Sunday, August 30, 2020

Cross Carrying

 August 30, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28[1]

When I was leading youth groups, we would begin each year with an outline of the rules and expectations. Our group would create a covenant, a promise to each other that we would behave respectfully toward one another. Young people would give ideas such as “don’t interrupt when someone is talking” or “don’t share personal things outside of this group.” Full participation, no use of drugs or alcohol, respect people, places, and things. You get the idea.

We have a group covenant too. Part 1, Section 4 of our Constitution reads, in part, “We agree one with another to seek and respond to the Word and the will of God and to walk together in the ways of the Lord, made known and to be known to us.” When new members join us, they make promises such as to “be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best [they] are able?” And the congregation makes promises to the new members: “We promise you our friendship and prayers as we share the hopes and labors of the church of Jesus Christ.”

This passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome reads like a group covenant for people of faith. The vision and mission statement of the Christian church is captured in the words “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”[2] It has a charge both easy and difficult. “Bless those who persecute you,”[3] is a call to costly discipleship, to put in the hard work of loving even the unlovable.

To covenant with one another, to bind ourselves in service to the Lord based on love, goodness, patience, and service is how we work together to bring forth the kingdom of God. This covenant guides our behavior not only in the church building but in the classroom, the office, the grocery store, and the public space. To be the church in the world is to live out this call to live generously toward others, to bless every encounter with kindness and honor.

As Christians, we need this guidance because the way ahead is not a smooth and sunlit path. We must keep our minds fixed on divine things because the mission to which we are called is to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus.

This moment in Matthew’s gospel is a hard lesson. Peter has been committed all along to the Teacher, learning the lessons of leadership, compassion, faith, and healing. Now that Jesus is turning toward Jerusalem, where there will be great suffering and death, Peter is faced with what he believes to be the destruction of all that they have accomplished. “God forbid it, Lord!” You are the Messiah; we can’t let you suffer and die. You have to save us! If you are taken from us, all that we have accomplished will be lost.

Peter the rock has become Peter the stumbling block. All that they have accomplished, all that they have built, the crowds of followers, the reputation of the master healer and teacher, all of that must be lost in order for the true mission of Christ to be accomplished. Jesus isn’t on his way to be crowned king of Israel. Power was never the mission. The true mission is the transformation of human hearts and their relationship with God. That mission will demand the surrender of power, of pride, of status, comfort, and even life itself for the sake of the kingdom of God.

What Peter has not grasped, and what we also often fail to grasp, is that serving God and living the life of faith does not mean a life without suffering. It is possible, easy even, to be a faithful Christian when the goodness of life is all around, success comes from our efforts, and praise is given for our achievements. There is a way of thinking that if you are healthy and prosperous that you must have strong faith. The flip side is that if you suffer and fail your faith must not be true. This is the kind of thinking for which Jesus rebukes Peter.

There will be struggles, failures, suffering, and rejection in life. Even if your life has been relatively pain-free, the measure of faithfulness is not in how you handle success, but rather in how you handle adversity. When trouble comes, when the storm washes everything away, and all that is left is to pick up the cross and carry on, will you? If following Christ means not having the best things, the comfortable life, power and prestige, will we choose the path of suffering for the sake of the mission? “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[4]

Discipleship is a commitment to live not in expectation of reward or presumptions of self-worth but, rather, despite the lack of any obvious reward. Otherwise, our following is self-centered and ultimately flawed. We are not in this for ourselves. We are the church, not a club, precisely because the work we do is not for us but for God’s kingdom. Our call to follow Christ is a challenge to re-evaluate everything we thought was important and measure it against the grace of God.

We are a cross-carrying people. We follow Jesus even when the road leads to suffering because we know that God’s grace is all the reward we require. We deny ourselves because we believe in the mission of transforming the world with goodness, compassion, and love. We are called to follow Jesus even when it is hard, and we are able to carry on because we have committed ourselves to one another. We are a people who rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. We will be ardent in spirit as we seek to serve the Lord.

