Sunday, July 31, 2011

Compasstionate Acts of Love

Matthew 14: 13-21
Here’s a quiz to wake you up this fine summer’s morning.  What do Sister Eileen Boffa, Sister Cheryl Driscoll, Millard Fuller, and Mother Teresa have in common? 

They all achieved a lot from a little.

Who are these people?  They are ordinary human beings in whom God has worked to accomplish extraordinary things in this world.  All they saw was abundance and not scarcity even though life was, at times, sparse.  For them today’s scripture of the feeding of the 5,000 would have been a faits accompli.  That is, the disciples with their 5 loaves and 2 fishes and a stark command from Jesus, to feed so many people with so little would have already been already accomplished in their minds.  No question, it can be done, with their let’s get started attitude.

Sisters Eileen and Cheryl were the founders of Mercy Learning Center in Bridgeport.  Sister Eileen had been the principal at Sacred Heart Elementary School on Park Avenue and Sister Cheryl had taught first grade there for 15 years. They knew that Bridgeport had 34,000 illiterate adults because they had taught many children whose parents could not read.  With a simple flyer that read “Want to Read?” they went down to WIC and other various programs and handed them out to illiterate mothers but also had to extend a verbal invitation…since the women couldn’t read.  They’re motto, “Educate a woman, educate a family”.  Today they have educated over 4,000 women. 

Millard Fuller is the founder of Habitat for Humanity.  A self made millionaire by 29 he and his wife sold all that they had and gave it to the poor.  They intentionally had nothing left but their faith.  Redirecting their lives they went to Africa with an organization which built homes for people who didn’t have homes.  From this experience the seeds of Habitat germinated.  For them an abundance of material goods did not mean a life lived abundantly. 

Mother Teresa, of course, accomplished so much with so very little in Calcutta, India.  The order she founded, The Missionaries of Charity was simply to love and care for those persons whom no one was prepared to look after.  Her remarkable ministry flourished amid the most deplorable of human conditions. 

It all starts with so little. Today’s passage is one that is familiar to us probably because it is recorded in all four of the Gospels with some variation.  Right before Jesus boards his small fishing boat for some seclusion and respite on the Sea of Galilee he receives word that, John the Baptizer, his cousin, has been put to death.  You remember that gruesome story where Herodias dances before Herod Antipas and asks for John’s head on a silver platter. 
So Jesus withdraws perhaps to grieve his loss and rest.  But others did not know this, or if they did they still wanted Jesus and disregarded his need to be alone.  We can appreciate his dilemna.  We sit to rest with newspapers in hand after a long hard day and the phone rings.  We put the children to bed and then you hear a little voice say “I can’t sleep, I need some water, I’m so thirsty”.  Can’t you just hear the sigh of frustrated exhaustion?  I marvel at Jesus’ compassion and ability to put his fatigue and feelings aside and address the needs of the people regardless of his physical or emotional state. 

He sees them coming, the broken, the sick, the thirsty and hungry people and he comes ashore.  In his understated compassionate manner he begins to heal them.  But it was getting late, the sun was setting over Tiberas and Capernaum. The disciples strongly urge him to send the people away.  Imagine that?  Send the people off to fend for themselves, a crowd of 5,000.  But Jesus, the master of extravagant hospitality, quips back pretty quickly.  “There’s no need to dismiss them.  You give them supper.” [i] 
They scratch their heads.  They look around.  “Uh, Jesus”, they replied, “We only have two fish and five small loaves of bread!”  Unflappable Jesus says, “bring them here”.  He looks up to the heavens and blesses the bread and fish.  He tears the bread apart and then gives the pieces to his disciples who in turn feed the people.  Truly a miracle.

But this, my friends, is the miracle’s secret…that so little turns into so much when Jesus and his cause is involved in whatever we do.  This is the compassionate act of love for each time that we help another human being we are reenacting what Jesus did, that is to give thanks for the food that we have, divide it up to share and then give it out to others.

