Sermon, July 25, 2021, Pentecost 9

I am the Bread of Life (Part 1 of 4)

This morning our pattern of Gospel readings shift from Mark’s rather hurried pace to John’s slower, more deliberate telling of the Jesus’ story.  Actually, this morning’s Gospel serves as an introduction to Jesus’ “Bread of Life” discourse or teaching.  This is the mid-point in John’s narrative regarding the “Signs” Jesus performs in order to demonstrate that he is the long-awaited Messiah.

 One thing to keep in mind as we consider this story is the size of the “loaves and fishes.”  The loaves are not what we would consider loaves today – kind of like the bread we get when we sit down in some restaurants.  No, the “loaves” were more like thin biscuits.  As for the fish, they were sardines – a typical lunch for a working-class peasant in Jesus’ day.  The intent was that the laborer, or in this case, a young child would be able to snack throughout the day.

The theme of God’s unfailing abundance, as demonstrated in today’s Gospel account of the miracle of the loaves and fish, is anticipated in the feeding of a multitude by the Prophet Elisha.

As the successor of the Prophet Elijah, Elisha’s name means “my God is salvation.” He is depicted as a man of wisdom whose deeds manifested the power of God in all facets of life as he worked on behalf of the nation of Israel during times of political crisis, as well as attending to individuals in need. The passage for today is one of a series of miracles in chapters 4-6 of 2 Kings.

It was a time of famine in the land of Gilgal (2 Ki. 4:38), and a man brought to Elisha twenty loaves of barley and some fresh ears of grain as a first fruits offering in accordance with God’s covenant with Israel. Such holy offerings were usually brought to a priest who then gave them to God. However, the Prophet Elisha ordered that the food be distributed to the people instead. When his attendant protested that there was not sufficient bread and grain to feed the one hundred people gathered there, Elisha offered assurance from the Lord that there would be plenty to eat for everyone, with food left over. And it was so: “They ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord” (4:44).

The miraculous multiplication of bread and grain comes not from Elisha but from God’s promise to give abundantly. Thus, today’s Psalm (145:10-19) offers praise and thanksgiving for the generous faithfulness of the Lord, who provides for all our needs. “You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing” (v. 16).

What we have here in this morning’s Gospel, is what I would call a revelation story that comes by means of a miracle story. It reveals both Jesus’ divine capacity to know immediately the needs of the people and his response to that need with extravagant compassion, indeed an overabundance of compassion to which the baskets of leftover bread bear witness. The word “compassion” comes from two Latin roots: “com” meaning “with” and “passion” meaning “deep feeling over the suffering of others.” In the end, Jesus will respond with compassion to the needs of the whole world by offering his body and blood on the cross. And each time we eat the bread and drink the cup at the Lord’s Supper, we taste in the miracle of the meal the real, redemptive presence of Christ in our broken world. “I am the Bread of life,” he said. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

The feeding of the 5,000 is divine disclosure. It discloses that God is not only for us; God is with us in the person of Jesus, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Now that is truly awesome.

The setting of this grand scene is the Feast of Unleavened Bread, celebrating God’s liberation of the Hebrew people from their long captivity in Egypt. Think of how on their journey to freedom, the Lord provided them manna in the wilderness, Now, Jesus, the new Moses, will free the people from all that separates them from God and one another. He provides them with nourishing spiritual food along the way, and he is ushering them into the new reality of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven.

The well-fed crowd doesn’t exactly get it. They want a king with a scepter and a crown, chariots, and horses. But Jesus is not that kind of king. He reveals that the true, transformative power of God is at its heart the power of unconditional, self-giving love. Who would have thought that back in the day? Jesus, by nature, was perhaps the greatest unforeseen possibility of all time. We still struggle ourselves to get our minds around that. I think of Paul’s words, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).1

There are several variations of the folk tale “Stone Soup,” but in the basic story a traveler arrives in a village asking for something to eat. It is a time of famine, and the villagers have hidden what food they have, even from one another. They are particularly wary of strangers and refuse to offer the outsider hospitality.

