Monday, July 31, 2006

We are a Hungry People

For the past couple weeks I have had the privilege of filling in at the church office while C.S. has been on vacation. For the most part it has been a pretty quiet, uneventful time—just enough things to do and just enough people calling or stopping by to keep me from getting too lonely every day.

The first morning I started my substitute job, when I arrived I walked over into the courtyard and noticed that the little fountain out here was running for the first time since we started coming here about two years ago. I was so delighted to hear the gentle sound of the running water, a sound that feels to me like an invitation to stop and rest a moment, to take notice of the world around me.

Knowing that the fountain gets overwhelmed with the leaves that fall from the Sycamore tree above it, I skimmed out whatever had fallen into the water, the leaves and some purple blossoms from the hasta plants beside it. After doing this, I placed my fingertips into the water where it burbles up at the top of the fountain, then I touched the water to my forehead and formed the shape of a cross there.

Coming from a family of long-time Baptists, this is a gesture my body is not familiar with—I can’t do it without feeling awkward, clumsy, or a bit like a liturgical impersonator. In the years when I was attending a Lutheran Seminary on the East Coast, I grew to envy my classmates who could so familiarly touch the water to their foreheads in an act of remembering their baptism (a baptism which most of them, of course, couldn’t in fact recall because they had been baptized as infants). To remember your baptism is very different from recalling the moment you were baptized. To remember your baptism is, in a very real sense, akin to the phrase that has sent many a child out of house in the morning: Remember Who You Are and Whose You Are. To remember your baptism is to remember you carry the name of Christ and that God has claimed you as God’s own. To remember your baptism is to remember that, no matter what, you are loved.

There was something about this fountain being in the courtyard of our Baptist church, something about my hand already being in water, combined with something inside me that longed to know in that moment God’s love for me, even for me, that made it seem possible for me to try on this gesture for myself—to touch the water to my forehead and remember my baptism.

It ended up that this was how I started each of my mornings these past couple weeks, carefully tending the fountain, then awkwardly touching the water to my head. Trying this new thing on for size.

This past Monday, a few minutes after I arrived in the church office, I received a phone call from our neighbor Betty who lives just up the road a bit. “I was just calling about the excitement at the church this morning,” she told me when I answered the phone.

“Excitement?” I asked cautiously, not wanting to commit to anything yet. “I haven’t heard about our excitement.”

“Oh! You haven’t heard!” she answered. “Well, a mountain lion was spotted in the church parking lot at about 6:30 this morning!

After briefly considering investing in a couple of air horns to walk around with, I have to admit I found the news more exciting than frightening. Betty and I speculated together about what may have brought the mountain lion down into this fairly well-populated, certainly more-suburban-than-rural setting. Betty mentioned that the thermometer on her deck had registered 118 degrees the day before and she suggested, “I think the lion was looking for water.”

My thoughts immediately turned to the fountain in our courtyard, the delicious gurgle of water as it falls over itself. And I imagined the mountain lion hearing its sound, drawing cautiously through the terrible heat to its side, dipping his muzzle into the water and drinking deeply: The fountain of life.

We are a thirsty and a hungry people.

Our scripture this morning gives us Jesus feeding the multitudes and Jesus the Storm-Walker. The stories are fantastic—and stretch the limits of our imaginations, may even challenge some of our tolerance for what is possible in this work-a-day world. But “the miracle,” writes Tripp Hudgins, an American Baptist pastor in Chicago, is never the point of the ministry, [rather] the miracle points to God.” So we are invited to enter the story of this miracle with our eyes open to see the God revealed in it.

Jesus sits on the mountainside and sees that the thousands of people who had gathered there were hungry. He turns to Philip, and with a twinkle in his eye, asks him the pressing economic question of that day: “Where should we go to buy enough food for all these people?” Philip, clearly a practical man and a shrewd economist, answers Jesus very practically, one might even say prosaically: “Six months wages wouldn’t be enough to feel all these people!”

The economic system that shaped Philip’s imagination, though very different in time and place than our own, certainly seems very familiar to us. I remember years ago planning the reception for our wedding—everything eventually came down to calculating what the cost-per-head would be! Philip must have been doing his own figuring, as Jesus sat beside him, waiting for him to see beyond the hard, cold facts. Waiting for Philip to catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God.

It is Andrew who notices a boy with five barley loaves and two fish. It’s not much. It’s hardly worth noticing at all. Even so, he points the boy out to Jesus, almost with apology: “Of course, that’s not enough for everyone.”

But Jesus, delighted, instructs the disciples to have everyone sit down comfortably on the grass. The detail to have the people sit is an important one, because it has to do with social status. To have the people remain standing would be to treat them as a servant class, which many (if not all) of them most likely were. The difference between standing and sitting is much like the difference between a soup line and a dinner table. Jesus treats the people who had gathered with all the dignity they deserve, regardless of their social status.

