Sunday, July 29, 2012

Thanks for Nothing

[Sermon from Sunday, July 29]

Two weeks ago, several of our youth, and about 75 others from the dioceses of West Missouri and Kansas, gathered in Kansas City for five days of urban mission work – the annual Missionpalooza.  The week included a cookout at Harmon Park in Prairie Village, which a number of you helped provide – thank you very much for that.  The kids also had time on Saturday to go to a movie or to an arcade for bowling, mini-golf, or laser tag.  But they spent most of their week hard at work in places like the Don Bosco Center, the Kansas City Community Kitchen, Operation Breakthrough, and Habitat for Humanity. 

So I want to tell you a story about one young person’s experience that week.  This high-school junior was sent to work at the Kansas City Community Kitchen, where he chopped vegetables, served hungry clients, swept the floor, and cleaned out the walk-in fridge.  But he also got to know the situation of the clients beyond an intellectual understanding that poverty and hunger exist.  By the time you serve lunch three days in a row, you begin to recognize faces. 

Well, on Thursday, the young man gathered up dirty towels and aprons to take upstairs to reStart, which is in the same building as the Kitchen, one floor up.  Among its other services, reStart offers washers and dryers for homeless people to use, and the agency also does laundry for the Kitchen.  But talking with the people at reStart, the young man learned they were out of laundry soap.  The reStart staff told him it would be at least a couple of days, maybe next week, before they got another shipment.

Well, coming to the Kitchen each day, the young man had noticed there was an Aldi across the street.  And he knew he had $25 in his pocket, money he’d brought for extra games of laser tag at the end of the week.  So the young man looked at this situation and thought, “I’ve got $25; I can do something about this.  I could play just one game of laser tag and still give people here the chance to wash their clothes.”  So he and a couple of adults went across the street to Aldi, and he bought five bottles of laundry soap.  

Of course, that left the young man with just a few dollars for laser tag on Saturday.  But after serving poor people all week, he’d decided he was grateful to have even a little money in his pocket.  In fact, strangely enough, in that moment, a small amount of money became more than a large amount of money – less really was more.  Homeless people got to wash their clothes when they wouldn’t have otherwise, and the youth was able to enjoy that far more than he would have enjoyed the extra games of laser tag.  Now, my guess is that if this young man had been told up front, “You only have $5 to spend on fun at Missionpalooza,” he wouldn’t have been very pleased.  But he had decided to be grateful – grateful for what he’d been given, grateful for the chance to make a difference for the people around him, grateful for the one game he did get to play.  And because he chose to be grateful, everything changed.

This story may not seem to have much to do with the familiar Gospel reading we just heard, the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes. You’ve probably heard it before.  In fact, you may have heard it so many times that you already had it in your head as Deacon Jim began to read.  That’s where I was earlier this week, when I began reading it:  Jesus draws a big crowd; the crowd gets hungry; he decides it’s time for a miracle; he turns a few loaves and fish into a feast; end of story.  But then, I stumbled across a small phrase in the middle of this long reading:  It says, “Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks...” (John 6:11).  Wait a minute.  What’s Jesus giving thanks for?  

Let’s rewind the story a little bit.  This crowd of 5,000 was following him, hoping for miraculous healings, and Jesus sees an obvious problem:  They’re in an isolated place, the day is getting long, and the crowd is getting hungry.  Jesus asks the disciples what they should do about it; and our spiritual ancestor, St. Andrew, swings into action.  Like many of us, Andrew is a problem-solver, so he goes to see what food he can find.  He comes back to Jesus reporting, “There’s a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.  But what are they among so many people?” (John 6:9).  And it’s here that the story gets strange.  Jesus takes this completely inadequate supply of food, five loaves and two fish, and he does what never would have occurred to most of us:  He prays.  Now, in our anxiety, if we had thought to pray, here’s what we would have said:  “Dear God, give me more!”  But what Jesus says is, “Thank you.”  

Really?  Thank you for what?  Thank you for nowhere near enough food to solve the problem?  Thank you for putting me in an impossible position?  Thank you for giving me just enough to help a few people while having to say “no” to thousands of others?  Yeah, thanks for nothing.  

But strangely enough, something happens when Jesus makes the deliberate choice to be grateful.  Suddenly, there’s more than enough for everyone.  Giving thanks is the key that unlocks the miracle. 

Now, you can see this miracle at least a couple of ways.  The traditional, pious interpretation is what you’d imagine:  Jesus multiplies a small amount of food into a feast for thousands, a sign of the abundance of the reign and rule of God.  A less traditional, more historically focused, interpretation goes something like this:  Jesus’ teaching and healing, and his willingness to share what little he has, opens up the hearts of the crowd.  The individuals sitting on the grass reach into their own pockets and open up their own bags, and they bring out what they’d been hoarding for themselves.  They bring out their own bread and dried fish, or whatever else they’re carrying, and they share it with their neighbors.  From this perspective, the miracle is that the people choose to join the reign and rule of God by loving their neighbors as themselves.  No matter which way you interpret the story, the ending is the same: thousands of full bellies, and 12 baskets of leftovers, all from five loaves and two fish.

