Sunday, April 22, 2018

Sermon, "Strengthen Your Core: Service," Matthew 14:13-21


Sermon 4/22/18
Matthew 14:13-21

Strengthen Your Core: Service

            We’re in the midst of our sermon series on strengthening our core, strengthening our spiritual practices that will help us grow in faith, grow as disciples, deepening our faith practices so that we have strong core to rely on as we navigate life. And this week, we’re thinking about how we can strengthen our core practice of service. In our baptismal liturgy we say, “As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our service.” How are you, how will you cultivate your faith and follow Jesus by serving others? What, specifically, will you do to serve God and neighbor? To help us answer these questions, we turn to our gospel lesson. 
There are very few events, particularly outside of the death and resurrection of Jesus, that appear in all four gospels. As similar as Matthew, Mark, and Luke are to each other, still they each have many of their own stories, and each of them exclude some of the stories for one reason or another. So when an event occurs in all four gospels, we should stop and take notice. Clearly, the event must have some particularly strong meaning and message to be so included. One such event is what we call “The Feeding of the 5000.” Of the miracles of Jesus, it is the only one recorded in all four gospels, and in fact, two gospels, Matthew and Mark, include two feeding miracles. There is, of course, some variation in detail, in specifics, but all four gospels carry the same essence. Today, we’re looking in particular at Matthew’s account.
            When the text opens, Jesus has just received some bad news. It’s part of your homework to read the first part of Matthew 14 to see what has happened. But Jesus is reeling. He’s in pain, he’s grieving, and Matthew tells us that Jesus takes a boat by himself to try to just get away. He needs some time alone. But it isn’t to be. The crowds hear that Jesus has taken off by boat, and they decide to find him, going by foot around the lake, so that by the time Jesus comes ashore from the boat, a crowd is already to greet him. I’m not sure how you’d feel in Jesus’ place, but I can imagine how I would feel, being overwhelmed and just wanting some time to myself, only to find a crowd waiting. I’d want to turn around and get back on that boat. I might feel a little cranky, or resentful. I might burst into tears at the thought of having to deal with a whole crowd. But Jesus, Matthew tells us, looks at the crowd and is filled with compassion for them, and begins curing the sick they have brought to see him. Remember, some time ago I shared with you that the Greek word for compassion, splangchnizomai, is my favorite Greek word. It means literally that we’re so moved with concern that our insides are kind of churning with the deepness of our care. And it is in this way, with gut-churning compassion, that Jesus most often looks at the crowds in the Bible, and the way he looks when he comes ashore and sees them waiting for him.
            As the day draws to a close, the disciples come to Jesus and tell him, “Look, this is a deserted place, and it’s late. Send everyone away so that they can go get themselves some food.” I don’t know what you hear in their words, but I hear some disciples who felt like I thought I might upon seeing the unexpected crowd. They’re done. Jesus has done what he can, and now, they think, he should just send them away, so that they can get on with their own plans. He’s done what he can. Let them take care of themselves now.
            Jesus isn’t having that. “They don’t need to go away,” he says bluntly. “You give them something to eat.” The disciples are flummoxed. “We only have five loaves and two fish!” they insist. Again, I hear their unspoken sentiments. We have fives loaves and two fish – and they’re for us. We have five loaves and two fish – what could they possibly do for a crowd of thousands? We have five loaves and two fish, and we just want to enjoy our dinner. Send everyone away. You’ve done enough. Let them take care of themselves.
            But Jesus just says to them, “Five loaves and two fish? Give it all to me.” He takes everything they have, gets everyone to sit down. He takes the food, blesses it, breaks the bread, and gets the disciples to start handing things out. “And all ate and were filled,” we read, and the disciples gather up the leftovers, “twelve baskets full.” Biblical scholars disagree about the nature of the miracle we witness. Some see Jesus multiplying the bread and fish with his supernatural ability. Others see it as a miracle of sharing – once some shared what they had, others were more willing to share what they had too, and suddenly, it was clear that there was really enough after all. I think though, that these disagreements miss the point. There is plenty that is miraculous about the text – many miracles for us to see here.
            Here are some of the miracles I see: First, Jesus’s compassion is a miracle. To be able to turn our pain into care for others is a gift. Two of my favorite books are the Eight Cousins/Rose in Bloom set by Louisa May Alcott. They never gained the popularity of her Little Women series, but they are worth a read if you’re a fan of her writing. In the books Rose is a young woman trying to find her place in the world, trying to live as a thoughtful, ethical young woman, although she has a large fortune at her disposal, and although she is often tempted to spend her days attending parties and spend her money on the latest fashions. At one point in the story, she is feeling distraught and upset. The adults in her life have made some decisions that leave her feeling heartbroken. And in the midst of her anger and sadness, Rose remembers that her great aunt has always told her that when you’re feeling like this, the best way to move beyond your pain is to start serving others. So Rose decides to turn her pain into helping others. Through serving others, Rose is able to gain some perspective, and transform her own feelings into making a positive impact on her community. The pain and sorrow we experience in life is real, and hard. And we can’t always just “snap out of it.” Healing is important. But I believe serving others, loving others, showing compassion to others can be part of that healing. A miracle: we heal better when we love others than when we are thinking only of our own needs.   
            Another miracle: God works with what seems like very little to make something that reaches a crowd of thousands. The disciples didn’t think that they had much to offer, and what they did have, they didn’t seem too keen on sharing. Their strategy was: everyone should just take care of themselves. But in God’s economy, in God’s world, we’re meant to take care of each other. And God can take even what you consider to be hardly worth sharing and make it into abundance. How often have you looked at your gifts, your talents, your assets, your life and thought that you couldn’t make a difference in the world? How often have you thought that hunger was too big a problem for you to confront, that poverty was too overwhelming to change, that the “isms” of the world were too hard to tackle? Jesus wants to feed the crowds, and he says to us, “You give them something to eat.” He believes that we have the capacity, the resources, the ability, when we offer what we have to God for blessing and sharing, to change everything. What are you holding back from God, afraid that you won’t have for yourself if you share, or afraid that it simply isn’t “enough” to be of much good?
David Lose says that one of the miracles of the story is that Jesus is able to use a bunch of people who would really prefer to just take care of themselves, to care for the need of thousands of people. “And that miracle continues,” he writes. “When a college-grad eschews a high-paying job in order to teach disadvantaged kids, God’s miracles continue. When a parent puts dreams of an academic career to the side to care for a special-needs child, God is working that same kind of miracle. When a church makes the wrenchingly difficult decision to celebrate its century of faithful service and close its doors after significant decline in order that another ministry might flourish, miracles abound. When one student stands up against bullies in defense of another student, the God of compassion is again miraculously revealed. When a fledgling community of faith makes a promise that no one that comes to its doors will be turned away hungry, God is still at work performing miracles through disciples eager, reluctant, and everything in between, miracles that easily rival those reported in today’s reading.”[1]
What would we add to Lose’s list of miracles? I would add, when a congregation in a small town decides that they can feed the community, for free, feed anyone really who wants to come and eat, or anyone who wants a meal delivered to them, and that they can continue doing this year after year, and when they decide they can serve hundreds of meals every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, then, God’s miracles continue. I’m not sure that all the folks who have been and who are involved in Friday Lunch imagined how the ministry might grow and unfold through the years. How could they have? But what they didn’t doubt was the they had something to give, something to offer, something to share, and that God could use what they would offer, bless what they offered, grow what they offered. A miracle indeed. What other miracles might unfold, right here in Gouverneur, when we trust God, when we look with compassion like Jesus does, and when we offer up all we have to be used in service? What do you have that God can use, even if you can’t quite imagine how it could amount to much, because you remember that God is a giving God, and has given you so much? What are you willing to share, even if it feels like all you have, even if it means you have to give a little more of what you have than you think you can spare, because you remember God is a God of abundance? How can you look on God’s people with eyes of compassion, not wondering why folks don’t just help themselves, take care of themselves, but instead seeing an opportunity to demonstrate your love and God’s love through serving? How can you work in the world to build your relationship through service, remembering that we can only truly love and serve God when we love and serve one another?
Today, we give thanks for one of many of God’s miracles. We celebrate and give thanks for our Friday Lunch ministry, and think of all who have been reached in God’s name over twenty years, and all who will be reached with God’s love and ours in the years to come. That’s one miracle, a precious one. What miracles does God have in store in your life? What do you have that God can put to use in ways you will hardly believe? I can’t wait to see what God will do among us! Amen.
             



