Friday, August 29, 2008

Footprints in the sand? What if I don't like the beach?

A few years ago a dear friend of mine, Bev Longman, gave me a beautiful tapestry of that famous story, "Footprints in the Sand." I've often reflected on that story, only understanding it's surface interpretation. But now, especially in light of the events of my journey since May earlier this year, it has unvealed a whole new meaning for me. Let me remind you of what it says:

A man had a dream one night. In his dream, he was walking along the beach with the Lord. As they walked, scenes from the man's life flashed across the sky. When he looked down, he saw two sets of footprints etched in the sand; one set belonged to him, the other to the Lord. As they continued to walk, he noticed that, at the saddest and most trying times of his life, there was only one set of footprints in the sand. He asked the Lord, "When I needed you the most, why did you leave me?" "My son, my precious child" replied the Lord, "I would never leave you. During those times of trial and suffering, when you saw one set of footprints...That was when I carried you."

Now the past 3 months have been the longest 3 months of my life! UGH! It has dragged on and on...because, for the first time in a long time, I didn't know what my future was going to be. You see, I'm really good at visioning way out there in the distance. But waiting for things to happen is usually excruciating for me...especially when I no longer have the understanding or resources to imagine that future.

Living in the present moment is one of the hardest things I ever had to learn how to do. And that's exactly why I've been having this experience, according to Eckert Tolle; author of the best selling book, "The Power of Now." I thank God for this book, and his sequel "A New Earth: Discovering your Life's Purpose." It's a pretty cool story on how it came ot me.

Not long after Journey Church closed its doors in Lebanon, I got a job at LaComedia Dinner Theatre filling in for an actor who had to leave. The musical was, West Side Story, and I had a couple of very small roles in which I was only on stage for just a few scenes. The rest of the time I was off stage, in the dressing room waiting...pretty boring job for the most part. I started off passing the time by doing crossword puzzles and word searches. After about a week of this I remembered that another friend of mine, Cathy Montesi, raved about Eckert Tolle's book, "A New Earth." She insisted that I read it. Well, I was determined to take a "break from religion" for a while and resisted reading anything remotely spiritual. But I dropped by the Kroger next door to the theater, and low and behold, there was a discounted copy of Tolle's book on the shelf.

Needless to say I bought it, and started reading. WOW! Talk about an amazing word from God! After I got through the first chapter, I started devouring this book. I didn't just read it while at work waiting for my next cue. I read it at night, in the morning, in the bathroom, sometimes in the car on my way to and from! It touched me in a way that was so amazing, spirit filled and full of the grace and love of God that had called me into the ministry in the first place.

Now I'm not going to tell you everything that was revealed to me; I encourage you to pick it up and find out what that might be for yourself. But it occured to me that if I truly wanted to deepen my relationship with God and finally learn who I am as God's creation, and what my purpose in life is, then I needed to slow way down...and stop DOING all the time...and focus on just BEING in the moment. Through the experiences of the past 3 years...of launching a new and exciting ministry to closing it painfully and abruptly...I began to realize that God doesn't care what I do, where I do it, or how I do it...God just wants me to see Him, and re-see who I am as God's creation in each and every moment of my existence. That my purpose in life is being fully present wherever I am. The doing is just the vehicle for experience...the real learning comes in each the present now.

Often when life spins out of control, your circumstances are meant to draw your attention to some learning that needs to occur in your soul. Although I don't always recognize what that learning might be, I am beginning to realize that it's in those moments of confusion, chaos or conflict that I need to make time for my own soul growth. I make time by being more intentional with my prayers and meditation. Perhaps I need to read that book on my shelf that I've been holding onto which may reveal the answer that I seek. Attending a certain meeting or workshop may hold the key to unveiling some understanding. Sometimes even a certain song or story will pop into my head for no reason and the words seem to touch you in a way they haven't before. Such was the role of the story I mentioned at the beginning of this article.

