Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Is there any Gospel reading more familiar to us than Jesus feeding the multitudes (Matthew 14:13-21)? Let’s put aside the inclination to call Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand a miracle. Why? Primarily because it misses the point and distracts us from the true miracles that take place in the story. 

Matthew told us in the first chapter that Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us.” So for the one who made the world out of nothing and created light from darkness, multiplying some food and loaves was no major feat. John reminds us that the wonders Jesus performed throughout his ministry were always indications of the character of the God of love whose divine presence Jesus bears. Make no mistake, what Jesus did is anything but pedestrian but the point isn’t what Jesus did, but why he did it. Jesus reveals the God in him by his compassion, the hallmark of Jesus ministry. This single word summarizes God’s unconditional love for us and is at the core of his incarnation in Christ. 

Before going further in the story, the scene begins with the transitional line, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Jesus had just heard about John the Baptist’s murder by King Herod at a feast. The metaphorical juxtaposition of images couldn’t be more powerful. After hearing the news, Jesus needed to retreat and be alone. John was his baptizer, teacher and mentor. Jesus, in the fullness of his humanity, was hurting and yearned for solace. And yet manages to fulfill the consistent call of the Father to feed the hungry and heal the sick and fill the “empty.” 

Ok, let’s get back to our miracle… that was no minor endeavor. What we now call “food scarcity” was rampant in the ancient world. And so the disciples’ suggestion that the hordes of people go away and buy food isn’t just unrealistic it’s ridiculous. First, they were in a deserted place in the middle of nowhere, and second, they would likely not have any money to buy food anyway. And so Jesus tells his disciples to get over their self-concern and desire to be left alone, and feed them… themselves!  

Which brings us to the real miracle of the story: Jesus uses the disciples, even when they would rather look after themselves, to tend to the needs of these thousands of men, women, and children. They go from “we have nothing here but five loaves and fishes” to one of abundance to “thank you, God, for these five loaves and fishes.” Whatever their initial skepticism, or doubt, or self-indulgence, the disciples are caught up in Jesus’ words of abundance and “they all ate and were filled” as God worked through these reluctant disciples to care for the poor and hungry that he loves so much. 

And that miracle continues when a parent puts his/her own dreams aside to care for the needs of their children or aging parent. God is working that same miracle when a community of faith makes a promise that no one that comes to its doors will be turned away hungry, or when a Muslim family hides a Christian refugee from the wrath of murderous radicals. God is still at work performing miracles through us, his disciples eager, yet reluctant, and everything in between.

The real wonder of this story is that it continues. God cares deeply and passionately for those who are most vulnerable:  the poor, the homeless, the hungry. And God continues to use us to care for them.  

Just maybe if we are serving our “needy,” however poor or rich, we are reminded of the similarity that exists between the scenes in Matthew. Let those of us who have been fed by God’s heavenly food go and do likewise by sharing God’s love with all we meet and especially with those in deepest need. 

There are two miracles in this story. They have little to do with simply multiplying loaves and fishes, and by remembering them, we are hopefully prepared to continue to follow Jesus and care for those in need. And that is no small thing at a time like this. Thank you God, and thank God for you.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014





It’s the cutting edge of making choices,
splitting what you choose from what you don’t choose.
And making your choices will set you apart
from others, even friends and family.
This is the work of becoming your own self.
When your choices upset those around you
it may be because you’re being foolish.
But it may be because you’re making your choices
instead of letting them. It will be like this.
Abandon that owned self, and find your own self.

Listen deeply to God.
Let God alone lead you.
Make yourself available to God
as an instrument of righteousness,
and know that even as you let go of your life
you receive life.
-Steve Garnaas-Holmes

Jesus moves on, according to Matthew (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52), from stories of God-the-Mad-Farmer who sows seed everywhere and refuses to weed the crops, to stories of choices that must be made, stories in which it is not God, but we who must do the choosing, between small seeds that can grow God-crops in the world, and all the welter of things the world wants us to choose instead.
The grain of mustard seed – the smallest of all the seeds, can grow in a weedy patch to become the largest of all the bushes and offer shelter to many birds. A small amount of yeast can grow flour into bread enough to feed a town. The priceless pearl, a small thing among fakes and baubles, has value far greater than everything we own. A great treasure, unexpectedly found in the field of your life, will require everything you have. And the full fishnet, teeming with life and trash, will best be sorted on shore, so bring it all in.
Each of these tales requires everything. And each requires just one thing. The price for the treasures of God is everything we have. And the prize, the treasure, is only one thing, one thing that must be seen and named and taken and prized. And none of them would get you a round of applause in your choosing. And most of them would get you some rolled eyes, or some catcalls, or some Damn Fool!  remark, maybe muttered, maybe said to your face.
After all, who are the likes of you and I to be purchasing pearls? To be selling the farm for something you found in a field? To be wasting all your yeast to raise three barrelsful of flour into bread for strangers? To be planting mustard instead of fig trees or olive groves? And as for that fishnet, any fool can see the old boots, the broken bottles, the sea-bottom trash in that haul – throw it back, cast your net again!

