the time of loaves and fishes

Homily for September 9, 2018

Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.
– St. Catherine of Sienna

I should begin with a confession. I made a choice of scripture passages this morning that – technically speaking – I am not supposed to make. While the lectionary gives us some choice I’m not really allowed to cherry-pick scripture on a given Sunday.

But all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and my sin this morning has been to switch the gospel passages around a bit. I thought I would get away with I, I’ll admit. I knew in the summertime that we’d be starting our stewardship campaign today, and that our theme would be anchored on the feeding of the 5000. When that passage popped up on late July, I thought, I’ll just do a little one-for-one switch. Who’s going to notice?

Well, this is St. Andrew’s. Everyone noticed. So you are well within your rights to write to Bishop Sam and complain. I’m sure he’d love to hear about this.

But can you blame me? Can you think of a better story that captures the abundance of God? We all know how it goes. Jesus sees the large crowd, finds a boy with five barley loaves and two fish, he gives thanks and blesses them and then, miraculously, there is enough for thousands to eat and some to spare. With God, all things are possible. God’s abundance is so much more than we in our anxious mindsets can even imagine.

Yet there’s another story here. It’s the question not just of how to feed all those people, but rather, what do you do when all the people you’ve invited actually show up?

Jesus looked up, they all looked up, and saw a crowd coming. Thousands of people. Can you imagine that? They opened the church doors and the crowds walked right in. It was like 1958 all over again.

But Phillip started doing some math. I like Phillip. He’s smart. He knows that if you don’t take care of people’s needs they won’t stay. Besides celebrating baptism, today is a big Sunday for us – the stewardship season is planned, EYC advisors are recruited, Godly Play teachers have prepared the classroom. Phillip would have lived for days like today – paying attention to the little details. Phillip saw the crowds coming and opened up Excel on his tablet and calculated quickly that six months’ wages wouldn’t be enough to feed them all, that providing lunch would bankrupt them. Not even six months’ wages keep them there.  What do we do when the people we invite actually show up? How will we ever have enough?

But God’s definition of enough bears little resemblance to our own.  Jesus found bread and fish to share, and before long all were fed. In fact, basketfuls were left over. We don’t know exactly how much that meant. We know how much they started with. Perhaps Phillip even recorded it on his spreadsheet: Five barley loaves, and two fishes.

We know how to tabulate what we have when we’re worried about what we have. We know the baseline. But we cannot fathom the upper limit. We cannot put an upper limit on what God does for us. It’s beyond our capacity to imagine. How much bread, how many fish exactly? We have no idea, and that’s the point. There’s enough, more than enough, to feed our bodies and our souls.

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Perhaps, then, you will forgive me for borrowing this passage to talk about abundance and generosity and giving. When we give, when we grow in our giving as our Christian practice calls us to do, we share in the abundance of God. We grow as faithful disciples…as I’ve said before, few Christian practices have been as transformative, as healing, and as generative for me as giving, and giving more when I can. Jo and I have chosen the tithe of 10% as our guide – sometimes we’re there, sometimes not quite – because it gives us joy.

Yes, I know we’re both ministers, but that doesn’t really mean anything. We’re the same as anyone, we have a mortgage and kids and cars that break down, but we know that giving keep us grounded on God. Giving with intention and joy keeps us engaged in the world, and yet somehow separate from it. Giving meaningfully gives our entire lives a different texture…one that feels holier, more life-giving.

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The other readings this morning (which I didn’t pick), are intimately connected to money and wealth and how faithful people are to use it. In the Old Testament reading, the book of Proverbs tells us: The rich and the poor have this in common: the lord is the maker of them all. Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. In the Jewish tradition, generosity and justice are closely tied together, and using our wealth to care for the poor is an ethical obligation.

James then talks about how we as the community of the baptized are to regard wealth and status and class within the church itself. If there is one Lord of all, then all the disciples are equal. If a person with fine clothes and gold rings is given the seat of honor while the poorer among us get the cheap seats, then the body of Christ is diminished. What binds us together is not a similarity of class or culture, but instead a shared spirit of generosity.

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But this is about more than generosity for its own sake, or even how it deepens our relationships with God. We aren’t just here to eat bread but to share it with the world. In this way the church is less like a grand picnic with 5000 of our closest friends, and more like a bakery.

