Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Garden of Doom and Hope

sermon by Carrie Eikler
Jeremiah 29

One of my favorite, though perhaps unsung cities, is Minneapolis. OK, St. Paul too…the twin cities, Minneapolis-St. Paul.  And it’s not because of the Mall of America.  I was introduced to the Twin Cities when Torin’s younger brother Josh and his partner Saro lived there.  There was something about the cold weather and the warm people that endeared it to me.

If I were to live in the Twin Cities, I would most certainly NOT consider it living in exile as it has a vibrant cultural life, social justice awareness, good restaurants, and alternative economies.  But it is still a city… which means green space is limited, vast open places to run around in are somewhat rare, probably far more concrete and metal than dirt and grass.

But that doesn’t stop people from growing gardens.

It doesn’t prevent people from connecting with the Source that runs deep beneath the concrete and steel.

For some, it has inspired them to be more intentional about this growing…about this connection.

Fritz Haeg is the artist-in-residence at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and he has let his art loose on many of Minneapolis’ most common green spaces.  The front yard.

Haeg’s project is called the “edible estate” and it is something he calls both provocative and invitational.  He works with families in the cities to show their neighbors how they can grow their own food in the space they have not considered before.  The space that generally has just been a burden to mow and look tidy and impressive for those passing by or the neighbors.  And he finds that the best gardens are grown in the places you would least expect them…in well-to-do neighborhoods where manicured lawns are important…and in run down neighborhoods where once there were grassy lots of trash and debris.  These are the provocative places for the best gardens.

But lest you think these are simply mini-farms with rows of corn growing in the front, these edible estates are more than simply about food production.  Haeg calls them pleasure gardens that also produce food.  “The point” he says “is to make visible food production in the city, but in a very pleasurable way. [The whole point] is for everyone to look at this and think, “I could do this too.  If nobody else does it in the neighborhood, at least everyone gets to watch and look at it.  Those little kids growing up on that street who may not otherwise recognize that food grows on plants coming out of dirt, they get the reminder every day.”


When God speaks to the Israelite people in Jeremiah, he is speaking to a group who have faced provocation…

A desperate group

A people who have seen their holy city of Jerusalem, destroyed, their homes pillaged, their lives crumbling around them.

These people who, if you would ask them, who are you, what name would you give yourself, they would say “God’s chosen people” now must add to that description…


They must face their new home in Babylon, some in Egypt.  And the prophet Jeremiah sends them a letter.  Certified no doubt, with the mark of respect stamped right on it so they know this is not just the words of one man, but the word of God.  In the scripture, you notice, there are all these names, as we read we can hope…one of these people will surely find the solution, queen mother?  The king?  The court officials?  Artists, smiths?  At least…maybe these messengers will bring good news…

Surely this letter will say, God will return you to your home.

Surely this letter will say, “Don’t worry, I’m taking care of it.”  Take a nice vacation and you’ll be back in two weeks.

Opening the letter, like Charlie waiting to see if he has golden ticket for the chocolate factory, it says

Buck up. 

No, maybe not buck up.

Maybe more like…Yeah, this is the way it’s going to be.  This is the new normal.  This is your life.  This. Your home is with me, and I am with you…here.  Make this your home.


Build homes.

Plant gardens.


Make love.

Have children.


It is possible. 


Beautiful…but…not quite…what they were hoping for.

As Fritz Haeg stands in his gardens in Minneapolis, thousands of years and thousands of miles from the exiles in Babylon and Egypt, he sees these urban gardens, perhaps like the exiles did as they envisioned those gardens they were to create.  Haeg says that his gardens sit between hope and doom.

A garden that sits between hope and doom. (?)

He says that of course, the garden evokes hope because it is beautiful, everyone can benefit from it.  “When you see a garden like this, of course you think, wow what if everyone in the city did this?”  And there is excitement.

“Then, maybe your mind snaps to the opposite extreme” he says.  “[You think this] is ridiculous, nobody can do this; nobody has time for it.  The soil is too polluted, the air is too polluted, and nobody has time to grow food in this way.  You can list all the reasons why we can’t and shouldn’t and won’t do this.”

