Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ordinary 22A -- August 31, 2014

Flip Flop Worship -- With Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon

We were delighted to welcome our brothers and sister from Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon to our church this morning to end our summer "Flip Flop" worship season in the same way we began  -- together.

Rev. Dr. Donna Giver Johnston led us in worship, preaching on Exodus 3:1-15.  The audio of her sermon can be heard here:

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

11But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” 13But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ 15God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ordinary 21A -- August 24, 2014

You Gotta Serve Somebody

Matthew 16:13-20
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" 14 And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." 15 He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" 16 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." 17 And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Let us pray:  Holy God, open our ears to your word and our hearts to your truth.  If you are with us, nothing else matters.  If you are not with us, nothing else matters.  Bless our hearing and our speaking on this day.  Amen.

It is so good to be back with you today.  It feels like I’ve been away forever, which my husband always says is the sign of a good vacation. So it must have been a fantastic vacation.  I calculated that our family managed to travel more nearly 4,000 miles this summer on various trips to Boston, Montreal, Florida and South Carolina.  And all of those miles were by car.  That’s a lot of miles for one summer.   I wasn’t tempted to calculate how many sticks of gum were chewed or how many gallons of gas were pumped or how many times iPhones were recharged in the back seat by my bored kids.  But the Rothenbergs definitely covered some significant ground this summer.

As we were driving home on Thursday night, we talked about our summer experiences and the trips we took together and the places we saw on our travels.  And I remembered how we had passed by two towns this summer that were marked by violence that made big news and sparked significant controversy.  In July, we drove by the interstate exit for Sandy Hook/Newtown in Connecticut on our trip to Boston to move Rachel in to her new apartment.   And on our way from Florida to South Carolina, we passed an exit on Interstate 95 for Sanford, Florida, which will be associated with the names of Travon Martin and George Zimmerman for a long, long time.  I thought about another obscure little suburban town that has become suddenly famous in the worst possible way.  Ferguson, Missouri will also be long associated with the names Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, for a long time.

The names that we give to places and people always have meaning, and sometimes those names become synonymous with characteristics and events that change the meaning forever.  Sometimes the names of places become famous – or infamous -- in ways that no one would choose.  I’m sure people who live in Newtown, Ct. or Sanford, Fl. or Ferguson, Missouri wish they could go back to being ordinary towns with ordinary interstate exits that people whiz by at 70 miles an hour without even noticing. 

It’s easy when we’re reading scripture to also whiz right by the names of places and people.  In today’s text, we are dealing with not one but three names.  The names of Jesus and Peter, certainly.  But also the name of the town where Jesus has taken the disciples. 

I’m speaking about the setting of today’s scene from the gospel of Matthew: Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was the site of an ancient sacred spring flowing out from the mouth of a cave at which a shrine to the god Pan had been established.  Herod the Great and then his son, Herod Philip, as was their family custom, built an impressive complex of buildings there designed to showcase Rome’s wealth and power.  The city itself was named in honor of the Roman emperor, as well as Herod and his son.  If ever there were a name associated with political, Caesarea Philippi was it.

In a recent blog post, my former pastor Mary Louise McCullough said: “To say this city didn’t represent the political weight of Rome bearing down upon the people of Galilee would be like saying that Washington D.C. being named after George Washington had little or nothing to do with what went on there. That Jesus took the guys to this place and asked them questions about who he was signaled that it was time to confront the political overtones of his ministry, overtones which would soon become clanging cymbals. The disciples were in for a shock.”[1]  The shock of course would be that Jesus hadn’t come to overthrow the political and religious establishment, at least not in the way the disciples expected.  Very soon, Jesus will tell them that he will die at the hands of that establishment. 

But all of that is still in the future. Here in this starkly political setting, in the dark shadow of Roman rule, Jesus decides to do some focus group work with his disciples.  Time for a few probing questions.  What are people saying about Jesus?  Who do people think Jesus is?  Well, that that’s a pretty easy question for the disciples.  In fact, it’s a total softball question because they don’t have to come up with the right answer on their own.  The disciples need only give reports about opinions of people they’ve heard out in the field.  And clearly, there’s been lots of speculation about who Jesus is.  Some say he’s Elijah, John the Baptist., Jeremiah or maybe even another prophet! 

