Will you pray with me? Almighty and eternal God, our eyes are all fixed upon you and you give us our sustenance in due season. Your ways are right and just and every work of your hand is love. Give us grace to faithfully call upon you, because you are always near to us. And may I preach to you this morning in the name of God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
So Pastor Amy, I don’t know if I told you this when I agreed to preach, but this is my first time “guest” preaching at a congregation I don’t belong to so I hope you’re all ready. Especially because I want to talk to you this morning about needs.
Some of you may have seen from the one-line biography Amy wrote about me in your electronic newsletter that I currently work with your own beloved Duncan Hilton at the Leadership Development Initiative or LDI for short. From what Duncan has shared with you over the last few years about LDI, or maybe by what you read on our website after hearing that I would be preaching, you may know that LDI believes the church’s true vocation is one of social justice, reconciliation, and transformation.
Given where I work and after hearing today’s readings of miraculous acts of distributive justice in both the Old and New Testaments, you may be thinking “oh no, this is going to be one of those ‘social justice’ sermons, isn’t it.” But I don’t want to talk this morning about other people’s needs (or at least, not just about other people); I want to talk about your needs, CGS. Because the truth is we are a needy people. Turn to your neighbor and say, “I am a needy person.” Yes, church, we are needy people!
So yesterday, I was grabbing coffee with a friend who is a Baptist pastor. As we were talking about the state of the church, our hopes and fears for it, she mentioned a metaphor she likes to use for our life together, kind of a modern-day parable. Today’s church is like a house party. We invite everyone in, either to the living or dining room, somewhere big and spacious where the guests can meet each other and we hope they have a good time. Those who are really dedicated may be found in the kitchen, making sure the party keeps going. And like in any of our houses, we generally don’t invite guests upstairs to our bedrooms because those are private, intimate spaces, essential to our most meaningful relationships that help us discern our lives’ significance. And, in our actual homes, we often don’t let our bedrooms or the relationships that matter there deteriorate at the expense of hosting parties downstairs.
And yet, in too many of our churches, Episcopal, Baptist, and otherwise, we are quick to notice when no one is coming to our parties anymore or when the kitchen staff is getting burnt out and not being replaced. And when that happens, we often think that what we need to do is change up the usual themes of our parties or maybe get out of the house and go find more people to invite out there. How often, I wonder, do we remember to go upstairs or in here to those intimate places? How often do we check in on the state of our spiritual relationships? Yes, I am talking about our private prayer. But I’m also talking about our spiritual relationships with each other. Why aren’t we brave enough to talk about the dynamics of our spiritual lives just as we talk about what’s happening in our material lives at the house party known as coffee hour?
Is it possibly because we want to be seen as respectable? As people who have it all together? So yes, we can acknowledge that we have needs in the abstract. But please, my brother and sister sitting next to me don’t want the messy details, do they? Do they really want to know about those fears I have that I might get laid off or not find an affordable place to live and how that’s making me act in ways I don’t even like about myself? Do we really want to hear about each other’s doubts, or our failures, or our broken hearts? That sounds … messy.
I hate to be the one to break it to you church, but ever since Jesus, we Christians have not been called to be “respectable” people, rather we have been called to get messy. In this week’s epistle, the writer of Ephesians uses lofty, beautiful language to talk about the love of Christ, words like abundance, fullness, and glory. But we shouldn’t forget that being filled with the abundance of Christ’s love is what landed Paul in prison and what led to his martyrdom. You might say his life was pretty messy.
In today’s gospel, John tells us that the disciples, like all respectable hosts, worry about not having enough food for the crowd that gathers to hear Jesus. “What are five barley loaves and two fish among so many people?” Andrew asks. After being fed, the crowd desires to have this powerful miracle-worker, the prophet that was promised, as their king, to make them a respectable, independent nation once again and not just another Roman colony. They see Jesus as a way out of their messy situation.
Indeed, the crowds have needs that are easily diagnosed. They are ignorant and come wanting to see “signs.” They are also hungry and there isn’t enough food. Those kinds of primary needs, under-education, hunger, diseases, poverty, are all around us and, like Jesus, the church, historically, has been very good at working to satisfy those needs, sometimes miraculously with very few resources to start with.
The disciples, who have been following Jesus for some time and have seen him perform miracle after miracle and healing after healing, also have needs, ones that we 21st-century Americans may be more familiar with. They are anxious. They are stressed about their jobs. Later in the gospels, they will become status-obsessed. Even after they see another miracle with their own eyes in the feeding of the 5,000, they are still terrified as they see Jesus walking on the stormy sea towards them. Into all this messiness, this mindset of scarcity, this ambition, this fear, Jesus says to the disciples and to us, “I am who I am, don’t be afraid.”
And here comes the final miracle. Unlike the others, John’s gospel doesn’t say the storm was calmed, but the disciples want Jesus in the boat with them and “immediately” they get to where they were going. Or to look at it another way, they discovered they were exactly where they were meant to be all along, storm included.
Isn’t that amazing, church?! When we truly listen to Jesus saying to us, “don’t be afraid, stop worrying so much about being respectable, “we find the courage we need to be vulnerable, to be open to our own needs and to each other’s messiness. The messiness is and will always be there in this life. But with Jesus in the boat with us, we know beyond knowing that the Spirit makes us strong, that Christ dwells in us through faith, and that we are rooted and grounded in a God who is love! With Jesus in the boat with us, we realize we are exactly where we need to be!
And if you’ll allow me to go back to my earlier house metaphor, when the church wants to take Jesus into the house with us, we can go upstairs to those long abandoned bedrooms. We can invite others, not just into “community” or to do “justice,” but into deep, intimate places of spiritual relationship where true individual and communal transformation can happen.
CGS, I know you’ve invited Jesus into your house already! I hear about it in the commitment to anti-racism work that your vestry has taken on. I hear about it in your inspiring partnership with the Perkins School for the Blind. I hear about it in the “Beginning to Pray” series on Centering Prayer that Duncan has been leading you through.
And if you want more ways of inviting Jesus into your boat, or your house, I invite you stay after the service and learn more about my work with LDI, including an exciting upcoming training on faith-rooted organizing on Aug. 13.
And whether you can join us or not, church, I ask that we keep each other in our prayers, so that as Ephesians says, we may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God. Amen.