And for him, this is where the best gardens are planted.  This place between hope and doom.  

He takes the ideal notion of what the city he wants to live in,

 creates some small piece of that vision,

and then puts it into the least likely part of the city. 

The beauty is in the contrast between “the city we want and the city we have” he says.


When we first arrived at Morgantown, I had the seminary chip on the shoulder that most new pastors do, and honestly, is something that a lot of churches want.  That chip has energy, enthusiasm, and vision.  I prided myself on bringing the good news to you, to speak about the city, about exiles and immigrant, about our call to social justice, to peacemaking, to welcoming, to radical discipleship, praxis, action…

It took me a while, but slowly I realized that while these are messages close to my heart, and yours, I found…they were probably the least challenging for me to preach and for you to hear.

It took me a while, but slowly I realized that the messages most challenging for me to preach and for you to hear were not about calling you to action, but calling you to reflection.  Calling on you, and me, not to always turn your gaze outwards, but calling your gaze inwards once in a while.

It took me a while, but I slowly came to terms with that.  It took me a while, but I slowly convinced myself that this wasn’t a cop out, but what this community, and myself needed.

This is a congregation that plants gardens, literally and figuratively.  You are out there working in the city, connecting with exiles, loving your neighbor.  After a while I realized that our church didn’t always need to be reminded to do God’s good work because all of you are.

What I realized is that your spiritual life is the garden where you perhaps see yourself straddling the line between hope and doom

Spirituality, a notion that seems so beautiful, so inviting, so alluring

And yet…do we have time for it?  Is my spirit too polluted?  Is it too much work?  Is it a nice idea, but beauty will never win over productivity?  Is it too close?

Sometimes, dear friends, the place we can feel most like an exile, is in our own hearts.  When we don’t feel at home there.

When we wonder how this garden will be watered when what we have experienced for so long is dryness and drought.

Sometimes the garden of our souls is overrun with weeds and pests and nothing is blooming and…where do we even begin?

How do we recognize the contrast between
                              the spirit we want and the spirit we have.

In the children’s book The Curious Garden a little boy named Liam lives in a city that has no green, no gardens, everyone stays indoors.  It is dirty and polluted. But Liam loves being outside in spite of it all.  One day he comes across an abandoned railway bridge.  He climbs onto the railway and sees a little patch of green with a few small flowers, struggling to survive, but still opening themselves to the sun.

Over time, Liam begins to care for the garden.  “Liam may not have been a gardener” it says “but he knew that he could help.  So he returned to the railway the very next day and got to work.  The flowers nearly drowned and he had a few pruning problems, but the plants patiently waited while Liam found better ways of gardening”

How many of you feel that this is the point where you are in your exile-garden-soul.  You try things, trial and error, some work, some don’t.  And you can get discouraged…

But your soul waits patiently while you find better ways to tend it…

“As the weeks rolled by, Liam began to feel like a real gardener, and the plants began to feel like a real garden.  Most gardens stay in one place.  But this was no ordinary garden.  With miles of open railway ahead of it, the garden was growing restless.  It wanted to explore.  The tough little weeds and mosses were the first to move.  They popped farther and farther down the tracks and were closely followed by the more delicate plants. 

“Over the next few months.  Liam and the curious garden explored every corner of the railway”

And what Liam discovers after months of tending this garden is that the most surprising thing that popped up…

… were new gardeners.  By the end of the book, this brick and steel and concrete city that was given over to desolation, became green: ivy growing up buildings, gardens on rooftops, flowers popping out of abandoned cars. 

A little garden, perched between hope and doom, just a patch of green in exile.


 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.

What is this garden within you?  This place of doom and hope?  Plant it, water it, pray over it, invite others into it and bless them with the fruit that does and will come from it. 

And, above all, call upon God, the ultimate Gardener, Tender or our souls, to walk before you, and alongside you. 

Inviting Her to kneel with you as dig your hands into the deep earth of His love.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.
May it be so…

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Learning from the Foreigner

sermon by Torin Eikler
Matthew 15:21-28

                                     (Note: this video starts about 1 minute into the sermon.)