[1] Lose, David, “Pentecost 8A: The Real Miracles,” In the Meantime,


Sunday, April 15, 2018

Sermon, "Strengthen Your Core: Prayers," Nehemiah 1


Sermon 4/15/18
Nehemiah 1

Strengthen Your Core: Prayers


           Some of you know that our RipIt folks in our exercise ministry have been participating in a challenge since January, a challenge that draws to a close in the next few weeks. Folks have been trying to eat in healthy, wholesome ways, and been pushing themselves to be more physically fit, all the while trying to build each other up in teams, encouraging each other, challenging each other. Amber, our fearless leader, and some of our other fitness buffs will tell you that one of the areas of focus in physical fitness is having a strong core. There are lots of exercises that emphasize strengthening your core muscles, because with a strong core, so many other areas of fitness are enhanced, and, reciprocally, you’ll have a harder time having strong arms and legs if you don’t have a strong core of your body to support them. And so Amber is constantly reminding us to focus on our core muscles when we exercise. It’s not easy, of course. But it’s important.  
            When my nephew Sam was a baby, he was a bit late in learning how to walk. There was nothing physically wrong with him. He just was, well, a bit floppy. You would sit him down and he’d just slump right over. He had no muscles to hold himself up. When my brother and sister-in-law took him to the doctor, they figured out that this was probably simply because Sam had never been set down on the ground in his life. Ok, that’s maybe an exaggeration. But Sam, the first child, the first grandchild, the first nephew – we all held him a lot. So baby Sam had to have some physical therapy sessions that focused on strengthening his core. He’d have to sit on a big yoga ball, and my brother would roll him around from side to side, holding him in place on the ball, so that Sam would have to engage all his core muscles to stay on the ball. With that and some other similar exercises, Sam was walking in no time. He needed those core muscles to get himself moving.
            In the same way that we need to develop a strong physical core, we also need a strong spiritual core. We need our souls strong, ready to hold us up through the challenges of life, a core that reminds us who we are and who we are following when we are bombarded with constant “opportunities” to go in different directions than God. And I think that to focus on our spiritual core, to find practices that strengthen our core, we have to turn no farther than the words we say again and again: when we become members of the church, when we celebrate baptisms, and when we renew our own baptismal vows each year. Next month, after spending most of this school year working hard to learn, and explore their faith and the teachings of Jesus, and understand what it means to be United Methodists, our confirmands Ayse and Peyton and Shea and Taylor will become adult members of the congregation. And when they do that, they will, as we all have many times, pledge that they will support the ministries of the church through their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service, and their witness. Prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. And so for the next five weeks, as we lead up to Confirmation Sunday, we’re going to be exploring these themes, these practices together. Because as they are confirmed, again, we have the opportunity to recommit ourselves too, affirming one more time that we will commit to these practices, these core-strengthening spiritual disciplines in order to strengthen our faith and the faith of our congregation as disciples of Jesus.
            Today, our focus in on prayer. We say in our membership covenant, “As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers.” So, how exactly do we do that? How are we doing that? How could we be doing that? Are you strengthening the church and your own faith life through prayer? If you’re not, can you take steps to start? What would that look like? I think about the opportunities we have to support each other, the whole congregation, and our personal spiritual growth through prayer. Each week, there is a place on your bulletin worksheet to write down prayer requests that emerge during worship. I hope you not only write things down here, or make a note on your phone, or whatever works for you, but that you also then actually return to these names, these requests in your prayers throughout the week. We have a fellowship group on facebook, aside from our regular facebook page, that is a place folks share prayer concerns. We have a monthly prayer ministry, on Thursday afternoons. We’ll meet this coming Thursday at 2pm in fact. In that group, we’ve been praying through our church mailing address, inviting folks to share with us what is on their hearts for themselves and their families. I’d love for you to join us in that prayer time if you’re free in the daytime. And of course we have other opportunities – prayer during worship, prayer at meetings and events, prayer in our own devotional life.
            There’s been a lot of push back lately against the phrase “thoughts and prayers,” and I understand why. Sometimes, in the face of tragedy, leaders offer up their “thoughts and prayers” but fail to act, fail to work for changes that could prevent future tragedies, or minimize them. And so I’ve heard people saying, ““We need more. We need more than thoughts and prayers. We need action. We need people working for change. We need strategies and solutions.” As people of faith, I think we need to be attentive to those voices, those calls to action. And I think: Yes, this is just what is in line with the message of the scriptures: prayer paired with action. We pray for God’s guidance, God’s direction, God’s presence, and then, confident that God hears our prayers and equips us as we need to be equipped, we act as God’s agents of change, of compassion, of grace in the world. Pray and act. I think of baby Nolan, Natalie Towne’s grandson for whom we’ve been praying since he was diagnosed at birth with leukemia. We pray – we pray a lot. But we also hold some benefit fundraisers, because we know that God has called us to be a part of the very answer to prayer that we are seeking.
            As we turn to our scripture for today, we see prayer and action together in our reading from Nehemiah. Nehemiah is a book of the Bible you might not be very familiar with. Nehemiah was written in the late 5th century BC, and is a unique book among books of the Hebrew Bible because it is primarily told in the first person point of view. We hear directly from Nehemiah. The events he describes take place after the Israelites had been exiled to Babylon, conquered by the Babylonians, and after the Israelites had finally been allowed to return to Jerusalem. But all is not well, “back to normal,” and Nehemiah returns to oversee the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah is the cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes in Susa, the capitol of Persia. Cup-bearers were positions of high status. Because of the constant fear of plots to harm the ruling king, a person had to be considered highly trustworthy to hold the position of cup-bearer. The cup-bearer had to guard against poison or tampering with the drinks served to the king, sometimes even required to taste-test for the king. But this role also brought the cup-bearer a degree of closeness and confidence with the king. Cup-bearers had influence with the king.
Nehemiah, cup-bearer to Artaxerxes, learns that the wall of Jerusalem had been destroyed. As our text opens, we find him praying to God after receiving the news. He prays that God will give him strength and success as he asks Artaxerxes to let him return to Jerusalem to oversee the rebuilding of the walls. After our text for today, the king agrees, and Nehemiah is appointed governor of Judah. He rebuilds the walls, he wards off enemies, and he rebuilds the community to conform again with the law of Moses, making many reforms, including reforms to combat oppression of the poor, like cancelling past debts and mortgages. He meets with a lot of opposition, especially from the Jewish nobles, but he eventually prevails.
But our focus today is specifically on Nehemiah’s prayer. Before any of the events unfold, right in the first chapter of Nehemiah, we read his prayer, his starting point, before he begins to carry out what he believes is God’s purpose for him. Nehemiah’s prayer is beautiful and flowing, but we shouldn’t be put off by the beauty of his words. The heart of the prayer is always what matters to God, just as a child’s “I’m sorry” or “I love you” is as powerful to a parent as an adult child’s more eloquent communication. Essentially, what Nehemiah says is this: “God, you are always faithful. I’ve screwed up, my family and my people have screwed up, and we see the consequences, the separation we’ve experienced from you because we’ve failed to follow you. But we’re going to try again.  You’re always faithful. So please be with us and help me communicate my plan to my king.” Nehemiah has a sense of what he thinks God is asking him to do. He asks God for strength to get it done, for God to help him convince the king who will have to allow Nehemiah’s journey. He admits that without God, he screws up. And he remembers God’s faithfulness, God’s promises, and places his trust in that faithfulness, those promises. And then, confident because of his relationship with God, Nehemiah gets to work on just what he has offered to God in prayer.
            If you read the newsletter this month, you’ll know that our Council of Stewards and Council on Ministries are reading a book together right now called Simple Church, a book that talks about how important it is for congregations to have simple, clear paths for discipleship. In other words, a congregation should have a way that everyone knows and can share and participate in that makes it clear how you would come to know Jesus and be a disciple of Jesus. Often, authors Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger say, churches don’t send any clear message about how people should go about being disciples. We might talk about being disciples a lot, but we don’t make it clear to people that are trying to be disciples of Jesus just how they might go about doing that. I think we’ve got a lot to learn from this book, and we’re trying to think together deeply about how we are doing, and how we could be doing at helping folks come into a relationship, new or deeper, with Jesus.  As we work through this together, creating an intentional discipleship system in our congregation, we’re going to face challenges and changes, undoubtedly. And so I know that prayer – our constant conversation, our constant communication with God – is going to be an essential part of our journey. I hope that you will pray for our congregation, and be ready to act, so that we can connect more people to a life-changing path as followers of Jesus.
            When we talk about prayer as part of our commitment in this family of faith, we’re committing to praying with a purpose: to strengthen the core of our own personal faith, and to strengthen the core of our congregation. We pray to say: God, help us do your will here, in our own lives, in the life of the church. God, be our strength here. We pray to ask God for help in keeping the core of who we are and what we’re about as a congregation and as disciples of Jesus at the center of everything we do. We pray for courage to follow wherever Jesus leads, and wisdom to help others follow with us.
            Each week, as we consider these core acts of discipleship, these core faith practices, I want you to think about how you will make this vow your own. When you say that you will commit to supporting the ministries of this church with your prayers, what do you mean specifically? “As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers.” Let’s do just that. Amen.


