As Much As You Want (a sermon)

(Originally preached at Maryland Presbyterian Church on January 21, 2018)

John 6:1-13

6:1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.

6:2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.

6:3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.

6:4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.

6:5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”

6:6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.

6:7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

6:8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him,

6:9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”

6:10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.

6:11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

6:12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”

6:13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.

—-

Recently, in looking for something mindless to binge watch while I packed up my apartment to move, I stumbled on a show called The 100. It primarily focuses on the experiences of a group of 100 teenagers who have grown up entirely on a space station — called The Ark — because the fallout from a nuclear world war 97 years earlier has rendered Earth uninhabitable. These teens — considered expendable because they’ve committed crimes ranging from petty theft to murder to threatening to reveal government secrets — are sent to Earth to determine if it can now sustain life, because the Ark is dying and oxygen is running out.

Over the course of four seasons and counting, The 100 follows these young people, and eventually their adult counterparts, as well the other human beings they — surprise, surprise — discover on Earth who have survived what was deemed unsurvivable. Perhaps the most eerie thing about watching this show at the end of 2017 is how very not impossible it feels, these days.

The goal of these characters is simple: save our people. But the problems the characters face are complex, often forcing them to act in the face of universally bad options. And overarching all of it are these questions: who are your people? Who deserves to be saved? And what does it mean to be a good person in a world where you are forced to do bad things?

Again and again, the main characters make disastrous and horrific decisions, enacting violence, sacrificing other people deemed “outsiders” — in an attempt to stay alive, to keep hold on precious and scarce resources. At one point, when another nuclear fallout threatens and a bunker is discovered that can only hold so many, the people from each group send representative champions to engage in a death match fight to decide which clan or group will be saved while all the others die. Every time in the show a decision like this occurs, as the deciders grapple with their own humanity, their fear of scarcity, their desperation running up against their morality, they say the same thing: “We had no choice.”

This is a story of scarcity. Of desperation.

And thank goodness, this is not our gospel. This is not our holy truth. Instead we have Jesus. And some bread. And 5,000 people who show up hungry but do not remain that way.

When David told me y’all were doing a sermon series on the elements of worship, I immediately asked if I could preach about communion because it is one of my very favorite parts of our worship. I love it because in the midst of so many high and restrained and pure traditions, communion — even when it’s trying to be formal and perfect — is always, inevitably messy. Bread crumbs. Spilled wine or juice. The awkward dance of who passes what to what. I love it because it’s exciting for kids, and for me — when I’m feeling a little peckish waiting for lunch. I love it because no one looks pretty when they’re eating. But we all need food. In this way, the Table is a vulnerable place, and we come bringing our most vulnerable, awkward, messy, hungry, not pretty, humanness. And that is exactly where Christ meets us, exactly how God receives us, and welcomes us home, over and over and over again.

I love it.

And because I love it, I have preached about it. A lot. So about five minutes after I told David I would preach on communion, I started to wonder what the heck I was going to say. What text could I choose that I hadn’t done before? What new and novel thing could I say? And in that effort I ended up choosing one of the most well known biblical texts of all time. Whoops?

The feeding of the 5,000 is not exactly a communion text. I mean, it isn’t the Last Supper or Cleopas and the unnamed disciple encountering resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus. It’s fish, not wine. It’s 5,000 cranky strangers in the grass, instead of your closest friends at a dinner party.

On the other hand, it has everything to do with establishing shared meal as a crucial part of Jesus’ ministry. And it has so much to say about why we come to the Table. Hunger, desire, love, generosity, community, transformation, abundance.

In an age where post-apocalyptic fiction teeters on the edge of realistic, where daily news breaks usher us constantly into a new and increasingly ominous reality. Where fear of scarcity and difference, and sharp lines of, “Who are your people and who aren’t?” “Who deserves to be saved and who deserves to be thrown under the bus?” — are enough to literally shut a government down — we are all hungry. For a different story. For a different way. A different choice.

And here, in this text — Jesus shows us that the way of the Feast is that different way.

It is an endless debate among scholars, theologians, and biblical interpreters whether the seemingly miraculous climax of this story — when 2 fish and 5 loaves of barley bread somehow become enough to feed thousands of people (with leftovers no less!) was an actual miracle, or a domino effect of human generosity. Did Jesus magically amplify the amount of food? Or did the initial act of sharing inspire others to share from their own store?

