Sermon for Pentecost 9B

John 6:1-21

We here at Hope Lutheran like to feed people. I’m continually amazed at how quickly we can throw a meal together at short notice, and not just something that’s edible, but something that tastes good and that has more than enough for everyone. We’re good at feeding people, so good that we picked this story of the feeding of the 5000 as one of the Biblical stories that we as a congregation feel describes us and gives us our identity, what we feel that God is calling us as a congregation to do. The interesting thing about the story of the feeding of the 5000 is that it is the only miracle story that is recorded in all four Gospels, which means that this was something that was extremely important in Jesus’ ministry and important for all who follow Jesus to remember. This does not mean, however, that each Gospel records the feeding story in exactly the same way. Each of these Gospels is unique, and each has a slightly different aspect of Jesus that they wish to show us. What John shows us in his version of the feeding story is this: out of what we human beings consider scarcity, God provides us with an abundance, an overflowing abundance. God, who is revealed in Jesus, takes what is little and gives us a feast, with leftovers; he does this with something that we human beings consider of bad quality, and he does this without any assistance on our part. Each of these details has relevance for our lives as we follow Jesus.

God, who is revealed in Jesus, takes what is little and gives us a feast. One of the things that I worry about when I’m presiding at worship is whether or not we have enough bread to feed everyone at Holy Communion. This usually happens when I see that we have more people worshiping with us than I have expected for that day, and then the loaf of bread that has been placed on the plate looks smaller than usual. You know what, though? No matter how much I worry about it, there is always enough for everyone, and there is almost always some bread left over. I don’t know why I worry about it still after being with you all for almost 3 years, except that I am human. In this story from the Gospel of John, I am Philip, the one who answers Jesus’ test question with, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” And every time, I fail Jesus’ test, and I am humbled by how he provides enough for each one of us to be filled at his table.

We have this fear that what little we have will not be enough not only with bread, but also with the other material things we have in our life. It’s called a “mentality of scarcity”. We are afraid that we won’t have enough for ourselves, and so we hold on tightly to what we have. This applies to our money, our belongings, our talents, and our time. We are afraid that if we give away more of our money, we won’t have enough to buy all of the things that we need or, more likely, that we want in life. We do not trust that the God who provided an abundant feast out of five loaves and two fish is also able to provide abundantly for us as well. We are afraid that if we don’t hoard something “just in case we might need it someday,” then that rainy day will come and we will be up the creek without a paddle. We don’t trust that God can provide for us abundantly when we are in need. We think that if we are not busy every single second of every single day, using all of the talents and the time that we have, we will not have time to do the things that need to be done. We don’t trust that God has given each one of us all of the talents and the time that we need to live our lives fully for God and in service to one another, and we believe that we simply don’t have time to give to be present with one another, to care for one another, and to help one another. Each one of us behaves like Philip: we see the enormous need of the people out there, we look at what we have, and we say, “We simply don’t have enough to do what you’re asking us to do, Jesus.”

And yet, Jesus surprises us with his ability to provide abundantly. He takes the little bit that we have and feeds not only us with his own hands, but also all of those around us. And here John focuses not only on the number of loaves and fishes that Andrew rounded up, but on the type of bread that is used: barley. Now, around here, we have lots of barley fields, and it is my understanding that most of that barley goes to beer companies in order to make beer. Also nowadays, some kinds of whole-grain breads use barley as one of their ingredients: it’s supposed to be healthier for you than the regular types of bread that are out there. But in Jesus’ day, barley bread was considered “poor” food, because it made for a coarser loaf. So consider this: Jesus took what the people considered bad-quality bread and made it into a feast so that everyone was satisfied, and there was much left over.

When we think of this in terms of stewardship, we need to think of this in terms of the quality of whatever it is we are offering to God. So, for example, this September we are going to be moving our Blessing of the Animals service to Washington Park, in an attempt to reach more people with the message of God’s love for all of creation. This is the first time that we will be doing this outside of the context of our church property. I’m sure that we will make some goof-ups, and we will learn some lessons about what we should continue to do in the future or what we should not continue to do. In the end, we may think that what we have offered of ourselves to Jesus and to those people around us is of very poor quality. We can trust, however, that Jesus will turn what we consider to be poor quality into a feast of abundance, and he will use what we consider to be our “poor” offering to feed all of those with whom we come into contact on that day. We need to not be afraid that the quality of what we have will not measure up, because God has given these gifts to us, and God will use these gifts to provide abundantly to all of those around us.

