Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22, Year A

You're Standing on Holy Ground

Readings: Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-36, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

I have noticed as I have gone through life that God sometimes has some strange ways of attracting my attention. And I have to say, it is just as well, because otherwise I might not listen. Maybe you have experienced something like this. Everything is going along normally. Things are unfolding as I think they should. I am quite happy with my life, quite content. And then something happens that doesn’t make sense. Or it somehow doesn’t fit in with my plans. At that point I realize that somehow God has succeeded in gaining my attention.

Mind you, for me it is not usually quite as amazing as it was for Moses. A burning bush is pretty cool! I suspect that would really get my attention. And it works for Moses! There has been a real change in his life. He is no longer living the life of a prince in the courts of Egypt. Instead he is looking after his father-in-law’s sheep. It is a time of solitude for him, a time to encounter, not only himself, but also God. When he sees the burning bush, he turns aside to find out more. God has his attention. Those are the times to watch out for; because once God has your attention there is always more to follow. “Remove the sandals from your feet,” God says to him, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

Taking your shoes off on sacred ground is hardly an unusual idea. It happens in many faith traditions. Shoes are removed as a sign of respect. But removing our shoes also puts us into a vulnerable position. While it is truly wonderful to walk barefoot on a sandy beach, throw in a few pebbles and the story changes. Footwear protects us from the ground. It also makes it much more difficult to run away.

And so Moses finds himself in a vulnerable position. If he could he would run away, because God is calling him to do what he dreads the most! He needs to go back and face Pharaoh. When he hears what he is to do, he hides his face in fear. He argues with God. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Who is he indeed! Everything in his past has prepared him for this moment. He knows the culture. He speaks the language. It is only fear that holds him back. And so God reassures him. “I will be with you.”

Then it is time to put on the sandals, leave the safety of that holy place and set out to do what God has called him to do.

The story of Moses points out a great truth. We do not choose our calling; our calling chooses us. We turn aside from our daily routines to see the burning bush. We find ourselves standing on sacred ground. We stand on that holy ground, safe enough to be whole, to be holy. There we encounter ourselves; there we encounter God. It is when we are standing there barefoot, vulnerable, open, that we most clearly hear God’s call. The question is, do we have the courage to put our sandals back on and respond?

Moses left that sacred space and began the liberation of the people of Israel. It was an awesome experience, but he did not keep it to himself. It became the source for a new way of life. Because Moses stood on holy ground and listened to the call of God, the people of Israel were set free.

What was the burning bush, that moment of truth for the disciples of Jesus? Jesus tells them that he will suffer and die. It is not what they want to hear. They argue with him. Even Peter, who wants so badly to be like Jesus is unable to accept the possibility that Jesus will be killed. “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus reminds them, “deny yourselves, pick up your cross and follow me.” This is the disciples at their most vulnerable. They are ready to run for all they are worth.

At that very moment, whether they know it or not, they are standing on holy ground. There is a cross to be taken up. Jesus is stating the reality of life. Taking up the cross has to do with giving of themselves rather than taking. It has to do with accepting responsibility, not refusing it. It has to do with doing what God is calling them to do. Jesus knows that risked, expended, offered beyond itself, life can be demanding and costly. Yet that is the only way that it will flower and grow and ultimately be rewarding. And those same fearful disciples will take up the cross. They will put their sandals on their feet and set out in faith. They will put aside their own fears. They will forget about the cost, and follow in Christ’s footsteps.

What burning bushes do we encounter in our lives? It happens in so many ways in our lives. I have felt it as recognition when I have been privileged to be in the presence of someone who was dying. I have known it in a word of conviction spoken by a friend. I have read it in a note when I most needed a boost. I have experienced it in the prayers of the faithful and in the breaking of the bread.

When we are standing on holy ground, our feet planted firmly, upheld by the experience of encountering God, it is easy to feel a sense of commitment to the gospel. But then realities set in. That is when it is most important to remember God’s promise that we are not alone. “I will be with you,” God said to Moses. “I will be with you,” God says to each of us.