And if Jesus were to ask us that same question, we could easily quote any number of creeds or theologians.  Here’s what Nicea says!  Here’s Calvin’s opinion!  Here’s what my 3rd grade Sunday school teacher taught!  A fellow pastor says that when she was in seminary, one of her professors took this verse from Matthews gospel and told the class he would give them the correct answer to Jesus’ question.  From what she can remember, his answer went something like this: Jesus is the proleptic, salvific, hidden appearance of the eschatological kingdom of God." Did you get that? "The proleptic, salvific, hidden appearance of the eschatological kingdom of God." Well, to be fair, the guy was teaching a systematic theology class.  And I am sure I’ve memorized other peoples’ opinions about Jesus is over the years without really knowing their meaning, and I bet you have, too.

But then Jesus goes deeper.  He asks the tougher question of “Who do you say I am?”  He’s not asking what your pastor says.  Not what your tradition says.  Not even what you were taught in Sunday school or communicants’ class or seminary.  It’s time for you to dig deep and tell Jesus what YOU think.  Who is this man?   Who is he in all of your experiences, your disappointments, your successes and failures?  After a lifetime in which you’ve seen the best and the worst of what people can do, and done your best and your worst right along with them– what do you say about Jesus?  What does Jesus mean to you on an ordinary day when you are simply trying to get through it?  And who is Jesus – on vacation, in our community, or even in Ferguson, Missouri right now?

It’s a “Come to Jesus” moment for the disciples.  After all they’ve witnessed.  After all Jesus has taught them.  Jesus wants to take a moment to see if any of this has gotten through to his followers.  Has anything he’s done or said made a difference to them?  It’s not just a “Come to Jesus” moment.  It’s a “You Gotta Serve Somebody” moment for the disciples.  Like the old Bob Dylan tune:

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody

Who do the disciples think they are serving?  Who do we think we are following? 

I do not think it is by coincidence that Jesus brings his disciples to Caesarea Philippi at this point in his ministry.  It matters that Jesus will ask this question in a place with a name that represents the powers and principalities of the disciples’ known world.  Because Jesus knows that the time going to come – not just for the disciples – but for all the disciples of every time and place to answer the question when the stakes couldn’t be higher.  Who are you going to serve?  What will you stand up for? What’s important? When do you say what you need to, want to, have to? Or when will you choose to be silent or hide?

Peter gets the answer right, not because he is any smarter or more faithful than the other disciples.  If anything, Peter gets it right because Peter is never afraid to put himself out there for better or worse.   And Jesus says it himself – Peter gets it right because he is not afraid to say out loud what God has revealed to him.   Those are the kinds of people Jesus chooses to build the church that will come after him – the ones foolish and fearless enough to proclaim the truth about Jesus.  Even in a place like Caesarea Philippi where talking the way Peter is talking could get you in a lot of trouble.

Who are you going to serve?  You’re gonna have to serve somebody.

This has been a crazy hard couple of weeks, despite the fact that I was on vacation.  I tried to look away as much as possible, but I couldn’t.  Robin Williams. Michael Brown. The death of a celebrity tormented by depression and the onslaught of Parkinson’s. The death of a black teenager that seems senseless and suspect. To some extent these cases are not at all related and at the same time, so connected, so real. 

Because they ask us to make a decision.  How will you respond?  Who are you going to serve?

Are we going to end the stigma that still exists about mental illness in this country, not to mention this congregation?  Are we going to spend the money to ensure that people have access to good mental health care in this country, not to mention this community?  Are we going to stop whispering about depression and schizophrenia behind closed doors, and start talking about it in the same way we talk about diabetes or cancer.  Can we talk about mental illness as an affliction that makes no distinction between celebrities and ordinary people?

Are we going to stand up for the unarmed and the unprotected?
Are we going to stand up for the hungry and the rejected?
Are we going to give in to our fears and prejudices, or stay silent when we hear the voices of hatred?

Who are you going to serve?  Jesus – who showed us the forgiving, gracious heart of God?  Who told a story about a Samaritan who stumbles upon a traveler, possibly a Jew, laying in a ditch, and doesn’t ask if the man deserved what happened to him?  Or will you serve the one who loves nothing more than dividing us and making us suspicious of people who do not look like us or think like us?

Who are you going to serve?  Jesus – who took on the form of a servant, humbling himself, emptying himself, giving everything he had for the love of God’s people?  Or will you serve the one who rejoices every time we hoard and hold back or try to tell ourselves that what happens to thugs or homeless people is none of our business?