What’s precious, say all Jesus’ stories, is likely to be judged as junk by most folks, and likely to require a lot from you and me. All the stories say – Make yourself available to God (Adapted from “Treasures,” The Bite in the Apple by Nancy Rockwell, July 19, 2014)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Us and Them

As children, many of us were raised on the great American myth in which we were told that we can be anyone we wanted to be and could do anything we wanted to do. I’m talking about the myth that says we’re “special,” not because we’re special for having a healthy sense of one’s value as a person, but "special" in the sense of having special privileges, special benefits, special advantages or entitlement. I think one of the hardest lessons in life for those of us raised on that myth is to come to grips with the reality of life that each of us is born to a set of circumstances, with a genetic inheritance and personality that, as hard as we try, we can no more change than a leopard can change its spots. I think our generation especially, has had great difficulty accepting the reality that I’m not “special.”  

It seems to me that religious perfectionism thrives on the desire to be “special” in God’s sight. To some extent, it’s an obsession whose seeds are planted early in the biblical narrative. In a very real sense, the stories in the Old Testament about the patriarchs and matriarchs are all about the idea that the children of Abraham and Sarah are special. Even in our current reading from Genesis, God promises them special blessings “like the dust of the earth,” and later, a “land flowing with milk and honey.”  Coming at the beginning of the Bible’s story, it’s no wonder that religious perfectionists throughout the ages have sought to lay claim for God’s special attention and blessing for themselves. 

Religious perfectionists have used all kinds of strategies to guarantee that they get to be “special” people in God’s sight. One of those strategies is reflected in the parable from our gospel lesson for today (Matthew 13:24-30, 35-43), making it all about “us” against “them.” It’s a difficult parable to understand, and perhaps it may have been tampered with to make a point. The community Matthew was writing for was probably struggling with the fact that, though they were Jewish, they had been thrown out of their synagogues. Needless to say they were feeling displaced and desperately struggling to justify themselves in the face of rejection.  

The parable itself seems to talk mainly about the difficulty of separating good from evil in this world. It would seem that Matthew’s community turned the story into a means of supporting an “us” against “them” mentality: they are the “wheat” that will one day be harvested and gathered into God’s barns, while their enemies are the “weeds” that will one day be gathered up and burned. In an earlier sermon Jesus says that God gives the blessings of sun and rain to all alike. Here, however, he tells a parable about separating the “children of the kingdom” from the “children of the evil one.” When you look at what Jesus says elsewhere, this parable about “us” against “them” stands out like a sore thumb.  
This past Sunday, I had the pleasure of attending my Cousin Marianne’s 80th birthday party celebration. My mother had nine siblings and we were blessed with many cousins. Marianne and I were very close as she with her parents and her now-deceased twin sister, lived a few doors away in the same building with my Grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins. Marianne and I shared a special bond in our love for music which, despite our difference in age, held us close. We had a lot of fun reminiscing as the 2 most senior people at a party of many first and second cousins and their spouses. However, in a more private moment we shared the sadness that we felt as we recognized how some siblings were estranged from each other. They, of their own accord, set up separate “we” and “them” borders Vis a Vis tables and seating arrangements to make sure that they kept away from one another. We felt sure that the cause of these ongoing “feuds” had likely been long forgotten and wondered if they would even have been allowed to exist if their parents were still alive. 

In thinking about the celebration and when we read this parable and consider its allegorical interpretation, I realize that none of us is immune to the desire to be “special”. Who among us doesn’t assume that we are the wheat and “they,” whoever they may be, are the weeds. We all tend to approach a parable like this one and assume that we are the favorites, we are the chosen ones; we are the “children of the kingdom.” But the plain truth of Scripture is that in God’s sight all people are loved and valued. There is no such thing as “special” people in God’s realm, in the sense of having special privileges. God does not single anyone out for special attention or blessings. God gives the blessings to all people on earth alike. He loves all his people unconditionally—both by virtue of our creation. There is nothing we could do to lose this love, which we are expected to share with one another as a way of life across the board and not just with “the we” but with “the them.” To God there is no we and them. (Based in part on a sermon Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