The question remains: Do we put on our sandals and get to work? Does it mean accepting people where they are in order to patiently and lovingly lead them to where God wants them to be? Does it result in reaching out to our neighbours and meeting their needs? Do we identify with humanity irrespective of race, colour, sexual orientation, creed? It means being truly human. It means involving ourselves with the sufferings and sorrows, conflicts and consternations, failures and defeats of others. It means bearing one another’s burdens and sharing in their despair. It means listening actively and with compassion. It means acting to bring justice and dignity and validity to others. It means proclaiming the gospel of God’s love and grace. It means upholding the promises of our baptism.

What is the burning bush for this parish? You are in a time of transition. You face the unknown. You face change as you consider the future of this place. It is time to take off your sandals and stand on holy ground and discern where it is God is calling you as a congregation. It is time for a sense of discipleship that can lead you into the future. It might be risky business. After all, life can be demandng and costly. It certainly means being accountable to God for your actions. It means examining the past but not dwelling in it.

How do we develop an attitude of discipleship? How do we do as Paul says we are called to do? Just consider the list of things that Paul reminds the Romans – love, outdo, serve, rejoice, be patient, contribute, extend hospitality, bless, rejoice, weep, live in harmony, take thought, live peaceably, never avenge, feed. What a parish this would be; never mind parish, what a world we would be living in if we accomplished half of that!

The point is that there must be a difference between how we live and how the world lives. That difference comes about because we are standing on holy ground. God is calling us to be. May we understand the call of God and live in response to that call. May we live worthy of our calling!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

11th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, Year A

What Is It That You Do?

Readings: Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

I have to admit to rather enjoying the simplistic, sometimes trite, writings of Robert Fulghum, because once in a while he really hits the nail on the head. One of the short stories in his book “It Was on Fire When I Sat Down on It, does exactly that for me. In it he talks about our obsession with role. He remarks about the inevitable question that strangers sitting next to you on a plane ask. “What is it that you do?” they will say to you. What they really want to know, of course, is how you earn your living. That is why so often when he asks them in return what they do, they will respond by handing him their business card. When they do so, he asks again, “But what do you do?” They simply point to the card as if that is explanation enough.

He was not in the habit of carrying a business card himself, so he would try to explain what it was he did, but found it easier to either avoid the question or make something up. That got him into a number of tricky circumstances, so he finally thought of a way out of it all. He got himself a business card; on it was one word, “Fulgham”. He says that when he gives it away it leads to fine conversations about what it means to be a son, or a dancer, or a teacher, or a runner, or whatever.

He sums up what he has learned. “I and you – we are infinite, rich, large, contradictory, living breathing miracles – free human beings, children of God and the everlasting universe. That’s what we do.” What he has discovered is that it is not really about what we do but about who we are. It is about becoming what God has called us to be.

That for me is surely an underlying theme of our readings today. They all have in common that they are about becoming. They are about how we come to know God, and in turn God finds us and helps us to become all that we are meant to be.

It is there in that age-old story of Moses, the babe in the bulrushes, the baby placed lovingly in a papyrus basket and put amongst the reeds by the bank of the river so that he will be saved. It takes place at a time of unrest in the history of the Hebrew people. There has been a change of government in Egypt. The Hebrew people who took refuge there during a time of famine suddenly find themselves facing slavery, even genocide as Pharaoh commands that young boys be killed. It is the Hebrew women who take charge of the situation. The midwives disobey the order to kill the children. By being themselves, by acting with integrity and by meeting the challenges with wisdom and compassion, they save the lives of countless babies. In an unexpected turn of events, they save Moses, the very child who will in turn save the Hebrew people. God’s eye is on the situation. None of the women could have known the impact of what they were doing. They simply did what was right without fearing the consequences. God took care of the rest.

Then there is the account of the Apostle Paul, writing to the Church in Rome. Paul reminds them that everyone is different. He reminds them that it is a good thing that everyone is different, that we all have different gifts and talents. He wants them to cheerfully accept the particular task or role for which they are best suited. He knows that the congregation will be at its healthiest if all are serving God in the right capacity. He asks them to realize that they are called to give themselves into a living body with other committed Christians. They are to become everything that God wants them to be.

