Thursday, September 18, 2014

We Are Beggars (Reflections on Pentecost 15)

Ruth was 85 years old when she left this world. Her first husband had been an abusive alcoholic, so she kicked his sorry butt to the curb and raised three children on her own. She endured the gossip of the neighbors who, back in the day, were censorious of a single, divorced woman. She worked six days a week and never took a penny she hadn't earned herself. She raised her children and cared for her aging mother. Eventually, she married a nice widower who predeceased her by twenty years.

Ruth's daughter told me about the lady hospice chaplain who visited her mother in the last weeks of Ruth's life. One day, as the chaplain read from the Bible, Ruth looked up from her bed and declared, “I'm just a speck of dirt. God is everything.”

Sometimes I have to marvel at a generation who worked so hard, endured so much, and yet felt no sense of entitlement. Some day soon they will all be gone, and our nation will be the poorer for the loss.

I see the scripture lessons appointed for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost as dealing with our wounded sense of entitlement. The hilarious book of Jonah is really a remarkable writing. Not only is it a very funny story, but it is almost revolutionary when viewed in the context of its time. My friend Pastor Steve shared an interesting historical tidbit. It seems that the Assyrians, whose capital city Nineveh was, had a reputation for sadistic cruelty to the people they conquered which makes the Nazis look like unruly Cub Scouts (Not that unruly Cub Scouts can't be sadistically cruel, but you get the idea!). One can only imagine how much the people of Israel hated the people of Nineveh for what they had done to them in the days of conquest. Jonah going to Nineveh would be just like a Holocaust victim preaching to Berlin in the days of the Third Reich. This makes God's inclusivity and pity seem all the more radical, and Jonah's outrage at God's mercy seem all the more understandable.

The scandal of this story is equal parts God's profligate generosity and forgiveness and the hero's unattractive bitterness—a bitterness which makes him embarrassingly small-minded and silly.

Perhaps in our economy we are even more scandalized by the appointed gospel lesson, Matthew 20:1-16. I can't imagine a single union member who would be shouting “Amen!” to this parable. The guys who worked only a few hours get the same pay as the long-time employees..? That sucks! That's totally unfair—in our small-minded and silly way of thinking, perhaps, but not in the Kingdom of God.

“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them the equal of us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” says a grumbling laborer in verse 12. God's answer? Yes. Yes, I have made the least of you as important and special in my eyes as the greatest. That's called grace.

To me, the great pity of this story is for those guys whom the landowner hires at five o'clock. When he asks them why they're standing idle, they reply, “Because no one has hired us.” When I was a teacher in the Los Angeles schools many years ago, I used to see groups of Mexican guys standing on street corners in the mornings, waiting for some gringo contractor to come by and hire them for a day of manual labor. I often wondered what happened to the guys who weren't picked for work that day. Did their families go hungry?

Anyone who has ever been out of a job for any period of time can sure sympathize with the guys who get hired last. They spent the whole day wondering if their families would eat that night. They must have felt like crap, and they would be grateful for anything that was offered to them at the end of the day. But imagine their joy and relief at being given a full day's pay! Contrast this with the bitterness of the guys who were given a full days' pay for a full day's work. They should have been grateful for the work, but their inflated sense of importance robs them of contentment.

The joy of the Lord comes only, I think, in acknowledging God's awesome goodness and mercy, and our own unworthiness. Like Miss Ruth who called herself a “speck of dirt,” Martin Luther's last written words were “It is true: we are beggars.” This was his testimony to the unconditional and unmerited grace of God. I get the feeling he died happy.

May you both live and die in God's mercy and goodness. It's so extravagant! Thanks for reading.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Holy Cross Day

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3: 13-17)
Brosen icon constantine helena.jpg
Emperor Constantine and St. Helena with the Cross
from a Bulgarian icon.