Herein resides also the question for ministry today.  How is it humanly possible to feed so many with so little?  It was pertinent to the first century followers of Jesus and definitely apropos to ministry today.  How in the world are we going to metaphorically feed others when there are so little resources to begin with and dwindling rapidly with a looming debt crisis? There is so much need in this world, in Stamford, in our neighborhoods and we are just one person, one church.  Living plentifully is what ministry is about. 

In the 10th chapter of John Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (10:10)  To feed 5,000 people takes on a whole new meaning if understood on Jesus’ terms. To do the ministry that is sorely needed in our communities and world knowing that we can accomplish anything in Christ’s name is what this is about.  There’s plenty of food, don’t worry, there always will be that is his promise. 

Pastor Cheryl Bridges Johns says: “Ministry is about multiplying resources so that what might have been a social handout becomes a revelation of amazing grace.” A social handout is a buck given to a beggar in downtown New Haven, bus fare handed over to a person waiting for a bus on the front steps of the welfare office, shelter for someone who might otherwise sleep in a cardboard box under I-95. 

Yet a handout given from the heart, in the compassionate name of Jesus Christ, is a revelation of God’s good and merciful nature.  Anyone can offer a bowl of soup.  But when Christians offer that same bowl of soup it embodies our belief in goodness over evil, life over death and above all God’s forgiving love and grace without condition.  It is a Christ-filled compassionate meal and invokes his sacred meal that is blessed, broken and given.
To be certain we are living in a mode of scarcity today.  This economic downslide has affected each one of us as individuals and as a church for who among us has not experienced in some way overwork, indebtedness and certain dissatisfaction with our situation?  Some of us have probably experienced a sleepless night or two worrying about what challenges tomorrow will bring. 

Indeed we should tighten our belts, pinch our pennies, and clip those coupons because we have to be wise and prudent stewards of our resources.  But we should not wring our hands in despair and operate out of a place of scarcity.  That will severely damage our spiritual health and well being.  It is ‘for such a time as this’ (Esther 4:14) that God’s care, concern, love, and giving nature kicks into high gear!  Christian faith and ministry is most efficacious when there is so little.  Many successful ministries were conceived out of prayer, great faith and from little to no resources. 

I believe that God, through the example of Jesus, asks us and prepares us for the ministry that is at hand, on our watch, right now, imminent with all of the proverbial food that we will need to assuage the hunger.  People each day hunger for truth, love, justice.  People each day hunger for food, real food, a roof to shelter them from the weather, meaningful employment and deep relationship.   

There is no lack of ministry, there’s plenty of that around.  Sister’s Eileen and Cheryl, Millard Fuller, and Mother Teresa, can attest to that.  They are also a witness to the fact that there is no lack of resources just miracles to believe in, and lots of them.

When we let Christ-like behavior guide us we can live out of abundance rather than scarcity.  We can feed Christ-like portions of the Gospel to others and we too can be fed ourselves.  We can enact that sacred meal of blessed, broken and given and know that there will be enough for all.  We have nothing to fear or be skeptical about.  There’s plenty.  Like the refrain of a hymn from a Jamaican folk tune “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ”…. Jesus lives again, earth can breathe again, pass the word again, loaves abound.


[i] Eugene Peterson’s , The Message.  Matthew 14:  16.
Artwork & Photo
1- Artist Unknown
2- Overlooking Sea of Galilee
3- Mosaic in floor of the Church of the Loaves and Fishes, Tabgha, Galilee Israel

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Sermon from the Mound

Now I know that I’m in foreign territory up here with the Milwaukee Brewers being so close, and the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, if I can say that all in one breath.  I can’t claim loyalty to any of these teams.  Nor do I pledge my loyalty to the Boston Red Sox or the New York Mets or Yankees in the land where I’m now from.  And, I would not call myself a die-hard baseball fan except to say, I would call myself a very loyal fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, my hometown team. 
That’s because my dad took me to my first baseball game down in Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. It was one of the 1964 World Series games where St. Louis beat the New York Yankees winning the Series.  My dad, a very patient and loving man answered my many questions from how do you keep score on the scorecard and what’s a wild pitch to what does the BB mean on the back of the bat boy’s jersey?  He even made me think I could be a bat boy when I grew up.