Lift high the cross of Christ; tread where Christ’s feet have trod;
come sisters, brothers in the faith, rise up, O saints of God.[5]


[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Romans 12:9-10.

[3] Romans 12:14.

[4] Matthew 16:25.

[5] William P. Merrill, “Rise Up, O Saints of God!”, 1911.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Who Do You Say That I Am?

August 23, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Romans 12:4-8; Matthew 16:13-20[1]

He’s been called by many names: Prince of Peace, the Nazarene, Teacher, Mighty Counselor, Rabbi, Prophet. The disciples reported that he was called John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another ancient prophet. We know him as Messiah, Christ, Son of God, Savior. But there were some who thought of him in a different way.

He was an outlaw, a trouble maker, a rabble-rouser who hung out with sinners, tax collectors, even (sniff) fishermen. Those in power were threatened by him. John’s Gospel tells us, “Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.”[2] They came for him, finally, at the end of what we call Holy Week, and when they caught him, Jesus said, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?”[3]

I mean really, what had he done that was so bad? Well, breaking the laws about doing work on the sabbath could get you in trouble, I suppose. Matthew tells a story: “Jesus went through the grain fields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’”[4]

Maybe it was because he kept forgiving people’s sins. The scribes said, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”[5] Maybe it was because of that whole “God is my Father” business. According to John, they wanted to kill him, “because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.”[6]

There were some who clearly labeled him because of the company he kept. A tax collector, some fishermen, a bunch of women with questionable history – they were quite a motley crew. And Jesus even called them out on it. He said, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”[7] He must be bad news, I mean, just look at his friends!

I think it probably had something to do with stirring up the crowds, and that show he put on of cleansing the Temple of the buyers and sellers. Whatever the reason, some people had it out for him, and they labeled him “Outlaw.”

There is a song I heard many years ago called “The Outlaw”[8] by Larry Norman. I won’t sing it for you right now, but it begins like this:

Some say he was an outlaw; that he roamed across the land
With a band of unschooled ruffians and a few old fishermen.
No one knew just where he came from or exactly what he’d done,
But they said it must be something bad, it kept him on the run.

Some say he was a teacher. Matthew tells us, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them.”[9] This is the introduction of what is known as the “Sermon on the Mount” which encompasses three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. The people listened for hours, and even for days. Later in Matthew we hear Jesus say, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.”[10] This begins the story of the “Feeding of the Five-Thousand.”

He taught them in parables, little stories that put the Kingdom of God in metaphorical imagery. “Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing.”[11] Here was a poet, or perhaps a master storyteller, who mesmerized the crowds. Mark tells us they were “spellbound.”[12] The parables captured their attention, put the big cosmic questions into terms they could understand, and were so simple that you could memorize them.

And yes, his voice could make the waves stand still.

A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”[13]

Who is this? A magician? Is he a sorcerer? Is he an ancient alien, as the History Channel show would have us believe? “And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’”[14] He certainly did many things that can only be described as miraculous. “He could walk upon the water; he could make the blind man see… [He] did tricks with fish and bread.”[15]

John’s gospel is filled with the mysterious acts of power that Jesus performed. At the wedding in Cana, you might be OK with me leading the ceremony, but Jesus is the one you want at the reception. Wine conjured out of water, six large jars full, and good quality at that! John also tells the story of a resurrection that came before Easter. His friend Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, had already been in the tomb four days when Jesus arrived. Deeply moved by the grief of Mary, Jesus shows them the glory of God. “He cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”[16] This was no zombie. Lazarus was himself again. Of all the amazing signs that Jesus did, this is probably the one which scared the Pharisees the most.