First, a little geeky background on the significance of this holiday. You scholars of ancient history know that Christianity became legal in the Roman empire in 313 when the emperor Constantine the Great declared it was officially groovy to be a Christian. Supposedly, Constantine made this decision following his victory in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge fought the previous year. As the tale goes, Constantine was preparing to take his troops into the fray when he looked up at the sun and saw a cross glowing in the sky. Under the cross he read the Greeks words meaning, “By this sign you will conquer.” Not being one to shrug off a miraculous vision, Constantine ordered his soldiers to paint the Christian symbol known as the chi rho (XP—an abbreviation for “Christ”) on their shields. This they did and proceeded to thoroughly kick the butts of their enemies and win the day. Thereafter, the previously outlawed religion of Christianity became legal and, later, official.

That's the story, anyhow. Really smart historians who study this stuff suggest, however, that Constantine might have been Christian or leaning towards Christianity long before the Milvian Bridge episode. His mother, St. Helena, surely would have introduced him to the faith in his youth. He might have been just looking for a convenient way to go public with it. In any event, Constantine became Rome's first Christian emperor and founded numerous churches and cathedrals throughout the empire. Which brings us to the Feast of the Holy Cross. This yarn says that Momma Helena actually found the true cross upon which Jesus was crucified while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326. Her son ordered that this find should be commemorated by the building of a great basilica in Jerusalem on the site of Christ's burial where the true cross could be kept and venerated by the faithful. The church was completed in 335, and on September 14th the cross was taken out of the church in procession. The day has been celebrated by Christians as a minor church festival ever since.

Alas, the “true cross” is said to have been captured by invaders in 614 and then recovered in 630. Who knows? Fortunately, our faith in Christ does not depend on our faith in the validity of souvenirs, and the significance of this day does not depend on what Helena or Constantine thinks may of may not have been lodged in this grand old church. Rather, the essence of our spiritual life depends on the significance of this perplexing symbol.

Why, you may well ask, does the world's largest religion use as its emblem an instrument of terror and torture? Because it's precisely in this horrid device that God's love is most clearly seen. As the gospel lesson points out, “God so loved the world...” This doesn't translate as God really, really loved the world—although God most assuredly does—but that God loved the world in this manner, in the willingness to participate in our pain and brokenness.

Jesus says in John 3 that he will be lifted up just as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness. This is a reference to the Hebrew scripture reading assigned for this festival, Numbers 21: 4b-9. In this story, the children of Israel are afflicted while in the wilderness by poisonous snakes after they have spent considerable time bitching about how miserable their journey has been and what a rotten leader Moses is. Showing a gift for ironic humor, God makes their punishment fit their crime. After all, they have been creating disharmony by spewing poison from their mouths, so God gives them some really poisonous mouths to contend with. Their salvation is to look at the image of a snake Moses has placed on a high stick. That is, they have to look at their sin and at the thing that is killing them before they can be healed.

I find the serpent particularly meaningful as it puts us in mind of that crafty serpent in Genesis who claims that disobedience to God will make Adam and Eve be like God. This is, after all, our original sin—our desire to put ourselves and our desires on the throne ahead of everything and everyone else.

The wanderers of Israel had to confront their selfish small-mindedness, their ingratitude, their lack of faith, and their lack of respect and charity before they could be made whole. Similarly, we need to look to the cross of Jesus where we see our cruelty and our desire to objectify others. After all, the Romans used the cross as a weapon of terror. Crucifixions were meant to deter disobedience and enforce the will of one people upon another. They may have been partially successful to that end too, but crucifixions also bread resentment, hatred, and violence.

When we look to the cross of Jesus, we have to confront our sin, but we also confront God's everlasting empathy and love. Jesus went willingly to the cross out of love. Here we see God entering into our suffering. Without the cross we, could never really know God.

I guess I lose a little patience with TV evangelists who stand in front of huge spinning globes or maps of the world, supposedly symbolic of the spread of the gospel across the face of the earth. In the cross we see Christ's victory through his weakness and suffering. Unless we can recognize our need for repentance and God's forgiveness, unless we can recognize God in our suffering, we will never recognize God at all.