Then the stranger announces that he will make his own soup — out of a stone. He builds a fire, takes a kettle, and fills it with water. As the water begins to boil, he places a large stone in it.

Their curiosity aroused, the villagers gather around as he tastes the soup and proclaims how delicious it is. But it would be even better with some seasoning of salt, he asserts.

Immediately, one of the villagers brings salt; and another offers a carrot for further flavor. Soon other members of the community begin tasting the soup and offering their opinions as to what is needed, bringing the required ingredients to the task.

When the soup is finished, the villagers gather together and all eat until they are full. There is even enough soup left over for everyone to take some home to feed their families the next day.

The moral of the story: Whereas there may be no real secret to stone soup, one thing is certain: It takes many and all to make a great feast.

Parker Palmer, author, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal would certainly agree. He tells of his experience of boarding a 6:00 a. m. flight once on his way home from a speaking engagement.

Our departure was delayed because the truck that brings coffee to the planes had broken down. After a while the pilot said, ‘We’re going to take off without the coffee. We want to get you to Detroit on time.’ I was up front where all the ‘road warriors’ sit — a surly tribe, especially at that early hour. They began griping, loudly and at length about incompetence, lousy service, etc.

Once we got into the air, the lead flight attendant came to the center of the aisle with her mike and said, ‘Good morning! We’re flying to Minneapolis today at an altitude of 30 feet … ’ That, of course, evoked more scorn from the road warriors.

Then she said, ‘Now that I have your attention, I know you are upset about the coffee. Well, get over it! Start sharing your stuff with your seatmates. That bag of five peanuts you got on your last flight and put in your pocket? Tear it open and pass them around! Got gum or mints? Share them! You can’t read all of the sections of your paper at once. Offer them to each other! Show off the pictures of kids and grandkids you have in your wallets!

As she went on in that vein, people began laughing and doing what she had told them to do. A surly scene turned into summer camp!

An hour later, as the attendant passed by my seat, I signaled to her. ‘What you did was really amazing,’ I said. ‘Where can I send you a letter of commendation?’ “‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘I’ll get you a form.’ Then she leaned down and whispered, ‘The loaves and fishes are not dead.’

Parker Palmer

In the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus saw plenty where the disciples saw scarcity. Jesus takes whatever we have — loaves and fish, stones for soup, shared airplane snacks, labor on behalf of others — even discomfort, anger, tears, and foolishness — and transforms them into blessings and abundance.

Poet David Whyte writing in The House of Belonging (N. Y.: Harper & Row, 1973) reminds us: “This is the time of loaves and fishes. People are hungry and one good word is bread for a thousand.”

Thus, we begin our exploration of the “Bread of Life.”  There’s more to follow.



Sermon, July 18, 2021 – Pentecost 8

Coming and Going

This morning’s Gospel brings us the conclusion of the sandwich started two Sundays ago when Jesus sent out the Twelve on their first mission trip.  Today’s Gospel begins with their return.  Earlier Jesus had sent them out two by two with authority to proclaim the message of repentance, to heal the sick, and to cast out demons just as Jesus himself had been doing (cf Mk. 6:7-13).

As they gathered around Jesus to tell him about their experiences, Jesus perceived that they were worn out from their travels — because of the crowds, they could not even find time to eat. Thus, they went off in a boat to a “deserted place” for a time of rest (6:31).

Nonetheless, the people followed them on foot, and Jesus and the disciples had scarcely disembarked before they were surrounded by eager followers. As Jesus looked out over the crowd, “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (v. 34). Here the word “compassion” (cf 1:41; 8:2; 9:22) is used in the sense of merciful love. The image of sheep without a shepherd reflects the Old Testament understanding of God as shepherd who cares for the sheep (Num. 27:17; Ezek. 34:14-15; Is. 40:11; Ps. 23). Now Jesus fulfills the role of the tender guardian who brings God’s peace and healing.

