Prize: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on January 23, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is Luke 4:14-21, where Jesus speaks to the community at Nazareth.

I don’t know if they’re still on, but when I was a kid watching television, I would always see those commercials for Publishers Clearing House…you know, the ones where it would show people answering the doorbell and being greeted by an entourage carrying one of those huge checks for a huge amount of money. They showed the people crying and jumping up and down with joy, all of their problems having been seemingly solved by this incredible prize appearing out of nowhere.

Now, we didn’t live in poverty when I was young, but there were lean times for a whole host of reasons, and I came largely from a working class family, so the idea of never having to worry about money, to not have to live paycheck-to-paycheck, was a tantalizing idea that seemed reserved for other families. So I would daydream a bit about what it would feel like if one of those prize committees showed up at our front door—what it would be like to see that check with OUR name on it, to suddenly live without that pervasive, gnawing fear that there won’t be enough. 

And one day, when I was probably 12 or so, we actually got one of those envelopes in the mail from Publishers Clearing House—we had been “selected” to enter to win a prize. Now of course this was no more likely than winning the lottery, but I wanted it so badly to be true—I wanted to believe that we had a chance. So we filled out the entry form and I put it in the mailbox and we waited…and waited….and waited.

I’m still waiting, by the way. I have to believe that because I’ve moved so many times they’ve just not found my current address, and that surely that prize check will find me one of these days.

I tell you about all of this because I wonder if it was a little like that for the people in Nazareth in today’s gospel passage. Struggling to get by under Roman occupation, struggling to get by as a people for as long as they can remember, really. And they’d submitted their supplications to God over the centuries, they’d cried out for some help, and they were waiting, waiting, waiting for that prize to finally show up—the One who would make it possible to live confidently, the One who would fix things, the One who would make the waiting worth it. 

And then, here is Jesus, one of their own, and he tells them something wonderful: he quotes from the prophet Isaiah, speaking of good news and abundant healing and the year of the Lord’s favor—the jackpot, really, the big prize check from God saying “it’s all going to be all right now,” and then Jesus says: today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Well, Hallelujah! Break out the balloons! It’s as though Jesus has come to the door, and he’s heaven’s prize committee, and he’s got the solution—in fact, he IS the solution.  I bet a few people in that synagogue, shocked as they were, wanted to cry and jump for joy. 

Have you ever wanted something so badly that you can almost see it, almost feel what it would be like to have it? Have you ever wanted something so badly that it haunts you? I imagine that is what it was like for those people in the synagogue at Nazareth, and here, for one brief moment, they begin to hope that their time has come. That happy days are here again.

But you and I know that’s not exactly how the story ends. It’s a little more complicated than that. Because Jesus goes on to tell them, essentially, that God’s favor, God’s imminent redemption, God’s big victory prize, is not at all what they expected. In fact, it’s not even necessarily for them. He reminds them that when God responded to famine and disease in the past, God sometimes bypassed Israel entirely and bestowed gifts on other nations. 

That would sting. It’d be like opening the door to that prize committee and realizing after a few minutes that they got the wrong address—the check is actually for that neighbor down the street that you can’t stand. So close, yet so far.

So I feel for the people of Nazareth a little bit, even if they do try to throw Jesus off of a cliff. They didn’t really understand yet. They were waiting desperately for a prize, but instead they got a gift—a Savior, entirely unlike the one they expected—the Savior, of all people, everywhere. A gift so big, so incomprehensible, that it didn’t even register as valuable to them right away, or maybe ever.  And so we see them there in the narrative of the Gospel, forever locked in that moment at the edge of the cliff, still waiting, waiting, waiting for the prize they expected, not recognizing the gift that showed up. 

We are liable to do the same thing. It is so easy to look back and measure our lives by whether we got what we wanted–what we expected should be ours. The problem with that, of course, is that we never get everything we want, and even when we do, it’s usually not quite what we’d imagined. So we, too, might find ourselves waiting at the edge of that cliff for our whole lives, shaking our fist at heaven, cursing our dashed hopes. 

Or…we can turn around, and look what what is right in front of us: Jesus. And one another. The true gift. Better than any prize we could win. He has already arrived at our doorstep, sometimes dramatically, sometimes quietly, but he is coming, he is there, I promise he hasn’t lost your address.

And while he’s not carrying a big check, he is offering himself to you—all that he is, all that he has, all that he signifies. The question is, will we accept him, will we recognize that he is what we have been waiting for, or will we spend the rest of our days waiting for something that we imagine to be better?

