Archive for the ‘Gospel of Matthew’ Category

What Matters to You Matters to Us: We are People of God’s Extravagant Welcome

Monday, August 8th, 2011

A Meditation for August 7, 2011

Scripture: Matthew 14:13-21
Jesus has had some upsetting news—his cousin John, his prophet and friend who baptized him, has been brutally executed at the behest of King Herod, during Herod’s lavish, over-the-top birthday dinner.

Heartsick, Jesus goes away by boat to a solitary place, to think, to pray, to be alone…but the crowd follows on foot…who knows what hunger, sickness and trouble prompted them to travel so far into the desert, following an itinerant rabbi and miracle worker!

Jesus didn’t turn anyone away. Filled with compassion, despite his need for down time, Jesus healed the sick until evening, when the disciples suggested he release them to go buy food at villages on the way home.

Instead, Jesus says “They don’t need to leave–You give them something to eat!”

The challenge! You give them something to eat. “But we don’t have enough,” say the disciples.  “We only have five loaves and two fishes.”

Well, we know what happened next. Or do we???

Jesus blessed, and broke the bread and fishes, and gave them to the disciples, who gave them to the people. Note the language of Communion: blessing, breaking and giving. And there was great abundance; twelve baskets of leftovers!

A lot of scholarly ink has been spilled over this story, the feeding of the five thousand. We know it was a story beloved by the early church; since it is one of the few stories that appear in all four gospels. Matthew, you may notice later in chapter 15, even tells it again with a different number of guests.

People have come up with a variety of explanations for this story of first century hospitality. Did Jesus really multiply the loaves and fishes as if by magic, thus violating all sorts of natural laws? Is the story only meant to be taken metaphorically? Is it an explanation of Communion? Or was the miracle that Jesus inspired everyone to share the food they no doubt carried in their sleeves and purses? People in those days were no fools. No one would have gone to a deserted place without some provisions.  Or, as I’ve also heard it explained, were the women carrying the potluck with them as usual? Which the disciples then helped them set up??

The answer to all of the above is yes. Yes and yes!   I think we lose something if we insist on explaining this story, and limiting it in any way. Regardless of whether it is factual, regardless how it happened, it is deeply true.  Our God is a God of extravagant welcome. When we allow God to work through us in generosity and hospitality, miracles happen.

When I took Communion to Josephine this week, I asked her for an example of the loaves and the fishes in the life of Sojourners, other than the fact that potlucks here never run out of food.   (Yes, I’ve seen potlucks in other churches run out of food!)

She quickly replied, “Look how few we were when we started. We had less than ten people in the beginning, and we have so many people now!”  The loaves and the fishes….God multiplies whatever we have to offer.

Sojourners has certainly multiplied in numbers, activities and potential for ministry.  I’ve observed that you are way more successful than other new church starts in terms of size, financial independence, and in having your own building.

“Jesus never turned anyone away, and neither do we.” God welcomes us and showers us with love, and then it is our turn to pass it on. Sojourners has an incredible history of welcoming a tiny baby named Desi. Her mother was pregnant in prison due to the sexual misconduct of a guard, and she wanted to keep her baby.   Two Sojourners agreed to raise the baby, named Desiree (wanted!),  until her mom was released. Quite a few Sojourners helped with the child care, and now Desi is a vibrant, intelligent child ready for kindergarten.   I can’t think of another church that would have been this welcoming.

Sojourners are also superb at greeting visitors. You are the best I’ve ever seen in my 14 years of interim ministry. Sometimes I don’t even get a chance to greet newcomers! This is also the first church I’ve been in that was so welcoming to people of differing abilities. I understand another church in town has a class just for Down’s syndrome people; but there they stay. At Sojourners, they are welcomed to offer prayers and read the scripture; or just direct the singing in the closing circle.

Do we always get it right? Of course not. We are human. Once in awhile we may prefer to talk with friends rather than greet a newcomer. That’s why I hope you will carry through on the impetus that started after the last congregational meeting, to create an Extravagant Welcome Committee. It could be a separate group or even a Subcommittee of Membership and Parish Care.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve been saying that you all need an evangelism committee, but the energy wasn’t there, and the name was a stumbling block to many. It is important to have an energetic group of people whose business it is to see that newcomers are welcomed, to keep noticing when people come back or don’t, and to work on getting more people into the church, especially in the demographics we are lacking. Membership and Parish Care can’t do all that and still be in charge of the food.

