Sunday, August 3, 2014

August 3, 2014 - Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles - "I Was Hungry"

Matthew 14.13-21

Bad news comes to Jesus … as bad news usually does … all of a sudden, out of the blue, just like that … 

Maybe Jesus was expecting it, but when it comes, it comes hard and fast … as bad news usually does … hard and fast … out of the blue, just like that.

“John is dead,” they say … “We buried him just awhile ago … a headless body it was … we hear it was a birthday party, and plenty of dancing, and the old fool made a promise to a dancing girl … ‘You can have anything you want.’

She wanted John’s head … that’s what her Mommy told her to say … what a fool Herod was … too much drink and a belly full of food.

He didn’t want to do kill John, or so he said … but John is dead anyway, all because of a birthday party … We buried him a little while ago … sorry to bring bad news … but we wanted you to know … so sorry … we wanted you to know.”

And with that bad news hard and fast on him, Jesus heads off into a wilderness area, by himself … to do what we all do, I suppose, when bad news hits us hard and fast … our mind is a mess, thoughts whirl here and there without rhyme or reason … tears come unbidden … we’re sad, angry, frightened, confused … best left alone for awhile … “Don’t talk to me right now … leave me alone … I have to be alone for awhile” …

So human is Jesus when bad news comes his way … no tower of strength, impervious to the slings and arrows of life … he’s just flesh and blood … like us, and he hurts and he cries … when bad news comes his way … I’ve got to get away for awhile … by myself … and he finds a boat to sail him away.

But the crowds … always the crowds, press in upon Jesus … the crowds find out … someone spills the beans, “We know where Jesus is.”

And off go the crowds … on foot, dust a-flying … determined to find Jesus … “What is he going to say next? … what kind of trouble is he going to find?” … the crowds want to know more about him … hear his take on life and faith … and for the sick, maybe a chance, a chance to get healthy again … the crowds press forward, kicking up the dust …

Then or now, folks have a way of finding out where we are …

The text brings a knowing smile …

Jesus takes a boat … onto the sea, canvass billowing, the lap of waves, the smell of fish, a fresh wind - he knows it all, he’s familiar with the sea and those who make their living on it .. and there finds peace … a slow boat it is; he’s in no hurry … when the boat pulls ashore, the crowds are already there … they beat him to the punch … they’re waiting for him … no rest for the weary … the work is never done.

Let’s pretend for a moment that we don’t know the rest of the story … let’s pretend that it’s you and me … our heart is heavy with bad news, we’re tired, bone tired, dead tired … we taken time to get away from everything … we want to be be alone … “Don’t call me, I call you!” 

And the smart phone - oh, we should’ve turned the darn thing off … but we didn’t … bells and whistles and show tunes and clicks and gongs … email, instant messages, voice mail, notices and tweets … 

“Oh, just leave me alone!”

But no alone for Jesus … no rest for him today!

And now the story takes a turn … the heart of Jesus shines like a bright light in a very dark night … it says of him, simply, plainly, When he saw the great crowds, he had compassion for them … and he goes to work.

The work is never done …

For Jesus … or for us …

The work of the Kingdom … bring good news … raise up hope … engage in the stuff of life … make things better … fill in the low places where life is hard and hope is thin … bring down those high and mighty places puffed up with pride and power … prepare the way of the LORD, make straight his paths.

Jesus has compassion for the crowd …

By this time, the disciples show up … they, too, see the crowds … they listen to Jesus … they watch him work … they know he’s tired, they know he’s sad … they watch him go to work.

When evening falls … the disciples make their move … had they been thinking about it for awhile?

They’ve been thinking about it for some time, stewing about it … whispering to one another … and before Jesus can say a word, they say a few words to Jesus - Look here, Jesus, this crowd is hungry, and there’s no food to be found here; things might get outta hand … we suggest, send them into the villages … not that far away … they can buy food for themselves.

But Jesus has none of it … There’s no need for them to go away, says Jesus … you give them something to eat.