I’d say when it comes to humanity — either one of those is a fairly miraculous explanation. But frankly, that’s not the first miracle of generosity I spy in this text.

Here’s how it goes: Jesus has spent the day blowing people’s minds by healing those who are sick. And then he’s tired, so he gathers up his posse and sneaks away for a little decompression time. Can you blame him? I’d be beelining for a bubble bath and a glass of pinot faster than you could say Son of God.

But the people – ALL THE PEOPLE – will not leave him alone. They follow him. They want more. And what does he do? Tired, drained, in dire need of introvert time, and no doubt hangry? His mind already on the pending Passover observance and the work that will entail.

He looks back at this crowd of eager and relentless thousands and says, “Okay. How are we gonna feed these people?”

I mean, what? That would not have been my response. My response — a perfectly reasonable, self-advocating one, in my expert opinion — would have been to whisper to the closest disciple and say “get. me. outta here.”

Who would be this generous? Clearly, Jesus. Maybe only Jesus. As far as I’m concerned, that is the first miracle of this story.

From the jump, this is an extraordinary counter to our standard mode of being. And when Phillip points out to Jesus that 200 denarii — 6 months wages — would not be enough to feed this crowd. When Phillip says essentially, we can’t do it – we have no choice. Jesus says, “Yeah we do. We do have a choice. Let’s make it happen.”

I imagine Phillip and Andrew and the others glancing awkwardly at one another in this moment. Maybe a subtle eye roll. Here he goes again. What are we even going to do?

And right on cue, a boy steps forward and offers his 5 loaves and 2 fish and Jesus gives thanks to God for this meager supply and gives it to the people — “as much as they wanted” the text tells us.

This is a world, a moment, defined by actual, tangible, undeniable scarcity from every visible perspective — of food, of energy, of options. But in Christ, it becomes a story of abundance.

“As much as they wanted” — can you imagine? And everyone — everyone — is fed till they are full. No one is denied. There are no walls to keep people out. No demands that the unworthy be removed or returned to where they come from. No ugly stares at those relying on the kindness of others to be fed.

When was the last time you heard a story of everyone getting “as much as they wanted?” In our world today, usually if someone is getting as much as they want — it’s at the expense of others getting what they need. Scarcity is our human paradigm. And in the face of it – Jesus offers radical abundance. Of food yes, but also of generosity, of love, of hope.

Honestly, these days — that post-apocalyptic teen drama I mentioned earlier feels closer at hand than this miracle feast. And maybe that is why it matters that we come to the Table week after week, month after month, year after year. To remember that even when everything in the world around us is chaos and hurt and bad options and it feels like we no good choice — we do. A better choice. A better way. An abundant way.

One of my favorite things about this text for today is when it describes that after everyone had eaten — as much as they wanted — they collect twelve baskets of broken fragments, the leftovers. I mean first of all, this touch at the end really kind of puts the whole thing over the top. Even after feeding an impossibly large group from an impossibly small amount — they are left with a greater amount than they started with. And it is an abundance made of brokenness.

This too is what Communion is about. It is a sacrament of healing and transformation, not in spite of brokenness, or the absence of brokenness, or even the overcoming of brokenness — but through it. We come bringing our broken hearts, our broken selves, weary from this broken world, we come bearing our meager fragments and Christ meets us there in his own profound, love-driven brokenness and says “This is all we need. Everything we need.”

It matters that Communion is messy and sticky and real. Because it means that even in the mess of this world, of humanness, God is at work. And in that feast of broken pieces, right in the midst of this broken world – we catch a glimpse — a taste — of a better world. The world we are called to. The kindom of God.

During seminary, I spent one summer in Philadelphia doing my field education internship at Broad Street Ministry. While Broad Street is primarily a worshipping community and a ministry that serves those who are experiencing hunger or homelessness, I worked specifically with a program called the Youth Initiative. The Youth Initiative is a summer mission program, that challenges traditional mission trip models by exposing youth who visited from all over the country, to both the realities of need in an urban environment, and the systemic realities that undergird those challenges — helping young people of faith to understand their call to serve others as a call to work for transformative justice.