About two-and-a-half years into my time as a volunteer, I found myself looking for an assignment to fill in the time between where I was and where I was going.  I looked at the options, but nothing much seemed to be drawing me. So, I told the BVS staff to pick a spot that needed a volunteer and send me there.  I ended up at Su Casa Catholic Worker House on the South Side of Chicago.

Su Casa was located in the Back of the Yards neighborhood where much of the gang warfare of the 1990s was taking place.  It was (and still is) the poorest place that I have ever lived, and the people who live there are almost entirely African Americans who has very low wage jobs if any at all.  I could travel in most directions for a mile or so without seeing another person with as light a complexion as mine. 

I prided myself at the time for my level of racial awareness and my ability to cross over racial barriers, but it didn’t take me long to realize that I was out of my depth.  Most everyone who lived near us knew what Su Casa was and respected the Catholic Priest who lived there and ran the place, but that is the only reason that I was able to walk openly on the streets.  I learned quickly that that protection did not extend to some areas or into the darker hours, and I got to be skilled at reading the attitude and behavior of the people who spent the days on their porches or playing in the street.  All the same, it was clear to me that I was in foreign territory, and I responded by shrinking into myself whenever I was out on an errand.

In our text today, Jesus finds himself in foreign territory as well.  Seeking to avoid the crowds that surrounded him everywhere he went in Israel, Jesus leaves the country for a little R&R.  Tyre and Sidon were in Phoenicia, a region in Syria which stretched north between Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea.

This was a dangerous place for a Jew to be.  The Phoenicians were of Canaanite stock, the ancestral enemies of the Jews, and the forbearers of the people we know as Palestinians today.  On top of that, Jews in Jesus' time considered all non-Jews to be unclean.  Anyone who did not keep the Jewish cleanliness laws was by definition "dirty,” and a Jew was to have nothing to do with anyone who was unclean.

I am sad to say that in my childhood I heard some of my closest friends to African-Americans as "dirty," and I said nothing to correct them.  I remember going on a date with a young woman with in High School and overhearing other students talking about it the next day.  “What is he thinking,” they said, “doesn’t he know that ‘blackness’ rubs off.”   I know now that their attitude was born of fear and ignorance.  The words got me thinking and wondering, though, because I didn’t quite know what they meant.  When I mentioned it to my mother, I learned that the town I had moved into used to have a law that read, “the sun shall not set on the back of a [black man].” 

The law is gone.  Unfortunately, the attitudes that gave it life are still as common in our time as they were in first-century, and I learned on that day, when I was drawn into that foreign world, that it is those attitudes – whether I uncover them within myself or see them in others – it is those attitudes that make me feel dirty.

It can be disconcerting to go into foreign territory.  Strange places and strange peoples can bring out the worst of our fears and bad behavior.  And strangely, it is in foreign territory that we often learn more about ourselves than anywhere else.  Richard Rohr writes that to find a new way of life, "You have to leave the world where you have everything under control.  You have to head into a world where you are poor and powerless.  And there you will be converted in spite of yourself."

Jesus was in foreign territory, and a "dirty foreigner" approached him.  The fact that she was a woman only made things harder since Jewish men were not to speak to women in public, even members of their own families, lest they risk making themselves unclean.  So, when the Canaanite woman shouted at Jesus, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.  My daughter is tormented by a demon," Jesus ignored her.  He did not even acknowledge her existence, but the disciples were not so patient.  They urged him to send her away because she wouldn’t stop.  And when Jesus finally spoke, it was with disdain: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

The woman was not deterred by his words. She went and knelt at his feet and pleaded with him, "Lord, help me."

Jesus responded in a manner that seems uncharacteristically harsh.  "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."  Despite the insult, though, the woman answered him without missing a beat.  (And I think she must have smiled as she said this….)  "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."