“Jesus never turned anyone away, and neither do we.” This slogan of the United Church of Christ is speaking to the ideal. Like the kingdom of God, extravagant welcome is not always a done deal.

Extravagant welcome begins with getting people into the church, and greeting them, but it also includes the next, harder step of incorporating them into the church community. Often, newcomers offer to help, or want to participate in a committee–but if they want to do things differently than we are used to, we may not be extravagantly welcoming or even welcoming at all. Change is hard! Only interim ministers like change! But as in all living organisms, a church must change or die.

The disciples say, “We don’t have enough.” Churches said this in Matthew’s time, and it’s been said again and again since then. “We’re a small church. We are poor. We don’t have enough income/or people /or a good enough location to do _____.” Fill in the blank with anything: attract new members, have a full time pastor, create a youth program, tithe to OCWM, feed the hungry, whatever.   Churches have been feeling inadequate as long as there have been churches.

Then, as now, God’s answer is “Sure you do. You have everything you need.” You may have heard of Tony Campolo—he’s a professor of sociology and a popular speaker on the Christian circuit. He’s very plain spoken and funny, almost cantankerous at times. Once when he was speaking to a women’s group, he refused to pray for God’s blessing when asked. This is the hired speaker, mind, and a religious speaker to boot. The women’s group had been challenged to raise several thousand dollars to fund a mission project, and they wanted God’s blessing as they considered their individual responses.

Campolo said, “No way, I’m not going to do it. You already have all the resources necessary, right here in this room. It would be inappropriate to ask for God’s blessing, when God has already blessed you with the abundance and means to achieve this goal. The necessary gifts are in your hands.  As soon as we take the offering and underwrite the mission project, then we will thank God for freeing us to be the generous, responsible and accountable stewards that we’re called to be as Christian disciples.” And so they did.

You are on the verge of calling a new, full-time pastor. It is an exciting time! We will add at least nine new members on August 28, something I love to do. With twenty years of existence under your belt, and six years in this building, you are poised to grow in hospitality and ministry in leaps and bounds. This is a grand time—can’t you feel the energy?

Just like the women Tony Campolo spoke to, God has freed you to be the best you can be; and you have everything you need to do it, and more.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

Yoked Together

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

A Meditation for July 3, 2011
Scripture: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

After Jesus finished instructing his disciples in the art of ministry, he sent them out two by two. Then Jesus took off on a journey of his own, preaching and teaching throughout Palestine, to the disciples’ own home cities. Jesus, like the disciples, like us, in fact, was no stranger to rejection. Not every stop on his journey was successful, to say the least. We know this because verses 20-24, which are missing from today’s reading, comprise the “Woe to You” verses. For example, “Woe to you, Capernaum! It will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” Jesus goes on to list several other cities where his message of healing and justice was rejected, and these pronouncements seem almost like curses.

Remember that Capernaum was Jesus’ adopted home town. To hear how shocking that “woe to you” was to his audience, imagine if a local son or daughter came home and said, “Charlottesville is going to straight to hell!”

I’m guessing the lectionary, the ecumenical guide to scripture reading and preaching that I follow, left out “the woes” because Jesus’ anger and reproach can be upsetting. I don’t blame the lectionary editors, it’s human nature to want to avoid conflict! We all want to get past the challenge and the fear and the anger, and get to the good stuff at the end.

Do those of you who grew up in church remember this passage?

“Come unto me all ye that labour, and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Ah!!! Sometimes it just feels good to read the King James Version of the Bible, particularly when verses are comforting.

But we’re not going there yet. It did occur to me that perhaps I should just stand up and read that and then sit down. But before we jump to those beautiful verses, let’s wring some more juice out of the reading as a whole. Now surely, Jesus’ experiences of inhospitality, rejection and discouragement in his preaching journey influenced the rest of what he had to say. In addition to pronouncing woe on several cities, Jesus reflects his frustration at the capriciousness of people. He reminds us that we are like children sitting in the marketplace, calling out to others: “We played the flute and you wouldn’t dance; we wailed and you did not mourn.”