Jesus had another side, the prophet. He did not fear the religious authorities, or the Roman authorities. He spoke out, and to large crowds, about the hypocrisy and corruption of the leadership of Israel. During the first days of his ministry, in the synagogue, on the sabbath day, he took up the scroll of Isaiah and read this quote: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”[17] And then, in a manner we’re unaccustomed to with people who make big promises in our time, he went out and started actually doing it.

The Gospel of Matthew records a series of blessings, from the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”[18] But there is also a series of “woes,” almost a tirade against the scribes and the Pharisees, which comes after the entrance to Jerusalem. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.”[19] “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”[20] Pretty strong stuff. You can imagine Jesus using his fire-and-brimstone voice, and the crowd, at first stunned, soon cheering him on. It’s no wonder the rulers wanted to get rid of him, yet they were afraid of the crowds.

The people may have expected him to be a conquering hero; that’s certainly what the procession into Jerusalem was about. For the Pharisees, that may have been their great fear. He would incite rebellion, and bring down the heavy hand of Rome upon them all. But Jesus didn’t come to be served, but to serve. He told them many times, “The greatest among you will be your servant.”[21] He even went so far as to wash the feet of his disciples, just to drive the point home.

So, who do we say that he is? “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’”[22] Some say he was an outlaw, a teacher, a sorcerer, a prophet. He is all of those things, and much, much more. This is the Messiah of God, the one who has come to make all things new. He is our amazing God, revealed in the flesh of a human being, and he has overcome the world.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] John 11:57.

[3] Mark 14:48.

[4] Matthew 12:1-2.

[5] Mark 2:7.

[6] John 5:18.

[7] Luke 7:34.

[8] Larry Norman, “The Outlaw” on Only Visiting This Planet © 1972 Verve.

[9] Matthew 5:1-2.

[10] Matthew 15:32.

[11] Matthew 13:34.

[12] Mark 11:18.

[13] Mark 4:37-41.

[14] Matthew 14:25-27.

[15] Norman.

[16] John 11:43-44.

[17] Luke 4:18.

[18] Matthew 5:3.

[19] Matthew 23:13.

[20] Matthew 23:24-25.

[21] Matthew 23:11.

[22] Matthew 21:10-11.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Have Mercy

August 16, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Matthew 15:21-28[1]

Hey, um, Jesus? Why are we going into the city? Chicago has some bad neighborhoods, you know. Watch out for that lady, the one that’s yelling. She sounds crazy. Okay, now she’s begging. Whoa, did you hear what he just said? And her comeback? Wow! Something just happened.

In this story, Jesus went away to a region where there were fewer Israelites and more Canaanites. Though they lived in proximity to one another, they were not friends. The disciples try to dismiss this woman, to roll up the windows and lock the doors if you will, but she keeps crying out. How wide is God’s mercy? Who is included in God’s saving grace? They wrestle with the question of who is included, and who is excluded.

We have some expectations for what will happen. Jesus always heals people, right? Jesus helps everybody. But in this instance, we are faced with the realization that Jesus doesn’t always behave the way we think he should. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”[2] Jesus himself puts a limit on the reach of God’s mercy.

Is there a limited quantity of the power to cast out a demon? Does Jesus have batteries that run out, and the power can’t be wasted on the wrong people? If Jesus heals this girl from the demon, does that mean there will be less power for the next Israelite who was demonized? If the power that Jesus has comes from God, that doesn’t make sense. God’s power doesn’t run out. God doesn’t have limits. What is going on?

This is strange behavior from Jesus. And maybe it can’t be explained except to say that Jesus was not only Christ, Son of God, and Savior, but was also human, and had human failings, and was able to learn and grow. Something significant happened that day, and it may have changed Jesus’ whole view of his mission and ministry. Perhaps in this moment, Jesus changed from a Jewish prophet concerned only with his own people into the Savior of the whole world.

In the tenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus first sends the disciples out, he tells them “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans.”[3] At the end of the Gospel, Jesus told them “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”[4] Could it be that this experience in the district of Tyre and Sidon changed him?

