Saturday, August 2, 2014

Sermon for Proper 13

St James, Marion--Matthew 14:13-21, Isaiah 55:1-5

What do you think of this advice, which I saw recently on Facebook?:

“Don’t worry. God is never blind to your tears, never deaf to your prayers, and never silent to your pains. He sees, He hears, and He will deliver.”

With the rise of social media over the last decade—first blogs, then Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Tumblr and Reddit and probably several others I haven’t yet heard of—theology and spirituality have certainly been among the range of subjects that regularly make an appearance in those areas of cyberspace. Here are some other examples that I’ve spotted recently:

“When my arms can’t reach the people who are close to my heart … I always hug them with my prayers.”

“The most wonderful places to be in the world are: In someone’s thoughts. In Someone’s prayers. And in Someone’s heart.”

“Our faith is stronger than any storm.”

“Every weakness you have is an opportunity for God to show His strength in your life.”

Each of these, I would say, contains some element of truth. None of them is purely and simply false. Each of them has the capacity to be comforting, the potential to be inspiring in some way. But, I would also say, they should all also come with a warning label. They present a risk to those who flee to them for refuge. They are spiritual comfort food, and comfort food is, as we know, more often than not, essentially junk food. Spiritual comfort food, spiritual junk food, has a tendency to shrink God, to reduce God to the relatively confined role of Ultimate Need Meeter, the one on whom we are waiting to intervene and fix everything and make the pain go away, and then otherwise leave us alone. This is well-intentioned, but it leads inevitably to narcissism, to self-absorption, to the attitude that God’s primary reason for being is to meet my needs, to come to my rescue, to smooth out the rough places in my journey through life.

For example, let’s consider the situation that Jesus and his disciples find themselves in as we look at the fourteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. They’re out in the boondocks with a whole bunch of people, a few thousand, according to Matthew’s account. There’s no crisis at the moment, but it’s not difficult to predict that things will get awkward before very long, that the people are going to get hungry. They’re in an out-of-the-way location, and they’ve got nothing with which to feed the crowd. So some of the disciples, figuring they’re just being practical, if not shrewd, and thinking a few steps ahead, recommend to Jesus, “Let’s get rid of them now. If we do that now, by the time they get hungry, they’ll be on their own. It will be up to them to do something about their hunger. But if we hang onto them here, pretty soon they’re going to become our responsibility and you will have to intervene.”

Of course, in this case, as we know, Jesus does intervene. He feeds the crowd, and he does so mysteriously and he does so abundantly. But he doesn’t do it in a practical way. The disciples were right. It would have been easier to disperse the crowd earlier. And he doesn’t do it in an efficient way—look at all the leftovers, twelve baskets of bread and fish! And he certainly doesn’t do it in a way that anyone could have anticipated. Who could have known that Jesus would be able to feed such a large crowd by multiplying such meager resources?

Here’s a social media billboard for you, one that I think might actually be supportable by scripture and sound theology:

“God is ever faithful in providing the sustenance we need.”

Somebody go find an appropriate graphic and put in on Facebook tonight, OK?

Listen to words of the prophet Isaiah as he speaks of and for this generously sustaining God:
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. … eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live. 
God gives us spiritual food and drink for growth in his love and service. But, as was the case on the occasion of that miracle in the wilderness, he doesn’t necessarily do so in a way that is practical, he doesn’t necessarily do so in a way that is efficient, and he doesn’t necessarily to so in a way that is predictable. And he certainly doesn’t do so in a way that is guaranteed to satisfy all of our whimsical desires.

Rather, God’s action in meeting our needs is not for the purpose of bringing us comfort, and not even for the purpose of bringing us happiness. Instead, God’s action in meeting our needs is configured to bringing eternal life, which is more than just endless life later, but a quality of life that we can begin to experience even in this world. God’s action in meeting our needs is configured to giving us authentic joy—not just a good mood, not just a happy disposition, but deep and lasting joy of a kind and of a size that can survive the ebbing and flowing, the waxing and waning, of our fortunes in this world.

And God accomplishes this in a rather odd and unpredictable way, which is by incorporating us into his own life. We would probably prefer that God simply wave a wand or toss a thunderbolt and just –zap!—put everything right in an instant. The long and drawn out process of salvation that God has decided on seems wasteful and inefficient, just as it was wasteful and inefficient for Jesus not to exploit a window of opportunity that day in the wilderness and send the crowd packing while he had the chance. But there it is: God meets our deepest needs by giving us new birth in baptism. When we come under the sacramental waters of the font, we share the death and risen life of Jesus. His death becomes our death; his risen life becomes our life. Our destiny is inextricably wrapped up in his. Then, after making us his own through baptism, God sustains and feeds us and imparts to us his own life by means of the Body and Blood of Jesus, in the sacrament of the Eucharist. And God accomplishes all this in the context of a community that soaks in his Word and forms us in the language and grammar and etiquette and culture of his Kingdom, forming us day by day, bit by bit, so that, when we all make the transition out of this world into the new earth and new heaven, we will have the skills and habits necessary to live there happily.

Now, this is a process that will sometimes inspire and comfort us, and sometimes show up on our Facebook timeline. But it will also invite us to walk through suffering with faith and courage, not evading it, but embracing it in the knowledge that the way of the cross the is none other than the way of life and peace. And, most importantly, it will get the job done. We will look God in the eye, and not need any more cute Facebook memes to get us through the day.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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