I assure you, that thing is not coming. 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Today–and every day– that you encounter Jesus, and every day that you love one another in the name of Jesus, this Scripture, this longing, this promise, has been fulfilled in your hearing. It won’t take away all our worries, but it will show us what actually matters. It will guide us—all of us—into that peace which passes all understanding—a peace that no amount of money can buy.

You’re here. You’re loved beyond measure. You’re free. 

So congratulations. You’ve won. 

Always Enough: A Sermon

This sermon was preached on Sunday, August 2nd at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 14:13-21.

Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matt. 14:13-21)

Five loaves. Two fish.

Not the most promsing basket of ingredients to feed thousands of hungry people in the wilderness. It’s like one of those cooking compeititon shows on TV, where the contestants stare in dismay at a pile of random food items that must be fashioned into something impressive. “You have 30 minutes to create a banquet out of: Day old bread. Dried tilapia. Assorted leaves and twigs. And, go!”

But, for better or worse, that’s all the disciples seem to have on hand, and somehow, according to their always-mystifying leader, it is a sufficient place to start.

As I was reading the gospel passage this week, however, what struck me was not the mystery of how Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes, but the gratuitousness of the miracle itself. 

If we read the passage closely, looking past the “how,” we encounter an equally puzzling “why.” It is, on purely practical terms, not necessary for Jesus to do what he does. Yes, he is surrounded by a crowd of followers who likely need something to eat, but note that the disciples have already offered a pragmatic solution to this dilemma:

“Send the crowds away,” they say, “so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

We need not assume that the disciples are being callous or dismissive here; they are quite sincere in offering this suggestion to Jesus, expressing their concern that the hour is late; they want these vulnerable people to reach safety and find nourishment before the long, hungry night engulfs them all. Their plan to return to the nearby villages is eminently reasonable and thoughtful. 

And we might think Jesus would have readily agreed to the crowd’s departure after a long day of performing miraculous healings. Remember, it’s not like he lured them, like the Pied Piper, out into the desert against their will. He was, in fact, seeking a bit of peace and quiet, and they chased him down, sort of like those old videos from the 60’s of hysterical teenagers chasing the Beatles through the streets of London. So presumably these mega-fans of Jesus are at least somewhat prepared to survive the journey they’ve chosen to undertake, with their own food or a plan to scrounge some up on the way home. 

And yet, Jesus will not hear of sending them away. “They need not go…you give them something to eat,” he replies, and we can almost hear the gentle challenge to the disciples in his voice. 

Yes, the crowds got themselves into this situation. And yes, they might have found food elsewhere. 

But Are YOU not willing, he seems to ask,  are YOU not willing to take responsibility in this moment? Are YOU not willing to be the one who does this necessary thing? Would you so easily relinquish this opportunity to care for, to serve, to give?

Give me your five loaves, and your two fish, he says, give me your hesitancy, give me your fear of never having enough to offer, and I will show you what God can do with even the smallest of gifts. 

We should not forget that Jesus has spent the day performing healing miracles, and now he has one more healing left to offer with this feast that nobody asked for, this shocking abundance yielded out of almost nothing—the healing of the disciples’ interior vision.

This miracle is the antitdote to their crippling fear of failure; it is about opening their minds, teaching them to work with what they have, teaching them that in the economy of God, what they have been given and who they are will always be enough. It is a miracle, first and foremost, intended to satiate the hunger of a soul that doubts the world’s own sufficiency, to fill the gnawing emptiness of a heart convinced that scarcity, rather than plenteous goodness, is the law of creation.

Jesus’ prodigious feast is a miracle we need more than ever, because we live, today, in a world that continues to be haunted by scarcity. 

Whereas once, limited by geography and tecnology, people had to subsist on what they could cultivate from their immediate surroundings, this is no longer our inescapable inhertiance as the human race. We have the capacity, as a global community, to feed, to heal, to educate, and to protect the vulnerable in ways that were unimaginable even just a century or two ago. We are so very interconnected now, and, as this pandemic continues to illustrate, we will either thrive or die as one. 

And yet we tend not see it that way, at least not with any consistently. Despite our global capacity, there remain regions of the world where people still subsist on less than the bare minimum; and there remain people in our own communities who go to bed hungry at night, who struggle to keep the lights on, who fear what tomorrow will bring, not because there is a universal famine, but because they have fallen through the cracks of a system that permits, even relies upon, the continued existence of uneven prosperity.

