Monthly Archives: July 2009

07-26-09 NOURISHING FAITH

“Nourishing Faith”

 

A kindergarten teacher asked her students to bring in a symbol of their religion or faith.

 

So the next day, all of the children showed up with the symbols of their faith. The first child was Jewish, so he brought in a Star of David.

 

The next child was Catholic, so he brought in a rosary.

 

The third child was a Presbyterian, so he brought in a casserole…

 

Have you ever noticed how God is closely tied in with food for us?

 

This miracle of the loaves and fish for instance is the only one that is in all four of the gospels. The sacrament that we participate in on a regular basis has bread at its center. One of the most regular times many of us pray is before a meal.

 

There was a prayer I learned as a child and I said it every time I had to give the grace. It went something like this: “God is great. God is good and we thank you for our food. By your hands we all are fed, thank you for our daily bread. Amen” So, growing up, when I thought about God, one of the things I thought about was bread. And that was a good thing in my book. Bread has always been one of my favorite foods.

 

 God’s link with food is at the center of many of our faiths.  It is not accidental that so many stories in both testaments use food, eating or hunger images to make a theological point. I think there are two reasons for this. First, I think the scripture writers mean for us to understand that God is as essential as food for our existence.

 

Food is one of our most basic needs as is water and breath, both also frequent biblical images. We could argue that the needs we have go beyond that now. We might agree that all human beings need shelter, clothing, health care, work and personal safety and security.

 

Yet when we try to take care of our needs God may not be the first need to come to mind. We tend not to think of God as a need until something bad happens. Until there’s something we can’t take care of ourselves. We prize independence and believe that anyone who works hard will not be poor or needy. Probably few of us in this church lack food or shelter. I would like to suggest however that these readings invite us to reflect on hungers deeper than those related to our physical survival.

 

Since our culture gives us zillions of messages telling us to fill needs we didn’t know we had – a more expensive car or home, a particular brand of clothing, a certain income, personal computers, cellular phones – we find it easy to push God aside for needs we can easily acquire. Few, if any, modern conveniences are bad in themselves. In fact some of them can do remarkable things for us. Yet I think our comforts not only distract us from attending to needs having nothing to do with what we can buy, but also distance us from an awareness of God’s presence in our lives and in the world.

 

A priest named John Waish, once said our deepest needs were to love, to be loved, and, as he put it, to blossom outward. I think he’s right. Are we not hungry to be known and loved? Are we not hungry to form relationships in which we can love others? Do we not want our work to have meaning as well as to produce a paycheck?

 

I think the other thing we need to look at with God’s seeming love of food is the sheer earthiness of it. When people mention God they tend to look up. God is out there, beyond the realm of the body and in the world of the spirit. All of the messy, complicated, problematic concerns of the body are beyond God. Only matters of real importance deserve prayer.

 

I see God’s focus on bread – simple, basic, wonderful, nourishing bread – as a counter argument to that. Jesus’ most common ministry was sharing a meal with people. The event we celebrate once a month here at the church is centered around food. How much more earthly can you get than bread?

 

There was an email story floating around for awhile that I quite liked. It went something like this:

 

“Last week I took my children to a restaurant. My six-year-old son asked if he could say grace. As we bowed our heads he said, “God is good. God is great. Thank you for the food, and I would even thank you more if mom gets us ice cream for dessert. Amen.”

 

Along with the laughter from the other customers nearby, I heard a woman remark, “That’s what’s wrong with this country. Kids today don’t even know how to pray. Asking God for ice-cream! Why, I never!”

 

Hearing this, my son burst into tears and asked me, “Did I do it wrong? Is God mad at me?” As I held him and assured him that he had done a terrific job and God was certainly not mad at him, an elderly gentleman approached the table. He winked at my son and said, “I happen to know that God thought that was a great prayer.” “Really?” my son asked. “Cross my heart.” Then in a theatrical whisper he added (indicating the woman whose remark had started this whole thing), “Too bad she never asks God for ice cream. A little ice cream is good for the soul sometimes.”

 

Naturally, I bought my kids ice cream at the end of the meal. My son stared at his for a moment and then did something I will remember the rest of my life. He picked up his sundae and without a word walked over and placed it in front of the woman. With a big smile he told her, “Here, this is for you. Ice cream is good for the soul sometimes, and my soul is good already.”

 

The Bible shows us that we don’t just have to come to God only for the big stuff. God wants to hear about the little things to – like how we want ice cream for desert.   God wants us to pray about our daily bread, or the fact that we’re grateful with what we have, or that things are hard for us right now. God will listen to all of the messiness of our lives – the unimportant things, the petty things, the silly things. This isn’t to say that God will say yes in response to all of our prayers, but that God will listen to what we have to say and love us. We are called to bring all of our frustrations to God. If we don’t, God isn’t feeding that hunger we talked about and we try to fill it with something else.

