Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 12B] - July 29, 2012 (John 6:1-21)

Loaves and fishes.

Every once in a while, if you are paying close enough attention, you will see the stories of Holy Scripture written directly into your life. I’m sure it happens more often than we ever notice, our egos and our agendas normally crowding out any chance at recognizing the many ways the Holy Spirit swoops down to draw us into God’s story. Yet that is precisely what I found happening to me last week while I was with thirty-six members of the Epiphany Youth group and chaperones at the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans. Our denomination of the Lutheran Church, the ELCA, holds national youth gatherings every three years, and typically when I attend these huge events I am so busy and tired and sleepy and hungry that I can’t stop and enjoy those moments of the Holy Spirit and see my life through the prism of Scripture. But last week it happened at least once (that I’m aware of), and the story that I found my life momentarily mirroring is this very account from John’s gospel where Jesus feeds the multitude, the story of the loaves and fishes.

The day was Friday, the third day of the Gathering. Friday was our “easy” day when we didn’t have to be anywhere at any specific time. Many other youth groups had planned something exotic and expensive and very touristy to do on their easy day. Some had paid high-dollar for swamp boat tours, while others had paid premium prices to go to a museum or the aquarium. Already close to the squeaking point on our budget, we had not scheduled any of that, and, to their credit, there was no grumbling from our youth.

What we had left open, however, was the possibility to visit an Epiphany member out in the St. Bernard Parish in the Arabi section of greater New Orleans. Joe Wall is a New Orleans native and is currently restoring an old home there that has been in his family for four generations. It had sustained some damage in Hurricane Katrina, but was now in its final stages of refurbishment. Before we actually left for New Orleans, Joe had figured out the youth Gathering was going to coincide with his own visit to check on his property, and he invited us out to see a real historical New Orleans home. He also wanted to take us to lunch at a littlesandwich shop/food mart down the street that supposedly sells some of the best oyster and shrimp po-boys in the entire city.

So this little expedition is what we decided to do on our “easy day.” It was nothing too fancy or elaborate, yet it exposed us to something interesting and authentically “New Orleans” outside of the downtown bubble we had been in. In terms of the Scripture story, you might say we had travelled to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.

Joe was a gracious and wonderful host. When we showed up at his house,  the bottom had fallen out of the sky and we were looking like drowned rats but he didn’t hesitate to welcome us right in and show us around. We also took in a few of the sights of the humble but very tidy neighborhood right along the levee that holds back the Mississippi, including the remains of the oldest plantation house in the city. Joe was, however, a little taken aback by the size of our group. I don’t know how many he expected, but he seemed a little concerned that the little sandwich shop might not be able to handle thirty-seven people. In fact, he was concerned enough to call the shop ahead of time and ask them if they—get this—had enough French bread on hand to make that many po-boys. I had seen the place as we’d driven in. Hand-painted sign, pay-at-the-cash-register kind of place…to call it a “restaurant” was a bit of a stretch. In fact, it calls itself a food store. Suffice it to say that because it was so far off the beaten path, and especially because we were arriving after the lunch rush, that shop might not have but a few, say 5, loaves on hand. I was a little worried where we’d get food for our entire group if this option didn’t pan out. But the owner told Joe on the phone, “We’ll make it work.”

So we trudged down the street in the rain, literally crowded ourselves into this little food mart, and all of us—well, just about all of us—ordered po-boys. We took up every seat in the place. The kitchen help fired up the fryer again full-speed, and the waitress and the young bus boy, who couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12 years old, both worked diligently to make sure everyone was comfortable. But just before the food began to come out, someone requested that I say a prayer. The whole place stopped talking, and the employees paused in their tasks. Suddenly I realized that I was praying for the whole establishment, which is something I’ve never done before. I’ve prayed in restaurants before, for a table or two of people here or there, but never for an entire eating establishment. So I gave thanks. Then the food was delivered and, as you guessed, it was absolutely delicious. There was more than enough for all, and I’m pretty sure I saw some people leaving with doggie bags.

So, there you have it: life mirroring Scripture. Loaves and fishes. French bread loaves and shellfishes. Jesus said, “Make the people sit down—“we’ll make it work.” So they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; also the fish, as much as they wanted.”

A miracle—a sign of God’s presence—happened to us in that little food mart that day. I’m not saying that the kitchen staff somehow miraculously transformed 5 loaves of French bread into thirty-eight po-boys, but we did experience a hospitality and and a feeding of our souls that went far beyond what I think any of us expected. In reflecting upon our trip as a whole, many of the youth lifted up the day we spent at Joe’s house and in the Arabi Food Store and Café as one of the highlights of the trip. It was a humbling reminder to me that wholesome learning experiences do not always come with a high price of an admission ticket or with elaborate planning. A component of grace, they just come, and often without warning.