The Canaanite woman was good, you have to admit.  She did to Jesus what he was so good at doing to so many of the critics who dared to engage him in oral combat.  Nowhere else in the Gospel accounts is there any report of anyone so clearly getting the best of Jesus.  This “dirty” foreigner took Jesus to task, and he knew it. What's even more surprising, though, is that Jesus not only got it, he admitted his mistake.  He did what all of us could do better when we are shown to be wrong.  He graciously acknowledged the rightness of her position, saying, “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.” to which Matthew adds, “and her daughter was healed instantly."

There are two miracles here. The first one is obvious and by itself no small thing.  Jesus healed that little girl, but clearly it would not have happened except for this mother's great love.  In one of his study books, James Moore calls this "love with an attitude."  He says the woman was bold and courageous because she lived by an attitude of love.  She would not be put off.  She would not be discouraged.  She would not give up.  She was willing to risk humiliation in order to free her daughter from her suffering.  “Love bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things. Love never ends." Long before the apostle Paul penned these words, this Canaanite woman lived them.

The second miracle in this story of healing is, in many ways, even more significant.  Jesus' immediate response to the Canaanite woman was tribal - "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." – which is not surprising.  We are all members of a family and a tribe first.  Who you are related to counts for something in this world.  Families take care of their own.  Blood is thicker than water and everything else.  

How many wars have been fought, how many millions have died in our world because of that attitude?  In 1994, 800,000 persons from the Tutsi tribe in Rwanda were murdered by members of the Hutu tribe, who were then in power.  "Ethnic cleansing" we now call this - bad blood between neighbors that begins with simple disagreements about religion and who owns what territory, and ends in a bloodbath. Witness Bosnia, Kosovo, Burundi, Chechnya, Kurdistan, Northern Ireland, and Palestine, to name just a few of the places where ethnic tensions have erupted in violence again and again.  One wonders where God is in these places, why it seems that God cannot be heard or is not known in these bleeding hearts.

Jesus said to the Canaanite woman, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." And the voice of God spoke into the mess that Jesus was making through the Canaanite woman when she replied, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master's table."

What do you suppose Jesus learned in that foreign place that he could not have learned in his home territory?

Last week I made the journey from Morgantown to Goshen, IN and back on the train.  For those of you who haven’t done much train travel, you should know that if when you sit to eat in the dining car your table is filled up with others who are also in the mood for some food.  It is, of course, uncomfortable to sit there eating in silence.  So, conversation with strangers is the order of the day.

At breakfast, I was seated with a pleasant enough retiree from Missouri who had spent his life building houses and was returning from a quick remodel of his daughter’s apartment in New York.  As we chatted about our lives and world events, he made a sudden shift to the situation in the Middle East – the conflict between Israel and Palestine, to be specific.  What began as a lament for the loss of life over the years quickly became a low-key rant about the failings of Muslims in general and the evil blood-thirstiness of the Palestinians in particular.  He ended his tirade with, “Those dirty sand-devils will never stop fighting until they have everything and everyone else is dead,” and looked to me for support in his statement.  I sputtered out something about the history involved and excused myself from the table wishing that I could, somehow, get that man to step into a new place so that he would be free to replace his ignorance and anger with compassion and empathy … maybe even love.

[In 2002], a 13-member delegation of The United Methodist Church conducted a fact-finding tour of the Middle East. These 13 American Christians in foreign territory were taken aback by what they saw and heard. It was a very different perspective than that provided by the American news media.  During the visit the delegation spent the night of July 27 in farmers' homes in a Palestinian village. Les Solomon, of Alexandria, Virginia, noted that despite his extensive travels to other parts of the world, "I have never experienced the levels of repression on a people that I experienced during the visit. Its basic intent is to break the will of the Palestinian people by breaking their spirit."[1]

Working in other parts of the world, Esther Armstrong and Dale Stitt of Portland, Oregon, have an ecumenical ministry called Journey Into Freedom that, among other things, sponsors what they call "Trips of Perspective." Esther wrote in their newsletter of a "wonderfully disturbing" trip to Haiti where they met some of the poorest of the poor. They heard stories of starving people so hungry they are forced to eat emaciated dogs and donkeys, and of schoolchildren in Port-au-Prince swallowing stones to assuage hunger pangs due to poverty. Why do they go? Esther says, "We go on our Trips of Perspective not to fix the problems, to have answers, or even to make a difference. We go to be present, to stand in solidarity with the people of Haiti, to confront our real powerlessness in the face of dire need, and to be transformed."

