?  When did you feel at home in yourself?  Aware of God or Christ’s presence?  Give thanks for those times and notice what they were.

Then ask yourself when you felt disordered, drained?  Unloved, unlovable, or unloving?  Did you feel like a stranger to yourself?  Separated from God?  Acknowledge those times.  Note what made you feel that way.  Ask God what you might have done differently, forgive yourself and let it go.

With time, you may notice patterns.

What do you find is life-draining?  Can you eliminate it from your life and replace it with that which is life-giving?
Obviously, there are obligations that are life-draining but that we can’t neglect.  There’s a reason they’re called “chores,” after all.

Ironically, though, as we seek joy and satisfaction; as we seek life we often try to find it in life-draining pursuits.  As Jesus put it, “we work so hard for bread that does not satisfy.”  And then we find that we have no time or resources left for that which does satisfy, for that which gives us life.

Do you notice a pattern of what is truly life-giving?
Don’t forget to include times of relaxation and refreshment.  What draws you closer to God?

This teaching is difficult, the people say.  Following Jesus can be hard, challenging.  But in the end, will we find, like Peter, that Jesus, the Holy One of God truly does show us the way of eternal life?

Living Jesus for the Life of the World – Bread of Life Part 4

Preached on 19 August 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Proper 15, (thematic track)

Today’s gospel is disturbingly graphic.  It’s visceral. My gut reaction is to resist and reject what Jesus says.  Along with the Jews, I ask, “How can this be?”

So, let’s spend some time with it.  Remember, while the lectionary gives us bits and pieces, John’s gospel has a long trajectory with each part further developing what has gone before.

We started this Bread of Life series three weeks ago with Jesus performing a sign – feeding a multitude of people with a small amount of food, five loaves of bread and two dried fish.  We are now in the third week of Jesus’ interpretation of the sign.  It began with a dialogue about his identity; that he is God; the God who provides sustenance in our lives.

Throughout the discourse, Jesus refers back to the time in the wilderness when God brought the Israelites out of the land of slavery in Egypt.  Our lives are sustained through believing in him where believing is about a deep abiding relationship with God.

Last week, we took a detour to celebrate the Transfiguration.  We missed the part with Jesus talking about where he comes from; his Origins.  He is the bread that came down from heaven to give life to the world.  He is God; he is from God.  He extended those origins to all whom God sends him; all who believe in him.  They, too, are of God.

Today, he takes it one step further. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” he says.  “The bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Just two chapters earlier, he promised the Samaritan woman that he would give her living water.  Just as God gave them manna from heaven and water from a rock in the desert, Jesus gives living bread and living water.

But we have to go back even further – all the way to chapter 1.  In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  In Jesus, God became a flesh and blood human being.  And the bread that he gives is his flesh – the same word.  The living bread that he gives is his life: birth to death and beyond.  In Jesus, God embraces human life.

John’s focus is the incarnation.  Make no mistake, John is making it absolutely clear that Jesus is as human as you and I.  “How can ‘this man’ give us his flesh to eat?” the Jews ask.  In other words, this ordinary man, this living man, How can he give us his flesh, the meat of his body, to chew?  I did say today’s gospel was disturbingly graphic.

At the same time, John is proclaiming that Jesus is from God; Jesus is returning to God; Jesus is God.  And just as the living Father sent him and Jesus has life from the Father, those who eat his flesh and drink his blood truly have life, eternal life; life from him.

This passage is about as close as John gets to talking about Eucharist, Holy Communion.  And he puts it, not at the hour of his death, but smack dab in the middle of Jesus’ life in a discourse focused on Incarnation – on Jesus’ earthly life – given in the context of a communal meal.

How does this incarnational focus expand our experience of Communion?  When we think about Jesus living for our sake so that we might have eternal life in our own lives.

And what does he mean when he says you must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have life in you.  It literally means “chew my flesh like meat.”  The words are so graphic, repugnant, even, it’s clear that he means something deeper.

Perhaps, if we look a bit more closely at the promise he offers we will get an idea.

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life; those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them… so … they will live because of me.

God, in Jesus, fully embraces and engages human life.  Jesus gives us the sustenance we need to truly live.  It’s about more than bread and water and even meat.  If we just think about food or look at it or even if we smell it, we will still be hungry; we will starve.  No, in order to have life, we have to step up and bite into it and chew it up and swallow it.

To have life in Jesus, we must consume him.  This is intimate, deep engagement.  Jesus gives all of himself for the life of all the world. This is where God has chosen to meet us – as Incarnation; living among us.

It is where we meet God.

