8/24/2014 Sermon: Family Stories #4 – “Who Am I?”

The view north from Palestine, in the general direction on Caesarea Philippi.  Mount Hermon in  the distance.
The view north from Palestine, in the general direction of Caesarea Philippi. Mount Hermon in the distance.

This month, we’ve been talking about some of the family stories that make us who we are.  We heard about Jesus gathering a huge crowd of people on a hillside for the world’s biggest picnic, and then went a little deeper into our family history with the story of Joseph and his brothers.  Huge issues in our family that can only be resolved when people have faith.

Today’s family scrapbook is about a family trip Jesus takes with his closest disciples.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have this story about Jesus and they each begin by making sure we know it happens in Caesarea Philippi.  It’s a kind of an adventure.

We’re going to a Roman colony way up in the mountains in the very northernmost part of Israel.  Caesarea Philippi was famous for its temple to the god Pan – the universal, all-purpose god.  It’s a town they probably don’t visit much, it’s full of foreigners, and they might even feel a little out of place there, being Jewish peasants.  One thing for sure, it’s a long uphill walk from Galilee, where most of them live.

Matthew 16:13  When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14  They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15  “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17  Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18  And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20  Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.

Sometimes, Jesus takes his people off to a lonely place to pray with them or teach them something without any distractions around, but this is different.  Why would Jesus go to all the trouble of coming to this place?

It’s as if Jesus is telling them, “I’m not just your Messiah, I came for the people who aren’t like you, who don’t have much of anything in common with you. I’m your Messiah no matter where you are or who you’re with.  You need to know that I’m their Messiah too.”

Who am I?  That’s pretty brave question Jesus asks.  He’s asking for an evaluation.  He pulls his people in close and asks, “What’s everybody saying?” It’s logical – that seems to be important for most people: what other people say about them.  In fact, I imagine that what we spend most of our time talking about – the major subject of all conversation – is about other people.  What they do, how they look, what they say, whether we agree with it or not, whether it makes us feel good or feel angry.

But the truth is, most of the time, we really don’t want to know or talk about what other people think of us.  It’s too threatening.  Especially the longer people know you.  That’s why, at least for a lot of us, this is the one topic we don’t talk about in our families: us.

I have an old book from the 1970’s called Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? (J. S. Powell)  Why am I afraid to tell you who I am? Because you might not like me.  You might reject me; and that’s all I’ve got.  You might tell me things that would help me, but you also might tell me things that would hurt, and I won’t risk the pain.  I won’t risk rejection.  So, if it’s okay, I’m going to hide.

Some years ago, I met a youth camp director who did the most amazing thing I’d ever heard of.  Once a year, he would sit down with his staff, and they would evaluate his performance. That’s not so unusual, but once a year, he would sit down with his family for an afternoon and they would evaluate the job he was doing as a father and as a husband, and they were closer as a family because of it.  The principal at one of the schools where I taught art did evaluations every two weeks.  You might think of that as a kind of torture, but I grew to look forward to those times; his constant insight was really helpful.

Well into Jesus’ ministry, after he’s healed incurable diseases, miraculously fed huge groups of people, and taught radical, amazing things that challenge the religious and political systems of that day, he takes his people to a place outside of their comfort zone and asks, “Who do people say that I am?”

Jesus!  It’s incredible!  You should hear what people are saying!  Some of them think you’re John the Baptist come back to life! The way you call people to repentance and tell them they can be part of the Kingdom of God.  The way you point out the hypocrisy of our religious and political leaders.  Some of them think you’re Elijah, the way you control nature, healing, raising people from the dead, calling everyone to a public commitment to their faith in God.  Some of them think you’re Jeremiah, the way you feel so deeply about the people of Israel, how you say what you think in spite of the trouble you could get into.

Then Jesus gets personal.  “Who do you say I am?”  Who is Jesus?  The central question of Christianity, the major question of your faith, my faith, the faith of this church is: “Who do we say Jesus is?”  Answering that question can transform your life.  Who do you say that I am?

