Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Taking the Easy Way Out (8/6/17)

Loaves and Fish
(mural from St. Anthony Catholic Church in Temperance, MI)

Last week, I mentioned a book that I’m reading, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory; it uses the Lewis & Clark expedition as a guiding metaphor for where the Church is in this post-Christendom world, and how we, as the Church, have to chart a new course because the world around us is different from the world we knew. On Sunday, August 8th, we considered the feeding of the 5,000 in the Gospel of Matthew and what it says about Christian leadership.

Taking the Easy Way Out (8/6/17)

          Good morning. A number of you spoke to me about last week’s sermon and I appreciate the feedback. For those of you who weren’t here, I mentioned a book that I’m reading, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. It was written by a Presbyterian minister named Tod Bolsinger, and it uses the Lewis & Clark expedition as a guiding metaphor for where the Church is in this post-Christendom world, and how we, as the Church, have to chart a new course because the world around us is different from the world we knew.
          Several folks spoke to me after worship and told me how much they liked that metaphor. The Session has decided to read the book with me. What’s more, I was convicted by my own sermon. You see, I had an old sermon on one of this morning’s readings. I thought about revising it, so I could make my work load a little bit lighter this week. But that didn’t fit with the sermon I’d preached on Sunday, or the idea of charting a new course in unfamiliar territory.
          Mind you, I used to do that all the time. Right after I graduated from seminary, I took every pulpit-supply gig I could. I preached almost every Sunday, for over a year, until I finally got my first call to ministry. A lot of my early sermons weren’t all that great. But every once in a while, I wrote something that a congregation really responded to. It didn’t happen often, but it did happen. And if I could, I would reuse those sermons. I figured, if it was a different congregation, it didn’t matter that I’d preached it before. I called this “recycling.”
          Some of my seminary friends gave me a really hard time about this. They thought my recycling was lazy; they accused me of taking the easy way out. Now I can’t hear that phrase, taking the easy way out, without hearing the Beatles’ song, “Day Tripper.” In that song, John Lennon mocked several different types of people, including people who pretended to be hippies on the weekend, but would go back to their conventional lives for the rest of the week.