What have you learned in a foreign territory that you could not have learned anywhere else?

Whenever we journey into scripture, we are traveling to a foreign land.  You know that, and we have talked about how different the society and culture were in the time of Jesus many times before.  So, I won’t burden you with more of that today.  Let me just share that on this particular trip I learned that God’s mercy is open – that God’s grace is a blessing that pours out on all – even those that I think of as unworthy.  It pours out, washes away the myths that possess us, and pushes us to grow and change. 

That’s not a new thought for me, but it’s good to be reminded of that from time to time … as I sit in judgment on men who talk about the worthlessness of Palestinians or frown at those who want to white-wash this country.  It’s good to be reminded that no matter who we are, no matter where we come from, no matter what we have done or said, God’s love is strong enough to hold us all – strong enough to hold us … and wise enough to uncover our desire our truer nature.

 It’s good to know that there is One there, ready to welcome us in, bless us, and respond to our hearts deepest longings with the words, “let it be done for you.”

[1] from United Methodist News Service as printed in Newscope, August 9, 2002

Sunday, August 10, 2014


sermon by Torin Eikler
Romans 12:1-8            Matthew 16:13-20


Those of you with children between the ages of 5 and 18 are probably quite familiar with the Transformers.  What with 4 (I think) summer blockbusters coming to movie theaters over the past five or six years, backpacks and other school supplies plastered with the pictures of warrior robots, and the ubiquitous Bumblebee costumes that have walked the streets on the last couple of Hallowe’ens, the Transformers have become a cultural icon.

This isn’t the first time, of course.  The 80s were the original decade of transformers.  We (at least some of us who were just the right age back then) were obsessed with the Autobots and the Decepticons.  There were no movies about them back then (and how could you have made one with computer-produced graphics) …. No movies, but there were daily cartoons that ran for years.  And it wasn’t just the robot saviors of humanity that were part of it.  There were also the Thundercats and Voltron.  They weren’t quite the same thing, but they had courageous warriors (human or otherwise) who piloted battle machines that transformed into a huge mechanized cat or a gigantic robot on demand. 

Those friends of my childhood and their action-packed adventures made for some pretty highly-charged Saturdays in our household.  Then, throughout the week, we would imagine new adventures and crash our toys together, and as we protected the weak from the depredations of the enemy, we got to express, in graphic detail, our desire violence and destructions without actually hurting each other.

That decade was also the time of some of my own first personal transformations.  I graduated from elementary school and Jr. High during those years.  And as my body grew and changed, my mind filled with knowledge and an expanding perspective on life.  I also started thinking about faith and spirituality for the first time somewhere during the middle of the 80s.  It was a time filled with changes.

Since then, I have graduated from adolescence into college and on to adulthood with all the rights and responsibilities that come along with that.  I got married and changed my name – a huge change that has affected who I am more than I thought it would.  (And I don’t just getting married.  Changing my name began a transformation in me that I never even considered.)  I went back to being a student again, and then I became a father and a pastor at just about the same time.  Talk about a change of perspective!  As I look back over my journey through those 25 years, I realize that it has been one long process of transformation that began, really, even before I became aware of myself in the 80s.  And I’m sure that any number of you could tell me all about how it will only keep on and on for the rest of my life.

Those kinds of changes are much deeper and more personal than the antics of Optimus Prime or the Thundercats, of course.  Their transformations only have to do with form or functionality, and while some of my own changes had to do with my own form, most of them went on below the surface.  Yet, even those deeper changes were only on the level of my own self-image, or my perspective, or my approach to living.  The transformation that Paul is talking about in this letter to the Romans reaches, I think, even farther down inside us.  He used the words “be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” but I think he was speaking of something more spiritual than it sounds like to us.

