We're sorry, the full text for this sermon is not available at this time.
We're sorry, the full text for this sermon is not available at this time.
August 17, 2008
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:10-28
Over the last few weeks there have been two worldwide gatherings taking place that have highlighted the global nature of our humanity. The Olympic Games in Beijing is a grand spectacle of color, story, technology, and athletic accomplishment witnessed on television by millions of people throughout the world. The Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in Canterbury has been a small, quiet conversation among several hundred bishops about poverty and the challenge of living with our differences, witnessed online by a few thousand church geeks like me.
But both of these gatherings attempt the same kind of thing. Chinese gymnasts, American swimmers, Jamaican runners; bishops both male and female, young and old, from South America, New York City, rural India, and Hong Kong: in Beijing and Canterbury, people from vastly different cultures and experiences all come together in order to celebrate the richness of human life on earth. We are one world, animated by one Spirit.
And yet sometimes the Olympics get divisive, when one nation’s team accuses another of cheating, when host judges are suspected of weighting scores towards their own athletes, when national medal counts become more important than our common humanity. Similarly, some used the Lambeth Conference to highlight differences, to drive a wedge between true believers and apostates, with a few bishops even boycotting the event.
Every sincere human effort to bring diverse people together in global harmony and cooperation produces a contrary force of fear, division, and pride. It’s just the way some of us react when faced with difference. Our readings today from the scriptures reveal this tension between expansiveness and exclusion.
The Jewish prophet Isaiah uttered a grand vision of the sweeping nature of God’s love for all creation. Gentiles, foreigners and outcasts in Israel will join with Jews in joyful worship, offering acceptable sacrifices in the temple, which Isaiah calls “a house of prayer for all people.” Why would he share this expansive vision? In order to counter an anti-immigrant, self-protective tendency among some of the Jews of his day. He lived in the tension between expansiveness and exclusion.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul answers some of his fellow Christians who were convinced that God would condemn the Jews who didn’t accept Christ as Messiah. “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!...God is merciful to all.” Throughout his ministry, Paul will continually hammer on this universal theme – that God’s love is freely available to all who seek it. He also lived in the tension between expansiveness and exclusion.
And in the gospel, we have two related stories; both of them explode the myth of religion as separation from others. Jesus first makes it clear that spiritual purity is not about a few chosen people observing a special set of dietary rules that were revealed only to them. Spiritual purity has to do with the condition of one’s heart, anybody’s heart.
And then, in an utterly unique moment in the gospels, we see a very human Jesus grow out of the limitations of his own religious constraints into a broader vision of the kingdom of God.
A Gentile woman wants him to heal her daughter, and at first Jesus refuses, calling her and her kind “dogs.” This is shocking for those of us who don’t really accept the full humanity of Jesus. She comes back at him, saying that even dogs get some of the crumbs from God’s table. Jesus relents, and in that moment he grows. He grows out of an exclusive view of Jewish religion to a more expansive understanding of God’s mercy and love for all people, including Gentiles.
And so, in all of our scriptures today, we see a tension between those who claim a tight hold on truth and divine love and those who experience God and humanity broadly. It is a tension woven throughout Christian history, and we see it in places like the Lambeth Conference and the Olympic Games.
A good friend of mine recently asked what I thought about her daughter marrying a Jew and converting to his faith. Behind her question I could sense a lingering whisper of fear suggesting to her “What if the fundamentalists are right? What if my daughter is placing herself outside of God’s grace?” Or perhaps she only wondered if her good friend the priest thought her daughter was making a big mistake. This is how I answered her.
Religion is just a form. All of religion – its doctrines, scriptures, and practices – is a human form, inspired by God and influenced by culture and history. Religion is a form that expresses, in incomplete and imperfect ways, encounters with the formless. To put it another way, religion is a map, but life in God is the territory. Don’t mistake the map for the territory.
Picture the earth, its deep forests and open deserts, its clouds and oceans, cliffs and valleys. Then picture the different kinds of maps: political and topographical, maps of roads and photographs taken from satellites. Every map has a limited way of illustrating something about the earth. Similarly, every religion has its own limited way of mapping the infinite and mysterious territory of God. None of them is the territory itself. They can only give some useful pointers about the reality. You have to go there to experience it.