When Jesus Christ is present in the breaking of bread and the sharing of gifts, any ordinary situation can become a feast of heaven. And in this occurrence of life mirroring Scripture, Joe, the other adult leaders, and I all served, if only for a few moments, as the worried disciples who wondered whether any feast could take place at all, especially with so many hungry people and in a place with such an apparent shortage of resources. The youth and the workers at Arabi Food store, however, supplied the firm if not quiet faith that God was indeed going to provide everything we’d need: the po-boys, for sure, but also the sustenance of an experience where relationships were formed and gifts were blessed, from the bread in the kitchen right down to the labor of the bus boy.

The question is: how many instances like this will need to happen before we realize that this is how our God operates, that God does not function on an economy of scarcity? How many times will our lives need to mirror the stories of Scripture before it finally dawns on us that God’s grace permeates even the ordinary Arabi Food Store experiences of life? How many occurrences of God’s surprising grace will it take to convince us that Jesus is often quietly at the middle of everything, blessing our meager gifts and our inexpensive easy days and then multiplying God’s goodness so that there is enough for all.

The sign that those disciples experienced that day beside the Sea of Galilee was designed to prove just that: that Jesus is God’s amazing grace and that he is given for the life of the world. This kind of thing is what he does, not just for our bellies and our bodies, but for our souls as well. Our lives will be far more with him than without him. And as we feast on his word in Scripture, as we gather weekly with other people who are hungry for a word of hope and comfort, as we take our place at this feast each week, Jesus Christ shows up and promises, against all odds, that he will be enough, that his own body will be blessed and, on the cross, broken for the life of the world.

A further challenge involves not just seeing that this is how Jesus Christ graciously interrupts the normal flow of  human existence to provide enough for all, but to then model that ourselves as his disciples. God calls us to be the bus boys and the waitresses, the cooks and bread bakers who see our lives transformed by Jesus’ power and then go out to see where loaves are broken and blessed for the life of the world. Strengthened time and again by the experiences like the youth had in New Orleans, or the volunteers at Vacation Bible School, or even by our worship here, we become able to see the scope of our lives written into Scriptures story where people meet Jesus daily and join in his mission, where see the death of Good Friday give way to the news of Easter morning.

Our call to pull up a seat and be fed turns into a call to go gather the leftovers and be prepared to feed the world.  One of the speakers we heard at the Superdome, Shane Claiborne, said that we often look at all the injustice and suffering and inequality in the world and often say, “God, why don’t you do something about all this?” And God says, “I did. I made you.”

And when we doubt whether our meager lives, our meager gifts and talents, our meager faith are enough to be broken and blessed for Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes, then perhaps we should arrange a trip with Joe to Arabi Food Store and Café in St. Bernard Parish for a refresher course, Or, better yet…no need to go anywhere at all. We can simply grab a seat and arrange ourselves here at the Lord’s Table, where there is always plenty for all, the body and blood of our crucified and risen Lord, the bread of life.

And, by the by, see every moment of our lives—life, death, and life again—written into the story of God.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 8B] - July 1, 2012 (Mark 5:21-43)

Health care has certainly been the talk of the week. Everyone around has been anxiously awaiting word regarding the validity of a recent campaign that promises health and wholeness to all people. People have even been assembling on the streets in some places, some of them voicing protest and others offering support. In and amongst them are plenty, I’m certain, who are just curious and want to be in on the action. Questions have abounded as the controversy reaches fever pitch: will quality health care be a privilege of the rich and well-connected or will there be access for the poor and anonymous? Who can count on getting attention in a system of care that is much larger and more complex than anyone realizes? What is the value of human life?

And throughout the whole episode, we’ve heard of desperate cases and extreme examples, those who are at the end of their rope and have nowhere else to turn. All in all it’s been a very sticky situation; one leader in particular finds himself walking a tightrope of legal restrictions, interpretations of codes and statutes that few common people can follow, much less understand. What will be the outcome? They tell us the whole thing is historic. It could change the future of everyone’s welfare. After all, Jesus of Nazareth might only pass through this town once. If you are in search of health and healing, you had better push and elbow your way into his presence and use any connections you may have to get his attention.

Jesus heals hemorrhaging woman
The scenes from this morning’s gospel lesson rivet us, and if they don’t, they probably should. Something monumental is happening. Jesus is back on the more Jewish side of Lake Galilee. The crowds are mobbing him. They know he can heal because he’s performed some miraculous healings, but many are probably equally fascinated by his teachings, which is why they are calling him teacher. Teachers of the law are supposed to follow the law, and that means staying away from things like bodily fluids and corpses. And yet Jesus, the teacher, doesn’t. It’s all quite riveting. In one episode, he is both approached by a synagogue leader named Jairus whose young daughter is near death and also accosted by an unknown woman who has been bleeding for twelve years.

Although few details are given, it is safe to assume that both of these people come from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. One has likely been on the fringes of society, the realities of her condition making her ritually unclean. Kids these days might call her a creeper, someone who lurks around in the crowd, never directly confronting the object of interest. However, being a woman marked by the religious authorities as dirty, she had no other option but to creep up on Jesus.