I've studied dream interpretation for the past several years under the guidance and nurturing of another dear friend, Amy Pawlus, at the School of Metaphysics in Cincinnati. I use dream interpretation in my pastoral counseling; for a person's dreams reveal what's going on in their subconscious mind. I took a look again at the "Footprints in the Sand" story...and this is what I saw for the first time.

In dream language, a beach represents the actions of the emotions, the area that exists between the conscious and subconsious mind. Feet symbolize a person's spiritual foundation. Whenever feet appear in a dream, it will indicate the dreamer's place of security. The Lord, or the Christ presence, represents the dreamer's inner authority...or the part of one's self that is seeking to fulfill some plan or vision. This story is telling the dreamer that their current experience has been manifested out of their own mind and expressed into their physical world through the emotional level of consciousness. Basically, their physical reality is an emotional response to what they are thinking. The disapointment expressed by the dreamer of being alone on the journey, especially in the midst of confusion, chaos or conflict, is a response to a disconnect with their inner spiritual authority. Calling Jesus your Lord is an act of loyality to the spiritual authority that he represented. The idea that the Lord Jesus, or as I understand it, the Christ Presence within me, could possibly ever leave my side suggests that there is a disconnect with the role of that spiritual authority. Jesus, as the Christ Presence, responds with...I was carrying you.

Here's the good news: I know that on my journey of life, God's ultimate desire is for me to become more compatible with Her. Every step of that journey I am "becoming" who God created me to be. The spark of divinity that dwells within me will never, ever be taken away. It may burn dimly, may even just flicker at times...but it will never be snuffed out. When my emotions suggest that I am misunderstanding my experience, it is the Christ Presence within me that will teach me and sustain me...especially when my spiritual foundation is shaken. We will be carried by the light of God's Presence in times when we don't get it. But the good news is that; if we stay open to the present moment on the journey...we will learn it.

Sometimes you'll see the footprints...sometimes you won't. But that's okay. Stay centered in the present moment, and enjoy the beach anyway!

Blessings on your spiritual journey!
Pastor Brice

P.S. Would you like your dreams interpreted? I'd be happy to help. Just let me know!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

* Read Matthew 16:13-20

Over the last several years I’ve been particularly interested in reading the writings of authors from the “Historical Jesus” movement; Marcus Borg, Stephen Patterson, John Shelby Spong, and John Crossan, to name a few. For those of you not familiar with the movement, it is basically an empirical exercise in constructing a picture of Jesus solely as a man, and setting aside all narrative in the gospels that depict him as divine. Now this might seem heretical at first, but I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several great writers and speakers engaged in this process, and am constantly amazed at their commitment to accuracy and seach for a real Christianity. They are good, loving and committed Christians who sustain their faith journeys by engaging in deep theological thinking. Seminary often teaches you the skills to do this. Perhaps that’s where the saying originated; seminary will ruin a good preacher. But I must admit, that after several years of engaging in this process for myself, I also came to realize that focusing on only the humanity of Jesus had not lessened my desire to unravel the mysteries of his divinity.

Todays gospel text is one such narrative that I can not easily dismiss. For the gospels record several very pointed, poignant, and powerful questions that Jesus candidly asked those around him. Perhaps the question Jesus asks of Peter in today’s text is the one that intrigues me the most; “Who do you say that I am?” For the Christian, every day we are on this earth is an attempt to answer this question. And how we answer it shows just what place Jesus holds in our lives. That fact is, we have all stood in Peter’s shoes before, and answered that question one way, but revealed our true feelings on the topic with a completely different behavior.

I use to go to my Grandmother’s house for lunch on Sundays, and without fail she has her TV turned to Trinity Broadcasting Network where an evangelist is preaching to an enormous crowd. Growing up Pentecostal I’ve developed a litmus test for “tuning out” these preachers; the louder they scream, the less I listen to them. Sometimes I really doubt whether they really understand the good news of Jesus. Could you imagine Jesus preaching like one of these guys? And you don’t have to be loud and obnoxious to turn the gospel into a message of hate.

