Walking on water

File:Bril Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee.JPG

Watching for the Morning of August 13, 2017

Year A

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 14 / Lectionary 19

We know it’s not possible to walk on water. At least for those of us in the modern western world, our perception of the nature of reality excludes that possibility. Tragically, we can therefore only see the story as nonsense or fairy tale (or, more charitably, as metaphor). But the ancients didn’t share our somewhat limited understanding of reality, and we will miss the power of this narrative if we focus on physics (or the suspension of physical laws). This is an account of a profound experience. Throughout the world and throughout history most people have understand visions and experiences such as this as decidedly real – more real than everyday life. We need to understand this possibility if the narrative is to work God’s work in us.

The followers of Jesus have an experience in the face of one of the sudden squalls that sweep powerfully across the lake. They inhabit a world in which such storms are the products of spiritual forces rather than material ones. These are forces and powers that are not subject to human control but reign over us. So they face a hostile wind, a malevolent spirit, a transcendent power threatening to drown them. Imperiled and fearful, they then see another spiritual reality: Jesus striding across the sea, untouched by this inimical power, treading it underfoot. But until they hear the voice of Jesus, they fear they see only some other spirit, a ghost.

Peter, recognizing that they see Jesus, asks to come to him. He trusts himself to Jesus’ authority over the powers that beset them. Stepping out of the boat, however, the wind grabs his attention and he loses confidence in Jesus’ mastery over the hostile forces at work in the world. He sinks, but the hand of Jesus takes hold of him. And now Jesus is with them in the boat upon a calm sea. The wind has yielded, and the disciples prostrate themselves declaring, “Truly you are the Son of God” – truly you are the anointed one who reigns at God’s right hand.

Like the account of Elijah at Mt. Sinai, this is an encounter with the truth of God. Above all the mighty forces threatening human life – above the storms of war, racism, hatred, fear, hunger, poverty, political instability, famine, rains and fires, sorrows and diseases and the troubles brought by shame and shamelessness – Jesus walks as Lord. And battered as we are by fear and doubt, he says to us, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

So Sunday we will hear God speak to Elijah in the stillness. The psalmist will sing about the God who speaks “peace to his people.” And the apostle Paul we will speak of this living message that calls us from the storms of life into the peace of God – all of us, across every boundary in human society, summoning us not by the words of a legal code, but the voice of the one who raised Jesus from the grave and leads the world out from bondage into freedom.

The Prayer for August 13, 2017

Gracious God,
in the storms of life you bid us come to you
and sustain us by your word.
Grant us confidence in your command,
and clarity in discerning your voice;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 13, 2017

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:9-18
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” – Threatened with death by Queen Jezebel for his attack on the cult of Baal, the prophet has fled to Sinai. There God encounters him in the silence and commissions him to the next stage of his prophetic ministry.

Psalmody: Psalm 85:8-13
“Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people.” – The poet expresses his confidence in God’s faithfulness and goodness.

Second Reading: Romans 10:8-15 (appointed: 10:5-15)
“There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.
For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” – It is through fidelity and trust in God’s mercy (manifest in Christ), called forth by the proclaimed message rather than by observance of the law, that all are saved.

Gospel: Matthew 14: 22-33
“Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’” – Following the wondrous provision of bread in the wilderness, Jesus comes to his disciples upon the sea – saving Peter when he begins to sink.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABril_Jesus_walking_on_the_Sea_of_Galilee.JPG Paul Brill [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Choose your kingdom; choose your king

File:Tomato vender at the Covington Farmer's Market in Covington, LA.jpg

“You that have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55)

Watching for the Morning of August 6, 2017

Year A

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 13 / Lectionary 18

I live in a place and time where there has always been food in the grocery store. I understand that privilege. And even in the years I lived in a place that is now referred to as an urban “food desert”, I had a car with which to reach the suburban stores where milk and meat were fresh, and bread and fruit plentiful. I understand the privilege.

I have seen parts of the world where privilege is lacking. I have sat in a board meeting discussing whether we should help a companion church body in a region of the world where, after multiple years of drought, they had no seed corn. It disturbs me still, as it disturbed me then, that there was any hesitation. (We did commit to send the funds immediately, prior to the effort to raise them.)