Then there is the story of Peter coming into his own. Jesus is at a crucial point in his ministry. He withdraws with his disciples, not to his home in Galilee, but rather to the district around Caesarea Philippi. It is probably one of the most secular places that Jesus ever visited. Not only is it an army headquarters. It is also a centre for the worship of the god, Pan. Here beneath the slopes of Mount Hermon, in this lovely area watered by cold, rushing streams that converge to form the Jordan River, Jesus asks the disciples a key question about their faith. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

They have many answers for Jesus – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets. And so Jesus asks again, “Who do you say that I am?” This is not some rhetorical question. He does not want them to talk about what he has accomplished. It is a real question. He wants a real answer, an answer from the heart. The disciples dodge until Simon finally says to him, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” It is a response that comes, not from his great theological background. He does not have one. It comes not from anything that he has been taught. It comes from deep inside him. It comes with conviction.

This is Peter after all. At least as the story continues, it will be. Peter, more than anyone knows the humanity of Jesus. He has travelled with him. He has seen him angry, and tired and frustrated. But he has also seen him work great miracles. He has seen him deal with compassion with the needy people who followed him everywhere. He has seen him use a few meager resources to feed hungry people. He has seen him still stormy weather. He knows that Jesus is different. He is the Christ. When Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, he is recognizing all of that. He is seeing beyond Jesus’ role to who he really is.

And Jesus responds to him, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter not only discovers the real identity of Jesus; he discovers his own identity too. Simon the fisherman discovers that he has something in him that makes him Peter, the rock, the foundation on which the Christian Church is built.

Our faith stories, yours and mine are about ‘becoming’. That sense of ‘becoming’ is the foundation of our faith. Jesus says to each of us, “Who do you say that I am?” It is a very contemporary question, one that we need to ask ourselves in the context of our own lives. We have so many ways of viewing Jesus. Can you imagine Jesus’ business card! Teacher, guru, moral ethicist, leader, religious icon, revolutionary, freedom fighter, political liberator! There is no one answer. All of those views reflect human history. They reflect human experience. There is some truth to each one.

And the amazing thing is that knowing Jesus helps us to understand more fully who we are. Our faith helps us to be more fully who we are meant to be. That was one of the most important things that I learned while I was studying theology. I thought I was studying to learn how to be a priest. What I discovered was that God was calling me to be more authentically myself. God has called me to be the best ‘Ann’ that I can be. God has called you to be the best ‘Nola’ or ‘Roger’ or ‘Pat” that you can be.

So who do you say Jesus is? Who is Jesus in the Bible, in the creeds of the Church? More importantly, who is Jesus in your life? Who is Jesus in how you spend your money, your time, your energy, your leisure? I ask not because I want to give you a guilt trip, but because we need to know what we mean by what we say about Jesus. We need to let it shape our lives. It needs to shape who we are becoming. Knowing Jesus needs to make a difference in our lives. And I suspect the most important aspect of knowing ourselves is that sense of becoming is the foundation of a resilient Christian community.

You can look back on the long and varied ministry in this place. You can remember people who brought with them their unique gifts and talents. You can also look back on mistakes that were made, on difficult times that you would rather forget. And then you can look forward with anticipation to ministry yet to take place. If Peter is the rock on whom the Church of God is built, then you are the rock, the foundation on which this parish is built.

When we gather as a community as we do every Sunday, we recognize that we are called to be one with the whole Christian Church throughout the world. In a society where so many are lonely and emotionally needy, how important it is to hear this message of inclusivity and belonging. Hopefully it results in all of us learning to share our gifts and talents.

So who do you say that Jesus is? Is he Lord of your life?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, Year A

Only Human

Readings: Gen 45:1-15; Ps 133; Rom 11:1-2a, 29-32; Mt 15:21-28

Once again Jesus is trying to get away from the crowds. For someone in his position it is not an easy task. People follow him everywhere. They hope for a miracle, his healing touch, words of hope and wisdom. They constantly lay claim on Jesus’ time and energy. Even as he withdraws, a woman, a Canaanite, a Gentile, an outsider, comes after him shouting for help. Her daughter is ill.