And we, ourselves, even in this abundant land, are conditioned in ways both subtle and overt to believe that we never quite have enough, and more fundamentally, that we ourselves will never quite be enough. Insufficiency becomes the lens through which we see our lives and the rest of the world, as if everything is a commodity that is running out—our money, our time, our youth, our love. Our five small loaves. Our two dried fish. 

Scarcity tells us that these things are pathetic, insignificant, unworthy, but also that we should hold onto them, for fear that it’s all we’ll ever have. 

But today we see how all of that is a lie. We are reminded in this gospel passage that God, again and again, takes the insignificant and makes it magnificent. Jesus shows us that scarcity, both in our hearts and in our common life, only persists when we believe that what we have been given is not enough, and that what we have to share with the world will never make a difference. It is. It will.

This is why he insists that the disciples offer up their meager provisions for the feast, and then multiplies them—to demonstrate that God can do anything, everything, with whatever small thing we are brave enough, hopeful enough, to give away for the good of others.

And so, as the disciples of this moment, Jesus’ perplexing instructions remain the same. The hour is late, and the people are hungry—for bread, for hope. You and I must give them something. What do we have to offer?

Perhaps more so than anytime in recent memory, we cannot send our problems along to the next village, hoping they’ll get resolved by someone else before darkness falls. So whatever we have on hand now, what we have within ourselves now—it’s going to have to suffice.

And today’s Good News is that it will suffice. As imperfect as it might be. As limited as each of us is. Look down at your hands, see what they are holding onto. Look into your heart, see what precious gifts you’ve stored away for fear that they are laughable or unworthy. It is time to bring them out. It is time to give them away. 

It is OUR five loaves, OUR two fish that God needs. And when we stop believing that they aren’t enough, that we aren’t enough, then suddenly, miraculously, we will be. 

The Lotus and the Cross

This sermon was preached today, February 17, 2018, at Christ Church Alameda. The lectionary text cited is Luke 6:17-26.

Some of you know that I recently spent two weeks on a study visit to Hong Kong, living at the seminary there and learning about the Anglican church in that part of the world. It was an incredible trip that I’d love to tell you about, but given the story Stephen shared in his sermon last week about his family trekking in the Andes, I don’t want this to inadvertently turn into a sermon series on “what the clergy did during our winter vacations.”

So for now I will just tell you this: the day before I left Hong Kong to come back home, I was looking around the gift shop of the Anglican cathedral for some little souvenir to remind me of my trip. And jammed amid the usual books and postcards I found this: a small wooden carving of a cross, rising up out of a lotus flower.

I thought this was so cool! The lotus is a significant flower in Chinese culture–it shows up in paintings and flags and architecture–so maybe this is a symbol of how the gospel has shown up and taken root in China.

And that’s probably true, but…today’s Gospel reading has cast this little carving in a new light for me, and I want to share with you how so.

In Luke, we encounter Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Plain. He comes down from the mountain and stands on a level place and teaches his disciples. This version in Luke is typically overshadowed by the very similar Sermon on the Mount described in the Gospel of Matthew.

But if we look closely at the words of these two Sermons, they are not the same.

In Matthew, Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit…” but here in Luke, Jesus says “blessed are you who are poor.” Just poor. No spiritualization of the concept. The Greek word used, ptochos, more literally means “destitute”—those at the bottom rung of society.

And whereas in Matthew Jesus says blessed are those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” here he simply says, “blessed are you who are hungry now.” “Blessed are you who weep now.” Those for whom oppression, hunger, and sorrow are immediate, physical realities–these are the people Whom God blesses.

Scholars disagree, of course, on the reason for this discrepancy between the two gospels. Perhaps they were indeed two separate sermons with similar themes. Or perhaps they are different editorial approaches to a well-known collection of Jesus’ teachings. I tend to agree, however, with those who conclude that the Lukan version, the one we heard today, is closer to Jesus’ actual words—because the message is simpler, more prophetic, and thus, frankly, more challenging to the social norms of his time—and ours.

Because to say that the “poor in spirit” are blessed is far more vague and comforting; that phrase is so easily interpreted to suit our own needs. To be “poor in spirit” has been taught at various times in the church’s history to mean a state of dependence on God, or an interior vulnerability of the heart, or detachment from worldly concerns. And those are all meaningful, even valuable pursuits in our personal discipleship.

