Wide-eyed wonder

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Sunday Evening

Matthew 14:13-21

19Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled.

The children’s sermon was very sweet this morning. We had just one little girl and as she came forward I went down to meet her, took her hand and we walked to the back of the sanctuary where the bread donated for communion this morning waited to be brought forward with the offering. Together we peeked under the purificator (the napkin, church life is still shaped by the thousand years of Latin) and I invited her to count the number of small flat loaves.

One, two, three, four, five. I asked her if she knew why there were five and then told her about the story we would read today when Jesus took five loaves like these and fed five-thousand families. The wide-eyed amazement in her eyes was truly priceless. That I got to see it was one of the precious privileges of being a pastor. Would that we could all come to the table wide-eyed at the wonder and mercy of God.

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From Sunday’s Sermon

Matthew is brilliant in the way he constructs his narrative, because the story right before this is the story of Herod’s banquet, where there is no mention of food shared with the women and children, where Herod does the unthinkable and disgraceful thing of allowing his daughter to dance before men who are not part of his immediate family, and where Herod shows himself without honor by allowing himself to be aroused by the dancing of a woman – let alone his daughter – and loses self-control, promising to giver her anything she wants. Then, rather than losing face before his courtiers, he grants the request to have the prophet, John, beheaded.

Herod’s banquet is a banquet of greed and lust that ends in death. Jesus’ banquet is a banquet of compassion that gives life. Herod’s banquet is a banquet for a few; Jesus’ banquet is a banquet for all. Herod’s banquet is a banquet for the rich and mighty; Jesus’ banquet is a banquet for the poor and powerless. The one leads to death and the other leads to life.

If you would like to read the whole sermon, it is posted here entitled: Five Loaves. An audio version should show up here on the church website.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWorld_Fair_New_Orleans_Rain_Child.jpg By Christopher Porché West (originally posted to Flickr as Rain Child) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Encountered by Jesus

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Sunday Evening

John 13:31-35

34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

I wish it were possible to say how cute Steffan was, today. It’s unusual for a child to come forward for the children’s sermon the first time they come to worship – especially on a day when, it turns out, none of our other young people were present. But having only a single child who is new not only to me and to the parish but to the concept of a children’s message – and even to church itself – made the children’s time a challenge.

I am aware how much we take for granted when we use words like ‘God’ and ‘church’ and ‘Jesus’, let alone concepts like ‘grace’ and ‘love’ and ‘forgiveness’ and faith’. These are words with meaning inside the community of faith, but what do they mean to those who are strangers to the church?

Maybe the task of the children’s sermon is only to say, “God loves you,” and to make children feel welcome in worship.

And maybe it’s not just about children – maybe the task of the children’s sermon is to make adults feel welcome, too. It is something simple and cute and unscripted that makes church feels not quite so churchy.

But I want there to be something more, here. I think the children’s sermon should be like gathering and laying foundation stones for a spiritual life that is rooted in the experience of love and the importance of kindness, courage and hope. I want them to know something about Jesus. And I want them to be part of the worshipping community: they should know whatever it is that Jesus might be talking to us about that day in the Gospel reading.

None of us are here only to be feel welcome and loved. We are also here to encounter this Jesus and let his words and deeds work their work in us. We are here to hear what he has to say and to see what he does. It’s part of why I try so hard to explain what Jesus’ words and actions meant in their time.

I love the power, grace, rich imagery and, at its best, the beauty and transcendence of the theological and liturgical tradition of the church. But in the end it is not about any of this; it is about Jesus. Everything else is only meant to put us in a place and time where Christ may encounter us and call us into his grace and life.

I am not interested in the kind of preaching that tells people what they already know and believe. Nor am I a spiritual version of a self-help guru with keys to a better life. I am interested in this Jesus and the prophets and all the words of scripture that challenge what we think we know, and summon us not to be mere practitioners of religious ritual, but to seek and find our truest and best humanity – to be children of God, sons and daughters of light, citizens of the age to come when our shames and sorrows are left behind.

So I hope Steffan felt good about his little encounter with me and with church this morning besides the coffee hour cookies and the toys in the nursery where he played after worship. I hope there was something for him of the radiant love of God and the Christ who gives the new commandment that we should love one another.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKunibertZinnerVolksschuleSeitenstetten1951.11A.JPG By Anton-kurt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The light of God’s presence

Looking back on Sunday

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The sanctuary lamp in the darkness

Sunday was sweet. The children who came forward for the children’s message were young and inexperienced in this little ritual of church life. They were shy and, perhaps frozen by the crowd behind them and this relative stranger asking them questions.

They were simple questions. Questions about candles. What are they for? Where do we use them? Apparently they couldn’t remember ever seeing candles, though grandparents assured me after that they had candles everywhere from the fireplace to the dinner table.

Since I wasn’t getting anywhere, I took them up behind the altar to look at the perpetual light that hangs in a red globe from the ceiling. And there, sitting on the floor, behind the altar, the Christmas tree, the advent wreath and flowers, we were out of sight of the congregation – and they finally began to talk.

Darling children.

We use candles for light. We use them for celebration (birthday cakes and Christmas dinners). There were lamps in the ancient temple in Israel – the only light in a windowless room where God was understood to be present. The red lamp is a sign that God is always present – not just here where people come to pray, but with us always.

On the way back we stopped and I brought down the pillar candles on the altar so each could light one. Apparently that was the moment of success. When I walked into the fellowship hall for coffee hour, one of the little ones jumped up and said, “There he is!” (the man who let them light candles).

It’s too complicated to explain to him that he is the true light of God, the true sign of God’s presence in the world: not only now because of that fresh simplicity and innocent love characteristic of early childhood, but because we were all made in the image of God, fashioned of the earth and the breath/spirit of God, and freed in Christ to be light to the world, to be the gracious, redeeming presence of God’s love in an often dark and terribly wounded world.

Hopefully he will come to understand all this.