But we don’t have enough, not near enough to feed this hungry crowd … we have only five loaves and two fish … 

Bring the food to me, says Jesus.

And to the crowd, Sit on down, and make yourselves comfortable! 

With food in hand, Jesus looks up to heaven … gives thanks to his father … that’s what “bless” means here … no need to bless the food - that’s a pagan ritual … food is already holy, already blessed … it comes from God’s good earth … when Jews said a blessing before the meal, it wasn’t to do anything to the food but to bless God, to praise God, to hallow God’s name … Hallowed by thy name … that’s the blessing … Jesus gives thanks for the food …

And then Jesus breaks the bread …  

Truth be told?

Jesus doesn’t trust the disciples right now … they’re not about to share their food … all the disciples can think about right now is their own hunger … they’re not about to share what they have …

Jesus doesn’t waste any time even asking them.

Give me the food; I’ll handle it.

When he breaks it, he proportions it, fairly … everyone gets a piece of bread … there’s more than enough to feed everyone, if everyone takes their share, and no more … when the loaves and fish are divided fairly, everyone can eat.

The disciples don’t know that yet … don’t know how much they really have … or the power of sharing … a whole lot they don’t know about God, and life, and what the work of the kingdom is all about.

Jesus sees to it that everyone is fed … no one sent back home … nobody turned away … 5000 hungry men … women and children, too.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Some have suggested that when the crowd saw Jesus take the bread and fish, turn toward heaven, give thanks, start to pass it out, the spirit of fear was driven away … 

One-by-one, they reached into robes and satchels and found what little they had … some flat bread, a dried fish or two, a piece of cheese, some dates and nuts … folks were no longer afraid … they began to share with their neighbors what they had.

I don’t know if that’s what happened.

But as far as I’m concerned, that’s the greater miracle.

It would have been an easy for Jesus to simply make bread and fish … what a fuss the crowd would have made, patting their full bellies … but there would have been no redemption in that miracle … nothing to change the disciples, nothing to change the crowd … everyone would have loved Jesus a little bit more, for what he gave to them … 

Jesus isn’t interested in having folks “love” him … he wants us to love one another … brave enough to stop sending the hungry away … see the world - with the eyes of God.

I wonder …

Did the disciples ever feel ashamed of their behavior?  … did they talk amongst themselves about it, later that night, or the next week?

Palestine, Ukraine, Sudan, Libya … Arizona and Texas and California … a refugee crisis … people are hungry … children are crying.

If ever the Christian Church in America has an opportunity to step up and bear witness, it’s right now, right here, on our border … 

Some call ‘em illegals, some build walls, some send in the soldiers …  some wanna send the children away … fend for themselves … but Christians are taking the high road of faith … Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, plenty of other groups, too … to help America be the America of our highest and best dreams … the promise engraved on our Statue of Liberty:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Yesterday, the birthday of American novelist, James Baldwin.

An important moment for Baldwin came when he and a friend were standing on a street corner in New York City, waiting for the light to change. 

Baldwin recounts that his friend, an artist, "pointed down and said, 'Look.' I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, 'Look again,' which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in that puddle." 

In that moment, Baldwin learned how to see, see the world differently than he had before.

Carl Sandburg the poet said: “In these times you have to be an optimist to open your eyes when you awake in the morning.”

The poet, Dana Gioia … wrote:

“What more could I have wanted from that day?
Everything, of course. Perhaps that was the point—
To learn that what we will not grasp is lost. “

Yes, we can do it.

We can feed the hungry.

Jesus my LORD, take my fish, take my bread … my hands are not strong enough to break it fairly for all; in your hands, it will be rightly broken, and fairly given … teach us, dear LORD, there’s enough for everyone … 

And when the dinner was done, and folks had eaten their fill … something extraordinary … 12 baskets of leftovers … enough for latecomers and midnight snacks … and who doesn’t love leftovers?

We can do it!

