Sermon: Sunday, August 6, 2017: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Matthew 14:13-21

Laura James, Feeding the Five Thousand

“Feeding the Five Thousand” by Laura James

The story of the feeding of the five thousand (which is probably better named, “the feeding of the ten thousand” since “those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children”) carries the distinction of being the only miracle from Jesus’ ministry that is recounted by all four gospels. That feels significant, like coming across a passage highlighted in yellow in a used textbook. Someone before us wanted to be sure to point out that this scene is essential to understanding the meaning of the greater story.

The scene opens by referencing a tragedy that’s just taken place somewhere else: “Now when Jesus heard about the beheading of John the Baptist, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” (Matt. 14:13) John died at a feast, a birthday party for Herod the ruler, who’d wanted to get rid of John but was afraid of how the crowds with whom he was popular would react. But when he made a promise to his wife’s daughter that he would give her whatever she might ask for, and she asked for John’s head on a platter, Herod was forced to choose between his fear of the people and his public image, and he chooses to save face by having John killed.

This is all background information, but it’s important as we try to make sense of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the crowd to understand that feasts were happening all the time — it’s just that they were typically held by the wealthy as a way of demonstrating their power in order to cement their relationships with the class of people just below them in a system of cascading patronage that started much higher than Herod, who was himself a vassal of the Roman Empire.

nero-denarius-60-61-adWealth and food and power were all tied together in ancient Rome. The connection was made explicit in the currency of the time, which featured an image of Emperor Nero on one side of the coin and the goddess of agriculture — Ceres (from whose names we get the word “cereal”) — on the other paired with the words, “the annual harvest of the emperor.” Money was intended to represent the wealth that comes from having access to food, all of which was understood as trickling down from the wealth of the empire.

In reality, empire was (and still is) a violent way of ordering the world. It takes the good gifts of the earth and commodifies them, pretends that the things God provides for all people belong to only a few people who can then leverage our need for them into other forms of wealth and power. The underlying economic violence of this system erupts into moments of public violence, like John’s beheading or the president’s public celebration of police brutality,  that function to keep people in their place.

State Violence

This is what Jesus needs to get away from when he hears of John’s death, and the crowds as well. So they leave the so-called “civilized” places and head to the deserted wilderness, a political blank canvas, a fresh start, and there Jesus demonstrates a different kind of political economy by providing a feast that is the exact opposite of the one Herod had hosted.

The crowd that frightened Herod follows Jesus, and out of compassion for their plight Jesus heals their sick. The Greek word used here to describe the sick (ἄρρωστος) carries the connotation of weakness or feebleness, just the sort of people who lose out in competitions for “survival of the fittest.” Rather than bestowing the gifts of life and health only on those who have something to offer him in return, Jesus models a vision for community where the sick and the weak have access to health and healing on the basis of God’s compassion for all that is living.

But as the day goes on and the needs grow, the disciples worry that this shadow economy of lovingkindness will not be enough to meet the real needs of this massive crowd. “Send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves,” they say. Send them back to that other economy where everything is for sale. These problems are too big for us to address on our own.

Of course, Jesus had recently been preaching about this very dynamic. He’d told them the story of a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree that shelters the birds of the air. He’d reminded them how just a little yeast is enough to leaven an entire loaf of bread. When he asked if they’d understood what he was saying, they replied “yes”; though, now he has to wonder. So, once again, Jesus shows those who would follow him how just a little — five loaves and two fish — can become more than enough, enough for ten thousand with a dozen baskets left over.

Of all the things the scripture wants us to remember, this is the miracle that shows up in all four gospels, highlighted in yellow by whoever owned this book before us: God uses small things to make big changes! God uses an oppressed and colonized people to break the power of Pharaoh. God uses a child conceived by an unwed young woman to call to account the power of Rome. God uses what is weak to shame the mighty. God uses small things to make big changes!

Of all the things I will remember as I begin now to leave St. Luke’s, I will never forget what this community has taught me over and over and over again: God uses small things to make big changes.

Dad's Photos 003 (2)

I don’t have to tell you the whole story of how small we were. Let’s just say we had one person for each of those baskets of leftovers. But God used this small group of people who’d been defined by their deficits to build something powerful: a home for all manner of people like the mustard tree; a loaf that expanded in proportion to the needs and hungers of the people who came to this table.