The scripture is full of stories about famine. Famine takes Jacob (Israel) and his family to Egypt. Drought and famine had Elijah hiding in the wilderness and taking refuge with the widow of Zarephath. Famine takes Naomi to Moab where Ruth becomes her daughter-in-law (and David’s great-grandmother). Locusts (and the subsequent famine) are the occasion for the prophet Joel’s message. Subsistence farmers lead a precarious life, especially in the years of Jesus when the burden of taxes took nearly half the crop, and the necessity of keeping seed and feed left landowners with maybe 20% for food – far less for tenant farmers.

Hunger is a constant companion for too much of the world through too much of human history. And it is those who have known the anxiety and uncertainty of daily bread who recognize the full drama and grace of that day when five loaves feed five thousand.

It is food for today. And it is the bread of tomorrow. It is bread for those who hunger and a taste of a world without hunger. It is manna in the wilderness and a foretaste of the feast to come. It is the prophetic promise made present. It is a world reordered, a world set right, a world born from above. As Mary sang, “the hungry are filled with good things.

In contrast to Herod’s banquet, where Salome will dance for strangers, where the king’s daughter is used to inflame the king’s consorts, where plots conspire and the king’s vanity and shamelessness ends with the head of John on a platter – in contrast to Herod’s banquet is the banquet of Jesus where the people are healed and fed, with an abundance left over.

Choose your kingdom. Choose your king.

+       +       +

Sunday we hear of the feeding of the five thousand. And the backdrop assigned for this narrative is the prophet of Isaiah 55 giving voice to God’s offer for all who are hungry to come and eat: bread freely given, wine and milk overflowing, the voice of God that is true life. And the psalm will speak of God’s gracious providing, “The LORD” who “upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down”:

15The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
16You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.

Sunday we will also hear Paul willing to be cursed for the sake of God’s people. And in that sentiment we recognize the spirit of the one who took the curse for our sake. The one who opened the grave. The one who poured out the Spirit. The one who brings the feast without end.

Choose your kingdom. Choose your king.

The Prayer for August 6, 2017

Almighty God,
through your Son Jesus you set a table
for all the world to come and feast.
Grant us hearts that are eager to hear your word,
share in your banquet,
and live your reign of mercy and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 6, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-5
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” – After the return from exile, the prophet calls to the community like a vendor in the marketplace, inviting them to “feast” on God’s promise that the eternal covenant once established with David is now transferred to the whole nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
“The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.” – A psalm of praise and thanksgiving for God’s grace and bounty.

Second Reading: Romans 9:1-5
“I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.”
– Having laid out his message of God’s reconciling grace apart from the law, Paul now takes up the problem that God’s people have largely ignored the message of Christ Jesus. He begins with an expression of his great grief that Israel has not received this fruit of all their promises.

Gospel: Matthew 14:13-21
“All ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” – Following the parables of chapter 13, Matthew tells of Herod’s banquet where all act corruptly and John is beheaded, and of Jesus’ banquet on the mountain where he has compassion for all.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATomato_vender_at_the_Covington_Farmer’s_Market_in_Covington%2C_LA.jpg By Saint Tammany [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Like a bride

Sunday Evening

Sunday was my daughter’s wedding – that’s why there were a few missing reflections on the texts for last week.

The wedding was in the wine country, a “destination wedding”, since no matter where we held it, family and friends would have to fly in from all over the country. But there was something sweet and profound in the blend of accents from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, California, Colorado, New Hampshire, and I’m not sure where else. Isaiah 25 declares that God will prepare a feast for all peoples; a world whose primal unity was broken will be gathered back together for God’s great banquet. In Matthew 14 that feast is anticipated in the feeding of the 5,000. In John 2 that banquet is anticipated in the new wine at Cana. In Revelation 21 that banquet is portrayed as a new Jerusalem, adorned like a bride for her husband.

Every wedding exults in the joy of creation and declares the promise of the banquet to come. In every wedding the bride is beautiful and the groom handsome, every flaw forgotten. In every wedding there is joy and dancing. In every wedding the woes of the world are forgotten for a moment.