Peter gives Jesus the ultimate tribute. Jesus, you are the Messiah:  the Savior of Israel.  The king who sits on the throne of David and restores the glory of the kingdom.  The Son of God.  Jesus, you are the Messiah!  And we want a Messiah!  It’s true!  We want a God who will change our circumstances, who will right the wrongs in our lives, who will straighten out the chaos, wipe out the villains, and above all, who will make us feel better.  That’s what the Messiah does, right, Jesus?

And Jesus says, essentially (read ahead, v. 21…), “You’re right, Peter, that’s who I am.  And in a little while, we’re going down the mountain. We’re going to hike to Jerusalem, and when we get there, our religious leaders are going to grab me and torture me.  More than that, they’re going to kill me.  But after three days, I’ll rise again.

He speaks to directly to each one of us.  When he speaks, he goes around the circle and looks into my eyes.  In a time that has me worried and edging toward hopelessness, he asks me, “Who do you say that I am?”  I’m angry, and the people in my life don’t treat me the way they should and he asks, “Who do you say that I am?”  You’re happy, and right now, life’s not too bad.  But you think about the future sometimes and you sense there’s something missing.  Jesus steps up and asks it again: “Who do you say that I am?”

Who is Jesus?  Our lives reflect how we answer that question.  The way we live our life as a church reflects how we answer that question.  In Romans, the Apostle Paul says, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:8)  The power of God starts to work through us.  Jesus said, what we “bind on earth is bound in heaven.”

When we believe Jesus is our Lord, God begins to live through the things we do. Heaven makes a connection here on earth in us and among us. God gives us purpose, and through the Holy Spirit, the means to accomplish that purpose.  You are “transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God,” as Paul said.  Each of us becomes a tool in the hands of God to transform the world around us.

In this place, with these people gathered here, we get recharged, renewed.  When we believe, our lives are transformed and changed, as the reading said.  We’re transformers.  Those who have had children in the last 25 years or so have an image that comes to mind when I say “transformers.”  A toy that changes from one thing into another.  You’ve probably heard – there are transformer movies now.

But to be a transformer in the real world of electrical engineering is to transfer electric energy from one circuit to another, and that transfer involves a change in voltage, current, phase – whatever. The very same is true for people who think of themselves as Christian transformers. As people transformed by Christ, they go into the workplace, or school, or neighborhood to transfer Christ’s energy to the world. We leave here and do our part to change the world a little at a time.

But it’s easy to bury God and the things God gives us.  It’s easy to do nothing.  More and more, this is not a convenient thing we are doing here.  It takes sacrifice and risk to be a healthy church.  It’s a risk to believe in God and make your life reflect your faith in practical ways.  We want the church to be safe, and convenient, but it’s risky.  It’s a risk to pray; that means you really believe in God and God might work in your life and change things you don’t want changed.  It’s a risk to love, to care, when you might not get anything back that the world thinks is valuable.

There’s a lot in the news about the physical health of America.  If you sit on a couch and never move, what happens to your health?  You know the answer.  It’s the same for the Body of Christ.

Spiritually, where do you intend to be five years from now?  Where will we be five years from now?  Hopefully, we’ll use the foundation of the past to create the new future.

The reality is that if we don’t exercise our muscles, if we don’t use our gifts, if we don’t take risks of faith and love, we kill God’s church – or at least stunt its growth – and eventually, all we have is a building and a booklet full of rules.  We bury life. It’s up to us to risk the investment now.  It’s up to us to uncover the buried treasure in ourselves and others.  There are people living on, walking on, and driving the streets of our town who need what we have.  It’s up to us to use our gifts, without holding back.  I believe God is going to do surprising things with those who trust that Jesus is the Messiah.


O God, you have taken so many risks with us; through your son Jesus, you’ve invested your own self with us.  Help us follow him in bringing life to our families, our town, our world, and our church.  Give us the courage to use our gifts.  Give us the patience to follow where you would lead us to use those gifts.

Help us take the risk of believing in you and trusting you when we’re faced with the needs we see around us: the need of faith for our children, the need of stability in our homes, the need of vision for our future.  Help us love and forgive each other.  Give us the willingness to be your people now, living the life you give us now, leaving clear footprints of love and faith for the next generation to follow.

