Hungry

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

2 Kings 4:42-44

Ephesians 3:14-21

John 6:1-21

Last Sunday was the last day of the ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit. After a long, but exciting week of meeting new people, eating Coney Island hotdogs, doing photo scavenger hunts, cleaning and clearing alleyways, listening to inspirational speakers, and hearing incredible music, we gathered for worship. We gathered to sing songs of praise, to hear a proclaimed Word from our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, and to share the Lord’s Supper together. That last part was perhaps the most impressive to me. We had 30,000 people to commune that day. I and some of the other adults wondered how they were going to do it and how long it would take to commune everyone in Ford Field. Serving bread and wine to 30,000 adults and teens one person at a time seems like a monumental task and a logistical nightmare. I wondered how they could possibly have enough bread, wine, or grape juice for everyone. I wondered what would happen if one of the Communion assistants dropped their loaf of bread or spilled their wine (which the Communion assistant seated behind us did do). I wondered who was distributing gluten-free bread for those who needed it. I wondered how they were going to serve people who couldn’t get up from their seats easily. Even with all of these many things that could go wrong, surprisingly, it went very smoothly. The Gathering organizers had a great number of people distributing the elements and they had smoothly run stations where folks could refill on bread and wine. Somehow they made it work.

I remember coming to St. Bart for the 100th anniversary and working hard with some of you trying to figure out how to commune 85 people in our sanctuary. 30,000 is a whole other beast. Pulling off that task from a logistical standpoint is nearly miraculous. I am sure that others also had their doubts about how everyone would be fed at this massive event. That question about whether or not everyone will be fed is at the heart of our Gospel reading today.

At the Gathering we heard from many powerful speakers addressing the great needs of the world and witnessing to what God is doing in the midst of it. Mikka McCracken, the program director of ELCA World Hunger, shared how over 1 billion people in the world are still hungry. Alexia Salvatierra, executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, told us of the terrifying rule of gang and mob violence in much of Latin America and the broken immigration system of the United States that throws children back into that horrifying world. Steve Jerbi, a Milwaukee pastor, recounted how a young, black boy in his congregation was shot dead by a white man whose hatred was fueled by racism. Rozella White, the ELCA’s program director for Young Adult Ministry shared her own struggle with mental illness and the struggles with suicidal thoughts that plague many of our young people. Marian Edelman Wright, the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, reminded us that in the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, we have 14.9 million children living in poverty.

With such great need in the world we might feel like there can’t possibly be enough to go around. There are huge crowds of people who are desperately hungry for something. They are hungry for education. They are hungry for acceptance and respect. They are hungry for justice. They are hungry for food. They are hungry for proper health care. They are hungry for peace. They are hungry for God.

You may be in a place in your life when you have so very little. You may have little food or money. You may have little friends and family to support you. You may have little health. You may have little strength. You may have little hope. The great crowd that followed Jesus kept following him because they “saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.” They had little and they were desperate for help. They were hungry for it. They saw the way Jesus healed those who were sick and dying; they looked at their own ills of body, mind, and spirit, and were hungry for that same healing. Jesus saw the great crowds coming to him- so many people coming to Jesus because they are hungry for something. Continue reading

A Good News Death

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Amos 7:7-15

Ephesians 1:3-14

Mark 6:14-29

[Note: the last paragraph didn’t make it into the audio. Sorry!]

The drama! The excitement! The intrigue! The decadence and depravity! The gratuitous violence! The story of Herod, Herodias, Salome (the daughter of Herod), John the Baptist and the tangled webs they weave! This is drama at its finest! Even today there aren’t many TV shows or movies that carry so much compelling conflict.

Herod holds an uneasy kingdom together, or at least he is trying. He’s not even technically a king, just sort of a placeholder until Rome decides on someone better. No doubt, Herod had a monumental task of keeping the people’s respect and compliance to his will. His personal life complicates his political life even more. Herodias left her husband (or was coerced into leaving him) who was king of another country to marrying his brother, Herod. They have a daughter together, Salome. An eccentric and homeless preacher, John the Baptist, has begun to preach against this very act. He proclaimed that Herod taking Herodias as his own wife while his brother was still alive was a bad move, it was against God’s will, and it was going to get a lot of people hurt. Fast-forward some years and we see that John was right and the two brothers go to war where no doubt, many lives were lost because of the family drama instigated by these conflicting romances.

For all of the political and romantic drama in this story, John the Baptist seems pretty insignificant. It looks like he hasn’t changed anything. It looks like he failed. John has said his piece and nothing really changed. Herod remained married to Herodias, her first husband/Herod’s brother is still angry, Salome is a teenager caught in the middle of the feud, and they all continue to celebrate and party without a care in the world. John preaches what is right, continuing on the prophetic tradition as Jesus does as well. He calls the people to repentance- to try to see the world as God sees it- not as a playground where the bullies continue to trample the weak- but as God’s kingdom where justice is present, all are fed, all are forgiven, and all are worthy of grace. John the Baptist personalized this message for Herod to show him that God has peace and justice in mind for this kingdom, and not selfishness and needless bloodshed. And for that, John the Baptist was thrown in prison. Continue reading

For All the Stubborn, Rebellious, Weak, and Stammerers: God Never Gives Up on You

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Ezekiel 2:1-5

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Mark 6:1-13

God doesn’t give up on us- ever. No matter how hard-headed or weak we might be, God does not give up on us. Salvation history, recorded all throughout Genesis through Revelation and through practically every experience of God, we see that God comes to stubborn and weak people over and over again. No matter how hopeless they might be, no matter how sinful they might be, no matter how self-absorbed they might be, no matter how weak they might be- God brings the Good News of restoration, healing, and salvation to them.

