Extraordinary Glory & Grace

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a  | Psalm 51:1-13 | Ephesians 4:1-16 | John 6:24-35

Reading to our children when they were younger reminded my husband and me about our favorite stories when we were early readers. Some of my favorites included a Disney story about Goofy breaking a curse, the Amelia Bedilia stories, and one of my favorite picture books Strega Nona by Tomie DePaola. “Strega Nona” means “grandma witch,” and in the story she’s the person everyone in the Italian village goes to see when they need healing or a cure, even the priests and nuns. In this fantasy story, she uses potions and spells to work her magic. She takes on an apprentice of sorts who ends up mis-using a spell he heard her say. He wanted to be praised like Strega Nona, but he missed a key ingredient.* Fortunately, Strega Nona arrives home just in time to save the day.

My husband’s favorite story is naturally much more realistic. You’ve probably heard the folktale “Stone Soup.” Three weary travelers come to a town, and the villagers predict that they’re going to be hungry and beg for food: so they hide. But these travelers are clever, and they make a big show of preparing their special soup, for which they proclaim there will be enough for everyone. Someone brings out a big pot and firewood. They boil water and—very dramatically—drop in the three special stones.

At each taste, the soup is delicious but could do with just a little more of something–from salt and pepper, to carrots, to potatoes, fish, and barley. Each time it’s another villager who is willing to come out of hiding to contribute to this obviously mouth-watering soup. By the time the last ingredients have been added, of course there’s more than enough for everyone. The whole village has contributed to the concoction, and the strangers share the feast with everyone before the night is done.

Whether we read the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 as a fantastic miracleor as a miracle that everyone shared what they had to make for an abundant feast for all, there’s no doubt that the gift revealed something about the grace and glory of God. And it gets us right in our gut.

We all need food. If we’re too hungry, we can’t focus. We need to be fed not only spiritually but physically. Last week, Jesus taught many things to the multitudes, and this week we revisit the scene and know that he also fed the people—in body and spirit.

But he doesn’t do it alone, even though he could. Like the clever travelers with their stone soup, Jesus knows what he will do from the beginning, but he includes his disciples in the wondering. “Where are we going to get food?” What is the cost calculation? How can we make do with what we have? Ah, look what that child has. The gift of God’s grace is so often in the unexpected, among the least of these. We get to think outside the box. Like our lesson last week, we really sometimes just need to step back and let God work in our midst, let God’s will be revealed. It is God’s will that there be enough for everyone, which there is, but everyone has to participate and cooperate for there to be enough to go around, yes?

Thank God for all the food banks, pantries, kitchens, trucks, and volunteers that work to feed the masses today, especially considering that about 19% of people are food insecure in Northwest Arkansas. One in four children are hungry or food insecure right here in our communities. One.in.four.

It was a boy that the apostle Andrew spotted who had loaves and fishes. Jesus looked to the child with the five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus took the loaves and gave thanks for them and distributed them. He did the same with the fish. He gave thanks, and he gave them to all who were seated. This pattern is familiar to us, this giving thanks, which the Greeks call eucharistia, and from which we derive our word “Eucharist,” our Great Thanksgiving.

What if that boy was one of our four children who is hungry? What if that boy had been gifted those treasures when he was hungry? What if that boy had hidden like the villagers at the beginning of the stone soup story?

Fortunately for all, the boy gave his gifts to Jesus, who then took the food and multiplied it for the masses. While it’s not the same, I get a similar feeling of such a miracle when I attend the Feast of Grace at Christ the King on the fourth Wednesday (like this last week when our loaves and fishes looked like hot dogs and buns), and I know it will feel that way when we go to HomeTowne Suites this Tuesday. We give thanks to God for the gifts that have been given and shared, and we feed those who are hungry, all to the glory of God. There’s enough.

Danger lurks wherever we hoard our gifts or dare to claim the glory for ourselves. If we hide our treasures, we hurt our neighbor who suffers in hunger. If we seek glory or manipulate circumstances for our benefit, we not only hurt others but also ourselves (such was the case for the young apprentice in Strega Nona, and it’s definitely the case with David and Uriah). When Jesus realized the people were going to force him into the role they wanted, expected, or even hoped for, he withdrew. He left to the mountain. The people wanted a worldly deliverer to save them from Rome; they wanted a messiah. But the people did not yet understand God’s glory and grace revealed to them, even if they had just experienced, very tangibly, a taste of it for themselves.

In case we, too, miss the revelation of God in the feeding of the 5,000, we get another sign of the presence of God when Jesus walks on water. Is the miracle solely that he walks on water, about four miles worth? The disciples in the boat are afraid as the storm rages around them. Jesus pronounces: “It is I; do not be afraid,” recalling to mind the words of God to Moses: “I am.” Jesus declares His presence, and immediately they arrive at their destination, safely. Again, the grace and glory of God has been revealed on God’s terms and in a very tangible way. These are signs of God in the midst of the people. These are signs that Jesus is God incarnate, Word made flesh. This is Jesus living into his mission: to make God known.