He ignores her. He is weary. He just wants to get away from the crowds. He hopes that in ignoring her pleas she will give up and leave him alone. Maybe she will decide that it is not that urgent after all. Maybe she will think of someone else who can help. And after all, she is a Canaanite, a foreigner, and his ministry is to the people of Israel.

But she does not give up that easily. She keeps calling after Jesus until he and the disciples are beside themselves. “Send her away!” They say to Jesus. “She keeps shouting after us.” They are embarrassed by her outburst.

She pushes forward. Throwing herself down at Jesus’ feet, she pleads. “Lord, help me.”

There is sharpness to the point of rudeness, in Jesus’ response. It takes us aback. It is so unexpected. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he retorts. It does not deter her for one moment. She knows that Jesus can help her; in fact she is certain that he is the only one who can.

Still on her knees she responds, “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Her reply is piercing. Even if she must crawl and grovel to get help for her child she will do it. Her love for her child, her trust that Jesus can help, her determination to do whatever she needs to do, give her the strength to continue. Mothers with sick children are like that. They won’t let anything get in the way of taking care of their child. Not unsympathetic doctors, health regulations, lousy insurance, or even a narrow minded Messiah will stop them.

Jesus sees through to the faith of this woman that he is trying so desperately to ignore. He knows that he cannot ignore her need any longer. Compassion wells up in him. He gets beyond his weariness. He loses his frustration. God shines out from him.

“You have great faith,” he says to her. “What you have asked for is done.” Her daughter is healed at that very moment.

This is a difficult story, because Jesus is hard-hearted towards this woman, not treating her with compassion because her daughter is suffering, but ignoring her and refusing her because of her heritage. In the end, Jesus gets the last word, and it is gracious, quite a change from his earlier exchange with the woman.

It is Jesus at his most human. His response to the Canaanite woman is cultural. He is struggling against all the norms of his society. It shows itself in all sorts of attitudes that are typical of the Jewish society in which he lives. His comments are racist and exclusionary. Do we find it embarrassing that Jesus is so human? Or does it help us to look at our own prejudices and shortcomings and find a way to achieve a sense of compassion that enables us to reach out to those in need?

We do not have to look very far to find events that mirror such behaviour in our own society. Consider the flyers that were posted this past week on the York University Campus. They show images of what they claim were students at York in the 60’s, saying that the student population was totally white. Below is a photo of a more diverse group of students with text saying that whites will soon be in a minority. I am certain we are all appalled that such attitudes could possibly be held in a city as diverse as Toronto. But what about our own attitudes? Whom do we reject? Whom do we try to keep out? I look back at my own life and see many times when such cultural norms affected my views of the people around me.

I grew up in an inner city rectory before the era of food banks and shelters. There was a steady stream of homeless people at our door every day looking for help. We did what we could, often feeding them from our own table. It usually fell to the rectory children to make the sandwiches and coffee and take it out to them on the back verandah. For a time my mother had fed them in the kitchen, until one person let it slip that he had just got out of prison on murder charges. On the surface, what we did was good. It was certainly the best we could offer. We were taking action at a time when society did not take responsibility for homelessness and hunger. But when I reflect deeper I know that we failed to give them what they really needed. We didn’t see them as people. We never asked them their names, although we had nicknames for some of the regulars. There was Rudolf and Pinhead. How unkind that was! We did not try to change their situation. In fact, if anything we blamed them for their dysfunction.

When I was a theological student I did a placement at the Church of the Holy Trinity at the Eaton Centre as part of a program in Urban Ministry. I worked with the street people who frequent the area as part of an initiative of the local churches to find suitable housing for them. My job was to get to know them and talk to them about their housing needs. The biggest challenge for me, however, was to do a plunge, a requirement of the course. We had to spend one rather cold November weekend on the streets with only our own resources. I talked to the street people about what to do. They told me that I would not survive it, and then proceeded to tell me about the best shelters and gave me advice about how to ask for money. Their advice was excellent, I must say. I ended up staying in a shelter for abused women, a long story that I will not get into today. I was treated with kindness and respect. The other women in the shelter, as needy as they were, reached out to help me. One person truly befriended me, took me under her wing. She told me of her hopes of reuniting with her children. Her story was one of exclusion and hardship, and yet she was one of the most compassionate people I have ever met. She had a strong faith, not only that things were going to improve for her, but also faith in God. She invited me to go to church on Sunday morning. “You look like the kind of person who goes to church,” she said to me. And off we went dressed in our old ratty clothing. I don’t know what I had hoped for, but we ended up in a large prestigious church that will remain nameless. My inclination was to sneak into the back pew, but she was having nothing to do with that. She marched me up the aisle right to the front where she lustily sang every hymn, much to the consternation of the fine parishioners who tried very hard to ignore these two women who didn’t know their place. As I reflected on the experience I realized it was a transformative time in my life.

