Monday, August 11, 2014

Failure, Success and Faith

1 Kings 19/Matthew 14
Proper 14, Year A
The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

In Jesus time his disciples needed step out of a boat.  In our time, this disciple needs to step out of the pulpit.

And like a boat on the water – a pulpit in a church sets the priest who is preaching apart.  Not just apart, but actually above all of you.  You all know that is done on purpose.  For acoustic reasons – and visual reasons.  But it also has other more subtle implications.

At our worship retreat this week we discussed – where does worship happen – on the altar (there) or in the nave (here) amidst the gathered faithful?  We all agreed that it’s a both/and.  Like a procession into church worship begins here – and moves towards the altar – then back through and into the world.  But our job as liturgical leaders is to always – through movement and through music – keep a constant connection – because otherwise, worship becomes performance.  You sit there and watch us up there.

For those of us here last week – when Jesus handed bread and fish to the disciples part of that teaching was – it’s not performance.  You feed them – we all participate.  Liturgy is after all, the work of the people.

So, I do believe standing here to preach, from time to time, helps us be mindful of the connection, how we are all in this together.  And for me, it’s also a risk.  I don’t have a script.  I could sink.  I could fail.

And that’s what I want to talk about this morning – failure.  Peter failed – he sank.  Elijah failed – we just listened to God decommission him as prophet.  And where I want to go is to say something we all know – every person here will fail.  And furthermore, it’s necessary. It helps us grow.  And theologically speaking I want to leave you with the question – what does God see?  Does God view us as successes or failures? Do those categories work in a life of faith?

With an average attendance of 150 people on a Sunday a success when compared with the church down the road that only sees 60?  Are we a failure as a faith community compared to the church up the road that sees 1,000?  Is that how God is judging us?

Let’s start with Elijah.  Even though he is atop a mountain – it is amazing how far and how fast he has fallen!  Just a chapter ago he had confronted a king and defeated almost 500 prophets of Baal in one of those – my God is better than your God and I’ll prove it Old Testament battles.  For all the specifics, read 18.  With one of the best lines in scripture, “How long will you people go limping with two different opinions?” he challenges the Israelites -  Choose a god – and choose Yahweh – for that is the true God of Israel.  That is the God who has kept his promise and remained faithful to you.  And he wins.  Baal’s prophets are defeated (killed actually – it’s amazing the psalm we just read, “God speaks peace to his faithful people” right after reading that God is killing people in Kings…but that is a sermon on the contradictions in scripture for a different day). And the king, King Ahab is left defeated and ashamed.

So he wins!  Elijah is a success.  But all it takes is a word – a threat from one of the king’s wives – Jezebel and it’s as if he lost all faith, al confidence, all hope in God’s abiding presence.  King Ahab tells Jezebel all about what happened and she sends word to Elijah saying – I will take your life by this time tomorrow.  Then he was afraid.  That’s all we know about Elijah’s reaction.  So afraid that he runs for his life into the wilderness and begs God to end his life.  Who knows – maybe he just had a nervous breakdown.  Even though it was a success, I’ll bet it took a lot out of him.  Doesn’t it usually feel like after a big success you should be done? Challenges complete? But they keep coming, don’t they.

And depressed, and a little self-righteous with his bemoaning that it is ALL up to him, he is zealous and the last faithful person left, atop Mt. Horeb God tells Elijah - Ok.  You’re done.  Go anoint Elisha in your place as prophet.  And by the way, Elijah, despite your protests that you are the ONLY one left who is faithful there are at least 7,000 others as faithful as you.

Ever thought to yourself – Oh, if everyone was just as faithful and as righteous as me!  If it all didn’t rest on my shoulders!  A reminder from this reading is that it really doesn’t.

Have you ever struggled to ask for help?  Have you ever thought you were better than everyone else and didn’t need help? Have you ever felt a failure because you couldn’t accomplish what you started out doing?  You realized you would have to pass the torch, you’d have to call in reinforcements?  You had to take a break.

For God – is Elijah failing – or is God caring for him?  Recognizing he is one in a long line of people who will participate in God’s purpose getting worked out?
And what about Peter.  This story is probably more familiar to us than Elijah’s.  Remember the feeding of the 5,000 has just happened.  The disciples had just witnessed something miraculous that they had all been a part of, but then Jesus sets them apart.  A community unto themselves.

