Tuesday, August 29, 2017


Matthew 14: 13-21
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
August 6, 2017


         Jesus doesn’t have it. He’s reached in deep and he thinks he’s come up with bupkis. He’s just heard that Herod has killed John the Baptist—the prophet who baptized him, the one who prepared the way of his coming, the one who started this whole kingdom of God talk—in essence, his mentor. Working for God has been hard enough already. He’s got nowhere to lay his head. People think he’s a drunkard and a lowlife because he hangs out with tax collectors and sinners, you know, the people who need him. He’s preached in his hometown and they rejected him. Everywhere he goes, people come to him for healing. Now this terrible loss, this heinous crime. It’s enough to give anyone compassion fatigue. It’s enough to make anyone walk away.

         So Jesus gets in a boat and goes to a deserted place. No private island in the Caribbean. No cell phone service or free Wi-Fi. No Starbucks and Domino’s doesn’t deliver.
It’s a wilderness place, but of course the body and the soul don’t care where you are when you’re hungry and tired and wounded. It’s a very different place from Herod’s palace where the food and wine flow as easily as the lust and the power to get rid of an enemy.

         But these empty, hurting crowds follow Jesus and show up anyway. Herod can snap his fingers at servants and guards, order anyone to be murdered, and yet guests still come to his table. Two very different crowds and yet I doubt Herod ever invited thousands to a meal, especially the poor and the sick.  

But that’s just what Jesus does. And maybe that’s the real miracle—Jesus doesn’t send anyone away. No green card. No checking to see if they have health insurance. Instead he says to the disciples—and to us—“you give them something to eat”. Find out what these hurting folks need. Even though you think you haven’t got enough. Even though you’ve scrounged and you think all you got is bupkis. Find out what these hurting folks need.

         Because the power in this story isn’t about just about the bread and the fish. It’s about not being sent away, even when we’re in a wilderness place. It’s about when we’re in an aching, broken place, we’re welcomed anyway. Rather than focusing on what we think we lack, it’s about lifting up what we do have, giving thanks for it, blessing it and sharing it. It’s about giving even when we think we have nothing to give and no way is there enough to go around.

         Lately I’ve been witnessing a fair amount of nastiness, meanness, snarly behavior from folks—online, in the paper, in the news, on the highway, in the varied levels of government, maybe you can name your own eyewitness accounts.
Anytime I see this snarly behavior I try to remember: this is a miserable person, this is someone in a wilderness place, this is a person who needs health care for the soul, this is someone in pain who feels powerless and they’ve convinced themselves the only way they can have any power is to be not just angry but righteous. And not just righteous but judge another person, even a stranger. And not just judge them but stomp on them. Compassion becomes that last place any of us wants to go. Compassion becomes the deserted place, the wilderness, the forsaken place. Send them away.

         We are in danger of becoming a people that does not trust each other. The wilderness, the forsaken place is in danger of becoming a battlefield. The walls are coming down and we are desperately keeping the lines drawn. Need I remind any of us that today is Hiroshima Day of Remembrance. On that day alone it is estimated that 70,000 people were killed. Every year since 1947 the city of Hiroshima hosts a Peace Memorial Ceremony. Everything about WWII and every war since reminds us what human beings are capable of and what is at stake.

         If we solely think we are weak, that there is no power within human beings, and we need only wait for rescue, we make ourselves playthings of an inhuman god.
If we think we have no sin and thus do not need salvation, do not need saving, then we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we think we have all that we need within us, that we can succeed without grace, it is then our hubris eclipses our humanity and we can lose ourselves.

         But Jesus says no. It is all this. We are weak, we’re hungry, we’re hurting, we need saving AND we still have power, strength, resources, the capacity for grace and compassion even when it looks like we’ve got nothing.
Jesus gathers the pieces, our brokenness, our pain, whatever morsels we have, lifts it up, blesses it, gives thanks, and shares it. And saves us. And saves himself. That’s what this table is all about. No one is sent away. There is enough. You are enough. Interconnected, we are enough. Here it is again, the gospel in four words: You are not alone. Even Jesus realizes he is not alone.

         Unlimited, undeserved, unconditional love. A transcendent mystery we call God. In you and in me. It’s there in everyone, if we dig deep enough. Lift it up, bless it, give thanks, and share it. There will be more than enough.