This refers to the contrast between Jesus (who usually wasn’t dreary) and John the Baptist (who certainly wouldn’t dance.) John fasted and lived simply in the wilderness; he was austere, formidable, challenging—very much a doom and gloom preacher crying, “Repent!”—and so some people thought he was possessed.

Jesus, despite his occasional lapses into hurt anger and judgment, was known to party. He and his disciples drank wine and ate good dinners when they could, and picked wheat when they couldn’t. That got Jesus labeled “drunkard and glutton,” which interestingly, is the beginning of a capital charge under Jewish law. According to Deuteronomy 21:20, the parents of a rebellious son were to bring him to the elders, state that he was a drunkard who won’t work or obey his parents, and then the young man would be stoned, to “keep evil from taking hold in the community.” Tough times!

Jesus has his finger on the problem: you’re a drunkard or you have a demon; dancing or mourning; however you size it up, everyone has an opinion, and you just can’t keep everybody happy.

Pastors and worship committees know this very well! Passions about worship run deep, especially at Sojourners. You not only have a history as a new church start with lay-led worship, but you have grown and added members from many different, and no, faith traditions, which make people expect different things in a worship service. Being “non-hierarchical” is a value of Sojourners, but it is hard to know what that means when the pastor is primarily responsible for worship. For instance, some adore the sharing of joys and concerns, yet others think they are not prayerful enough. Some people like me to sum up joys and concerns in a closing prayer, because they can’t hear unmiked people very well; others prefer silence. Some dislike communion ushers while others don’t like the crowding and confusion that occurs when everyone is left to their own devices in how they line up to receive communion. And so on.

It basically comes down to this: how do we best get connected to God? What kind of ritual brings us closer to each other and to God? See if you can visualize this ancient spiritual diagram. A large circle represents the community. In the middle is a smaller circle, which represents God. Each person in the community is like an arrow pointing inward to God. The nearer each person gets to God, the closer he or she gets to other people in the community. The closer you move towards your neighbors, the closer both of you move towards God.

The question for both the people of ancient Palestine and of Sojourners is, “What kind of leader helps us best to access the holy—an ascetic prophet of the apocalypse, like John? Or someone who gets involved in daily life like Jesus, who may be judgmental at times but who honors all people? Or someone entirely different?

Sometime in the not too distant future, you all will have the chance to hear the sermon of the pastoral candidate that the pastor search committee has selected for you. And those of you who are official members of the church will get to participate in the selection process and decide whether that pastor will be the one to lead you into the future or not. Either you will come to consensus on that person; or, you will not and you’ll start over. And what will get you through this struggle of discerning the right pastor for you is the yoke that you wear.

I wear a stole in part to remind me, and you, that I wear the yoke of Jesus. You each bear one, too, only yours is invisible, as mine is during the week. In Jesus’ day, yokes were used on oxen to assist them in turning the earth and doing other agricultural and construction tasks. They look heavy and scratchy and uncomfortable. But note that Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden light. What’s that about?! We must remember that the people in Matthew’s time, when this gospel was written down, had lived through the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and brutal suppression of the Jewish revolt by Rome, including so many crucifixions that the Romans ran out of trees. Matthew’s audience had a pretty high standard of what is heavy and what is light!

Remember also that looks can be deceiving. Those heavy-looking wooden yokes were whittled to fit the oxen. The oxen would not have been able to do their job if the yoke was ill-fitting or too heavy.

More important, Jesus’ yoke is easy for us because we are yoked together with him in love. He is pulling right beside us. If we stumble, he is right there to catch us and sweep us along. The only burden he lays on us is love: love of God, love of self, love of neighbor. This is not totally easy, is it! Because love requires dedication and occasionally even selflessness!

But on another level, it IS easy—because we love a God who first loved us. Even if you didn’t experience that love as a little child, even if you haven’t felt that love before, know now that God loves you far more than you can even ask or imagine. You bear a yoke that God has whittled just for you, and Jesus is pulling right beside you. And every member and friend of Sojourners is pulling with you, too. Thanks be to God!