Sermon for Sunday, July 19 by the Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick. For attributions, please see the PDF version.
Today we have another hidden story. Our reading from the Gospel of Mark skips over passages. I do wish they would insert “dot dot dot” so you know where the break is.
Today’s reading skips over Jesus and the disciples feeding “the 5000” with five loaves and two fish. I think this is perhaps because next week’s reading from the Gospel of John will be about … Jesus and the disciples’ feeding the 5000. This story appears in various forms in all four gospels. Maybe they thought we didn’t need to hear it twice.
So we might see this week as being bracketed by this feeding story. Feeding and being fed is a big theme in the gospels. Jesus tells the disciples “You give them something to eat.” And we know that Jesus says in the Gospel of John “I am the bread of life.” So we have feeding and being fed in its very real sense, something our bodies need daily, and is a profound metaphor for our relationship with God and with each other. “Give us, this day, our daily bread.” This is intimate, relational, daily. And of course, we experience this coming together of spiritual and physical bread in the center of our worship, the Holy Eucharist. Note that the table stands in the middle of our worship space.
So we might ask: what does feeding and being fed feel like when we gather in worship? We who are here nearly every Sunday are here because – I assume and hope – we get fed. We come hungry and we leave fed. Maybe sometimes you come out of obligation or duty or guilt or being nice to your grandmother. We all need that push from time to time. But to be church is to come hungry for an encounter with God, to gather in community and to be fed. And we also feed each other. We are fed by each other’s hospitality, by each other’s support, by the inquiry into some thing, trouble or blessing, that the other knows about. We come and we are fed by God and by each other in a flow of giving and receiving.
Being fed can be much harder than feeding. We talked about this at last week’s vestry meeting, our experience of coming to the altar, kneeling and opening our hands, how counter-cultural it is. To feed another is to say “I have something you need.” To be fed, to open our hands, is to express our own need and our vulnerability. This does not come easily to many of us. But it’s no good, just being the giver. That kind of one-sidedness doesn’t work anywhere for an extended period of time in any relationship. The Holy Spirit flows through us whenever two or more are gathered in a dynamism of giving and receiving.
So if we can understand our feeding and being fed when we are gathered in community, a community of people we know, in worship, in the company of familiar faces, what about when we go out? If feeding and being fed in body and in spirit is central to our worship life and our relationship with God, it follows that it is the way we follow Jesus the other six days of the week too.
The dimensions of mission
We know that we are called to go out, to encounter the other, to serve God in the world, to proclaim by word and example the Good News of Christ Jesus. But what does that look like? In this church, it does not mean pushing on another our point of view. We do not limit our generosity and our feeding to people who sign on to our particular doctrine or faith practice. I am glad for this, because to my way of thinking it is not the gospel. Jesus didn’t ask the 5000 what their beliefs were before feeding them.
So what does mission look like? This is a very active question right now in the church: how do we go forth and follow Jesus in the world? There are plenty of examples in the history of church mission that were not ultimately helpful for the recipients or resulted in human thriving, so we need to ask ourselves what mission is really about. I might suggest that when we go out in some kind of mission service, that work is three-fold. First, there is the meeting of immediate need, which sometimes we are privileged to be able to provide. And in doing so we hope to do this in the context of what is beneficial in the long term. Some short-term feeding is not beneficial, and is even harmful. Some foreign food aid, for example, has the effect of undercutting and even destroying local agriculture, making it impossible for people to become self-sustaining. This is something of which many international aid organizations are very aware, and they make interim and long-term sustainability and human thriving the end goal. We all need immediate relief, but that relief is only temporary; we can’t be forever on life support and thrive.
Second, we go out to bear witness to the suffering of others in solidarity, and bear witness to the human systems and structures that give rise to that suffering. Poverty and homelessness occur for a complex of reasons, and often at or near the top of those reasons is that social systems and structures are advantageous to some and are a detriment to others. We see the long line for lunch outside Emmanuel Dining room and ask: What is going on in our society that so many people are going hungry? We look with a critical eye at employment opportunities and the quality of education, at access to health care. At racism in our community. We ask how we ourselves are advantaged and others are disadvantaged. If we never go to Emmanuel Dining Room we might never notice, let alone ask the question. This is our gospel charge: to bear witness.
Third, we go out in relationship, which means we acknowledge our own spiritual poverty, our need for encounter with another, our recognition that they too can show us God. We go forth, not to fix someone, or, heaven forbid, to turn them into our good-will project. We go forth without a solution or a cure or a panacea, but in holy encounter, to receive their hospitality, to be in communion. I think this third one is the most important, sometimes the hardest, and the necessary foundation for the other two. This is the “being with” that is the holy ground of Christian life.
Bill Perkins, the director of Friendship House and many other things, said to me the other day, “you know, when people who are not poor talk about poverty, they talk about it in terms of economics. But when the poor themselves speak of poverty, they speak of spiritual poverty – isolation, loneliness, lack of community. Not feeling a part of something. Not feeling useful. Feeling disconnected.”
Samuel Wells also suggests that we tend to understand poverty as a kind of economic deficit, when he invites us to consider that the fundamental problem of poverty is isolation. That would suggest that our first and foundational response is being with.
We are all poor in spirit. We are all hungry. It’s just harder for some of us to admit it.
One of the basic tenets of Christian faith is that we are called to follow Jesus. Jesus shows us what that looks like by living it. Look at the gospel closely and you will see that Jesus does much abiding with us. There are those years in Nazareth before his public ministry. There are the times of being with Mary while her sister Martha is busily working in the kitchen. Mary’s abiding, Mary’s being-with, is “the better part.” There are stories of Jesus enjoying people’s company and receiving their hospitality. We’re called to follow him into this being with too.
As our gospel readings bracket this week with feeding stories, I invite you to reflect on this this week, especially those who are going to work camp. To notice how you are being fed, as well as when you are feeding. To see and experience the giving and receiving, the mutuality, in their hospitality, in their sharing of their lives and their culture, in how they themselves reveal God to you. How the holy spirit flows between you and another in feeding each other and being fed by each other.
The gospel mission is not so much doing for, but being with. God’s purpose for creation is to be with us. God’s purpose for salvation is to be with us. Immanuel means God with us. We are put here to be with God and each other. We go forth from here and encounter others to live into the kingdom of God as we want it to be, abiding in love. There is a great hunger in the world, a hunger for connection. A holy and blessed trinity is you, me, and God the Holy Spirit, in a dynamism of giving and receiving. Immanuel — God with us. May it be so. Amen.