Enough

Do you ever feel like you don’t have to meet the situation you’re dealing with? Enough time, enough resources, enough energy? That’s how I felt in the story that opens this week’s sermon. You can take heart with me, then, in the fact that the disciples had been there before us! In the feeding of the 5,000, Andrew and Peter (and probably the other disciples) felt like they didn’t have the ability to meet the needs of the crowd. But, when someone offers what they do have, even though it isn’t enough, God makes enough out of it.

Grace to and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I was on internship in Easton, Pennsylvania in October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit. It wasn’t as bad in the Lehigh Valley as it was in New Jersey and elsewhere, but it was pretty bad. That night, alone in my apartment attached the church, the only person on the whole block, I waited as branches were torn from trees and slate tiles flew off the roof.

As we surveyed the damage the next morning, the worst that had happened was a few shingles missing from the church, and one massive tree limb down across the parking lot entrance. A few feet to the left and it would have hit the sanctuary. As we began clean-up, we realized we were among the lucky ones. In downtown Easton, just a block from the main circle, our power lines were underground. Almost everyone not in that lucky four-block radius lost power. So did the surrounding counties. No one could give an estimate of when it would come back on.

People began to arrive. At first it was just a few. A couple from the church, looking to charge their phones. An elderly man, looking for a working power outlet, so he could use his nebulizer. A family that had no power and lived in a basement apartment that had flooded. Then some more came. They told us they had heard on the radio that St. John’s had power and was open. The mayor, who was friends with the pastor, had called earlier in the day to check on the church. We didn’t realize that he was going to share this information with the radio stations.

It was dinner time, and people kept showing up, because they’d heard on the radio that the church was warm and open. Pastor Sue and I didn’t have time to run anything by church council. We couldn’t plan out our response with a helpful committee of volunteers. The people were hungry and had nothing to eat.

We ended up raiding my pantry and fridge, since it was right next door. Like a good Italian, I had plenty of pasta and sauce. So that first night, twenty hungry people ate spaghetti and sauce.

Our makeshift shelter stayed open for a week. From seven a.m. to eight p.m. we were open. We served breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and lots and lots of coffee. Our twenty people grew to forty, then sixty. No one’s power was back on yet.

Church members got word of what was happening and came to help, bringing what they had in their fridges. The local newspaper ran a story, and the next day, two women from the Lutheran church in Nazareth showed up with cases of water, and enough cream of broccoli soup and tater tots to make a dozen casseroles.

By the time the power was restored, and the schools opened again, we had fed sixty people hot meals for six days. When that first man arrived, we had no idea what we were getting into. As the crowd gathered the first night, and it got closer and closer to dinner time, my first instinct was to tell the people they needed to leave. We couldn’t do this, we weren’t prepared, we didn’t even have any food at the church. But we did do it. Four boxes of mismatched pasta became an overflowing pantry of generosity and kindness.

It’s all too easy in these situations to look at what we don’t have. It’s what I did. It was the reaction of the disciples when faced with a crowd of hungry people, too. Philip says that it’s impossible, they could never afford to feed all these people. Andrew finds some food that a young boy has brought, but he doesn’t think it will ever be enough. We’d better send these people home, Jesus, we can’t possibly be expected for feed thousands of people. We didn’t sign up for this.

We’re going to be faced with situations where we feel that way. Where we feel like what we have to offer is not enough, or not good enough, or not important enough to make a difference. It might not be on as large a scale as feeding thousands of people, but those situations will come up.

When we consider the fact that 41 million people struggle with hunger and food insecurity in the United States—just in the United States, that’s not even the world, a six-bed garden behind a church doesn’t seem like a drop in the bucket.

When we think about the level of pollution in our oceans and waterways, bringing your own cup to Starbucks doesn’t seem like it really matters. When we think about advocating for justice, it seems that there is always a new injustice that requires a response. Facing immense need, it’s easy to view what we have to offer, whether it’s money or actions, as not good enough.

It’s easy to view what we have that way, but it’s not the only way to view it. Instead, we can look at what we have to offer and not see what it’s lacking, but see it as a gift and blessing from a God who is able to do great things. I wonder what was going through the mind of the boy with the fish and the loaves. He must have known that this meagre offering was not enough to feed the whole crowd. And yet he offered it anyway.

What we bring to Jesus’ table might seem like it’s not nearly enough to meet the needs around us. The money we bring, the time we’re able to give, the actions we take on behalf of others. It can get discouraging to consider our small offerings compared to the immensity of need. But it is not ultimately the adequacy of our supplies or our skills that makes a difference. What makes the difference is the power of Jesus Christ working in small things, little things, overlooked things, to make a miraculous difference in this world.