In this text, one minute Peter proclaims that Jesus is the messiah, the very Son of God, and the next minute, as we will see next week, he is pulling Jesus aside to tell him just how to act like the messiah. And don’t we do the same? We proclaim Jesus as our messiah in one breath and in the next we are telling Jesus how to save the world. How do we know the real Jesus? There are so many people in history who are mysterious. Who was the real Abraham Lincoln? Do we ever understand a Richard Nixon? For that matter, do we really understand our spouses or our children? I’m not sure I even understand myself. Can we really attempt to know the reality of Jesus, or is it possible to let Jesus speak for himself?

Since I’ve graduated I’ve had to let go of the quest to know the real historical Jesus. Just as the Dalai Lama says there are many paths to the Buddha, there must be many paths to Jesus, but there are some stumbling blocks along the way. The biggest stumbling block for Peter, and for us as well, is that the messiah will end up on a cross. The cross of Christ simply isn’t very user friendly. Being crucified is not the upwardly mobile, successful, self-loving and prudent thing to do in our society. There are no trophies, no book deals, after the cross. The only crown is made of thorns. Why is the cross so central, so necessary to understanding Jesus? Why can’t we just take some of his teachings like the Beatitudes or the Golden Rule and skip the cross. It would be easier, and much more marketable.

But this question that Jesus raises in the text is an important one. In fact it is a vital question for each one of us, designed to put us on the spot and keep us honest. But it is a dangerous question, because it cuts right to the existential core of our revelation of God—and whether Jesus is our response to that revelation.

But before we begin to answer that question for ourselves, I’m interested in why Jesus asked it at all? Why then, at that time and place? According to Matthew the question was first posed to the disciples at the city of Caesarea Philippi. It was a major city north of Galilee near the border of Syria, built by Herod Philip in honour of the emperor Augustus. In ancient times, it had been called Paneas in honour of the god Pan, who had a shrine there. And before that the god Baal had been worshipped there, too. And before that, well, who knows. When Jesus and his disciples visited, there was a shrine for the emperor cult. In other words, it was a place where many of the gods who walk the earth made great claims for themselves and where other people made claims for them, too. This is the setting, according to Matthew, where what happened – happened.

It’s pretty much the same with many people today. People still wonder about him. I wonder about him. Who do people say that he is? Well, I’ve asked a lot of people over the years and gotten a lot of answers. Some say a great moral and political leader like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. Some say a great prophet like Mohammed. Still others say a great spiritual teacher to be numbered with the likes of the Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tzu, or the Dalai Lama.

Some say he was a political revolutionary and enlist him in their cause. Some say he was a capitalist and do the same. There was actually a best selling book several years ago entitled Jesus-CEO. There are those who say he was clearly a socialist, and others who are just as sure that he was a liberal Democrat. These days, many Republicans eagerly claim him as one of their own. Still others say he was but a dreamy idealist with his head in the clouds. Others wonder if he was a real man at all, with a real history, or if he was just a made-up man, the product of human hope, need, and projection.

It’s all very interesting—if sometimes confusing—but it does matter what you think. But the fact is; what you believe about Jesus affects your entire worldview. If you suddenly see Jesus differently, everything changes. Jesus' question, “Who do you say that I am?” is an invitation to take personally and seriously the possibility that maybe we need to see him differently. It is an invitation, to venture beyond the iconic Christs of our popular culture, beyond our church hierarchies, and academic scholarship, and allow ourselves to be confronted by the iconoclastic Jesus of Nazareth; a Jesus with no identifiable face, no particular ethnicity, no specific cultural allegiance. A Jesus who is not of this world.

Jesus’ question is an invitation to take personally and seriously the necessity to stop taking refuge in the answers of others and answer for ourselves. It is an invitation to stand as existentially naked as we are able before the one in whom our existence takes on new meaning.

“Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus answered, “Blessed are you…. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” It was a self-defining moment for Peter. Through the grace of God he had discovered himself in the presence of the one who disclosed God and revealed the Way of God—the way of love and justice. He spent the rest of his life figuring out what that meant for who he was and how he lived.

“Who do you say that I am?” Naturally, we have to answer for ourselves, and our answers will disclose as much about us as they do about him. My answer? Jesus is the one in whom I am loved, and called to love. Jesus is not a crucified savior, but a living Christ. A Christ living in you, and living in me. My journey of life is about figuring out what that means for who I am and how I live. Who do you say Jesus is?

(Special thanks to some wonderful excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Keeping Quiet About Jesus” for August 21, 2005 –, and Daniel B. Clendenin’s essay on “Who Do You Say That I Am?" for August 21, 2005 -

Monday, August 18, 2008

Goin' to the Dogs

*Read Matthew 15:21-28

While I was growing up, my family had a pet dog named Barney. He was a stray we found resting under an old abandoned tractor on the farm where we often went to buy fresh vegetables in the summer. Barney was our most favorite pet. With predominant beagle DNA in his blood, he was a gentle, fun-loving pet that could entertain us for hours in the backyard, endearing us with his fog-horn like howl and his droopy ears and sad puppy dog eyes. But Mom was very firm with her restrictions. Barney had to stay outside during the day. He could not eat table scraps, and he must be walked and washed on a regular basis. After it became evident that Barney suffered from epilepsy, a disease common to many mixed breeds, he was allowed into the house more frequently later in his life; but she was firm on the rule that he could not be fed from the table.

Such began the relationship with my purebred beagle, BJ, short for Barney Junior. She was a gift to my partner on his 35th birthday. And even though her cute puppy looks could melt the iciest heart, we stood firm with the rules. No table scraps, no begging at meals. But BJ knew just what slight degree the rules could be bent; and so before dinner was ready each evening she would take her place right at our feet when dinner was served. A good place to stretch one direction or another to grab whatever stray crumb might fall during the meal!

Then as time went by, the table rules got bent a little more. She was so much a part of us, more and more not just a domestic breed. She understood our speech and we came to understand her much fuller vocabulary of whimper, posture, body language, claw, touch, nudge, stare, ear twitch. And so at breakfast each morning, BJ eventually got a bit of toast and at the end of dinner, a choice bite of meat saved for her from my own plate. If I lingered too long before offering it, I would notice a chin delicately laid on my knee—just a reminder.

She lived heartily for six years, and then suddenly her kidneys began to fail long before she had ever come near old age. Months later, when she lost her appetite for the dog food she had always relished, the rules became irrelevant. Mealtime became an inventory of the refrigerator. Whatever she would eat, she could have: bread, steak, chicken and rice, and dog biscuits at any time of day. When she became too tired to bend and eat from her dish on the floor, then she got it from our hands. And when nothing else appealed any more, we nourished her from an IV. We were determined that she would live if we just kept on trying.

Missing her as we do, I look back now over the six years since her death and realize what happened: gradually she changed my mind about the restrictions we imposed on the way she was fed, and our "table rules" were slowly dissolved and eventually eliminated.

It was another "dog" who changed Jesus’ mind as well. As one of the earliest inhabitants of the pagan region of Tyre and Sidon, the Canaanite was known to be the worst of the lot, a long-hardened pagan, a longtime enemy. And this one, the disciples saw as a real cur: A woman—and an unescorted woman at that, a woman whose undoubtedly shady past must surely have caused the demonic possession in the family; a woman brazen enough to initiate conversation with a man.

Jesus is silent in the face of her. The disciples, however, just wanted to get rid of her, they urge, "Do what she wants, so she’ll get out of our hair." But Jesus responds, "No; I wasn’t sent for her." Then, this "dog" who is satisfied just to be under the table proceeds to change his heart. She is not beholden to the "official rules" or even to Jesus’ understanding of his own vocation, but insists that she and her daughter have a right to healing. She doggedly reminds Jesus that he is not after all servant of the "official religion" or of biblical tradition, but of an uncontrollable Spirit who blows where she will blow, touches whom she will touch, beckons whom she will beckon, heals whom she will heal.