What do you see when you see the cross? What nails have you driven into the flesh of others? What nails have been driven into your own?

Thanks for reading, my friends.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Jason & Doug's Wedding Homily

Photo: Saturday will be our First Same Sex Marriage at Faith Lutheran Church. . Congrats Doug and Jason

John 15:9-12

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

You guys!

Yeah. I have to admit it: this is a very special day of celebration for me and for this congregation as well as for the two of you. You are Faith Lutheran's very first same-gender couple to be legally married—not only in the eyes of God and of this community of friends and family—but in accordance with the laws of this commonwealth. This day is long overdue, and we rejoice that it has come at last. It's a celebration of your love for each other, of our society's recognition that you have a right to live out your love honestly and openly, and of this congregation's love for the two of you.

Gotta be honest here. Although I was really delighted to have you lads join Faith two years ago, I wasn't exactly sure how to represent you to the congregation. I didn't want to point at you and say, “Here's Jae and Doug, our token gay couple!” It wasn't that I thought I'd get any backlash from the folks here, it was that I didn't want you to be just “those gay guys.” I figured that if I didn't say anything, eventually these clever Lutherans would figure it out. And they did.

And they decided that they loved you. Jason, your enthusiasm on the Praise Team warmed the hearts of retired choir ladies. And Doug, your willingness to help out with Sunday School made you a favorite with our teachers and parents and our kids. Your anti-bullying workshop was beautifully done and truly appreciated. This congregation saw new, young Christians who were willing to form community, volunteer their time for Interfaith Hospitality Network, serve on Sunday School and the church council, and lend a hand whenever a hand needed to be lent. You walked the walk, and as your pastor, I want to tell you how much I appreciate what you've done and continue to do for Faith.

But there's something else. From the time you came here, a change started to come over this congregation. You guys are two of the most genuinely loving human beings I've ever had the pleasure to know, and, somehow, your gentle spirit has started to effect this place. We've been better people since you've been here. I can't explain it, but we have. And I love you for that.

Love. That's really what today is all about.

In the gospel lesson for this service, Jesus tells the ones he loves to live and breath and move and have their very beings in the love that comes from obedience to God's law. And what's that law? Basically, the Ten Commandments just boil down to this: love God, and love everyone else. But Jesus exhorts us to love as he has loved us. And that might be a pretty tall order.

Here in the fifteenth chapter of John's gospel, Jesus has just taken the servant's job and washed the feet of his disciples. He's loved them by serving them. As a married guy, I think I can testify that a little foot rubbing from time to time can go a long way towards strengthening a relationship. But it's more than just that. Today you're being called upon to confess that you will love each other as servants—each putting the needs of the other before his own, each subjugating his own ego.

You see, to love as Jesus loves means to be willing to sacrifice. Jason, you have to give up a little bit of your need for reassurance and control. Doug, you'll have to give up taking things for granted. You'll both need to carry your cross, remembering that you can only be responsible for your marriage to your partner, you can't control your partner's marriage to you. You will require faith, hope,and love.

Now, I know you love each other. In fact, you've told me it was love at first sight that day Doug wandered into the AT&T store. You guys just knew. Three months later you were living together, and you've made it work for the last five years. So for the next fifty years, let me give you a bit of advice:

In the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer the marriage vows used to contain the phrase, “With my body I thee worship.” Think of Holy Matrimony as a worship service. It must include praying together. It must include praising—both God and each other. And it must include the element with which we begin every mass—daily confession and absolution. If you can't learn the phrases, “I'm sorry” and “I forgive you” and really mean them, you can't be married.

And remember, too, that St. Paul taught us that while we were yet in our sins, Christ died for us. He didn't wait to sacrifice himself until we were perfect or until we deserved it. We have to love others in their sins just as Christ loved us in ours.

