Text: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Psalm 34; Matthew 14:13-21
Take. Bless. Break. Give. I trust that pattern is intimately familiar to us. No matter what the seasonal marker may be, the announcement of the opening of spring training or each opening day of trout season; the liturgical calendar each Advent as it revisits us with the possibility of a new heaven and a new earth asking for our cooperation and prophetic witness; or the planting of the fields in the hope of an eventual harvest, in each of those seasons what we do over and over again is take, bless, break and give. It is our constant. It is our grounding in Jesus and his hope for the world. It is what we have done over and over again and more often than any other one thing over our years together as bishop and people.
What is it about this feeding story that evidently captured the imagination of the first century church? I say evidently, because even though varied in the details, it is the only story to appear in all four Gospels, twice each in Matthew and Mark, for a total of six invitations offered to the seeking soul. Curious, yes?
Are you aware that the first century church got its Eucharistic piety more from these feeding stories than the event of the Last Supper? When gathered, the community did so in anticipation, with a cast to a future where the fullness of God had broken in, all distinctions between people were gone, all dividing walls torn down. The gathered community, celebrating Eucharist, was practicing for and envisioning the Reign of God present among us.
A few of you will recall that in my first season as your bishop, in our very first convention together, I posed the question that appears in Psalm 137: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” I have been asking that question of us every which way, in different words, backwards and forwards for almost 15 years. That question has informed every program, every ministry fair, every diocesan offering, every convention, every sermon I have preached. I have asked it in our context of mostly small parishes, the beauty of rolling hills, lakes and streams, in the rural villages and small cities, and the shifting demographics that continue to challenge us. All along too, I have asked it as we seek to live into our vision to be and become “The passionate presence of Christ for one another and the world we are called to serve.”
So how might this feeding story from Matthew call us to sing the Lord’s song in this season of wrapping up this tenure and inform how we are going to move into a new yet unknown future?
First, we “Take.” We have to know what is before us, what needs to be noticed, lifted up and given our attention. Jesus asks how many fish and loaves there are. It’s good to do an audit, but the need seems to be more important to him than the resource as he looks at and acknowledges the great throng of people. Contrary to the disciples, who saw no way to provide and whose default mode was wanting the crowd to go away and have the people fend for themselves, Jesus has compassion on them. The Greek behind that word for compassion, sometimes translated as tenderness or mercy, comes from a word, “splagchnizomai,” that means “having one’s guts torn apart.” It was this gut-wrenching that was motivational for much of Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps a sense of why Jesus stops to notice and feed the crowd can be drawn from a splendid piece by Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Teaching a Stone to Talk. It is called “Write Till You Drop.”
“Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”
I hope it is not lost on us that the feeding story in Matthew comes immediately after Jesus learns of the execution of his cousin, John the Baptist. The event is born in grief, in loss. Perhaps he was pondering the possibility, even the likelihood (?) of his own death. I was taught to celebrate the Eucharist as if it was my first Eucharist, my only Eucharist, my last Eucharist. Jesus teaches as if he were dying.
The Kingdom work to which Jesus calls us is urgent. People are dying – often literally. It is true that we cannot sustain that intensity of urgency each moment of each day, but really, do we want to engage in feigned horror that Starbucks has produced red cups without Christmas symbols on them? Really, is this to be the outrage of the Christian community when there are 15 million children in this country who will not have enough to eat today? Give me a break. So this continues to be a season in which we are called to stop, look around, and see what truly needs our attention. Research on American religion shows us time and time again, if we didn’t know it already, that the time for casual Christianity is over.
Once we take, we “Bless.” That is, we manifest gratitude. We recognize God as the source of all that is good, all that brings life to God’s people, and announce that the entire creation is already full of the glory of God. When we bless something, it is not so much that we are adding anything to the person or object that is not already there. What we are doing is recognizing the blessedness that is already present and pointing to it in gratefulness for all to see and to which we add our “Amen.” One of my great hopes as your bishop has been that you would know you are God’s beloved, loved by God, by me and one another, and because you are God’s beloved, come to the astonishing awareness that the Kingdom of God is within you!
Jean Vanier, the founder of “L’Arche,” in his book Community and Growth, points out that, “…A community which has a sense of work done well, quietly and lovingly, humbly and without fuss, can become a community where the presence of God is profoundly lived…So the community will take on a whole contemplative dimension.” It has been my deep desire in our season together to offer leadership that comes from a contemplative life, one bathed in prayer, grounded in love and encouraging us to find God in our midst where God is closer than our own breath.
God’s holiness is everywhere and within. Jesus saw that in the crowd. He saw possibility and hope. I see it and hear it over and over again in my parish visitations when I observe the differences many of you are making in your communities. I hear it from those about to be confirmed or received when they share stories with me of radical welcome and how they have found a community where they experience the embrace of God. My favorite thing is to talk about God with someone and you have afforded me so many amazing opportunities to do so. I am deeply grateful.
Very recently I saw the beauty of God break forth at Grace Church, Syracuse, when I saw a picture on Syracuse.com of the Onondaga County Executive standing in front of the church building, announcing that youthful offenders will no longer be subjected to the horror of the dignity-denying and life-defeating experience of solitary confinement. This happened because of faithful people at Grace Church working with others in the neighborhood of our community to bring this issue to the surface. We call this resurrection hope and who would have guessed that moment occurring when we were reeling from the devastating fire in the parish hall not all that long ago? I see the seeds of the life-giving hope of God among and in all of us, waiting to be released in its fullness.