Sunday, April 01, 2018

Sermon for Easter Sunday, Year B, "That's How It Could Have Happened," Mark 16:1-8


Sermon 4/1/18
Mark 16:1-8

That’s How It Could Have Happened


            In 1985, the movie Clue was released. Unlike movies based on books, the movie Clue was strangely based on the popular board game. You’ve probably played the game, where you race other players around the board, trying to solve the murder. You have to make accusations: “I think it was Miss Scarlett with the Rope in the Conservatory.” The movie brought these characters to life in a campy comedy film that did very poorly at the box office. In fact, the film did not earn as much as the movie cost to make. If you went to see the film in theatres and compared notes with your friend who attended a different showing, you might find that you’d seen a different ending. The film has three different ending – three different “solutions” to the mystery – and theatregoers were treated to one of the three endings at random. Like I said, though, the film wasn’t very successful in theatres. Eventually though, when released for home viewing, the movie gained quite a following. I first saw it at home, and it has become one of my favorites – just a clever, goofy movie. And if you rented the movie, you had a different experience of the ending: all three endings were shown, one after the other. So you’d watched the movie through the end, when the mystery was solved, and then, you’d see this screen: That’s How It Could Have Happened…and then But How about This? on the next screen. And then finally, But Here’s What Really Happened as the three endings played one after the other.
            I feel like we need a That’s How It Could Have Happened screen at the end of the gospel of Mark. When it comes to an account of Easter morning in the gospels, the gospel of Mark is startlingly different. The gospel of John is usually the odd gospel of the four, but not when it comes to the account of the resurrection of Jesus. Mark is really unique. If you flip in your Bibles to Mark chapter 16, you’ll see the brief account of the resurrection that we just read. You know, the awful one, where the women go back home and don’t tell anyone what’s happened! But then after that you’ll see notes adding “the shorter ending of Mark” – another verse – and “the longer ending of Mark” – another several paragraphs of text. What’s going on here? How strange is that? It reads like a choose-your-own-adventure. Which ending of Mark would you like? What’s going on with the crazy gospel of Mark?
            If you look at the footnotes that are likely to be in your Bible for Mark 16, the footnotes will tell you that the oldest copies of Mark’s gospel that we have end the way that we heard the gospel today: that short, clipped “and everybody went back home, afraid” ending. But some later manuscripts, copies of Mark’s gospel that appear in the hundred years or two hundred years after that include one of these longer endings. Most biblical scholars agree that they were additions, not written by Mark. The motive is clear? Everyone thought Mark’s ending was awful, awful enough that others tried to fix it by adding their own ending.
            And that’s ok, I guess. Because to be clear, Jesus is still resurrected in the gospel of Mark – God’s messengers at the tomb tell that to the women: “Jesus has been raised – Go, tell his disciples that Jesus is going to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Jesus is resurrected. It’s just that no one seems to know it. The women are too stunned and afraid to really absorb what they’re hearing, and they just go back home. The alternate endings of Mark just fix the part that we, the humans in this story, seem to screw up at first. The other endings fix the failures of Mark’s ending.     
            But what if, this Easter morning, we sit with the failure for a little bit? During Holy Week, we talked a bit here about letting ourselves stay in difficult places, by Jesus’ side, even though they make us anxious, uncomfortable, and we don’t know quite what to say. I think the ending of Mark’s Easter story is another uncomfortable place, but if we can just stay here long enough, I think there’s a purpose for our being here.
            Lutheran pastor Diane Roth writes, "In Mark’s Gospel, failure is a more relevant word than triumph: the failure of the disciples, of the women, our failure, my failure … Among other things, that’s what I come face to face with in Mark’s story of the resurrection. The disciples fail to understand Jesus. The women run away and say nothing to anyone. Jesus rises from the dead but no one sees him. How is it possible that there is even a church around after 2,000 years, with all of this failure? … But lately I’m thinking that failure is the point. That Mark is the gospel of failure, our failure—and that resurrection grows only out of this … The Gospel of Mark is the gospel of failure. It is the theme that runs through the whole book, and it doesn’t resolve during those last eight verses—it’s like a piece of music that ends on a discordant note. I suppose this is why there are so many attempts to resolve it. Make your own ending! Add verses! But the gospel of failure is the gospel of life. It is the gospel of our lives, which, no matter how successful they are, always end in death. It is left to God to resurrect us, to complete the story and resolve the chord. It is left to God to overturn failure and create and re-create the church, despite our failures. It is up to God to raise the dead, including us. The women run away and say nothing to anyone. The disciples miss the point. The church leaders set the wrong priorities. The people are petty and small. And we’re here. Turning to the people, lifting high the cross. Listening once again to the music of failure, the triumph of God."[1]
            We are here! Easter people, even after failure. Resurrection people, even after the terrible ending of the gospel of Mark! And we’re here because even though we forget it over and over, resurrection isn’t something we do. Resurrection is what God does in us. I think we face failure again and again in life because we are trying so hard to resurrected ourselves, to create new life on our own steam, our own strength, our own gumption, and again and again we come up short, we find we can’t quite do it, and we fail. But here is the truly good news of our failure on this Easter morning: It is God who resurrects. We just have to open ourselves to God at work in us. We just get invited to share the amazing new of God’s work with others. And even when we screw that up, God of resurrection keeps on working, telling us that what we thought was the ending really wasn’t after all. Nadia Bolz-Webber says that our whole Christian faith is “really about resurrection. It’s about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small.”[2]
            Whatever grave you think you’re in, friends, whatever ending you think you’ve reached in your life, your story, God promises resurrection to you, new life to you. Even with a start to Easter morning like the one Mark gives us, one that seems like a clear failure, where no one announces the good news, somehow, here we sit  two thousand years later, calling ourselves Easter people, resurrection people, followers of Jesus who believe that God has the power of life over death. Our very presence here is a testament to God’s resurrection power. God is in the business of pulling us out of our graves, pulling us out of death, out of isolation, out of destruction, out of failure, and setting us down in life, in hope, in promise, in love, in joy. The worst thing is never the last thing. We will choose the wrong endings. We will turn away, again, from the God who loves us unconditionally. We will fail. But the God of resurrection shows us a beginning beyond every ending.
            The tomb is empty. The women leave. They flee the site, seized by terror and amazement. They’re afraid. They say nothing to anyone. That’s how it could have happened…
            But … at some point … however long it took them, those women chose faith over fear, responding to the irresistible resurrection that God was working in the world. Look around, friends. Here we are, telling the resurrection story still, living it still, thanks to those very women. God is resurrecting us. God’s beginnings after our stumbling endings. Thanks be to God. Amen.





[1] Diane Roth, “April 1st 2018 Easter Sunday,” The Christian Century,
[2] Bolz-Weber, Nadia, https://www.facebook.com/nanjackwalter/posts/10215463073911520. I’m unsure where this quotation originates.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, Mark 14:22-25, 32-42, John 13:1-17, 31b-35