My prayer for you is that you will always love each other courageously for your weaknesses as well as your strengths. Thank you, again, for being who you are, and may the peace of God which passes all our understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Reconciled in Christ (Reflections on Pentecost 13)

Reconciliation. That's the theme for worship on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost in the Revised Common Lectionary. For lots of churches, this Sunday is, as we at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia call it, “Welcome Sunday.” It's the day of family reunion when summer travelers return to the pews (we hope!) and kids return to Sunday School. It's a day of getting folks together to celebrate.

Recently, we've had a quite a bit of festiveness at Faith in celebration of the first same-sex wedding held in our congregation. This was a pretty big deal for a little blue-collar church. Some time back, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began to use the term “Reconciled in Christ” for congregations which were welcoming to same-gender oriented people. Certainly, if nothing else, the Church should be a place of reconciliation, but I noticed when I worshiped at “Reconciled in Christ” congregations back in California that these parishes tended to become “the gay church.” Reconciled in Christ looked an awful lot like Segregated in Christ.

Similarly, on our last Welcome Sunday we welcomed our “renter” congregation, the Beth-El Church of God in Christ, to join us in worship. Their wonderful pastor, The Reverend George Nash, preached a sermon so orthodox that Martin Luther himself could have written it. Still, I seemed to detect a small amount of squeamishness when Beth-El's choir took to the chancel and began to worship in the manner consistent with their African American Pentecostal tradition. There just seems to be something about this which makes middle class white Lutherans a little uneasy.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is often quoted as saying that Sunday morning worship time is still the most segregated hour in America. Perhaps it's a good thing that today's lessons (Ezekiel 33:7-11 and Matthew 18:15-20) focus on our responsibility to our neighbor and Christ's desire to see hearts corrected and brought back into the fold. It is the Church's responsibility to bring folks together, black and white, gay and straight, and all other shades and varieties. Yes, it's been a pretty tough order for most of our history, but that fact shouldn't keep us from trying.

I love the fact that Jesus' instructions on reconciliation in Matthew's gospel is the model which ELCA constitutions use to correct erring church-goers. Once in my ministry I had to resort to these instructions, and I'm happy to report that they proved practical. Jesus seems more concerned about reclaiming a family member than punishing a discipline problem. That's the spirit in which Christians need to approach all schisms, differences, and disagreements. We need to ask, “What do we have to do to bring people together when they are hurting and injuring each other?”

I know. Sometimes we just can't get reconciled with people who don't want to be reconciled. If you're like me, the news of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, brutally beheaded by the radical Islamic group called ISIS does not make me want to go out and kiss a Muslim. I'm also all in favor of doing justice and punishing the wicked. But I want to be careful about the spirit in which I approach it. Hatred only breeds hatred. A desire to be a victor will have to make someone else a victim. There must be a better way.

I feel a little less powerless, however, when I read in The Lutheran magazine about the work the Lutheran World Federation is doing to aid the victims of the war in Gaza. The LWF's Augustus Victoria Hospital on the Mont of Olives in Jerusalem has Christian, Muslim, and Jewish staff all working together for humanitarian goals. Somehow, this institution has broken through the walls of segregation and reconciled people of three different faiths. It can be done.

Jesus promises us in this pericope that whenever we agree with each other, we have God's blessings for success. Even Gentiles and tax collectors were not locked out of Christ's compassion and grace. Let's accept the challenge to correct in love and keep striving for togetherness.
Thanks for visiting, my friends.

Augustus Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives, a place of reconciliation.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"Get Behind Me, Satan" (Reflections on Pentecost 12)

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? ‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’ (Matthew 16:21-28)


When we last left our heroes Jesus and Peter last Sunday, Jesus was being pretty complimentary to Peter for figuring out (with the aid of the Holy Spirit since Pete's not swift enough to come up with this on his own) that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of the Living God. This Sunday, however, our gospel from the Revised Common Lectionary has Peter totally misreading the situation and coming in for a royal butt-chewing from Jesus. If you're anything like me, you'll have to admit that Jesus is the very last person you'd ever want to give you a dressing down—even though every last one of us deserves one (and if you don't think you do you're kidding yourself!).

