Reflection for July 26, 2015

2 Kings 4:42-44, Ephesians 3:14-21, John 6:1-21

The feeding of the multitudes. This is a very familiar story about Jesus: perhaps not the most famous of the miracles. That would probably be walking on water. But feeding the multitudes is right up there. All of stories of the life of Jesus record this event. And it takes on a different meaning in each of the gospels.

In Mark, the first gospel written, the placement, context, wording, and tone of story all remind the church that as we try to care for all the sick people around us, we will be overwhelmed by the needs of everyone. But as we work on our mission, we will have the resources we need to get it done. The miracle is the assurance of logistical sufficiency even when it appears we do not have enough. We will do what we can with what we have, and that will mysteriously be enough. This logistical sufficiency is also the sense of the earlier Elisha story in Kings.

In Luke, the placement, context, wording, and tone of the story all suggest an economic implication. It becomes the miracle of sharing. We have enough in our abundance. We need to share. This sharing of resources in an economic way is one of the deeper messages of Luke and its companion volume Acts.

In Matthew, the placement, context, wording, and tone of the story all give it an educational perspective. In Matthew more than anywhere, Jesus becomes the great Rabbi or teacher. And in this miracle we learn about the power, grace, and abundance of God. But we also learn about learning. How the little insights, broken open and shared, become a great stream of wisdom. Here it is the miracle in the class room when young people, given just a few things small things, discover a great thing as they acquire knowledge and wisdom.

But we do not have the story in Mark, Luke, or Matthew. We have it in John. And in John, the placement, context, wording, and tone of the story becomes (as it usually does in John) more mystical, more mysterious, and more profound in a philosophical way. It is here that the story becomes a picture of the sacrament of bread. It is the mystery of the bread of Holy Communion broken and shared, the small taste of a feast yet to come, that satisfies the deep longing of the human heart. Here is the miracle of the Bread of Life, the Lord’s Supper. And here is John’s vision of the meal we will share together in this room this morning.

—–See how the meal of mystery in John is shared in a sacred space. Notice the setting of the mountains. There is a grassy valley, large enough for thousands to gather. In this beautiful park-like natural setting the meal becomes a spiritual feeding. The stage is set for the feeding of the soul.

—–See how the mystery meal is misunderstood. At first it seems that the feeding is about the actual food. But John moves beyond that very quickly. The people misunderstand the miracle as a physical thing. And they want to make Jesus king so that he can just feed them day after day. But John moves the meal into mystery. Communion is not about the food we eat. Holy Communion is about God feeding our souls fully and completely.

—–See how the mystery meal is a memory of the Passover. Only in John this meal takes place on the Passover. It is the reminder that Holy Communion is the Christian Passover, the last night of the life of Jesus, the Last Supper, the angel of death passing over us and all creation, as the blood of the lamb is smeared on the posts.

—–See how the mystery meal feeds us for the journey ahead. The sanctuary setting, as wonderful as it is, is temporary. Everyone moves on. Everyone moves into the world again out onto the waters of time. In the mystery of word made flesh, and real presence in bread and wine, we are nourished for our journey. We do not remain in this room. We move.

—–See how in John the mystery meal is part of another mystery, another miracle, the miracle of walking on water, of Jesus coming to us through the storms of life, of the wind and waves and creation itself listening for the divine voice. Jesus is present with us in the bread, in the wine, on the journey, in the storms of life, in the wind and waves, and in the natural order of things.

—–See how the mystery meal blows us into the deepest recesses of our fear and hope, into our deepest understandings of the love of God, into the boat where we sense what it is God is trying to do as we journey across the lake and through the decades. And there is just a hint of the depth of this lake we are rowing far and how far the wind will blow us.

This mysterious mystical John writes in Asia Minor, or modern Turkey, where Ephesus is. Where Ephesians is written. And these ancient Christians in this part of the world are traveling over a deeper philosophical ocean than we might suspect.