I want you to be powerful. I want the church to be powerful. Not the kind of power that shows itself off with feasts that reinforce the violent status quo, but power that meets the weak and the feeble — you know, people like us — with love and compassion and offers a glimpse of a world in which the daily bread we’re always praying for is provided for all.

Can you envision what it would look like for St. Luke’s to step more fully into this story? We, who have gathered in deserted places to demand housing for our neighbors, who have launched pantries and dinners to feed our neighbors, who have marched to Springfield to protect our neighbors. What miracle of abundance is God calling out of St. Luke’s in the years to come?

Those are the questions you’ll be considering this fall, after I’m gone. All year long the Council and the Generosity Network has been laying the groundwork for a process of planning for the future that will engage our entire community in asking these sorts of questions:

  • What is the story we are telling about St. Luke’s?
  • What is the story we’d like to be able to tell about St. Luke’s?
  • What is the impact we make as St. Luke’s?
  • How are we being transformed as members of St. Luke’s?
  • How is the world being changed because we gather as St. Luke’s?

Do those questions seem too big for a church our size? Do you worry that we won’t have enough people, enough money, enough time, enough “pastoral leadership” to dream so big?

Haven’t you heard? Haven’t you understood all this? God uses small things to make big changes.

God uses small things to make big changes!

The miracle highlighted in yellow since the story’s beginning is you.


Sermon: Sunday, June 5, 2016: 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 1 Kings 17:17-24  +  Psalm 30  +  Galatians 1:11-24  +  Luke 7:11-17


“Mark Lindsey is outside his mother’s house after a visit. He has chopped off his signature dreadlocks, and a woman has sent him a compliment. He forwards her message to a cousin. It’s working already, he writes.

He is behind the wheel of his red Chevy Monte Carlo, a car he so prizes that neighbors see him wash it again and again. A man approaches on foot and opens fire, and Mr. Lindsey, 25, is hit. The car lurches forward and strikes a parked pickup truck.

His mother hears the gunfire, runs out and yanks on the locked car door. ‘Someone get him out of the car!’ she shouts over and over.

The screams continue for long minutes. They are jarring here. This section of Ashbury, on the city’s Southwest Side, had seemed somewhat removed from the worst of the gun violence.”

“A Weekend in Chicago: Where Gunfire is a Terrifying Norm”

New York Times, Saturday, June 4, 2016

What goes through our minds as we hear these stories over and over again in our city? I’ll tell you what goes through my mind. I think, “Ashbury, Southwest Side, not my neighborhood.” I think, “signature dreadlocks, not like me.” I think, “a man approached on foot and opened fire? What had this kid done to deserve this execution-style hit? Was he in a gang?” I think all of these thoughts in the matter of one or two seconds, without trying to think them, without wanting to think them. As soon as I think them, another part of my brain starts to deconstruct these thoughts, starts scolding me for the prejudices they reveal in me.

What goes through your mind may be very different than mine. You might be remembering something very similar happening not too far from here. You might be listening to the description of Mark Lindsey’s hair thinking, “he sounds like my brother.” You might be remembering close calls with violence on the street, a night you were lucky to have made it to the morning. You might be hearing that mother’s screams, as she tugs at the jammed car door, trying to get to the lifeless body of her child.

It’s gotten so bad in Chicago that the New York Times has assigned a team of reporters to cover homicides in our city for the next year. Think about that for a second. It’s gotten so bad in Chicago that New York is doing a year long piece of investigative journalism about what’s happening in our city; because, you know, when you think of the streets of New York you immediately think about how safe they are. Yet it’s often true that in order to see clearly what is happening around us, we need an outsider to come and observe with fresh eyes what’s going on, to name the thing that’s so obvious we’ve become blind to it.

When Jesus comes upon the scene of a woman, named as a widow, walking alongside the lifeless body of her only son as he is being carried out of the city, Luke’s gospel says, “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her…” (Luke 7:13) Even before we consider what Jesus said to this woman, let’s just stop to notice the three things Jesus does in response to this grieving woman:

  • He saw her — meaning, he allowed her suffering to interrupt his life, and he truly saw what was happening in the world, right in front of him;
  • He had compassion for her — meaning, he did not look for a way to distance himself from her suffering, to explain how her life was radically different from his life, even though it was. Even though as a man, his fortunes would be entirely different if it had been his only child that had died than this widowed woman’s would be; and
  • He spoke to her — meaning, he did more than contemplate her suffering from a distance, he did more than shake his head in pity at the state of the world, he crossed the distance between himself and this woman, and he joined her in the moment of her deepest despair.