Peter just doesn't quite get what it means to be the Chosen One of God. It's not about power, fame, prestige, wealth, or any of those earthly things. Jesus tells his disciples to carry their cross. That is, they are to be prepared to suffer for the sake of the gospel. I've heard it said that the cross we're called to carry might not always be our own. This is no injunction to suffer in silence for those who are being crushed beneath the weight of poverty, loneliness, violence, or other oppressions. Just as Simon of Cyrene picked up Jesus' cross when the Lord could bear it no longer, so we in the Church are constantly called to shoulder the cross of others' suffering. But lots of times there are things which get in the way.

Yeah, I agree it might sound a little harsh for Jesus to call Peter “Satan.” To us, this title conjures up images of a nasty little red dude with a forked tail and horns. Very unflattering, don't you think? However, in Jesus' time, “Satan” might have meant just the same as it did in the book of Job. A “Satan” was an inhibitor. In Job, Satan does God's will by blocking Job's prosperity. Although I'm certain he believed in the medieval notion of a demonic creature, Martin Luther located evil not only in the devil, but in the culture and in our own selfish nature (see explanation to the Sixth Petition of the Lord's Prayer in The Small Catechism).

Perhaps dear Peter is falling victim to a culture which only values power, wealth, and prestige? Doesn't our own world inhibit us from our purpose of cross-carrying at times? Some months ago I wrote a post about the Canadian actress Ellen Page when she spoke at a Human Rights Campaign's “Time to Thrive” event. I applauded Miss Page for speaking out against the expectations of the culture which draw young people away from their true selves. It seems that Miss Page had been advised to hide the fact that she is gay from her public for fear that such a disclosure would jeopardize her film career. Nevertheless, she made the bold decision to introduce herself for who she really is, a decision which doubtless gave courage to countless other young people. Similarly, she warned her audience about a culture which preaches the virtues of being beautiful, thin, wealthy, and perpetually young (and probably in possession of the fanciest new electronic device as well!).

The values of the world, coupled with our own insecurity about being worthy, are stones in the road of our true purpose. Sometimes I wonder if, as the Church, we value huge worship attendance, sumptuous sanctuaries, doctrinal purity, and community prominence more than we value mission to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This gospel reading calls us to cast ourselves in the role of Peter and ask what Satans are keeping us from God's purpose. What lie are we chasing which keeps us from being authentically alive in our relationship with God? How do our own expectations or desires stand in the way of what God wants for us and for the world?

I don't know about you, but I catch myself being a stumbling block all the time. Sometimes I need a lesson like this reading to remind me that all of the earthly glories—praise, authority, prestige, possessions—will all cease to be of value when I'm dead. I'll only find my eternal value in the cross of Jesus.

Thanks for reading, my friends!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Spinning Plates (Reflections on Pentecost 9)

Sometimes I feel like that juggler dude who used to be on the Ed Sullivan show back in the sixties. You know the guy I mean? The one who used to spin plates on a stick..? He'd put these dinner plates on the tops of really thin dowels and spin them like Frisbees and they'd keep spinning, except that he'd have to keep running back and forth from plate to plate to keep them all up in the air at the same time. Is your life ever like that?

Summers in a small urban church are pretty sleepy, and there's not always a lot of work for a pastor to do. I visit the homebound, of course, but I don't have to prepare for special services, supervise projects, or do lesson plans for confirmation classes. Even the volume of neighborhood funerals seemed to be slowing down a bit and then...WHAM! Suddenly all the plates start spinning at the same time and I have to keep them all in the air. I'm trying to plan a vacation, but family members start having health problems which need pretty earnest attention. There are doctors' visits to be scheduled and procedures to be undergone and days to be re-arranged. Then a long-time member of the congregation decides it's time to find herself hospitalized in an end-of-life situation, and her family needs the pastor to discuss terminating care. I find myself spending two mornings with the anxious relatives at the local hospital. Now a funeral service must be hastily arranged around medical appointments and vacation time. The bereaved family must be visited, the congregation notified, the homily written, and a worship bulletin prepared. Of course it's at this time that my car needs to go into the shop and the dog needs a trip to the vet. Suddenly it's the congregation's turn to host two displaced families in the church basement in partnership with Interfaith Hospitality Network, and volunteers must be cajoled, schedules made, and re-made, and changed again as three church committees decide they must have meetings which the pastor must attend during the same week while the church newsletter deadline is moved up to accommodate the vacation and the phone begins to ring off the hook as a thousand things suddenly demand all of my attention and my wife wonders why I spend so much time at work.