Who are we going to serve? Jesus – who washed feet and embraced the unclean and the unwanted, and never once turned anybody away? Or will you serve the one who gleefully watches our wars and our conflicts and our reflexive exclusion of those we find unworthy of our time and concern?

Jesus is not about our safety and our comfort.  If he wanted the disciples to stay safe, he wouldn’t have dragged the disciples to Caesarea Philippi instead of a secluded mountain far away from the listening ears of the Romans.  Because what Peter says about Jesus could very well get him killed. But it is the only Truth that matters.  And it is a truth that changes everything for Peter.  What does that Truth change us?

Jesus says that the gates of hell will not prevail.  Which is hard to believe isn’t it?  It is for me sometimes when I think that the gates of hell seem to be all around us.  In the outrage of Ferguson.  In the violence of  Gaza and Israel.  In the horrific images of a public beheading of a journalist doing his job.  In the heartbreaking photos of people suffering from Ebola and the healthcare workers risking their own lives to care for them.  

But we know the end of the story, just as Peter does although it will take time for him to understand fully what he has uttered out loud at the gate of hell to which Jesus led them.  Do not trust your eyes or even your educated mind on this one.  Be bold enough to say it out loud along with Peter:  Love will win.  Forgiveness will win.  Peace will win.  In the end, what is evil doesn’t stand a chance because Jesus handed over the keys to one of us, representing all of us.  We are the people whom God trusts to sort through the wreckage we inflict upon one another and embrace a suffering world.

I invite you to take some time this week to think about the question.  Imagine Jesus here among us, saying:  “Who do you say I am?”  Because how you answer that question has everything to do with who you are willing to be.  Who you are choosing to serve.  And how much you are willing to risk. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen. 


Friday, August 15, 2014

Ordinary 19 A -- August 10, 2014


Guest Preacher:  Alan Olson

Philippians 2: 1-11        

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.