 

I think that the message of these feeding stories goes deeper than the relief of physical hunger. The 5,000 who followed Jesus up the mountain did not go thinking chiefly of their next meal. The gospel says they went because they saw the signs he was performing for the sick. Yet not all 5,000 needed a physical healing or wanted to gawk at those who did. Don’t you think that some of them went because they wanted to hear Jesus’ message? This message of hope and love that was nothing like anything any of them had ever heard.

 

Unlike the poor and sick, we do not really feel we need God to feed, clothe, shelter, heal or support us. We have trouble recognizing and, more importantly, feeling comfortable with the idea of needing God. We have the mentality of ‘taking care
of me and mine’ when there is still this hunger that goes unfulfilled. For us who have so much, it often takes a serious problem or a tragedy to bring us to acknowledge this need and open up to God.

 

While I don’t think God seriously wishes that all of us would become destitute and sick just so we can come to value our divine relationship, I think God would like to hear about our needs more, hear about us more. Although at times in our lives, all of us will approach God out of desperate, frightened need. Its in between these times, perhaps we could try cultivating a healthier relationship with God out of gratitude.

 

I hear people complaining about their children’s seeming lack of gratitude or even awareness of all the love and material advantages they have. But aren’t we all a bit guilty of being like those children?

 

Even more basically, which of us did anything to cause ourselves to be born in a country with so many basic advantages over most of the rest of the world? Which of us endowed ourselves with our particular intelligence and character, enabling us to succeed in the world?

 

Which of us controls any force of nature that allows us to grow food, breathe and live comfortably? Much of what we take for granted and depend upon is simply a gift we did not earn.

 

The gospel story for today tells us that not only did the 5,000 have enough to eat, but that there was much left over. God is not a minimalist! This is good news for us. We may have needs that only God can fill, but God will be generous when meeting those needs.

 

God intends, I think, for each of us to be filled to overflowing with what we really need most, love and a sense of purpose, so much so that we cannot help but share it with each other.

 

Paul, in his letter today, prayed that God might meet that need.  “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth, and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with the fullness of God.”

 

And we shall be Full. Amen.

 

 

 

07-12-09 JOYFUL GRATITUDE

That was a mouthful, wasn’t it?

 

What’s even more amazing is that in the original Greek, all that I just read was one sentence. Its as though Paul is just so overcome here that the words just spill out of his mouth and tumble over one another in the process. In this opening page of his letter to the Ephesus, he is so excited about the meaning of Christ Jesus that there is no stopping his outpouring of words.

 

I hope you have times when you become so excited about some happening that words pour out in a torrent, hardly giving you time to breathe. Children often do it. Adults occasionally. I would like to think that none of you have totally suppressed the excitable child in your nature. I wish for you occasions when you are capable of letting loose a joyful torrent of words.

 

But as is frequently the case when a small child rushes up and blurts out her news in an excited tumble, what she is saying often gets lost in the excitement. The same is true here with Paul.

 

So I’m going to do something I rarely do. I’m going to reread the passage for you, but as it is written in Eugene Peterson’s adaptation The Message.

 

“How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He’s the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. (What pleasure he took in planning this!) He wanted us to enter into the celebration of his lavish gift-giving by the hand of his beloved Son.

 7-10Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we’re a free people—free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free! He thought of everything, provided for everything we could possibly need, letting us in on the plans he took such delight in making. He set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth.

 11-12It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.

 13-14It’s in Christ that you, found yourselves home free—signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit. This signet from God is the first installment on what’s coming, a reminder that we’ll get everything God has planned for us, a praising and glorious life.”

Well, that’s at least a little more understandable I think. Basically, God has given us this amazing gift, merely because God loves us. We didn’t do anything for the gift and it’s not a gift we can ever pay back.

God has chosen us to be holy and blameless in love. Not only that but we were chosen before we even existed, in fact before anything existed. God chose you to be holy and blameless in love and to be adopted as a child of God. It is kind of like being born into really privileged circumstances – you’ve got it all on a plate. It doesn’t mean you can’t mess it up, but it means that you’ve really got the odds stacked in your favor from the word “go.” Some people in that situation do go broke but you probably have to try harder to make a mess of it if you start from a position of advantage. So too for us. God chose us and destined us for every good thing and so the odds are in our favor and you’ll have to work pretty hard at it if you want to miss out.

“In Christ we have redemption and forgiveness, according to the riches of grace lavished on us.” It’s a great word “lavished”, I like it, and especially when you couple it with the word grace. A great definition for grace is extravagantly generous love. So we have God’s extravagantly generous love lavished on us. In that extravagantly generous love we have redemption and forgiveness for sins. God’s extravagant love for us is willing to overlook anything and everything in our pasts. If we will let it go, so will God.