Part of the program’s structure is for the visiting groups to spend each day working with a different program providing some sort of service to the Philly community — and then to critically examine what is good about those services, and what falls short.

One day during that summer, I was with a group serving a meal at a nearby Christian organization. Broad Street’s own meal program is set up so that those dining are seated at round tables, and are served at the same time, given what they need — specifically to avoid the trauma experienced by those who are hungry and made to fight for a limited amount of food available. The trauma of scarcity.

This other kitchen where we were serving on this particular day did not share this model. It served men specifically, and it was a very small space. So hundreds of men lined up outside and were quickly shuffled through an assembly line of food, then give a very brief amount of time to scarf down their food before being sent back outside to make room for others.

The day I was there, I was assigned to hand out bread.  Every other part of the meal was closely regulated in terms of serving size. But we had a whole lot of bread. So I had the gift of being the only who could offer the men coming through the line more than the minimum amount.

As a seminarian, it was — of course — impossible to be offering bread to people and not think about communion. So I did. And with each new face and outstretched plate I encountered in that tiny kitchen and dining room, I was struck by how terrible the world can often be, how almost hopelessly messed up it is and we are to let people live in this way, to go hungry and without a safe place to live. To dehumanize them in the way I saw these men and others dehumanized over the course of that summer. And so over and over again, as I offered the bread to each new person I thought of Jesus looking on all of this mess and saying “This is my body, broken, — this is my body, broken, — this is my body, broken.”

But what I got to say out loud, over and over, to each new man in the line was, “Would you like more bread? You can have as much as you want.”

They were both true. At the same time. And Communion is the meeting place of these two truths. The brokenness, the hunger. And the open-hearted, boundless offer of God’s love to fill us up and keep us going.

The Table reminds us that Christ is always with us, right where we are — standing in the tension of what is and what will be.

That encounter, that experience of abundant love, transforms us. And this is why I believe that — whether Jesus magically amplified the food supply or not — people were moved to shared of what they had. Because in experiencing radical abundance, they were invited to become a part of that radical abundance too. To turn around and offer to others, invite others. The abundance comes in the sharing. And finds it’s meaning in the sharing too.

Communion — all shared meal really, but especially Communion — is an inherently communal experience. Bread is a communal experience. It is a gift of God cultivated by human hands, shaped by human hands, offered by humans hands, and received by human hands. The Communion we will partake of here in just a short time from now will connect us to one another, and to others not even here who have helped the bread we share come to be.

Communion is never just us alone with God. But all of us together with God. All the gathered thousands, and millions, and billions from every time and place. It is a reminder that we all belong to God, and to one another.

Reading this well-known scripture story this week, I found myself wondering what became of those baskets of leftover broken fragments of bread. After Jesus made so especially sure that all the remnants were gathered up so that nothing was lost. Where did those baskets go? What did they do with them?

Here’s what I like to imagine: that someone took them to another place, maybe 12 other places. Where others were hungry, and afraid that they didn’t have enough. And that perhaps, in those new places, when that bread was offered — those hungry folks too were inspired to share of what they had. And so after all of them had eaten their fill — as much as they wanted — there were even more leftovers gathered to be taken to other hungry places, and so on and so forth, meal after meal, day after day, year after year, century after century, millennia after millennia.

Until today, when that bread — those broken fragments made feast — comes to us. And we are called to the table, to share in that same meal — along with those first hungry thousands, and all who came after, all those we’ve loved who have come and gone before us. It is our turn to give thanks, and take, and break, and eat — as much as we want. And then — the abundance of bread, of love, of grace that remains when we had been filled — where will it go next?

Wherever we take it, of course. Wherever we share it. Wherever we offer it to this hungry, broken world, remembering the One who invites us all, connects us all, transforms us all, calls us all to the kindom feast. Wherever we bring the abundant love we have feasted on and offer it with open hands and open hearts, saying, “Take as much as you want. There is plenty to go around.”

May it be so. Amen.