         Good morning! Thank you for having me to share this time of worship with you today. I was going to start with a really old joke: I just flew in from Africa, and boy, are my arms tired—and my legs, and my back, etc. etc. But I’ve been for about two weeks, so I think the statute of limitations on using that joke has expired. Mind you, I’m not joking about flying in from Africa. I have recently returned from a two-week mission trip to South Africa and the Kingdom of Lesotho.
         Now I’m going to guess that all of you are familiar with the nation of South Africa—especially if you were alive during the 1970s and 80s and were paying attention to the struggle to end Apartheid, the legal segregation of and discrimination against black South Africans and other people of color. Chances are good that most of you are familiar with South African leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But I would guess that there are some of you who aren’t familiar with the Kingdom of Lesotho. Let me confess that I didn’t know very much about it, either, until about two weeks ago.
         Lesotho is an independent nation of about two million people and it is entirely surrounded by South Africa. Lesotho is about the size of Maryland; it’s a very mountainous country and it looks a lot like Arizona, but with green grass and trees. It is a very pretty place, but it’s not a place that gets many visitors from the United States. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard about Lesotho in the news. It’s a poor nation, but it’s far from the poorest. Although HIV/AIDS is a problem in Lesotho—as in all of southern Africa—I’m unaware of any famines or wars in Lesotho in recent memory.
         The main reason that our team went to Lesotho was to work on a service project. We were in a little town in the countryside called Morija and we were there to help build a latrine at a nursery school. This is a very typical understanding of Christian mission—a group of us went somewhere far away, to do something for someone who really needed our help. It could be viewed, as the Apostle Paul described in this morning’s reading from Philippians, as an act of “compassion and sympathy.” But most of the work on the project was done by four experienced masons; all of them were from Lesotho. At best, we were their helpers, but they could have done all of the work without us.
         Another common understanding of mission work is to send a person or a group of people abroad to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. But that wasn’t our job, either. In fact, the town of Morija was founded by French missionaries in 1833! We missed that party by almost 200 years! Today, 90% of the population is Christian. So what were we doing there? Why did we travel some 9,000 miles to assist some brick layers? Before I address those questions, I think we need to take a closer look at Paul’s letter to the Philippians; it sheds a lot of light on Christian mission.
         Philippi was a fairly large settlement in Macedonia. It was a Roman colony. That meant that land in Philippi had been given to Roman soldiers after they had completed their service in the legions. Think about that for a second. Many of the Philippians were veterans. I imagine most of you know a few people who served in the armed forces of the United States; perhaps some of you are veterans. I’ve never met a veteran who was not proud of his or her service.
         This must have been true in Philippi, too. Imagine that you were a Roman soldier in the middle of the First Century. Perhaps you were a Roman citizen, but you had little property or chance of advancement. Or maybe you were a freeman, but not a full citizen of the Empire. Service in the legions was your chance for moving up in the world. The term of service in the Roman legions was typically twenty-five years. So, after all those years of marching around the Roman world, sleeping on the ground, in the cold, eating bad food, and fighting the enemies of the Empire—where you might have been outnumbered five-to-one, or six-to-one, or ten-to-one—if you made it through all that, then you got a plot of farm land and you earned the right to be called a Roman citizen. You made it! Now, you were someone. And you earned it! How could you not be proud?
         Instead, Paul urges the congregation at Philippi to be humble, to imitate Christ’s humility. That must have been really hard to do. Paul urges the Philippians to do “nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” But being a Roman citizen meant that you were better than most other people. So it must have been a tough pill for the Philippians to swallow, when Paul told them to set aside their pride and imitate Christ’s humility.
         This is also how we, as American Christians, must act when we engage in Christian missions. Generosity is a good thing, but when we give to others, we have to do it in humility. If we are not humble when we give, then the giving becomes about us. We must, as Paul says, “be sharing in the Spirit.” Compassion and sympathy are not acts of good will that start with us. No, this is the reconciling action of the Holy Spirit. We do not do good works of our own accord. Rather, when we act in accordance with the Holy Spirit, good works are accomplished through our actions. Or maybe I should say God’s work is accomplished through our actions. This is a fine line to walk.
         Our mission team in South Africa included sixteen people: two seminary professors, thirteen seminary students and recent graduates, and the husband of one of the students. It was a diverse group: half of us were white, half were African-American; the youngest member of our group was 23, while the oldest members were in their early- or mid-sixties. When we got to Morija, we were joined by another eight volunteers. The new volunteers were college-age students from Lesotho, who were also there to help build the latrine. As I mentioned before, there were four skilled workers already working on the job site.
         When we arrived, the hole for the latrine had been completed. The next part of the project was to lay the concrete block that would serve as the septic tank for the latrine and support the upper walls of the structure. Only two people in our group knew how to lay block. What’s more, the pit for the latrine could only accommodate four or five workers at a time. In short, we had a lot more workers than work. At first, this was really frustrating. I wasn’t the only person to ask, “What am I doing here?”
         Later that night, we had devotions with the whole group. I was paired with one of my African colleagues, a young man named Sechaba. He asked that same question. He said that many of his friends had asked him why he was doing this service project and he didn’t have a good answer. The truth is, Sechaba and I were both asking the wrong question. It wasn’t about what I was doing or what Sechaba was doing. The right question is, “what is God doing here?”
         Of course it took a long day, with too little work, for either of us to realize that something more profound was going on. In fact, the lack of work created a wonderful space for conversations to take place. The team from Lesotho got to know each other better. The team from Pittsburgh got to know one another better. And best of all, members of each team began to talk with members of the other team. God had created a sacred space in which we were all invited to be in relationship with one another. The work wasn’t just about laying block for a latrine; it was about laying the foundation for relationships across the continents. My friends, that is part of the reconciling work of the Holy Spirit.
         I have traveled overseas for a number of mission trips. One of the things that I have discovered is that most people outside of the United States have never heard of Pittsburgh. Can you believe that? Never heard of Pittsburgh? It’s strange but true. But then, a great many of us had never heard of Lesotho, a nation that is not well known outside of southern Africa. To the uninitiated, Pittsburgh and Lesotho might seem like global backwaters, names on a map that few people ever visit. Then again, two thousand years ago, Palestine was a little province on the edges of the Roman Empire. Nobody expected that a humble servant born in Palestine some two thousand years ago would eventually change the world. Amazing things can happen outside of capital cities and the centers of culture.
         We spent about a week in Morija. And yes, lots of block was laid. We didn’t finish the latrine, but we came really close. More than that, the people of the two mission teams—the team from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and the team of young people from Lesotho—grew close to one another. We used the time to get to know one another. At this point, you might be wondering what this has to do with humility and the imitation of Christ.
         That first morning in Morija, when there wasn’t enough work to keep all of us busy, I found that really frustrating. I felt that my time wasn’t being used wisely. I wanted to be doing something. I wanted to be useful. I. I. I! In those moments of frustration, it was all about me and what I wanted. It was only after I let go of my own expectations—after I humbled myself—that I was able to move into the sacred space that God had provided for me. It was only after I let go of my ego and my attachment to the idea that I was doing something for someone else—let me repeat that: my attachment to the idea that I was doing—it was only after I let that go that I could fall in with the work of the Holy Spirit. I suspect that this was true for most of our group.
         After we let go of our expectations, wonderful things began to happen in our groups. Many of the older women in our group adopted the young people from the Lesotho team. One of the young seminarians in our group felt compelled to give his Pirates’ hat to one of the young men from Lesotho. Many of us became Facebook friends with the young people from Lesotho. We began relationships. Before we met, the groups from Pittsburgh and Lesotho were separated by distance and culture. Through our time together, doing the work of the Holy Spirit and building relationships with one another, we began to be reconciled to one another.
         One of the more interesting relationships that began there in Morija was with an older woman named Ma’Pabello. Ma’Pabello was the administrator of the nursery school where we were working. She is a wonderful witness to a life of faith in the service of others. Caring for the young children of Morija is her mission. As we got to know Ma’Pabello better, one of the women in our group asked what we could do to help her out.
         Ma’Pabello’s first answer was to ask us to pray for the children, and then to pray for the school. Talk about humility! We asked Ma’Pabello what we could do for her and she deflected the request—the children were more important!
         The women from Pittsburgh were undeterred. They wanted to know if there was anything else that we could do for Ma’Pabello, perhaps donations of money or equipment for the school. Ma’Pabello gave the most amazing reply: “Ma’Paballo: I want your songs, not your stuff!” She didn’t want a flat-screen, high-def TV for herself or a library full of books for the school. She didn’t want computers or a new car. She wanted to know our hymns of praise. She wanted to know what we sang when we humbled ourselves before God! She wanted to share in our witness to God’s love in the world!
         As I said before, the real question, the question we couldn’t ask until we let go of our pride and arrogance and made ourselves humble, was this: “What is God doing here in Morija?” For that week, God brought us together as equals, to learn from one another and to be in community with one another. God brought us there to hear Ma’Pabello’s wisdom, and then God brought us home safely so that we could share what we learned in Lesotho.
         My friends, you don’t have to go to Africa to practice humility or to do mission work. Christian mission is not just a committee! It is what each of us does every day, when we fall in with the Holy Spirit. You don’t have to go halfway around the world to do it. The work of reconciliation must be done everywhere: in Africa, yes, and also right here on Chess Street and on Main Street; here in Mon City, down in Donora, and Monessen, too! To do this, we must approach God in prayer and humility and ask God to use us in the work of reconciliation. Thanks be to God. Amen!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Ordinary 18A -- August 3, 2014