I was eleven that summer and three years later my dad passed away in 1967.  If you know your baseball stats that year also brought with it another World Series for the Cards, only at Busch Memorial Stadium, the new stadium.  Mom and I were fortunate to be invited to one of the games to watch the Cards beat the Boston Red Sox for the Series.  This was the second professional game that I had been to.  Dad also played softball for years for our church softball team so the hot, hazy, and humid days of summer don't come without me thinking about the game in some way.  

A sermon from the mound.  The mound of course is the center, more or less (there are regulations) of the field.  A Major League Baseball regulation mound is 18 feet in diameter and has ranged from a height of 20 inches, to 15 inches to the current 10 inch regulation. 

It seems to me that a lot happens on the mound; it's an important place.  Eager eyes are set upon the mound for the pitch.  It’s holy ground.  Why else would  Dallas Braden of the Oakland A’s get so incensed over a year ago last April when A Rod of the Yankees walked over the pitcher's mound in the middle of an inning shattering some unwritten rule?  It’s all in the mound folks, the mound.

Jesus knew that.  I think Jesus would have liked baseball.  After all we see him spitting in the mud (John 9:6), writing in the sand (John 8:6-8) talking about home, well ok, he meant eternal home, and even climbing up on the mount for a sermon such as we heard in our scripture today.  Although, Jesus didn’t get angry like Braden when people came up on the mount, quite the opposite.  He sat down on his mound and invited people of every persuasion to hear what he had to say.   He gives them a pep talk, puts on his game face.  He winds up and then throws out the pitch:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons (and daughters) of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
      for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Home runs on all accounts!

Ultimately, the pitch, his pitch, is about the benefits of living decently in life. For life is like a game, not always easy, not always fair.  It’s a balance of skill, luck and guesswork, blessed and enriched by God in so many ways.  I like one of Eugene Peterson’s paraphrased Beatitudes, “You're blessed when you get your inside world - your mind and your heart - put right.  Then you can see God in the outside world."  Our hearts and minds need to be right so that we can envision and embody God’s love outside the ballpark.

I want to share a few stories about some baseball giants.  Not only because they were great ball players but because their mind and their hearts were in the right place. 

Stan the Man Musial, one of St. Louis' all time favorites is today in his 90's.  Recently an article from St. Louis Today read, "….He (Musial) never once got thrown out of a baseball game.  There was this game, in ‘52.....and the Musial’s Cardinals trailed the Brooklyn Dodgers by two runs in the ninth. The bases were loaded. There were two outs. Musial faced pitcher Ben Wade. The two battled briefly, and then Musial connected – a long home run to right field. Grand slam. Everyone in the stadium stood and cheered wildly - what could be bigger, a grand slam in the ninth to beat the….Dodgers – and Musial started to run around the bases in his own inimitable way, not too fast, not too slow, all class. And it wasn’t until he rounded first and was closing in on second when everyone seemed to notice at once that the third base umpire was holding up his arms.

A ball had rolled on the field just before the pitch. The umpire had called timeout. Home plate umpire Tom Gorman realized he had no choice. He disallowed the home run. The stadium went black. The fans went mad. St. Louis manager Solly Hemus raced out the dugout, got into Gorman’s face and called him every name he could think of – finally Gorman had no choice and threw him out of the game. Peanuts Lowrey came in like a tag-team wrestler and picked up where Solly left off – Gorman tossed him too. Before it was done, Gorman threw out six Cardinals. He felt like a cowboy in one of those old Westerns clearing out the saloon…..And then Musial, who in the confusion had not been told anything, walked over to Gorman.