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Troublemaker (an Epiphany sermon)

*Originally preached at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., on January 7, 2018* 

Matthew 2:1-12

A few months ago, I found myself in a very unexpected period of immense life upheaval. Perhaps you know the feeling. I had previously arrived at a place of relative calm and stability and even joy — one of those rare and precious times when every part of life seems to fall into place. A year into my life in a new city, I’d found a dream job, an amazing group of new friends, a promising start to a relationship, and an apartment that was tiny, but which I loved. I felt settled and at peace in a way that I hadn’t felt in a long time, if ever. It felt like the kind of peace people search for. And then, of course, life happened. And some other life happened.

Within the span of a few months, everything became disrupted in jarring ways. First at work, and then in my relationship life, and then finally, my housing situation fell apart. And though my friends were loyal and compassionate, they too were struggling in painful ways and I hurt for them as well. I was afraid, and stressed. Everything suddenly felt out of control and — it would be fair to say — I like to be in control. A lot. I have, over the course of my life, honed the ability to problem solve creatively in just about every situation. I have always fought stubbornly to get and keep what I want, to do whatever I had to, to keep it together. I’m good at that. By contrast, I have never handled being out of control very well. This time was no different.

Perhaps this quality in myself is why — when studying the text for this Epiphany week — I made the somewhat alarming discovery that I actually … relate to King Herod. Believe me when I tell you that — in this age of ideological and political conflict — of all the modern day people I *could* compare to an unstable, self-obsessed, power-hungry, violent first century ruler, I did not expect or want it to be me. But listen, verse 3 says that when the magi came speaking of the birth of the prophesied King of the Jews, Herod heard it and was frightened, and all of Jerusalem with him.

I admit my first reaction to this verse was to question, “Really, was all of Jerusalem with him? Or was it more like the king’s sentiments were merely projected onto his subjects?”

But then I looked a little harder. The Greek word here that gets translated as “frightened” or, in other places, “troubled,” is “tarasso” and it’s described as meaning “to stir up that which needs to remain still.”

There is some intensity in that definition — especially the last part. The “need to remain still, at ease” carries with it a sense of desperation, of impending threat. That is what Herod feels in response to the birth of Jesus Christ. The sure and certain realization that everything he knows and relies on — everything familiar and stable in his life and world — is about to change forever in ways totally beyond his control. I know that feeling. And so I can believe that the people of Jerusalem did, in fact, feel it right along with the king because whether you are a demented despot or a citizen barely scraping by, the sudden promise of impending and overwhelming upheaval can be terrifying.

We get that, don’t we? Who runs willingly and joyfully into the unknown?

But the one we call the Prince of Peace, who comes to us in the frail vulnerability of a newborn child comes with a promise that precedes any lasting peace — and that promise is indeed the stirring up of that which we need to remain still — the setting in motion of utter upheaval.

This word — tarasso — follows Jesus. It’s the same word that describes how Zachariah feels with the angel comes to announce John’s birth. And it’s the same word used in the gospel accounts of Jesus walking on water. It’s what the disciples feel when they see him doing the impossible. It is that deep, awesome knowing that something is stirring.

King Herod is afraid and all of Jerusalem with him. And they should be. Christ has come, and everything familiar is about to be stirred up. Nothing will ever be the same.

These days we dress up Epiphany as a joyful folktale about colorfully costumed kings from far off lands going with their camels to bring fancy gifts to sweet little baby Jesus. But what epiphany really is, is the revelation of God in a powerful and profoundly transforming way.

It’s not unreasonable to be afraid, to dig our heels in, and hold tighter to the things we know and take comfort in. But that isn’t the only possible response — it’s not the response of the magi.

In the midst of my season of upheaval, I took a trip to Northern Ireland. I was primarily there to work on a story, but I took some time at the end of my trip to travel to the northern coast and relax and reflect and try to embrace the changes happening all around me. I spent my days staring out at the striking and rocky coastline and the deep blue Irish sea. I prayed. But I couldn’t quite dislodge my fear. I couldn’t quite trust that if I let go, God would be at work in the chaos surrounding me in powerful ways that I couldn’t imagine.

On the last morning of my time at the coast, I took one last walk down to the beach to watch the sunrise and when I came back up to the AirBnb where I was staying, two older women had arrived. They called each other Bird and Bebe and they were from Abilene,TX. They shrieked in delight when they heard me say y’all and invited me to sit with them. I honestly wasn’t quite in a social mood, but their joy and vibrancy were infectious and so I agreed.