The promise is abundant life; life in the presence of God here and now and always.  It is Jesus abiding within us; within you, within me.  It is you abiding in Jesus – the whole of your being; nothing held back.

Perhaps Jesus is saying, “The bread that I give, this living bread – my self, my life with you and in you – is as vital to your life as the bread and the fish I fed the crowd.

Jesus living for the life of the world, living bread, living water.

Holy food for Holy people.

Touchstones and Anchors

Preached on 12 August 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
Feast of the Transfiguration (transferred)

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. It’s one of the few that we can celebrate on a Sunday.  So, it must be a pretty big deal.  But apart from how cool it must have been – terrifyingly cool – what do you think is the big deal?  Why was it important in Jesus’ life?  In the lives of the three disciples who witnessed it? What does it tell us about God, about Jesus, and about our own life with Christ?

Just a week before this, Jesus asked his disciples, “what’s the word on the street?  What are people saying about me?”  And then he asked, “What about you?  Who do you think I am?”  At that point, Peter blurted out, “You are the Christ, the chosen one of God.

Then, almost immediately, Jesus told them, for the first time, that he will suffer and die and be raised up on the third day.

All that happened just a week before what we heard today.  Imagine what that week might have been like for him.  Now here it is just a week later and Jesus asks three of his closest companions to come up the mountain with him to pray – to open themselves to God; to listen for God’s voice and guidance.

And God shows up, big time, along with Moses and Elijah.  Jesus is visibly changed before their eyes and the disciples hear God say almost the same words that were heard at Jesus’ baptism.  The same words that Peter proclaimed just a week earlier.
“This is my Son, my Chosen one.  Listen to him.”

Jesus was Transfigured, yes, but for the disciples, this was a Conversion Experience.  As spectacular as this experience was, their conversion didn’t begin and end on the mountain.  It continued throughout their lives.

In Jesus’ life, the Transfiguration is a turning point. He comes down the mountain and sets out to make his final journey to Jerusalem.

It was probably a turning point for the disciples, as well.  While they had been following this itinerant preacher and prophet for some time, now they had some evidence, so to speak, that he truly is the Messiah.  He is revealed as Divine.  They were already quite familiar with his humanity.  For us, I think, it is sometimes the other way around.  We are used to thinking of Jesus as divine, the son of God, but we sometimes have to be reminded that he was fully human as well.

I’m sure that this experience served as a touchstone and, later on, as an anchor for the disciples.  In the chaos they must have felt when Jesus was arrested and crucified, they had something to hold onto; an anchor in the storm.  And then, when they were going about their ministry, proclaiming the gospel, it was a touchstone – something to help them remember who Jesus is and who they are.  They had a story to tell.  We heard it in Peter’s letter.

 

We all experience milestones and turning points in our lives.  Some of them may even become anchors or touchstones for us.  An anchor to help us weather the storms in our lives.  Touchstones to help us remember who we are, whose we are, our place in the world.

Most of us have experienced a certain ebb and flow in our spiritual lives.  Some of us may have had mountaintop experiences of some kind.  But while those are great and can turn our lives around sometimes, conversion is not a singular event, it’s a lifelong process.

All of this is true not only in our individual lives, but in the life of a community; even the life of a nation.  This morning I would like for you to think about it in terms of the life of this parish, this congregation.  This time of transition is a turning point in the life of the parish.  It’s may be an opportunity for conversion; for growing closer to God, listening for God’s guidance.

Remember, God does the converting, but we have to show up, open and willing.  Think about our two mountaintop stories this morning.

Moses goes up the mountain to be with God.  When he comes down his face is glowing – the people know that something momentous has happened.  They pay attention, even though they’re frightened.  And then throughout their journey in the wilderness, he goes into the tent of meeting from time to time to be with God.

Each time, he first removes the veil, he’s open and receptive to what God has to say.   And each time, he brings God’s message back to the people.

Jesus takes his disciples and goes up the mountain to be with God.  And he is transfigured.  He comes away, knowing what he is to do next; he’s focused.  The disciples, too, are changed.  They come down with a surety of their own path and of who Jesus is.  They are strengthened for the journey that lies ahead of them.

What are some of the turning points and milestones in your own life?  They may include moving into your first apartment or downsizing and retirement, the loss of a loved one or the birth of a child or grandchild.

What about the turning points and milestones in the life of this parish?  In what way have those moments continued to touch your life?  Have they anchored you?  Have they been touchstones for you?  Looking back, can you see God in them?

What about times when you know God was acting in the life of the parish – whether it was a mountaintop experience or something small?  Were you changed?  When Jesus came down the mountain, he was focused.  How might God we transfiguring us?  Where is God drawing us to focus our attention, our passion, our mission?