In the letter to Ephesians we heard that the power of God at work in us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. It doesn’t have to start with much. And it’s not up to us to perform miracles. What we have, what sometimes seemingly little we can offer—God is the one who can make miracles out of it. In the hand of Jesus little can turn into much.

I saw it happen. Despite my fear that we wouldn’t have enough, enough was provided. More than enough. Do not be discouraged. What you have to offer is enough. What you have to give is enough. You are enough.

The young boy didn’t know what was going to happen to his bread and fish, but he knew he had something to offer and so offer it he did. We don’t always know how God is going to use us, how God is going to use our gifts, but we’ll never know if we keep them to ourselves. Do not worry that it’s not enough. Do not worry that it’s too small to make a difference. See instead the blessing that God has given you: your abilities, your resources, your very self. Gifts from God to meant to be shared. And when they are, miracles can happen. Amen.

Advertisements

Compassion

The Gospel lesson for this past Sunday was a couple small chunks of text which skipped over some big events: the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus calming the storm (we’ll be reading those this week). It felt a little disjointed, like having bookends with no books in the middle. So I decided to latch onto one detail: Jesus having compassion for the crowds. If you want to read the Gospel from Mark and Epistle from Ephesians, the sermon will make more sense.

(Also, some of my inspiration for this sermon came from a West Wing episode where presidential candidate Matt Santos gives a speech to a church after a police shooting and talks about compassion. You can watch a clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFbomB2nZTY)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever heard the term “compassion fatigue”? It’s something that was first observed among nurses and caregivers at veterans’ long-term care facilities following World War II. Their jobs asked them to give of themselves, of their compassion, daily, and after long stretches of time, they would get rundown. They would feel as though they didn’t have anything left to give.

It’s sometimes called care-giver syndrome. It’s often associated with helping professions: nurses, psychiatrists, therapists, counselors, EMTs, pastors. But it doesn’t only affect those people. Those who are the primary caregiver for a parent or partner. For a child who needs a lot of attention and help. They know this fatigue, too. Sometimes, it’s simply called burnout. It’s when our stores of compassion and care are simply running on empty.

I wonder if this is what’s at stake in our Gospel reading. There is a massive amount of need. People, crowds are coming out of the villages to find and follow Jesus. They’re even running ahead of him in some cases, bringing out their sick and needy, laying them in the streets, so that Jesus might heal them. The need is open, raw. The need is so immense that it says the disciples “had no leisure, even to eat.” Jesus tries to get them to go apart, away, that they might have a chance to refresh and restore themselves, but it doesn’t work. The crowds, and the need, find them.

But instead of sending them away, instead of retreating even further, it says that Jesus had compassion for them. He had compassion. I’m using that word compassion a lot, it’s worth taking some to talk about it. It comes into the English from Latin, and literally means “passion with.” Feeling compassion for someone means you’re feeling what they’re feeling. You’re sharing their pain and hurt.

But it’s more than that. The Hebrew word for compassion, racham, comes from the Hebrew word for womb. The Greek word, the word actually used to describe what Jesus is feeling is splagchnizomai. That’s a word for you. We translate it compassion, but it’s more than that. It literally means to having a yearning in your gut. Compassion isn’t something we do with our heads, with our thoughts. Compassion is a feeling that takes over our physical body. You know the feeling.

Here is Jesus, hounded by thirsty crowds. He looks upon them as sheep without a shepherd, sheep with no one tending to them, no sense of orientation or protection. Had he ever felt this way himself? Probably. So Jesus had compassion on them. He understood them. He felt care, empathy, and love for them at the very core, the womb of his being.

Compassion is not an emotion you can have from a distance. Pity, condolence, sympathy—all these things you can offer from a nice safe, removed point. But compassion is that visceral pull in your stomach that forces you to engage with someone, to be drawn in to another’s situation. Compassion is not a feeling so much as it is an action—being drawn into another person.

We need more compassion in the world today maybe than we’ve needed before. And it often feels as though we have less than we used to. We have less compassion nowadays for each other. We’re quicker to judge than to empathize. We’re quicker to condemn than to love. We’re quicker to assume than to draw near and learn.