The Jesus we meet before this incident shows partiality to his own people, distinguishes between insiders and outsiders. This Jesus is a problem, if your theology demands perfection in a savior. I too have wrestled with him: precisely because of what He taught us, I shudder at his initial responses. But you know something? In the end, this incident endears him to me more. Here is no brittle, paper-doll Messiah, but one challenged as we are: one who shares our condition and is not ashamed to correct himself. Because just then, Jesus remembers who he is. He comes back to himself in a new way. He admits, as if it were the most natural thing in the world (and of course, it is), that he had been wrong and had his mind changed.

In a sense, it is Jesus’ own awakening that takes him far beyond first-century Palestine’s "honor culture." Jesus does not save face. He is challenged by the woman on his own terms—by her living, pushy faith—to make room for outcast and alien. It’s a profound conversion for him: continue reading in this gospel, and watch how his encounters have a shifted nuance, his stories a new and pronounced bias for the poor and the outsider.

Being a faithful people is all about changing the table rules and getting changed yourself! It’s about who gets to be at the table, and who will be at the table in spite of us; and thereby about the social implications for relations between poor and non-poor, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, pedigrees. It is about a banquet for dogs.

Suddenly the persona of the God enfleshed in Jesus does not only have to do with chosen people. Not only with purebreds—Shelties and Great Danes and German Shorthaired Pointers—but with mongrels. Mutts. Half-breeds and Heinz 57s. The ones that track mud into our sanctuaries and shake pond water all over our doctrine, who hungrily snarf up any little morsel that falls and don’t know how to sit and stay.

The secret we must all discover from outsiders like the Canaanite woman is that if we hold their name up to a mirror, we come face to face with the Holy name. And those we wrote off as "dogs" become revealers of God.

We have five other dogs now, three beagles named Tinker Bell, Riley and Maggie, a Border Collie—German Shepherd mix named Spook, and a feisty Rat Terrier named Buddy. In a lot of ways BJ blazed the way for these puppies; we relentlessly spoil them. And I wonder what it’s like for them to sit at my feet during dinner time. From down there, you can’t see the whole spread, only the rim of a plate, perhaps whatever is lying within a few inches of the edge. It makes you hungry. But with faith, and a good nose, you can imagine the truth: there is more than crumbs there, for a little dog with the temerity to sit close.

As the United Church of Christ we must reach out to members of our community that some may regard as beneath them on the economic ladder of success. Our work with the homeless and low income neighborhoods will bring folks into our church that we might not normally invite into our club. They won’t value our traditions, they won’t idolize our worship space, and they won’t take the gospel at face value. They will be looking for more than crumbs from our table. And we’ll need to be ready to give them the best that we have. It is the kind of thing that must happen to each and every one of us. For even one sharp word or unapproving glance will negate the gospel that we preach. That is not a loving way to live. It is not a truthful way to live either.

We have to turn our priorities around, let go of all our rules, all our contrived distinctions; knowing that what is important is not that they be differentiated from us; but that their lives must be nourished. But we need to turn our criticism onto ourselves. It can be a shock, of course, to realize what we have been doing all along. Our habitual way of camouflaging ourselves has been stripped away. No longer can we make other people responsible for our own shortcomings. We begin to see other people as they really are and ourselves as we really are. We come to our moment of truth the way Jesus came to his.

May the mark of our lives and ministries be this: that we are not too proud to go sit under the table for a bit, listen to the language of the outsider and thereby learn about the feast of the kingdom of God that is to come. Amen.