My brain has been a strangely noisy place lately.

That's why I so love the lessons in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 9. In the Hebrew scripture lesson from 1 Kings (1Kngs 19:9-18) we find the prophet Elijah living in a cave on Mt. Horeb. He's pissed off with God and Israel and feeling at the end of his rope. He's just defeated 450 prophets of Baal, and it hasn't made a dent in the political situation. He's on the run and in a pretty bad mood. So God tells him to get out of the cave and just wait. Then there's a hurricane. Then an earthquake. Then a forest fire. Then nothing.

And in the nothing, God.

Elijah's just like us. There's chaos and weirdness all around him. But that's not where God is. God is found in the stillness—the stillness that's in the very midst of the hullabaloo.

For someone like me, it's pretty hard to find the stillness, to listen to the sound of the silence, and to remember that it's all about God and not about me. But I think I can do it. I can find Jesus walking in the middle of the swirling tempest, and know that he's come here for me. If I keep my focus on him, I won't sink.

Find some quiet time, my dears. Breath. I assure you, it will all be alright.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes (Reflections on Pentecost 8)

I totally get where Jesus is coming from in this Sunday's gospel lesson. Of course, when you read this story you have to understand what came just before it. Jesus' cousin, John the Baptist, has just been beheaded by King Herod. Keep that in mind when you read:

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. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When 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.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then 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. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:13-21)

Having just lost a beloved relative myself, I understand how Jesus would just want to get in a boat and spend a little time on his lonesome to sort stuff out. Unfortunately, the neediness of people doesn't go away just because we're not feeling in the pink, and needy folks have no sense of boundaries. I'm sure Jesus would've loved to tell the crowd, “Sorry, guys, but I'm not really myself today. My cousin just got his head cut off by a blood-thirsty despot, and I'd really like to take little more time off.” But that's not quite Jesus' style.

Jesus knows that no matter how much we give of ourselves, God's generosity is so great that we will always be able to go one step further. The scripture says he had compassion on the crowds, and he started to heal their sick. I'm sure this took some time, and I have to give props to the disciples for recognizing that the crowd was going to need to get something to eat. That was very compassionate of them. BUT, when they take their concern to their boss, Jesus does an uncharacteristic thing. He throws it back on them to address the hunger situation.

Compassion, of course, is all well and good, but if it isn't married to some kind of genuine action it isn't worth a thimble of warm spit. The disciples balk, telling Jesus that their own resources aren't sufficient to handle such a huge issue. Jesus tells them to surrender their lunch pail anyway.

Lots of people speculate that you can explain the miracle of the multiplied food by saying one act of generosity gave rise to others—suggesting the disciples' sharing encouraged others to share their resources. Maybe that's so, but for my money the original miracle was the act of faith by which the disciples were willing to part with their own provisions in the hope of aiding others. Discipleship centered on Christ's love overcame fear of privation. That's pretty impressive.

As a parish pastor I deal with the fear of scarcity all the time. After almost sixteen years in an urban congregation I've begun to recognize that the precipice of fiscal doom is our natural habitat. We live on the edge of faith and hope all the time. And because there is a hurting world out there in need of Jesus' compassion—because we who are in Christ also feel this compassion—we commit ourselves to surrendering what little we have to doing the work of God's love.

I no longer care what people are giving to the church. I care more about why they are giving. I don't care about institutional survival. I'm much more interested in knowing that we are living out the gospel.

Let the miracle be in us.