I know I’ve felt that in myself—I’ve felt that my stores of compassion are not as great as they used to be. And I know I’ve seen it reflected in the world around me. Our compassion struggles to extend beyond those who are like us, beyond those we already understand. It struggles to extend to those of different races and economic backgrounds, to those from different countries, to those with different educational opportunities. It seems our compassion struggles most of all to extend to those with different political affiliations than ours. Maybe it’s compassion fatigue. Maybe we’re feeling depleted, I don’t know. But compassion seems to be in short supply lately.

In the letter Helene read, written to the Ephesians, the Apostle is urging compassion. There are divisions in this community—divisions along lines of class, of ethnic background, of religious background. The author urges them to remember that Christ came not to deepen divisions, but for the work of reconciliation. “For [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…that he might create in himself one new humanity in the place of two…and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross.”

I’m not suggesting brushing issues and division under the rug for the appearance of peace and unity—all that creates is a false peace. But when we consider the things that divide us, we need to try to start from a place of compassion. We need to start by seeing those different from us as fellow members of the household of God, not as someone wholly other to ourselves.

A Rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun. “Could it be,” asked one of the students, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the Rabbi.

Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” answered the Rabbi. “Then what is it?” the pupils demanded. “It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”

Compassion. Jesus came to teach us compassion. Not just for our families and our friends and our neighbors. That’s all just practice. Jesus calls us to have compassion for our enemies. To have compassion for the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the alien, the poor, the sick, those unlike us.

But God does not just teach us compassion, or expect compassion from us, God showers us with compassion daily. God felt the pull of compassion so strongly for humanity, right in God’s womb, that God gave birth to Jesus—compassion incarnate. God with us, in the midst of our need.

God doesn’t get compassion fatigue. When we cry out, like those crowds, that we too are in need of healing, are in need of reconciliation, are in need of hope and guidance, the depths of God’s compassion are never exhausted. God sees our needs. God sees your need, whatever it is on this day. And with compassion, God is drawn in to you and to me. And God draws us in, to be reconciled together in the household of God. Amen, and thanks be to God.

A Tale of Two Kingdoms

There are days when proclaiming “Praise to you, O Christ” after the reading of the Gospel just doesn’t feel right. Yesterday was one of those days. Go ahead and read the Gospel story, the beheading of John the Baptist, and see if you don’t agree with me! There’s a lot going on here, and none of it really feels like good news. There are options when a text like this is assigned for a Sunday. You can preach on the lesson from the Hebrew Bible, or from the epistles. You could change the text altogether (no one may ever even know!). You can have a hymn sing, instead.

All of those thoughts went through my mind last week, as I tried to avoid dealing with this bloody, depressing text. But, in the end, I decided to go for it, because sometimes (often) the real world is bloody and depressing, too. Our scripture doesn’t shy away from the realities of the world and neither should we. But that doesn’t mean those realities get to define and control our lives. God’s reality gets to do that. Let me know what you think!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

A high-powered lobbyist was quoted in the Washington Post as saying: “There’s only two engines that drive Washington: one is greed and the other is fear.” This quote was offered a few years ago, but it could have been said yesterday. Or fifty years ago. Or 1,000 years ago. “There’s only two engines that drive Washington, that drive Rome, that drive Herod’s court: one is greed and the other is fear.”

Today’s Gospel story, the beheading of John the Baptizer, is full of greed and fear. It’s full of powerful people and power-seeking people. It’s full of intrigue and scandal and ultimately death. It feels out of place in the Bible, at least out of place in the gospels, with its blood and gore and sexual insinuations. But honestly, it doesn’t feel that out of place in our world. It’s a story that’s been repeated over and over again.

King Herod Antipas, one of the three sons of Herod the Great, is ruling in Galilee. He’s not a popular king, and he holds onto his power in ruthless ways. He has married his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. The main problem at this point is that Philip is actually still alive.

And John the Baptist, preaching repentance and a return to the ways of God, gets wind of this, and has the guts to tell King Herod: it is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife. Herodias wants this man dead—he is a threat not just to her position as queen but really to her life—, and in a compromise, he is arrested and kept in King Herod’s prison.

Herod doesn’t want to kill John, apparently, because he knows that John is a righteous and holy man. I love what Mark says about Herod’s interactions with John: he was greatly perplexed when listening to the prophet, and yet he liked to listen to him. John’s preaching calls into question the very foundations of Herod’s power—and yet the king is strangely drawn to this preaching, intrigued.

But Herodias has her opening at the king’s birthday feast. She sends her daughter, confusingly also called Herodias in Mark’s story, often called Salome, in to dance for the king. We know from the Greek words used that this is a young girl, probably twelve or thirteen. And her dancing so pleases her stepfather that he says he will grant her whatever she wants—up to half of his kingdom.