8/10/2014 Sermon: Family Stories #2 – “Joseph’s Amazing Coat”

Shepherd in Palestine, 2011 - CN.
Shepherd in Palestine, 2011 – CN.

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28. Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan.2This is the story of the family of Jacob.

Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.3Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.*4But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem.13And Israel said to Joseph, ‘Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.’ He answered, ‘Here I am.’14So he said to him, ‘Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.’ So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.

Palestine, 2011 – CN.

He came to Shechem,15and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, ‘What are you seeking?’16‘I am seeking my brothers,’ he said; ‘tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.’17The man said, ‘They have gone away, for I heard them say, “Let us go to Dothan.” ’ So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan.18They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him.

19They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer.20Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’21But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, ‘Let us not take his life.’22Reuben said to them, ‘Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him’—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.23So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves* that he wore;24and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

Palestine, 2011 – CN
Palestine, 2011 – CN.

25 Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt.26Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?27Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers agreed.28When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

One of the things that convinces me of the truthfulness of scripture is that it doesn’t hold back on the details of the lives of bible “heroes.”  It shows us that throughout the history of our faith, from beginning to end, it’s not people concocting a belief system as much as it’s the miracle of redemption – God at work in spite of God’s people.  God’s people, individually and collectively, are less than perfect.  With the exception of Jesus, if we interviewed them for the jobs they took on, the roles they played, we would not have picked them.  Moses, Peter, Paul…  very flawed people.  And that is the point.  God has chosen each of us for a special job in the kingdom and knows all the details of our lives too.  With all of our problems and short-comings, God still uses us in powerful ways.

Joseph’s father Jacob is a good example.  He wrestles with God to receive God’s blessing; he won’t let go.  That’s a good thing; God is impressed and God blesses him, but his story in Genesis is mostly of lies and deception.  He has 13 sons by four different women and, what a surprise, it’s a fairly dysfunctional family.  

Palestine, 2011 – CN.

Some of the problems Joseph was having are not so hard to figure out.   He is his father’s favorite kid and he is seventeen.  That not so bad in itself, but Joseph has “issues.”  He has the gift of seeing sin, the gift of seeing the negative in his family.  His hobby is watching his older brothers to see if they will do something wrong when they tend sheep.  He doesn’t help; he watches.  The problem with the sheepherders being in Dothan is that it’s not where they are supposed to be, and they know Joseph will squeal.  And he wears that robe his father gave him.

Here are some things you might not know about the robe:

The King James version calls it a “coat of many colors,” but it’s a guess at translating a Hebrew word with a lost meaning.  Our version (NRSV) makes a guess that it’s a “long robe with sleeves.”  It’s a word you only find here and in another passage that describes something worn by the daughters of the kings. (2 Samuel 13:18ff )   It’s a kind of toga with designs on it that also gets draped over the statues of goddesses. (see E. A. Speiser, Genesis [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964], 290).

It’s fancy and maybe a little odd.  It sets him apart.  Not a helpful gift from his father, who seemed to be totally unaware of the dynamics playing out in his own household.  Joseph is 17 and his main pastimes were dreaming and squealing on his brothers who were herding the sheep.  He was an accident waiting to happen, and his brothers made it happen.  So his brothers were rid of him; their hatred was accomplished.  But after Joseph was gone they had a new family member in his place called guilt.

The only way this situation gets fixed is forgiveness.  Reconciliation. It’s a long, strange road, but eventually Joseph comes back together with his brothers (I’ll invite you to read ahead to prepare for next week!).  They need each other.  Joseph acknowledges his love for them, his forgiveness; they acknowledge their crime.  I know that sounds simple, but you have to be aware of the thing you have done that needs to be confessed.  You have to know how the thing you have done impacts those around you, how it affects your relationship with God, how it affects those around you, and how it affects your own soul.

You know how your kids will do something wrong, and when they say they are sorry, it’s mostly to get you to leave them alone, to stop causing them to feel badly?  And you wait for that time when they will actually accept responsibility for the thing they did?  And learn from it?

shepherd 2
Palestine, 2011 – CN.