It’s up to us to show up, open and willing.

God transforms us.  Thanks be to God.

Conversation Matters – Bread of Life 2

Preached on 5 August 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13, Year B (Thematic track)

Conversation Matters.  It is fundamental to being human.  Through conversation, we build relationships; we share our joys and our sorrows.  We solve problems using conversation – not only our own personal problems, but societal problems and those we face as a nation.  Conversation gives us a way to begin to address major issues of our day such as racism, poverty, climate change, and epidemics.  Conversation helps us make meaning of our lives.  It helps us understand scripture, discern God’s presence and opens our eyes to what God is revealing to us.

Conversation or dialogue is a key characteristic in John’s Gospel.  Whenever Jesus performs a sign, he then interprets the sign through dialogue.   That’s what we have in today’s gospel.  When we come into the story, the crowd has been looking for Jesus and finally finds him.

Last week, we heard about a day earlier, when Jesus fed them all, 5,000 of them, with just five loaves of bread and two fish.  The crowd experiences the sign, but they don’t seem to understand what it means or even that it is a sign at all.  So, Jesus engages them in dialogue.

When we have an encounter with God, it can take quite some time for us to process it; for it to sink in that it was God or what it means, what God might be revealing to us.

When it comes down to it, an encounter with God is first and foremost an experience.  While we try to describe it or explain it with words and understand it with our minds, there’s more to it than that.  We encounter God on all levels and God touches us through our emotions, our spirit, our soul.

In this story from John, there are many, many layers of meaning; not only in the sign itself, but also in the dialogue that follows, in Jesus’ words.  So, let’s look a little deeper at the conversation Jesus has with the crowd that comes searching for him.

Jesus suggests to them that they did not come searching for him because of who he is or because they understand the sign, but because they were fed and were satisfied.  On one level, yes, their bellies were filled and their physical hunger was satisfied.  On another level, perhaps they recognize that some other hunger was satisfied as well; that they were in the presence of something more, although they may not understand it or be able to articulate it.  And so they go looking for him.

Jesus helps them understand what they have experienced; he helps them understand who he is and something about the nature of God.  When the crowd points to their ancestors’ time in the wilderness after fleeing slavery in Egypt, when they ate manna from heaven, and ask him for a sign, Jesus draws a parallel.  Manna perished if they kept if overnight.  But he gives food that endures for eternal life.

“It wasn’t Moses that gave you manna; it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven,” he explains.  This is about God’s ongoing providence – he switches to present tense; and it is about Jesus’ identity.  God is his father.  Jesus is the bread that has come down from heaven; that has come to give life to the world.

If we were to read chapter four, we would hear a similar conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman when she recalls the well given to their ancestor, Jacob.  Jesus says he would give her living water and “the water he will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  Whoever drinks will never be thirsty again.

Just as God provided sustenance in the desert, Jesus provides sustenance for eternal life, living bread and living water.  Abundant life with God is now.

Jesus told them that they should work for food that endures, not food that will perish.  They ask what work they must do.  “Believe in the one whom God has sent,” he says.
Believe in Jesus; give your heart to him; be in relationship with him.  By the end, they say, “Give us this bread, always,” almost as a prayer.

Do you see how Jesus draws them deeper into their experience of the sign?  They move from knowing they had full bellies to beginning to have an idea that they are in the presence of God incarnate; to prayer.
They’re just beginning to get it, though.  We still have three more weeks of Jesus drawing them ever deeper; just as Jesus invites us ever deeper into relationship with him.

As I said at the beginning, conversation matters.  There are so many different conversations we could have, beginning with this gospel lesson.  Any one of them could be an invitation from Jesus to go deeper; to see God revealed.  Here are just a few conversation starters:

The crowd experiences a sign – Jesus feeding the multitude with just a few fish and loaves of bread, and they miss it.  What signs might we be missing or just plain taking for granted?

The people go across the lake seeking Jesus because he fed them.  Where, when, why, and how do you seek Jesus?  Talk about your own encounters with God or Jesus.

Most of us have no personal experience of famine and we are rather distanced from the source of our food.  And yet, in the United States, 50% of all the food produced ends up in landfills while many people are hungry and can’t afford food.  What can we say about that?

In the world of the gospel, as soon as one meal is finished, they have to think about where the next one will come from.  They look to God for the basic sustenance of bread and water.  How does God sustain your life?

What other subjects come to mind?

With so many possibilities, let’s have some conversations.

Let’s seek Jesus.