The important thing here isn’t the miracle’s mechanism of action.  The important thing is the miracle itself, and here it is:  Giving thanks changes everything.  The more we say “thank you,” the greater we understand our own blessings to be.  And the more our gratitude spurs us to give ourselves away, the richer we become.  Jesus takes a gift we would see as totally inadequate; he says, “Thank you”; and in that moment, scarcity is transformed into abundance.  Even the leftovers are overflowing. 

It’s no accident that in this reading the Greek word for “giving thanks” is the same word we use to describe our weekly transformation of scarcity into abundance.  That word is “eucharist.”  Eucharist means giving thanks.  Every week, you bring a few loaves of bread and a pitcher of wine up to this altar.  It’s not much of a meal for a couple of hundred people.  Surely it won’t be enough.  The folks in these pews are hungry, in all kinds of ways – emotionally, spiritually, some even physically.  How dare we respond to that level of need with such a meager meal.  But instead of bemoaning how little we think we have to offer, we offer it anyway – outward and visible signs of God’s provision and blessing.  And when we pray our “thank you,” when we offer Eucharist at this table, that’s when the miracle happens.  The bread and wine become Jesus fully present with us – allaying our fears, sustaining our souls, and empowering us to serve other hungry people.

This isn’t just a once-a-week thing.  God calls us to live in Eucharist every day because thankfulness is our key to the abundant life God longs for us to have.  In the stunning paradox of the Gospel, the way we find abundance is by giving ourselves away.  It’s why giving is such an essential part of following Jesus and why we’re called to give of our whole selves – time and talent and treasure.  In the giving of those gifts, miraculously, we receive far more in return.  When God tells us in Scripture to give back 10 percent of what we receive, it’s not for God’s benefit.  That money or talent or time was God’s in the first place, and God doesn’t need to receive more of it.  Instead, we need to give it.  For our own well-being, we need the miracle of thanksgiving, the miracle of Eucharist, to transform our less into more. 

And that can be scary.  Giving thanks can be scary.  If I give away my loaves and fishes, I may not have enough.  But the miracle is that we receive even more than we give away.  This is not some “Gospel of Prosperity,” where I stand here and promise that if you give a bunch of money to the church, then God will buy you a new car.  That’s bunk.  But it is true that God will take care of us, in mysterious ways that God gets to choose.  After the feeding of the 5,000, the disciples try to make their way back home, across the Sea of Galilee; and a storm starts blowing.  They row through several miles of rough water, and things aren’t looking good.  But Jesus continues his miracle by providing safe passage even when the waters are rough.  He comes to them when and how they least expect it, and he brings them safely back to shore.  Of course he does.  After all, not only does he love them, but there’s always more for a disciple to do – more thank-yous to say and more crowds to feed.  Or, depending on your situation, more laundry soap to buy and more homeless people’s clothes to wash.

So, to all the Andrews here this morning:  The next time you feel like what you have is never sufficient; the next time you look at your five loaves and two fish and think, “What are these among so many”; the next time you know you don’t have enough – choose to say “thank you” for it, and give some of it away.  Then see how much more those loaves and fishes become.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Holy Messiness of Citizenship

[Sermon from Sunday, July 1, 2012.]

As we approach Independence Day this year, the Supreme Court has certainly given us a lot to think about in terms of American government and public policy – which is, ultimately, our concern, given that we’re the ones who govern this democratic republic. Last week, the Court first struck down some provisions of the controversial immigration law from Arizona while upholding other parts of it. Then, on Thursday, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the 2010 health-care reform law, much to the surprise of many. At least we can rest assured that American government isn’t boring.

Beyond these Court rulings, of course, this is also an election year – and a presidential election year at that. So when we go to the polls this November, we’ll have many decisions to make about who will lead us, at every level – from president to county clerk – not to mention ballot initiatives and local issues. So this morning, and again on Wednesday, as we lift up our nation in prayer and give thanks for the gifts of independence and self-government, we also remember the huge responsibility we bear as the inheritors of those gifts. As Jesus reminds us: To whom much is given, much is expected (Luke 12:48).

So what will inform those choices, come November? What democratic vision guides us as we elect those who will guide our nation? What kind of political consensus binds us together as Americans?

Anymore, it sometimes seems the only common measure of success in governing is whether your actions take you one step closer to victory in the next election and set up your opponents for defeat. Voters increasingly ignore moderate voices, the people doing the hard work of compromise, and respond to shrill and simple answers instead. We have a political culture that rewards intransigence, grandstanding, and a failure to govern. When Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II was with us one Sunday in the spring, the clergy were talking in the sacristy before the service; and one of us asked Rev. Cleaver how things “really are” in Washington. He stopped vesting, and looked intently at us, and said, “It’s even more broken than how it seems on TV. It’s worse than you could ever imagine.” Somehow, I don’t think this kind of political stewardship is what our nation’s founders had in mind.