The bread isn’t just for us…it’s for the whole world. We are one bakery among many, and St. Andrew’s has a particular recipe to share. Some of that recipe is written down. Some of that is in the ingredients that have made this place what it is, and the people who over a century-and-a-quarter have made this church their home. Much of that is in the yeast, that mysterious gift of the spirit that animates what we do and which we could never recreate. We have a gift to share, and that gift is an encounter with the living God.

We’ve begun to speak of a five-year vision that is all about listening for God, and being open to God’s incredible abundance so that more can be fed. It’s a vision that calls on each of us to grow, as givers, as members, as disciples. So that more can be fed by God’s word, so that more can be touched and transformed by God’s generosity and love.

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This summer as I was beginning to thank about our stewardship season and the miracle of the loaves and fishes, even before I contemplated committing the liturgical crime of stealing the Gospel from the summer lectionary, I came across a poem by David White, appropriately called Loaves and Fishes. It caught me off guard because it seemed to start not by proclaiming the miracle so much as by cutting through all the noise of the day to remind me that people are hungry, and to remind me what people are hungry for:

This is not
the age of information.

This is not
the age of information.

Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.

This is the time
of loaves
and fishes.

People are hungry
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.

[i]

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, September 9, 2018, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

 

[i] David Whyte, River Flow: New & Selected Poems. (Langly, WA, May Rivers Press, 2010), 356

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time in a bottle

Homily for August 19, 2018

 

Proper 15, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina

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the dailiness of bread

 Homily for August 5, 2018

Give us this day our daily bread.

What exactly does this mean when you pray it? Does it help you to trust in the abundance of God, to know you’ll have what you need today? Do you hope for bread that’s readily available and there in abundance, or can you return to an empty pantry each morning and trust that the bread that was there yesterday will be there today as well?

The gospel story from John this morning takes place in the afterglow of the feeding of the five thousand. After this day of teaching and miracle, some went looking for Jesus…because they were still hungry.

When they found him across the sea, he said “you are looking for me because you ate your fill.” But the loaves of bread are not the point. The miracle is not the point. All that is food that perishes…instead, set your hearts on something eternal. On something that feeds not just your body but your spirit as well.

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It’s as if the minute they discovered him, the moment they stepped out of their boats, Jesus wanted to make sure they knew the difference between being full, and being fulfilled. In the fourth century St. John Chrysostom paraphrased Jesus as saying, “It is not the miracles of the loaves that has struck you with wonder, but the being filled.” [i]

All the same, isn’t being full a basic need that we all have, and isn’t the promise of daily bread talking just a little bit about that? When Jesus looked out onto the hillside and saw thousands of people gathered to hear him and be with him, he didn’t ask them to ignore the stomach rumbling. He didn’t ask them to cast hunger out of their minds, nor did he chastise them for letting earthly things (such as, lunch) distract them from heavenly things.

What mattered was that they were with there, with him.

They already had the bread of life in front of them, but if they were going to stay for the day, they would need to eat. So Jesus fed them. He fed them because he cared for them, and so that they would stay with him. He fed them because nothing is impossible with God.

But remember, he told them, there is a great difference between being full and being fulfilled. I suppose that if this story were written today we might be warned to stay away from “empty calories,” from consuming the things that delight us for the moment, but which give us little in the way of nutrition and keep us from seeing much beyond the next meal.

The bread of the world will fill us, but it never lasts. You know this: the funny thing about eating is that you have to do it all over again, a few hours later! Having just returned from vacation with my children, where we adventured through the monuments and museums of Washington DC, I know very well the capacity of the small child to burn through calories and hit a point where: the bread of lunch has perished, and if we don’t lay hands on some loaves or fishes or maybe even just a granola bar, things are going to get dicey fast.

Even spiritually, we can be full without being fulfilled. Our world tempts us with a promise of perpetual fullness. Where every moment is spoken for, and marketed to. Where every meal is can be supersized. Where our pain and our inner woundedness are buried under layers of consumption and business.

Jesus offers something different. He gives them a loving admonition: Don’t confuse the miracle with the message. Even religion can fall into the trap of full-ness without fulfillment, if it’s all about putting on a great show rather than being a place where our lives are changed by the presence of the living God.