Recently I saw a film that featured the Dalai Lama. He went even further than I have so far. He said that there are two kinds of spirituality. One is religious, and one is not. Secular spirituality may not be concerned with religious belief, but it is concerned with the same themes as all historic religions: compassion, happiness, peace, justice, and harmony. Secular spiritualities may be grounded in psychology, political action, service projects, or philosophy, but if they are authentic, they take their practitioners into the same territory that religions do.
This is the sweeping vision of Isaiah, Paul, and Jesus: that if we are truly in touch with God, we will be concerned about purity of heart, love and mercy, not about dietary laws, theological convictions, or whose religion is better than another’s. If we are in touch with God, we will not be content to hover around on the mapped surface of religiosity; we will go into the multi-dimensional territory of the Spirit.
You’ll notice that I have not said that it doesn’t matter what you believe or what you practice, that everything is the same. That’s the excess of liberalism. That’s the fault of blind self-affirmation. Instead, I’ve used the condition “if we are truly in touch with God.” Well, how do we know if we are in touch with God or not? How do we judge the authenticity of other maps, other religions and secular pathways? How do we know the truth?
I put my trust in those pathways that are seasoned over time – the historic religious traditions, psychologies, and philosophies that have been tested by millions of people in many different eras and cultures. This is the key: if the same map can be used over and over again by all these diverse people and consistently lead its pilgrims into the regions of compassion, happiness, peace, justice, and harmony, then it is driven by the force that we call God. As Jesus said, you shall know the tree by its fruit.
When we have this view of both religious and secular spirituality, we can step back from our own tradition and appreciate the sweeping beauty of God’s creation. We can honor the integrity of every authentic and time-tested tradition, and learn from one another. We can also confidently discern between true and false pathways, because we know that the fruits of the Spirit are consistent and recognizable.
And we might, like Jesus, on that day when he was confronted by an assertive Gentile woman, have our minds blown open to the all-encompassing Spirit who blows into every nook and cranny of creation.
I am grateful that I have been given the map of Jesus Christ. I treasure it. This map has guided me faithfully for many years, and by now it is written in my heart. But I am even more grateful that, as I have followed its direction, I have been taken into the territory of the Spirit, where I stand alongside so many others who have arrived there by other means.
We're sorry, the full text for this sermon is not available at this time.
St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
Sunday August 3, 2008 Proper 13A
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Theme: Making Miracles Locally
Text: Matthew 14:13-21
If you’re like most people, and frankly I hope you’re not, it doesn’t take much these days to get a little concerned or anxious about life. One can recite a litany of reasons to justify their anxieties: rising gas prices, a sluggish home market, the sub-prime mortgage debacle, banks coming under federal protection, rumors of inflation, rising unemployment, and the list of course goes on. One is tempted to stop reading the paper or listening to the news, to retreat from the world or at least to dream of getting away from it all. Maybe even to hope for a miracle.
Jesus was in a similar situation, his cousin and mentor John the Baptist had just been put to death at the whim of a dancing princess. This was terrible news. Jesus had lost one of his key allies, the powerful prophet who had baptized him and who seemed to be one of the few who understood the significance of Jesus’ mission. In fact, John had spent his life preparing the way for Jesus and now his light had gone out. It was a vivid reminder of the times in which Jesus was living. God’s prophets rarely made it into retirement, instead they died early and often violently.
When Jesus heard the news of his cousin John, he withdrew in a boat to “a lonely place apart,” but his solitude did not last long. When the crowds heard of his whereabouts they followed in droves from the surrounding villages and towns. So much for time away, so much for retreat, so much for that much needed messianic vacation. The gospel writer sums up Jesus’ response in a single phrase, “And he had compassion on them and cured their sick.” Which means that Jesus, bone tired, emotionally troubled and in need of some recharge time, spent the whole afternoon walking among the sick, learning of their troubles, laying his hands on them and praying for them, looking deeply into people eyes, listening to their stories, and telling them the words they so needed to hear, words that healed them, changed their perspectives, jarred them out of their depressions, restored hope to their lives.
When evening was coming on, some very concerned and prudent disciples found Jesus and suggested that Jesus send the crowds away into the surrounding villages to find food and lodging. I don’t think that the disciples meant any harm, they were simply looking out for the practical needs of so many people. The day was almost spent, it was time to hunker down, tend to their own needs, take in some nourishment, rest and take care of themselves for a change.
