Sunday, August 25, 2013

For the Defense: Sermon on Job 4, 8, 11 and 23

Scripture passages can be found here...

They were the best of friends, and they were the worst of friends.

We are with Job again. Last time we met him, he was sitting in a pile of ashes, still reeling from all he had lost—property, wealth, and most horribly, children. And last week Job’s friends were sitting with him, silent witnesses to his pain. And that was perfect. That was inspired. That was something we all need at certain terrible moments in life—someone to simply be with us.  

But that was last week, and now it’s this week, and Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar have different plans for their friend Job. Now, they take a different approach.

Today, Job’s friends are going to try to fix Job. They are going to tell him exactly why, in their view, all these bad things have happened to him. Eliphaz puts it like this: “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:7-8). Bildad asks, “Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” And then he answers himself: “See, God will not reject a blameless person, nor take the hand of evildoers” (Job 8:3, 20). Zophar is even more blunt: “Should your babble put others to silence, and when you mock, shall no one shame you? For you say, ‘My conduct is pure, and I am clean in God’s sight’” (Job 11:3-4). Of course, they all are saying, essentially, the same thing. If you were punished, you must have deserved it. Bad things only happen to bad people.

Imagine being Job, sitting in the ashes, having lost virtually everything, hearing his ‘friends’ suddenly turn and blame him, attack him. There is a psalm for that. (There is always a psalm, for everything.) “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.” (Psalm 41:9).

And before we come down like a hive of angry bees on Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, it might be good to remember: this, too, is a very human and very natural defense mechanism. When we hear something terrible, it is a very normal instinct to try to work out in our minds why we personally are immune to such an event. I personally do this at least once a week. I won’t get in an accident because I am generally a very careful person, I tell myself. Or I won’t get the bad diagnosis because I’ve started swimming again and will take better care of myself from now on… I really, really will!

We’ve seen and heard this in the aftermath of some of the terrible mass shootings. Remember the one that took place last summer in Aurora, CO leaving twelve dead and seventy injured? Shortly afterward, I was stunned to hear someone comment, “Well, it was a midnight showing. I would never go to a midnight showing of a movie.”

Job’s three friends are engaged in the very familiar and recognizable human activity. It’s called denial. Sigmund Freud identified denial as a psychological mechanism that kicks in when we are faced with facts or circumstances that are frightening, threatening or just plain uncomfortable. Our response is either: to deny the truth of what has been presented; to minimize the significance of that truth; or to admit its truthfulness but at the same time come up with some explanation that reduces its impact upon us.

Job’s friends are engaged in the third of these strategies. There is no denial of the dreadful losses inflicted upon Job. And, for heaven’s sake, these losses cannot be minimized. But the idea that such things could happen to an innocent man is too uncomfortable, too frightening, too threatening to accept. Therefore, Job must be, not innocent, but some how culpable. He must deserve his suffering. He must have sinned. This act of denial allows the three friends to rest in the comforting delusion that nothing of this magnitude could ever happen to them.

Job is having none of it. Job takes the stand for his own defense.

Oh, that I knew where I might find [God],
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted forever by my judge. ~Job 23:1-7

Job speaks now as if he were an attorney, with himself for a client. Like any good defense counsel he is paying close attention, not only to his own arguments, but also to the accusations of the prosecutor. Job wants to hear and understand: exactly what case does God have against him? He is confident about one thing: if God would listen and give heed to all the facts, if Job could lay his case out before the only judge who truly matters, he would be “acquitted forever.”

But then, Job falters. He cannot bring his case before God, because he can’t see God, he can’t hear God, he doesn’t know where God is.

If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.

All the power and knowledge and understanding are on God’s side, not Job’s. There’s a psalm for that, too. In a haunting echo of Psalm 139, Job affirms, “But he knows the way that I take.” And then his confidence seems to return:

…when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold.
My foot has held fast to his steps;
I have kept his way and have not turned aside.
I have not departed from the commandment of his lips;
I have treasured in my bosom the words of his mouth.                          ~Job 23:8-12

Job stands firm. He is upright. He hasn’t sinned. He isn’t budging. I have this image in my head of Job and his friends, something like a scene from a television police procedural. Job is sitting at an empty table, with one of those blindingly bright lights glaring down on him, so that he can’t see anyone or anything else. And there in the darkness, smoking cigarettes with their shirtsleeves rolled up, are his friends. And they are doing their level best to break him, to get him to admit it. Come on, man, you know you did it. And Job says, No.

Not a lot of us could hold up under this kind of pressure. Today we’ve read a couple of paragraphs, a few tiny examples of the kinds of things Job’s friends say to him, but it goes on, chapter, after chapter, after chapter… 30 chapters or more of Job’s friends keeping him at that table without a glass of water or a chance to make his one phone call.

And by the end of our passage, Job’s courage is failing him. He begins to imagine God in some other way than a just and reasonable judge. In fact, he can’t imagine God at all… the overwhelming mystery of who God is takes over.

But he stands alone and who can dissuade him?
What he desires, that he does.
For he will complete what he appoints for me;
and many such things are in his mind.
Therefore I am terrified at his presence;
when I consider, I am in dread of him.
God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me;
If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face!                         ~Job 23:13-17

All is darkness. There’s a psalm for that too: “For the enemy has pursued me, crushing my life to the ground, making me sit in darkness like those long dead” (Psalm 143:3). But, of course, Job does get his phone call. Another psalm reminds us: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:11-12). Job gets his call. Each and every time Job speaks throughout this long book of poetry that bears his name, that is exactly what he is doing. He is making that call.

Calling out to the God whom he believes to be all-powerful and all good.

Calling out to the God whom he believes to be all-merciful and all-just.

Calling out to the God who has allowed him to suffer so terribly.

Calling out to the God who, so far, has been silent.

Calling and calling and calling.

Good for Job, beating his hands against the tall and imposing gates of heaven when he is suffering. Good for him, refusing to take “No” for an answer—or even, refusing to take silence for an answer. Good for Job, who, whether he realizes it or not, stays in relationship with God all the while he rails against his unjust treatment and makes the case for his acquittal.

When we are angry—with anyone, with friend or lover, parent or child, co-worker or neighbor—the last thing we want to do is to stay silent, to go into a deep freeze, to turn and walk away. We are people created for community, created for one another, created for relationship.

I believe our relationship with God calls for the same persistence. God doesn’t want us to turn and walk away. God doesn’t want us to retreat into our shells. God would rather have us yelling and pounding on the gates of heaven with our cries and our prayers than curling up in a ball and crying “Uncle.” We are people created for community, yes, but created, first and foremost, for God.

Job keeps calling. He calls out when he’s sitting in the dirt scratching himself with a potsherd. He calls out when responding to the accusations of his friends. He calls out when he lays his case before God, a lawyer for his own defense. And he calls out, even when he wishes for darkness to cover his face because he just can’t bear it any longer.

Call out to God. Call out when you are sad. Call out when you are raging. Call out when you are cold and shamed, lying naked on the floor. Call out to God. Call out, because in calling out, we stay in relationship. We stay connected. We leave the door open. (Not that God was ever any respecter of closed doors anyway.) But still… leave the door open. Call out. Call out like Job.

We leave Job in the darkness, but he won’t be there for long. Next week, in the whirlwind, in a voice that rings out over the waters—and yes, there’s definitely a psalm for that, too—finally, finally, finally, God answers. God breaks the silence. God always, eventually, breaks the silence. And when God does…. watch out.

But in the meantime, call out. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Silent Witnesses: A Sermon on Job 1-2

"Job" • pen, ink & wash • by Chuck Berk; Donated by the Artist for relief 
of Tsunami and Earthquake Victims in Japan

Scripture can be found here...

I can’t say they didn’t warn me.

My clergy friends, the ones I gather with each Wednesday morning to have breakfast and discuss our preaching plans for the week. They warned me about preaching Job. They said, “Really?” They rolled their eyes.

And now, after our very slow start-up over the past two weeks, in which we listened to the opening verses, we are in it. The part they were warning me about. Here we are, with the original version of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” And for people of faith, people who give praise to God, the story is pretty hard to take.

To recap: Job is a man who is “blameless and upright,” who “fears God and turns away from evil.” Job is who each and every one of us is trying, hoping to be. He’s not perfect—no one is perfect but God—but truly good, on the right track.

Job is the father of ten children, who are close, who enjoy feasting together. And like any good person of faith who is also a parent, Job prays for his children. Well, he does the ancient near-eastern version of praying for them: he offers sacrifices to God, to atone for any sins they may have committed, even within the interior walls of their hearts.

And God has taken notice of Job. He turns to Ha-Satan, also known here as “Satan”in Hebrew, the Adversary, the Opposer—and says, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8).

Now, Satan is a member of God’s heavenly court. And as I said last week, his job is to bring to God’s attention those things God may have not considered. He is the original Devil’s Advocate, trying to poke holes in God’s theories, so that God might always have the best information.

You may have noticed something about this notion of God. The notion of God that is operating in this story is that God doesn’t necessarily know everything. God has a heavenly court to help with this problem. I bring this up, because this is not our notion of God. Our understanding of who God is and how God is has evolved from this more primitive understanding. We tend to believe more in the God of Psalm 139, God to whom we can pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.” We don’t assume God needs any help with this.

God draws Satan’s attention to Job as an ideal of humanity. Here, it’s Satan who rolls his eyes. His response is to claim that Job is only good and upright because he has had it too easy, he’s soft. “You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face” (Job 1:10-11). And God replies with an answer that rocks our world.

“Very well, all that he has is in your power…” And though God initially prohibits Satan from harming Job himself physically, eventually God allows even that.

The book of Job is actually taking a pretty sophisticated stance here, one that is consistent with many contemporary Christian thinkers. It does not claim that God directly tests his faithful servant Job. It does not place the events that follow directly at God’s feet. It makes the distinction between God causing suffering and God allowing suffering. And we only have to glance at the headlines to know that this is true: at the very least, God does allow suffering. Political unrest, war, genocide, unemployment, homelessness, hate crimes, domestic violence, child abuse… the evidence is undeniable, even before we turn our attention to the ordinary, garden-variety suffering we know firsthand. God allows suffering.

God has allowed Satan to curse Job’s life and fortunes. God has allowed the suffering of this man. And what follows is heartbreaking and overwhelming.

All of Job’s herds of oxen and donkeys and sheep and camels, carried off or killed.

All of Job’s servants, killed.

All of Job’s wealth, gone.

All of Job’s children, killed.

Total devastation, leaving Job with only his wife plus a handful of friends.

And Job’s response?

Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”  (Job 1:20-21)

Job is not your average person of faith. Job does not do what most of us do in the face of terrible tragedy, at least not as his first response. He does not immediately ask “Why?”—the most automatic and human and understandable response. He does not rail. Not yet. He makes a kind of bare bones faith statement: Human beings come into this world with nothing, and they go out of it the same way. God took only what God gave in the first place. Let God’s name be blessed, because God is God.

But did God take it away? The first chapter tells us God did not, God merely allowed it to be taken away. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret. To Job, to you, to me, the emotional truth is: it hardly matters. Loss is loss. Pain is pain. Devastation is devastation. Whether God participated actively or passively hardly registers—it’s like having an argument over the relative merits of the different handles on knives when we’re bleeding to death. All we know is, we’re bleeding. And Job cuts through to the essential: If all the world is in God’s hands, all the world is in God’s hands. He is going to keep trusting in that, for better or for worse.

Then Job’s friends come. And here, in this moment, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite do something also very human, very automatic, and very understandable. They show up in an attempt to offer comfort. They weep, and they tear their clothes and put dirt on themselves—traditional signs of mourning. And then they sit with Job.

You’ve been that person. You’ve shown up at the bedside, or the graveside, or on the front porch, holding flowers, or a little packet of Kleenex, or a casserole. In the face of terrible loss, you’ve been that person. You know you have. But have any of us been able to do what these three do next?

They sit with Job on the ground. They sit in silence. They sit for seven days and seven nights in silence, because, as the bible tells us, Job’s suffering was so great. They say nothing because there is nothing to say. They say nothing for the exact same length of time Jews traditionally sit shiva, the intense first period of mourning after a death.

And this time of sitting in silence, bearing silent witness to Job’s suffering, is the best, and most loving, and most faith-filled thing these friends do.

It is incredibly hard to be in the presence of deep suffering. Not as hard as it is to endure deep suffering yourself, of course. That is far worse. But the experience of witnessing suffering is difficult because another completely automatic and human and understandable response to suffering is to want to make it better.

And I don’t want to deter us from our attempts to make suffering better. Do you have an opportunity to feed someone who is hungry? Definitely do it. Do you have the possibility of giving clothes to someone who will otherwise be naked or cold? Yes, of course, do it. Do you have an opportunity to help rebuild a house that was damaged in a hurricane? By all means do it. Do all these things—which traditional Christian theology calls “the corporal acts of mercy,” things that help suffering bodies to stop suffering. Do them, do them!

But the suffering of the body and the suffering of the spirit often go hand in hand. And sometimes our desire to help to ease suffering causes us to say things—things offered in love, things offered hopefully—but still things that are better left unsaid. On the Sunday immediately after our Mission Trip I mentioned a pamphlet put out by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, “A Volunteer’s Guide to Offering a Ministry of Presence.” In that pamphlet there was a helpful list of things NOT to say… things like:

“I know how you feel…”

“I was blessed not to have been hit (by the tornado)…”

“At least you have another child…”

“He/ She is in a better place…”

“This was God’s will…”

It is one thing for Job to ascribe what has happened to God. It is one thing for a person who has suffered a tragedy to find meaning in it. And… human beings are meaning-makers, it’s in our psychological DNA. We do that. We do it all the time. Given time to heal, and to reflect, and to pray, we may well find ourselves able to say of a certain terrible situation, “This is what it meant, this is what God had in mind.” Or, we may never ever get there, no matter how hard we try. But it is another thing entirely for a well-meaning friend to try to make meaning for us. It is far, far better for friends… loved ones… neighbors… co-workers… to emulate Job’s friends in this moment of gracious, God-inspired wisdom, in which they simply sit in silent presence and witness.

And don’t worry! Job’s friends get to be imperfect friends next week, when they finally do open their mouths. But for today, in the face of unspeakable loss, they understand that it is better not to speak.

And, in case you’re wondering, there is a list of “Do’s” along with the “Don’ts” in that pamphlet… things like:

“Listen…Tune your heart, eyes, ears, mind, to the person to whom you are listening…”

“Accept all persons as they are…”

“Cry if you need to cry…”

Say things like “My heart goes out to you…” or “I am sorry for your loss…” or even nothing at all, just offer respectful, mindful presence.

My friends warned me. Job in the summertime is a challenge. But the world keeps spinning, doesn’t it, and with each turn we get to witness joys and sorrows, challenges and triumphs. There are Jobs all around us, and we have endless opportunities to be with them in their loss. And we will each take our own turns at being Job, and we will find what it is to be surrounded by friends and loved ones who care and say the right and wrong things, just like we do. It’s ok. It’s ok. I’ll let the pamphlet have the final word:

[In times of loss] you are Christ’s Hands and Feet and Eyes and Ears for the survivors. The most important gift you give them is your very presence. Your being there gives them hope, connection, and love… 

Hope, connection and love. Until that day when God stops being a silent witness, and whispers in each heart, and helps us make sense of it all. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Big Plans: Sermon for a Baptism, on Job 1:6-12 and Ephesians 1:1-14

Scripture can be found here and here...

In the year 1785 the Scots poet Bobby Burns wrote a poem, “To a mouse, on turning up her nest with a plough.” It contains an often quoted—and misquoted—line:

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

I learned it, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” Or, as others have re-interpreted it, “We plan, God laughs.” That last one is a phrase I have never liked much, because of the strong implication that God is just a little sadistic. The stand-up comedienne Tig Notaro performed a set at a comedy club in Los Angeles last August that has made stand-up history. It was recorded, and Louis CK, who said it was the most brilliant night of stand-up he’d ever seen, put it on his website for a while. In her set, Notaro shared with the audience that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer the day before. She had also been hospitalized just before that with a serious infection, and before that, had lost her mother in a freak accident, AND gone through a painful break-up—all in the space of a couple of months. In one section of her stand-up set, she had this to say.

“You know, what’s nice about all this, is that you can always rest assured that God never gives you more than you can handle. Never. Never. When you’ve had it, God goes, ‘Alright, that’s it.’  

“I just keep picturing God going, ‘You know what? I think she can take a little more.’ And then the angels are standing back, going ‘God, what are you doing? You’re out of your mind!’ And God was like, ‘No, no, no…. I really think she can handle this.’”

Which, if you think about it, feels just a little bit like our reading from Job this morning. Last week we heard about the life of joyful abundance Job was leading: Job the wealthy landholder; Job, the father of a large family, all of whom enjoyed feasting together, Job, the upright and religious man who wanted to keep his family on the right path in their relationship with God. And then, in today’s reading, one member of God’s heavenly court challenges God’s positive view of Job. And though our bibles call him “Satan” he is not really Satan as we normally think of him. This is and Old Testament context and a Hebrew word, “Ha-Satan”, which means, literally, the Opposer, or the Adversary. His job, in the heavenly court, is to challenge God, drawing God’s attention to the other side of the story. And that is exactly what he is doing here. Ha-Satan doesn’t believe Job would be all that righteous and God-fearing if all his wealth and family connections were taken from him. Ha-Satan has big plans for Job, plans that would make Tig Notaro nod her head in recognition.

For the record, I don’t believe in a God who behaves the way Notaro describes him. God is no sadist. But, wow, I can understand how someone might get that idea. All the pain. All the sorrow. All the hatred floating around our world. People want someone to take responsibility, and God seems to be a natural candidate. But in our passage from the letter to the Ephesians, we see the real character of God, and we read about God’s big plans for us. Plans that are, in fact, epic in scope, cosmic in their timelessness, and the basis for all hope and joy.

This letter describes a God who “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” and a God who has “chose[n] us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.”

Little Guy, this is about you. You! Who, at the ripe old age of approximately 6 months and a couple of weeks, can do amazing things like smile, and giggle, and grab onto fingers and squeeze them, and roll onto your tummy and onto your back again, most likely. You, Little Guy, have been blessed by God with every spiritual blessing! You are being held by one of them right now! You have been welcomed into God’s family—even before you were baptized. Even before you were born. Even before you were conceived. Even before your parents were conceived. You were welcomed into God’s family before God had created the world… ponder that the next time you’re kicking your legs because the applesauce tastes so good! Think about the beginning of the world the next time Daddy plays peekaboo with you!

OK, so Little Guy may not be so interested in all this. Not yet. But we should be. Because the same big plans God has for Little Guy are the plans God has for us. Not in the specifics…God has made us different, unique, with individual callings. Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters’ wives… some haven’t figured out just yet what they are doing with their lives. But whatever our roles and responsibilities, God has blessed us with every spiritual gift. Think of it. Every spiritual gift.

You know what that means, right? It means we have everything we need, right here, right now, to be the people God wants us to be. Now, I happen to believe this is part of a promise to us as a community, not as individuals. No one person is blessed with every spiritual gift. That is a fact. But between us? We have everything we need. And with each person who joins in this community our store of God’s blessings and gifts grows deeper and more rich.

And… we are not just some passing fancy of God’s. “Chosen before the foundation of the earth” trumps Ha-Satan’s “Let’s see how God’s beloved holds up under stress” any day. God’s love for us is eternal. God’s love for us is deliberate, planned out. For each of us, and every one of us. Including this big guy whom we are going to sprinkle with water in just a few minutes.

God has big plans for us. And… I wouldn’t presume to know what they all are, but I think I’m getting good at recognizing them when they crop up. And they come from all of us. So… in honor of the baptism of this child of God, I propose a renewal of spiritual discipline I know we already practice here UPC. I propose a renewed discipline of listening to one another. I propose a reinvigorated practice of assuming that people other than ourselves just might have God-breathed ideas on how we can be God’s people together.

So let’s listen up, at coffee hour. At the Christian Education meeting. In the parking lot as we’re walking to our cars, over lunch. Let’s listen to one another. We have been blessed with every spiritual gift. God is ready to share his big plans with us. Let’s listen. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Abundant Life: A Sermon on Job 1:1-5 and Luke 9:10-17

Scripture can be found here and here...

How did you eat this week? If you’re like other Americans, it was all over the map. Some of you probably had a meal or two at a table, conversing with other people and taking time to enjoy the experience. And if you were graced with a certain kind of a week—who knows?—maybe you went on a picnic! Do people still go on picnics? But for most of us, odds are, we are not eating meals the way our parents and grandparents did.

We grab a protein bar or a smoothie and get in the car.

We drive through a fast food joint and eat at our desks.

We eat at a table with another person or people, but everyone spends the meal watching a TV show or glued to the computer or checking their smart phone.

We are a society that has forgotten how to eat. We are people who are deeply hungry for more than food. We are hungry for abundant life.

And by abundant life, I don’t mean an iPad 5. I mean: a life of peace and purpose, joy and meaning, with fulfilling work and joyful play and deep relationships and service to others. But that’s just me. What’s your definition of abundant life?

For Job, a biblical figure who is more parable than history, abundant life is one in which he is “blameless and upright, one who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:1b). It is also a life of significant prosperity—Job’s holdings are large. He’s the “greatest of all the people in the east,” which puts him in Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates territory.

But the thing that moves me most about Job is this: We are told that his grown children sit down together at table, often—the brothers “hold feasts,” and invite one another and their sisters, from house to house. And Job, having raised ten children who appear to be productive members of society, doesn’t leave it there. He watches out for their spiritual well-being too. After the feasts are over, Job offers sacrifices to God on their behalf—not because he believes them to be sinful, but “just in case.”

A blameless and upright and prosperous man, striving to keep his children on the right side of goodness. This is Job’s model of abundant life.

Jesus, in our passage, provides another.

Jesus’ disciples have just returned from their mission trip, but instead of rebuilding houses, they’ve been rebuilding lives: they’ve been healing and telling people about the love of God. And Jesus listens as they tell him everything they’ve done… he wants to hear the stories, about the broken lives made whole, about the Spirit filling them with just the right words, about the demons yielding and fleeing. After he has heard the stories, he takes his disciples to a city called Bethsaida, probably on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It’s pretty clear from the way this is described—it says, “he withdrew privately”—that Jesus is looking for some down time for all of them, time to regroup, to have what my daughter’s Presbyterian Camp called “TWG”—Time With God. No one, not even Jesus and his followers, can pour from an empty bucket. They are trying to take time out to fill up again, on rest, on time together, on time in prayer.

Too bad for them. Because, as I’ve mentioned, they’ve been healing people. They’ve been telling people about the love and grace of God. They’ve been doing the kinds of things that are awakening in the people all across Galilee a kind of hunger for abundant life, a hunger that has people telling their friends, and the new and bigger crowds come clamoring for more. The people follow them to their Bethsaida retreat.