For that matter, I don’t think it’s what God had in mind either in giving Americans the gracious gift of self-government. As Christian citizens of this nation, we bear responsibility not just to govern ourselves competently but to do so in a manner pleasing to God and in keeping with the lordship of Jesus Christ. That’s a delicate balancing act in a nation whose core principles include the separation of church and state. But we know God wants us to “use our liberty in accordance with [God’s] gracious will,” as the prayer book puts it (Collect for the Nation, BCP 258).

So how are we, as Episcopalians, called to live out American citizenship?

When we look around us, we see many different examples of how Christian identity might shape our decisions about policies and candidates. In some Roman Catholic and conservative Protestant churches, members get specific direction on what’s acceptable and what’s not – and sometimes pretty clear direction on which candidates are acceptable, too. The African-American churches have a long history of speaking the prophet’s voice about civil rights and the plight of the poor – and mobilizing their members for political action. For us, as Episcopalians, we’ve tended to see things a little differently. For a long time, we’ve recognized that, at our best, we’re a broad church, a big tent where people can disagree in love on nearly any issue and still come together to worship the God whose kingdom transcends our differences. But as members of that broad church, how are we Episcopalian Christians called to practice faithful citizenship?

Well, in all the stewardship that God asks of us, we’re called to live our gifts. And one of our greatest gifts as Episcopalians is the ability to deal with uncertainty. We don’t demand a lot of hard-and-fast answers or rigid requirements. We can handle it when things get messy. In fact, we do “messy” pretty darned well. So maybe our call as Episcopal Americans is to roll up our sleeves and practice the messiness of thoughtful citizenship as a contrast presence to the politics of polemics.

And you don’t have to look very far to see us answering that call. Right here, in the St. Andrew's parish family, we have people who’ve put themselves into the mess of government and politics because they’re passionate both about their nation and about the kingdom values they hear God calling them to reveal. We have parishioners who’ve worked on campaigns for Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian candidates. We have parishioners who’ve served as delegates to national party conventions. We have parishioners who serve as lobbyists and advisors to Congressmen. We have a former four-term Kansas state senator in our midst, Audrey Langworthy, recently honored as Johnson Countian of the year for her committed, caring, sacrificial, and self-effacing leadership. And now, continuing the tradition, we have another parishioner, Kyle Russell, who is making his own run for the Kansas Senate. Kyle has a passion for issues like taxation, schools, and highways. Some of that has to do with just wanting to make his state a better place. But he also sees public service as an opportunity to live out the values and priorities he hears in Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God. And, like the Langworthys did for many years, Kyle and Rhonda Russell are willing to make significant sacrifices of time, and money, and normal family life so that he can put himself into that messy world of American democracy in action.

I believe that, as people of faith, our vision of the kingdom of God must inform how we govern ourselves. That call is not unique to this denomination. But how we Episcopalians live it out is in recognizing that God gives us each different eyes to see that kingdom and different facets of it on which to focus. On most policy issues, we simply can’t read the mind of God clearly enough, on this side of eternity, to say “I’m right” and “you’re wrong” because the Bible tells me so. But the fact that we don’t issue a lot of policy statements as a church doesn’t mean our faith is silent about how we should govern ourselves. Even though we reject a view of Scripture and the Church that says we should always be on the same page, God does give us some pretty clear mandates; and we heard several of them in our readings this morning. As Deuteronomy puts it, we must be instruments of justice for those it’s easy to forget: the orphan, the widow, the stranger – those who lack the essentials of life and the standing in the community to obtain them. As Matthew puts it, we must love our enemies and pray for those who oppose us – even when our brokenness leads us to strike back. As Hebrews puts it, we must not cling too closely to our worldly identities and affiliations but always remember our true identity as citizens of God’s kingdom seeking our true homeland, a better country – that is, a heavenly one. With the gifts of our Scriptural witness, and our tradition, and our reason and experience, we’re called to govern ourselves prayerfully, in a way that builds the kingdom as God gives us to see it. We should follow the lead of members of our own parish family and practice public discipleship according to the passion and wisdom God gives to each of us. In our tradition, we have a particular giftedness for showing a broken and divided nation the holiness of the “old politics” – the politics of Episcopalians like Franklin Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, and John Danforth. It’s the politics we see in our own parishioners who put themselves into the holy messiness of government to transform it with civility and common purpose.

Of course we don’t agree about everything. But I’d say we do agree about the bottom line: to steward the gift of freedom in such a way as to build up God’s kingdom – one handshake, one compromise, one sacrifice at a time.