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We can’t simply live our faith looking for the next big thing, as only another miracle can sustain us. We need those moments, of course, when we see the miraculous, when the beauty and limitlessness of God is laid bare before us; we need that to break open our hearts and our imaginations. We go through times so dark that only the light of God can guide us back to wholeness, and yes…sometimes it takes a miracle. We know the anguish of emptiness, and so we naturally hunger to be filled.

Yet so often we move to fill those places of emptiness so fast that we miss what they might be teaching us, or where they might be leading us. So often we fill-up to forget, to banish that feeling of hunger for as long as possible, because so often the pain of emptiness can be unbearable.

What I hunger for is not the next meal, but a more wholehearted connection to God. And that’s the funny thing about hunger…it is more likely to point to God than the feeling of being full is. This hunger for God, our hunger to love and to be loved, the hunger for meaning, the hunger to live with integrity and to be treated with dignity, all these desires actually form us in the image of God.

If we stay full all the time, if we live for the next meal or the next escape or the next big thing, we inevitably banish those little moments of yearning that would lead us towards God.

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Give us this day our daily bread. The dailiness of this bread seems to imply that we always have enough, but maybe not enough to get overfilled. Perhaps daily bread also means that we actually treasure this holy hunger for God, and delight in the fact that it’s a promise renewed, each and every day.

Perhaps the greatest act of faith is looking at an empty pantry at the beginning of each day, and seeing the emptiness itself as sacramental and holy. Looking in, we see not what we will go without, but what will fill it through the course of a day, or a week, or a lifetime. Each day we begin with hopeful expectation.

What did the disciples say when they learned about this? They had tasted the loaves and the fishes, and they liked it just fine, but this bread that fed their souls? That drew them straight to the heart of God? That would not just fill them, but fulfill them, and make them whole?

“Lord,” they said, “Give us this bread always.”

 

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, August 5, 2018, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina. Year B, Proper 13.

 

[i] Christopher Marx, John 6:24-35, Feasting on the Word, Year B Volume 3, p. 310

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Bathsheba & stories left untold

homily for July 29, 2018:  2 Samuel 11:1-15 & Mark 7: 24-37*

This past March the clergy of the Diocese went on a Lenten retreat and our leader, Catherine Meeks, began by inviting us to put down our phones and try to forget the work of the parish for a day (not an easy thing in the last weeks of lent). She wanted us to put down distractions so that we could be fully together and present.  She then said to us, “I think evil gets to us by way of distraction.” I think evil gets to us by way of distraction.

Now, that was all we heard about evil for the rest of the retreat, but there it was, in the air and in our notebooks. An acknowledgement that amid all this talk about presence and soul-deep conversation, we can be drawn to some dark places when we become distracted.

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If you doubt that, just ask King David.  In a time of war, he wasn’t on the front lines with his soldiers. He was back at the palace and went walking about on the roof of his house. As it happened (coincidence, right?), Bathsheba was bathing in her home, and she caught his eye.

This tragic story starts simply enough, as a distraction. David sees Bathsheba and calls for her, and whether she wants this or not, he takes her into his chambers. She becomes pregnant, so he first tries to fool him into thinking the child is his, then sends him to his death when he doesn’t fall for that. The prophet Nathan confronts him in the next chapter and says that there will be strife in your household, David – “now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house” and that the child of this affair will die.

In all this, Bathsheba’s response goes unrecorded.

There are moments in holy scripture where our protagonists do unsavory things, and a closer look at the text and the context gives us some comfort. Perhaps a given story was a part of God’s plan, perhaps the writers had a deeper story to tell.

I’m not sure this is one of those texts. This story is deeply troubling when we consider the fate of the good soldier Uriah; it becomes heartbreaking as we see what befalls David himself. But this story becomes devastating when we consider Bathsheba, a woman who despite being taken by the king, despite seeing her husband’s life thrown away to satisfy David, despite losing her child because of the sentence on David, is given no voice in the story.

Through all this, Bathsheba’s voice goes unrecorded. It’s a story all about men that barely mentions the character who suffers the most.

Now there is a hero here, the soldier Uriah who won’t even sleep in his own home while his men are deployed in the field. The light of Uriah’s integrity shines into David’s window, and out of shame or anger or just an old-fashioned need to cover it all up, he sends Uriah to the front lines to be killed by the enemy.

So we’re beginning to see the evil thing David has done for what it is. We’re beginning to see that David can have moments where he is far worse than Goliath ever was.

