Proper 12 of Pentecost Year B July 29, 2012 by Rob Millberry
2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm145:10-19; Ephesians3:14-21; John 6:1-21
The Lord is near to those who call upon him, to all who call upon him faithfully.
These words from our Psalm today are worthy of careful attention. This is NOT a God only accessible by pilgrimage to a grand temple or offerings to a priesthood. This is our God who is always next to you. You only need call upon him. The lessons today can be summarized as the “Abundance of God.” Not only does God provide; God is always available.
Even the non-churched have usually heard the story of the loaves and fishes. But few know that Elisha had performed a similar miracle centuries earlier with loaves of barley and ears of grain. Elisha lived in a period of famine and during the reign of mostly unfaithful leaders of Israel, after the death of David and before the “death” of Israel when Assyria would take The Israelites into captivity.
A faithful Jew would traditionally take the first fruits of the season to the priests in the Temple. But many believed that the Levitical priests were corrupt. This man, from BAalSHAL-e-sha, believed that Elisha was a true man of God so he brought him the gifts. Elisha chose to feed his followers, even after his servant protested that there was not enough food for the crowd. But Elisha knew that God would show his abundance, and God did so. And as we consider the Gospel, let us remember that Jesus was a Rabbi, a scholar of Scripture, teaching at the Temple even as a young child when Joseph and Mary accidentally left him behind. He tuned his works and words carefully to the Jews who shared his heritage. Remember that later some would call him Elisha during his ministry on earth, not recognizing yet that he was in fact far greater, he was the Messiah. So in time of famine, God shared his abundance with those who listened to his prophet Elisha. God’s abundance is with us. We need only ask.
Our praise Psalm from King David today reminds us again of God’s abundance, praising God by saying “You give them food in due season. You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature.” The Psalm reminds us that God’s abundance is with us always.
In our Epistle today, Paul wrote from prison in Rome to the Ephesians, with whom he had stayed three years. Ephesus was the largest Roman city in Asia Minor, on the Western edge of the continent and a major trading port. Not just goods were being exported but also Christianity, the new Abundance of God. This Epistle is, in fact, a prayer for the early Christians, a group that now not only included converted Jews but also converted Gentiles, AND, as we heard last week, God does not distinguish between those groups.
Paul asked the faithful to comprehend the enormity of God’s work in them, “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” Some scholars call this the “Magna Carta” of the “one, holy apostolic and catholic church.” This zenith of Paul’s ministry truly launched the Christian faith, with the help of many other Saints, from a persecuted sect in Palestine to our current world religion. Paul told us that God within us “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.”
The Gospel story is familiar, the feeding of the 5,000 from loaves and fishes, the only miracle mentioned in all four Gospels. But as always with God’s words, the details are revealing. Of course, it was a miracle to feed so many from so little. But that is not the main message. This was not only a miracle; it was a TEACHNG about God’s abundance.
Why was the crowd there? And why had they brought no food? Would you drive to Los Angeles with no plans to eat? But there they were indeed. So Jesus asked Philip, the first Disciple he had recruited, how to get food. Philip lived only ten miles away, so he must know of the closest Safeway, would he not? But Jesus knew the answer before he asked; he needed the answer in order to make his lesson plain. Philip had no solution.
Andrew knew of some resources, a boy with five loaves and two fishes. At least one child knew to bring food. Must have been an early Boy Scout, you know their motto: “Be Prepared.” But Andrew dismissed the boy’s food as insufficient.
Jesus knew of God’s abundance, always with us if we ask. So God made use of the boy’s food just as he can work his abundance through anyone. No one is too old, too young, too disabled, or too sick for God to work his abundance through. The abundance was so great that 12 baskets were left over, which Jesus did not waste but had the Disciples collect the leftovers.
The next section of the Gospel is short but critical. The crowd wanted to make Jesus into an earthly king. Not a bad job offer. But God has more than earthly plans so Jesus withdrew. Not even the Disciples yet understood Jesus’ ministry.
The final passage in the Gospel is about the Disciples on a boat in a rough sea. More than three miles out to sea, they see Jesus walking on the water, and they were terrified. Jesus calms them and they immediately reach the shore. So I ask you, have you been in any storms lately? Has your life seen trouble, turbulence, or stress? No doubt it has. The most important question is whether you, or I, will recognize Jesus approaching us. God, in his abundance, provides us with an intercessor, a savior, to be with us in time of trouble. We have but to recognize him and we will not only weather the storm but arrive safely at our destination.