There is a hymn by Gordan Light and Mark Miller called “Draw the Circle Wide.”[5] “Draw the circle wide. Draw it wider still. Let this be our song, no one stands alone, draw the circle wide.” This is the kind of big, open, welcoming love of God that we know. No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here. God loves you, yes, even you!

There is a similar image in the poem “Outwitted” by Edwin Markham: “He drew a circle that shut me out-Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him in!”[6] The love of God isn’t limited. God’s love doesn’t apply only to us and not to them. That is how we understand the wideness of God’s mercy.

The early church wasn’t there at first. The Jesus movement initially spread among the Jewish communities. It was Paul, converted from a persecutor of Christians into a follower of Christ, who took the church to the Gentiles. “There is no longer Jew or Greek,” Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, “there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[7] The trajectory of the mission of Jesus changed after this encounter with the Canaanite woman.

She demanded his attention. Like all those in need of healing, she cries out “Have mercy on me, Lord.” A cry for help, help that this prophet is known to give. News of Jesus has spread throughout all Syria,[8] Capernaum,[9] the country of the Gadarenes,[10] and all the cities and villages of Israel,[11] how he heals the demon-possessed. This is her chance to help her daughter, and she won’t let it pass.

She appeals to their common ancestry. The Son of David has three Canaanite women recorded in his genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel: Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth.[12] She says, in a way: We are kinfolk, you and I. I may be only a Canaanite, and we know what you Israelites think of us, but we are family. Still, he ignores her.

Even today we fail to empathize with people who are different from us. If another experiences oppression, injustice, or pain, but it is not happening in our community or doesn’t impact us because of our race, gender, class, or sexuality, then we dismiss it as unwelcome, unjustified, or untrue. The disciples urge Jesus to send her away, and he dismisses her as if her crisis is not his problem. Even the appeal to their common humanity, their relatedness, does not move him.

She persists. She won’t go away. She must see this through. She kneels before him and pleads: “Lord, help me.” Yet even this desperate act does not draw from him the needed mercy, only a crude response. It must have hurt, being dismissed like a dog. Still, she persists. She accepts the insult and musters a response. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”[13] I know you can do this. I must save my daughter. Have you no mercy, even so much as a crumb, to spare for one such as me?

Maybe it was her persistence, despite the insult, despite the obvious effort to dismiss her. Maybe it was her wit to turn the insult into an argument for her case. In the end, Jesus notices her, and responds. He commends her faith. The disciples have heard his scolding, “You of little faith.” Here, in this persistent woman driven by the need of mercy, there is great faith. Persistence in the pursuit of mercy, faith in his power, and love, and mercy, has changed his mind. Her request is granted. Her daughter is healed. And Jesus has changed.

There is much that can divide us: heritage and history, nationality, race, gender, sexuality, religion, politics, and the cultural pull to get in with the right crowd and keep the others out. We can go along with the social expectation to draw a close circle around us, seeking protection, comfort, and safety. But will we notice the cry for mercy, for welcome, for love? Are we willing to draw a wider circle, to take in those who have been left out? Will we have enough persistence in the pursuit of mercy to change hardened hearts? I pray that we will have great faith as we seek to bring God’s mercy to the world.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Matthew 15:24.

[3] Matthew 10:5.

[4] Matthew 28:19.

[5] “Draw the Circle Wide” WORDS: Gordon Light © 2008 Common Cup Company. MUSIC: Mark A. Miller © 2008 Abingdon Press, admin. by The Copyright Company.

[6] “Outwitted” by Edwin Markham (1852-1940).

[7] Galatians 3:28.

[8] Matthew 4:24.

[9] Matthew 8:16.

[10] Matthew 8:28.

[11] Matthew 9:35.

[12] Matthew 1:3, 5.