These next few weeks in our lectionary, the Gospel lessons will focus on Jesus being the Bread of life. We’ll see how many ways we depend upon Jesus Christ as our source of life. But this week, we get to delight in the memorable stories of Jesus doing amazing things with grace and in glory for no other reason than for revealing God to the people who are seeking something. The beauty of these stories is that they still happen today, when we gather around a table, when we feast together, giving thanks to God. Certainly we, too, are carried through the storms in our life in ways that in hindsight we have no idea how we made it through but for the grace of God revealed to us in the kindness and help of others and strength and perseverance we didn’t know we were capable of; God is, and God is with us.

It may be easier to believe that Jesus performed miracles at a particular place and time and that they just can’t happen today; the miracles are just really great stories for us to remember Jesus in his glory. But I think that mindset severs us from divine imagination and limits our hope and possibilities. Let us not forget Paul’s prayer to the Ephesians, a prayer equally suited for us:

“I pray that . . . Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  . . . I pray that you may . . . know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God,” for truly it is God’s “work within us (that) is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

Amen.

 

*The missing ingredient from Strega Nona is the three kisses the grandma blows over her clay pot to end her work.

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All the Treasure

Genesis 29:15-28 | Psalm 105:1-11, 45b | Romans 8:26-39 | Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

Two weeks ago when we were beginning our lectionary tango with the parables in Matthew, I approached the parable of the sower gently, opening the treasured parable like we do in Godly Play, like a precious gift to be discovered. And last week we waded into the field of the good seeds and bad weeds, still being very intentional about what Jesus is trying to reveal to us about the kingdom of heaven. But this week, y’all, Jesus is pulling an Oprah, and he’s all: “You get a parable, and you get a parable, and you get a parable. Everyone gets a parable!” It’s like he’s dumping out the whole treasure chest of parables before us in rapid succession with not an explanation given…except for what he mentioned in verses we left out today, verse 35, that says he’s fulfilling what Isaiah had said, that he would “open (his) mouth to speak in parables;/ … (to) proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” Apparently he was just getting warmed up, and now he’s revealing even more of the kingdom.

And those poor disciples. Jesus says, “Y’all are getting this, right?” I’m certain the disciples are saying, “Yes,” with quavering voices and heads shaking no. And because Jesus has greater faith than we do, he sends the disciples out to do the work anyway. If they understood, and Jesus knew they really did with God’s help, they would spread the word of what was old and what was new and what was revealing the kingdom of heaven in their midst. And that’s what they did.

So here we go, disciples. Jesus is giving it all to us today, just as he did those disciples. We get to sort out the old and the new and what’s relevant to life today.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, small yet bound to be great. I’m thinking of David, the youngest and least likely of the brothers to be chosen by God but nonetheless a great king of the nation. It was when he was small that he most proved his might in being chosen by God to defeat Goliath. That example is from our Old Testament. What about the New Covenant? What about the small band of disciples that grew from a few being called to a Way that spread across nations, from East to West and North to South? We get Christianity–our Jesus Movement–from meager beginnings and tell the stories that unfold our tradition across the centuries. Just like David, our stories aren’t always perfect, but from our beginning, we are from God. With God and through God we have the potential to give honor and glory to God. It’s just when we get in our own way that we obstruct the path to the kingdom.

And that kingdom is also like yeast that a woman puts into the flour until the measures are leavened, giving the flour just what it needs to rise, uplifted and transformed. Don’t you know when Moses encountered God he was changed? As soon as he was rescued from the river, we knew his story would be told for generations. He was chosen to lead a people out of bondage, humbled as he was by his actions and his voice. But think of Moses after his encounter with the Glory of God on Mt. Sinai. He returned to his people with a whole new understanding, even more so, it seems, than after all his attempts to persuade Pharaoh, mediating between God and the ruler of the land. Moses had been transformed by God. In our story I think of Mary, too, the mother of Jesus; she was one who encountered the Holy and was transformed from an ordinary girl into the Mother of God Incarnate. I don’t know if you can get more transformed than that.

Of course that’s not all.

This kingdom that’s like a seed of great potential and like yeast that transforms the ordinary…this kingdom itself is a treasure, a treasure worth risking all that one has, we are told. Sometimes it’s a treasure so joyfully fulfilling that one is content in just finding it and tending it, loving it dearly and intimately like the beloved in Song of Solomon. Sometimes it’s worth giving away everything just to lay claim to it. I think of Ruth in her devotion to her mother-in-law, her willingness to stay in a foreign land and find a new way forward, leaving behind what was familiar. These stories are in our ancient past, but in our history, too, are stories of people healed and told to keep quiet, though they weren’t very good at that. Lepers healed, restored to health, and one out of ten turning back to Jesus in gratitude. For while he had nothing to give nor lose, Jesus gave him everything, restored life itself for one who thought himself unworthy. If only the healed man could talk to the rich man who just couldn’t sell everything, not even for the kingdom. If only he could give him a glimpse of how valuable a life lived in gratitude to God is. It’s worth so much more than this world has to offer.