Sermon 3/29/18
Maundy Thursday
Mark 14:22-25, 32-42, John 13:1-17, 31b-35


            Earlier in Lent we talked about silence, and how difficult silence can be. As I was writing my sermon that week, thinking about God speaking to Elijah from the silence, I was remembering a moving performance I attended while I was in college. Actors Roscoe Lee Browne and Anthony Zerbe shared a performance called “Behind the Broken Words.” They shared poems and readings and conversation with the audience. It was profound and moving. At one point, they spoke about silence, and our discomfort with it, and then, sitting in their arm chairs on the stage, they proceeded to be silent for what seemed like perhaps three or four minutes. Three or four minutes of total silence on a stage felt incredibly long. It was uncomfortable. And an audience member in the front clearly couldn’t take it, loudly shuffling in their seat and unwrapping some crinkly candy. The actors were visibly amused at the patron who just could not handle sitting through that uncomfortable space, that awkward quiet, proving the very point the actors were trying to make. 
            Tonight, as we celebrate Maundy Thursday, we’re immersing ourselves in the story of Jesus’ last time with his disciples before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. And it is a time fraught with tension. Throughout the events that unfold, the disciples remind me of that uncomfortable theatre-goer. They’re awkward. They’re confused. They don’t know what to do or say or how to respond. And yet, Jesus invites them in to these sacred spaces. Jesus invites us in too. That’s why we come here tonight. And we, too, might find the intensity of these experiences with Jesus jarring and uncomfortable. Even still, I believe this is exactly where we are supposed to be. In the Lenten devotional I’ve been reading this season, Walter Brueggemann writes, “A quite remarkable feature of this loss [the death of Jesus] is that Jesus invited his disciples to walk into that loss with him. The Last Supper is an invitation to solidary with him in loss.”[1] Indeed, I think that on Maundy Thursday, we are invited into solidary with Jesus, into sharing with Jesus in three distinct acts: in the foot washing, in the supper, and in the garden. Jesus invites us to join him, to come right alongside him in these actions.
            As much as we want to be by Jesus’ side, though, when the moment of invitation comes, I think we find it to be startlingly difficult. The disciples, who had spent years following Jesus, certainly found it difficult! In John, we read about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, an incredibly intimate and humbling action, one a slave would usually perform. Peter can hardly stand it, and he begins to refuse Jesus. But Jesus insists: “If I don’t wash you, you don’t have a share with me.” In our reading from Mark, we find Jesus sharing the Passover meal with his disciples. Just before our text for tonight, though, Jesus tells them that he will be betrayed. And now all they can focus on is asking, “Surely, you don’t mean me, do you Jesus?” Jesus means Judas. But none of them, it seems, are sure, are positive that they won’t somehow act to betray Jesus. I wonder how much of meaning of the meal Jesus shares with them they can absorb, distracted as they are by questioning their faithfulness as disciples. “This is my body, this is my blood,” Jesus says, sharing bread and cup. No response is recorded.
            And then, after telling Peter that everyone will desert Jesus, and that Peter himself will deny Jesus three times, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to Gethsemane while he spends the night in prayer. You’d think with these tellings of betrayal, denial, and desertion so fresh, these three disciples would be bending over backwards to prove themselves to Jesus. But what we find it much different. Instead, while Jesus is distressed and agitated, even telling the disciples that he is “deeply grieved, even to death,” three times he comes to speak with them only to find them asleep. Finally, it is too late, and the moment of his arrest has arrived.
            On this Maundy Thursday, as we remember, as we share in these sacred rituals, can we stay with Jesus? Can we accept the invitation to join him in his profound grief? Even if a grieving Jesus makes us deeply uncomfortable, can we sit with him anyway?
            When I was in seminary, I took a unit one summer of a program called Clinical Pastoral Education. Basically, I worked as a chaplain at Crouse Hospital for the summer, and along with spending time with patients, the six of us in the program also had classes three times a week to reflect on our growing practice and theology of pastoral care. Our instructor asked us each to choose a scripture passage, over the course of the summer, that spoke to our understanding of what it means to provide pastoral care for someone. And eventually, I chose the second part of the passage from our reading from the gospel of Mark, where Jesus, filled with grief and pain about his fast-approaching death repeatedly asks the disciples to please, stay awake with him for just an hour. Mark tells us that Peter and James and John fall back to sleep again and again, partly because they are tired, sure, but also, Mark narrates, because “they did not know what to say to him.” When I started my chaplaincy program, I was petrified. All day long, every day, I would have to go into the rooms of patients I did not know. I worked on the NICU, where tiny babies were struggling for their very lives, and I felt presumptuous and out of place, showing up and pretending I had any idea what to do or what to say. I certainly didn’t feel equipped to talk about God with these people who were going through some of the hardest moments of their lives. When I started, I would always introduce myself as a chaplaincy intern who was there just for the summer. I couldn’t have made it more clear that I was temporary, not the real chaplain, not really ready to be fully present with them. But eventually, I started to really learn what I already know, what we all already know from being on the other side of things, from being on the side of grief: hurting people aren’t waiting for us to fix their hurts. They’re hoping we will just sit with them, even in the midst of their pain, for just a little bit. They’re not looking for our words. They’re looking for our presence. Even Jesus, even the son of God, even God-in-the-flesh wants just that: us. Our presence. Our lives. Our willingness to stay, to share, to sit side-by-side. “Could you not keep awake one hour?”
            On this Maundy Thursday, this Good Friday, and even in the loneliness of Holy Saturday, these holy sacred days of pain and sorrow before we share in the joy of Easter: we may sometimes find these services a bit uncomfortable. A bit overwhelming. A bit like we want to shift in our seats. Or like we really must unwrap that candy right now. Or like maybe we’ll just rest our eyes because we don’t know what else to say. Here’s the blessing: You don’t need to say anything. Instead, let yourself feel the water of cleansing and renewal pour out on you. Instead, taste the bread and share in the cup. Instead, just come, and sit with Jesus, just for a while. Amen.  

           


[1] Brueggemann, Walter, “Maundy Thursday,” Gift and Task, 126.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Sermon, "Elijah in the Wilderness," 1 Kings 19:1-16