(Special thanks to some other preachers that helped frame this theology for my experience! Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Projection Withdrawal” for August 14, 2005 –, and Gail Ricciuti’s sermon "God of Mongrels"
from December 2, 2001 -

Sunday, August 3, 2008

All You Can Eat

*Read Matthew 14:13-21

I have some buffet jokes for you this morning. There was an 85-year-old couple, having been married almost 60 years, found themselves at the Pearly Gates together. They had been in good health the last ten years mainly due to the wife's interest in health food and exercise. So when they reached the gates, St. Peter took them to their mansion, which was decked out with a beautiful kitchen and bathroom suite, with a Jacuzzi. As they "oohed and aahed," the old man asked Peter how much all this was going to cost. "It's free," Peter replied, "this is Heaven."

Next they went out back to survey the championship golf course that the home backed up to. They would have golfing privileges every day, and each week the course transformed to a new one, representing the great golf courses on Earth. The old man asked, "What are the green fees?" Peter's reply, "This is Heaven, you play for free." Next they went to the clubhouse and saw the lavish buffet lunch, with the cuisines of the world laid out. "How much to eat?" asked the old man. "Don't you understand yet? This is Heaven, it is free!" Peter replied with some exasperation.

"Well, where are the low fat and low cholesterol tables?" the old man asked timidly. Peter lectured, "That's the best part; you can eat as much as you like of whatever you like, and you never get fat or sick. This is Heaven." With that, the old man went into a fit of anger, throwing down his hat and stomping on it, and shrieking wildly. Peter and his wife both tried to calm him down, asking him what was wrong. The old man looked at his wife and said, "This is all your fault. If it weren't for your bran muffins, I could have been here ten years ago!"

Or what about the conversation I overheard last Sunday. Chris was cautioning her son, MacKenzie at the carry in after worship. "Doesn't it embarrass you that people have seen you go up to the buffet table five times?" she asked. "Not a bit," MacKenzie replied. "I just tell them I'm filling up the plate for you!"

And we all might have our own interesting buffet experiences to share. While at the buffet of an Oriental restaurant I was dining in recently, everything was labeled with post-it notes. Everyone was having quite a time trying to figure a particular one out. Instead of the popular Hunan Beef, the sign said Human Beef. Needless to say the pan was still full...

Even in the midst of these laughable moments, the appeal of a buffet is rather obvious. In fact, "Buffet" is a French word that means "Eat until you explode!" It’s that notion of having no limits. No limits, unlimited, all you want—all you can eat. Human beings respond to the notion of no limits very positively.
Sometimes we go to buffets for those glamorous food delicacies we might not normally prepare for ourselves - the “all you can eat” shrimp, the “fresh crab legs”…the sushi bar.

So, what’s a good buffet, if there is such a thing? And secondly—do you really eat that much at a buffet? Food, any food, is the best at first tasting, the first mouthful. After that, only the most extraordinary food gets better. With buffet food, the first mouthful, or the first plateful, maybe okay. After that, it’s a matter of loosening the belt and going back to the lines with the idea that you have to get your money’s worth. At least, that’s what it seems like to me.

The very concept of the buffet seems very American to me somehow, even though the “all you can eat” smorgasbord originated in Scandinavia. Lining up at a stainless steel counter, staring at florescent-lit food; it’s a rather lonely feeling, devoid of the home-cooked experience you get after slaving over a hot stove—all for the benefit of your loved ones. Buffets are more about feeding, than dining. And real dining—I believe—takes a lot more than that. It is a lot of work.

One of the things we have learned in recent years is that it is important when reading the Bible to approach it from different angles. Various avenues lead to different insights. Questions arise that we might not have thought of otherwise. Sometimes it’s even possible to hear something new about a story we thought we understood so well. Take the story of Jesus’ feeding of the multitude in the wilderness, for example. For many years we have thought that this was a miracle story, a story about Jesus’ amazing ability in a difficult situation. Jesus and the disciples have gone off to a deserted place, but a large crowd of people has followed them. Matthew says, five thousand men were there, not counting all the women and children. Jesus feels sorry for them and spends the day curing their many illnesses. Then the sun begins to set, and the disciples begin to worry about how people are going to be fed. That’s the situation.