For these ancient mystics, Jesus did not die on the cross to save us from our sins. Nor did Jesus die on the cross to save humanity. No, in Asia Minor they began to get the notion that God was really, really big: that Jesus died so that all creation, the cosmos, all things, might be returned to God. They sensed that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we are mysteriously connected to all, yes all, life, suffering, pain, death, and renewal. In Jesus we experience the deepest suffering and death reflected in the suffering of creatures as life finds its way into new life. The paschal mystery of the suffering Jesus becomes the mystery of how all suffering by all creatures is nature’s evolving new life. Not only in ways we can see, but in mysterious ways we cannot even comprehend. For God is vast, mysterious, and beyond knowing in Asia Minor. And God is still beyond our attempts to reduce God to one who fills our stomachs, solves our problems, and gets enmeshed in our guilt which still keeps us focused on ourselves.

You know, it is almost a sad thing that we are reading Ephesians these weeks one little bit at a time. Because when we do that, we miss the impact of this grander vision of God bringing all creation, all creatures, and all things back home into the waiting arms of grace through the suffering and death that is part of life. And as the universe passes over into the grace of God, we have this mystery meal, served outside, in a grassy mountain valley, to creatures who are hungry for something more.

So, in memory of John, it is now time to eat, to break the bread, to share the meal and the memories that lead us over the waters, through the storms, into our future: a larger, greater future planned for us and all by the waiting God.




Reflection for July 12, 2015

Amos 7:7-15, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29

      Speaking truth to power seems to be the theme of the first and third readings, as two prophets, Amos and John the Baptist, declare the ways of God and suffer the consequences.

The second reading does not seem to belong with the other two. It is the first of several readings to come from Ephesians. We are starting in the first chapter. In Ephesians is a wonderful, cosmic vision of God’s plan for the salvation of all creation, all things. In Ephesians we are all part of this grand design. It may be that for you this morning, this second reading is more important than the first and third: especially if this has been a difficult week, you are not sure where things are headed, and you feel stuck. The grand design and cosmic hope of Ephesians lifts us up and helps us see that even when we feel stuck in the mud, we are moving along the path that brings us all back into the waiting arms of God.

But speaking the truth to power is the theme of the other readings. Amos and John the Baptist are images of courage as they advocate for justice, truth, and the right. And it is good for us to lift up all those who suffer for the sake of the right, including ourselves sometimes, as we attempt to advocate for others and face the powers that be. Like freedom and liberty, truth and justice are not free things, but involve sacrifice and struggle.

The passage from Amos is interesting in several ways. Yes, it is the story of a prophet standing up to the king and demanding social justice. That is the theme of the book of Amos. But we find many things here as we dig into the text itself.

Amos is one of the earliest prophets in the Hebrew tradition, one of the earliest writing prophets. The age of this material reminds us of how long this struggle between faith and political power has been, how much a part of community life it is. From at least the Iron Age, our faith has called injustice into question. It is a long, long struggle. And when we engage in advocacy we are part of a long, ancient tradition.

We also see something new as far as prophecy goes in this particular reading. Amos tells parables. At the time of Amos, this would be a new thing: using things like a plumb line to describe something about God.  Now Amos is not sophisticated in the ways of theology. He was a farmer-entrepreneur. In his agricultural ways he begins to use simple concrete objects to describe a deeper, less concrete truth. He uses plumb lines, and baskets of over-ripe fruit, and the rush of a river to describe the ways of God. These parables are a new thing. Eventually, the prophets use more and more parables. And by the time of Isaiah and the later Jesus, the parables actually become stories, involving a plot or character. But in the beginning, in the Iron Age agricultural mind of the early prophets, a parable was a concrete object which was used to make a point.

This may remind us that even in our very complicated age when it is even difficult to know where the power lies; the simple, concrete reality still matters. The reality could not be more concrete. More than ever, people need a place to sleep. More than ever, families have trouble making ends meet. More than ever, children are eating their meals at school. More than ever, our prisons are filling up with mostly young black men. More than ever, people are having trouble affording health care. More than ever, we experience exclusion and unfairness in public and economic life. More than ever, we depend on intimidation and control, rather than friendship and compassion to keep the peace. And in all of those things there is the simple truth that God wants us to talk straight as we walk the long path toward a new way to be God’s people together: sharing our resources, providing shelter and financial assistance, redirecting and recovering young black lives, and finding ways for people, all people, to be healthy again. Even in our own complicated times, the right thing, the straight line, is not all that complicated.

