...how you can show up at church expecting to deliver the sermon, be informed by the commissioned lay minister that, no, you're also going to lead the service up to the point of the Eucharist, with no liturgy other than an extremely truncated order of service in an otherwise blank midweek bulletin...and still pull it off.
It helps to have an easy crowd. (If you can call 9 people a crowd. Our new service is attracting maybe 10-15 people on average each Wednesday evening. The thermometer hit 100 here in Outer Podunk today, so a lot of folks weren't about to leave their air-conditioned homes to do church.)
I pulled a bit out of the LBW, a bit out of the WOV, and riffed the Prayer of the Day and the Prayers of the People. I hope they sounded okay...I honestly don't remember what I said.
I think this was some sort of test. Wonder if I passed.
Here is how my meditation on Sunday's Gospel text translated into a sermon:
What does "enough" feel like?
Do you ever feel that you have "enough"?
I was recently reading a magazine article about healthy eating, and it described how, in our culture, we eat so much and so fast that many of us can no longer recognize when our bodies tell us we've had enough to eat...that we actually need to relearn what "enough" and "not enough" feel like physically.
But we live in a larger world of "not enough" -- a world where we can never seem to fill our needs and wants, and where, because of that, we keep an iron grip on the things we do have. If you've ever seen a two-year-old in a toy store or under the Christmas tree -- you know that "not enough" is a part of who we are pretty much from the beginning.
This inward-turned, anxious, grasping sense of "not enough" extends beyond ourselves and into the systems that run our world. These systems -- what St. Paul calls the powers and principalities -- are fueled by our collective fears of "not enough"
-- not enough money; not enough stuff; not enough power or status; not enough security; not enough information; not enough popularity; not enough beauty. Our anxieties run our political systems...our economic systems...the entertainment industry...our business and marketing strategies; the social pecking order in our schools and places of work. L. Shannon Jung, author of Food For Life: A Spirituality and Ethics of Eating,likens this gnawing feeling of want to the ancient image of the hungry ghost -- a desperate being always eating, yet always famished, never getting enough of what it desires.
Even our spiritual lives are tainted by the fear of "not enough." We may have been brought up with a religious background that demands "earning points by doing stuff," following lists of rules designed to make us "good enough" for God to love us, or at least not toss us into hell. When we can't meet those demands, we may feel the terror of not being "good enough" for God. Or our anxiety over "enough" may make us feel as if God's grace is in only available in a limited quantity, so that if it's given to the "wrong" person, or to too many people, that somehow takes away from our own grace and our own relationship with God...so we'd better guard that grace; fence it in; ration it out.
That's the way it works in the world, and in our hearts, when we insist on running the show. But in today's Gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a lesson in how things work in God's Reign.
Jesus has just received terrible, shocking news: His cousin John, his predecessor and fellow preacher in proclaiming the inbreaking Reign of God, has been beheaded. Jesus is certainly heartbroken on a personal level; and perhaps John's death has led him to question his own mission. He wants to go away to a quiet place where he can, as they say, "process" all this; and he attempts to do so by boat; but the people whom he's been teaching and healing don't want to let him go. They haven't had enough of Jesus. So they follow Jesus by the thousands, on foot, along the shore as his boat heads to its destination. And they meet him there. In the midst of his own sorrow, Jesus has compassion for these crowds of broken, needy people, and he heals them, until the day stretches into evening.
The disciples decide that these people are taking a toll on Jesus' time and energy. The disciples seem to want to ration Jesus. So they ask him to send the crowds away to nearby towns for the evening to fend for themselves. Jesus' response? "No -- you feed them with what you have." This instruction doesn't go over very well...in the story, the disciples not only seem a little skeptical of Jesus' plan, but also a bit miffed that he's asking them to part with their small cache of food. But -- as directed, they bring the food to him; he blesses it; he breaks it and gives it back to his friends to share with the hungry people. And we know the rest of the story...or, I should say, we know the end of the story; a crowd that has had enough to eat, plus 12 baskets of leftovers.
Shannon Jung's book describes food as having three qualitites: food is meaning-laden; food is relational; food is performative. Which is just social-science fancy talk for saying that food tells a story; it's something that connects us; and it involves action. So I don't think that it was by chance that Jesus picked food to tell us something about what God is like and what God's will for healed lives and communities is like.