Sermon 3/16/18
1 Kings 19:1-16

Elijah in the Wilderness


            Today, in our last Sunday of Lent before we begin our Holy Week journey, we turn our attention to the prophet Elijah and his time in the wilderness. Elijah is kind of an enigmatic figure in the Bible. We don’t know very much about him. He just sort of starts appearing in the story in the midst of 1 Kings, ready to take on Ahab, King of Israel. Ahab is leading Israel astray. In fact, in Chapter 16 of 1 Kings we read that “Ahab … did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him,” which is saying something, since the books of Kings recount a long line of kings who didn’t follow God. Ahab marries Jezebel, a daughter of a neighboring king and a priestess of Baal. And Ahab, too, begins to serve Baal, the idol-god of area Canaanite religion. He worships Baal and builds an altar for Baal and all of this, we read, kindles God’s anger at Ahab more than God had ever been angry at all the kings before him.
And then, Elijah appears on the scene. Unlike some of the other prophets of the Bible, there is no book of Elijah. We don’t have any of his writings. But it is Elijah to whom Jesus and others refer, along with Moses, to symbolize the law and the prophets. His place in Israel’s history is hugely significant, even though he appears for just these few brief chapters in 1 Kings. Jezebel has been having prophets of God killed. She’s basically seeking to execute any prophets of God who speak against her, Ahab, their god Baal, and the prophets of Baal. So Elijah sets up a confrontation – Elijah verses hundreds of prophets of Baal. Through a series of tests, Elijah shows that Baal is false and his prophets are false while God is ever faithful. The people fall to their knees, worshiping God, and Elijah seizes all the prophets of Baal and has them killed. When Ahab tells Jezebel what happened, she seeks to capture and kill Elijah.
That’s where our scene for today begins. Elijah is afraid, and he’s on the run, fearing for his life. He journeys into the wilderness and sits under a solitary tree. He asks God to let him die. Tired, hungry, dehydrated, he falls asleep. But a messenger of God touches him and wakes him saying, “Get up and eat.” Elijah sees food and water prepared for him. He eats, and sleeps again. The scene is repeated, with the messenger telling Elijah, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He eats and drinks again, and he’s given strength for his forty -day journey to the mount of God. He spends the night in a cave, and God’s voice comes to him, asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” God replies, “Go out and stand on the mountain, for God is about to pass by.” There’s a great wind. But God is not in the wind. Then an earthquake. But God is not in the earthquake. Then a fire. But God is not in the fire. And then the sound of sheer silence. Elijah steps out from the cave, and God asks again, “What are you doing, Elijah?” Elijah repeats his complaint. And God tells him to go and anoint a new king. God tells Elijah that Elijah will anoint his successor, a new prophet, Elisha, to follow in his place, and that there will still be seven thousand Israelites who have not worshipped Baal, but instead remain faithful to God.
If our scripture today reminds you of some of the other texts we’ve been studying this Lent, that’s good – it should! Like Hagar, Elijah is fleeing from danger. Like Hagar, and like Jonah, who we talked about at our midweek Lenten study this week, Elijah ends up sitting under a tree, forlorn, feeling pretty sorry for himself. Like Moses, Elijah has been trying to lead people and be faithful to God and ends up feeling overwhelmed. Like Moses, Elijah heads to a mountain in the wilderness when he is seeking a word from God in the midst of his turmoil. In fact, it is the very same mountain, although we hear it called by different names. Elijah’s Mount Horeb and Moses’ Mount Sinai are one and the same. And for both Moses and Elijah, the mountain in the wilderness is a place where they encounter God, and find strength for the journey. Just as for Moses, the strength Elijah receives comes in the presence of God revealed. For Moses, he got to look on God’s back, to see where God had passed by. For Elijah, God comes in the silence.
            Last week, when we celebrated the life of Lucy Brassard, her family asked that we include a period of silence during the burial. I’d never had anyone ask me for that before, but Lucy’s son Matt explained that having silent time with God was an important part of Lucy’s spiritual life. So as we laid Lucy to rest, we spent some time in silence, taking a break from words, quieting our spirits. I still remember with crisp clarity the power of God-filled silence I experienced one year at Camp Aldersgate. My youth group had gone to Aldersgate for a winter retreat weekend. It was a sunny day, and the whole camp was blanketed in snow. Our youth group, junior and senior high kids, we’d all gone for a walk in the woods behind one of the sections of cabins. My friends were goofing around, but I walked just a little farther, to a small boat launch on Brantingham Lake. The Lake was frozen over, covered in snow like everything else, and the sun was shining on the snow. And the silence was palpable. I felt God’s presence deeply, in the silence. I don’t remember a particular message from God, but I remember being filled with a sense of peace that I carried with me.
            I sometimes long for that peaceful, God-filled silence. Early in my adult life, I developed a kind of tinnitus called pulsatile tinnitus. It’s when you hear a pulsing that seems to match your heartbeat in your ear. It is most noticeable at night, when everything is quiet, and suddenly the pulsing seems very, very loud. When it first started, my doctor had me go through all sorts of tests to rule out possible causes, and everything checked out. My hearing was fine, my blood was flowing fine, my brain was fine! Sometimes that happens with tinnitus. No identifiable cause. The solution was pretty simple: Nighttime is usually the only time that the pulsing bothers me, and so now, for years, I always sleep with a fan on. But I really miss being able to enjoy deep silence. It makes my heart a little sad to need some kind of noise. And it feels like a great big metaphor for our world, our lives, our society. It isn’t always easy to do: just be silent. Silence is powerful, and it can make us uncomfortable.