Wesleyan celebrated the graduates of the Class of 2016 at its 184th Commencement Ceremony on May 22. (Photo by John Van Vlack)

In his commencement address to the graduating class of 2016 at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut last month, Bryan Stevenson spoke to urgent need for the kind of active compassion we see in Jesus. Stevenson teaches law at New York University and is founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, challenging bias against the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system. Speaking to his hope for the future, and confidence that these young graduates could change the world, he said,

The first thing I believe you have to do is that you have to commit to getting proximate to the places in our nation, in our world, where there’s suffering and abuse and neglect. Many of you have been taught your whole lives that there are parts off the community where the schools don’t work very well; if there are sections of the community where there’s a lot of violence or abuse or despair or neglect, you should stay as far away from those parts of town as possible. Today, I want to urge you to do the opposite. I think you need to get closer to the parts of the communities where you live where there’s suffering and abuse and neglect. I want you to choose to get closer. We have people trying to solve problems from a distance, and their solutions don’t work, because until you get close, you don’t understand the nuances and the details of those problems. And I am persuaded that there is actually power in proximity. When you get close, you understand things you cannot understand from a distance … There is power in proximity.

He then goes on to recount how he himself is the “product of someone’s choice to get proximate.” How it was other people’s decisions to get close to him, to see him as he truly was, as he might become, rather than as a stereotype, that created the space he needed to grow into himself.

How are you the product of someone’s choice to get proximate, to get close to you? How has someone else’s willingness to look past the face you show the world, and to really see you, changed your life?

This is what Jesus shows us about the nature of God. That God, infinite in being and author of all that is, sees you. As small as you are. As invisible as you sometimes feel. God’s eye rests on you, sees you as you truly are, and loves you.

Last week we heard how the Centurion asked Jesus to heal his slave, but sent word that Jesus should not come into his home, because he understood that a religious Jew should not enter the home of a Gentile like him. But in today’s story Jesus goes further than entering the home of an unclean person, he touches the dead body of the grieving woman’s son, breaking the religious laws against coming into contact with the dead. In fact, it’s more than just the body of the dead son that Jesus should have stayed away from, but also anyone who’d come into contact with it, who would’ve been considered unclean for seven days. So, who was it that was very likely carrying this man’s body out of the city but the city’s own poor, who were hired to touch those unclean things that law-abiding folk could pay others to take care of.

These are the people Jesus sees, and has compassion for, and speaks to. These are the people Jesus allows to interrupt his affairs, to take precedence in his life. He steps forward, drawing his disciples with him, pulling them out of their comfort zones, to see and touch and talk to people and places left for dead. And as they do that, life returns.


A night at the Healing Corner in West Humboldt Park

In West Humboldt Park, not too far from here, Arielle Maldonado and Krystal Robledo have begun a project called “The Healing Corner” as their response to a shooting that took place right next to a prayer vigil. “Realizing prayer circles were no longer enough” these two women are organizing the neighborhood to take the streets, reclaiming street corners where violent events have occurred and transforming them into sites of healing and new life with food and music and free hugs for friends and strangers alike. They are trying to make it easier for all of us to stop and see the true faces of our neighbors, to hold that space open long enough for compassion and hope to flow back into our hearts, and to make it easier for us to speak to one another, to listen to one another, to reclaim our common humanity. Describing their intent, these two women write, “through encouragement, guidance, resources, and love, we hope to change lives and create peace in our most troubled inner-city communities.”

If it were only encouragement, guidance and resources, it might sound like so many other attempts to solve problems from a distance. Love, however, will not abide any distance between suffering and healing. Love comes close. Love looks and sees. Love touches and talks to. Love heals and lifts up. You know this is true, because over and over love has done this for you.

Today our Lord is walking toward another funeral bier, another wailing mother, another dead son, another suffering city. Today Jesus is inviting us to stop and look and then to follow.



Sermon: Sunday, December 21, 2014: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Texts:  2 Samuel 7:1-11,16  +  Luke 1:46b-55  +  Romans 16:25-27  +  Luke 1:26-38

Hostages pressed against a window in Sydney, Australia during a standoff between a gunman and police.