Over several cups of coffee and toast, they took turns telling me the story of how they had spent four years planning out every last minute detail of this three week trip they were on in Britain. The entire point of their journey was to arrive at a place called the Callenish Stones — an ancient ring of rocks not unlike Stonehenge — on a tiny, remote island off the coast of Scotland at precisely 9:02 on the Autumnal equinox. I don’t quite remember what was meant to happen at 9:02 at that location on the equinox, but it was clear to me that it mattered a great deal to them.

They described their adventures in the days leading up to that one event. How almost from the moment they got off the plane in England, their plans began to fall apart. Missed reservations, the challenge of driving a rented car where everything is on the opposite side, bad luck — it was an amazing and frustrating combination of misfortunes. But Bebe and Bird never lost an ounce of their mischievous joy as they told me the story.

Despite all that had gone wrong, the two women kept trying to make it to their destination. And then finally, an issue with a train schedule made it clear to them that there was no way they would get to the stones by 9:02.

“We just had to surrender,” Bebe said to me. “We had to accept that we weren’t going to make it.”

“Sometimes,” Bird said, “You have to give up, and then see what happens.”

And so they did, and somehow — by remarkable circumstance — they arrived at their inn on the small island with 5 minutes to spare and found two Canadians headed to the stones who offered them a ride. They left their bags in the rode and got in and when they arrived they found two other strangers, scotsmen, one of whom was wearing a black hoodie and drinking a beer, and he pulled out some bagpipes and played them as the group of 6 strangers made their way up to the stones and stood together at precisely 9:02 pm on the autumnal equinox.

 

The point of the story isn’t that the two women from Abilene made it to the stones after all, but that when they surrendered to the universe — to use their words — everything changed in a way that they could not imagine but somehow seemed intended to be. And it transformed them.

I told them, “You’re not going to believe this, but your story is so crazy to me because I came on this trip, exactly because I needed to learn this lesson about surrender and trust.”

Bird said, “Oh of course I believe it. This is the universe at work too, you see.”

Unlike Herod, and more like my friends Bebe and Bird, the magi choose trust over fear and control. We refer to them often as the three wise men or kings, but the truth is that we don’t really know their gender or their number, or even exactly where they came from. Most scholars agree that they were likely Zoroastrian priests — an early monotheistic religion that predates Judaism and of course Christianity.

It matters to know this, because it means that when the priests saw in the stars the foretelling of the birth of Christ, and then chose to follow — they were leaving behind everything familiar to them in pursuit of a child prophesied by another faith entirely. Where Herod saw danger and threat in all that was being stirred up, the magi saw wonder and invitation. It was not without danger for them, of course. It roped them into the conspiracy of the king and honestly, we don’t really know what becomes of them when they leave Jesus and don’t return to Herod as they were commanded. All we know is that they follow a star and listen and watch and trust where it leads and there they encounter God’s own self. Then, they go home a different way. Of course they do. For isn’t that what it means to encounter Christ? To be transformed such that you cannot back the way you came. You are different. Everything is different.

And so this story sets in motion the life and work of Jesus — God with us — work which will flip tables in the temple and command storms on water, that will lift the lowly and outcast, and cast down the powers of this world. Jesus will turn all understandings about power and purpose and living itself on their head. Jesus has come to be a troublemaker.

The question and calling for us this Epiphany is to ask ourselves what in our own lives is Christ stirring up and setting into motion — even those things we are fighting hard to control and hold onto? What is Christ stirring up in this world — demanding the end of what is familiar and worldly in favor of a profoundly new way?

There is so much chaos in the world these days, so much upheaval that does not come from God, but rather from the desperate clinging to power and security of those who have it – generally at the expense of those who don’t. There is so much to fear.

The promise of Christ to us in this Christmas season is not that everything will be calm and stable and familiar. But it is a promise of holy upheaval, within us and beyond us — absolute transformation toward a different way of being, a better way. There is hard work that must come. And change and maybe chaos even. The flipping of tables and managing of storms and upending of oppressive worldly systems and powers. But in the work, in the transformation — we find a new way. And in that new way of being, in Christ himself — if we can learn to open ourselves and surrender and trust even when we are afraid — we will find home, and a peace that lasts for us and for the world, and we will not be troubled any more.

May it be so. Amen.