It’s not that the woes are not there. An empty chair with daisies stood on the aisle for Megan’s missing sister. This date was the birthday of my missing brother. There are losses and wounds among us all, but they cannot overshadow the joy of the wedding. Hope, joy, the presence of possibility and future, the mystery and delight of two who find in one another a deep and enduring bond and dare to promise it no matter what comes – here joy trumps sorrow, hope trumps despair, life trumps death. There is a reason Jesus uses the wedding feast as a metaphor for God’s reign.

We live as believers – those who know the resurrection and trust the promise that God will fulfill his purpose of bringing life to us and to the world.

So we sing and dance and break the bread of the eternal feast.

(If you would like to read the sermon from the wedding, it is posted at jacoblimping@wordpress.com)

“Besides women and children”

For Saturday

Matthew 14

File:Christ feeding the multitude.jpg21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

It grates against our ears to hear the number given as five thousand and then to be told that the women and children weren’t counted. It should, I guess. It is helpful to remember that equality of men and women – and adults and children – is not part of our human experience ever since we lost the garden. (We should be clear that scripture attributes this to our fall from communion with God, and not to God’s eternal design.) But it wouldn’t have sounded strange to Matthew’s congregation; it would have said something much different to them.

First of all, it would have clued them in that we are hearing about a banquet. Banquets at the time were public rituals not private parties. As public events they were the affairs of men. The fact that this is a banquet is important for Matthew, because he has set this banquet of Jesus alongside the banquet of Herod Antipas.

This is a banquet, a public occasion, not a spontaneous picnic in the park (at the time of Jesus, people didn’t picnic out in nature). At such occasions, the food was set before the men, what remained would then be taken away to be shared with the women and children. (It was a man’s obligation not to eat to excess, to remember that others would need to eat from this table.) After the women and children ate, what remained would be shared with the poor. (So it was also the obligation of the women and children not to over indulge. Whatever they ate beyond what was needed was stolen from the mouth of the poor.) So this simple reference “those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children” clues the reader in that what happened out there in the wilderness was not as a quick lunch but the banquet of God.

At this banquet of God everyone ate and was satisfied – and there were still twelve baskets left over, twelve baskets for the poor, twelve for the twelve tribes of Israel.

All are fed at the table of God.

All are fed. Not those in power. Not those with privilege. Not those with abundant lands. Not those with houses and fields and people to come tend their gardens and clean their houses and prepare their meals. All. The men, the women and children, and the poor.

5,000 was bigger than all but a few cities in Israel. 5,000 households may be hyperbole – but it proclaims the bounty of God. The banquet of God has come to us in this Jesus of Nazareth. Israel is fed again in the wilderness. The nations are gathered to feast at Zion. The reign of God is present to us in this blessed and broken bread.

And all are fed.

Feeding the crowds

For Friday

Matthew 14

File:US Navy 051104-N-3455P-001 U.S. Navy Sailors, assigned to the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4), take time to give back to the community.jpg

Volunteers packing food boxes for the San Diego Food Bank. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Paul Polach

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.

Do you think the disciples ate first, before passing the food on to the crowds?

I wrote this simple question for Friday’s reflection. After writing the question, I couldn’t find the next words. I tried. I tried several times. And every time, it seemed like they were just words, that all the power was in the question. But I was unwilling to post just the question. I wanted people to probe the depths of the question.

Do you think the disciples ate first, before passing the food on to the crowds?

In a way everything hangs on this question: Is the church’s first obligation to feed itself or to feed the crowds?

This isn’t meant to be a stick with which to beat upon our congregations (it’s not that we don’t deserve it; it’s that beating us with sticks doesn’t make us more loving.) It’s meant to be one of those simple incisions that open us up for heart surgery. Hiding in the question is the reminder and profound truth that Jesus didn’t eat first, either.