[13] Matthew 15:27.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Have Courage

August 9, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Matthew 14:22-33

The disciples had been through another stormy night. There is the story of Jesus asleep in the stern during a storm, but that is a different story. This time, they faced the storm without their leader. Battered by the waves, far from land, with the wind against them, they rode out the night. It takes courage to endure the storm, to wait for the dawn in hope that the storm will pass.

It took even more courage for Peter to get out of the boat and walk toward Jesus on the water. “Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’”[1] Peter, ever the bold one, swallows his fear and ventures out onto the sea. He tries to stay focused, but the wind was strong and his fear returned, and he began to sink.

I remember helping a member of my youth group walk across the high ropes course at Pilgrim Park Camp. Despite her fear of heights, she had made it up the pole, and across the first easy stretch, but now she had to trust only her balance and the ropes and harness to keep her from falling. She froze, and no amount of encouragement shouted from below could get her moving. So I put on a harness and climbed up to the place across from her.

At first, I just talked, reminding her what a great sister she was to her younger siblings, and got her to tell me about their new dog. Finally, I said, “You already have the courage to do this inside you. Just look at me and walk. Say to yourself, I will do this.” She finally started moving, made it to the next pole, and together we made it around to the way back down.

Fear is a natural response to danger. Fear kept our ancestors from being eaten by lions, and from falling over the edge of a cliff. Fear can keep us safe. Fear can also keep us frozen, unable to move forward, unable to grow. Fear of falling kept my friend safe, but she couldn’t stay up on that ropes course forever. She had to get moving. Fear of the stormy sea kept the disciples inside the boat, but they would never be more than fishermen if they didn’t follow Jesus.

An obscure author named Ambrose Redmoon once wrote: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than one's fear.” [2] You may have heard or read this before. It has been quoted in recognition of many who have shown bravery in the face of danger, police officers, fire fighters, soldiers, and others who overcame danger and fear to accomplish what needed to be done.

Having courage does not mean to be reckless or foolhardy. Those acts show a lack of fear, a failure to recognize the danger, or to not understand or care about the consequences of one’s actions. The brave person knows the fear, recognizes the risk, and balances that risk against the need for action and consequence of inaction. The firefighter knows to fear the fire, but also knows that in that burning building, there may be a life in need of saving. The Coast Guard swimmer knows the fear of drowning, but dives into the stormy sea for the same reason.

Now, Peter didn’t have to jump out of the boat. Jesus wasn’t drowning. That might have been cause for an act of bravery. Perhaps that’s why he falters, and begins to sink. Maybe he thinks a bold, showy act of faith is how this is supposed to work. So, he gets scolded, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”[3] I think that what Jesus may mean here is not faith in himself, or in God. After all, Peter will go on to become the leader of the church. I think that Jesus is pointing out the lack of faith that Peter has in himself.

When we doubt ourselves, we limit what we are able to do. My friend up on the ropes trusted me and the others in our group. It was doubt in herself that kept her from moving. When you doubt that your writing is any good, you never send the manuscript to the publisher. When you doubt your ability to make something good, you never start the project. When you doubt that you can make a difference in the world, the gifts that you might share languish.

Courage to get started, to get moving, requires knowing the fear, the danger, and trusting in yourself enough to hold that fear and move anyway. That trust in yourself comes with time and experience, but it also comes from recognizing the presence of the holy that is within you.

Peter looked for Jesus out on the water to save him. He forgot that God’s Spirit was already within him, and it was trust in that presence that could give him the courage to stay on the surface of the water. God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, they are out there, yes. But they are also in here, in our being. God is not separate from us, but part of us, and we are part of God.

One of the great theologians of the past century, Paul Tillich, wrote of courage and its connection to God. In The Courage to Be, Tillich said that we are faced with tremendous anxiety. There is the anxiety of fate and death. There is the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness. And there is the anxiety of guilt and condemnation.