Rather than seeing the crowd’s presence as an unwelcome intrusion on his privacy and time alone with his disciples, Jesus used this as an opportunity, since the people’s need was greater than his own. They were hungry for the truth he could impart; and so he began to teach them. Here we see that Jesus is always available to respond to the needs of those around him and will change his course of action when necessary.

After these two events, the second part of today’s reading (vv. 53-56) provides a summary of Jesus’ ministry and activities as a transition. Once again, as Jesus and the disciples disembark, they are surrounded by throngs of people who bring their sick to him for healing. Wherever he went, the response was the same. People begged just to touch the fringe of his garment, and “all who touched it were healed” (v. 56; cf Mk. 5:27-29). The eager acceptance of Jesus’ ministry here is in marked contrast to his experience in Nazareth, where he “could do no deed of power” (Mk. 6:5).

Christianity does have a mission to the world, and that mission is the most basic reason for the existence of the church. There are religions (some would claim that Judaism is one of them) that do not have a missionary impulse in them; but Christianity has been pushed out into the world from the beginning, like a little fledgling bird nudged out of its cozy nest by its parents. That is in fact a good simile, because what drives Christianity (as distinct from Christendom) towards the world is not personal eagerness for exposure to the public sphere, nor a desire to become big and powerful, nor a sense of its superiority over every other faith. No, it is “sent out” (that is what the word apostolic means), usually against its will, by the God who has called it into being, because of love for the world. The mission of the church is of central importance to Christian faith, so much so that it constitutes the most basic reason why the church must exist. Of course, the church needs to have periods of retreat from the world, to recover its own identity through study and prayer, to renew its courage, and so on. But precisely in these times of renewal, the church learns once more that it does not exist for its own sake. A church that hived off to itself and was content to be a comfortable “fellowship” would contradict in the most flagrant way the whole message of the New Testament.

Douglas John Hall, Why Christian? (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), pp. 138, 139.

While the love of the Lord is expressed through Jesus’ compassion toward those in need, the letter to the Ephesians speaks of God’s promise of unity made available through Christ to everyone — Jew and Gentile alike. This new spiritual community is built on the foundation of the Apostles and prophets with Jesus as the Cornerstone.

Before Christ came, Gentiles lived beyond the hope of God’s promises. Now, through Christ, the barriers between Jew and Gentile have been abolished, as all are brought together in the fullness of God’s peace. The distinction between the circumcised and the uncircumcised concerns only the physical aspect. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross draws the alienated to God and unites the Covenant people with those previously outside the Covenant.

Christ has proclaimed peace to those on both sides of that division and has broken down former walls of hostility. Therefore, all can be united with God through the Spirit poured out on the whole community of Jesus’ disciples. Now there is reconciliation with “one new humanity in place of the two” (2:15).

Because of Jesus Christ, no one is a stranger or alien in the household of God, which “is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (v. 21). We too have a share in this dwelling place as we grow together spiritually through the love of God in Christ.



Sermon, Pentecost VII, July 11, 2021

Another Sandwich

Our Gospel reading for this morning is a most uncharacteristic Gospel lesson. For one thing, no matter how carefully we listen, we cannot detect a single note of authentic joy or hope anywhere in this text. Instead, what we hear is a wretched tale of anger and revenge, resentment, and death. But there is a lot of that going on in our world today!

This is one of very few stories in Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus is never mentioned. Instead, the plot revolves around two men — John the Baptist and Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet king of Galilee, and two women — Queen Herodias, formerly married to Herod’s brother Philip, and Herod’s niece/ stepdaughter.

Last week’s Gospel passage concluded with Jesus sending out the twelve disciples to further his mission in the surrounding villages (Mk. 6:7-13). This was the beginning of another of Mark’s sandwiches.  Today’s Gospel is inserted between the departure of the Twelve and their subsequent return (6:30) it tells the graphic account of the death of John the Baptist (Mt. 14:1- 12; Lk. 9:9), who had been arrested as Jesus began his ministry (Mk. 1:14). John is a compelling figure in all of the Gospels, and this story of John’s death is the only passage of such length not focused on Jesus. The writings of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus also affirm that Herod imprisoned John and ordered his death.