In God’s family, that’s how it is for all of us kids, no matter how old we are.  It’s a truth that when you are in close quarters with people, in a family, in a church, at work… eventually, you will discover things about people that you wish were not true.  And they are discovering these things about you as well.  The old saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”  If we are open to the Spirit of God, we learn a certain measure of toleration and the ability to reconcile.  Why?  Notwithstanding unjust, intolerable situations, reconciliation and toleration is the healthier way to live, the only way to live, and God knows this.  And when love happens in difficult situations, it’s a demonstration of the power of God.

Joseph eventually changed his behavior, learned the value of his family and reconciled with his brothers, but it took years.

There comes this time in your life when you wake up to the fact that, for better or worse, the things you do have an impact on those around you.  It is a healthy thing to acknowledge a mistake or a short-coming in a way that allows you to see it and deal with it.

This is true for groups of people too.  Like countries.  Like communities.  Like families.  Like churches.  We talk it through.  Knowing that I came to this church at a time of great change, a lot of dialogue has been necessary, and that needs to continue.

We tend not to have the courage to believe that the Spirit of God is able to bring reconciliation and forgiveness.  But we see signs of God’s forgiveness around us all the time.  There it is on our wall – the cross.  It gives us the power to face the sin – whatever the issue may be – and move beyond it, so that we can know the amazing forgiveness of God.  God calls us to pass that forgiveness on to each other.

Christian writer Tony Campolo tells this story:

I recently had the privilege of meeting with more than 25 survivors of Auschwitz. We had breakfast together. I asked them, “After what you went through at the hands of the Nazis, how do you react when you hear someone with a German accent?”

One of the men answered, “I was just a boy when they put me, along with my family, into a cattle car in a city in France and started us on the long journey to Auschwitz. We had no water and we had no food, but each night the train would stop and sit still for hours. Time and time again, after hours had passed, there would be German people who would sneak out of the forest, come up to the sides of the cattle cars and push in between the slats of the car small containers of water and bits of food. Their generosity kept me alive. What they did was done at great risk. So – whenever I hear someone with a German accent, I say to myself, ‘Could that be the child or the grandchild of one of those who dared to help me in my time of need?’ Then I smile at them inevitably.”

 Every time I recall this story I become increasingly more convicted. Of all experiences from which hatred could develop in an understandable way, Auschwitz has to be at the top of the list. Yet you could see that this man did not hate his German brothers and sisters. He chose to see the potential valor in each German citizen rather than the potential hatred.

(- Tony Campolo, Red-Letter Christians blog for February 12, 2011, redletterchristians.org/leaving-auschwitz-with-love.)

I have an uncle who was captured in the Battle of the Bulge, and he tells the same story.  He doesn’t remember the brutality of the cattle car as much as the decency of the girl who gave him a cup of cold water to keep him alive.  It was one of the things that helped him decide to enter the ministry.

When the church in Corinth was in deep conflict, and the Apostle Paul had taken them to task, he says, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”  (1 Corinthians 13:1).

The Christian faith is more about relationship than about being correct. Everybody agrees with what the endpoint is (being with God; making a positive difference in our world);  but we disagree on how to get there.  And too often, impulsive emotions take over.

The only fire extinguisher for hatred is love expressed through forgiveness.  It’s true that in all conflict, someone has to be willing to break the cycle.  It’s the power of God working in you through faith that will make that happen. Give yourself to God, then ask God to help.

Think of that conflicted situation in which you find yourself.  Theologian Paul Tillich said, “The first duty of love is to listen.” Before you decide that you are not being heard, you should try to discern how well you are listening.

 Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

8/3/2014 Sermon: “Family Stories #1 – “YOU Give Them Something to Eat!”

New York. CN – 2009

Matthew 14:13-21.  Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Every family has stories.  Along with helpful instruction for life, and the way it connects us with the mind and heart of God, the Bible is a collection of family stories.  Especially when some significant event happens, a birth, a death, a wedding, or maybe a reunion, the family will gather somewhere and tell stories.  My family just did this a couple of months ago.  Every couple of years, we get together – a generation of cousins and our kids and their kids.  We look at pictures and they remind us of people and things that happened.  I’ll bet many of you have done this as well.