But the only way to overcome all of these is to face and accept them with courage. “Courage,” Tillich said, “is the self-affirmation of being in spite of the fact of nonbeing.”[4] We are ultimately faced with the reality that one day we will die. But we can become confident of our own personal existence only if we cease to base that confidence on ourselves. The courage to be is confidence in God who is being-itself.

When it is guilt that causes us to fear, we must remember that “the courage to be is the courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable.”[5] God loves us and accepts us despite all our guilt. When it is self-doubt that causes us to fear, we must have the courage to trust that we are able to accomplish what must be done because of the presence of the holy within us.

We are part of the one who infinitely transcends our individual selves. “Faith is the state of being grasped by the power of being-itself.”[6] In spite of the seemingly infinite distance between us, God nevertheless accepts us into being. Even our death is not the end of meaning because God is not bound by death, and we belong to God.

The faith that leads us to have courage is faith that in spite of all that is set against us, in spite of fear and doubt, guilt and anxiety, we are one with the infinite, with God who promises to never leave us or forsake us. Let us then be brave as we do what must be done, as we seek for a way forward, as we prepare to meet the dawn with hope.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 14:27. The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] From "No Peaceful Warriors!" (1991) by Ambrose Redmoon, available from

[3] Matthew 14:31.

[4] Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), 155.

[5] Ibid., 164.

[6] Ibid., 172.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

The Leftovers

August 2, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Matthew 14:13-21

I was hiking with my parents in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California when I was about fourteen. As we reached the top of the pass, having hiked for several hours, we stopped for a break. We drank water, took photos of the gorgeous scenery, and ate some gorp. I tell you, I don’t know if I’ve ever tasted anything as good as peanuts, raisins, and M&M’s at 11,000 feet. It wasn’t that the food was so amazing; rather, it was the circumstances: the journey to get there, the location, the company.

I wonder if that is what it was like for the crowd in our scripture today. They gathered around Jesus, and as evening approached, they shared a meal. It wasn’t the food that made the occasion memorable – just fish and bread – but it was the circumstances.

Jesus had withdrawn to a deserted place, hoping to be alone. What had he heard that had caused him pain? John the Baptist, who had baptized Jesus in the Jordan, had been killed. Herod, the local king, imprisoned then executed John, and this news hit Jesus hard. John was his cousin, had been a friend, and had “prepared the way” for Jesus. Now he was gone and Jesus was grieved. His followers too, one must assume, for in hearing the news they followed Jesus on foot, a great crowd. They gathered there in that deserted place, but in their sadness they had one another for comfort and consolation. They looked to their leader for a sign of hope, and “he had compassion for them and cured their sick.”

The hour grew late, and the crowd showed no sign of dispersing. The disciples, concerned for the people, come to Jesus to talk about the food situation. People are getting hungry. You should probably tell them it’s time to go. But Jesus, who knows the people are not yet ready to get on with their lives, didn’t send them away. Instead, he took what little food they had, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. “And all ate and were filled.”

It must have been one of those moments of epiphany for the people, when suddenly the talking stops and everyone takes notice that something is happening. The image of one person giving food to a great crowd would have brought to mind their history. Some would have recalled the miracle of Elisha, in the book of Second Kings, who gave food to a hundred people.[1] Others might have thought of Moses and the tribes of Israel, wandering the wilderness, who were fed with manna from heaven.[2] Some may only have seen and been touched by the generosity and faith of Jesus, offering so little to so many, yet trusting that God would provide. And they likely thought about what had happened to John, and perhaps worried about the future. Whatever came to their minds, they sat, and they ate, and they remembered this meal.

Is there some meal that you remember that has special significance? Maybe it was a time when the whole family was together, or you had a special guest. Perhaps you recall a wedding feast or the funeral of a loved one as stories were shared around the table. You may not remember the taste of the food, but the event stands out in your mind. The Last Supper Jesus had with his disciples had that quality, and the same sense of happening. As they sat at that table with Jesus, I’m sure their memories went back to that day in the deserted place, when Jesus took, blessed, broke, gave. And they ate and were filled.