And just like Elijah, despite their recent success they are afraid and doubting? It’s amazing how quickly that now-what-is-there emptiness can overtake us, isn’t it?

Now – maybe some of you remember an excellent sermon preached by Josh on the first Sunday of Lent and Matthew’s take on Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.  Josh talked about that conditional clause the tempter uses – If you are the Son of God, then turn these stones into bread, and the like.  Generally speaking when you and I use that phrase in our relationship with God, or with someone else, it’s not the beginning of a good conversation.

Well what does Peter say to Jesus in his doubt – if you are Jesus then command me to walk on water.  The whole thing is Peter’s idea – not Jesus’!  And it sinks him.  He couldn’t do it.  And you know what – I don’t think Jesus expected him to be able to do it.   Because – I don’t think we can walk on water.  God in Christ – yes.  You and me – no.  That’s not the miraculous spectacle God has in mind for us.  When God uses us for miracles, then and now, it’s always to benefit someone else, not for supernatural successes that make us feel superior.  God’s miracles are practical and down to earth – feeding and healing people.

So, when Jesus catches him in his arms and says, oh why did you doubt?  Couldn’t he be referring to the FIRST doubt Peter had.  The same doubt that Elijah had – that Jesus had left them, that God had abandoned him.  The doubt that had Peter uttering the same phrase as the tempter – if you are Lord, then do such and such….

So here’s where I end up.  I don’t think life with God is about success and failure.  Elijah appears beside Christ at the Transfiguration.  Peter goes on to bring people to Christ and work miracles of healing.  I don’t think God looks at us and sees us and judges our ministries, our projects, our risks in those worldly success or failure terms.

Jesus in many people’s eyes was the ultimate failure.  A King, a Messiah, a prophet – punished, abandoned, naked and ashamed – left to die on a cross.  And while even he cried out that he had been forsaken – he acted as if he hadn’t.  He forgave those who crucified and mocked him.  He promised paradise to the thief who simply asked to be remembered.  He died faithfully – giving himself over to the Father out of love.

Acting in faith even when we feel forsaken.  Trusting God’s presence, without the tests, when we feel alone.  Giving thanks to God for any successes we may have.  Asking God to help us and help us reach out to others to accomplish our tasks. 

God does not call us to be successful – to walk on water - but to be faithful.  Take heart – that’s what God wants.  Intentions of the heart that radiate the truth that God is always with us and we are not afraid.  God doesn’t measure our successes like the world does. God wants our heart.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

What Matters about Miracles?

Matthew 14:13-21
The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

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.  Matthew 14:20

Given the incredible miracle we hear this morning, let’s spend some time talking about miracles.  It’s a word we hear and use often but there is a distinction between the more common use of the word and the very specific function and intention of the word used in scripture. 

Generally speaking, a miracle is an event, or occurrence that is unexpected that is for the good.  “It’s a miracle he caught that Hail Mary pass at the end of the game.”  Or, “it’s a miracle I made it on time given the traffic on the beltway.” 

And of course we also use the word when events of a much greater magnitude surprise us.  After the car accident – it’s a miracle I walked away.  After the diagnosis – it’s a miracle he’s still alive. 

In everyday vernacular we focus on the good outcome for an individual or group.  And some people assign agency to it – like God – but some people don’t.  A miracle is just one part of an interconnected universe, a coincidence to be grateful for.

But in the gospels, miracles are about more than the outcome.  We hear Jesus often say, “the kingdom of heaven is like this – or – the kingdom of heaven in like that.”  But when a miracle happens – that is God breaking into our world through Jesus or someone else to make “thy kingdom come, now!”  And it is never in secret.  It isn’t about just one person’s good fortune, but all those who see the miracle and think, “what does this mean for me?”

Lazarus is unbound and brought to new life and all who see (and hear) realize, “Ah!  That is kingdom living!”

The bleeding woman touches the fringe of Christ’s cloak and is healed and all who see realize, “No one is meant to be an outcast.  God desires health and inclusion for all!”

Water is turned into wine and all who witness the miracle are reminded, this is God’s son.

In John’s gospel miracles are always called, signs.  Because they orient our eyes and ears to the source, God.  So that we might ask why this miracle?  What does it tell me about God?  What does it tell me about God’s relationship to me and humanity?  How does it help me in my discipleship?