            It’s like we can’t function without noise. Like we have to have a constant stream of chatter coming at us otherwise we’ll be left alone with our own thoughts, and we just can’t handle that. I wonder if we can hear God in the midst of the noise. People sometimes lament that God is silent, but Elijah’s experience tells us that God is sometimes speaking in the silence. But if we cover up the silence with our own noise, how will we hear? Part of the reason why we need wilderness time, why we have to intentionally take our spirits to risky, vulnerable places is so that we can find a space for God-laden silence.
            Elijah makes his complaint to God twice. He says both before and after God’s revealing in the sheer silence: “I have been very zealous for you God, very passionate in my service to you. The Israelites have all turned away from you, and killed your prophets. And I’m the only prophet left, and they want to kill me too.” And from the silence, God answers Elijah. We hear the first part of God’s response in our reading today, but the sum of it is basically this: God says, “You don’t have it quite right, Elijah. There are in fact still thousands of faithful Israelites, who have never worshiped other Gods. And also, you aren’t the only prophet. There is a prophet named Elisha that you will name as the prophet in your place. And also, I still have work for you to do. Go, and appoint a new king in the place of Ahab.” I really love God’s response, and all the things God manages to say in a few short sentences. God lets Elijah know that in his fear, he’s not seeing things quite clearly. The situation seems completely bleak to Elijah, but God knows that it is not. God also doesn’t let Elijah off the hook. Even though Elijah says he’s done, God says, “Yes, but I’m not done with you.” And God reminds Elijah that he is not alone. I think this is both an encouragement to Elijah and a gentle chastisement. Sometimes when we’re trying so hard to follow God, and we feel discouraged and face setbacks, we become convinced that we are the only ones who are trying to do what is right in God’s eyes. God reminds Elijah, and reminds us, that there are others – both Israelites, and prophets like Elisha, who serve God too. Elijah isn’t alone, and if he can remember that, he won’t feel like he has nowhere left to turn, no hope. Elijah isn’t the only one in the wilderness. Neither are we.
I’ve mentioned before that I took a sabbatical year from pastoral ministry. Pastors are able to take time away from an appointment to a local church periodically for study, renewal, training, and reflection. I was finishing up a particularly challenging appointment to a local church, and I decided to apply for a sabbatical year. The thought of immediately heading to a new congregation to be the pastor, connecting to a new congregation, mustering the energy it would take to start fresh – it was overwhelming. I couldn’t do it. So I applied for a sabbatical year, intending to do some research, and explore the themes of charity and justice that are so important to me. But I will confess: I didn’t think I’d go back to a local church, to being a church pastor, after my year off. I felt like I had been worn down to nothing. I felt like I had nothing left to give as a pastor. I felt for the first time like maybe I was no longer called to ministry, or like the season of my call had ended. I’d had tough times before, but I’d never felt like that: like I was done being a pastor. But that’s how I was feeling when I applied for sabbatical. I don’t want to be overdramatic: everywhere I’ve served I’ve been blessed by wonderful parishioners. But something about this appointment just seemed to drain me emotionally, spiritually, and physically, and I felt done. And I tried, really hard, with a lot of energy and dedication in the year that followed, to figure out a different way to serve God with my life other than being a pastor.
            But the answer I got from God? Nope: You can serve me by being a pastor, just like I said. While I was on sabbatical, I kept serving as a pastor, which seems a little crazy. But I served there quarter time – just enough time to preach and do some pastoral care, really. But enough time to never really stop being a pastor. And in that time, that time when I insisted I didn’t have it in me to be a pastor anymore, God reminded me that I’d never stopped being one, and that my call was still my call, and that God wasn’t done with me yet. God set me in a congregation that I couldn’t help but grow to love, and I found myself as part of a meaningful covenant group of pastors who strengthened and encouraged me. God built up my spirit again during that time when I had a different rhythm of life and ministry, and helped me emerge from the wilderness refreshed and restored. God wasn’t done, I wasn’t done, and God had not left me alone. 
            Elijah says he’s done with being a prophet. Done, in fact, with living in the world altogether if it is a world where he’s going to be hunted down by angry rulers. But God comes to Elijah in the wilderness, not without compassion, but nonetheless, what God basically tells Elijah is: “Nope, you’re not done. But I will give you some bread for the journey, some life, some hope, so that you can make it through. And so Elijah finds himself with a full stomach, with a plan of action, with another prophet in Elisha who will become like a son to him, and with hope for the future.
            When have you felt “done”? Maybe you feel like that right now! Like you can’t possibly continue on from here. Like everything hard that has come your way is just too much. I do believe that sometimes God is leading us in new directions, leading us to new things. But I promise this: God is not done with you, and God is not done with the work, the call, the mission, the journey that God has for you. So, get up and eat! Nourish your spirit, or the journey will be too much. Make sure you are letting God feed your soul. Make sure you aren’t ignoring what God sets before you to strengthen you. From the silence, God is speaking to you. Amen.