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The find

Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
July 30, 2017

Jesus Mafa, Hidden Treasure (Cameroon, 1973)

          About ten years ago, a man from Vancouver named Kyle MacDonald traded a red paper clip, hence the red paper clip on your bulletin. He wondered what would happen if he tried to trade it for something bigger and better. Bigger and Better is an icebreaker game in which teams of people are sent off into a public space with plenty of strangers, say like Main St. in Newark, and they try to trade something small, like a paper clip or a pen, for something bigger and better. And then to keep trading until the game is over, always for something bigger and better than the previous trade. So Kyle posted an ad on Craigslist and, lo and behold, two women responded that they would trade a pen shaped and painted like a fish for his red paper clip. It was a pretty cool pen.

          A year and fourteen trades later, Kyle had a house, free and clear, in Kipling, Saskatchewan. He’s written a book about his experiences and given a TedTalk. On his blog he says he’s really into projects, especially ones that have an obsessive quality to them. Like trading a red paper clip.

          Jesus was obsessive about his project, the kingdom of heaven. If Jesus had a red paper clip, he might have said, “The kingdom of heaven is like someone who traded a red paper clip with other things that seemed small and not worth all that much until, over the span of a year, they traded for a house.” But then you might say, “Yeah, in Saskatchewan. And it’s only worth about $50K Canadian. For a year’s effort? So what?”

          We can’t help ourselves but to assign worth, conduct a cost/benefit analysis.
How much is this thing worth, how much does it cost, what do I get out of it? How much is my time worth? How much trouble is another person worth? Five hundred years ago Martin Luther protested the selling of indulgences, of buying one’s way into heaven. Five hundred years later and we’ve monetized human beings—through human trafficking, debt slavery, systemic poverty, outsourcing jobs, the minimum wage debate, education costs, and of course, health care.

          Remember Master Card’s “Priceless” campaign? It was on the air and then online for a total of 17 years. Sure, there were some touching moments (mind you, this one was in 1997): two baseball tickets, $28; two hot dogs, two popcorns, two sodas, $18; one autographed baseball, $45; real conversation with an 11 year old son: priceless. And then the tag line: “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s Master Card.” What’s it worth to you, this priceless experience? What’s your happy thought? How much can we buy you for?

Poet Wendell Berry puts it this way:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. 
Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

          What would you trade for peace of mind? What would you give in order to realize your joy? How much would you pay for a sense of belonging that nothing could disturb or destroy? What would you endure in order to truly come alive?

          How’s this for an ad campaign? Transgender transition-related care in the U.S military: $5.6 million annually. Prescriptions and care related to erectile dysfunction due to PTSD: $84 million annually. Pre-existing condition of rape culture in the military: too high at any price. Inclusion, acceptance, safety and care of all military personnel: not priceless but what they are owed for the sacrifices they have vowed to make on our behalf.

          How much is a human being worth? What are you worth? These parables about the kingdom of heaven aren’t about finding purpose or wisdom or esoteric treasure or our happy thought or even our joy.
Turned out trading the paper clip wasn’t really about the bigger and better. It was about the people and the friendships, the connections that were formed along the way. The kingdom of heaven is about us being found. Like that one who in their joy sells all they have so they can buy a field with hidden treasure, God’s joy, our joy comes from us being found. Like that old song about grace, we once were lost but now we are found; we were blind but now we see. Wake. Up. We are the treasure, the pearl of great price, fish of every kind, the agitating yeast that sparks a chain reaction, the weedy mustard seed that can become a home for the wild thing and the vulnerable.

          Having been found and accepted as we are,
knowing that there is nothing than can disturb or destroy our belonging, our connection to everything and everyone, we are then set free to find others, to help them realize their worth.  The kingdom of heaven, the kin-dom, is hiding in all of us, in our extraordinary ordinary lives, like a seed planted in the ground, seeds of heaven in all of us.

          Our last place we’d look for the kingdom of heaven is God’s first place to look. Like in our hard-seed heart that has trouble forgiving or accepting or loving sometimes.
Fish of every kind
Or in something as seemingly worthless like trading a red paper clip with a stranger. So I invite you to embark on an adventure. Try trading that red paper clip and see what happens. You could also clip it in a place where you can see it every day, to remind you that you are the treasure, the pearl, the find. But if you’re up for it, see who you can find, what chain reaction you might start. And when you’ve got a story to tell, share it during concerns and celebrations. Imagine a church obsessed with the kingdom of heaven. We just might find even more than our own worth.

          One red paper clip: about 6/10 of a cent. Every human being: worthy.  Period.