Because in the end, John tells us, it really isn’t up to us. In the other three Gospels, after Jesus blesses the bread and breaks it, he gives it to the disciples to give to the crowds. In John’s Gospel, Jesus feeds the crowds with his own hands. Remember this, because in the next few weeks, the appointed Gospel lessons will continue to be from John 6, when Jesus explains the meaning of this sign that he has performed and claims that he is the bread of life. Jesus not only feeds the crowds with bread by his own hands, he feeds all of those who follow him with his very own self. And Jesus doesn’t lose anything of himself by giving himself away. Instead, in some mystical sense, he becomes even more than he already is, able to feed ever more people with himself.

And that is important for us to remember, too. Jesus not only uses what we have to feed other people, he uses what we have to feed us as well. He offers us himself not only in worship, not only in communion, but he comes to us as well as we care for one another, encourage one another, comfort one another in sorrow, rejoice with one another in the happy times, feast upon his Word in Bible studies, and even much more than that. Jesus is with us in everything that we do in our lives, feeding us with the little bit that we have and turning it into an abundance. So let us not be afraid of giving more generously of everything that we have, for God is able to provide for us, and provide for us abundantly. Let us let go of this mentality of scarcity that we have, and see the generous provision of our Lord and Savior in everything that we do. And let us not be afraid that what we have to offer is not good enough, for God takes what we consider to be of poor quality and uses even that to provide an abundant feast. Further on in the Gospel of John, in chapter 10, Jesus says that he came so that we may have life, and have it abundantly. We have that abundant life now—let us live our lives generously, trusting that Jesus will do what he says and provide for us abundantly. Amen.

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Sermon for Pentecost 7B

Mark 6:14-29

Welcome to one of the most puzzling passages in all of the Gospels. When the word “gospel,” literally means “good news,” how are we supposed to say, “This is the Gospel of the Lord,” after John the Baptist has just suffered a gruesome beheading at the hands of a tyrant on the whim of a young girl and her mother? What are we supposed to do with this when the facts in Mark’s story of John’s beheading do not match the facts found in other historical accounts of John’s execution outside of the Biblical record? And who exactly was the dancing girl? Most of us know her as Salome, but Mark names her as Herodias, but apparently a different Herodias than Herod’s wife. Did Mark mean to write down the name Salome, get confused, and write Herodias instead? Or is there another daughter of Herodias otherwise unknown who was named after her mother? We wonder why Mark included this story, what he was trying to say, and why on earth the committee in charge of the Revised Common Lectionary thought it would be good for us to read this during Sunday morning worship. How is this still relevant to us?

Well, it turns out that stuff like this still happens. Consider Henry VIII, king of England from 1509 to 1547. Yes, this is the Henry VIII who had six wives that schoolchildren remember by this little poem: “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived”. Henry was losing interest in his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to whom he had been married for about 20 years. He had a daughter with Catherine, but more than anything, he wanted a son. He decided that he wanted Anne Boleyn to be the mother of his son, but Anne would not settle for being Henry’s mistress, only his wife and his queen. Henry requested that the Pope grant him a divorce from Catherine, and when the Pope refused, Henry created the Church of England, got Archbishop Cranmer to grant him a divorce, and married Anne Boleyn. One of Henry’s closest advisors, Thomas More, spoke out against Henry’s actions, and Henry had More imprisoned and eventually, beheaded. The parallel to Herod and John the Baptist is eerie.

But I understand that the 1500s is still quite a way in the past for us, and that we may still struggle with the meaning of this passage for us today. While there are no kings with wives and mistresses here in America (although there may be some politicians like this), I believe that this passage is still relevant for us today. It serves two functions: first, as a cautionary tale about speaking truth to power that is corrupt, and second, to serve as a comparison between earthly kings and their kingdoms, represented by Herod, and the kingdom of God, with Jesus as its king.