Bread of Life – The Set-up

Preached on 29 July 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12, Year B  Track 2 (Thematic)

In the middle of this long season of ordinary time after Pentecost, our lectionary takes a break from Mark, the gospel for this year. Starting today, the lectionary spends five weeks in Chapter 6 of the gospel of John.  Five weeks; 71 verses.  It’s an opportunity to go deep.

Now the thing about John is that it doesn’t get its own year.  We read it in bits and pieces throughout the three year cycle, so we never get a chance to hear how it flows; how it holds together.  We don’t get a chance to notice how one story reiterates a message from another passage or repeats a theme or takes an idea deeper.  So, before we dive into today’s reading, let’s talk a little bit about the overall flavor of John.

John writes for a Jewish audience toward the end of the first century; after the destruction of the Temple in 70.  He uses the Jewish festivals as time markers.   He focuses on Incarnation and Revelation of the Divine. Jesus is the Word made flesh who walks among us.  Jesus, the Incarnate One, reveals God to us.

Jesus uses “I Am” statements that recall God’s words to Moses and the patriarchs in the Old Testament: “I Am the Lord Your God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”  In John’s gospel, we hear Jesus say,
I Am the light of the world,
I Am the gate of the sheepfold,
I Am the Good Shepherd, I Am the True Vine,
I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and
I Am the Bread of Life.

There is an emphasis in John’s gospel on Abundance – an abundance of grace offered by God, Abundant Life, and in today’s reading, an abundance of food.

John writes of “signs” rather than “miracles.”  And he uses a pattern.  He sets the stage, Jesus performs the sign, then there is dialogue and discourse.  In today’s reading, there are two signs – one for the crowd and one just for the disciples.  We’ll hear the dialogue and discourse over the course of the next few weeks, in which Jesus interprets and reinterprets this sign on many levels.

The first sign, the feeding of the 5,000, is in all four gospels and in three of them, it is paired with Jesus walking on water (the second sign).  Of course, each writer offers a slightly different account.

How is God revealed to you through these signs?  Imagine yourself in the crowd or in the boat.  Dwell on the details.

So, let’s go…  John sets the stage:  It is near the time of the Passover.  The people may be thinking about the stories of God’s deliverance of their people from slavery in Egypt, of their time in the desert, following Moses; of God giving them manna to eat for all those years.

Jesus goes up on the mountain with his disciples – reminiscent of Moses going up the mountain to talk to God.  Jesus looks up and sees a crowd of people approaching and he immediately begins to talk to his disciples about feeding them.

“Where can we buy bread?” he asks. His disciples point out their resources are meager.  They don’t have enough money to buy even a little bread for so many people.  There is a boy here with a few barley loaves – peasant food – and a couple of dried fish; but what is that among so many?

Apparently, they go down the hill.  Jesus tells the people to sit on the grass – and John notes that there is plenty of grass.  On the one hand, it brings to mind Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures…”  On the other hand, it looks ahead to when Jesus says, later in this gospel, “I am the Good Shepherd” and again to the end, when Jesus tells Peter, “Feed my sheep.”

Then Jesus distributes the food, the bread and fish, to the crowd himself.  All receive plenty to eat.  Afterwards, Jesus instructs the disciples to gather up the leftovers and there are 12 basketsful.

In this scene, Jesus doesn’t heal or teach. The crowd arrives and he is present to them.  He walks among them providing a basic necessity of life – bread.

The people understand the sign.  They may even be remembering the story we heard today about Elisha who fed 100 people with the few barley loaves that the man from Baal-shalishah, brought as an offering to God.  The people recognize him as a prophet and they want to make him king.  But Jesus will have none of it; he won’t be co-opted for someone else’s purposes.  He withdraws back up the mountain.  Alone.

Then, the disciples go to the sea and decide to take one of the boats across the lake to Capernaum.  This sets the stage for the second sign; the one only for the disciples.

They are three or four miles out when a strong wind comes up and the sea becomes very rough; they are terrified.  It’s night now and Jesus comes to them, through the storm, walking across the water.

He doesn’t calm the storm, though; he calms their fears.  “I Am,” he says, “don’t be afraid.”  And they immediately reach shore.  The NRSV translates it as “It is I,” because grammatically, that’s what our ear expects, but the words John uses are the same ones he uses for all the other “I Am” statements.

God, the I Am, is present; they need not fear.

John’s purpose in writing is to reveal who Jesus is and to reveal the nature of God.  He writes so that his readers will come to believe; to give their hearts to God.