We Are The Miracle We’ve Been Waiting For

Matthew 14:13-21
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 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." 16 Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." 17 They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." 18 And he said, "Bring them here to me." 19 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. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Many of you have adult children, so maybe you have already had this moment.  The moment in which you realized that the only thing holding your 20-something kid back from being a fully-fledged adult was your reflexive parental urge to jump in and do for them what they could do for themselves.  This has been my biggest stumbling block as a parent, and I revisited it this week while in Boston with Rachel.  We made a frantic pre-vacation trip there on Sunday evening, driving up her stuff that couldn’t be transported by plane.  On Monday, we unloaded the boxes from my trunk, deposited them in her new apartment, and then set off for IKEA for some cheap graduate student furniture.

It took hours, but by late afternoon on Monday, we sat on the floor of her apartment surrounded by a mountain of IKEA boxes filled with pieces of plywood, nails and  -- as anyone who has built IKEA furniture knows – instructions that may make perfect sense if you’re building cheap furniture in Sweden, but are almost incomprehensible in America.  And I knew I had a choice – I could offer to stay up all night and build the furniture for her.  Or, I could go have a nice dinner, get some sleep, and leave it for her to put together on Tuesday while I flew back to Pittsburgh for a meeting. 

Despite the fact that I was exhausted after a 10 hour drive and a long day of moving heavy boxes, every impulse in my feeble mom-brain wanted to put that furniture together for her.  My good judgment was almost overwhelmed by visions of collapsing chairs, lamps short circuiting, and a possible trip to the emergency room.  But I resisted.   I said,  “Rachel, you do it.” I think she thought I was kidding.  But I said, no I mean it.  You do it.  You’re an adult.  It’s your furniture.  You do it.

