Monday, July 27, 2009

How the Mighty Have Fallen––and Gotten Up

Sheepscott Community Church July 26, 2009

2 Samuel 11: 1-15

John 6: 1-21

How the Mighty Have Fallen––and Gotten Up

Our adorable dancing King David trips over his own feet in this morning’s first reading. To employ a cliche, How the mighty have fallen. This great king of Israel, the man after God’s own heart, succumbed to one of the temptations of the powerful. How often have we seen that? Not many days go by that we don’t hear about yet another prominent celebrity, whether politician, movie star, or sports figure, showing off his feet of clay.

The temptations of the flesh are many, and when they are enabled by a position of power, as they were with King David, the outcome can be fairly predictable. Because he could do it, he did it. Have we heard that before? For Bathsheba’s part, there is an acquiescence that could be attributed to the fact that a woman doesn’t say no to the king. The contrast of David’s character with that of the faithful soldier Uriah the Hittite, Bathsheba’s husband, couldn’t be clearer. Or stronger. In deference to his liege, King David, and recognizing that the ark of God was in a tent, as were all his fellow soldiers, Uriah could not in good conscience go down to the comforts of his home and spouse as David had directed him to do. He was a faithful soldier to his core.

How did David feel when he heard Uriah’s explanation about why he couldn’t go home? I hope he had a least a prick of conscience before making the decision to set Uriah up for sure death. It would seem that the same royal arrogance was operant in his second decision: the first decision led him to follow through with his lust and take another man’s wife to his bed. The second, which followed the pregnancy resulting from the first, led him to take the man’s life. First the man’s wife; then the man’s life; and then, the man’s wife again for his own wife. Oh, King David. Our disappointment in you is great.

No greater than our disappointment in Peter, however, who betrayed Jesus by denying him three times. “I don’t know the man!” But it was to this weak and wounded Peter, with whom he shared a lakeside breakfast after his resurrection, it was to that man at that time that Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” He entrusted his people to a weak and sinful man, but whose heart he also knew was good. 

Did Jesus know what he was doing when he did that? Well, think of the five loaves and a few fish of this morning’s gospel. Those five loaves and those few fish fed 5000 people, excluding women and children, who were not considered when calculating the numbers of significant people. So, the fact is that you could probably double that figure to represent how many people were really there––at least 10,000.

Did Jesus know what he was doing when he entrusted the future church to the likes of Peter? Did he know what he was doing when he fed perhaps 10,000 people from five loaves and a few fish? If there was a lesson for the disciples and so, for us in the choice of Peter and in the feeding of all those people, it is to use the resources at hand and make a beginning. Whether or not Jesus as the Christ knew all history before and after that moment is irrelevant. What he is saying, what he is teaching is that what matters is the moment. It is all we have, and we work with what we have in that moment


In that particular moment, he had 5000––maybe 10,000––hungry people in front of him, hungry for teaching, hungry for bread. Jesus’ compassion made him sensitive to all of the hungers he encountered. He fed those hungry for truth with his teaching; his compassion fed the sorrowing; his mercy fed the marginalized. His caring fed the sick, the dying and the lonely. His love fed the hunger of all those yearning to be loved, to belong, to be forgiven and redeemed.

But it is Jesus’ willingness to feed humanity’s endless physical hunger that is the focus of today’s gospel, which challenges us to follow his example and to feed the hungry. In a less dramatic way we have seen the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, metaphorically speaking, on a regular basis at Second Congregational Church on the second Wednesday of every month, when our church is responsible for providing the weekly community supper. Regardless of how many casseroles, salads, and whatever is featured for the month’s menu, no matter how many dishes are delivered––or not delivered, there is always enough. But not just enough. Usually, at least some of those who attend––and that number fluctuates only slightly from month to month––take with them when they leave containers of leftovers. How different is that from the baskets of leftover bread and fish––12!!––which the disciples gathered up after the people had eaten?  

It’s a matter of degree, of sheer numbers, but the principle is the same. Take what you have and make a beginning. It’s important to point out that those whom Jesus and his disciples served needed to be willing to accept the bread offered. Did some say, Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t do rye bread; or did they take what was offered? Yes, the stomach may be hungry but sometimes pride is greater than the hunger and can keep us from receiving that for which our souls are dying. 

Parenthetically, I would note the attendance at the Wednesday night suppers of one person who does not usually eat much of what we have to offer. I think it’s because of her dietary regimen, but she does take what she can. She does receive what she can. But what I want to note about this woman who is a member of the community that patronizes Second Congregational suppers, is that she always brings a little bag of something for the people who are working the supper. Her usual gift is pistachio nuts, but there have been jelly beans in season, and other goodies. That has impressed me and it makes me think of my exhortation in last week’s message not to just feed on the presence of God and what God gives us, but after we are fed and are satisfied to go out and feed others what we have been given. 

There is also a dimension of mutuality in this woman’s gifts to us. In essence, each month we are there, she is saying by her action, Feed one another. Care for one another. No matter how limited the resources, make a beginning. God will multiply those resources and will be the master teacher with the compassionate heart through the whole process. We ourselves are the resources, witness poor Peter, and God will and does multiply our pathetic efforts to the greatest possible advantage. I’m being neither falsely modest nor judgmental in the use of the word pathetic, only realistic in relation to the Divine.