Despite the fact that Jesus was not well received in his own hometown (Mk. 6:1-3), word of his miraculous works had spread throughout Galilee — to the extent that people speculated that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead, or perhaps Elijah or another prophet (v. 15). It was believed that the spirits of those who had died a violent death worked through the living. Herod had thought that beheading John would end his problems with wonder-working prophets who stirred up unrest. But even Herod himself wondered if Jesus might be John the Baptist raised (v. 16).

With this introduction, Mark goes on to tell of the death of John. John had been arrested and put into prison by Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great and tetrarch of Galilee. In the Gospel of Luke, Herod Antipas also played a role in the execution of Jesus (Lk. 23:6-16).

Under Herod’s orders, John had been arrested and put into prison. Herod’s wife, Herodias, wanted revenge against John because the Baptist had called into question the legitimacy of her marriage to Herod. According to Mosaic Law, a man is forbidden to marry the wife of his brother while the brother is still living (Lev. 18:16; 20:21).

However, the real motive behind John’s arrest was likely political. John’s growing popularity posed a potential threat to Herod’s control over the area and could have led to rebellion.

The opportunity for John’s death came at a banquet given in honor of Herod’s birthday. Those attending represented the ruling powers of the day, accentuating the contrast between worldly power and the Kingdom foretold by John. During the festivities Herod’s daughter had greatly pleased the guests with her dancing. Afterward Herod asked her what she would like as a reward, even to half of his kingdom. When she went to her mother to ask what to request, Herodias instructed her to say “the head of John the Baptist.”

The text tells us that Herod was “deeply grieved” at this request (v. 26); but he did not want to break his oath to the daughter in front of his assembled guests. Thus he ordered that John be killed and his head brought on a platter to the daughter, who gave it to her mother. Afterward, John’s disciples came, took his body, and laid it in a tomb. Just as John was killed by the reigning political powers, so too was Jesus handed over and killed. Both their executioners — Herod, and Pilate in the case of Jesus — seemed reluctant to deliver death sentences. However, because of their own ambition and weaknesses, both men ultimately succumbed to outside pressure.

And there is a final parallel that connects this story to the departure and return of the Twelve. Mark was writing during a time when being a disciple could very well mean giving up one’s life. Thus, the disciples had to realize that one day they too might be sentenced to death by those who “lord it over” others (Mk. 10:42; 13:9-11).

Although Jesus is never mentioned, he is the key to understanding the story, which appears in Mark’s Gospel at the very point where the Lord’s fame and success is growing exponentially. Just as the opening verses of Mark link the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with the work of John the Baptist, so here, John’s death is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ Passion. John’s determination to speak the truth to power brings his destruction, and we know that it will be no different for Jesus. King Herod will become the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The means of execution will be a cross rather than a sword, but the end will be the same.

The Gospel lesson reminds us that the task of following Jesus will never be easy. The road is rocky. Resistance can be expected. We still live in a world where those entrusted with political power live in fear that their authority will be challenged. Our leaders are not as outwardly wicked as King Herod, but they are often just as spineless, committed to expediency, and willing to compromise truth, justice, and compassion if they think it will win some votes and guarantee their election.

So, here we are caught in the middle of a sandwich; waiting for the disciples to return from their first mission trip.  We are reminded, once again, that the decision to follow Jesus, to follow our conscience, carries some innate risks.  The Good News wrapped up in today’s reading is that through God’s grace we are redeemed, and our sins forgiven, so that we are able to receive “the mystery” of God’s will. We are sealed by the presence of the Holy Spirit, who comes to us in answer to our trust in Christ. Our response to God’s grace is to give praise and glory to God.  This allows us to sit with the uncomfortable readings, like today, and the uncomfortable realities of life.



Sermon – Pentecost V June 27, 2021

An Active Faith

Our Gospel reading (cf Mt. 9:18-26; Lk. 8:40-56) is an example of a narrative style in which a second story (Mk. 5:25-34) is “sandwiched” between the beginning (vv. 22-24) and end (vv. 35-43) of the first story.  The common them in both stories is a willingness to express and act on faith even in the face of tremendous challenges and circumstances.