He calmly asked, “What happened Tom? It didn’t count, huh?” Gorman nodded sadly and said the third base umpire had called timeout. “Well, Tom,” Musial said, “There’s nothing you can do about it.” Stan Musial stepped back in the box while fists shook and boos and threats echoed around him. He promptly tripled off the top of the center field wall to score three runs and give the Cardinals the victory anyway.  “Stan,” Tom Gorman said after the game ended, “is in a class by himself.”[i] 

Stan the Man that day embodied strength of character and had his inside world just right.  Sometimes acceptance of our reality ultimately works for the good.  Blessed are those who accept what happens to them in life, for they will see God’s hand and the ways in which God was ever so present in the fabric of life.

Lou Gehrig knew all too well of acceptance.  Lou played for the NY Yankees.  On July 4, 1939 he gave a farewell speech to his fans as he left baseball in his prime.  He had been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis now known as Lou Gehrig Disease, a rare disease that causes spinal paralysis.  Two years later Lou passed away but not without acknowledging the goodness of his life and indeed for life itself. 

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn't consider it the highlight of his career to associate with them for even one day?

Sure, I'm lucky. Who wouldn't consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert - also the builder of baseball's greatest empire, Ed Barrow - to have spent the next nine years with that wonderful little fellow Miller Huggins - then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology - the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy!

Sure, I'm lucky. When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift, that's something! When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies, that's something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles against her own daughter, that's something. When you have a father and mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body, it's a blessing! When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed, that's the finest I know.

So I close in saying that I might have had a tough break - but I have an awful lot to live for!”[ii] 

Most people may have given up.  But not Lou, his mind and his heart were in the right place.  He loved baseball but he loved his family even more. Blessed are they who love deeply the people who matter most, they will never be alone for those long extra innings.

And finally, I’ll share a story about the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser from Christianity Today Magazine.

 After the final game of the 1988 World Series against the Oakland A's, Bob Costas of NBC interviewed me (says Hershiser) in the locker room. He asked what I was doing between innings when the cameras had caught me in the dugout with my head back, "eyes closed, almost meditating."  "I was singing hymns to myself to relax and keep my adrenalin down, because every time I thought about being ahead, I got too excited to pitch."

The next night I was a guest on "The Tonight Show." Johnny Carson also asked about that. "Do you just hum, or what?"

"I sing." The audience clapped and cheered. I hadn't meant that! "I'm not gonna sing!" They roared.
"Oh, yes you are!" Carson said. I shook my head, panicking. I'd never sung alone in public in my life. "This could be a first," he pressed. "Just a couple of bars."

"Well, the one I remember singing the most was a praise hymn." (Suddenly it was deathly silent.) "As I sat on the bench I'd sing: Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise Him, all creatures here below. Praise Him above, ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen."[iii]

Hershiser went back to what centered him the most during pressure and stress - God, his creator, redeemer and sustainer.  And who says God is not a baseball fan?  God’s in the dugout of life.  Blessed are they who can sing God’s praises at all times of their lives, for there will be nothing to great that they can’t accomplish. 
So what do we learn from Musial, Gehrig and Hershiser?  What lessons do we take with us from the mound?  How has Christ prepared us for life and for death through his sermon on the mount?  Here’s what we learn. 

When things don’t go our way, or they turn out different than we expect, it’s not a cause to act out our anger but a time for reflection, adjustment and new found dreams.  When your dreams go up in smoke, build new dreams….for you are blessed.

We learn that no matter how much we achieve in life we have not achieved it on our own, we have achieved it by the grace and goodness of God first, by our hard work and by the people who surround us with love and support… are blessed.

And finally we learn that when we are in danger of losing our way to the stress of life, go back to the center of our being.  Because it is in this center where we find God’s calming peace.  With each breath we take we breathe in the decency, forgiveness, love and the kindness of all creation.  You are blessed.

Play Ball!

preached at Norman B. Barr Camp
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

[i], unknown author, 2010
[iii], from ‘Out of the Blue’ by Orel Hershiser