 

In fact the passage focuses so exclusively on all the great things that God has done, that God is actually the subject of every verb in it. God is the doer of every action that is mentioned in this reading. We don’t do anything in this account. This is not one of those readings where I can get up and say the bible says we should be doing this and we shouldn’t be doing that. In this passage it doesn’t say that we should be doing anything, it just praises God for all the things that God has done and is doing for us.

 

It can actually be a bit hard for us to take. We live in a do-it-yourself society. We don’t like to have to depend on someone else to do anything for us, especially if it is all one way and they don’t need anything from us.

 

Because of that, a number of people are very uncomfortable receiving gifts. They say “You shouldn’t have done that,” or “It’s too much” and actually make the giver feel bad about the giving. We take the joy out of the action and instead turn it into something shameful. Something we should have known better than to try to do. We have trouble just saying thank you and enjoying the gift. If we do take the gift, we want to give something in return – even the debt as it were.

 

The only trouble is here with God there is no evening of the debt.  We can never really pay God back for what we have been given. There is no ‘setting things square’ between us and God.

 

We think there is though, don’t we? We think if I only come to church, or serve on a committee, or cook for fellowship hour then God and I will be even. I will have done what is needed. But it doesn’t work like that. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t come to church or serve or feed your fellow parishioners. I’m just saying that it isn’t an obligation for what God has given you. Your actions should be free gifts, not payments. Because when we begin to do that, we get dangerously close to denying our dependence upon God’s grace. We can’t possibly be good enough to save ourselves, but we don’t have to. God already did.

 

 

So where do we go from here? God has saved us. God loves us and frees us. Great, but what do we do? If we can’t pay God back how do we respond to these wildly extravagant gifts?

 

With gratitude and joy.

 

We run across David a lot in the Old Testament – slaying giants, watching sheep, leading people to war. We even find him as the author of a number of the psalms, including number 23. Still, I have to say that this is my favorite passage of his. My favorite image.

 

Here is this stately king, someone who has lead wars and run the nation. And he is so excited about the ark finally arriving at his city that he runs down and dances in front of it in his loincloth. You see, for the Jews the Ark of the Covenant was the presence of God. Where that ark was, God was. And so we have the most powerful man in the city dancing with joy in the street in his underwear because he is excited to have the Lord come. It’s a wonderful image. One we should all strive for.

 

We have been given so much. All we have to do is accept it. Yet, because I’m who I am, I have to ask why. Why on earth would God do so much for us before we were ever even created?

 

Well, have you ever given a gift and known that your gift will be appreciated and enjoyed for days, months, years? Have you ever danced with a baby, or sung, or played silly games and been rewarded with a bright, beaming smile? Have you ever spent time with a dog just for the dog’s sake and been given that look of pure doggy love and devotion?

Those experiences are the closest I can get to understanding why God showers us with love and grace. God doesn’t want flattery or promises. God wants a bubbly grin and a kicking of legs in delight as we enjoy simply being together in love.

 

I think Frederich Buechner sums up this passage even more simply. He says, “The grace of God means something like this: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”

 

And that is why Paul is so excited. That is why his faith just overflows. God loves us and saves us. All there is for us to do is to be grateful.

Amen.

07-05-09 JESUS BLESSES A WEDDING

JESUS BLESSES A WEDDING

John 2: 1-11

 

The Rev. Paul R. Coleman from Zelienople Pennsylvania once said that a man and a woman, who were friends for many years, died and went to heaven. They told St. Peter they wanted to get married. “Take you time and think about it” was St. Peter’s advice. You have an eternity here! Come back and talk with me in a year! Puzzled, they did as St. Peter requested, but in a year they still wanted to be married. So they went back to St. Peter and told him so.  St. Peter sighed, scanned the horizon of heaven, and said to them, “Okay, I was hoping by now to have a preacher up here. But never mind, I’ll do the ceremony myself! 

Yesterday our son, Matt, and Drew and Suzi Marshall’s daughter, Vicki, were married here! When I announced Vicki’s vows to Matt, as Drew announced Matt’s vows to Vicki, I almost added “for richer, or poorer, in sickness and in health, in baseball season, football season, during days of golf, etc!” There are so many stories and traditions surrounding weddings!

