Being Fed

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Isa. 52:1-12; Gal. 4:12-20; Mark 8:1-10

A familiar story comes to us today – the feeding of the four thousand.  There are many of these stories of the feeding of multitudes, and with them comes a lot of numbers: the numbers of loaves, baskets, and people are all different.  5,000 were fed with 5 loaves and 2 fish.  Now we have 7 loaves, 7 baskets, and 4,000 people, and we don’t even know how many fish.

Some have argued that the symbology and numerology of today’s readings reflects a fulfillment of the tribes and Gentiles when paired together.  That is a lovely speculation, but often these stories stand alone, and making these comparisons across Gospel narratives is a stretch.  But lest you feel a sore disappointment, think about the larger picture – we come to find out that the point of the story has nothing to do with numerology, but with grace.  The point is that God feeds those in need – that Jesus came to satisfy the hungry – a lot of them – literally.

It was just a couple days ago I stood in the site that this probably happened.  It is a natural amphitheater around the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus could be heard at water’s edge, and where thousands could have gathered around him to hear and to break bread together.  It was humbling being there in Israel.

It also was a place of extravagant food – fresh fruit, fish, cheeses.  That’s St. Peter’s fish above was lunch just a couple days ago – and you all know how I love to take pictures of my food.  But it wasn’t this talapia with its head on making it succulent and moist and buttery that made the meal.  It was when I looked up and discovered the amazing table fellowship at hand.

This is the true miracle that this story points us to.  It is about people coming together in miraculous and extraordinary ways.  And when they do, we are fed.

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The fact is that abundance is all around us.  The table fellowship binds us together and makes us one.  Is this starting to sound familiar.

Through Jesus’ confidence, the miracle breaks forth.  “How many loaves do you have?”  He takes the seven loaves, gives thanks, breaks the bread, and gave it to them.

This feast becomes a foreshadow of the Lord’s Table, where again we encounter the same verbs, although different elements of bread and wine.  But the same – Take, Offer thanks, Break, Give.  This is not only a story of abundance, but a foreshadowing of the great feeding that happens every Sunday.  The Church continues to re-enact this story of grace.  And we, like the crowds, are indeterminate.  4,000.  5,000.  It doesn’t really matter.  God feeds as many as show up.  It is not only spiritual food, but actual food, his own body.

The miracle truly is multifaceted.  This story has to do with “being astounded.”  The miracle is not only in the feeding of these people, but the level of dumbfoundedness on everyone’s face.  “Astounded beyond measure.” The profundity gets larger, as the miracle gets larger.

The mystery is growing.  And so is the grace.  See why I like Mark?

May we all be fed in these dark times.  Fed with the food that will never leave us hungry.

– Matt

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Tests

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Isa. 51:17-23; Gal. 4:1-11; Mark 7:24-37

It is always difficult coming back from time away, especially when it is the Holy Land I have been to, and also when I come back with a pretty hefty head cold.  Sometimes it feels like life is a big test and I am getting a C- in this thing called life – and that is at best.

But, it was SO good to see everyone yesterday.  I have missed you all enormously.

Today in our scripture is the quirky story of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter being healed, as portrayed by one of the New Testament’s most gifted writers: Mark.  I say quirky because Jesus never meets the daughter whom he heals.

Those of you that remember my Thursday Noon Bible Study on Mark remember us talking about this trajectory in Mark of every miracle growing larger in breadth and stature.  So this “growth” in the story is an exorcism from afar.  Jesus is so powerful he doesn’t even need to touch you!

But it gets bizarre.  The words that come out of Jesus’ mouth are almost seen as an insult or racial slur.  This woman, this Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin begs Jesus to heal her daughter.  His response?  “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

It appears that her faith turns the tables.  “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

I am convinced that Jesus was using this as a test.  Perhaps he was thinking, “I know how to get under her skin.  I will see what she is really made of here.” She appears to pass, transcending the insult and focusing on the joy and grace that is presented her.

Tests.  They are dreaded by high school students and college students alike.  There are tests to get us into the Army, into jobs, to get out of high school.  Tests come and often serve to move us to the next level of learning or what have you.  Tests.

I hate tests.  But they are all around us.  Even when we are out of school the tests come, albeit in different ways.  So many aspects of life are test-like – job responsibility, marriage, having children.  Being in the church sometimes is a test – with the seemingly most abrasive people constantly thrust in our midst, perhaps at God’s direction to test us.  Very few experience the church as “one big happy family”.  Lately dealing with the news as with our new administration seems like a test of all of our patience.

It appears, from the Syrophoenician woman’s faith, that part of the test of this life includes standing up to injustice and racial inequalities.  She smartly puts her foot down, and from that her faith shines.  Jesus may well have been playing Devil’s advocate, impressed that this woman could hold her own.