We could spend all day talking about examples that we find in the Bible and in our day-to-day life, but we can focus on just a couple from our readings.

First, there is Ezekiel. He is a priest of God during the Exile of Israel. Israel had just lost a war with the much bigger nation, Babylon, and most of the survivors were carried away to Babylon (away from their home) to live as little more than slaves. The people are without hope. Some believe that being separated from the land God gave them means that they are separated from God’s own self. Others believe that even if God could still be their God in this enemy’s land, God wouldn’t want to. Many people believed that losing the war was a sign that God had rejected them as God’s own people. So when Ezekiel gets a message from God, that itself is a sign that God has not given up on him or his people. When Ezekiel hears the first syllable of the first word God speaks, that would have been enough. With the sound of God’s voice, he and we can know that God is not lost to us, even in the most hopeless of situations- even when we are convinced that God is angry with us beyond measure and even when we think that the enemies that surround us have destroyed all hope of joy and peace. Even then, God’s voice breaks through our hard hearts.

Then, God gives Ezekiel a message. The message sounds scary and condemning. God commands Ezekiel to speak to his fellow exiled people and God characterizes the people as “a nation of rebels… [who have] transgressed against [God]…” and who are “impudent and stubborn.” At first glance it sounds like God has written them off. But God still sends Ezekiel to proclaim this message of repentance. If God really thought they were beyond hope in that they were too stubborn and rebellious to ever listen to God again, God wouldn’t have wasted God’s time. God would have found a new chosen people. God sees the reality of the stubbornness and rebelliousness of the people, but God still won’t give up on them. God still sends a message of repentance so that they might not live in sin, shame, and hopelessness- that they might look up from their selves and see God again.

Second, we have Paul. God didn’t give up on Paul even though he was one of the first persecutors of the church. Paul (then known as Saul) stood by and watched approvingly as the first Christian martyr, Stephen, was stoned to death. Even so, God chose Saul, gave him the new name Paul, and gave him the task of sharing the Good News of Jesus throughout the known world. Paul himself recognizes his own limitations. He mentions a “thorn” in his side. There has been much speculation as to what this “thorn” actually is: some say it was his opponents who spoke against his message about Jesus, some say it was a physical challenge such as bad eyesight or chronic pain, some say it was a temptation to fall into sin. Whatever it was, Paul didn’t like it and he wanted it to go away. When he prayed for it to be removed, God’s response was simply, “My grace is sufficient.” Even with this thorn constantly piercing Paul’s side, God has promised to support Paul and help him carry God’s message about Jesus to the ends of the earth.

Finally, there is Jesus. In our Gospel reading, Jesus comes back to his hometown and is thoroughly shocked when the people can’t see him as the Messiah or even as a prophet after they witness him teaching and hearing about his miraculous works. They can only see him as a carpenter and the illegitimate child of Mary. Then we get a paradoxical statement, “[Jesus] could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Even after Jesus is thoroughly rejected, Jesus still cures the unbelieving people of their illnesses. Even after blatant rejection, he does not reject them, but instead continues to reach out to them and embrace them in love.

The King’s Speech, the Academy Award winning historical drama, tells the story of King George VI who had suffered from a stammering speech problem for most of his life. As a member of the royal family he has to make public speeches very often. He is charged with the daunting task of inspiring courage and hope in his people through his words and constant stuttering does not instill confidence in the face of great trials. King George VI or “Bertie” is weighed down by the responsibility of this great challenge further as he assumes the throne on the eve of World War II. Before he is crowned king, Bertie, reluctantly sees a speech therapist at the urging of his wife. Lionel Logue, the therapist, is unconventional in his methods, but he never gives up on his patient who also becomes his friend. They do all sorts of stretches, speaking exercises done with his wife sitting on his diaphragm, speaking slowly, speaking quickly, practicing tongue twisters. They do this day after day after day. Then, on the day of his coronation, Bertie loses his nerve and loses hope. War looms on the horizon and his old doubts about his ability to speak rise to the surface again when he finds out that his teacher and friend, Lionel Logue, lied about his teaching credentials. He laments that he will be forever known as “George the stammerer” “who let his people down in their hour of need.” In the middle of his self-deprecating speech (which he stammers though), Bertie turns around to find Lionel lounging on the royal throne and he grows very angry very quickly.

Lionel brought out Bertie’s passion for leading. In his anger and passion, Bertie defended his ability to lead and said so without stammering.

Lionel never gave up on his friend Bertie. When Bertie was crushed by the fear of looming war, when he was terrified by the responsibilities he bore, when he was embarrassed at his utter weakness and his seeming inability to speak a word of hope to his people, Lionel never gave up on him.

God never gives up on us either. No matter what our weaknesses are, no matter how much fear we carry, no matter what we’ve done wrong or failed to do right in the past, no matter how stubborn or rebellious we are, no matter how much we stammer through the great challenges we face each day- God will never give up on us.