And she did.  She didn’t like it.  Like her mother, Rachel doesn’t enjoy using tools or reading directions, but she got it done.  And she did an awesome job.  My only contribution was to bring a power screwdriver in my briefcase when I flew back to Boston so we could tighten up some troublesome screws on a table. 

And I wonder how often God has to hold back from just putting all the pieces together for us when we struggling to get our lives together.  We pray for God’s help, but I think what we’re really often asking is for God to just step in and solve our problems for us in a miraculous way – preferably one that doesn’t involve too much change or challenge or effort on our part.  We secretly want to drop our problems into God’s lap and let God figure it out.  But it hardly ever works that way, does it?  It’s so annoying. God is just like, “Uh, uh. You do it.  You’ve got everything you need.  You do it.”  And it must frustrate God beyond belief to watch the people God loves so much get so many things so very wrong.  But God, like a good parent, doesn’t often step in to save us from ourselves. 

Maybe the best way to enter this familiar story of the loaves and fishes is to remember how Jesus is entering into it.  Jesus had just received about the worst news anyone could receive.  His cousin John was dead, after being beheaded in prison by Herod.  We can imagine what Jesus must have felt after receiving that news.  Shock.  Grief.  John’s violent death may have also made clear to Jesus that the work he is doing will likely lead to the very same fate for him.  It’s only a matter of time.  So Jesus withdraws to a quiet place to be alone and deal with the sorrow, anger, and fear of what’s next in this difficult ministry.

But the quiet time alone doesn’t last very long.  People get wind of where Jesus has hidden himself.   They need what people always need from Jesus -- healing.  And Jesus is able to shake off his sorrow and his anger and his worry long enough to take care of the people out of his compassion and love. 

He begins to heal and it takes a long time, all day really.  It’s a huge crowd and the people have a lot of problems and before you know it, it’s evening.   As the sun goes down, the crowd is still hanging around, and has grown from hundreds of people into thousands.  Jesus is entirely preoccupied and hasn’t noticed the time, but the disciples soon see a big problem looming.  They are in the middle of nowhere and all of these needy people are going to be very, very hungry, very, very soon.  Time to shut this thing down and send these people back to wherever they came from before they become a angry mob demanding food.  Jesus may have the energy to keep going all night, but the disciples barely have enough food to feed themselves, let alone the thousands of people who keep streaming in to the shoreline. 

When the disciples tell Jesus that it’s time to send the people home for supper, Jesus says:  “Ok.  No problem. You do it.  Give them something to eat.”  The disciples look at the five loaves of bread and two fish, and then they look at Jesus.  Jesus must be kidding, right?  There’s not enough food here for us, Jesus.  What are we supposed to do?

I can imagine Jesus sighing deeply when he hears the disciples say, “There’s not enough.”  I can imagine Jesus saying, “Give me that basket, already,” as he sighs again, lifts his eyes to heaven, thanks God for the fish and bread, and then says to the disciples, “You do it.  Go give those people something to eat!” 

The disciples look at the bread and fishes and see a disaster brewing. 
Jesus looks at the bread and fishes and sees a dinner party for thousands. 
Which view is reality?  Is this really a story about a miracle that only Jesus can perform?  Or, maybe, this a story about what happens when we are finally somehow able to see the world the way Jesus sees it?

The Kingdom of God is like this:  Abundant. There is enough, more than enough.  Enough for everyone.

The kingdom of the anxious disciples is like this:  Scarcity.  We don’t have enough for ourselves, so how can we feed anyone else?  Better to hold on to what we have.

There’s a stark difference between the world that we see, and the Kingdom of God.  When we drop our scarcity blinders, if only for a moment, and look a little more closely at what we are holding in our hands, maybe we can see how abundantly God has already blessed us.  Maybe we could see the world the way Jesus sees it. 

I thought about this text on Tuesday night when the community gathered to hear about Holy Family Institute’s plans to care for up to 3-dozen children who have arrived in America from Central America without family or parents accompanying them.  One of the arguments made in opposition to Holy Family’s plans was that money spent to care for children from Central America would result in not enough money left to care for American children.  People spoke as if compassion for children is a zero sum game and there’s only so much of it to go around.  I think Sister Linda Yankoski said it best when she answered the question about why they were welcoming the Central American children when she said this:  “There’s a child sleeping on a floor in Texas.  I have an empty bed.”  Taking care of 36 children from Central America will not result in less care for the more than 11,000 American children and families that Holy Family Institute serves each year.   Holy Family simply believes that they can do more. They believe their compassion can extend even further, because they follow Jesus of deep compassion, and they trust in a God of astonishing abundance. 