I beg your pardon...He did promise us a rose garden

As I read the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, I can envision images of various groups of people. We might tend to categorize them as just plain rocky soil; or soil loaded with weeds and thorns; and those lucky ones, lush with healthy soil. Being able to group people accordingly would be convenient, especially if we happened to arrogantly consider ourselves to be fertile dirt. It’s easy to think of the “poor-soil people” as if they had a condition like a receding hair line, over which had no control. But, the uncomfortable reality is that we have good soil potential within us and are inches away from some seriously rocky ground as well. We are not far from the thorns and weeds either. These possibilities are all within easy reach. And depending on the day, or the moment, or the circumstance, either soil can be present.
My love for roses began when I was a child. I can remember the climbing rose outside my bedroom window, impervious to the hostile elements of city dirt. Aside from its incomparable beauty, I especially recall the delicate fragrance that filled the room on summer mornings. And so, when I bought my first house and had a real back yard, I decided I was going to start a garden and plant roses. I was convinced the soil would be perfect since we only lived yards away from a babbling brook. Well this bucolic setting did not live up to its billing: the under-soil was clay and rock, and the stream, eventually taught me more than I ever wanted to know about ground water pressure and flooded basements. I spent hours digging just one hole, extracting rocks and breaking poor quality spades. I persevered and in time, I had a row of beautiful multi-colored roses which I fed and watered faithfully. For a few weeks I took pride in their growth but it wasn’t long before they began to wither, one by one and die. What could have happened? Despite, my relentless tending, I learned that the ground’s inability to drain caused the roots to “drown.” With all my digging and watering, I never amended the soil to properly begin with and prepare it to receive and nourish the plants.
I suppose my initial efforts as a rose gardener efforts can serve as a metaphor for many moments in my life. Sometimes, everything’s coming up roses and sometimes I come up with rocks and wind up breaking things in the process. Sometimes, I just give up and say the heck with it.
Jesus is asking us here to bring in our best dirt and appropriate fertilizer, so that his Way can take root deep within us. This isn’t something that happens by chance, or because we’re fortunate to have good genes. It’s something we work at. We’re the ones charged with tilling our own soil so that the Life which Jesus sows may grow in us, and produce a bounty…even if we wind up breaking a few shovels and spades in the process; there’s no giving up.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What Do You Want?

Can’t we relate to Jesus’ reaction to the crowd in Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 as he compares his followers to a bunch of children who cannot make up their minds: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, `He has a demon'; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, `Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” In today’s vernacular, he might have asked “do you really know what you want? What else will it take for me to help you understand how much God loves you?” It is difficult to exactly pin down the emotions Jesus is expressing but to me they reveal in his Divine incarnation, beautifully human feelings to which we can all relate. It helps us to know that the one whose Word we follow and live by can experience these emotions that are so much a part of our lives.

We all view the world through our own prism or lenses that are largely influenced by the world around us. Two people can hear an identical message, while the same two people will have a different interpretation. This is part of our human nature. Sometimes we consciously create our own reality that serve our desired expectations and “wishes” based on what we want to hear. In most cases, our perception is unconscious and consistent with our view of reality. When we attempt to “re-write” or “re-create” our own “script” for what we know to be reality, we work at cross-purposes with God’s will. Philosophers tell us that “wishing” is more a fanciful dream, not based in reality while “hope,” has more of a factual basis based on real expectations that come into its own when crisis looms…opening us up to new creative possibilities.

“What do you want? Jesus seems to ask the crowd. Except he knows they won’t answer. Can’t. Because what they want is to grow, to evolve, to improve and more. And yet at the same time they want to be left alone, untouched and unchanged. Why? Because to change is to lose something, and so to change can feel like dying. And more than anything else the people who listened to Jesus – want desperately to grow but not really to change. Change, you see, brings the unknown. Change is not certain. Change implies risk and even potential loss. Which is why we often stay in failed jobs and relationships – they may not be much, but at least they’re something and at least we know what to expect.” (David Lose, Dear Partner in Preaching)

In Matthew we see the love of God manifest in Jesus’ ability to embrace our human diversity with his divinely inspired nature. Reaction to the different ministries of John and Jesus provide a model to help us understand that whatever we do can never meet the needs of everyone. We will not be able to reach those whose lenses are distorted by ego and they will forever remain deaf to us. Instead, surrendering our voice to God who through the Holy Spirit will provide the voice that will reach the different ears and different needs, we vainly believe that what we say should be sufficient for all.

Thomas Keating tells us “that there are all kinds of ways in which God speaks to us—through our thoughts and/or anyone of our faculties. But keep in mind that God’s first language is silence. We must listen. We must be willing to listen. The Spirit speaks to our conscience through scripture and through the events of daily life. Reflection on those two sources of personal encounter and the dismantling of the emotional programming of the past prepare the psyche to listen at a more refined level of attention.”

As John and Jesus show us, there is more than one means to the great end… that is God.