Uriah’s fate helps us to see that David’s sin for what it is. But it’s curious and unfortunate that we need Uriah’s story to see it…what if we could have heard from Bathsheba instead? What if she could have spoken up sooner?

I realize that some of this was how stories like this were recorded at the time. But the opportunity we have is to look deeper, to seek healing and transformation not only in the stories themselves, but in the contours that are hidden beneath the surface. Often within those hidden corners we find grief and suffering, but we must go through that if we’re going to reach hope, a hope that is honest. If we can begin to listen to the stories that weren’t told,  what might we hear God whispering to us?

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But there is some good news in this story even if it isn’t enough to prevent the tragedy.  The prophet Nathan confronts David, and in so doing reminds us that this may be a fallen world, a broken world, but it is a moral one as well. In the kingdom of God, our actions have consequences and our sins do not happen in a vacuum.

“You are the man!” Nathan cries to David. You are the man who sent an innocent to die, you are the man who had everything, yet saw Bathsheba and took her, and for this the sword shall never depart from your house, for this I will raise up trouble from within your family. Perhaps we can find some justice in David’s comeuppance, in knowing that God holds us accountable to one another. Perhaps we can remember that even our heroes, even our patriarchs, are fallen human beings, and like us, are sinners in the need of forgiveness.

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It’s a dark story, to be sure, and the closer we look the less comfort we find. We could read this simply as royal intrigue. We could even say that David behaved like a worldly king at first but in a decidedly holy turn accepted the judgement of the prophet Nathan – it’s true, most kings would not have done that. Perhaps we can even look at Bathsheba and say that her story got better: she soon bore Solomon and became a matriarch of the kingdom.

But none of these are quite satisfying, because we are denied the witness that could only come from Bathsheba herself. When we listen for the stories that aren’t being told, when we look at stories like this not for the-way-things-are but for what is possible in the imagination of God, who loves Bathsheba as much as Uriah, who loves Bathsheba as much as David, we might begin to see a more complete picture of the Kingdom of God.

We see God’s story in the familiar characters, true, but we can also see God in the omissions, in the stories left untold that are there nonetheless. What we learn of God there will help us grow, and will help us to be bearers of life in a world that is broken.

Telling these stories will help us to heal. It will challenge us in what we know, but it will also remind us that the deepest part of our own stories, the stories we are afraid to tell, are in fact precious to God, and the places where something new can take root.

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When Jesus meets the Syrophoenician woman, a gentile whose daughter is suffering, what does she do when he at first dismiss her? She speaks up! Jesus – who was still focusing his ministry on his own Jewish brothers and sisters, says in effect, we’re going to take care of our own first. I realize that isn’t what we expect to hear from Jesus, but remember that in the beginning he really was focused on his fellow Jews. But it was moments like this that changed him.

When she asks Jesus to heal her daughter, he says, no, “let the children (meaning the Jewish people) be fed first.”  The response of the Syrophoenician woman is most certainly recorded. Lord, she said, we all must eat. And my daughter’s suffering matters as much as anyone else’s.

She speaks up, and Jesus listens. She speaks up and Jesus immediately expands the gifts of his ministry to the people who were otherwise invisible. Her story mattered. Her daughter’s story mattered. Jesus listened, and made her daughter well.

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, July 29, 2018, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina. Year B, Proper 12.

*The gospel is from Proper 18.

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reclaiming weakness

Homily for July 8, 2018

The old Popeye cartoons all had pretty much the same storyline: Popeye was a hardy but small sailor who vied with his rival, Bluto, for the hand of the lovely Olive Oil.  Bluto he was a picture of brute strength, and he did whatever and took whatever he wanted. What did Popeye do to fight back? All he needed was a can of spinach and he’d be powerful enough to take Bluto down. The storyline was all about strength and weakness: brute strength against a weakened hero, who became valuable when he suddenly grew strong.

Paul has something to say about weakness and strength, and it’s quite different from what the Apostle Popeye taught us. But before I go there I want to recall another image of strength, though. I watched an interview in the days after the Charlottesville protests, where one of the alt-right leaders talked about how he had prepared himself. It was all about strength. He described his workout regimen at length: he trained like a soldier, he trained to prepare his body as a weapon. [i] What is that but the worship of strength, but also a clear picture of where it gets us?