In today’s story, a first level of understanding is that Jesus feeds hungry people.  God desires that all are fed.  No one goes hungry.  God’s love manifests in real food for real people.  We will hear Jesus offer more interpretations in the coming weeks.

What do these signs reveal to you about God?
And Jesus?  How do they touch your heart?  How do they speak to your soul?

Sit with them awhile; imagining yourself in the crowd or in the boat.  Dwell on the details. What is God stirring within you?

You can’t steer a parked car

Preached on 22 July 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11, Year B, Thematic track

 

What distinguishes the church from other charitable organizations, social service agencies, or organizations working for social justice?  I would say it’s that we do acts of charity and we strive for justice and peace in response to God’s invitation, to God’s call.  We understand ourselves to be continuing the mission that Jesus began two thousand years ago; a mission that has continued through Jesus’ disciples, guided by the Holy Spirit, from those early days in first century Palestine all around the world and all the way to today.

It’s not that our way or our motivation is better.  And it’s not that we are the only ones called by God or following God, but that is, I think what we do.  And today, I would like to focus on what we do as disciples of Jesus, as apostles sent out to continue the work God gives us to do, as we say in our prayers each week.

Now, hearing God’s call, responding to Christ’s invitation, following the guidance of the Holy Spirit; that requires discernment.

You see, you can’t steer a parked car.
By the same token, you can’t guide someone who is hurtling down the road at breakneck speed, darting in and out, going so fast that there isn’t time to read the signs much less say, “turn here.”  And there certainly isn’t a chance to double check the address to make sure you’re headed for the right goal.

There’s a lot of middle ground between standing still and reckless driving.

Discernment happens through a rhythm of prayer and meditation and action and reflection.  Asking through prayer, what God would have us do and listening for a response, not only in the quiet of meditation but in our lives, in the news, in our community.  What’s happening?  What stirs us?  What catches us up short?  What stops us in our tracks?

Then we move, we act, we do what we think God might be calling us to do.  Remember God can’t steer a parked car, it has to be moving.

The final step before beginning the rhythm again is to pause and reflect on our action.  How was God present?  What were the fruits?  Part of the reflection is the return to prayer, asking for God’s response and guidance.

We find this same rhythm in much of Jesus’ ministry.  We see it in his guidance of the disciples.  A couple weeks ago, we heard him send them out in pairs, remember?  They were to go and be guests, taking no supplies, no bag, no money, not even a change of clothes.  They were sent out to proclaim the kingdom of God, to heal the sick and cast out demons.

Today, we come into the story just after they have come back.  Can’t you just feel the excitement in the air as they each tell the others all their experiences?  And Jesus says to them, ‘come away to a lonely place, a deserted place, all by yourselves to rest for a while.”  It’s time to pause and reflect.

They didn’t get much time, though, just the journey on the boat.  By the time they got to the other shore, the people were waiting for them.

That’s what life is like though, isn’t it?  In their case, God’s call is right in front of them.  Jesus is moved by compassion and begins to teach the crowds.

The lectionary skips around a bit in today’s reading.  What it leaves out is that after a long day of teaching, the disciples point out that the people must be hungry; they tell Jesus to send them away to go buy themselves something to eat.  But Jesus tells the disciples that they should feed them.  And here we have Mark’s story of the feeding of the 5,0000, in which it is the disciples who feed the people.

Again, we would see the rhythm of acting and then pausing to reflect.  As soon as the crowd is fed, Jesus sends the disciples ahead in the boat while he goes apart to pray.  That night, he joins them, walking across the lake.

The lectionary starts up again when they reach shore.  The crowds come, bringing the sick to be healed.

Sometimes the demands seem relentless.  For Jesus.  For us.  Whether it’s the demands of home and family, a family member who is ill or disabled and truly needs a lot of care, for example, or the demands of the endless stream of needs that are always before us in our community, in the news, in our facebook feed.  We can’t even begin to do it all.

But the thing is, we can do some.  What is it that God would have us do?  How do we discern?  We discern by entering into the rhythm.  And we can enter into that rhythm at any point in the cycle.

We have to remember, though, that God can’t steer a parked car; nor can God navigate one that’s hurtling down the highway at breakneck speed with a driver who’s ignoring all the signs along the way.

In the end, you see, it’s not about us.  It’s Jesus who invites us to serve.  It’s Jesus who invites us to rest and reflect.  It is Jesus who sends the Holy Spirit to guide us and empower us, and to equip us to do the work we are given to do.  God is already there, going before us, waiting to meet us in the poor, the needy, the marginalized, those to whom we are sent.  God is surrounding us and filling us with God’s grace and love.  That’s what distinguishes the church.

Thanks be to God.