As the passage begins, Jesus is teaching by the Sea of Galilee when Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, comes to him. Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet in a gesture of respect and petition, begging him to come and heal his young daughter, who is near death.

But as Jesus and the crowd set off for Jairus’ home, a woman who has suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years comes up behind him. Although she had gone to several physicians, her condition continued to worsen; and now her finances are drained as well. She believes she can be healed by simply touching Jesus’ clothing.

Acting with courage and initiative, the woman reaches out for his cloak and is immediately healed of her disease. At the same moment, Jesus feels power leave him and asks who touched him. In fear and trembling, a reaction of awe in the presence of Divine power, the woman comes forward. Disregarding cultural barriers by talking to a woman in public, Jesus commends her faith, telling her to go in peace (v. 34).

The insertion of this event in the narrative serves to increase the tension — for as Jesus turns away from the woman, word is received that Jairus’ daughter has died. As a result, the crowd insists that there is no further need to trouble Jesus. But Jesus reassures Jairus, saying, “Do not fear, only believe” (v. 36; cf 4:40; 6:5-6).

When Jesus arrives at Jairus’ home, the crowd is already mourning the death of the child with great weeping and wailing. When Jesus insists that “the child is not dead but sleeping” (v. 39), the mourners laugh at the common euphemism for death.

Taking only Peter, James, John, and the child’s parents with him, Jesus enters the house. He takes the child by the hand (thereby breaking the taboo against touching a corpse) and addresses her as if he were indeed speaking to someone asleep, telling her to get up in the Aramaic words “Talitha cum” (v. 41).

Here it is the spoken words of Jesus that bring about the miracle. Her life revived, the girl obeys the command of Jesus to stand up. Jesus then orders that she be given something to eat, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the cure. And Jesus again warns those present not to tell anyone.

The imagery and language used throughout this story foreshadow the Resurrection of Jesus and emphasize that God is indeed the God of the living and not of the dead (Mk. 12:27). We are also reminded here of the raising of Lazarus (Jn. 11:28-44); the reviving of the widow’s son by Elijah (1 Ki. 17:17-24); and the account of Elisha and the son of the Shunammite woman (2 Ki. 4:18-37).

There is a marked contrast between the two main characters in these stories. Jairus is a leader in the synagogue, while the unnamed woman is among the marginalized of society because of her gender and illness. However, both in their actions demonstrate the nature of faith as humble trust and reliance on the grace and power of God.

We tend to forget the sacrifice of propriety that Jairus makes in personally doing obeisance before a radically unconventional holy man out of Nazareth — a town of questionable reputation (Jn. 1:46).

Perhaps he had heard about Jesus in Capernaum; or maybe he witnessed the healing of the madman in the synagogue (Mk. 1:23-28) where he was a ruler. Or maybe both of these incidents led Jairus to believe that Jesus could heal his daughter.

Jairus’ faith was not theological — but existential. He went to Jesus with open, expectant trust. As a pillar of the community, Jairus forsakes his image among his peers to do what needs to be done for the healing of his loved one. He gives up the goal of impressing other people and focuses on what will bring lasting healing — even the power over death itself.

Lewis Galloway at (7/1/ 2012) wrote:

When we experience the abundance of God’s grace, we can’t help but take Jesus seriously. In Jesus, God has a way of transforming our dismissive laughter into tears of joy, our skepticism into speechless amazement. When this happens for us, as it did for a desperate, grieving father and a sick, ostracized woman, we know what it is to be made whole. The gospel is full of promises that become our own when we take Jesus seriously. Touch the gospel promises and take them to heart.

So it is for us this morning. Whether we want to admit it or not, all of us are people of faith.  This gift of faith, that willingness to trust unconditionally, dwells within each and every one of us.  Our task, then, is to put it into action – even if it is only to touch Jesus’ clothing.