How is Jesus testing us still?  And how are we responding?  With faith and determination? When are we called to reflection, and when are we called to action?

-Matt

MLK

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Martin Luther King
Psalm 77:11-20 or 98:1-4
Exodus 3:7-12Luke 6:27-36

Isa. 44:6-8,21-23; Eph. 4:1-16; Mark 3:7-19a

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt…and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land….

So states the Exodus reading for Martin Luther King Day.  This is one of the few days of the daily lectionary year that is impacted by a national figure – a minister and civil rights leader, and one who was martyred doing that work of reconciliation.

Dr. King spoke against the Vietnam War, and he did so by beginning his reasoning with “Thou shalt not kill.”   It is then appropriate that the New Testament passage that was chosen for this day is a related passage: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

In this world afflicted with violence and war at every turn, I wonder what King would say to us.  What Jesus would say?  These are hard times, when rarely do I hear ministers anymore talk about loving one’s enemies.  We seem to be so caught up in building community that it seems a stretch just to love one’s friends and fellow congregants.

But our call is much higher.  To embrace one’s enemy and turn the other cheek is a stretch for some, impossible for others.  But there it is – unmistakable in scripture.

And what are we to do?  Perhaps on this day, remembering the greatness of a man who died for the cause and hope of racial equality, we can take some time to rediscover our own need for transformation into justice.  It is also a time to be thankful, for God has delivered us from our own Egypt.  But we must be open to the deliverance which is yet at hand, and we must be open to it.

Who knows where God will lead us?

-Matt

Restoration

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Isa. 41:1-16; Eph. 2:1-10; Mark 1:29-45

Mark.  My favorite gospel.  Mark is brief, colorful, brilliant, and to the point.

“That evening at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  And the whole city was gathered around the door.”  They were in a small town in the Galilee region at the house of Simon and Andrew.  It began with Simon’s mother-in-law being cured.  Then word got out and all the sick of the town were brought here.

I have been to the archaeological site that is believed to be Simon Peter’s house (in fact, some of you have been there with me!  Others of you are about to leave with me in a few days and see this place!  It is the remains of a house uncovered by archaeological digs where an entire church is built over the archaeological garden, suspended on steel beams, with a glass floor, looking down into the house.  Extraordinary.)

One of the things I noticed is that houses of that time were fairly small – probably only 20 feet square, sometimes divided into two rooms, a common room, and a private room, where Simon’s mother-in-law would have been.  It would have been tight.  If Jesus was in there and a few of the disciples, and Simon’s mother-in-law, it was packed.  In this very intimate setting, people are crowding around, peering in the door, looking in the windows.

There is another detail about this story that just makes me love Mark’s gospel.  They left the synagogue and went to the house where Simon’s mother-in-law was.  Here is the Son of God.  Does he heal at the synagogue?  No.  The Temple?  No.  The courthouse or main street?  No.  At someone’s house.  This is a savior who is interested intimately in us.  He isn’t disconnected from his disciples.  He isn’t shouting his message onto a big screen in a mega-church, meeting his thousands of worshipers virtually.  No, he is going into their bedrooms.  This is an intimate God who loves and cares for his followers.

This God is interested in wholeness and healing, in mending the brokenness of the world and giving hope to the hopeless.  He is not in his ivory towers, but in a room that has declared him unclean to go back to the temple.

God has made a procession to the doorstep of the rejected, the afflicting, the oppressed.  He wasn’t interested in judging or looking down on those who had “sinned”, for it was often thought that the physically afflicted had done something wrong to deserve this.

None of this hub-bub meant anything to Jesus.  His only care in the world seemed to be to find the lost.  To restore those who were broken.  To build up that which was in decay.  To seek out the lonely, the broken, the afflicted.

And he is still at work.

You want proof?  He found you and me.

-Matt

Hungering for Righteousness

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Isa. 40:25-31; Eph. 1:15-23; Mark 1:14-28

Mark jumps right in to ministry.  No birth narrative.  Meet John the Baptist.  Moving pretty quickly, only 14 verses in, already Jesus’ Galilean ministry has begun.  It is heralded by John the Baptist, who declares, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Understanding that line from John is key.  Notice that the “good news” for John is not what we are used to hearing, like in Paul where the good news is equated with “Jesus came to save sinners by grace through faith.”  Here, the good news is simply that the kingdom of God has come near.  And the “repent” part is to turn from that negative thinking.  You must repent and believe that the time is fulfilled.

In other words, the people were hungry – hungry for a change.  Much like our present state in America, I sense that the people of that time were so ready for a change of leadership, they could taste it.  They knew that life had to be better than what they had.  Some had bought into the thinking that life was supposed to be this bad, that they deserved this life, and that God was punishing them for not following.

