Friday, August 8, 2014

“Attention to the Kingdom Already Present” (Matthew 14:13-21)

Sometimes I find it helpful, when working with a passage of scripture, to spend some time putting myself in the shoes of all the characters presented in the story.

Let’s do that this morning.

First let’s connect with the crowd.  We’re thirsty for something other than Rome and its oppressive spirit (the Roman agenda was divide and conquer) and empty religious practices.  If we’re a wealthy Roman we own a villa outside the city—away from the despair and the smell.  We adorn our lovely home with statues of the gods.  We observe religious rituals so that the gods will grant us prosperity—in other words, religion is about spirits and gods existing to promote my welfare, my family’s welfare, and my nation’s welfare.  Religion binds me to my family, to the emperor, and to my country—even if the emperor is blood thirsty and greedy. 

If we are poor, we live in town—in the middle of the despair and stench.  We may eat and we definitely work hard.  If we’re male we are head of our household, like the wealthy Romans.  If we’re female, we own nothing, and often leave our newborn babies in the streets to be adopted by wealthier families as slaves—because we cannot afford to feed our households.  We wonder, “Is this all that there is to life?  Is this as good as it gets? “

If we are Jewish, we understand that there is one God but the God we meet in the synagogue is heavy on ritual and purity and light on compassion—God will abandon you if you don’t perform every aspect of the law.  We hear that there is a man—God’s man—who is empowered to heal, to forgive sins, to raise the dead, to love, and to unite.  He is so different from the emperor and the local priests.  He’s not afraid, or worried, or selfish, or violent, or judgmental. We want to know more.

Second, let’s connect with the disciples.  Unlike the crowd that’s just catching on to this breath of fresh air called Jesus of Nazareth, we’re on the journey with him.  We’ve seen miracles and heard stories that wake us up to a new reality:  God is with us, and God is deeply concerned about our well-being and the well-being of our neighbors.  He’s an instrument of God’s goodness and invites us to discover this life for ourselves.  We are waking up to this new reality Jesus calls the Kingdom of God, “God with us.”  Will we take the risk and listen to God—instead of the emperor, and the priests?  Today we’re resistant.  All we can see is a lot of hungry people and our limited resources.  We don’t factor God into the situation and want to dismiss the crowd.   

Third, let’s connect with Jesus.  Before this WHOLE story takes place, Matthew records “When Jesus got the news (about the death of his cousin John the Baptist), he slipped away by boat to an out-of-the-way place by himself.” In the NRSV we heard, “He slipped away to a deserted place.” This is not the first time one of the gospel writers notes that Jesus spends time in solitude. 

“Solitude,” writes Lionel Fisher, “is a means to an end, not an end in itself.  It brings us things nobody else can give.”  UCC Pastor and Spiritual Director Jane Vennard observes, “Every summer for almost twenty years I have gone to a small house, high in the Rocky Mountains, for my annual five-day solitary retreat. I make this annual retreat to immerse myself in creation, learning what nature can teach me about stillness.  I enjoy talking to the animals---greeting the birds, telling the deer how beautiful they are. Sometimes a dream re-emerges with an important message.  Sometimes an old relationship that ended in grief needs to be revisited.  Solitude allows me to listen and see with the ears and the eyes of the heart.  I yield to another agenda in the world.”

Vennard’s last sentence describes the life of Jesus very well, don’t you think?   Jesus yielded to another agenda in the world—to another voice—to another spirit, the Holy Spirit of God.  Whereas a citizen of Rome might yield to the emperor, or a Jewish citizen might yield to religious law or rules, Jesus yielded to God’s very self.

As Richard Rohr writes in his book Falling Upward, “There is a deeper voice of God, which (you) must learn to hear and obey.”  Jesus says it this way, “The Spirit of God is upon me.”  What Jesus, and Rohr, are talking about is relationship—developing a relationship between God and yourself through prayer.  Prayer, as Jesus models it, is not just conversation, it also consists of solitude.  Jesus would empty himself of the day’s demands so that he could connect with the Spirit of God, with the energy of God which is life-giving and loving.  This relationship affected Jesus deeply; this relationship affects everyone deeply—when we pay attention to it.

How does the Spirit of God affect us?  The Apostle Paul is quick to offer his list of the “fruits”, or visible signs of the life of a Spirit at work in a person in the fifth chapter of Galatians:  22-23 But what happens when we live God’s way? God brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

What Paul invites the church at Galatia to understand is this…where we’d prefer life to be void of crisis so that we might be safe and comfortable…God prefers to equip us with the gifts we need to respond to the crisis so we aren’t overcome by change and challenge.   “Pay attention to the Spirit,” Paul often coached churches, “It will reveal God’s hopes and plans for you.  It will make you well.”

So often WE are focused on the day’s events, like the disciples in today’s story, afraid of what the events will cost us, convinced that what we see with our eyes is all that’s there. Unaware that God is somehow with us, and that THAT awareness changes everything—including how we will respond to a crisis.   In today’s story Jesus, attuned to God’s deeper voice and infused with the Spirit’s gifts:  charity, patience, generosity, responds differently to the hungry crowd.  Jesus is charitable.  What is charity?  Charity is self-giving love instead of self-seeking love.  Jesus is patient.  What is patience?  It’s long-suffering; Jesus can wait with hope.  Jesus is generous.  What is generosity?  It’s the daily offering to God of our meeting the concrete needs of others without wanting anything in return.  These qualities aren’t something we see operating in a person very often, and when we do, we marvel at it.   

We are still talking about Jesus…and Mother Teresa, and, well, who do you remember for being charitable, patient, and generous?  Who does the difficult work of loving?  This week the Billings Gazette told the story of the humble Roundup, Montana farmer who left $38,000,000.00 to our two hospitals.  How many people will benefit from his gift? 

To demonstrate that the Kingdom of God ISN’T far and away but accessible TODAY, Jesus desires to meet the needs of the crowd instead of dismiss them.  Isn’t he amazing?

How does this little story affect us today?  Hunger is everywhere.  It is a real crisis.  “Don’t dismiss the hungry, “Jesus says to us, “and forget about them.  Feed them.”  Do we have the joy, the meekness, the patience—the charity of Spirit?  Are we attentive to the Kingdom of God in our midst?  What place does solitude play in the life of our congregation—and in your life?

Let us pray:  Encourage us, Loving God, to create space for your Holy Spirit to infuse our lives with your precious energies:  charity, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.  Your vitality in us saves our life, the life of our family, and our world.  Your vitality in us makes us amazing, like Jesus.  Amen. 

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church, Billings, on August 3, 2014.)

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