Hostages pressed against a window in Sydney, Australia during a standoff between a gunman and police.

A young adult friend of mine told me that she’s spending the month of January in Sydney, Australia with classmates from her college. Normally this would have been unequivocally exciting news for both of us, but I noticed that my first response wasn’t joy. It was anxiety. In the week since we last gathered here for worship we have seen the faces of everyday people pressed up against the glass of a downtown cafe where they were held hostage by a lone gunman with a long history of violence against both intimate partners and strangers.

At least 141 people, including 132 children, have been killed in an attack by Pakistani Taliban fighters (TTP) on a military-run school in Peshawar in Pakistan's northwest.

At least 141 people, including 132 children, have been killed in an attack by Pakistani Taliban fighters (TTP) on a military-run school in Peshawar in Pakistan’s northwest.

No sooner had that crisis come to a brutal ending, than we learned of an attack on a school full of Pakistani children that left 145 people dead. I remember listening to the news coverage of this event while driving home from work in my car, wondering why anyone would target innocent school children. What political motivation could there possibly be for the wholesale slaughter of unarmed civilians? Then I heard the Taliban’s spokesperson say, “we targeted the school because the Army targets our families. We want them to feel our pain.”

That immediately took me back to the terrorist strikes against the United States on September 11, 2001. Our shock at watching the Twin Towers fall, and with them any sense that we are removed from the politics of our nation. We live in a time when terror rains down from the sky and violence is the preferred solution to conflict. No side can claim the moral high ground when it comes to the taking of innocent lives, whatever those are. The line between innocent and implicated has been blurred past the point of recognition. If the message of those we call terrorists says anything, it seems to say that those who benefit from the arrangement of power and wealth enforced by state-sanctioned violence will not be protected from the wrath of those who are trying to rearrange the balance of power by any means necessary.

It is no easy thing to make sense of Mary’s song in times like these. “[The Mighty One] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” Who is she talking about? Who are the powerful? Where are their thrones?

More importantly, where did Mary find the courage to sing her song? What ever would have led a pregnant, unwed young woman to believe that the life being born in her, a life that would be born into oppression and occupation, could change the balance of power in the world?

IMG_0169Do you know who Mary reminds me of? Can you think of a more inspiring young woman than Malala Yousafzai? She wasn’t even a teenager when she began blogging for the BBC on the plight of girls seeking an education in Pakistan. She was only 15 when she was shot three times, once in the head, for her activism. Yet she remained unbroken. She said, “I don’t want to be remembered as the girl who was shot. I want to be remembered as the girl who stood up” and “the terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.”

Malala didn’t come into the world an activist. She was raised and nurtured in a family of politically engaged people. Her family owns a number of schools and her father has been an educational activist. He remembers that from an early age, Malala stayed up late into the night listening to him talk politics and joining in.

Likewise, Mary draws on centuries of Hebrew prophetic rhetoric. Her song, the Magnificat, which we sing this time of year with great relish is a magnification of the song of Hannah, who dedicated her child Samuel to the Lord with these words,

My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; [God] raises up the poor from the dust; [God] lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes in seats of honor. (1 Sam. 2:1,5,7,8)

These young women are exceptional, but they aren’t unique. They are extraordinary, but they are not inaccessible. They are signs of what happens when we allow the spirit of God to be born in us, when we say “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) Or, in Malala’s words, “Some people only ask others to do something. I believe that, why should I wait for someone else? Why don’t I take a step and move forward?”

One more Malala quote before I lose my voice or get lost in a fit of coughing. She has said, “If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.”

This is the true reversal, the real upheaval. If we allow ourselves to get lost in the question of who is the mighty on their throne, we will stay trapped in justifications for violence. Nations will legitimate their use of drones and terrorists their use of suicide bombers. But, if we focus on unseating violence itself then we are truly getting to the heart of the matter. We stop playing musical chairs, replacing one violent power with another, and we begin building the world from the bottom up, from the vantage point of the lowly, through the eyes of the unarmed Black teenager, the Pakistani school girl, the hungry day laborer. We begin building a world where the good things of God — food, shelter, family, love, education, community, justice and peace — are shared among us all.

Mary and Malala, extraordinary prophets of hope flinging their fragile bodies forward into a world weary of war. Surely they are not alone. Surely God is being born in us as well.