I must say, I still find times when it is difficult to get past my middle class views. Then I think back to the woman from the shelter, and I wonder how she is doing. And I smile thinking of how she pushed back against all of the preconceived notions of that congregation. I think of her faith and how much she had to overcome

The good news of the gospel is that we are only human. Jesus had to learn to put aside the prejudices of his upbringing. He had to learn to deal with people with a sense of compassion. Maybe there is hope for me. Maybe I can learn to follow his example. The Canaanite woman exercised an extraordinary power over Jesus. She nagged at him. She made demands. And yet at the core of it was her trust that he could make a difference in her life. She trusted that he could help her. She had faith. She kept on until she was heard.

Jesus dared to walk among us. He was trapped in our world. He was trapped in our ways. What hope that gives to us! Like Jesus, we can find the way to live compassionately. We can find the way to open our hearts to those in need. We can learn to risk. We can find the words and works that build up God’s realm. We can share one another’s pain. We can learn to see Christ in others. We can place all that we have and all that we are before God. Then we will begin to see the miracles happening in our own lives and those of others.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Proper 19, Year A

Facing Our Fears

Readings: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45c; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

Karl Barth writes about fear: “Fear is the shock caused by the supposed knowledge that I shall not be able either to be or to do what I should be and do in face of that which gloriously and fearfully confronts me.”

I think of the times that I have been most fearful. One is the event that lead to my learning to swim. I was four years old and at a camp where my father was the chaplain. I did many of the activities of the campers, who were, of course, quite a bit older than I. Each day I would go swimming. I would paddle in the shallow water and play in the sand. I watched the children in their free time going down a slide into the water. I longed to try it out. So one day I asked the swimming instructor if I could go down the slide. “Of course!” she said to me, not thinking about how small I was, or the fact that I couldn’t swim. I flew down the slide and out into water that was quite deep. I felt myself sink below the surface and was filled with fear and panic. In my panic I thrashed around for what seemed like hours but must have been less than a minute. Then I became calm. I remember thinking, “This is what it is like to die.” And suddenly I was buoyed up by the water and bobbed to the surface. Realizing that I could float, that I could trust the water to hold me up, I began to dog paddle to shallower water.

It was a good learning, because trust, that sense of calm, is what it takes after all when fear takes over. And fear can easily take over when life seems out of control as our world so often does these days. We are faced with so much violence; terrorist acts, strange viruses and other health issues, economic and environmental issues. The list could go on. Fear takes over unless we remember just who is in charge. We trust, knowing that God is as good as God’s word.

It seems to me that it is fear that is at the centre of the stories in Scripture today. There is first of all the story of Joseph and his coat of many colours. Joseph is the baby of the family. Being the youngest, he is a favourite with his father. To make matters worse, he makes a bad report to his father about one of his brothers. They fear the power and influence that he has over his father. They wait for an opportunity to get back at him. It comes. They are looking after the sheep in a remote place. Joseph comes out looking for them. They conspire to kill him. Reuben, one of the brothers persuades them not to kill him, but to put him into a pit. His intention is to come back and rescue him. Then they seize upon an opportunity. They sell their brother to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites on their way to Egypt. This new saga in Joseph’s young life must have filled him with fear as well.