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When Paul talked about his own weakness, there was a story behind it. In this part of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is competing with rival evangelists who are trying, for lack of a better word, to steal sheep out from under him.

Paul described his rivals as boastful of their strength and the power they held as missionaries. That didn’t pass the smell-test with Paul. He even mocked them, calling them the “super-apostles”. These super-apostles appealed to the Corinthians’ egos, they appealed no doubt to their insecurities and their sense of superiority (which we know is really the same thing). They must have preached a prosperity gospel, they must have preached strength and power through their version of Jesus; they offered the Corinthians not the cross, but a can of spinach.

Christianity without the cross is not the gospel. Paul responded to the boastfulness of these super-apostles by pointing out his own weakness. His own pain. His own vulnerability. He speaks of the thorn in his side – we don’t know what that is, it may well have been a disease of some sort – that keeps him in a physical state of weakness.

I remember when I was about 32, I was on a youth mission trip and met another young minister – he was early 20’s and from a different denomination. He was in great shape, and he told me that he worked out and maintained his appearance because he believed that being strong and good-looking would help him to bring more people to Christ. I am not kidding about this, though I wish I was.

Did Paul need to be strong and good looking? Clearly not…for he writes to the Corinthians that he suffers, he lives with pain that won’t go away, and that through his very weakness he shares in the weakness of Jesus.

But more than that, Paul is redefining strength. No, that’s not exactly true: Paul is redefining weakness, and leading with that. Weakness is not being a doormat, or having a bad hand to play, or even simply being frail or without power: weakness means coming out from our hiding places, behind the supposed strengths of this world, and trusting in the sufficiency of God’s grace.

Jesus’ power came in his moment of greatest weakness. At the core of our faith is a broken human being, humiliated on the cross, completely weakened in the face of human violence.

Yet in that weakness, we find the Glory of God.

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I sometimes wonder how much of our suffering comes from getting this strength and weakness thing backwards. It’s a deeply personal thing, too…think of how often we get hurt, how we want to keep pain at a distance by erecting impregnable fortresses around our tender hearts.

Christian Wiman writes about this beautifully. Bear with me…this is a long passage, but he writes;

How many loves fail because, in an unconscious effort to make our weakness more strong, we link with others precisely at those points? …How many apparently strong and successful men seek out love like a kind of topical balm they can apply to their wounded bodies and egos when they have withdrawn from combat? Herein lies the great difference between divine weakness and human weakness, the wounds of Christ and the wounds of man. Two human weaknesses only intensify each other. But human weakness plus Christ’s weakness equals a supernatural strength.[ii]

This is not the kind of supernatural strength that comes from a can of spinach or the barrel of a gun, because in neither case do we embrace our weakness. In Jesus, however, that’s precisely what we do. Jesus doesn’t fix our weakness, he glorifies us in it.

The way of love does not come through strength. It comes through weakness and vulnerability. It comes when we are willing to risk ourselves, to give of ourselves, to open our hearts to God and neighbor.

What does this weakness look like? In contrast to meeting hardship with bravado or even a stiff-upper-lip, it means coming undone, letting what we think we knew break apart so that God can heal us and remake us. David Frederickson tells us that “It’s the weakness that resides in our mortality or in the weaknesses we feel in ourselves as we contemplate another’s mortality.”[iii] We can add to that, saying that weakness is grief, it is a willingness to sit with pain and loss, and even help carry the pain of others, without inflicting it on others, as strength will so often seek to do.

As Richard Rohr reminds us, pain that is not transformed is transmitted. When we embrace weakness, we refuse to pass our pain along. We breathe it in, we suffer alongside others, we take our pain to the foot of the cross.

We let ourselves come undone, so that we can be remade.

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It should be no surprise that a world that so values strength and so fears weakness would give us mythic heroes like Popeye and Bluto to explain how the world works. But that’s not how we as Christians view the world. As followers of Jesus, we offer ourselves in weakness because that is what Jesus did. We refuse to let another person suffer pain because we couldn’t live with our weakness, and we refuse to let others inflict that harm on our behalf.

Instead, we share in Jesus’ ministry by bearing that pain ourselves, and by letting seeds of love and holiness grow in the tender places of our own vulnerability

 

 

[i] https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/8/16/16155942/charlottesville-protests-nazis-vice

[ii][ii] Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss. P. 25

[iii] Fredrickson, David E., https://www.workingpreacher.org/

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