So the unifying theme of today’s lessons is God’s Abundance. At no cost. Available by only request and faith. Look at our nation and our planet. Can we feed every human? We could, because the Lord is abundant. But we don’t because we do not accept the Lord’s abundance for the gift that it is. Instead, we, as a civilization, more often embrace scarcity as our principal belief. A better way of saying it is that I take care of me, you take care of yourself, a zero sum game that assumes I can only gain if you lose. Pretty far from the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Even a child knew enough to share. Where Philip and Andrew saw only an unsolvable problem, Jesus knew to draw on God’s Abundance. And God provided from his long promised abundance, as he always will. Our food closet and those who contribute demonstrate that faithful Christians believe in God’s abundance and share it, knowing that God will provide. One of the labors of our church is teach the world about us that God is abundant. We can provide for all without losing our share of God’s abundance.
And feeding God’s people is not only about food. God has more to offer us and we have more to offer each other. God’s abundance includes the “ministry of presence.” Most of us have been to a funeral or attended a dying person. What comforts those who grieve or approach death? If you have the words to do that, you are far more eloquent than I. What we CAN give is the “ministry of presence,” we are there with and FOR those in need. Again, we have God’s abundance to share. He is with us always, and we can share that presence by being with those who need us.
As we continue today’s service, I ask you to look for all the messages and signs of God’s abundance. I ask you to continue to look for God’s abundance when you leave the church and through the days to come. When you see it, see also if you can share it.
This will be my last sermon for a long while. I must attend to personal matters and ask your consideration by not inquiring about my sojourn.
I commend this ministry of preaching to any of you who wish to deepen your faith in Christ and to expand your understanding of Scripture. I may not be an exciting or amusing preacher but I have tried to be an earnest and faithful one. At least admission was free. In fact, you get paid: you are filled with God’s Abundance. May you always feel his immeasurable love.
May my words, today and before, have pleased God who has showed his abundance to ME all my days.
Sermon: 4th Sunday of Easter (year B): April 29, 2012 by Rob Millberry
Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, our rock, and our redeemer. Psalm 9:14
“For God is greater than our hearts”, these are the words we heard in today’s Epistle. Today’s lessons explore the true meaning of these words. This Sunday is often called “Shepherd Sunday” with the recurring image of the shepherd. The beautiful 23rd Psalm must be the best known Psalm in Christianity, even known well beyond the churched. And the shepherd is a constant image in Christian art.
Why would Jesus choose the shepherd as a symbol of salvation and leadership? Why not a king or a warrior? It helps to understand how the world 2,000 years ago regarded the shepherd. Of course, the vocation of shepherd was more common then than today. Few of us will see a shepherd when we leave this church. Many of us will never see a shepherd, although we can see sheep, especially as we drive to the Hermitage.
Preparing for this sermon, I thought about the different forms of leadership I have observed and read about. Warriors lead from the front. Kings lead from mighty castles. Their modern day equivalents are not much different. They are insulated by the “chain of command,” the royal court system, or the “palace guard,” with its ever decreasing rings of power spreading out from the center whether it be a General, king, high justice, banker, CEO, or politician. The final ring consists of grunts, names unknown, acts unheralded but upon whose effort the entire enterprise stands or falls. And what is the shared characteristic of each of these systems? I believe it is the isolation of the center from the flock.
But not so the shepherd who usually walks behind or alongside the flock. The shepherd can see and knows each member of the flock. There is no separation. As the day goes on, the shepherd is close to different sheep and always ready to rescue one who strays or stumbles. So it is with Jesus and us, his flock.
Actually the shepherd was a powerful symbol of leadership in Palestine. The shepherd was first mentioned as a leadership figure in Genesis. Moses and David were shepherds when they were chosen by God to lead his people. I spent many years teaching and developing Leadership in the Marine Corps and in law enforcement. One primary imperative was always to “know your people.” We have such a shepherd. Jesus knows us.
Another characteristic of the shepherd tending his flock is that the flock is trusted to find the grass and the water. The shepherd intervenes in times of difficulty but the flock feels no whip, no cattle prod, no lasso. Is this not a perfect model for Total Ministry? Each of us leads the flock in turn, according to our gifts and quests.
I preach to you today, not because I am gifted, but because the struggle to write a sermon serves my personal quest to better understand the Christian life. Like the flock, we in Total Ministry turn to the shepherd, Jesus, when we need guidance. And just as the flock is challenged when entering unknown fields, we are challenged by Total Ministry to not only serve as our gifts allow but to challenge ourselves to find new and perhaps daunting ways to serve. When we do that, we grow in Christ.