Then there is the gospel for today. Jesus performs miracles. He feeds the crowds. Their curiosity satisfied for the moment he sends them off to their homes. He also sends the disciples out in a boat. Meanwhile he heads away by himself to pray. The Sea of Galilee can become quite stormy. This day is no exception. The disciples are far from the shore. The winds come up. The waves toss the small craft about until they are sure they will all drown. Towards morning they see Jesus walking on the sea. It is not a reassuring picture. They think that Jesus is a ghost. In fact, the storm becomes less threatening to them than the sight of the ghost. And Jesus speaks those reassuring words. “Take heart. Don’t be afraid!” They trust him. They trust the calm and peace that his words bring.

The ever-brash Peter gets out of the boat and walks across the water towards Jesus, but he gets distracted by the gusts of wind. He becomes frightened and begins to sink beneath the waves. Just as he thinks that all is lost he remembers. “Lord, save me!” he calls out.

We have all been there, haven’t we? We have all been out in those heavy waves, blown about by fierce winds. Life produces strong and daunting waves. We all have times when we feel swamped. We feel totally inadequate. We feel helpless. We let our fears and worries take over. We feel as if we are sinking. We want to believe, but our faith is fragile. Just when we think all is lost we remember. We cry out, “Lord, save me!”

Peter called out to Jesus; Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. They made it back into the boat safely. The storm ended. All was well.

When have you experienced inner calm and strength amid external turmoil? What was the source of your strength? What does it mean to trust God? How do you nourish your faith?

Some of you may be in the midst of a storm at this very moment. You may be buffeted about by the wind. You may fear the difficulties that you are facing in your life. You may be wondering how you can face another day, how you can ever trust again. You may be facing sickness, your own or that of a loved one. You may be unemployed, wondering where God is leading you. You may be facing a broken relationship.

Others could no doubt tell us about overcoming those same fears and inadequacies. You can tell us of the miracles that have unfolded for you in your lives. You can tell of the storms that you have walked through, knowing that God was ever present with you on your journey. You can tell us of sicknesses overcome, of answers to prayer, of help in time of need, of unexpected miracles.

I can’t always say that I am glad to be one of Jesus’ disciples. There are times that I would like to be left alone. It is too overwhelming. There is too much going on in my life. Jesus is asking too much of me. My cross is too heavy. My faith is too weak. I have nothing more to give. All I have to support me is my weak faith. At such times it is all that I can do to pray, “Lord, help me! Give me the ability to reach out to you even though I have only my faltering faith to support me.” It is then that I hear that invitation that Jesus extended to Peter. “Come! Don’t be afraid. Reach out and take my hand.”

And I reach out. I acknowledge my helplessness. It opens some gate in me that accepts help. It opens the way for others to respond to my need. I experience God’s love and forgiveness and healing and challenge. I am able to see Christ in others and allow them to see Christ in me.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year A

I Believe in Miracles

Readings: Genesis 32: 22 – 31; Psalm 17: 1 - 7, 16 ; Romans 9: 1 – 5; Matthew 14: 13 – 21

There is a song from the 70’s by Pearl Jam that talks about miracles.

“I used to be on an endless run
Believed in miracles 'cause I'm one
I've been blessed with the power to survive
After all these years I'm still alive”

I am not certain as I listen to the lyrics that the singer is actually attributing the miracle of his survival to God. Rather he attributes the miracle to his own powers.

Do we believe in miracles? Do we believe that God intervenes in our world and, whether it is through remarkable people or simply through God's own actions, brings about some miraculous happening? We want to, but our twenty-first century minds won't wrap themselves around the possibilities. We have seen it all. We live in a technological age that has made things that past generations just dreamed about totally possible. We also know that events are not always what they appear to be. I must say, I follow on YouTube, an amazing techie who has his three-year-old son doing the most fantastic things. In one video he is in a MacDonald’s playground that suddenly takes off like a rocket ship. It makes it truly difficult to believe in miracles.

It is especially difficult when we see what is going on in our world. There is war. There is violence and suffering. There are poor and hungry people. There are disasters and tragic events. So when it comes to the miracles of Jesus we want to believe them. They are about God intervening in our world. They are about God changing the bad things that are beyond our control. God relieves human suffering. The eyes of the blind are opened. Lepers are cleansed. Hungry people are fed. Such events give us a glimmer of hope in a world where so many things seem beyond our control. They give us a glimpse of God's glory. Yes! We want to believe them.