Let’s look at the idea of speaking truth to those sitting in power. In the vows made at baptism, the person who is being baptized, if she is old enough, or the parents who are speaking for the child being baptized, promise, among other things, to “proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.” Each one of us who is baptized is called to do these things. But sometimes, proclaiming Christ, caring for others and the world, and working for justice and peace, can threaten those who are in power.

Take, for example, the Confederate flag that flew for many years over the South Carolina capitol building. It was an act of the legislature that put the flag up there, and so, legally, the flag could not be taken down without another act of the legislature. After the murder of the 9 people gathered at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, demand grew in South Carolina for the flag to be taken down, and the legislature started moving. But, legislatures don’t always move as quickly as people would like. So a woman named Bree Newsome scaled the flagpole and took down the flag, saying it was part of her calling as a freedom fighter. She was jailed for “defacing state property” and the flag was put back up, incidentally, by a black worker. Instead of having the courage to say, “Oh, well, let’s just leave it down,” the powers that be put the flag back up until an act of the legislature, passed this week, officially let the flag be taken down for good. The legislature was enslaved to a law just as Herod was enslaved to the oaths he had made to the daughter of Herodias. Neither had the courage to break the law or oath that had come before them. And the one who spoke the truth suffered the consequences of the moral cowardice of those in power. When we as Christians speak truth to power, and when we put that truth into action as God calls us to do, we must be prepared to face the earthly consequences of that calling.

And this brings us to the second point of this passage: the comparison between the type of power used in earthly kingdoms, and the type of power that is exercised in the kingdom of God. This story of the beheading of John the Baptist is a flashback. Jesus has just sent out the disciples two by two to proclaim that everyone should repent, to cast out demons, and to heal many who were sick. King Herod hears of their activity and thinks it is John the Baptist raised from the dead. And then we get the story of what happened to John. So, think of this: Jesus sent the disciples out into the villages to preach and to heal, fully knowing what happened to John the Baptist when he went about his ministry. The disciples went out into the villages carrying out Jesus’ commission to them, knowing that Herod could do the same thing to them as he had done to John. And yet, the disciples still had enough faith, little as it was, to preach repentance and to heal the sick. For Jesus and the disciples are operating under a different kingdom than the one which Herod rules. They are operating under the kingdom of God.

The difference between these two kingdoms is the use of power. Herod’s kingdom, and all earthly kingdoms and other types of governments, operate on the assumption that power means tight control of everything, and that loss of face means loss of status, loss of control, and loss of power. Herod wanted to look good in front of his dinner guests and offered the dancing girl up to half of his kingdom as a demonstration of his generosity and his power. The girl’s mother, Herodias, then exercised her power by getting the girl to demand the death of her enemy, John. For Herod to have said “no,” would have required a willingness to lose face, to lose status, and to lose honor, and with all of that loss, to lose control and to lose power. He is simply too afraid to take that risk, and so he beheads John the Baptist.

In contrast to this, the kingdom of God operates on a definition of power that we saw in last week’s reading from 2 Corinthians: God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Jesus sends the disciples out to preach, and the disciples go out to preach, not knowing what is going to happen to them. The power of the kingdom of God appears in a way that confuses the world: the kingdom of God operates on the assumption that it doesn’t matter if there is no tight control over events, and it doesn’t matter if death comes when a disciple of Jesus speaks the truth to power, for God cares for each and every part of his creation, and God is ultimately the one in control. And this kind of non-grasping for earthly power gives Jesus’ disciples a peace that the world finds both confusing and yet compelling. People want to know that kind of peace in the face of death. And so, God’s kingdom spreads throughout the world in a kind of power that is the opposite of what the world defines as power.