“And they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” This image of abundance recalls to us the generosity of God, the greatness of God, the power of God to bring a feast in the desert. So little to share, so many people, and there were leftovers. Where did it all come from?

There are many less-than-satisfactory explanations. Maybe they all just took a little piece, like the little squares of communion bread we eat at church. That doesn’t explain how they all were filled, unless you take that phrase to mean a spiritual fullness. Maybe they all had brought food with them, and, when Jesus asked, shared with one another. That is certainly logical, but less than inspirational. Maybe Jesus did some magic, presto, and look at all the bread now! He was Jesus, after all. But that just seems hokey, and doesn’t feel real.

An explanation that I favor points out a key blindness of the person telling the story. The theologian, Rosemary Radford Reuther, writes: “The reason there was so much food was that all the women, as women are wont to do, brought picnic baskets, food enough for themselves, their children and one or two neighbors. So of course, there was more than enough for all. But since the women and children were not counted, the gospel writer did not know where the food came from and presumed it was a miracle performed by Jesus.”[3] In other words, Matthew just didn’t see the whole picture – he missed something.

Matthew records “five thousand men, besides women and children.” Adding in the women and children, there may have been upwards of thirty-thousand people there! This huge crowd had not spontaneously assembled; news had passed from person to person and household to household. The women, knowing they might miss dinner, brought food for their families, and a little extra to share if a neighbor had brought nothing. In those days, women did not “count” as people, and so were overlooked. Their contribution to the meal was overlooked as well.

Christian charity has its roots in the Jewish understanding of hospitality. Care for the poor, the widow, and the orphan was an ancient directive, almost on the level of a commandment. Hospitality, love of neighbor, caring for the poor, the sick, “the least of these”; this part of the ministry of Jesus was already being lived out by the women of the community who made sure that “all ate and were filled.”

There may have been many more baskets of leftovers than the twelve collected by the disciples of Jesus. Perhaps the women kept some to feed those left at home. The leftovers may be the real story. God works through us, through people, to accomplish what is good, and true, and miraculous. As the food was brought back home to the sick and the shut-ins, the story was told, the blessing was shared, and word of the compassion and faith of Jesus spread. The miracle wasn’t the food itself; it was the circumstances – it was the people, serving as the hands of God.

I encourage all of us to think about what to do with our leftovers. The biblical text says only that they took up what was left over. Reuther suggests that the women took what was left back home to share with others. What in our lives is left over, extra, more than we need, and what can we do with it? I’m not just talking about sharing free veggies in front of the church, or giving to the food pantry, though those acts are important. What is the extra stuff that fills our barns, and how can we use it to make a difference in the lives of others? Is the rummage sale an opportunity for grand generosity? What about the free time we have, time in which we could help those in need? Each of us may only be able to offer a little, but what can we accomplish when we do it together?

God is ready to make miracles – but we need to help make them happen. Jesus said “You give them something to eat.” Another theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor, sees this as a call to action: “Not me but you; not my bread but yours; not sometime or somewhere else but right here and now. Stop looking for someone else to solve the problem and solve it yourselves. Stop waiting for food to fall from the sky and share what you have. Stop waiting for a miracle and participate in one instead.”[4] The disciples have little, but Jesus will show them how it’s done: “Bring them here to me.” Have some faith, ask God for help, and start passing the food!

God is ready to make miracles. All that is needed are willing hands, compassionate hearts, and a community where love is shared. Bring what little you have to God, and be ready to share the leftovers. This is the place; the time is now. Let’s make something happen. Let’s be miracle workers.

[1] 2 Kings 4:42-44.

[2] Exodus 16.

[3] Rosemary Radford Reuther, "Miracle of the loaves and picnic baskets: uncounted women make world food go round" (National Catholic Reporter, Sept 6, 1996). 02 Aug. 2008.

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 53.