Sunday, July 31, 2011

Feeding of the Multitudes homily

A homily offered at St. James Episcopal Church on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost. July 31, 2011. Matthew 14:13-21

In the section of the New Testament in 1st Timothy that deals with ordination to Holy Orders there is a verse (1 Tim. 5:22) that says “Do not ordain anyone hastily.” Now I know the Anglican approach to Scripture has taken some heat from our brothers and sisters in other traditions, but let me tell you, if there is any verse in the Bible that the Episcopal Church interprets very literally, it is “Do not ordain anyone hastily.”

One of my fellow deacons who was in the School for Deacons with me had actually been in the process for ten years. She used to joke that she was afraid she was going to reach the mandatory retirement age before she ever reached ordination.

If I learned anything during that whole process it was that in the Episcopal Church the path to Holy Orders is a marathon, not a sprint. In our own diocese before one is ordained there is a very lengthy process of discernment and formation that takes place. If you discern a call to the priesthood then hopefully you will eventually be given the Bishop’s blessing to go off to seminary for a few years to prepare for ordination. If you discern a call to the diaconate then hopefully you will eventually be granted the Bishop’s blessing to enter the diaconal formation school for a few years to prepare for ordination. Until that time, people in both tracks----future priests and future deacons undergo the same lengthy process. During that time each person undergoes very extensive background checks, physicals and psychological testing. During one of the sessions of my Psychological testing I was given an inkblot test. Do you know what I am talking about?

I was told that I was supposed to look at a series of cards with what appeared to be ink splatters printed on them and then tell what I saw. The psychologist was sitting across from me with a pencil and pad ready to write down what I saw when I looked at the abstract patterns. It was my first time taking one of those so I just took him at his word followed his instructions. I thought, ’this could be fun.”

I looked at the first card and said something like, “Hmmmmm… let’s see. I see the city of Rome at night or maybe some cherub choirs. I also Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in a light saber battle and a field of wildflowers.” He would scribble down everything I said on his pad. I noticed that he was getting an increasingly disturbed look on his face as he continued writing, but I just kept on going. “Maybe it’s a spinach and mushroom pizza or the top of a volcano. It could be a T-Rex footprint or maybe a dragon.” Finally, he just seemed to have had enough and he put down his pad and said, “ Look, between us, it really does not look good if I write down too many things. One or two is enough. You don’t want me write down more than that.” I said, “Ohhhh.” Suddenly, the only pattern I could see was the Bishop saying, “Son, it looks like we are just going to have to send you back to the Baptists.” After that I just gave one or two simple, unremarkable answers: “It’s a tree.” “It looks like a bird.”

Now, I believe the premise of that inkblot test is that what you see actually reveals more you that it does about the actual images. Life is like that, isn’t it? Two people can look at the exact same thing but see completely different things.

Our outlook----or what we see often reveals a great deal about us and where we are at. The same holds true in our life of faith. Spiritually, our perspective or point of view often reveals where we are at in our faith journey. As Christians, the process of ongoing daily conversion of life is a call to see things from a different point of view--- the Divine point of view. It’s an exciting invitation to see the world with a whole new set of eyes.

The story of the feeding of the 5000 offers two different ways of seeing. One perspective sees scarcity: “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” The other perspective is grounded in the abundance of God’s generosity: “Bring them here to me”…and all ate and were filled.”

Both perspectives agree there is a problem: a large crowd full of hungry people. But the two different points of view see vastly different ways of dealing with the problem. One wants to send the crowd away: “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.” That seems like a perfectly reasonable and sane thing to do, doesn’t it? Jesus could you just go ahead and wrap up all this sermonizing about the kingdom of God so everyone can go find something to eat? The other perspective offered by Jesus sees a different solution to the problem: “Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

One problem: two different solutions. 1) Send them away vs. 2) Keep them here. Guess which one is always the Gospel perspective? My brothers and sisters I submit to you that the kingdom of God will always be found in the perspective that is about inviting people to the banquet feast, not turning people away. The kingdom of God is only glimpsed in the perspective that is about invitation and embrace instead of exclusion.

However, the problem with that perspective is that so often it seems radical, risky and at times downright impossible. And that’s precisely the point. The perspective of faith always sees things in a way that calls us out the security of the known into the unknown and unfamiliar.

That does not mean faith is about denying the reality of problems around us. You know how we sometimes tend do that in the South. We hope that if we politely pretend the problems don’t exist that they will all just somehow go away. Faith is not a retreat into a fairy tale never, never land of pretending that we cannot see life‘s problems. Faith does not somehow see less---instead it actually sees more. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews said, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The perspective of faith allows us to lay hold of the invisible. As long as we only see the problem and our own lack or power and resources we will always take the safe course---we will always hunker down, circle the wagons and send the crowd away. However the perspective of faith allows us to factor in the one thing that changes every equation: the power and presence of a loving and generous God.