He didn’t eat first on the night of the last supper; he got up and washed everyone’s feet. He didn’t eat first when the soldiers came to arrest him; he stepped forward so his followers could get away. He didn’t eat first – he didn’t take care of himself first – when he stood before Pilate, or when he carried his cross, or when he bore our pain. Alright, maybe he ate first on Easter evening when he appeared to his followers and asked for something to eat, but that wasn’t to serve himself, it was to show his disciples that he was not a ghost. That night he ate first for our sake, as everything else was done for our sake. Jesus gives himself to us and for us. And when we understand this, when we are truly grasped by this faithful love of God, then we start to understand that the meal doesn’t end with us: we were sent to feed the crowds.

Dilettantes and disciples

Thursday

Matthew 14

File:Christ - Google Art Project.jpg

The eyes of Jesus. Part of an early (7th-8th century) Byzantine icon found in Egypt

13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

“When the crowds heard it.” The ‘this’ Jesus heard was the beheading of John, but what is this ‘it’ that the crowds heard? Does Matthew have in mind that the crowds have also heard about John? Or does Matthew have in mind that the crowds heard have that Jesus has gone to a deserted place?

Translating is tricky work. It would be nice to have the translator before us to ask why he or she translated the Greek word ‘and’ with a ‘but’. The ‘and’ seems to suggest that we are extending the thought – Jesus withdrew and the crowd went after him. The ‘but’ raises the possibility that Jesus’ response to John’s death was to withdraw, but the crowds’ response was to follow Jesus. ‘Follow’ is a big word in the Gospels. It is what disciples do. Is Matthew suggesting that the crowds that had looked to John now look to Jesus? That the mantle of John has fallen on Jesus? It’s not uncommon when we lose one hero to look for another.

So are the people looking for a hero, any hero, or are they looking for Jesus? Are they turning to Jesus out of desperation or have they found the one and don’t want to let him out of their sight?

Do you see the question that is homing in on us? Are we people who turn to Jesus in moments of crisis, or have we found in him the word of life and want always to be in his presence?

Are we following him or leaning on him?

Is he the plumber we call in an emergency or the master to whom we have apprenticed ourselves?

It is an important question for our self-reflection. Are we dilettantes or disciples?

The sweetness in the text is that it doesn’t matter to Jesus. When he sees the crowd, he has compassion. He does not ask if those who have come with their sick are there just for the healing or for the whole journey of faith. He heals. He nourishes. He sets before them the great banquet of heaven.

Not too far down the line, one of Jesus’ closest disciples will betray him and the rest will run away. Peter, too, will choose his own skin – thought none of us can honestly blame him considering what happens to those who would suggest there is some other rule on earth than Rome. But the question whether Jesus is a vocation or an avocation will haunt Peter until Jesus walks him back through his three-fold denial with a three-fold declaration: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” But even that morning, on the shore of Galilee, began with a meal.

Jesus will indeed talk to us about the necessity of discipleship. But first there is compassion. First he heals. First he sets before us the great banquet of heaven.

The Dance of the Seven Veils

Wednesday

Matthew 14

https://i1.wp.com/lcweb2.loc.gov/service/pnp/cph/3b40000/3b49000/3b49700/3b49748r.jpg

Ludwig Hohlwein poster for a Richard Strauss music festival

13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.

“When Jesus heard this.” The reading for Sunday requires us to look back and see what the “this” is. “This” is the beheading of John.

You have probably heard of this “this”. It was made famous as the “Dance of the Seven Veils” in Richard Strauss’ opera Salome. Salome is the daughter of Herodias from her first marriage to Herod II. His brother, Herod Antipas, scandalously took Herodias as his wife against Biblical law. (Herodias divorced Herod II when he was dropped from his father’s will, perhaps for someone still in line to inherit the throne. To take Herodias, Herod had to divorce the daughter of the Nabataean king. This led to war with the father of the spurned wife.) John dared to preach against the illicit union and Antipas eventually had John arrested. He was, however, hesitant to kill the prophet.

Herodias apparently had no such compunction towards the prophet who called her marriage incestuous. And, according to the Biblical account, at a great palace banquet for his birthday (attended only by men, remember) Antipas allows his daughter to dance for their entertainment. It is shameful to allow a family member to dance before men who were not family. And it is yet more shameful to show oneself aroused and out of control by such a dance. But Herod – again shamefully – promises her anything, up to half his kingdom. Salome consults with her mother and returns to ask for the head of John. Herod is bound by his public oath and has the head of John brought on a platter and given to her.