This was the same promise given to Queen Esther, who used it to save her people. Salome goes back to her mother, who we know has something less noble in mind. The head of John the Baptist. The girl embellishes a bit and demands it on a platter.

Herod is described as being torn. He does not want to kill John, but feels compelled by his promise. He cannot suffer the loss of honor and reputation that would follow backing out of a public promise. And so John, without trial, without justice, is killed.

This is a story that we know almost too well. A story of a righteous person being trampled by a powerful person. A story of justice being crushed beneath greed. A story of people backed into corners, trying to protect themselves, and in doing so killing others.

This is a story that’s been repeated over and over again. We’ll see it repeated in Mark’s gospel in just a few short chapters with Jesus, standing before another ruler who feels he has no option but to kill a righteous man in the name of preserving power. We’ll see the Apostle Paul die for telling the Roman Empire that it was not in fact God. Thomas More is beheaded by Henry VIII for holding to his convictions in the face the king’s self-interest. Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis for daring to speak against genocide. Martin Luther King, Jr. shot because he dared to call on our nation to repent and return to the ways of God.

As if real life weren’t enough, we see this story again and again in our fiction, in our movies and TV shows. Game of Thrones, the Sopranos, House of Cards, Mad Men. The anti-hero, ruled not by morals or righteousness, but by greed and fear. It’s a compelling story.

I think that we’re so drawn to this story because we recognize the truth in it. This is no fairy-tale. We see in Herod’s story, in all of these stories, an honest truth of our world. Power is dangerous. Power corrupts. Often those in power don’t listen to what they know to be right in order to preserve their own positions. Herod didn’t. Pilate didn’t. The priest in our reading from Amos didn’t. He didn’t listen to the word of God because it would mean losing his own power and authority. Often the vulnerable are exploited. We know this story. We know this narrative because we were born to this world that says power is good and vulnerability is bad. We were born to this world that says greed is good and selflessness is weak. We were born to this world that says it’s all about looking out for yourself, no matter the cost.

But—and this is a very important but—this is not the only narrative available to us. We get into this whole story about the beheading of John, because Jesus’ disciples are going throughout the countryside teaching and preaching and healing. Jesus is amassing followers because of his message of inclusion and mercy and redemption for all people. Herod gets wind of all this and he is afraid that John has been raised from the dead.

John hasn’t been raised, of course, but what lives on is his words. What lives on is his hope. What lives on is the redemption and grace that he offered. All of the prophets killed through the ages are alive in Jesus, who God does raise from the dead.

God offers us a different narrative. A narrative where power is found in relationships. Where power is found in being vulnerable and broken. Where power is used not for self, but for others. This might not be the narrative to which we were born, but it is the narrative to which we are reborn. It is God’s story of redemption and hope and mercy for all people and that is the story that we are a part of. It is the story of John and Jesus, and Amos and all the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, and Bonhoeffer and Romero and King. It is a story that will always be contending with Herod’s story. A story that will always be told it’s not realistic enough, that it needs to realize that’s not how the world works.

But it is our story. A story of grace instead of vengeance, mercy instead of grudges. Generosity instead of greed. Vulnerability instead of pride. Hope instead of fear. This is the story to which we were each called, the story in which we were reborn at our baptisms.

Herod may have killed John the Baptist, but he could not kill the good news of God’s story that John brought. God’s story, God’s hope and love, will always rise from the ashes of those who try to put it out. There’s only two engines that drive Washington, the lobbyist said, fear and greed. That may be so, I don’t know for sure, but I do know that God’s kingdom is driven by very different things: redemption, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and love. Amen.

What’s on your packing list?

Maybe I just have travel on the mind, but the packing list seemed like a great metaphor to jump into this week’s Gospel lesson. So–read the sermon and let me know in the comments–is there anything you wish wasn’t on your packing list? Anything you’d love to put in your bag to be a better disciple?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

A couple of times I’ve been asked by someone new to Christianity or curious about our faith how to read the Bible. They’ve never read any part of Scripture before and pick up a Bible and, as you do with a book, start reading at the beginning. Genesis and Exodus go ok, because they’re mostly stories, but somewhere around the middle of Leviticus, these people usually give up.

When these people come to me and say, “I’m still interested in this, but how do I read this book?” my answer is always to start with the Gospels. In particular to start with the Gospel of Mark. Mark doesn’t even come first in the New Testament, so that might seem counterintuitive. But it’s the shortest Gospel, you could read it start to finish in probably half an hour.