However, Jesus had a very different idea. There were two parts to his advice. First, “They need not go away.” It was as one biblical commentator has said, as if Jesus knew that the crowd needed more than a hot meal, what they really needed was to stay together, to gain nourishment from one another’s company. It’s true after you get bad news or feel distressed or start slipping into depression about the way the world is treating you, it is often great comfort just to share a meal not matter if it is simple, just so that it is shared.
Jesus’ second piece of advice, “you give them something to eat” is a little harder to swallow. I can just see the disciple’s mouths open, eyes narrowing, heads shaking as they looked at each other in disbelief. Us give them something to eat? Have you lost your mind? Remember we were the one’s who just told you to send the crowds toward their homes and into the villages. And now you want us to feed them when all we have between us is a meager five loaves and two salted fish. There are five thousand hungry people out there plus women and children. I mean I don’t want to be disrespectful rabbi but us feeding this crowd is crazy talk.
While Jesus doesn’t seem to be making much sense to the disciples, he seems rather confident in his vision of what is possible. The disciples look out at the hungry crowds far from home and see scarcity. Their practical assessment of the situation tells them that people were not well prepared and that they will soon have a hungry, irritable, needy crowd on their hands.
But Jesus arrives with a whole different set of assumptions. Where the disciples saw scarcity Jesus sees plenty. Where the disciples see lack, Jesus sees potential. Jesus envisions plenty of time, plenty of food, plenty of possibilities with the resources hidden in front of him. Now I’m not sure that Jesus knew exactly how things would come down, he was human after all, but he was not anxious about everyone getting fed. In the midst of losing his beloved friend and prophet, Jesus had not forgotten what he truly believed, that wherever there is plenty of God, the possibilities are endless.
Jesus orders the crowd to sit down, on the green grass. He then takes the disciples food stores, blesses them and begins to distribute them. I would have liked to hear that blessing, just to hear what it sounds like when Jesus prays with the kind of faith that God will transform little into plenty. Frankly I’m not even sure how many people were aware of what was going on up front. If you weren’t very near the disciples and Jesus it would have been hard to see or hear anything really.
Now this is the moment of the miracle. I’m imagining that as modern, well-educated, scientific people there are a few who have, well, problems with miracles. So while it is tempting to set this miracle of the feeding the 5,000 that all four Gospels manage to record, (no small feat) alongside the great narratives of God’s provision for the people of Israel in the wilderness it is also possible to see it in a much more subversive way.
The baskets began to be passed among the groups of people seated on the green grass. Some must have wanted to laugh out loud about this meager bit of grub being passed from group to group. However, perhaps some were surprised and touched by the sacrifice that these small baskets of bread and fish represented. Perhaps as the food passed by them they began to consider their own resources. I’m not quite sure how it happened but perhaps each person, when confronted with this radical hospitality, began to reflect on their own hospitality. As Barbara Brown Taylor says it, “I wonder if they did not look at that small basket of food going around and feel the food hidden in their own pockets begin to burn holes in them. Because you know they had some – a bit of lamb wrapped in a grape leaf, a few raisins, a chunk of break left over from breakfast.” It wouldn’t be surprising that individuals had brought something along for the journey but only enough for themselves. You would have stuffed something in your backpack, right? But not enough, not enough for others, not enough to share.
What I’m suggesting is that as those baskets circulated, people began to find hospitality in themselves that they didn’t know they had. People were not only taking things out of the baskets but very carefully and rather secretly people began to add what they could to the baskets themselves so that they began to grow. Hands went into baskets as if taking something out and instead something was left behind. Amazingly there appeared some fresh fruit, a few dates, dried figs, hard boiled eggs, bread fresh from someone’s oven that morning. In the end the baskets were much more interesting than they began and the explanation was obvious. People had found their plenty, with God’s help.