The other thing to notice about this story is what happens in it. Many people think of this story as a miracle story; but Matthew never uses that word. Somehow we have gotten the idea over the years that Jesus performed some kind of magician’s trick that day, that when he took the loaves and fishes and blessed them that they were multiplied. A supernatural feat, something like rabbits that keep coming out of a hat.

The thing is: that is not what Matthew says. All he says is that everyone had enough to eat and that there was some left over. Furthermore, the emphasis of the whole story is not so much on the people eating but on what happens just before that. The disciples come to Jesus in a panic, apparently concerned about the welfare of the crowd.

. . . 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.” This exchange between Jesus and his disciples, in other words, seems to be the crux of the story. The disciples think the answer is to send the crowd away so that they might feed themselves. But Jesus’ solution has nothing to do with participating in the dominating mentality of both that era and ours. You’ve heard the popular saying, “God helps those who helps themselves.” But this doesn’t seem to be the gospel message of Jesus.

Instead Jesus determines the available resources, organizes the consumers into groups, pronounces the blessing, and distributes what is at hand. Well, almost. Jesus does not distribute the loaves in this story. He took the loaves. . . gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

What is important to notice in this story is who does feed the crowds. It is not Jesus. It is the disciples. From the diagnosis of the problem to the gathering up of leftovers, the disciples did all the work. The disciples are the ones who symbolize what it means to be like Jesus in the world. They learn how to be that way by doing what they are told. No briefing on how they are to arrange it. No estimate on how it will all turn out. They simply act on orders and discover one whose compassion reaches beyond their wildest dreams.

This was an extremely important story for Matthew’s church. It was not a church the way most of us still think of church; a building to keep up, bazaars to hold, a place where people come to perform rituals and a central authority somewhere downtown. This was a house church, an informal gathering of families in a safe place far from spying eyes. Rich and poor people huddled together in the name of Jesus, attempting to understand and embody the way of Jesus in the world the best way they knew how. They needed each other to survive. None of this modern-day individualism and competitive spirit we worship nowadays both in and out of church. Compassion was required of people in these tiny communities and households. Mercy. You were expected to show it in the face of someone else’s needs. Not an option, but a command of the One they all loved. It’s a matter of following orders.

In fact, that was what the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper came to mean for these people. It was an opportunity to come together and bless what they had, divide it up and distribute it in memory of him who was the compassion of God, making sure that everything was passed around until all had enough. Indeed, it was said of those people in those first churches that people would sell what they didn’t need and give it to others so that no one was in need (Acts 2.45). Just imagine!

That’s why this story from Matthew was so important. It was a reminder of what can happen when we obey Jesus’ order to give away what we have. And those first Christians took it as an order, for they truly believed that.

Heaven starts here, my friends. It starts when we discover the amazing goodness and delight of opening our hearts to anyone who is in need; for love is indeed its own reward. Of course, hell starts here too. For if it is eternal life to love the way Jesus loved anyone in need, it is hell to think that the only person who matters in this world is you.(Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Just Following Orders” for July 31, 2005 –

Meditation Prayer: Imagine yourself sitting before an amazing spread of food—all of your favorite things are there; juicy steaks, hot buttered baked potatoes, creamy macaroni and cheese, cool pasta salads, fresh slices of chilled watermelon, sweet banana cream pies. Now picture some of your favorite things.

Now, imagine in place of that delicious cooking you see the amazing good deeds accomplished by this faith community; caring for the homeless, preparing relief kits for disaster victims, walking in marches for social causes in the community, feeding the community, collecting clothes and groceries for needy families, giving your financial support that contributes to the work of ministry. These things are on God’s buffet. These gifts of time, talent and treasure are the means by which the hurting will be healed, the lonely will be loved, and the hungry will be fed. This is our mandate as followers of the Christ, and when we engage in this kind of service our souls will be satisfied with “all that we can eat.” And that is our gospel truth for today. Amen!