In part because it’s the shortest, most people tend to think that Mark was the first Gospel written. It seems frantic, hurried, almost in its pacing. You can imagine its author racing to get it finished, needing to get this story down on paper so that it might be shared. Matthew, Luke, and John take more time, gather more stories, include more details.

There is no drawn-out Sermon on the Mount in Mark like there is in Matthew, where Jesus teaches and preaches for three whole chapters. There is no nativity, no account of Jesus’ birth like there is in Luke, and Mark’s Holy Week narrative lasts only three chapters, compared to John’s eight. The author of Mark is not messing around with any information you don’t absolutely need.

So what does Mark decide is worth including in his Gospel? A packing list. Jesus, after just being rejected in his home town, is sending the disciples out in pairs to do ministry. And he literally offers a packing list: “bring this, don’t bring that.” It reminds me a lot of the list we were given before the Youth Gathering last week. It too was very specific. Do bring close-toed shoes, a sturdy backpack, a water bottle, and sunscreen.

Do not bring valuable jewelry, alcohol, or firearms. Don’t bring more technology than you need. Don’t bring flip flops. And there are a few things you learn by experience every adult leader should have on their packing list: a portable charger, a power strip so you can charge six phones at once, and a headlamp.

Both what we were told to bring and what were asked not to bring was designed to help us get the most out of our experience in Houston. We needed our phones to keep track of each other, but we didn’t need any extra technology to distract us from our community. We didn’t need much money, but most assuredly did need good walking shoes. Communal games, like a deck of cards were great, but individual games didn’t help.

Jesus’ list is much the same. It’s meant to help the disciples be as effective as they can be. His list, in short: “Don’t bring much of anything.” Don’t pack an extra shirt, don’t carry any money, don’t bring any food with you. It will hold you back if you do. Travel light, because you don’t know when you might have to move on quickly. Discipleship requires that you leave behind the things that would tie you down and hold you back.

It begs the question, as 21st century disciples, what should our packing list look like? What things do we need to leave behind, what things are holding us back from doing ministry in today’s world? There’s a literal way to look at this: we might have actual things that are holding us back. A city congregation I know recently sold their building. It was huge, bigger than St. Paul’s, and the congregation was dwindling. Most of their money had to go to maintaining a rapidly declining building, instead of reaching out to their neighbors. By letting go of that building, renting space somewhere else instead, they freed themselves to do ministry.

There might be physical things in your life that are holding you back. I’ve certainly heard the stories of many people who downsized their homes and felt only relief and freedom. But we all carry around other baggage—as individuals and a congregation—that can hold us back. Baggage that Jesus would look at and say: don’t take that with you, leave it behind. We hold onto things that can keep us from fulfilling our call as disciples.

What expectations aren’t we willing to give up, even though they’re keeping us from joy? What people do we hold ourselves back from, because they don’t fit our preconceived understanding of who they should be?

Honestly, I think the biggest thing that we’re carrying around that keeps us from being effective disciples, from being the people God hopes us to be, is fear. Fear of change. Fear of what that change might mean. Fear of loss. Fear of failure.

Some of these fears aren’t entirely unfounded. Jesus himself failed in Nazareth to convince the people of his hometown. He even prepares the disciples for failure, warning them that they won’t be well received sometimes, but to simply shake the dust off their feet and keep going.

What does your packing list look like? Are you carrying around things you don’t need to, that only burden you? Are we doing that collectively, as a congregation? Are there things we need to let go of? To take out of our bags so we are able to move more freely? Our unfair expectations of ourselves and others. Our worry that we’re not good enough. Our desire to be perfect. Our anxieties over change and the future.

What might be possible if we took those things off our packing list? We will not always be successful. After all, Jesus wasn’t, so we shouldn’t expect too much from ourselves. The disciples weren’t always successful in their mission and outreach either.

But the biggest reason to unburden ourselves of these things—the worry and anxiety and fear—is not an attempt to be successful. The biggest reason is because they’re things that God does not want for us. “Do not be afraid,” is the oft-repeated greeting of the angels in scripture. Do not be afraid.

It’s easier said than done, but what if this week we tried to take just one or maybe two things off our packing list? What new opportunities might suddenly seem doable? What chances might we be willing to take? What people might we be willing to meet that we hadn’t before?

I’ll close with the post-communion blessing that each person received individually at the Gathering in Houston. “Child of God—Be Brave—You are saved by grace through faith—Go and tell the world that this changes everything.” Amen.