And finally, this is what today’s Gospel story points to: Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus will also be the victim of a government that is too afraid of losing control and losing power to have the moral courage to set Jesus free. Like John the Baptist, then, Jesus will also be condemned to death and executed on the cross, a Roman instrument of torture meant to show the conquered people the true power and might of the Roman Empire. But yet, once again, God’s power is made perfect in weakness. For the earthly power of the Roman Empire and the King Herods would fade, and yet people would still continue to follow this true man and true God who died on the cross for our sins, and to remember his forerunner, John the Baptist, beheaded at the whim of a king who would never know the true power of the kingdom of God. And so God would continue to bring good out of the evil, to have people throughout the centuries who would preach that the kingdom of God is near, so repent and believe in the good news. Finally, that is the good news for us today: even when things appear bleakest, even when corrupt earthly power seems to be winning, God’s power is still at work, and the kingdom of God will prevail. May that hope continue to sustain us. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 6B

Mark 6:1-13

“I’m not crazy. My mother had me tested.” For those of you who don’t watch The Big Bang Theory, these words are uttered from time to time by super-genius Sheldon Cooper, who, while intellectually off-the-charts-smart, is not very intelligent when it comes to social interactions, and who has a number of behavioral habits that those around him find odd. As a child growing up in east Texas, Sheldon did not find it very easy to interact with people because of his intellectual abilities, and his mother and those around him found it very hard to understand him, because very often, his behavior was not what was considered “normal” for people in that area. So, his mother had Sheldon psychologically tested, and the doctor said that he was fine. And every time Sheldon behaves in a way that his friends find weird, and someone says that Sheldon is crazy, or out of his mind, he always responds with, “I’m not crazy. My mother had me tested.”

Earlier in the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus was teaching, casting out demons, and healing the sick, his mother and his brothers came to collect him because they thought he was out of his mind. Now, in today’s gospel reading, we find Jesus actually returning home, to the place where his family lived, his family who should have been supportive of what he was doing, but was not. I often wonder what Jesus felt as he walked the dusty paths back to Nazareth: excitement at seeing his family and friends again, or dread at the confrontation he knew must take place. Perhaps he felt a little of both. What happens when we go to visit our family members who do not support who we are or what we are called to do? We long to see them, but also, we don’t want to stay too long, because their reactions to our presence often don’t feel like the loving support we feel that our family should be giving us. We feel that we are doing and being what God has called us to do and to be; our family, on the other hand, feels like they know us better than anyone else, and that we have some kind of ulterior motive for what we’re doing. They call us crazy and try to get us to shut up, because we’re embarrassing them. They have us tested, and when the doctor says that we’re fine, they shake their heads and keep trying to tell us to stop. So, returning to family is not always the pleasure that we would want it to be.

And I think this is what influences Jesus to start sending the disciples out to spread his teaching, to heal people, and to cast out demons. Yes, he wants to start training the disciples for when he is no longer physically with them, so that the good news of the kingdom of God can continue to spread throughout the world. But he also knows that the disciples must learn to experience people who welcome them as well as learn to face the people who will reject them. My question, though, is, why on earth would Jesus tell them to take nothing with them on their journey, but to depend on the people of the places where they were going to house them and feed them? Such instructions seem impossible to us who take as much stuff as we can with us whenever we are traveling and who get upset when the overhead compartments in airplanes fill up so quickly because no one wants to pay money to check their bags. What would happen if the disciples were to be rejected by people two to three days in a row? How would they eat and where would they sleep?

Several years ago, I was living in Virginia with my parents, and my mother and I were doing temp work at the same office in Charlottesville. As we were driving home one afternoon, we saw three monks walking along the side of the road. We did a double take, because three monks walking along the road in rural Virginia is not something that you see very often, if ever. But, we kept driving. The next day there was an article in the local paper about these monks who were making a pilgrimage. The reporter wrote about how they had nothing with them, and how they would come to homes and ask for food and shelter in return for doing work around the house. And, for the most part, people opened up their homes to them. Now, I think it helps to be wearing a monk’s robe or a nun’s habit if you’re doing this kind of thing: people will recognize that you mean them no harm, and perhaps they think they’ll get in good with God if they help a monk or a nun. But I also think that, regardless of whether or not a person is a monk or a nun, people generally want to be helpful to another person in need.