John speaks against this negative thinking, declaring that we must believe that a better life is around the corner.

Jesus taps into this hunger.  His calling of the first disciples seems to be a snap.  He says, “Come, and I will teach you how to fish for people!”  And they go.

It got me to thinking this morning – this element of hunger versus action.  We so often fall into the traps – we expect our churches will grow if we shame them into seeing their rotten lives – or we expect our churches will grow if we offer some wonderful programs.  Only when we are truly hungry will we truly learn to fly.

What God is saying to us today is: Are you hungry yet?  Are you hungry for a better world?  Because that will motivate you!  God is reminding us that our programs will not save us.  The church is not saved by pretty buildings, or great sermons, or fun programs, but by a people who are so hungry for a better life, they must move into the future in a different way.

These first disciples were on fire before they even met Jesus.  And so the keys to growing a church today come: It is not getting people to say “I came to FPCOKC to be fed” but making people hungry for more.  Are you thirsting for justice and righteousness?

-Matt

Love Came Down at Xmas

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Joshua 1:1-9; Heb. 11:32-12:2; John 15:1-16

Today is the 12th Day of Christmas.  And it is appropriate that what began as “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth” is now a story of the love of God spreading.  The light has come into the world, and the command is to love as God loves.  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  And what does that love look like?  It is a love that means to “lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Now here’s the catch: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”  It turns out that love comes at a price.  Not just for Jesus, but for us too.  We are commanded not only to love our enemies, but also to live as Christ did, with self-sacrifice, service, and humility.

This is a tall order, and one that I find difficult on a daily basis.  Love friends?  Oh, that is easy.  Love enemies and all the riff-raff in life?  Uh oh.  And live a life of service and giving, ready to lay down my life?  Certainly not, Lord!  Isn’t there another way?

It is easy to give presents to friends and family.  But now we are being asked to give presents to those we don’t know, those who are our enemies, and those who are not planning to give any presents back.

Later in this John passage, Jesus starts speaking like a Presbyterian.  “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”  This is the beginning of understanding why Presbyterians baptize infants, and why when they are baptized as infants they are members of the church and the Lord’s Table is open to all.  We are not in charge here!

And yet this is the call: to bear fruit.  To love in order that love may spread.  And just like fruit, if it takes to seed, love grows exponentially.

-Matt

Blessing

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Gen. 28:10-22; Heb. 11:13-22; John 10:7-17

As with every day of the Christmas readings, which are filled with new beginnings, fresh starts, and new births, today’s passage from Genesis fits right in.

Today the city of Bethel is born.  Jacob, in his vivid dream, awakes and declares “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!”  He rose and took the stone he had used as a pillow and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on it.  He was honoring this place, and named it Bethel, which means the city of God.

What was cause for such an act?  It turns out Jacob’s first vision was a similar promise that had been made to his grandfather – a double promise of land and progeny.  “The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring.”  God also declares that “I am with you.”  These words drop onto my ear – an ear which is sensitive to the Israeli/Palestinian conflicts, and a huge part of me asks, “Yes, but what about the people who were already given this land by God?”

I suppose it is the the promise of presence that makes it a Christmas reading, a time when God-with-us declares this same promise, but in the form of a tiny babe in a manger.  I suppose I am being asked to take my own advice from yesterday’s sermon and look beyond the surface of the story, and the obvious conflict of given land to people that has already been given to other people.

So what is the deeper part of the story?  And why get so excited about a promise that had already been made to Abraham, his grandfather?  Didn’t we know he would already be blessed?  Yeah, maybe.  Remember the rules?  Land and blessing passes from eldest son to eldest son.  Jacob was not.  Not only did we as a people survive through Isaac almost being a sacrifice, we had also witnessed Esau and Jacob, with Jacob deceptively stealing the birthright from his father, who in his old age did not know any better.

Now the question….would God continue to bless Jacob, who was clearly in violation of the laws of humanity?  The answer, surprisingly, is “yes.”  God chooses differently and separate from man’s laws.

This extends to our Christmas narrative.  Did Mary and Joseph deserve to be the parents of the Messiah?  Were they royalty?  Shining moral examples?  No.  And Jesus’ twelve disciples…did they deserve being chosen?  No.  Do we?  No.  And yet Jesus the Messiah came to that time and place, and even to this time and place, and chooses us.  Are we worthy?  No.

But God did it anyway.  This is the true miracle of Christmas.  God comes in unexpected ways, and breaks down our rules and standards along the way, instead preferring the way of grace and goodwill to those in whom God’s glory may shine best.  Today it is Jacob.  Tomorrow it might be you.

-Matt