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

July 13, 2014 - Pacific Palisades - "The Sower, the Seed, the Soil"

Genesis 25.19-34; Psalm 119.105-112; Romans 8.1-11; Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

Things don’t always work out for us, do they!

The best laid plans of mice and men … 

In the shower at the end of the day, our head against the wall, water streaming down the back of our head …

I didn’t plan on this … how could this happen? … why did he do it? … why did she say it? 

Shattered dreams … broken plans … the unexpected …

Hard for us … and might it be hard for God, too?

Seems to me the toughest job in the universe is being God … whatever we might think about God, it’s helpful to think how hard it must be for God.

God fashions a beautiful creation … brought nearly to ruin by the creature “endowed” with God’s own breath … Eve plucks the forbidden fruit and she and Adam have a picnic.

Cain kills Able … and it only gets worse

There was a time when God said, Enough! I’ve had it with you.

God was heartsick, sad, angry, over what had become of God’s best laid plans.

So the flood … to rinse the earth clean … metaphorically speaking … as the story goes … all gone, save Noah, his family and some animals.

A fresh start for everyone and everything … but it didn’t take long for the Apple of God’s eye to get right back at it - Noah gets drunk, Ham laughs and there’s hell to pay … humans gang up together and build a tower to heaven, to make a name for themselves … pride, power and pomp … 

So God creates a new plan … smaller and less ambitious at first … Abraham and Sarah - two old people without children, without a future … could God have done any better? I think God loves a challenge, no matter what.

God begins anew - Come with me Abraham and Sarah, and I’ll take you places you never dreamed possible … a long journey it is …  and what a struggle for God … in the Book of Hosea, God says:

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
      What shall I do with you, O Judah?
      Your love is like a morning cloud,
      like the dew that goes away early.

Some of the saddest words in the Bible, My people have forgotten me.

God defeated time and again … Abraham and Sarah laugh at God and take things into their own hands … their children are less than stellar … they get tangled up in Egypt for 400 years and things are a mess … plagues break the spirit of a proud Pharaoh, and Pharaoh let’s the people go … they dash out into freedom … only to complain.

The Sea is parted, they escape from Pharaoh’s wrath … only to find themselves in a wilderness … and they complain.

They wanna go back to Egypt … at least in Egypt they knew where their next meal was coming from, and they had water.

But God provides …
Water from a rock …
Manna in the morning … 
Quail in the evening.
A pillar of cloud for the day …
A pillar of fire for the night …

And the people complain …

Commandments given on a Mountain Top … and .. oops, a Golden Calf in the valley … at which point God is ready to give up on all of it … but Moses, in one of the great moments of the Bible, reminds God to be God and get on with it.

The Promised Land is gained …
The Walls of Jericho tumble on down …
But the story ends badly: the people did what was right in their own eyes.

A mess all over again, even in the Promised Land.

Then came the kings - Saul, never much of one … David, clever and god-loving and cruel and greedy, too … and poor old Solomon - no better beginning could be had for a king, built a glorious temple, noted for his wisdom, but it all ends badly … and only gets worse from that point on … the kingdom splits, constant warfare, treaties made and treaties broken, idolatry takes root, the Northern Kingdom destroyed in 721 BC by Assyria … the Southern Kingdom destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians and folks carted off to Exile.

70 years later, survivors straggle back home, rebuild the temple, but it ain’t much … several centuries later, after Alexander the Great and the emergence of the Mighty Roman Empire, King Herod the Great undertakes the rebuilding of the rebuilding to create one of the most stunning masterpieces of the world - the Temple in Jerusalem.

But Rome is in charge … some love it, what with Rome’s power and wealth … some hate it, and rebel … some can’t stand it, and retreat into the Wilderness by the Dead Sea … God’s people are lost and uncertain … Empires rule the world … slavery abounds … the rich are superrich … the poor are desperately poor … 

What’s a good and loving God to do?

Another flood? But the rainbow promise stays the hand of God …

So along comes Jesus … Emmanuel, God with usthe Lamb of God, the Bright Morning Star, the Bread of Life … and what does Jesus do?