With the bread and fish before him, Jesus gives thanks, (do you recognize the rhythm of communion in these words?), and he distributes the food to everyone. After everyone has had their fill, Jesus instructs the disciples to “gather all the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”

“So that nothing may be lost.” The Greek word used here is the very same one used in the familiar passage from John 3:16—“For God so loved the world God gave God’s only begotten son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” The phrase that nothing may be lost is the same verb translated here as will not perish.

This is the God who is revealed to us in this miracle—a God who will not let anything or anyone be lost. We discover in this story of the feeding of the multitudes a prodigal God who provides for the physical needs of the people, like manna in the wilderness—and a God who will not rest until all the fragments are gathered, until every lost soul is gathered in.

On some level, the miracle is that with such a small amount, vast quantities of food were provided—enough for twelve baskets to be filled. But on another level, the miracle is this: that God’s love will not let us go: no matter what we face, what hunger we bring, what thirst we may suffer, no matter what we’ve done—God’s love will not let us go. So that nothing—and no one—may be lost.

Either way, the miracle points to Life. And this is God’s invitation to us, and to all the world. “I set before you life and death. Choose Life.” “I am the bread of Life,” says Jesus. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (6:35). “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came,” says Jesus, “that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (10:10).

It is important that we remember that Jesus gave the people real bread and actual fish out there on the mountainside. He did not merely pontificate or wax eloquently about spiritual nourishment for the hungry soul. Hungry people need to be fed real bread. But it is just as important for us to remember that fed people are hungry, too. We do not live by bread alone—we certainly do not live abundant life by bread alone. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?” asks the prophet Isaiah, “and you labor for that which does not satisfy? . . . Incline your ear, and come to me; listen so that you may live” (Is 55: 2,3).

The disciples were terrified when they saw Jesus walking toward them on the stormy, wind-tossed sea. But he said to them: “It is I; [or, in the Greek, “I AM”] Do not be afraid.”

To the Hebrew mind, the sea was a terrifying place—it was the site of chaos, the unfathomable, where the unknown threatened and overwhelmed. This is why the creation story begins with the Spirit hovering over the Deep—in Hebrew the word we translate “deep” is too-hoo-va-bo-hoo—it is a nonsense phrase meant to elicit the same gut feeling of dis-ease as the phrase helter skelter does for us today. When we hold in mind the tsunami that struck the Indonesian island of Java on July 17, we are reminded of the fear, damage and loss of life the sea can cause.

“I AM,” says Jesus—recalling the words that Moses heard out of the burning bush. I AM is the Liberating God who delivered the Hebrews from slavery. I AM will not rest until every fragment is gathered. I AM is liberating still. “Do not be afraid.” The invitation is to life, abundant life.

It is not a coincidence that we encounter these stories in the Gospel of John that focus on bread and water. The gospel was written late enough that the earliest Christians were already practicing baptism and communion. That Jesus give thanks over the bread and fish is meant to remind us of the last supper when Jesus gave thanks over the bread and wine. That Jesus walks on the stormy sea is meant to remind us of the waters of our baptism, when we took on the name of Christ.

Both stories confront us with the reality of death—when the people are hungry we can’t help but to think of the possibility of death by starvation or from utter lack of what we need, whether love, or shelter, or gentle words, or a safe home. When Jesus walks on the violent sea, we can’t help but think of death by drowning, or from being overwhelmed by things larger than us, whether the threat of downsizing, or fear of natural disasters, or the wave of dread with facing a new day, or the terror of war.

And yet the gift of abundant life is made all the more vivid in these direct confrontations. Not the least because Jesus Christ died the thirsty death. As the liturgical theologian Gordon Lathrop writes: "Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is the bath that kills and makes alive, the hope for both the waters and the washed, the meal of God, the means for the nations to eat at Israel's table of salvation, the meal that says the truth about our death while transforming it into life" (Holy Thing 101).

The fountain is right here. It calls to every thirsty soul. The meal is right here. We are a hungry and a thirsty people. Somehow the mountain lion heard the soft fall of water. It is a gentle sound. And it is a fierce love. It is the water that kills and makes alive.

Remember your baptism. When you were buried in the stormy seas of death’s chaos with Christ. Remember your baptism when you were lifted up to new life in Christ. Remember your baptism when you took the name of Christ for your own. Remember who you are—and whose you are. We are all beggers coming to the bread. We are all thirsty coming to the fountain of life.

2 comments:

Tripp said...

Thak you for the quote. I was paraphrasing Augustine, however, and really should not take sle credit for such a notion. The difference between Auggie's point and my own is that Auggie said something like "Stop looking to me! Look to God." I think that our ministries, the miracles we reveal to the world, are often subject to the same human foible.

And, if you ever get a chance, send an e-mail my way. Are you really studying liturgy? I am finishing my thesis for my MTS in Liturgy this August. Then I will begin the quest for a PhD program. We'll see.

Thanks again, and peace to you.

Songbird said...

Jen, I started reading this on Sage and didn't see how long it was, and I thought, this would really preach! And then I clicked over and realized, reading further, that it was a sermon. So thank you from this vacationing church-skipper, who needed one today!