This scarcity mindset extends, unfortunately, even into churches.  I recently heard about a church that decided to reach out to their neighborhood by holding a summer festival on their lawn, including food booths run by the deacons to raise money for local mission.  One of the deacons suggested giving free tickets for the food booths to the local food pantry to distribute to clients so that they could come to the festival free of charge.  One of the deacons said, “We can’t possibly do that.  How could we figure out how much food to buy?  What if we don’t have enough food for the people who are paying?”  Another objected saying, “We can’t give out free food!  We’re raising money for mission!”  It may not surprise you to hear that most of the people who attended the festival were church members, which is probably what most of church people wanted anyway.  They really weren’t interested in getting to know their community. 

See, that’s the real danger of scarcity thinking -- it lets us off the hook and excuses us from doing those things that make us uncomfortable or are just plain hard to do.  Unglamorous.  Scary even.  If we say we don’t have enough, then we don’t have to do anything and we can send people away.  And yet, this is exactly the opposite of what Jesus would have us do.  In fact, you could almost say that Jesus is daring us to act.  People are hungry?  You feed them.  People are in pain and suffering?  You take care of them.  The world is falling apart?  You get involved to make it better.  With whatever you have, even if it looks like very little or even nothing.  Help in whatever way you can help, even if you feel completely helpless. 

This story isn’t about an inexplicable miracle of magically expanding loaves finding their way into empty bellies or amazingly multiplying fishes jumping out of baskets into hungry mouths, all thanks to a little Jesus hocus pocus.  It’s a story about the people of God trusting that the deepest needs of this world can be met by God’s people in the world right now. That’s not a miracle.  That is gospel truth, as plain as the nose on your face.  We are the miracle.  We are the miracle.  We are the miracle we’ve been waiting for.  Right here.  The miracle is sitting right here in this church.  And the miracle is sitting in the church up the road and across the county and across the ocean and around the world.   2 billion Christians.  You want to tell me we can’t get something done with 2 billion Christians, even if each of us has just a couple loaves and a couple fish?  And if we invited the Jews and the Muslims and the Hindus and the Buddhists and even non-believers of good will to come along side of us, we might just get something done. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not that our problems as a church, or a country, or even as a world have so big, but that our expectations and aspirations have become so small.  Part of that is understandable in most parts of the world where merely scratching out a daily existence is a minor miracle.  But most of us walk around thinking we only have a couple of loaves of bread and a few tiny fish when, in fact, we have many more resources than we imagine.

For the next six weeks, beginning this Sunday, we will be engaging in conversation with each other about the future of our church and the possibilities that exist for vital ministry here in this community.  You’ll be talking about what we already do well as a community of faith – what excites us about ministry here.  What challenges us?  What do we need to learn about the community around us?  How are their needs?  How deeply do we understand the way in which people will engage in church into the 21st century? What has God already given us to do the ministry that needs to be done here and now, not 20 or 30 years ago?  What is Jesus already up to?  Where is Jesus already at work and how can we get in on that kingdom building action?  After those conversations, there will be more conversations, more dreaming, more praying, more asking of questions and looking for answers as we talk about adapting to a new reality. What we will become is entirely up for grabs.  But I promise you, we will be changed.   And God has already given us everything we need.

The disciples could have hidden the small amount of food they had.  They could have kept it in their satchels and made sure that they would have something for themselves at the end of the day.  But they didn’t.  They took what little they had and gave everything to Jesus.  He blessed it, and blessed them, and then he told them to go get busy.  Feed my people.  There’s enough for everyone. 

So here’s what we’ll do.  Take what little you have and hold it in your hands.  That small holy gift you’ve been holding back for such a time as this although you didn’t know it.  Now that you’re looking at it more closely, you are almost embarrassed.  It doesn’t like very much, does it?  Hardly worth mentioning, really.  But hold it out anyway.  Trust him.  Wait for him.  And you will hear his voice that says, “Oh yes.  This.  This.  This is what I’ve been waiting for you to discover while you’ve been fussing about your fears and your failures and all those things you though mattered so much to me.  This.  This.  This, I can work with.” 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.