This brings me to some reflections on hospitality, and welcoming people who come to you when they are strangers. Here in our church building, we are generally pretty good about welcoming guests, helping them get through the worship service when it gets confusing, inviting them to fellowship with us after worship, and encouraging them to return. We’re also very good about contributing money and food to organizations that help people in need. But how are we about welcoming the stranger when we are outside of the church building?

Those of you who are on Facebook may be familiar with the Powell Valley Exchange group. Those of you who are not on Facebook, this is a group that is primarily designated for the buying, selling, trading, and giving away of things between people in our community. On Thursday night, a woman who is relatively new to the community posted a question asking about churches in the Powell community who would welcome her and not run down same sex marriage. A couple of people responded with names of churches in the community, and I responded as well that we here at Hope would welcome her and her family to come and worship with us. However, I was shocked and saddened at the response from many other people in the community, who vilified this poor woman with horrible comments about how homosexuality is wrong, how one could not be Christian and be gay, how one could not be Christian and believe that same sex marriage is okay, and how any church who did not outright teach that homosexuality was against God’s will was not really Christian or “Bible-believing”. This was a prime example of what we call “Bible-thumping”, but I would rather say that this poor woman got beat over the head with these Bible verses. Thankfully the administrator of the group took the whole conversation down, but never have I been so appalled.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I know that in this congregation we have mixed views on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. I know that while some of us may have been happy by the recent Supreme Court decision about same-sex marriage, others of us believe that the world is ending and that our beloved country is accelerating downward into a place that we will no longer recognize. I respect the fact that there are good and faithful Christians on both sides of this issue. But what we as Christians cannot and must not tolerate is behavior like what I saw on the Powell Valley Exchange this week. Those among us who believe that homosexuality and same sex marriage are wrong: there is no call to beat someone over the head with that viewpoint. If your goal is for that person to repent, then quoting Scripture verses at them about how it is wrong and they are going to go to hell is not going to win them over. Instead, my guess is that they will be driven even further away from the church and from knowing who Jesus is. And for those among us who think that same-sex relationships and marriage are okay: please be gentle with those who don’t. Don’t call them homophobic when they are honestly struggling with a great shift in what they were taught was wrong and what the culture is now saying is good and right. I confess that it took great restraint on my part to not snap back at the people who were accusing this congregation of not being “Bible-believing” simply because I offered a welcome to the woman who initially asked the question, and I can only credit the Holy Spirit for keeping me from getting in deeper with this conversation. Instead, I tried to pray for those people who misunderstand the idea of welcome and hospitality as not being “Bible-believing”. And that’s hard to do, trust me.

We as Christians are called to welcome the stranger, because that stranger might just be bringing the word of God to us. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The word “angel” in Greek literally means “messenger,” so, in the sense that we are messengers of God, we can be called angels. Show hospitality to strangers, not just in the church building, but everywhere you go, both in the physical world and in cyberspace. For we know from the Scriptures that God delights in choosing those who are unexpected to bear his message to us. We never know if the stranger that we meet might be one of Jesus’ disciples sent to us to bring us the good news, cast out our demons, and bring us healing and comfort. So let us be kind and gentle to all whom we meet.

One final thought: Jesus tells his disciples, when he’s sending them out, that if any place will not listen to them, they should shake the dust from their feet as a testimony against them. This was a grave insult in Jesus’ day; Jewish people who traveled to Gentile lands would often shake the dust from their clothes upon reentering Israel to remove the slightest bit of Gentile “taint” from their clothes. But if you notice, Mark never tells us if Jesus did this when he left Nazareth, after the people there rejected him. I rather think that Jesus didn’t do that, and that’s where I find hope in this story. Even after the people of his hometown rejected him and called him crazy, Jesus still wanted to have a relationship with them. And even when we fail at being hospitable, even when we declare something or someone to not be of God when God has intended that thing or that person to bring us good news, Jesus does not shake the dust from off of his feet. Instead, he keeps reaching out to us in various times and in various ways, trying to get us to listen to what he is telling us. Let us pray that Jesus would open our eyes, our hearts, and our minds, so that we would be willing to receive the good news of the kingdom of God, however it may come to us. Amen.