"The Family's the Feast, the Church's the Miracle"
Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
31 July 2011
Texts: Isaiah 55.1-5
Psalm 145.8-9, 14-21
If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will...
f it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well
-Leonard Cohen, "If It Be Your Will"
-It’s comforting to know that even Jesus had a crappy week here and there. Even before the whole Holy Week betrayal-torture-crucifixion thing. This week’s Gospel finds Jesus on the tail end of one such week from hell. After a frustrating run at the Parable Café, Jesus heads back to Nazareth for some hometown rejuvenation. But there, we are told, even his own family and friends took offense at him, so much so that he “could do no miracles there!” Not even mom’s kosher cooking can take the sting out of that.
-Then, the back-breaker. Jesus receives news that his very own cousin, John of Baptizing fame, has been beheaded by King Herod. It turns out that speaking the truth to power by calling out the ruling monarch for marrying his brother’s wife is not a sure-fire way to become a talking head on Fox News. The only place for such a prophetic head is on a silver platter. I cannot imagine Jesus not being shaken up. The writing is on the wall. This is what happens to prophets. We got your cousin. You are next.
-Its been a crappy week for Christ. And so he loads up his backpack, climbs in his boat, and sets sail for “a deserted place” for some well-deserved R&R. (Jesus was from Colorado). But no sooner does he reach the shore than is he greeted by people –five thousand men to be exact. Oh, and also women and children! I’ve never been a celebrity – hell, I don’t think I have even a fifth that many facebook friends! – but I do know that my day off is sacred. Like the disciples, I would be inclined to say, “Jesus, get rid of these people. Let’s take some me time.”
-And yet, St. Matthew tells us that when he saw the crowds, “he had compassion on them and cured their sick.” That evening, the people are getting hungry and the disciples are annoyed; yet Jesus seems jacked up, seems to be drawing energy from this needy crowd who has sought him out in the middle of nowhere without a mind to provisions or time. “Send them away?” he asks. “We’re just getting started!”
-Jesus came to the seashore, weary and grieving; Jesus comes to the end of the day, rejuvenated and renewed. Jesus began the week misunderstood and unable to work wonders; he comes to its close, preaching marathon revival meetings and once more doing his miracle-maker magic. So what changed?
-Too many of us have been taught to think of neediness as a burden, a weakness. We live in a world devoted to the pursuit of independence, power and control. We are too often made to feel ashamed for our own neediness. And in so doing, I wonder if we also close the door on discovering the depths of our true power.
-Not Jesus. You see, while I think certainly, the crowds came to be ministered to by Jesus, I’ve been thinking that maybe God also sent the crowds to minister to Jesus. Because like the crowds, Jesus experienced great need in this time of grief, disappointment, uncertainty and death. And from the beginning God’s response to the pain, the brokenness and the fallenness of His good creation has always been to gather a family.
-When the man was lonely in Eden, God created a family for him. When the first family ate of the forbidden fruit and creation descended into darkness, God called the family of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to be a witness to the nations of the original goodness of the world. And here, on this shore in the middle of nowhere, when Jesus’ earthly family had either rejected him or been killed, notice what God does. God sends Jesus an entire army of a family to come and be with him in his time of grief. To give Jesus the opportunity to minister to them, not in spite of, but out of the midst of his own seeming needfulness, his very real brokenness. And in the process, to give Jesus the bread he needs to persevere in his own journey into the uncertainty of the future. It is not good for the Man to be alone.
-Have you ever noticed that when you are struggling, when you feel hungry and weak and depleted, when you are grieving or in despair, that you are suddenly replenished and re-energized when someone comes alongside you and says, “yeah man, I’ve been there too?” When they share with you, not pat answers, rote Bible verses, or equations of easy optimism, but rather, when they show you their scars? I think this is what Matthew’s after when he notes that Jesus had “compassion” on the crowds, and I wonder if from this compassion flowed his healing – of others, and his own. For compassion means nothing more than, literally, “to suffer with.”