We want to believe the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. It reveals so much to us about Jesus' compassion for the crowds who followed him. He is suffering himself. News has just come to him about the death of John the Baptist. He is in grief. He reacts as many of us do by withdrawing. He goes to a deserted place by himself. He wants time to consider the tragedy. He wants time to consider what it means in his own ministry.

But the crowds follow him out into the wilderness. They follow as they always do. They have such need. He has compassion on them and heals their sick. And when evening comes the disciples want to send them away to fend for themselves.

"You give them something to eat," Jesus tells the disciples.

"We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish."
Out of his silence and grief, out of his compassion, Jesus performs a miracle. He takes the bread and fish and blesses them. He gives the crowd what they want, a miracle to thrill them and bread to fill them.

Stories about feeding hungry people are numerous in Scripture. There are six such stories in the four Gospels. These passages were very important to the early church community. That makes them important to us. What are you really thinking about this story? Let's face it; most of us cannot believe the story literally. We look for explanations. And it is not difficult to think of a few.

The most common, of course, is that it is a tale about people sharing their lunches. Jesus had the people sit down. He blessed what he had and started to share it. Others opened up their hearts and their picnic baskets and everyone had enough to eat. Now wouldn’t that constitute a miracle? Whenever people give themselves it is a miracle of God's grace. When we reach out to others and share what little we have we are bringing about God's kingdom of shalom.
It is a miracle that is enacted over and over again in our world. Back to YouTube, there is a video that has gone viral, which is just such a miracle. A homeless person is sitting on the sidewalk, his belongings within reach, and a Styrofoam cup in front of him to collect coins. No one is stopping. No one even notices him sitting there. Along comes a young man.

“May I borrow your bucket,” he asks.

Finally the homeless man nods. The young man sits down with the bucket and begins to drum on it. As the crowd gathers he puts his hat out. Two others join him, one with a guitar, another singing. Soon the crowd is enthusiastically dropping money into the hat. They complete their song. The crowd disperses. They pass the hat over to the astonished man and disappear into the crowd. A miracle! It certainly was for the homeless man.

I witnessed more than one miracle when I went to Africa to the World Council of Churches a number of years ago. There was one particular story that resonated in me. Two widows in a poor village in the North Transvaal needed work desperately. There was an abandoned factory outside the village. They got permission to use it. They began to make bead bracelets and necklaces that they sold. Their business grew. They began to export them. Others in the village needed work. The women bought the equipment to do batik and brought others into the co-op. They began to educate and train people for work. The next stage was to send in tenders on government jobs, roadwork. Now a whole village works. Hungry people are fed. They see it as a miracle of God's grace.

There is the thought that perhaps the main focus of the feeding of the five thousand is the ideal of Christ gathering together the people of God as the true shepherd of Israel. It reminds us that God provided manna for the people to eat as they journeyed through the wilderness. That too is a miracle that is enacted Sunday by Sunday. Our communities gather together in worship. We break bread and we become part of Christ and Christ becomes part of us. We are sent out to be bread for a hungry world.

The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand teaches us about our God, our God who provides for us. We have all been in situations that feel hopeless. We are constantly amazed by the ability of God to take what we offer and make it great. But it teaches us so much more. Jesus sustained physical life with bread. But his real purpose was giving people eternal life. And that is the real miracle in which we participate. He would have these people and us understand that the provision of God is more than enough to fulfill every need of every man, woman and child on earth.

All of this presents to us a tremendous commission. Needy people followed Jesus everywhere. We don't need to look far to know that the thing most common to people is need of one kind or another. There are millions in our world who have the most basic needs of existence – food, clean water, shelter, freedom, security. There is within each of us a need for spiritual fulfillment, for inner assurance and serenity, for meaning and purpose in life.
As the people of God, we are fed and nourished so that there is no holding back in our life journey. We come to the table of the Lord and bread is shared with one another. Our journeys become the journeys of all. The path becomes one path lived together. That is the miracle of God's love. Amen.

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Come and See Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42 Invitations come in many shapes and sizes. They ...