So, all that miracle preamble because today we read the one and only miracle that occurs in not 1, not 2, not 3 but all four gospels!  That is significant and amazing.  The birth – the birth of Jesus even – not the same in all four gospels, doesn’t even exist in two.  This miraculous story of something so simple – just a stressful situation that leads to people being fed – was critical enough to make the cut in all four.  Clearly, then, this miracle points to something very important about God that we are supposed to pay attention to.   

So, what matters about this miracle?  What does it teach us about God?  What does it teach us about discipleship?  While you could mine this miracle for many teachings, let’s focus on four.

5,000 men PLUS women and children.  In Mark it’s 4,000 but does the specific number matter?  I don’t think so – I think we’re supposed to see it is a WHOLE LOT OF PEOPLE.  A crowd, nameless and anonymous. 

And we learn that God has great compassion for the anonymous crowds in our world.  There are many of them today – the poor, the undocumented, the ones in the city and the county.  Do we have compassion for the anonymous crowds in our world?  Or, like the disciples, do we want them to fix their own problems and go away?

Second point, Jesus wasn’t having a great day on this morning.  Our excerpt begins – Jesus withdrew in a boat – making it sound like he’s just doing his morning prayer.  But in the chapter it says, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat by himself.”  When Jesus heard what?  Jesus has just learned that his cousin, his friend, John the Baptist had been killed by King Herod.  But when the crowds (and we can include disciples) hear this same thing they follow Jesus.

Jesus is grieving over death.  The crowds and disciples maybe are grieving – but I bet they are also scared and anxious.  John the Baptist who we followed, who baptized us has been killed? What does this mean for our safety?  Jesus will know, he’ll fix it, he’ll take charge. 

Does Jesus get upset or frustrated or angry – that his disciples and this crowd have interrupted his grief with their anxiety and issues?  Nope.  Jesus has compassion and right away, tends to some of their needs by curing the sick. 

There is something miraculous in that, yes?  When we have the ability to stay calm, collected and compassionate in the face of another’s anxiety, fear, even grief.  That composure believe it or not can actually make a way for healing.

Number three. The disciples, they make a fair point don’t they?  It’s late, there are A LOT of people around, there are no Royal Farms in the area, it’s deserted.  So ok, we’ve done enough.  Jesus, it’s time to call it a day with our duties.  Tell them to go and get their own dinner.

Not necessary, says Jesus.  You, disciples, have the ability to feed them here and now, bring me what you have.  And one imagines with that same calm, collected and compassionate presence Jesus takes the gifts they bring, blesses them, breaks them and asks the disciples to share them.

Take, bless, break, share – this is what we practice together every week!  So I take an important point in Jesus teaching his disciples – they can’t just sit back and watch him do everything.  Their gifts, their actions, their doing is a part of the plan.  “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”  Jesus says.  A lesson and in invitation to discipleship, there.

Finally what is perhaps the most obvious, God wants the world to be fed.  God wants us with the resources we have – an abundance that can sustain all of creation – to feed and care for the hungry.  Pretty simple I guess – but give us this day, our daily bread – is still a prayer for actual bread for millions of children and adults in our world.

So, as I said, you could spend a year, a lifetime, I truly believe praying and reflecting on this incredible revelation about God in Christ.  And then you could apply what you glean – apply how the Spirit inspires your heart and mind to your and our life now.  We all know the headlines in the news right now.  You all know the situations of scarcity, or fear, or anxiety in your own life. 

God has compassion for the nameless and hungry crowds – how does that apply?
Jesus has a calm and collected presence in the midst of a group charged with sickness and stress – how does that apply?
God takes, blesses, breaks and asks us to share the gifts we have – how does that apply?
God wants men, women and children to be fed – how does that apply?

And with the questions and the challenges also comes our good news.  God looks on us with compassion – we are part of the crowd of humanity.  God offers us Christ’s calm and collected presence anytime we need it in the midst of our grief, fear or stress.  God takes, blesses, breaks open and shares Christ’s life so that we might know eternal life now and forever.  God wants our hunger – literally and spiritually – to be fed.

The challenges of this miracle and the good news of this miracle apply to us.  And there can be more miracles in the world as more and more disciples participate in the miraculous.  Amen.

Proper 13, Year A
The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks