For those who ducked: further reflections on Christ's tender grace...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, July 31, 2011.  They are prompted both by the texts of the Common Lectionary for the day as well as what I experienced last week in worship. In a "Zen" moment, I tossed some candy to people as a way of experiencing how to come into God's grace:  open and receptive like a child.  And while most folks immediately did just that, some ducked.  I've been wrestling with that reality all week long - in compassion and humility - because there are so many, many levels of meaning. I pray that this encounter will be more tender and that they might find a way into the feast rather than ducking.  We shall see...

(Begin by playing the guitar riff to Glen Hansard’s “Falling Slowly”)

Last week, I shared with you a Zen Christianity moment that I thought was going to be very effective – and in some ways it worked.

• I had an offering plate full of hard candy sitting on the communion table; and when the time came to share with you the “short” answer about “how do I receive the gift of God’s grace,” I simply threw the candy up into the air and let you figure it out.

• And as the Spirit always makes clear, you did figure it out: some of you did exactly what I thought you would do – you opened your hands to the gift and received it spontaneously – and took on a very playful attitude when you realized that you had received something sweet.

• It was a ton of fun and kind of wild – and most people – even those who didn’t get any candy – grasped what I was trying to say; namely, that the way you receive God’s grace is to open your hands and receive the gift that is given to you.

But there were some people who ducked – for probably a variety of reasons, too – you ducked when a gift was freely offered. And I have to tell you I didn’t expect that reaction. I really didn’t – it took me completely by surprise – and all week long it has haunted me.

• Just the very physicality of ducking speaks volumes to me without ever once exploring the deeper spiritual and theological challenges at work.

• I was humbled by my own ignorance and arrogance – given a little bit more insight into compassion, too – so today’s message is going to be VERY different. It is for those who ducked – and maybe regularly duck – whenever grace or fear or shame or even risks are thrown your way.

Today’s gospel lesson begins with these words: 

After Jesus heard the news about John the Baptist – how he had been tortured and executed – he had to get away by himself… Somehow the word got out, however, and when Jesus got out of the boat there was a huge crowd of people waiting by the lake. And when Jesus saw them – looked into their eyes and took in their wounds – he was overcome with compassion… and healed them.

I would like you to take a moment right now and let the truth of those words go deep into your heart and soul. Let them sink in like rain upon the parched earth; let the compassion of Jesus seek out and speak to those parts of you that know more about ducking than opening and receiving. If it helps, let this song/prayer encourage you to go deep….

I don't know you but I want you all the more for that
Words fall through me and always fool me and I can't react
And games that never amount to more than they're meant
Will play themselves out

Take this sinking boat and point it home we've still got time
Raise your hopeful voice you have a choice: you'll make it now

Falling slowly, eyes that know me and I can't go back
Moods that take me and erase me and I'm painted black
You have suffered enough and warred with yourself
It's time that you won

Take this sinking boat and point it home we've still got time
Raise your hopeful voice you have a choice; you've made it now
Falling slowly sing your melody: I'll sing it loud

Falling slowly – an incredible prayer/song by Glen Hansard from Ireland captures in sound what so much of life feels like, yes? “Moods that take me – and erase me – and I’m painted black.” The crescendo and swell of the harmonies – the tender openness coupled with the tortured agony and lament – the image of the beloved falling slowly through life… and love… and God’s grace.

• That’s what Jesus saw and experienced when he looked upon the crowd by the lake and offered his healing. 

• He was moved to tears and filled with compassion when he saw beloved men and women falling slowly through life.

So let’s be clear that this passage in scripture is describing something of God’s nature in the tears of our Lord. For that’s what Jesus was sent to share and embody: God’s compassionate and healing nature. In Jesus we have been offered the clearest and most fully articulated vision of God’s love if we have eyes to see. And that’s an essential truth about reading the Bible: it has been given to us to help us grasp God’s true nature. But all too often, especially in our tradition, the stories of Jesus get turned on their head and become more about you and me than God.

• If we just had more compassion then we could bring more healing into the world.

• If we just opened our hearts more generously and shared our credit cards more faithfully we could end hunger in our generation.

• If we were just more like Jesus…

Do you know what I’m saying? Well, let’s be clear: the Jesus stories are mostly NOT about you and me. They are about God – and too often we take the gracious insights about God’s nature that are revealed to us in Jesus and make them a collection of morality tales about us. We change the emphasis in scripture away from a celebration of God’s unlimited compassion towards us into something that leaves many of us feeling empty, soiled and inadequate. It is no wonder some of us duck, yes?

The first insight I need for you to embrace from today’s gospel is what it tells us about God: when God sees us – each of us and all of us – there is compassion. There is grace, not judgment; there is a longing to heal, not hurt or condemn – and I think all of the Jesus stories in the New Testament underscore this truth. God is aching to share compassion with you. Now with this first insight there is also a challenge, too: 

• Do you know the Lord’s deep and tender compassion through abstract ideas about God or through Jesus? Have the words of God’s promise in scripture been made flesh for you from the inside out or are they still intellectual concepts?

• That is to say, have you encountered and been embraced by the one God raised from the dead: Jesus the Anointed – our Lord?

A lot of people become uneasy and uncomfortable when I talk like this; they are embarrassed or afraid to seriously nourish a spiritual relationship with Jesus. We think we’re smarter than that – that all that talk about a personal relationship with Jesus is part superstition and part mumbo jumbo that doesn’t make any sense to those of us alive in the 21st century – and when we think we’re smarter than God’s revealed love…

• So remember that knowing Jesus made all the difference in the world to Mary Magdalene: her life was healed and given meaning, shape, form and integrity through him. She was transformed from the inside out and became the first witness of the Resurrection, too.

• Same for Peter – who betrayed his dearest friend in fear – but was not only forgiven his shame, but empowered to become an ambassador of grace throughout the world. And don’t forget St. Paul, who very close to the end of his life was able to proclaim in Romans 8:

With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn't hesitate to put everything on the line for us in Jesus, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn't gladly and freely do for us? The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us… so there is nothing that can separate us from God now through Jesus Christ: Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture… None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I'm absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

Perhaps you remember that once Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” In fact, chronologically this question comes immediately after today’s story about compassion and the miracle of feeding 5000 people. Jesus asked his closest friends and apprentices, “Who do people say I am and who do you say I am?” And the spiritual truth about God’s compassion is that unless we are open to meeting and embracing the Resurrected Jesus as more than a moral teacher or a compelling ethical myth-maker, we won’t have any reason NOT to duck. 

Brennan Manning in his little book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, articulates the challenge better than most when he writes: 

Who is the Jesus of your own interiority? Can you describe the Christ that you have personally encountered on the grounds of your own self? Only a superficial stereotyped answer can be forthcoming if we have not developed a personal relationship with Jesus. We can only repeat and reproduce pious turns of speech that others have spoken or wave a catechism under children’s noses if we have not gained some partial insight, some small perception of the inexhaustible richness of the mystery and compassion of God as revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

Insight and challenge number one has to do with our intimacy with the Resurrected Jesus – it is something we cannot fake – and have to take seriously lest we remain trapped by fear or shame or doubt. The story starts with Jesus climbing out of the boat and responding with compassion when he sees the people – and how Jesus sees us is how God sees us, too.

The second insight is this: Jesus realized that the people had to be fed. It is a simple observation – so obvious we often overlook it – but the story is telling us something about God when we read that Jesus recognized that the people needed to be fed and made it happen. God’s heart, you see, wants to nourish and fill us; God’s soul aches to share with us blessings and abundance even in a barren wilderness. 

• And somehow, the story never gives us the details, but somehow the people are nourished so that there are 12 baskets of fish and bread left over.

• 12 baskets of food that are full to overflowing – 12 baskets representing the 12 tribes of Israel – a ton of food left over that is more than enough for all of God’s people, right?

But that’s only one of the details that tells us something about God’s love and compassion in this story: what do you think about the fact all these people – 5000 men plus women and children – ate food from a stranger? Think about that, ok? Preacher Sara Dylan Breuer has noted that we have to believe that most of these people followed at least some of the rules of a kosher kitchen to one degree or another.

And what is the point of keeping kosher? It is a way of making certain that what goes into you is of the Lord – that it is nutritious – and handled with care and kindness. And there are only two ways of guaranteeing something is kosher: either you prepare it yourself or you trust the provider completely. See where I’m going with this?

Nobody knew where all that food came from, right? How could they? Scholars have said that 5000 men – not counting all the women and children – represented a crowd larger than the most important cities of that era. So nobody knew where the food was coming from and nobody could prove it was kosher. But… they ate it.

Somehow Jesus evoked such trust from the people that they took a risk and didn’t duck because they felt loved and safe. They experienced so much of God’s grace from Jesus that for a time they let go of their fears and concerns and rules and regulations. Breuer writes:

Five thousand people -- not counting the women and children -- found their lives so transformed in encountering Jesus that all of their fears of dangers to be avoided gave way to enthusiasm for sharing the feast before them. Think about the kind of trust Jesus must have engendered in people to get that kind of response. That's real, life-changing spiritual power in Jesus' presence, a miracle at least as impressive as the multiplying loaves.

Trusting Jesus is essential: trusting Jesus to be who he said he was, trusting Jesus to be the Anointed One resurrected from death by the love of God, trusting Jesus to empower us with grace so that we can live by trust, too. And let me push this one step farther by noting that clearly the people at this feast trusted Jesus because not only did they take and eat the bread he had broken and blessed, but they shared the feast alongside of others they did know.

• How do you think the broken bread got to all those people?

• 5000 plus hands touched it – and passed it – not just to friends and neighbors but to strangers and probably even enemies.

On that hillside, over five thousand people were willing to receive not only Jesus and the bread that he blessed, but also the strangers with whom they shared it. Every one of them became, on that dusty hillside, one with every other. This was a completely spontaneous dinner, so there was no checking the guest list or asking for credentials. Distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, priest and tax collector – indeed, all the distinctions around which wars were fought between nations, families, and brothers – just didn't count any more.

The presence of Jesus, you see, evoked trust and destroyed fear. So, here’s the deal: we’re going to practice receiving grace in trust just the way Jesus shared it on that hillside in the wilderness by the lake. No tossing hard candy today, my friends.

Rather, I have a few loaves of bread – good bread – safe and earthy bread that I’m going to ask you to pass to one another. As we sing again in the presence and name of Jesus, take some of that bread and let it be both a sign and a prayer for you:

• A sign that you want to be nourished by God’s love in Jesus Christ.

• And a prayer that you are open to being filled by Christ.

There is an old, old invitation to the Lord’s Table that says:

Come to this table, it is open to all who confess Christ and seek to follow his way. Come to this sacred table and feast not because you must, but because you may. Come not because you are already fulfilled but because in your emptiness you stand in need of God’s mercy and nourishment. Come not to express an opinion, but to encounter a presence and pray for a spirit. Come to this table, then, sisters and brothers, to be nourished by Jesus and his love.

May the Lord be with you…

+ Christopher Matthew @


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