When we hear the word mind in this time and this society, we find ourselves thinking of intelligence and will power, at least that’s what I tend to think of.  Sometimes we may throw a certain “je ne sais quoi” into the mix if we are considering the nature of human consciousness.  The dictionary sums it up with the definition: “intellect or understanding, as distinguished from the faculties of feeling and willing; intelligence,”[1] but that isn’t what Paul was talking about.  At least it doesn’t seem that way to scholars who know much more about the subject than I do.

Among the Greeks, Romans, and Jews of Paul’s time there was a different biology of thinking, feeling, and being.  For them, emotions, intuition, and passion lived in the gut (an understanding that we preserve when we talk about our “gut feelings” about a situation).  All the things that make of intelligence – logic and reason, knowledge and understanding – were a function of the brain much as they do for us.  But the mind – the sense of self and will, the home of our true identity and the ground of our being – the mind dwelled in the heart.

So, when Paul speaks of a transformation, he isn’t just talking about changing our mind.  He means something much more serious, much more fundamental.  He means a change at the deepest level of our natures.  He is talking about a change of heart – a transformation of our very selves.  And for Paul that means three very specific things.

First and foremost, it is a move from being a non-believer to a believer, and by that I mean believing in Jesus as the Christ, as the Son of God come to set us free, as God himself made human to share in our lives and redeem our living.  Most of the people that Paul knew were believers in something else.  Almost everybody in the ancient world was a follower of one God or another.  Some few claimed to follow philosophy alone, but most worshiped the Roman Pantheon, the Greek Gods, or YHWH. 

The members of the community in Rome had been mostly Jewish to begin with, but there were a smattering of gentiles mixed into the group.  And while they had all come to believe in Jesus and had been baptized into the church, the pressures of the culture around them and the habits they had formed in their past tempted them back into practices like sacrifice.  Paul’s words to them called them away from conformity with those around them and reminded them to return to the Christian teachings that freed them from the need for those rituals.

Which leads us to Paul’s second favorite theme, and one which is especially prevalent in Romans: the change from being a people doomed by the law to failure and judgment to being a people redeemed from the law by grace.  Over and over again in this letter, Paul tries to help the people understand the gift they have received through Christ.  Where they had been liable to judgment under to the law of Moses according to which they would certainly be found wanting and in need of punishment, within Jesus’ embrace their sins were forgiven and their souls redeemed from damnation. 

All they needed to do was cling to their faith and try their best to follow the will of God, but in order to succeed in that they were in constant need of the Spirit’s guidance, and that guidance could only be discerned if their hearts were renewed.  If at the root of their being they had become open and ready to receive understanding beyond the selfish and limited truth that reason could provide.

If you find yourself a little confused or feeling lost in the tumble of words searching some clarity, you are NOT alone.  People have been struggling with Paul for centuries, and I’m not at all certain that the members of the community that he was writing to really understood what he was saying.  I’m not even sure that I do.

It seems like a lot to hold onto.  So, I’ll sum those us as two bullet points.  Be transformed from non-believer to believer and be transformed from legalistic people of the law to the committed people of grace.  Believe and be redeemed.


And now we come to the last of the three great transformations Paul wants us to understand.  When we are renewed through the grace of Christ, we become part of a greater whole.  We become part of the body of Christ.  That may seem minor compared with the other two changes, but I think holding onto that identity might be our greatest challenge, because it is a transformation that reaches to the core of our being.  And in this society, the idea of being anything other than an individual is a big change indeed.

I’m sure there was a lot of individualism in Paul’s day even with the greater stress on being part of the clan, but there is even more now.  From the time we are born, we are taught to become self-sufficient (which isn’t a bad thing) and to look out for #1 (which is not so good).  We are taught that our needs come before the wellbeing of the rest of humanity.  We think in terms of me verses everyone else most of the time, and our lives reflect that reality. 

We are isolated in our homes more and more.  We don’t know or care to know many of the people who live near us let alone the hundreds of people we pass by without a thought each day.  We find ourselves stressing out when we face difficult challenges that have to do with money or childcare or any of a number of other things because we assume that we have to deal with them ourselves.