Keep in mind a lesson I have offered more than once about the prodigality of God. Our God, manifest in the life of Jesus today feeding the 5000, or possibly 10,000 with women and children, is a God of abundance and not scarcity. For some of us––I dare say for most of us, especially in these tight economic times––we are kissing cousins with scarcity. We understand and expect scarcity, and we budget for it. And that’s a good thing, depending again on degree. We live by the model of scarcity, although credit card companies have done their best to convince us of a false abundance, an unending supply of money to meet our needs. What a corruption of a truth about God, and that corruption in the service of money. It sounds downright sacrilegious. Know that God’s abundance is real and doesn’t come with a jacked-up interest rate or a price tag. Actually, that’s not entirely true. There is a price tag of a kind: it’s faith. Faith that there will be enough to survive on, if we are willing to surrender our scarcity view and receive, accept what God has to offer, take the rye bread even though you’d prefer Borealis rosemary bread. 

Isn’t that the way we are? Isn’t that the way we’ve always been, right back to the Israelites in the desert? We’re tired of this manna. I don’t like quail. I’m thirsty. We want what we had back in Egypt. Hold your tongue is what I suggest. Hold your tongue and eat what’s put in front of you. Hmm. I think I hear my mother there.

When we object, coming from the scarcity model, that there are so many who hunger and so little food, Jesus challenges us to talk less and do more, to complain less and trust more. That makes me think of time in relation to the abundance and scarcity model, as well. Not only do we not have enough resources, we complain, but there isn’t enough time to get involved in these things, these church and community projects. I don’t have time to do this and that and then more of this. What’s pushing from behind in this complaint is the delusion that our time, our lives are our own, and we hang on to them for dear life, afraid that God will demand everything of us. Bingo! I do believe what God asks is everything, but God never demands it: God asks again and again. If we spend the early part of our lives forming ourselves for life and its demands, we spend the middle years meeting the demands of family, of relationships, of work and social service, or sports––name the expenditure of your energy. Video games. Television. Movies. Online. All are great consumers of energy, of time. 

We all deal with this, don’t we? Last week, if you recall, I asked you to consider the balance between rest and service and to make sure that you get and do both. Jesus was taking his apostles across the lake after a protracted period of service, when they had been healing, feeding, taking care of the general population, just as Jesus did. Jesus saw  they were exhausted, and he saw their need for rest and renewal. As it worked out, they didn’t get it because there were people at their destination waiting for them with even more needs, today’s need for food, food for the body, which is why the loaves and fishes. Even though the apostles were badly depleted energy-wise, they had to meet the needs of those people waiting for Jesus.

If they were going to meet those needs, if they or we are going to say yes to God, we have to be willing to set aside the idea of our lives and time being our own. Come before God to ask about this, to try to get a true read on what God does want, does expect of us, and then to ask for the desire and strength to respond to the need.

Legitimately you may ask, What’s in it for me? Why would I want to give up my time, even if it is what you call a delusion that the time is mine at all? What’s in it for me? I admit I’m perplexed about how to answer that question. I don’t know what’s in it for you, but God does. I don’t know the secret recesses of your heart, but God does. I don’t know your secret shames and hopes, your deepest regrets and your fondest wishes, but God does. 

This much I do know, and this only because it has been my experience, God reveals Godself to us––sometimes––in those deepest places that nobody knows about, and we recognize what’s going on when it happens. We know who it is. And to know that there is indeed a God who knows us, our deepest lustful, lying, deadly selves, and which God loves us anyway...That’s an ephiphanous moment, a turning moment, when we can begin to believe and to love ourselves because like Peter or like King David, one admonished by the prophet Nathan, the other by Jesus himself, these men who committed regrettable acts could be forgiven, could be raised up and begin to live the resurrected life, which is one of joy and hope and service. And it is not a pie-in-the-sky hope. It’s hope that rises out of a dire past, that rises even as the sun rose over New Orleans, the day after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. A new day. Even with the evidence of chaos all around, yet look: there was the sun.

Even with our lives lying around us in tatters, look. Listen. The Spirit of God is speaking into the midst of it, speaking to your heart and soul. No matter what you have done, no matter what you have not done, you are forgivable and can begin a new life. God knows you fully, every thought, every action, every failing, every triumph. God knows you fully and loves you. But like the bread that Jesus offered, you, I, have to receive that bread, that knowledge that seems too great for us. In our puny minds we think in punitive terms. We think in the scarcity model of a God like us, who couldn’t possibly forgive and forget what we have done. We make our God into our own image in this way and turn away from the table because we cannot believe that we can be forgiven and fed. We know we don’t deserve it.

Allow an abundance model of understanding around this. God has enough love to cover a multitude of sin and history that we can’t even calculate as forgivable and forgettable. Again, we only have to suspend our disbelief in this wonderful possibility and receive the bread of God, which we can feed on in those hidden places of ourselves. If we go exploring with that bread in hand, we can bring the gift of love to our own parched and hungry souls. We are a limited resource, yes, but the Creator will capitalize on that limitedness in ways all unexpected. Remember: five loaves, two fish. 5000, maybe even 10,000 people. What can’t God do? We’re a piece of cake after that.

Fed, forgiven, restored, we can then go forth and give, and feed to others what we ourselves have been given, like the woman at the Second Congregational supper gives back. And forgive. Don’t forget forgiveness. In a real way the feeding s the easier part, the forgiving sometimes more difficult. Unforgiveness lurks in the secret place of the heart like a parasite, and can destroy the life of the host who harbors it. With your permission, God can enable you to destroy that parasite and have all of your life’s energy available. Desire and willingness are all. Amen.

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