1951 - Halderson family
Halderson-Nichols family gathering in Medina, Ohio – 1951.

The worship we do each week is a re-telling of the stories that make us who we are.  This month we’re going to be looking at some of the pictures of our family that scripture shows us and retell some of the stories.  Today is the first of our series called “Family Stories,” and it starts with some pretty tough circumstances for Jesus.

New York. CN – 2009.

Think for just a minute about a bad day. I know it would be different for everyone, but what are the ingredients for a bad day, for you?  Usually, I think it’s a succession of inconveniences.  Some road construction kept you from getting to an appointment or a meeting on time.

Then the meeting or that doctor’s visit didn’t go well.  The phone call comes and now you’ve missed lunch, which makes you a little edgier.  The power goes out, and now you’ve lost the document you spent the last hour working on.  Distracted, you realize you’ve missed your next meeting and forgot to stop at the store on the way home.  Now there’s nothing for dinner.  After a few of these moments, your ability to be the person you want to be is diminished.  Now, isn’t it true that whenever you feel you’re at your lowest, something happened that just ruined your day or your week, or at least your schedule, that’s when people come asking for favors?

Jesus was not immune; let’s see what he does with a bad day.  The gospel story is about Jesus feeding 5,000 people, an amazing thing, but just before this happened, Jesus had just received the worst kind of news.  John the Baptist had just been murdered by Herod the king.  John the Baptist was Jesus’ friend, his cousin, and his partner in ministry.  Jesus was more than sad; he was probably angry and depressed, which may not be a picture of Jesus you think of very often.  A friend, a loved one gone.  So, this is beyond a bad day.  It was one of those days when you remember where you were and what you were doing when “you heard the news.”  Maybe you can empathize with Jesus.  There was that moment when you heard the thing you didn’t want to hear.

And Jesus wanted to be by himself.  So Jesus did what many people do when they want to be alone; he went sailing.   “he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” (v.13)

Do you ever need to be alone?  Is it easy to do?  Maybe it depends on how old your kids are.  Or where you work, or how close you live to your neighbors.  Some who people commute to work get to be alone in the car for a while each day. Whether that’s good or bad depends on your point of view. For many of us, being alone is a luxury, and that’s how it was for Jesus, at least on this day.

We don’t know what he was thinking or feeling.  We only know what he did, and maybe there’s something we can learn in that.  He apparently went out from shore just a short distance, and then followed the shoreline.  The traditional place where he fed the 5,000 is only a few hundred yards from where he was living at the time (Capernaum), so he didn’t get very far.  I can see him rowing and then maybe sailing along, just putting his feet up, and then looking toward shore.  The crowd is following.  He puts down the sail, sits there for a minute, and then rows in.

All the gospels have the story about Jesus feeding the 5,000 people, but Matthew is the only one who introduces it like this, putting it in the context of Jesus having a really bad day – hearing the news about John – then trying to be alone and followed by a crowd. Part of me says, “Come on now people, give Jesus a break!” But that’s not what God wants us to think.

Matthew’s point in introducing the story this way is to show us that God’s care for us never takes a break because of a bad day.  Now matter how things are going, no matter how disappointed God might get with the human race, no matter how much pain God is feeling (and God does feel pain), God still rows back to shore to save us.  Throughout the gospels, Jesus never deserts people who are crying out for help, and that’s still true.

But this crowd is on the verge of a riot.  They are not only hungry, there are not only sick people who want to be healed, they are out in the middle of nowhere and it’s getting dark.  Matthew says there are 5,000 men, so there might be at least twice that many people.  That’s more people than the population of any of the towns in that whole lake area.  It’s late and they’re hungry.  They are determined to see Jesus and it doesn’t seem to matter to them that there’s no food.

Jesus is rowing back to a situation that only God can handle, and that’s precisely the point.