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Sung Communion Liturgy for Easter Sunday


Sung Communion Liturgy for Easter Sunday
(Tune: REGENT SQUARE (Suggested: “Easter People, Raise Your Voices,” UMH 304))


At the table, Easter people
Gather now, let voices ring
Lift your hearts to God, Creator
Lift your hearts, and praises bring.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Resurrection people, sing!

In God’s image, we’re created
Called to life from breath and dust.
Yet we turn from God, who loves us,
Building walls and breaking trust
God, forgive us! God forgive us! Holy God, deliver us!

Through the ages, God pursued us,
Calling us through prophets bold
Yet we would not heed the message
Or believe the truth they told
God, Hosanna! We, your people, in your mercy now enfold!

In the right time God sent Jesus
God-made-flesh, God face-to-face
Showing us the ways of justice
Healing, preaching, teaching faith
Sing Hosanna! Sing Hosanna! Jesus, Savior, Gift of Grace!

With disciples he shared supper
Cup of life and living bread
Symbols of his body, broken
Signs of his redeeming love
We remember! We remember! Grace and mercy we are fed. 


Pour on us your Holy Spirit,
We, your people gathered here.
Take these gifts of bread and cup now
Make them be as Christ for us
We, your people, we, your people
with the world Christ’s body share!

Let us live as Easter people
Bound no more by death and fear
We are children of God’s kin-dom
God’s redemption time is here
Now we gather, now we gather, gather for this holy meal!

***

Prayer after Communion:

Blessed, Forgiven, God, we thank you
For this Holy Mystery
Send us forth to love and serve you,
With your eyes the world to see.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Easter people we will be!  


Text: Beth Quick, 2017.


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A Sung Communion Liturgy for Easter Sunday by Rev. Dr. Beth Quick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Book Review: Unafraid by Adam Hamilton

I received an advance copy of Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in the Wilderness in Uncertain Times to review, the latest book by Adam Hamilton, which comes out later this week. Hamilton is pastor of the Church of the Resurrection, the largest United Methodist Church in the United States. This book is published by Penguin Random House. Not positive this is a first, but I think it is, and probably marks an effort to draw a wider audience for his work. 

If you are familiar with Hamilton's other books, you will find Unafraid to have a similar accessible feel. Chapters are short, they contain many personal stories and illustrations, and the book emerges from a sermon series Hamilton preached at his church. It is longer and more in depth than many of his other works, and in terms of style and depth of research, I'd compare it with his earlier Making Sense of the Bible. Paired with his new publisher, Hamilton also makes a clear attempt to reach a wider audience with this work. The book is clearly grounded in his Christian identity, but comments throughout the book are addressed to those who might not start from the same perspective. 

Fear is "False Events Appearing Real," Hamilton quotes from a familiar proverb. (26) Hamilton proposes we respond to fear when we "Face [our] fears with faith, Examine [our] assumptions in light of the facts, Attack [our] anxieties with action, [and] Release [our] care to God." (27) He returns to this acronym throughout the book, sometimes highlighting one particular part of the saying depending on the kind of fear he's addressing. 

Chapters cover subjects like why we fear and why fear is useful, looking at real statistics about crime, terrorism, and illness to help relieve our fears, and how sometimes fear is cultivated in order to hurt and divide. He addresses, chapter by chapter, some of the most common fears. Chapters are devoted to fear of of the other, fear of terrorism, fear of failure, fear of being alone, fear of missing out, fear of a meaningless life, fears related to the future, financial fear, fear of aging, fear of illness, and fear of death. 

Any one of these chapters could be expanded. The book covers a little of everything, which is also one of its challenges. We get as in depth (or not in depth) with fear of the other as we do with fear of missing out, and although the length worked for me on most chapters, I found myself wishing Hamilton dug deeper on what I think are some of the more critical challenges we face as a whole community. Our fear of others can be dangerous, and the ways our fears and privilege intersect needs addressing. What does it mean when people who are in power are also full of fear, and have the power to act on those fears? With mostly equal weight given to all these different themes, it's hard to get into those deep conversations. 

Still, this is easily a resource I could use in my congregation, because I know people are feeling very afraid of so many things they're encountering in our ever-changing world. Hamilton's work is engaging and strikes me as a great conversation starter for communities and groups who want to find a way to talk about something as uncomfortable as what we're afraid of. 

I'll leave you with my favorite sentence: "So many of us live our entire lives paralyzed by fear, just a mile from the Promised Land." (21) Yes. How can you move beyond fear to the places where God is leading? This book provides a solid starting point. 

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent, "Israel in the Wilderness," Exodus 16:1-30