And there is something else new in the ancient reading from Amos. The new thing is that the faith is disconnected from the establishment. In most cultures, places, and times in human history, religion has been part of the established structures of political and social power. This was especially true in the Iron Age. It is a new concept, this idea that someone should be critical of the establishment on the basis of religion. At the time of Amos, religion is always part of the establishment. But here is an outsider, one from Judah, who has gone to the other province Israel, to say that God is critical of the king and the royal family. At the heart of Amos may be an Iron Age revolt over agricultural taxes imposed to support a royal court and army. But for one of the first times in written history, religion is used to criticize the king, rather than support the powers that be.

The royal establishment prophet Amaziah at Bethel where this story takes place does what religious leaders usually do. He tells the king about Amos, then tells Amos he is wrong and that he should go back where he came from.

All of this reminds us in our own times as well, it is very easy for religion to become the handmaiden of power. The powers that be will always want religion to support their point of view. And it is wise to remain suspicious of all religious leaders, for there is a bit of Amaziah in all of us, including myself, even when we seem to be playing the role of some Amos.

And there is something else that is new in this ancient prophet. He is a lay person. Amos is not a priest, but a farmer. Priests like kings came from particular families. This lay prophecy is a new thing. But since then, God has constantly called upon the laity, the people of God, rather than the religious hierarchy or priests to declare the right. The prophetic authority in this passage lies with the lay person, not the priest.

And this reminds us that it is you in the pews who are called to declare the will of the Lord. My task is not to reveal to you the truth, but to assist you as your servant to discern your own truth and to get to it.

Speaking the truth to power is what Amos does. And he does it in fresh ways. He uses objects as parables. He does not support the king but challenges the royal house. And he does so as a lay person. This is the prophetic legacy of this oldest of Iron Age sages.

That legacy continues in the third reading, as first John the Baptist, and then later Jesus, are arrested and killed by the powers that be.

And in Mark, it is John’s arrest and murder that propel Jesus to begin his ministry in the villages and beyond. He is continuing the message of the one who came earlier. For as prophecies go, endings often are the beginning of something else.


Reflection for July 5, 2015

Ezekiel 2:1-5, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13  

     So the readings today speak with bold clarity about an issue of grave importance to all of us. I am sure you were wondering about this issue as you came to church today. The readings bring to the surface the question, “What is your warrant?” or perhaps even deeper, “Do you have one?”

What? What is my warrant? That makes no sense. And what do warrants and warranties have to do with these three different readings this morning, let alone my faith life or life in community? What a strange thing to say at the beginning of a sermon. What is your warrant?

But hear me out. “Warrant,” I think is exactly the right word and theme in the readings.  A warrant is an authorization, sanction, or justification. It is something that serves to give reliable or formal assurance. It is a guarantee, or pledge, or warranty. Sometimes a warrant is in writing or is a document certifying or authorizing something, as a receipt, license, or commission in the military. Sometimes it is a permit, voucher, or purchase order. In law it is an authorization to make an arrest, seize property, make a search, or carry a judgment into execution.

At its heart a warrant is the certificate of authority by which someone is able to do something. The warrant is not the authority itself, but the authorization of that power to be used to accomplish a task.  And a theme of each of these readings is the warrant or authority of God to certify a speaker or speech or mission.

Warrants, credibility, and authority are more important than we might think. You know the old line: It must be true. I read it on the internet. With so much out there, we do wonder what is reliable, what is right, and what is true. We use warrants more than we think. And indeed all social, economic, and political life depends on the credibility of warrants.

In the first reading Ezekiel is called to be a prophet. You can tell that this is going to be a difficult prophetic ministry. Ezekiel is sent by God to a nation rejecting God, for the purpose of getting everyone to change their ways. The prophet’s warrant for this mission is the declaration of the word of the Lord: thus says the Lord God. Ezekiel’s warrant is that his words are the actual word and will of the Lord of the Heavens. Behind that warrant is a spirit entering into Ezekiel, lifting him up, and giving him the capacity to speak the words of God.