First, Jesus gives the crowd what they came for; he heals the sick.  That’s why the crowd is there – to be healed.  Then the event everybody remembered for years afterward; he fed the whole crowd.  Thousands of people.  Can you imagine 5,000 hungry people all in one place?  And you’re a disciple of Jesus, one of the people in charge.  There are so many people milling around, babies crying, men and women talking more and more loudly – because that’s what happens when there’s already a lot of noise.  You can barely hear Jesus when he says (or yells), “They don’t need to go away; you give them something to eat.” (Matthew 14:16)

DR - kids eating
Luperon, Dominican Republic. CN – 2010. Many families in the DR have one main meal per day, in the early afternoon.

He said that to you.  First, denial.  He didn’t really say that.  Then, panic. Some of the crowd heard what he said and now they’re looking at you.  They heard him say, “YOU give them something to eat!” Thanks a lot, Jesus.  Sometimes, I think most successful church events are like this – if you are the chairperson, for a little while, it looks like you’re going to have to do it all by yourself.  Maybe you panic a little bit until God sends help.

In the training manual for Ritz Carlton Hotel employees, there’s a proverb that says, “If you see a problem, you own it.” To say, “It’s not my problem” or “It’s not my job” is not acceptable. If you see a problem, you own it — you take responsibility. Jesus doesn’t do the reasonable thing here, the rational thing, which might be to hang out a sign that says, “Closed today; death in the family.”  Instead, he turns the problem into an opportunity — a teachable moment. You give them something to eat.

In feeding this crowd, Jesus is showing his people, showing the church, what he wants from us and what he can do through us.  All they had was a little bit of food.  That’s all Jesus needed.  All they had to do was give it to him and then pass around what he gave back.

Nablus, Palestine. CN – 2011.

That’s how it is with God.  God uses what we have to work a miracle.  God doesn’t complain about what we don’t have.  God doesn’t complain about how things are going.  God does amazing things with the stuff we think of as puny and meaningless.  “Give me the bread, give me the fish.  Now these people are hungry.  Don’t just stand there; get to work!  Do something!”

New York. CN – 2010.

He “gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.”  (v. 19)

The disciples had to be people who were willing to say, “It’s not about me; I’ll do what Jesus says.  I can wait.”  They apparently didn’t complain – about anything.  They obey Jesus and pass the food along.  No bickering; they just did what he said – that’s what disciples do.  One to another, man to woman, older person to younger person.  They pass it along.  When it was all over, did you catch how many basketfuls were left over?  Twelve.  Not a random number.  How many disciples of Jesus were there?  After doing all this work, there was plenty left for them.

When you walked in the door today, maybe it wasn’t such a good day.  God has been there. God knows you need healing, you need forgiveness, you need encouragement.  It sounds outrageous, but God’s therapy is about getting to work.  As empty as you might feel, there is someone in your life who needs encouragement, forgiveness and healing.   God is with you as you feed the crowd, and you will have your own basketful of encouragement, forgiveness and healing.  The answer to the really bad day for each of us, and for the church, is to find someone to heal and someone to feed.

In our new member ceremony, there’s a question that goes like this:  Do you promise to participate in the life and mission of this family of God’s people, sharing regularly in the worship of God, giving to its support, and enlisting in the work of this local church as it serves this community and the world?  (I PROMISE WITH THE HELP OF GOD)  We promise to make a difference.  There are hungry people in Manheim; hungry in many ways – we promise to share what we have.

New York. CN – 2009.

Everybody comes into this place hungry in one way or another. Needing healing.  And there’s a hurting, hungry world out there, hurting and hungry in so many ways, and Jesus needs us to get to work.  He said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”


O God, we know you feel pain, and we suspect that very often we are the cause of it.  Forgive us.  We thank you for your love for us, which never stops, in spite of the things we do which hurt you.

We have so much, but we feel so helpless and needy.  We always want more, and our minds are always on the next purchase.  We have a spiritual hunger only you can satisfy.  Forgive us for thinking too much of ourselves, for our blindness.  But there are so many problems in the world it seems impossible to do anything that would make a difference.

We need a miracle, Lord.  Show us how we can come together to do a miracle.  Make us strong together, with you at the center of this crowd.  Take the blinders off our eyes; give us the will to see the hungry people we can feed, near and far, people we know, and friends we haven’t met yet.  Amen.