Sermon 3/4/18
Exodus 16:1-30

Israel in the Wilderness


         We’ve talked about how Jesus’ time in the wilderness, where he confronts temptations that would take him away from God’s vision for the redemption of the world, where he goes having just been reminded of his identity as God beloved’s child, Jesus’s time in the wilderness is our model for wilderness time, and a major model for the season of Lent. We seek to go to the wilderness because Jesus does. But the other primary wilderness story in the scriptures is the story of Israel in the wilderness. God’s whole people, the Israelites, spent forty years in the wilderness as they journeyed between Egypt and the Promised Land. Through a strange series of events, the Israelites had become slaves of the Pharaoh in Egypt. They were the workforce in Egypt, and the Pharaoh was cruel to them – demanding more and more work, and eventually instructing that male Israelite babies should be killed at birth, because he was frightened they would take over and rebel against the Egyptians. God called Moses, and his brother Aaron, to lead the Israelites to freedom, to a Promised Land, a place the Israelites could make their home. Moses manages to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, out of a life of slavery and oppression. And you’d think from there it would be: “And they all lived happily ever after.” But no. Again, for a variety of reasons, the Israelites don’t march straight from Egypt to the Promised Land. Instead, they spend 40 years in the wilderness, learning from God, becoming a people, preparing for their new life. This is the other primary story that grounds our Lenten season. In Judaism, the Exodus, Moses leading the people to freedom at God’s direction, is one of the main stories that shapes Jewish identity. This week and next, we’ll spend some time with this story, today looking at a text near the beginning of their journey through the wilderness, and next week hearing more about Moses toward the later part of the journey.
            Some important things happen before we arrive at our text today. Back while they’re still in Egypt, God gives the Israelites instructions on how to leave, and not only that, but while they are still in Egypt, God already gives them instructions for how every year going forward they are to have a Passover celebration to remember how God led them to freedom. Before they even leave, God is helping them to make plans to remember what they’re about to do. That should tell us something: God knows they are going to need to be reminded. They’re going to forget, something that probably seems impossible in the moment when they can almost taste their freedom. They’re going to forget how much they longed to be free. And so before they even leave, God prepares a ritual that will help them remember who they are, where they came from, and how God has been with them.
In fact, they forget almost immediately. The Israelites prepare to cross the Red Sea, escaping Egypt, with the Pharaoh and his armies chasing after them. The threat of being caught is imminent, and the Israelites are in a panic. They’re still mid-escape. They complain bitterly to Moses, saying, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” But then God led the way and Moses brought the people through the parted waters of the Red Sea, and Pharaoh and his armies were defeated, and they were free.
            Fast-forward two chapters to our text for today. The Israelites are now in month 2 of what we know will be a 40 year period in the wilderness. That’s .4% of the total time they will be spending in the wilderness. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt for a long time – hundreds of years, in fact, according to the scriptures. And after just about 45 days of freedom and this new life, after hundreds of years as slaves, the people are complaining again. The people apparently are ready to go back and be slaves, now remembering their life in Egypt as “not so bad” after all. The Israelites complain to Moses and Aaron, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Fleshpots, by the way, are places of luxury and unrestrained living. This is how they now describe their lives as slaves, 45 days later. It would be laughable if it weren’t so very sad.
            As a reader, I can’t help but think, “You have got to be kidding me! You ungrateful, complaining, miserable people! How can you have forgotten that you were slaves? How can you have forgotten that your children were being slaughtered? How can you have forgotten the relentless work that kept increasing and increasing? And how can you not believe that the God who brought you safely from Egypt will also be faithful to the rest of the promises made to you?” Perhaps you, like me, want to give the readers a bit of a good shake.
            But I wonder. I wonder if we are so different than the Israelites. I think, like them, we often think that the misery we know is better than the unknown future. Our fear and anxiety about what is yet to come, or our knowledge about the hard work that waits ahead of us can even cause us to reflect on our past with distorted vision, forgetting about the painful situations that we were trying to escape, forgetting about the injustice and hurt we suffered, remembering only the good moments. This kind of thinking – fear of the unknown future, and trying to forget what we’re escaping in the past – is part of the thinking that keeps people trapped in abusive relationships, or caught up in cycles of addiction. The road of healing, the road of recovery can seem like an endless wilderness, and maybe things weren’t really so bad before.
But thinking this way, acting this way, like we’d rather face the misery than the unknown isn’t limited to more extreme situations. I think about a friend in ministry who’d been serving a church for several years, and things were deteriorating. She loved her congregation, they loved her. But they had reached a point where she couldn’t lead them to the next step as a congregation. And people were starting to resist her leadership, resist her pushing them. She felt strongly it was time for a change – for her, and for them, so they could both thrive. She asked for a new appointment, and received one, a church that seemed like it would be a great fit, a congregation that was seeking just the leadership gifts she could bring. But the new appointment meant a big move for her, and a lot of changes for her family, and suddenly, she was heartbroken that she would be leaving her congregation. Suddenly, she felt like she was being torn away from the place she loved. And she did love her congregation. But I had to remind her that she had known for some time now that a move was right for them and her. I had to remind her that this was what she wanted, and that God was at work in her life and was bringing her to a new part of her ministry. It was a painful time of transition. And I can tell you, when she left her own church and started her new appointment, it was not immediate by any means that she started to feel like God had brought her to the right place, that she wasn’t looking back over her shoulder at the congregation and community she’d left. It was a lot of hard work, the transition. But eventually, eventually, she put down roots in her new home, and grew in her new ministry setting, and found a place where she could envision her life as a disciple unfolding for a long time to come.
            This week I was texting with Danielle Atria. I’m pretty sure the praise will embarrass her, but I have to tell you that Danielle takes her faith seriously, and she reads the Bible regularly, and often texts with questions about what she’s reading. I love her dedication to learning and growing in faith. After a chat this week, she sent me a little saying from an app she has that has inspiring quotes which said, “You dishonor your future when you build an altar to your past.” We often don’t know where God is leading us when we commit to being disciples of Jesus Christ. But our future with God is always better than an altar that ties us to anything else: painful pasts, or beloved pasts. What past are you trying to hold onto? What is it that you fear about the future toward which God is leading you?  
            God answers even the unwarranted complaints of the Israelites. God rains bread from heaven, a substance the Israelites call “manna,” which means, appropriately, “What is it?” What it is is a gift from God in the wilderness, reminding them that even though they’re not sure what is going to happen next, their journey with God is where they belong, not back as slaves in Egypt. The people immediately try to store it up, still anxious, still planning for a future where they are alone and abandoned, but it won’t keep. It spoils if they try to store it up. It’s just for the day. The must learn to depend on God, and the daily manna is a sign that God plans to be with them today and every day. They can trust in God. And so can we.
            A dozen years ago, retired Bishop Judy Craig was our guest preacher at Annual Conference. It was the year I was ordained – a special year for me. She is a dynamic preacher, a prophet, and I was blessed that she, along with our Bishop Violet Fisher laid hands on me at my ordination. Bishop Craig preached on this text that year. She said “God who led them also fed them.” But, she said, being fed by God is something we need daily. Being fed by God isn’t something that “keeps.” Being fed by God isn’t something you can put into canning jars and store up for later. “What we need today is not for tomorrow,” she said. That’s one of the reasons we’ve focused so much on the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and giving this Lent. They’re practices for each day, opportunities for God to be our daily bread. In the midst of this unmapped wilderness, this place where God is leading us, where so much is unknown, and where our fear can lead us to long for the past, or to store up whatever we have in front of us, this is known: God is with us in the wilderness. Our future belongs to God. And God will feed our spirit day by day if we keep coming back, ready to receive what God wants to give. The God who leads us also feeds us. Thanks be to God. Amen.