Now, I know exactly what you’re going to say. That is not a miracle. People sharing is not a miracle. Why couldn’t God have just whipped up this miracle for Jesus all on his own, why do you need to get everyone involved? But seriously, I realize that a whole crowd of people moving from a sense of scarcity to plenty is not really a miracle. How could one say that a group of people giving up their fear of going hungry, of their need to be self-protective, of their need to look out for number one is a miracle? This story of people voluntarily deciding to quite their games of what-is-mine-is-mine and what-is-yours-is-yours is not that big of deal. People digging into their knapsacks and sharing their chocolate chip cookies and dried mangos is not a miracle, and neither is splitting a granola bar with a stranger. I understand. These are not miracles. Or are they?
This of course is the problem with miracles. We want God to be the responsible party when it comes to miracles. It is so easy to see miracles as a kind of cosmic get out of jail free card. Miracles let us off the hook. God is much better at those kinds of things. Let God feed the crowd, solve world hunger, figure out a just immigration policy, save the world, reverse climate change, and any number of problems we would rather not concern ourselves with or are just too overwhelmed by to act. Our resources are so limited. We only have our loaves and fishes, and that won’t make much of a difference. It is God who has the unlimited resources let him help those who really need help.
But as soon as we start thinking like this, the story of the feeding of the five thousand, or the parable of plenty comes crashing into our small reality. Jesus’ words become haunting and energizing, “They need not go away, you give them something to eat.” Don’t look to me to solve this, you do something. Use what you have to make a difference. Open your eyes to the plenty that is in your midst. Or to put it all a bit more crassly, “Stop looking for someone else to fix the problem and enter the mystery of it yourself.” Stop hoping that manna will fall from heaven and open up your lunch box and share. Stop waiting for a miracle to just happen and participate in one instead.
Now this is all good and well but I’m a person that needs to take all this theology and make it practical. So I’m going to go out on a limb, while my boss is away on vacation and trot out one of my anxieties that is searching for a miracle. For the past 2-3 years we’ve been working on plans and preparations for expanding our facilities here at St. Michael’s and if you’ve know much about our space limitations relative to our congregation’s size it isn’t hard to see that we are in deep need of a new building campaign. But as I said at the beginning of this sermon our effort to build something beautiful to meet many of the needs here at St. Michael’s is arriving at a time when people’s anxieties about the economy and the news of the day is not exactly great timing for our long-awaited campaign. I find myself tempted to say, “Jesus are you crazy, send them into the neighboring towns to buy food for themselves.” I’m tempted to let the anxiety in the air cloud my thinking to the point that I forget that the miracle we need at St. Michael’s is not God pouring money from his heavenly coffers onto the parking lot of 601 Montano Rd. NW (though I’d be interested in that) but the miracle we need is the simple one of a community realizing that together we can do something beautiful for God that really needs doing, whatever the circumstances. Why? Because we believe in the mission and ministry and value of what God is doing in this place and through the people that call St. Michael’s home. I forget that if we will only see with the eyes of Jesus that there is plenty in our midst, if we will only risk bringing what we have sacrificially to the table, then God will make the miracle out of our willing participation. I forget about the stuffed grape leaves and dried figs in the baskets that only had bread and fish in them to start. I forget about people stealthily leaving a jar of olives in the basket and removing a small piece of bread. I forget that God doesn’t want to do it all for us, he wants us to participate to the point of sacrifice so that our eyes are clear enough to see God’s gracious hand at work in so many ways.
I forget that every time I’m tempted to believe that what I have to offer God is too meager to do any good, my loaves and fish, that Jesus also said, “Bring them here to me.” I forget that God wants my participation in miracles but that doesn’t mean I’m on my own. I forget that God enjoys watching us make the first move toward a miracle he so much wants to make happen. I forget that miracles love company. I forget that God loves the miracle of collaborating with us.
Oh, and about that building. You know we’re going to build it. I can see people sneaking things into the baskets already. But you know we here at St. Michael’s are going to do far greater things than just this building with God’s help. That is just one of the miracles. There are many more to come, all we have to do is stop waiting for miracles to happen and get busy participating in them. And if your scared or anxious or unsure just remember that after Jesus scared and puzzled his disciples by saying “They need not go away, you give them something to eat.” He also said, “Bring them here to me.” So bring what you have St. Michael’s and lets see what miracle God’s wants to do in and through us in this place, in and through you, in and through this community. God loves miracles.
I wish to acknowledge my deep debt of inspiration from the writing of Barbara Brown Taylor and her sermon The Problem with Miracles in her excellent collection of sermons The Seeds of Heaven.