But to say that it is the poor—the materially poor, the economically and socially poor, the invisible, oppressed, and, as some might think but never say aloud, the “problematic” and “burdensome” poor—to say that it is they, and they alone, who will inhabit God’s kingdom? That is confusing and not altogether good news for anyone who operates on the assumption that the cream rises to the top of society. And it’s fearful news for those among us, in Jesus’ time and now, who enjoy wealth and privilege and know (or suspect) that our abundance comes at the expense of others’ well-being. Because Jesus is saying that to the extent we are those people, the ones who have obtained the good life, the ones who are pursuing comfort while others struggle to live, God is not interested in our cause. In fact, God altogether rejects that cause.

This is hard stuff to face. I know it certainly is for me, as I think about all the ways I have benefitted and continue to benefit from a society that marginalizes and ignores the desperate needs of so many. As I ponder this, I am drawn back to this cross rising out of the lotus.

You see, the lotus is imbued with significance in several faith traditions, especially those in Asia, like Buddhism and Hinduism, where the plant is a native species. The lotus is an aquatic plant, and it has a root system that grows out of muddy, swampy water. At dawn each day, the flowering part of the lotus rises up from the dirty water and blooms, the most spotlessly pure white or soft pink, and at nightfall it closes and disappears again into the swamp. And that blossoming out of the mud is often associated in those faith traditions with wisdom, purity, regeneration, and divine beauty.

But for our purposes, looking at my little carving, to see the Cross of Christ rising out of the lotus petals is a reminder of the very lesson we might want to resist in today’s Gospel:

God’s blessing, God’s tender concern, is found in those places we would rather not tread. In the muddy, messy places. The undesirable places. The places where beauty is least expected. Among the poor and hungry, and sorrowful. That is where the Kingdom of God takes root and blooms and is revealed to the world.

And, this is the difficult part of the message: it is ONLY in those places that the Kingdom is revealed to the world.

The Kingdom of God is not found ensconced in communities of privilege. The kingdom of God is not found where people hoard wealth, eat more than their fill, and laugh while the world cries out in pain.

You know how they used to announce at the end of his concerts, “Elvis has left the building”? Well, wherever privilege is enthroned, God has left the building. God is nowhere to be found in the opulent palaces of this world, because God’s kingdom inhabits that other space, the muddy swamp, where the lotus and the Cross rise up declaring hope and blessing for all who are plunged in its depths.

And this is important: God’s kingdom shows up there, among the miserable, not because God delights in misery, or because poverty is noble, but because the oppressive systems of self-interest and indifference that produce misery are themselves the antithesis of God.  And to the extent that your or I inhabit those systems, the blessing of God is far from us. So we have work to do, to break those systems, to break free from them.

Easier said than done, perhaps, but we take steps every day. I have been heartened and inspired since coming back from my travels to learn how wholeheartedly Christ Church has embraced the warming shelter ministry for our unhoused neighbors in Alameda. I feel, as many of you do, that this program is such a perfect example of the church being and doing what we claim to be about: hospitality, openness, and deep care for others. But with today’s hard lessons from Luke, we are given an important caveat as we embark on that work together in the coming months:

The warming shelter, or any other outreach ministry of the church, should not be understood simply as an act of charity. When we welcome in our homeless brothers and sisters, we miss the point if we think it is simply US giving something to THEM. We start to think things like “oh, WE have all of these resources, and we are going to do a good, Godly thing and welcome in these outsiders, to give them what they need. It will be such a blessing for THEM to be welcomed by US. ”

But remember what Jesus told us today: to the extent that we are the ones with wealth and privilege, WE are the ones in need of blessing!! We are the ones who are in need of those whom we host on cold and rainy nights. Because the kingdom of heaven is THEIRS, it is being revealed in THEIR midst. They are the inheritors of God’s blessing, and we, here, will encounter that blessing when and ONLY when we draw near to them, when we throw open the doors and go out into the streets and fall on our knees and say, “Come in God. Come in Holy Spirit. Come in Lord Jesus. Come in, friends. Liberate US by letting us feed you, and letting us keep you warm, and letting us give you a place to rest. Let us get into the mud and love you and be loved by you and together we will behold salvation blooming like a lotus in the light of dawn.”

This possibility is our joy and our hope, and Christ is revealing it to us, coming up out of the mud.

Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry, now. Blessed are you who weep, now. And if you, like me, are not those things, then let us go find those who are, and pray that we will be blessed by them. The Kingdom is theirs.