And you know what Jesus does. He doesn’t turn to Peter and say, “Man, they’ve found us, let’s get out of here.” You know what he does. He welcomes the people. Of course he does. Because, thank God, he’s Jesus. He EMBODIES the welcome of God. He IS the welcome of God. He welcomes them. And he tells them about the love of God. And he heals them.

And when it’s time to eat, he feeds them. You know the story, the great Math Fail of the New Testament: Five Loaves + Two Fish = Plenty of Food for 5000 Men, Not Counting the Women and the Children.

Imagine with me what that must have been like. Imagine throwing aside your work for the day… leaving the boat and the nets by the lakeshore, and leaving the bread to rise and rise but never be baked. Leaving the laundry, leaving the fields. Leaving it all because there is someone out there who is going to tell you things you need to hear… things about God’s love for you—for YOU—and things about God’s desire for you to be healed. And then, you ARE healed. This is not hypothetical. This is happening. And at the end of it all, you are not sent away to fend for yourself on the long walk home. You are encouraged to sit in and with the great and motley company of Jesus-followers to be fed by him. And… your work still awaits you at home. The nets still have to be untangled, the bread still has to be baked. But you are changed. You are changed forever by the knowledge that your life has value, and that God wants for you, healing, wholeness. Abundant life.

There are other images in scripture of abundant life. What’s yours? And how can Jesus help you find it? Is it healing you need? You’re in the right place. Is it the opportunity to sit down at table with a gloriously diverse group of God’s children? You’re in the right place. Is it comfort? Consolation? Encouragement to get out of your rut and help change someone else’s life for the better? Again, you are in the right place. Abundant life.

At the heart of the Presbyterian understanding of abundant life is this table, the Lord’s table. Our official Directory of Worship instructs us to have the Lord’s Supper frequently enough that is will be recognized as a “regular” part of Sunday morning worship. For us, that works out to 13 times each year, because we celebrate it monthly plus on Christmas Eve. And it is to be a regular part, not just of the worship of the adult, confirmed members of the congregation, but of every baptized child, too. We don’t withhold communion until our children understand it because, for one thing, none of us on this side of heaven fully understands it. And, to use another analogy, we don’t withhold food until babies understand nutrition. The grace we receive at Lord’s Supper—the entirely free gift of God’s presence—doesn’t depend upon our understanding, thanks be to God, any more than the grace we receive at baptism depends on it. This table is about God’s grace, the grace that promises abundant life.

And our promise for abundant life does not end here. I think it’s pretty clear that the gospels present a very “here-and-now” theology of abundance: God invites us to a great feast that is based on the assumption that there is enough, and we can help to ensure that by our actions, and our caring for one another. But there is also a promise here, a promise of another great feast that is to come. At that feast, God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more.  We will sit on the grass with new-old friends and long lost loved ones, and when we rise again, not only will our hunger be satisfied—at last, and for good—but our bodies will be transformed. In that feast, God will make each and every one of us new, whole, and well, once and for always. Live abundant and eternal. This is the promise. This is our faith. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Friday Five: Quiet and Simple Edition

Today's Friday Five asks us to share five self-care strategies, for those times when you've just had a rough day.

1. I get myself to a body of water. Ocean's best, but mostly not available. So a walk or even a time of quiet sitting by the river can be incredibly restoring. Time spent in the water is good, too. A swim leaves me feeling as if anything is possible.

2. I try to listen to my body, and when I'm tired I try to rest. I have an elementary school child's disdain for bedtime, so this can take real discipline. But being well-rested is incredibly important when life becomes challenging. A special treat is the Sacred Sunday Afternoon Pastor's Nap (TM).

3. I listen to music.

4. I spend time with someone I love, and who loves me. Talking is entirely optional.

5. I laugh. This can be achieved by spending time with someone who is funny, or by watching the right movies or TV shows. Laughter is almost as restorative as sleep. Laughing until you cry can be just the ticket.