And, yes, the kingdom of heaven is a net thrown out to catch every kind of fish. Yes, our Old Covenant says only the chosen people of Israel, but our New Covenant says all and means all. God’s faithfulness throughout time has remained constant, the Word ever-present. There’s no one unfit for service in the kingdom from God’s perspective, but how well are we serving the kingdom ourselves? How well do we reveal the kingdom in our lives? How are we loving God? How are we loving our neighbors? How are we loving ourselves? Are we loving in a way that reveals that we’ve discovered a thing or two about the kingdom and share our treasure with the world near and far?

Jesus gave us everything then as now because he knew what a hot mess we were then and are today. We have a hard time caring for our neighbors. Poverty is complicated. Health care is complicated. Cultural literacy takes time and compassion. Jacob’s trick to garner Esau’s birthright eventually gets met by Laban’s trickery in giving his daughters, and we just can’t believe that people would do that . . . only we really can because we’re human, and we see neighbors betraying neighbors day in and out.

Jesus has emptied all the treasure before us, given us a glimpse of the kingdom in a way we can try to understand, and sends us into the world with what is new and of God to build up the kingdom of heaven. And he hasn’t told just a few of us anointed ones; the Word is here for everyone to read and hear and study and digest. The Word is here to germinate within and transform us, to uncover the treasure we are in the midst of the field and the priceless gifts we are and have to contribute to the kingdom, reminding us also that we have power to choose what is for the kingdom or against it. So, as disciples, as scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven, what is the Word we share with the world? What is the treasure we bring out of the house? What is old? What is new? Our treasure trove is great.

Are we caught like the disciples, saying we understand when Jesus knows we really haven’t a clue? Thank God we have the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whose very sighs usher us toward the will of God, shifting us into alignment. We’re not always going to make the right judgment calls. We’re rarely going to know what to say in difficult situations. Jesus knew, as God knows, that we are perfectly imperfect on our own. As believers, we know this, too, and we know our need for intercession by the Divine.

We’ve been given keys to the kingdom and all the treasure we could ever need, but it comes with the burden of responsibility to share the treasure with others, to break open the kingdom of heaven–God’s dream for us–into our present reality. The parables in relation to the Old Covenant highlighted a relationship with the LORD based upon obedience, steadfast devotion, and fear . . . especially fear. This same LORD our God of the Old Covenant revealed something more of God’s self in the person of Jesus. The parables in relation to our New Covenant with God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit reveals the transformational and unconditional love of God that forms the ground of being of the kingdom of heaven, of our Church, of our lives.

Why can’t we live our lives, mighty and transformed, joyful and priceless, caught up in God to build up God’s kingdom? What are we afraid of? Of having to take the keys to the kingdom and show someone else the way? Of explaining the mysteries to which we don’t fully have the answers? Of sitting beside someone in agony while the Holy Spirit isn’t sighing quickly enough?

Being a disciple is hard work. Those to whom much is given, much is required, right? Jesus showers us with treasure, gives us everything we never knew we needed until we woke up and realized we can’t do it by ourselves. We run into our imperfection, our weakness, but we catch glimpses of the shiny treasures around us, and we hear the still small voice that whispers, “Remember the wonderful works God has done. Share the goodness. Seek God’s presence continually.” Remember. Share. Seek.

Remember all the ways we and our people are transformed and treasured by God. Share God’s Love. Seek God’s Love flowing not only between us and God but through others, too, everywhere. As we find ourselves more and more surrounded in the reality of the treasures of the parables, maybe we’ll discover that the kingdom of heaven has been here all along, waiting for us to find our way home.

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Ask. Search. Knock.

Hosea 1:2-10 | Psalm 85 | Colossians 2:6-19 | Luke 11:1-13


Many years ago, a disciple waited for Jesus to finish praying that he might beg of him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” I wonder if Jesus looked around at his followers, sort of bewildered, and thought, “What have we been doing all this time that they don’t know how to pray?” But Jesus gives a simple yet profound prayer, topped off with a little parable speaking to the payoffs of persistence and a not-so-subtle reminder of how great and gracious the heavenly Father is when it comes to responding to His children. As much as I would like to elaborate on each line of the Lord’s Prayer and swap stories about perseverance and answered prayers, these chairs are only comfortable for so long.