As long as we can only see the obstacle and our own inability to surmount it then the obstacle will loom large in front of us like a mountain. However, faith allows to measure our obstacle not only by the size of our own resources and power, but also by the size of the generosity of our God.

Let’s be honest here. Have you ever found yourself overwhelmed by the size and scope of problems around you? Have you ever looked at what little bit you have to contribute to solving the problem and it just felt so insignificant----like a bucket of water against a vast ocean? You feel like throwing up your hands and saying “What’s the use?” Why bother? What little bit I can do will not even make a dent in the problem…. If so, then you are in good company. The disciples felt the same way. “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

Jesus offer us an invitation to a different perspective: “ Bring them here to me.”
When we take what little we have----however small and seemingly insignificant in proportion to the problem--- and offer it over into the hands of the one who can break it, bless it and multiply it then we begin to live with an awareness that Jesus can take our little bit and make much of it. That’s what our faith can do for us. It’s a whole different way of seeing the world.

When I was growing up here if you heard the words 7th Avenue mentioned it was always in the context of the place your parents told you to stay away from. One of the families I went to church with had a business on 7th Avenue and I worked for them in the summers. I remember going to work and many mornings the there would be someone piled up in the doorway, drunk and passed out. I also remember that you had to go to the outside of our building and go around back to access the restrooms. The only problem was that there were often men passed out drunk in the tall grass of the field there so I would tip toe to the bathroom in fear that I was going to wake them up. I remember riding down Maple Street where I now go to work every day and looking at all the people piled up sleeping under the 64 overpass and feeling so terrible for them.

In 1980 there was a man named George Cox who was a fairly new Christian---a recent convert to the faith. He had a job that brought him to 7th Avenue every day. He drove a Little Debbie snack cake truck and before he would go on his daily route he would have to go to a warehouse on 7th Avenue to load up his inventory. Early every morning he would pass by all the homeless people under the 64 overpass and all the people in the fields and doorways and it bothered him, As he began to read and study the Scriptures of his newfound faith the words of Jesus in the Gospel began to vex him even more in light of what he saw every morning on his way to work. Why wasn’t someone doing something to help these people? So he began to visit local pastors and ask that very question. The responses he received ranged from downright anger---one pastor told him to get in his truck and get on down the road---to sympathetic acknowledgement that there was indeed a problem but that the problem of homelessness on 7th Avenue was just too vast and complex. It’s a huge social problem and what can one church do to really make a difference?
However, he was still so new to the faith that he had not yet developed that skillful way of tuning out the Gospel and the words of Jesus continued to sting him, “You give them something to eat.” He said he knew he had to do something---no matter how small it was in comparison to the problem.

He did not even have loaves and fish, but he had some extra Little Debbie cakes that were still good even though they were so close to the expiration date that they could not be sold. So he bought a large coffee pot and after work he began to open park his Little Debbie truck down on 7th Avenue and open up the back and give out those snack cakes, coffee and he would talk to people who were not used to people either listening or talking to them. That’s how the Rescue Mission where I work was started----literally, out of the back of a truck. It was started on a shoestring budget and a lot of faith.

George no longer lives in this community, but we are celebrating our 30th anniversary this year so I have had the occasion to actually spend some time with him talking about the history of the organization. By the way, he told me that not every church was resistant to helping. He said when he rented their first little storefront building it was $75.00 a month and they were going to give him a break if he could pay two months in advance. He could only afford one month and had no idea where the second month’s rent was going to come from. He said to me “We did not have a kitchen or a way to prepare food at that time. We had to borrow a sofa to cover a hole in the floor.” He told me that first year all of the meals that were served at that location were prepared up there at that St. James Episcopal Church in that great big old kitchen of theirs and they would bring it down to serve in our building.” I said, “Hmmm…I know those people at St. James---bunch of trouble makers. They are always feeding somebody with that big old kitchen of theirs.”

We now serve over 60,000 meals a year to the hungry in our community and we provide shelter to well over a thousand homeless men, women and children each year. I asked George if he ever imagined that offering up his Little Debbie cakes and coffee would lead to this? He said, “No, I am probably more amazed than anyone by all of this, but I was certain that God could surely make something out of the little bit I had to offer.”

Faith gives us a whole new way of seeing the world. It allows us to begin to assess things not only by the size of our own strength, but by the size of our God.

So to everyone in this room who has ever taken a look at how enormous and overwhelming the problems are in this world around us and how seemingly insignificant are our efforts to address them----when you get discouraged and feel like giving up I want you to remember one phrase: five loaves and two fish.

Five loaves and two fish. It’s not even worth fooling with OR it can feed a multitude. It all depends on how you look at. It all depends on how you look at it. The kingdom of God invites us to see the world from a radically different perspective. In the eloquent words of our own Bishop, faith is what allows us to begin to dream as God dreams.