Up in Pennsylvania there are many Amish weddings each year in Lancaster County. The clue to the community that a wedding will be upcoming is this: the planting of more than 300 stalks of celery about this time of the year, because all the weddings happened between late October and the first week of January (no later.) That was the job of the parents of the bride to be. In their culture, weddings were only held Tuesdays and Thursdays so her parents tried  to pick a date early that did not conflict with someone else’s. And while the groom and attendants wore church black, the bride and her attendants usually wore navy blue or purple! Isn’t it interesting what customs surround weddings! But in each case it is meant to be a celebration of love and marriage. Just a few weeks ago I told what happened in Jewish weddings in Jesus’ day. The father of the groom, when he believes his son is ready for marriage, looks over the prospective young women in his village or in neighboring ones, looking for someone from “good stock” someone with whom his family can have a relationship with her family. When he finds such a girl, he and his son meet with her family and see if the arrangement can be made. If all are in agreement, the father of the groom offers a handsome financial gift to her father in exchange for her hand in marriage. That is called the bride price. When agreed, then the plans for the wedding begin, without the young man and woman ever formally meeting. There were then, as now, very specific tasks for the bride’s family and for the groom’s family. Included in the tasks was making a guest list.  It was usually limited by either money or number of acquaintances, or both. Did you notice that whoever was hosting the wedding chose to invite not only Jesus, but the newly-named group of 12 that included Nathaniel, the new disciple who, just a few verses earlier, had said concerning Jesus native village, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?  This wedding is unusual in at least that respect: the guest list that included Jesus, his mother, and eclectic group of men! “There was a wedding in Cana in Gallilee; the mother of Jesus was there, Jesus also was invited to the marriage, along with his disciples.” (Verses 1 & 2) Did you also notice in today’s passage, that John does not tell us whose wedding this is where this miracle is performed? That doesn’t seem important to the story. William Barclay adds interesting information about Jewish weddings in the first century: First, weddings took place on Wednesdays; second, the wedding festivities lasted several days and the ceremony took place late on that Wednesday evening after the dinner. Then the last thing that happened late that night was the couple was escorted to their new home- a room built on his father’s house! They were taken through the streets with torches and with a canopy carried over their heads, taking as long a route as possible so that the most people could wish them well. There was no honeymoon; the couple, instead, welcomed well-wishers into their new home for a week after their ceremony, during which time they wore their wedding clothes with crowns; they were treated like a king and queen and were addressed as such for that special week, as friends catered to their every whim!  So it was to this event that Jesus had been invited. And it was at this event that the wine gave out. There was an old rabbinic saying: “Without wine, there is no joy,” not for drunkenness, but for the length of celebration and the fantasy treatment of the new couple. Drunkenness was considered a great disgrace, and often they would drink wine diluted with two parts water. But in a land where hospitality was natural and offered generously, it would have disgraced the family to have run out of wine, or food, anything set out for the wedding guests. When Jesus was alerted to the problem by his mother, literal translations of the words made it sound like Jesus answered his mother abruptly and rudely. Although I have seen weddings where nerves are stretched and anxiety is high, the word he used was one of honor, also used by Caesar Augustus, for example, when he addressed the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra. This was not an angry retort by Jesus, but a respectful term most often used in that day.

 

We know the rest of the story by reading it. Our family certainly had a gathering of people from coast to coast to attend our son’s and new daughter-in-law’s wedding. We arrived greeting each other, and we left related to each other. The wedding changed and made a difference in the lives of those who attended. In Jesus’ day, it was unique that the cast of guests included Jesus, his mother-Mary, and his disciples. The title of this event is sometimes: “Jesus attends a wedding.” But more often it is referred to as “Jesus’ first miracle.” Most of the times when I hear people hope for a miracle, it’s in response to an illness, or a natural disaster, or a terrible accident. “It’ll be a miracle if anyone lives through that.” “It will be a miracle if they win the championship.” “It’s a miracle that people didn’t lose their lives when that plane went down in the Hudson River.” But Jesus, perhaps as a deliberate act of God, has his first recorded miracle, not making the blind to see, not making the lame to walk, not making a possessed man to loose his chains, but hearing a concern from his own mother that he had the power to change. More wine. Was it the end of the world if the wine ran out? Was it a disgrace to the host family? Or was the point of the miracle to show those who newly decided to follow Jesus, (some of whom had just been called as disciples that week!) the power that he possessed, and to see that such power could, as I often say in weddings, “be used to make joys greater and burdens lighter.” Perhaps that day—setting the stage for Jesus’ ministry, and to foreshadow the wonderful heavenly banquet of abundance, God said “I want my kingdom to be about abundance. Enough to eat and more; enough to drink and more; enough joy to go around; and a way to say what has just happened—that a wedding of two young people in marriage can also be a time when miracles of differences, of deeply set traditions, and of supply and demand can be modified- by a Holy Smi
le from Heaven that blesses their union as well. Mary asked for it; Jesus delivered it; but it was God that provided the miracle. May God bless events in your lives with hospitality, traditions, and even, in those brief shining moments, ways to perceive heaven smiling … on our earthly endeavors.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           July 5, 2009