This is in our DNA as a Diocese. I submitted to the Bishop Search Committee a part of my presentation from 2009 to then Presiding Bishop Katharine an overview of the history of the saints of CNY as they appear in Holy Women and Holy Men. Each of them, in their own way and in their season proclaimed the freedom offered in Christ, often going to the edges to challenge the status quo. It happened when Amelia Bloomer refuted the bad use of Scripture when used to uphold discriminatory policies, and when Harriet Tubman spoke compellingly from her home in Auburn for the dignity of black people and women. James Otis Sargent Huntington, the founder of the Order of the Holy Cross and ordained by his father, Frederick D. Huntington, the first Bishop of Central New York, said this, “Holiness is the brightness of divine love, and love is never idle; it must accomplish great things.” And so in every season, we bless.
Now, to “Break” is tricky. We break the bread in order to distribute it. Yet we know that the breaking also participates in the breaking of Jesus himself, that is, his death, in order to be made available to the world. We then are broken as well. We know that our assumptions, presumptions, prejudices and desire for the comfort of the status quo needs constant breaking. We don’t like it. We will avoid it and even mightily resist it. We experienced a significant breaking in a season of our diocesan life in 2003 when I voted along with others to affirm the election of the first openly gay bishop in our Church. It was hard for many of us. Some left our fellowship which broke my heart and I know, some of yours. I remain convinced, however, that this was the way of the Spirit even as we still are not of one mind on such matters. What we have done over the years, I believe, is learned more fully to remain grounded in the way of Jesus as we remain attentive to our differences, not covering them over, all in a spirit of respect and a willingness to remain at the table – God’s table.
An article in “Sojourners” magazine tells of Caitlin Fair, a 27 year-old teacher and organizer who, when speaking of the racism endemic in our culture, “challenges the Church to push past its theological comfort zone. It requires the Church to step out into a territory that may be intimidating, but is absolutely integral to authentic Christian discipleship.” For Fair, “a Church that is not actively engaged in discussions and actions around the issues we are currently facing is doing a disservice to its congregation and the people it intends to serve.”
Or to put it like David Wigger, a 29 year-old, the church is being called “to being creative and prophetic.” The Church is being challenged “to live into its calling, to risk stability for faithful action, and to both follow and lead…to be a witness in the world and to live beyond the four walls or a Sunday service.” The Church of today and tomorrow needs to value ‘”adventure more than safety, progress more than avoiding conflict and creativity more than convention.” It was John Dalrymple in his book, Costing Not Less Than Everything: Notes on Holiness Today, who said that “The first step in Christian discipleship is a stripping bare of those interior compromises we make which help us to answer the call more comfortably without undergoing a radical conversion.” Broken indeed.
So now, taken, blessed and broken, we are ready to “Give.” “You give them something to eat.” Don’t send them away, you do it, Jesus says to the disciples. Show initiative. Be leaders. Have self-confidence. In every season this is a way of stating our mission as God’s people. Christianity is not about a magical manipulation of an external deity to do our bidding for us. We are given a season on this planet to make a difference, to plunge our entire being, our hearts and souls, into the earth with which we have been gifted, and seek to bring God’s vision to bear among us. “You give them something to eat” is, at the same time, call and command. Rather than challenge the cultural assumption that there is never enough, Jesus assumes that there is always more than enough.
Some of you know that I am a classic rock fan and from time to time over the years I have visited a song or a person of that genre in a sermon or two. So, to remain consistent, today I will cite Jimi Hendrix. When speaking about preparing for a concert he said: “We plan for our sound to go inside the soul of a person.” If we know anything about the demographic of folks not engaged with the church as we know it, it is that most of them are looking for something that matters to their life. A question for us is – are we prepared to deliver that meal, as one that matters and with careful intention, engages people’s souls?
A disciple of Jesus is called to be a self-offering, a living sacrifice for the sake of the good news of God. I like how Walter Brueggemann says it, “The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the future can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. It is why every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist.”
What we have to give is our imagination, to keep it alive and continue to offer alternatives that expand our vision for the future other than the apparently only thinkable one. It is what I have sometimes called the “third way of the Holy Spirit,” the one that God imagines and which we have not yet come to. We must look outward more than inward. As Desmond Tutu put it, “We are a people of mission or we are nothing.”
So how do we continue to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? We take – we notice what God has put right in front of us. We bless – we give thanks for it all, even that which is difficult, and offer it to God to be re-created and renewed. We break, we risk the possibility that we will lose our life in order to gain our life. Then we give, because we know that with Jesus, it is always more than enough.
Through all the seasons of our life together we have experienced, in some way, everything on the list the writer of Ecclesiastes presents to us – “a time for every matter under the sun.” It is my hope that as you face a new future, with a different bishop, you will trust that God has been among us and will continue to be among you. For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes. You have given me much for which I will always be grateful. I am a better human being and a more deeply faithful person because of you. I also trust I am a better bishop because of you.
Some years ago I stood with some friends in a stream in the Adirondacks as I committed a friend’s ashes to the earth. I read these words (from A River Runs Through It) as his ashes were carried into eternity by the glassy current glistening in the sun: “Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are (theirs)” yours and mine. It is the season we have shared. It has been in love and an honor to do so.