For our time in the Parish Hall, Lynn has very cleverly snuck in not only one of my favorite hymns but also a key to our message today: “Seek ye first.” (Now, for 8 o’clock, we don’t get to sing it, but hopefully you know it well.  Hymn 711, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.”) It’s one of my favorites because it’s one of the first songs in The CampMitchellChapel-evening2016Episcopal Church that got into my heart and mind. I learned it at Camp Mitchell on retreat. No matter where I sing it, I imagine the echo of women’s voices singing it in the round, some voices breaking into parts. It has a Taizé-like quality to it: a simple hymn, easily repeated. The hymn draws from verse 9 of today’s reading, the second verse echoing what Jesus said to the disciples, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Then we sing our refrain of Alleluias.

As far as I can tell, we’re flat-out being told that we’ll get what we ask for and find what we’re looking for, and if we just keep knocking, we’re going to get the door open. According to St. Bede, it’s the door to the Kingdom of God we’re striving to enter. Our asking is our prayer. Our searching is our proper living. Our knocking is our perseverance in our life and prayer. These three things help grant us entrance to the Kingdom of God, alleluia!

I think Bede’s onto something, and I certainly don’t question what Jesus says to his disciples. I do wonder, however, at how we think of asking, seeking, and knocking. We might get so caught up in asking and seeking and making sure we’re knocking at the right door that we get a little preoccupied with our self-righteousness and piety. In such cases, we end up playing the part of the hypocrite, our prayers false and our lives full of pretense but no depth. Or what of the faithful who pray devotedly, live righteously, and persevere mightily and who cannot seem to get a break? Maybe we know a few in that category, too.

As we look to Jesus for guidance in our praying, it’s important to think of how we ask of God.

Here I say “God” so freely, but Jesus instructs us in our prayer that we address the almighty as “Father,” perhaps because the name is so holy and revered, so hallowed, that we dare not presume to address the Most High directly . . . except as the most beloved Father we share through Christ. Before we ask the Father for anything, we acknowledge that it is God’s kingdom we wish to be manifest. Here the Matthean addition of “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mtw 6:10) elaborates on the priority of God’s will over our own. The foundation before we ask for anything is that we acknowledge our God in holiness and our God in relationship to us. We also surrender ourselves as obedient children of God. Our surrender is to a good and loving God of whom we don’t necessarily have to ask, we sort of state to God: “Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” In our petitions, we are asking of God but also reminding ourselves of what God provides. We ask that God’s will be done and that we have the sustenance, forgiveness, and perseverance to be a part of the kingdom. So, how do we ask of God? Humbly and expectantly. No matter how old we are, we are but a child addressing our heavenly Father, and as such we do expect to receive, though we might not understand how the Holy Spirit is at work in God’s will or how God’s will is at work in us.

Our understanding can be improved, however, when we persist in our searching. It’s important to consider how we search for God.

Honestly, I wanted to say that it’s important to consider how we “look” for God, but we “look” for our keys when we’ve lost them. When we have asked something of God and are searching for where Spirit is at work in our lives, we aren’t just looking for signs, though we do hope to see them. In our searching, there is hope and yearning. In our searching, there is commitment. Maybe it plays on the psychology of intention, but when we focus our search on something, we become more aware, more likely to notice whatever it is we are searching for. We needn’t look any farther than ourselves. Rowan Williams says, “Prayer is the life of Jesus coming alive in you, so it is hardly surprising if it is absolutely bound up with a certain way of being human which is about reconciliation, mercy, and freely extending welcome and the love of God to others.” One of the best examples of this kind of Jesus-becoming is told in our book of saints, Holy Women, Holy Men. This past Wednesday, we honored Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman. Reading their incredible bios, Sojourner Truth at one point took to the streets as an evangelist, proclaiming the Word. What she found on the streets, however, were people cold and hungry and homeless and unemployed. No doubt they needed the Word, but they needed daily bread and coats. They needed a place to live, so Sojourner established a home for them. What better way to preach the Gospel? What better way to discover God in the midst of the people? When we are living our lives as prayer, we can find God even when we think we aren’t searching. Finally for this morning,

 it’s important to consider where we think of God.

Where we think of God hinges on a fairly simple premise: is God here or in a great beyond? Are we praying to some far off God whose door to the kingdom is in some nearly mythical “heaven” that we’ll only know in death? Or, do we believe that the Holy One is closer than the air we breathe? Where is the door we need to knock on to let the kingdom come? Maybe it’s no farther than our mind and hearts. We have asked for it and sought it, why wouldn’t it be here for us to enter into? As comforting to us as it might be that the kingdom can be found in the here and now, there is great responsibility in choosing to knock and enter into the graciousness of God’s kingdom. It means returning to prayer again and again, discerning moment to moment. But it also means doing so in fullness of Spirit, as a revealed child of God, and for that glory, we heartily sing our alleluias before we get back to work, asking, seeking, and knocking.

 

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