God's message to us in the loaves and fishes is that There is enough. There is always going to be enough if we acknowledge God as the ultimate giver -- the extravagantly generous God of the Bible, who creates abundance, who wishes for us an abundant life, heaped up and spilling over, to enjoy and to share with others. There is enough if we trust in God's ability to give us what we need, instead of trusting in our own schemes to get and keep what we have. There is enough if we, in gratitude toward God, model God's generosity in our own generosity to our neighbors, whether that be our next door neighbor who needs a meal or a family in Niger or Darfur who receive help from people like us as we give to relief efforts.
And God wants us to share with everyone, not just the people we think are "good enough" or "deserving enough." That's a point that may be overlooked in this story. Think about the fact that Jesus lives in a religious atmosphere where ritual cleanliness means everything. In Jesus' world, there are a multitude of things that can make anyone unclean, and if an unclean person even touches something or someone else, that person or thing becomes unclean as well. Think about sharing food with strangers, say, on a city bus or at a concert venue, and think of the germ-squeamishness you may feel touching food that others have touched; amp that way up, and you may just begin to have some idea of the fear that a pious person of Jesus' time and place might have touching food that a stranger has touched. And yet -- Jesus blesses the loaves and fishes, says, "Let's eat!" -- and food is shared from person to person to person. What does it say about the person and power of Jesus that someone whose religious and cultural training makes him or her obsessed with remaining "pure enough" is moved to share food with the stranger next to him or her, who may or may not be "pure" according to the common understanding?
So in our lesson, there's enough food to go around. And not only that -- there's enough God to go around. Note Jesus' response to the needy crowds who've followed him on his retreat. He helps them -- even when his friends try to shoo them away. Jesus not only gives them food; he gives them himself. God does not want to be protected from our needs and problems. God wants to be poured out into them, filling them in ways that make us whole. And God does not want to be hoarded, or rationed to "the right sort of people." God wants God's grace spilled out generously; because there is an unending supply. And just as Jesus gave his disciples a job to do in meeting the needs of the hungry and hurting crowd, Jesus gives us a job to do, as individuals and as the Body of Christ, in proclaiming and sharing God's love and care to anyone and everyone as the situations present themselves in our lives.
This lesson came alive for me today at lunch. I went to a local coffee shop and ordered a dish of no-fat frozen yogurt to eat while I reviewed and revised this sermon. I learned that the coffee shop's "dish" of frozen yogurt was a tall coffee cup heaped to overflowing. While I was sitting there, wondering how I could possibly eat this mountain of frozen dessert, and if I really wanted to, my friend "Marie" came over. Marie is developmentally disabled; she is a volunteer for the agency where I work. We're friends. I really wanted to spend my lunchtime working on this sermon...but I knew it was important to talk to Marie. So I did. And she shared good news with me. She informed me that she had quit smoking; that whenever she'd craved a cigarette, she prayed to God, and God finally told her, "You do your part, Marie, and I'll do mine, and everything will be all right"...and it worked. We talked about our respective churches a bit. We also talked about our heat wave today, and she gave me a great tip on cheap pedestal fans in town; I've been shopping for a fan, and that was news I could use.
As I sat there listening to Marie, I thought, "This woman, who is dismissed and disdained by so many people, and whom I almost dismissed in my mind today as an interruption, is a real gift. She has given me a witness to God's healing, transformative work...and she's shared information with me that is going to help my household. How great is that?"
I looked down at my ginormous cup of frozen yogurt. "Marie," I said, "there is no way I can eat all this. Would you like the rest of it?" She smiled slyly and took the cup away from me while I got her a spoon and napkin.
This was Jesus' message being lived out right here, right now, boots on the ground. It was a God thing.
Shannon Jung's study of biblical stories involving food leads him to suggest that God's purpose in making us enfleshed creatures with appetites and desires is twofold: delight and sharing. We are, each of us, gifted in marvelous ways every day by our generous God. Let's delight in them, just as the hungry, tired crowds who followed Jesus into a dusty wasteland suddenly found themselves sharing a welcome picnic supper hosted by Jesus himself. And let us share that delight, as we are able, whenever we are able, with those around us, and those around the world, who need to hear the good news: that there is enough -- enough food; enough caring others; enough God. Amen.