Look at Peter as described in Acts. We remember that after the crucifixion, Peter denied Christ three times. Now Peter, standing before the same rulers who had recently decided that Christ should be crucified, defies them, at the risk of his life. Peter was the agent of healing but did not take the credit himself but instead “filled with the Holy Spirit” credited Jesus. Remember that Jesus was a radioactive topic at that time. His turbulent ministry had threatened the Jewish leadership so much that they cooperated with the hated Romans to have Jesus humiliated and crucified. This “Jesus” business was supposed to be over, done, history. Just another false prophet as foretold in the Old Testament. And the righteous Jewish leadership had taken care of business. Now this disciple of the dead Jesus (as far as the high priests were concerned, Jesus was dead) stands before them and turns the inquisition around. “This stone rejected by you…has become the cornerstone. There is salvation in no one else.” How could Peter do this? Because he was open to the Holy Spirit. As Jesus told them when he breathed upon his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And Jesus told his disciples to trust the Holy Spirit to be their voice when they face persecution. As Peter did. As we can do.
In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that he is the Good Shepherd, willing to lay down his life for his sheep. So he did, for us. Again this passage is a direct challenge to the Pharisees. Jesus is not only a Good Shepherd; he is the ONLY Good Shepherd. Jesus challenges the Pharisees derisively as “hired hands” who tend the flock for pay, as indeed they do. Theirs is a life of comfort and privilege. They would have understood the “in your face” challenge of Jesus proclaiming himself as the one “Good Shepherd.”
And in his speech to the Pharisees, Jesus points to a new world of faith. “I have other sheep…….. there will be one flock, one shepherd.” When we pray for the whole catholic Church (small “c”) we acknowledge that the followers of Jesus are not just a small breakaway group of Jews. The followers of Jesus will create an entirely new faith, the Christian Church which will spread throughout the globe. And so we are. Here today in St. John’s. Yes, this is a building but it is a powerful symbol as well. We are half a planet away from Palestine. Look around you. How many of us are ethnic Jews? How many of us could understand Jesus’ speech in his native tongue? We are a new thing, followers of Christ. By choice. This building, St. John’s Church, in which we heard the Gospel of John and the first letter of John today, is a humble but beautiful testament to the unstoppable power of the works of a Messiah who chose not to rule on this earth in a gold and bejeweled castle, but chose to die for us, as our good Shepherd. As I began this sermon, I quoted the Epistle, “For God is greater than our hearts.” That is a beautiful phrase, but what does it mean? To me, it means that if we keep our hearts open, as we heard in the Epistle, by loving others in truth and especially in ACTION, then there will always be room in our hearts for the Holy Spirit, which will reinforce our faith, give us strength and give us voice when we face persecution. Therefore we will, as the Psalm tells us “dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
SERMON OCTOBER 9, 2011 by Rob Millberry
Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 32:1-14
“The Wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.”
Looking first at the Epistle today, Paul addresses conflict. Two followers in Phillippi were in disagreement. All of us have seen disagreement: families, school boards, work groups, national politics, even vestry meetings. In my study and prayer over today’s lesson, I realized that it not unChristian to disagree. It is unChristian to be disagreeable. Paul tells us to look for the vantage point from which we can “see God’s Presence,” to use Paul’s words. That way we can stand “firm in the way of the Lord.”
I have been on two search committees. Each time we had a chaplain who was NOT a deliberating member of the committee but rather a spiritual process observer who was to remind of those things about which we agree. We could use a lot more such chaplains in our daily lives. In these times, disagreement floods from our TVs, our radio, our magazines, and newspapers. If you do not understand that word: “newspaper,” ask a very old person, like me. These were ancient devices used to distribute news and opinions. We can even choose to read celebrity magazines that allow us to wallow in the disagreement of celebrities that we do not know and who will never know us. Thinking on this Epistle brought me to realize how seldom we pull back far enough to see “God’s Presence” (in Paul’s Words) when we disagree. I catch myself doing just that.
When we disagree, let us remember Paul’s Epistle here. Let us apply his Christian principle. With our so-called “opponent” let us back up until we see the shape upon which we agree. Family, church or nation, there must be things upon which we agree.
I have been an instructor and facilitator on conflict resolution for more than two decades. This is bedrock practice for such situations. To resolve disagreements, first we look for things about which can agree. This is true from couples counseling to international diplomacy.