"Raising of Jairus' Daughter" Ilya Repin (1871)
By contrast, the other person apparently has an entourage. Jairus would have been well-known in the community. In Mark’s gospel, we only know the name of one other person Jesus healed. As a synagogue leader, Jairus would have been well-versed in the law, as well. That he would approach Jesus, this controversial upstart from Nazareth, is no small thing. Few Jewish religious leaders would embrace Jesus’ ministry, but I suppose desperate times call for desperate measures, and his daughter is dying.

Two different folks, two different circumstances, but one clear message that God is concerned for the welfare of all of his people. Like many of other miracles in Jesus’ early ministry, these actions demonstrate God’s desire to free people from the powers of sin and death. This is God’s individual mandate: powerful redemption for the whole world.

Our response to this good news is faith. That is the other important thing that both Jairus and the woman with the hemorrhage illustrate, and it is ultimately what Jesus wants to show us in performing these healings. Jesus is not just a wonder-worker who is here to do our bidding; rather, he is the Savior of the world who wants us to receive his kingdom message in faith. Jesus is not just a healer of medical conditions, but is the one who embodies the very compassionate heart of God, who desires all people to trust in God’s mercy and lovingkindness.

And yet in both cases, we see a wavering of that faith and trust. Once the woman is healed, she is overcome with fear and trembling.At first afraid to own up to her pushiness, her sneaking up behind him, she finally confesses how she pressed in on him so close that she could touch his clothes. In the case of Jairus, his supporters initially give up on Jesus’ ability to help after Jesus is detained by conversation with the woman. The daughter is already feared dead. Once Jesus arrives at his house, Jairus’ friends laugh when Jesus suggests that the girl is not dead but sleeping. Fear and laughter. Anxiety and mocking. Unwavering trust and belief are not the reactions that Jesus’ presence and actions produce, at least in these two. Even these models of faith show some vacillation as they learn to trust Jesus’ power. The promise of new life in Jesus is never first based on our faith or our power to believe to begin with. That’s why it’s called grace.

This past week, while the rest of the country was in the grips of the ruling over health care, I found myself at the Virginia Synod Kairos youth event at Roanoke College, in the grips of almost two hundred teenagers who were learning to articulate God’s loving care. During some of our large group sessions in the chapel, seniors are invited to sit before the whole assembly and give what they call a “faith testimony.” They sit on a stool in front of everyone and read aloud a statement they’ve written and agonized over which attempts to describe how they’ve felt God moving and working in their life.

As you can imagine, often these testimonies contain stories of trials and suffering, secret and shocking pain that often go unshared until they come into the presence of their peers. I consider it an honor to hear these stories and testimonies. One youth shared his fear and turmoil over a diagnosis of muscular dystrophy and what that might mean for his future. I was particularly moved by the testimony of one young man who openly confessed to everyone that he didn’t think he was a “good Christian.” He went on to explain how faith was something he never could get a handle on. Just when he thinks his understanding of God is deepened, at that moment he realizes it could be so much stronger yet.

At this point I’m unable to remember the exact words he used when he spoke to us, but rather than speaking of faith in terms of an object or tool which he might use to get what he wants—which so many of us often do—he spoke about it almost as if were the hem of a garment that slips from his hand just as he begins to grip it. His faith, he said, was more like a set of questions and hopes that he brings before God, a journey that he never can define or fully describe. In his testimony I could hear the echoes of both Jairus and the bleeding woman, a longing to be close to the Lord but also a fear that things won’t always work out like he hoped, that his failings and brokenness might somehow invite God’s wrath rather than God’s compassion. I heard him speak about feeling at times unworthy, ungrateful, unwilling, and I wanted to tell him that the fact that he acknowledges he is not a “good Christian” actually makes him a great Christian. I could hear an understanding that Jesus does not respond to our faith, but that faith is a response to what Jesus has done. But most I heard this young man’s thanksgiving for what he had already received from the hand of a loving and healing Savior, and his expectation that there was more of it to come. A common theme in all testimonies—his and the others—was that faith somehow made them well. It sometimes eluded them, often surprised them, but always, in the end, made them well. What about you? What words would you give to describe your faith? What actions in your life press you closer and closer to the man from Nazareth?

In the end, that is where this relationship of trust is aimed: God makes us well. And no matter where we are in life—and no matter what the world’s state of health care is—there will always be something healing, something truly life-giving about a relationship with Jesus that cannot be found anywhere else. There will still be something saving about seeking to know and—more importantly—being known by God. There will always be power in his cloak, if we can but touch it.

As we press closer to him, as we continue our questions of discovery, as we thrust onto God our pain and suffering, we learn that Jesus will not primarily free people from the powers of sin and death by performing miraculous healing. He will primarily do this by succumbing to the powers of sin and death himself. He is here, in our midst, not simply to command his power over everything but to give up that power and enter into the weakness of human experience. On the cross, Jesus touches…grips…is nailed to…all that separates us from God and, in his rising, conquers it.

Brothers and sisters, this is historic. It affects the welfare of everyone in the entire world.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.