-This past week, God ministered to the brokenness in my life by gathering a family. Many of you know that my father had a massive stroke on Monday evening. You know this because within minutes of either Nadia’s or my sharing this terrible news with you, you responded by filling my inbox with prayers. Throughout the week, you shared stories of your own experiences with tragic illnesses and accidents. People I have never met before – strangers within the family of God – gathered at the seashore to meet me and my family as we climbed out of the boat. We were in need, looking for rest. And we found the open arms of the Church. You were both Christ and crowd to us, and in you, we discovered the true meaning of the communion of saints. Because in our need, God gave you to us. To suffer with us. To walk with us. To pray for us.
-I’ve hesitated whether to share with you the fact that on Monday night, we also experienced a miracle. When I got on the plane in Denver on Monday night, the last I heard was that my dad would either end up dead or vegetating in a nursing home. When I arrived at the hospital on Tuesday morning, my father was feeding himself breakfast, and a team of surgeons, doctors, and other miscellaneous experts was telling us that “there is no scientific explanation for how well he is doing.” I’ve hesitated to share this, because while I firmly believe in the reality of the miraculous and the supernatural, I’ve also struggled with the implications of this. Maybe its just because I’m a German Lutheran, and thus particularly adept at finding the brokenness in just about anything. But I also know that for every Keith Nickoloff, there are a million other fathers who don’t get to hug their son in the morning. For every five thousand fed, there are five million more who must watch their children starve to death in their arms. God can do miracles; why God doesn’t do more, I don’t know, and I probably never will.
-With extreme gratitude can come extreme outrage. I think that too is part of what it means to be part of God’s family. Miracles show us that we are a people of endless need, and we have no power, control, or independence apart from the provision and grace of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Miracles reveal that the family of God, the Church, are the people, the community, who learns what it means to be needy while not being in control. That knows the reality of abundance, without the luxury of guarantees. We are the crowds that come to Jesus in the middle of nowhere, parched, lonely, broken, grieving, starving, beggars one and all. Who say, “we have nothing to give you but our need for you. We do not always like our neediness. We do not always like your way of doing things. But we are hungry, and you are the Bread of Life” This is what it means to be the Church. We praise God together, we pray for one another, and we also ask these hard questions and lament. We are unafraid to be needy, and to need one another. Always together.
-I’d like to tell you one more story from my own crappy week. Like Jesus, I came to the end, weary and tired. My plane pulled into town, and I was ready to crash. Then a friend left me a message on my answering machine and said, “I know you are tired, but we’d really love you to be at the show tonight.” I ended up at the Stuart’s here – aka Shirley Delta Blow’s – variety drag show. During the course of the evening, Shirley herself told the delighted crowds about Rainbow Alley, a non-profit in Denver that provides shelter and guidance to LGBTQ youth. At one point, Shirley invited us to make an “It Gets Better” video to encourage queer youth to persevere in the face of persecution and pain. Breaking character and tearing up, she told the camera, “I don’t know who you are, but if you have not found a place that accepts and loves you, then come to Denver. We love you, and we will welcome you, and we will walk with you and give you a home.” While I am not gay, in my need, I heard myself being addressed by this message of invitation and hope. I needed to be with my family that night.
-The Kingdom of God is like a Drag Queen telling the broken that “it gets better.” That there is a family of God waiting for you.
-As the family of God, as the Church that is God’s witness to the Kingdom, it is we ourselves who are the miracle. I will never forget, nor cease to praise God, for the miracle of Monday night. But when I do, I will not be able to do so without also remembering the one hundred emails in my inbox. I will remember that, just as Jesus took the meager offerings of his disciples – five loaves and two fish – and blessed them, and broke them, and gave them to his disciples to feed the people who first fed him, so too, Christ took you, blessed you, broke you, and gave you to us, us to you, and all of us together, to be bread for the hungry world. That out of nothing but need, God has created a community of abundance, has filled this community with His Holy Spirit, and has deigned to call this community the Body of His Son Jesus Christ. This family, this church, this Eucharist, is God’s answer to the cries of protest, and the deepest longings, of a needy, broken humanity
-The Kingdom of God is not like this. This is the Kingdom – the family - of God. When you share the peace – when you share in the feast – give thanks for the miracle you are. Amen.