Among many things, he tells stories … like the Sower, the Seed and the Soil.

The Sower reaches into a bag of seed slung round his shoulder, grabs a handful, and flings the seed far and wide … lots of seed … plenty of seed … good seed … every seed capable of a great harvest … by the handful, far and wide … into every corner of the field.

We know the story … a lot of seed never makes it …

Stones and rocks and weeds and birds (well they gotta eat, too) and hot sun … all that good seed, wasted? … shouldn’t God be a bit more judicious? … a little more careful about wasting all that good seed?

Now is NOT the time to be careful … now is the time to be generous, prodigal, divinely wasteful … don’t worry about the losses … don’t waste time counting the seed … grab it, fling it, throw it, with a mighty arm … cast the seed far and wide.

No time for restraint:
A child stomping in a mud puddle? … a young lover looking into the eyes of the beloved? … the hundred yard dash and a runner? …

Restraint, caution, deliberation? … good words, but often the enemies of faith, hope and love.

Those who catch a lot of fish fish a lot …
280 average bowlers bowl a lot …
Anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly … and has to be done poorly, more often than not, in order to be done well.

It’s as simple as that … 

Fling the seed far and wide … 

Call it … kindness … justice … truth … honesty … patience … mercy … forgiveness … trust … faith, hope and love, grace, mercy and peace … today, tomorrow and forever.

Don’t focus on the negative: the seed that fails, the soil that doesn’t produce, the fish we didn’t catch, the games we didn’t win, the people who failed us, those who broke trust with us … investments gone south … relationships gone awry …  … don’t fret, don’t fuss, don’t blame, don’t get angry, don’t judge, don’t turn your back… it’s the way of life … not everything works; people disappoint us and things go wrong … so what? 

There are three kinds of matter in this world: anti-matter, dark matter and “doesn’t matter” which has no effect on the universe whatsoever … and it doesn’t matter that some seed doesn’t make it.

Call it grace.

If we can understand grace toward others … we might be a wee bit more honest about our own stuff, too …

What’s our soil condition like?

 All kinds of soil in each of us … sometimes my heart is stone cold and rock hard … sometimes worries and fears gobble up my faith and run away with it … sometimes the seed of God’s love falls on the good soil of my life, and it grows like mad, with a giant harvest.

What’s the point?

Keep on sowing … just like God … just like the Sower.
The Sower knows it’s going to work … 

The Sower has confidence.

Faith works, so does love, and hope doesn’t disappoint us.

President Obama said a few weeks back at UC Irvine’s Commencement: “Cynicism is a choice. Hope is a better choice.”

Lots of seed won’t make it … but there’s always the harvest … and great is the harvest … a hundred to one, sixty to one, thirty to one …

Those listening to Jesus would have smiled … the dream of every farmer … the impossible dream … no seed gives this kind of harvest in real life … but real life is not where we learn our best lessons

We learn our best lessons in the kingdom of God - transcendent ideas, images as wide as the universe … the kingdom of God, like a pearl merchant selling everything to gain the priceless pearl … like a poor widow sweeping her floor looking for a lost coin … like a shepherd going after one lost sheep … only imagination can take us there … where dreams are big, faith is bigger, and hope bigger still … 

Tomorrow morning - we’ll have opportunities to sow the seed of God’s love … 

Don’t worry about waste … don’t worry about the seed that never makes it … don’t fret about stony soil and weeds and hungry birds … 

Throw the seed far and wide … patient faith, faithful patience … the harvest will come … people will surprise us with their goodness … impossible problems will be solved … glimmers of peace will appear unexpectedly … hope arises … courage abounds … faith endures …

Tomorrow morning, dear friends,
Unto God Almighty, our gratitude.
And to the world around us, the Seed of Love.
Abundant and free.
Because good soil is everywhere.
Good soil all around us.

And great is the harvest of hope! Amen and Amen!