          My seminary friends were only teasing me, but there was something to what they said. In a sense, they were questioning my craft. And in a sense, I was just a day tripper, dropping in on a congregation for a Sunday service and going back to my life after worship. But being a pastor is different; it’s a relationship. After worship today, I’ll still be your pastor—I mean, if I don’t say anything that makes you so angry that you run me out of here on a rail. So, unless that happens, I’m here to lead this congregation in its life of faith.
          Tod Bolsinger defines leadership as: “Energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.”[1] I like this definition; the leader doesn’t do the work for the community. I want you to hold this definition of leadership in your head as we consider this morning’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew.
          This story, the feeding of the 5,000, is so important that it appears in all four gospels. In fact, it appears a total of six times! It also appears in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew as the feeding of the 4,000. This is another one of those gospel stories that’s been tamed by our culture—it’s reduced to a simple message like, “Jesus feeds hungry people, so let’s write a nice check to the food bank this month.” That’s great, but it’s not enough. That’s taking the easy way out.
          Most of us don’t really appreciate what it’s like to be hungry on a regular basis. Most of us live very comfortable lives. When I drive to Philly to visit my mother, I pack a sandwich or I stop and get fast food while I’m on the turnpike. I mean, it’s a five-hour drive! Yet I stop at least twice for drinks and snacks!
          The people who were following Jesus were probably used to going without food. Going a day or two without eating wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary. The 5,000 men were probably day laborers. They owned no property. When they found work, their wages might have been enough to buy food for a day or two, but they were probably supporting other family members, so maybe that food had to be shared among two or three or four people. It wasn’t enough, but it held off starvation, at least for a time.
Jacopo Bassano, Martyrdom of John the Baptist
          It’s also important that this story takes place after the execution of John the Baptist. Remember, John was executed during a birthday celebration for King Herod. Those sorts of parties were lavish affairs. People reclined on couches, while slaves brought platters of food and jugs of wine. The guests consumed the food and wine until they were in pain, then they might vomit, and then eat more food and drink more wine. That was considered good manners! The host of the party showed his wealth and power by providing so much food and wine that guests couldn’t possibly consume it all. And the guests showed their loyalty by attempting to consume it all, anyhow. It was conspicuous consumption for the sake of showing wealth and power. It was as ridiculous as having solid gold toilets, but everyone who participated in the system thought it was great!
          Contrast that with the crowd that followed Jesus—5,000 men, plus women and children; perhaps 10,000 people in all. They were hungry, but they might have been able to go without food for another day. Or two. Or more. The people in that crowd weren’t important. They didn’t get invited to banquets like Herod’s party. They didn’t have enough standing or dignity that a powerful person would recognize their value and say, “oh, it might be a good idea if I invited this person to the party.” The people in that crowd were expendable; they were easily ignored.
          Jesus, unlike Herod, recognizes the dignity of these people. He heals the sick, and then he instructs the disciples to feed the crowd with the little bit of food that the disciples already have. And there’s enough! In fact, there are leftovers! The people eat until they’re full. This isn’t the conspicuous consumption of a Roman banquet, but it’s enough. Their value and dignity is affirmed.
          What I find most interesting and important about this story is that Jesus instructs the disciples to go out and feed the crowd. The disciples don’t think they can do it! They only have five loaves of bread and two fish. How can that possibly be enough? And yet it is! Jesus blesses the food and it’s enough! The disciples do the feeding, with and through Jesus’ blessing.
          Think of that definition of leadership, again: “Energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.”[2] Jesus equips the disciples to continue his ministry in the world. This is one of the recurring themes in all of the gospels. The disciples are Jesus’ community, his congregation. Jesus knows that he won’t be with the disciples for long, so he energizes them, he pushes them on, toward their own transformation. Often, the disciples doubt their own ability to fulfill Jesus’ mission, yet the gospels remind us that ultimately, the disciples lived into their calling. And they continued to make disciples of others.
          We are also faced with a changing world. Our sense of mission has been shaken. All of our church leaders were trained for the world of Christendom, the world of the past. Our structures don’t seem as strong as they used to be and the problems of the world seem to be greater than ever before. We’re afraid that we don’t have enough people, enough money, enough energy, or enough time to go out there and feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and visit the prisoners; the need is too great and our resources seem to be too small.
          Beloved, I can’t simply give this congregation a new sense of mission. I can’t give you a new mission project, either. I won’t be here long enough to see anything through. And if it doesn’t come from you, if it comes from your next pastor, then it will only last as long as his or her energy holds out. You have to formulate this vision. I’m here to help guide you through this process and I will certainly bless your efforts.
          This will take time; we’re not going to find this new vision at our next session meeting. When the Lewis and Clark expedition saw they Rocky Mountains, they knew that they weren’t equipped for the landscape in front of them. They had to adapt. They did adapt; the Corps of Discovery found a route to the Pacific Ocean, but it was nothing like they expected. They succeeded because they had a shared sense of mission and they worked together to learn what they needed to accomplish that mission.
          Before we move into something new, before we explore the Rocky Mountains of this post-Christendom world, we need to form our own Corps of Discovery, a corps of self-discovery. In this process, we have to ask hard questions about the mission and resources of this congregation:
·       Who are we feeding?
·       Who could we be feeding?
·       What resources do we need to fulfill this mission?
          In the world of Christendom, simply coming to worship every Sunday and dropping a few bucks in the collection plate seemed like enough. It was easy. But the world changed. Just coming to worship a couple times a month and making a small donation is no longer enough; it’s the easy way out. We cannot be spiritual day trippers.
          Now here’s the good news: Yes, our world is broken, but we don’t have to go out there and fix everything that’s broken, nor do we have to fix it all at once. We just have to get out of these walls and act as the disciples that we’re called to be. And there’s more good news: Jesus has already blessed our work, just as he blessed the loaves and fish before the disciples distributed it! We already have Christ’s blessing on the work that we do! We don’t have to know the entire route through the Rocky Mountains, but we do have to start climbing the hills in front of us; we cannot sit still. As we climb, we will learn how to make the equipment that we need to continue this journey. Thanks be to God. Amen.

          Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Go forth and gather in fish of every kind. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books (2015), p. 102.
[2] Bolsinger, ibid.

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