The feasts of the elite were decadent affairs by almost any standard, made more so by the progressive impoverishment of the poor who were losing their lands to the wealthy. Against this background we see Jesus hold a banquet that feeds the poor.

When Jesus hears about the death of John – his cousin according to Luke – he leaves town. Whether he is avoiding Herod, troubled by grief, or on a spiritual retreat to ponder what John’s death portends for himself, the text doesn’t say. Only that the crowds followed, raced around the lake, and were waiting for him when he got off the boat. Though he sought solitude, he had compassion for them and began to heal their sick. As the day grew late, he is urged to send the crowd away. The five loaves and two fish are not, in Matthew’s telling, brought forth by a small boy; it is all Jesus’ disciples have. But placing their all into the hands of Jesus, it becomes enough to satisfy the whole crowd.

Herod serves a banquet leads to death. But in the wilderness, Jesus serves a banquet that leads to life.

“All ate and were filled”

Watching for the morning of August 3

Year A

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 13 / Lectionary 18

File:Church of the Multiplication 20091026 altar.jpg

Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, Israel. The mosaic on the floor marks the stone where Jesus was thought to have multiplied the loaves and fishes. The mosaic is from the fifth century church destroyed in 615, but rediscovered and excavated in 1892.

Manna in the wilderness, the bounty of creation, the banquet of God towards which all creation moves, the table of the Lord around which we gather every Sunday – they all weave together in the readings for Sunday. The central narrative on Sunday is the feeding of the multitudes. It is perhaps the single most important story in the Gospels other than the passion. It is told by all the gospel writers – and by Matthew and Mark twice: feeding 5,000 and then again 4,000.

We have lost something of the meaning of family dinner. It lingers on for many in the celebration of Thanksgiving. We almost always seal a wedding with the sharing of a meal. We know that the sharing of food binds us to one another. It is the most fundamental of all acts of human kindness.

I have a picture of my first born in a high chair, learning to feed herself, offering us a cheerio with her gummy fingers. Food is to be shared. It binds a mother and child in the most intimate communion. It binds God and ourselves in the most intimate communion. God the provider. God the eternal parent who gives his life for his children. God the prodigal father who kills the fatted calf to bind together a fractured world.

So the prophet cries out like a merchant in the marketplace bidding all to come and “buy” the sustaining food offered at God’s stall for free. So the poet sings of God’s open hands to provide his bounty for all living things. So Jesus takes the five loaves and two fish and provides the Sabbath meal for all creation. And even Paul’s passionate cry that he is willing to be eternally cut off from God that his people might receive God’s gift in Christ Jesus, reflects that eternal love that comes to us in the bread and wine.

File:Brotvermehrungskirche BW 3-2.JPG

Picture of the mosaic noted above.

The Church’s act of communion is not a religious ritual; it is the most profound participation in Christ. We who eat this bread are present in the wilderness receiving the manna. We who share this loaf are transported to the hillside with the five thousand. We who gather together at this table are given a taste of the wedding banquet that has no end. The world to come has come in Jesus. Lives are healed. Sins are forgiven. The estranged are reconciled. The dead are made alive.

The Prayer for August 3, 2014

Almighty God,
through your Son Jesus you set a table
for all the world to come and feast.
Grant us hearts that are eager to hear your word,
share in your banquet,
and live your reign of mercy and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 3, 2014

First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-5
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” – After the return from exile, the prophet calls to the community like a vendor in the marketplace, inviting them to “feast” on God’s promise that the eternal covenant once established with David is now transferred to the whole nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
“The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.” – A psalm of praise and thanksgiving for God’s grace and bounty.

Second Reading: Romans 9:1-5
“I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.”
– Having laid out his message of God’s reconciling grace apart from the law, Paul now takes up the problem that God’s people have largely ignored the message of Christ Jesus. He begins with an expression of his great grief that Israel has not received this fruit of all their promises.

Gospel: Matthew 14:13-21
“All ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” – Following the parables of chapter 13, Matthew tells of Herod’s banquet where all act corruptly and John is beheaded, and of Jesus’ banquet on the mountain where he has compassion for all.