Now this warrant: Thus says the Lord God, may seem strange to us. But we do not understand its shock value. God could not be referred to by name. The use of the name of God in speech was forbidden. But Ezekiel will be using the prohibited name of God to introduce his message. His warrant would seem both shocking and then arrogant. It will garner attention and get him in trouble.

By this shocking warrant, this outrageous authorization, the prophet goes about his task. He is declaring the Word of the LORD.  Much more can be said here. But the passage has been cut short and there are other warrants in the other readings. The warrant for Ezekiel is the word of God, and God’s word remains a frequent warrant for what we think and do.

In the second reading, Paul is dealing with different warrants for religious credibility. In the church at Corinth, what warranted the speaker was a mystical spiritual experience. People prized the spirit, gifts of the spirit, and spiritual ecstasy. The deeper and more mysterious the ecstasy of the person speaking, the more credibility the speaker had about other aspects of religious life. Speaking in tongues was a warrant for the validity of the one who thus spoke.  That’s why speaking in tongues was so important.

Now Paul recognizes the warrant of ecstasy, of mystical experience and of mystery of faith, but he does not use it. He decides not to use this warrant even though he has had what he calls his own exceptional revelation.

Mysterious ecstasy is fine.  But he points to a different spiritual warrant of authority rather than ecstasy. It is the warrant of suffering. The thorn in his side. It is his suffering, his vulnerability, his humanity, his illness, that gives him credibility to speak about the ways of God.

And that is true for us. We believe those people who have paid the price, walked the mile, suffered as we have suffered, been one of us, are the ones who know what it’s like to go through it. That is the warrant of Paul. For Paul it is the warrant of God. The suffering, dying Jesus is the warrant of God’s desire to be with us through the hardest times of all.

In the third reading the warrant of Jesus is questioned by the people of his home town. Where does he get this stuff?  Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt for the warrant, the authority. Also in this reading the disciples are warranted for a healing mission to the villages. They are authorized to go into the villages to do battle with the unclean spirits: in other words to heal in the name of Jesus. That is part of their warrant, this using the name of Jesus.

But another part of their warrant is what I would call the capacity for community. They are not to bring in outside resources, but to live in the houses of the villagers, eat the food given to them, and use only what is offered, in order to make the mission indigenous.  The warrant for the mission is its support by the community. And if that community does not accept the authority of the name, and does offer the sense of support; the disciples are to close the mission, dust their sandals and move on.

So in the readings, even if it seems strange at first, the issue is the warrant, the authority by which some good can be accomplish, some wrong righted, some insight gained, or some disease healed. And it turns out that the people of God have always needed and used some warrant to make decisions about what they hear and what they do.     Warrants, credibility, and authority are more important than we might think. With so much out there, we do wonder what is reliable, what is right, and what is true.

The readings today use God’s Word, or the depth of the spirit, or the witness of the sufferer, or the name of Jesus, or the sense of community to bring correction, insight, healing, and vision.

And that brings us to our question.  What is your warrant?

What is your warrant? What is the authority by which you hold yourself and those around you in the palm of God? What is the authority we use to accomplish our good, our mission, our purpose? Each of us will answer that differently. Some of us will always be moved by the word of God. Others will find their authority in deep spirituality. Still others will ground their authority in solidarity with the suffering, the poor and broken. Sometimes we use the name of Jesus. Sometimes we find ourselves grounded in the sense of community.

Like Paul, we should probably respect the spiritual warrants of others even if we do not use them ourselves. And we can use different warrants to construct functional consensus. Even though we have a common goal, we all start from different places.

And these days we may discover that some warrants are more useful than others. Today the authority of the word of God seems to be in decline. But people are having more and more religious experiences. And the warrant of shared suffering is stronger than ever. And community engagement is highly prized in Madison and by some generations.

But these readings call us to think about how we use the warrants of God to carry out the will of the Compassionate One in our neighborhood and world.