So I read Paul’s Epistle as sage advice. If we disagree, we are to change our vantage point until we see what is, in his words, is “pure, pleasing, honorable and commendable.” He wants us to remember how we struggled together and to build upon that common ground. If we follow this process, then we will know “the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.”
And Paul gives us a powerful tool to deal with disagreement: He says “Let your gentleness be known.” If you have been a parent, a cop, a nurse, a counselor or even just a friend, you know the power of gentleness. In law enforcement, we call it the ability to “project calmness.” That is a powerful tool, if not always sufficient, to de-escalate a dangerous disagreement, particularly in domestic situations, one of the most volatile situations that cops confront. If we are gentle, we take fuel away from the fire of disagreement. Gentleness can disarm the disagreeable and move us on to a “common mind.”
Turning to our Gospel, our Gospel is often called “The Great Invitation” from its most famous phrase: “Many are called but few are chosen.” But this is NOT a lesson about making the cut for the Volleyball Team. This is a much loftier lesson, worthy of detailed study.
To understand this Gospel, we need to understand the context of 2,000 years ago.
First this is a ROYAL wedding. A king calls upon his subjects. Not to tax them, not to sell them as slaves, not to conscript them into his army, but to join him in celebration. Yet many decline this invitation.
Jesus chose his parables to fit his audience, as we know. Who was his audience here? The audience was the religious leaders of the time, who want to trick him into saying something for which they can indict him. But, as he often did, Jesus instead traps his questioners, who undoubtedly feel that they themselves are safely chosen.
In the story of the wedding feast, guests were called three times, more than the polite two times. But the guests are “too busy” with ‘farm’ and “business.” Some even killed his messengers.
How about us today? How often are we “too busy?” Yes our lives are frantic. Yes, demands on us are many. After all, we have to get back to all those programs that the DVR is recording for us.
Looking around, I doubt that any of us have actually “killed” a messenger lately. But we may have killed an email or letter or other request from St. John’s Vestry or the Diocese by ignoring it. We cannot do everything, but we can do something.
Soon St. John’s will have its stewardship drive. We don’t just ask for your money. We will be asking for your time and talent. Your talent may be evident or it may be latent. Perhaps you will be called to a point of discomfort, given a “chance to grow in Christ” by taking on a new role. I ask you to consider the stewardship drive this year as your “Invitation to the Wedding.” Doing the same thing is the easy part. Taking on a new role and trusting Christ to stand with you is the hard part. Prayer will lead you.
Just as the guests are called many times, so are we. We gather in this church, so we are already answering the first call. But we have other calls. We may be called to green the church for Christmas, or serve on the Vestry, or paint the office, or mow the lawn. Each of those is a calling from Christ our King. Let us NOT be too busy to join in the great feast of God our King.
Last week we had a great example. We heard from the Council of Bishops who called upon us to do small things. We were not asked to ride a bicycle when we go to Ukiah to reduce our carbon footprint. We were just asked to do the small things that add up to Good Stewardship of this precious Earth, our “Island Home” as our BCP says so beautifully.
As I examine my own life, I realize that I have ignored a few of the invitations to the Feast. But God is patient with me. He continues to offer me invitations. I am catching on now. I know that church attendance alone is not enough. God offers me a robe, just as wedding guests are offered a robe when they enter the feast. That robe today is the Christian robe of participation in my church and in my community as a Christian.
That is why I preach. Not because it is easy, because for me preparing a sermon is far from easy. I do it because it is difficult and therefore helps me grow in Christ. Judge me not by my eloquence or entertainment skill, which you will undoubtedly find lacking, but judge me by my willingness to come to the feast when invited, to put on my robe of responsibility and work, and to stand before you as a humble fellow Christian who wishes to grow in Christ.
As you come to this physical church on Sunday everything you see is the result of those who have answered the invitation. The lawn is mowed. The office is managed. The bulletin is prepared. The yard is cared for. Ushers greet you. Music punctuates our worship. Lay Ministers lead Morning Prayer and help with the Eucharist. A Priest consecrates our Holy Eucharist. We will soon have food with fellowship. Each of those tasks is the result of someone is who is answering the invitation from Christ the King.
When we offer the gift to God of our Labor and Love, not only for our parishioners and our neighbors in Lake County …. Then we join in the Feast, as God so lovingly desires. When we do so, we move from called to chosen. Many are called, but few are chosen.
How will we know? We will know because we will be “filled with the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.”
Open your hearts to God’s invitation to join his feast. He welcomes you.