Paul is speaking directly against that message.  We are not, he says, really individuals.  We are part of a body of believers that is connected in the same way that our physical bodies are.  Yes we are unique parts of that body, but we are not separate in any sense.  We are one … together … joined at the deepest level – the spiritual level – with one another, and that transformation changes a lot of things.

It shifts our way of thinking about each other and makes it possible to take Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves seriously.  In fact, Paul thinks that it can take one step farther so that we put the wellbeing of others ahead of our own which he certainly did.  It changes our approach to the world because we begin to see all of God’s children as part of our family – as long lost members, perhaps, of the body that we are a part of creating.  And it makes the struggle to hold onto our new identity a group effort instead of a personal trial.

Big changes … changes of the heart … change at the deepest level … transformation that comes to us a gift of grace and the Spirit’s work … transformation that began for all of us sometime in the past and will continue throughout the rest of our lives.

So, sisters and brothers, as we sit here in the beauty of a creation that we are not separate from by intimately connected with, I invite you to consider Paul’s words as if they were addressed to you….

“I appeal to you, therefore, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed [not just in body but in spirit] … be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may [become the children of God] who discern what is the good and the acceptable and the perfect will of God.”

May it be so.


Sunday, August 3, 2014

Layers of Abundance

sermon by Torin Eikler
Matthew 14:13-21

As many of you know, we just returned from a cruise to Alaska on the inner waterway.  Normally, I don’t think of cruises as my vacation of choice.  I’d prefer spend my time enjoying a particular location for a few days rather than passing days on board a ship with only a few hours in each port of call.  But I quite enjoyed this particular cruise, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes to see amazing scenery.  Just leave the children behind so that you can actually spend time appreciating it!

Two days were particularly nice for me.  One was the centerpiece of the cruise – a day in Glacier Bay where I got to watch icebergs calve off into the sea, to see a pod of orcas swimming lazily by, and to observe development of mature forest in fast forward as we sailed from the glacier past land that had been uncovered longer and longer in past.

The other was our day in Juneau.  We used our time there to go and visit a glacier that ended in a freshwater lake surrounded by old growth evergreen forest that was rife with waterfalls.  At the park, there were several trails, and we decided to take a 3 ½ mile hike up to the head waters of the biggest fall and back through the forest.  At one point, we stood on a board walk on the edge of a hill that descended about 500 feet in the course of about 50 feet.  (That’s a 90% incline in case you were wondering.)  As I stood there looking out into the forest and listening the rills of water streaming down the exposed areas of rock, I realized that I was still fully in the forest despite the height, and I was taken with awe at the beauty and the majesty of the scene.  It was my kind of place – the kind where I feel most alive – a place where I felt enfolded in the bountiful gifts that God showers on this creation.

And then we came home.  And it wasn’t that life was hectic that caught me off guard.  Our time on the ship was just a frantic and full as it is at home.  What snuck up on me was the news.  Fighting over the water supply in Iraq.  Drought in California.  Cities shutting off water to people who were behind in paying their bills.  After days surrounded by the sound and the beauty of water, I found myself steeped in the story of its scarcity.

And that, it turn, tuned my ears to hear the story of “not enough” that flows through our society, seeping into our subconsciouses (is that a word) and dripping into our minds until we find ourselves reaching for whatever we can grab hold of.  Reaching for it and holding on tight just in case there isn’t any more. 

It’s a very pervasive feeling, isn’t it – that sense that there isn’t enough … that we can’t or won’t get all that we want or even just the things that we need.  It’s real and it’s powerful.  It’s the story our culture tells us in a quiet, nagging voice and it makes us forget more important things like compassion and love and joy and wears away our sense of hope in God’s promise of abundance.

But there is another voice out there that tells a different story.  It speaks to us in the creation narratives filled with life in plenty and soothes the fears of the hundreds of thousands of our ancestors who spent forty years in the wilderness eating manna and drinking sweet water.  It resounds in the words of the prophets and echoes in the letters of Paul.  It paints a picture of what the future might look like in Revelation, and it shows us how the table of God provides for us all – even now – in the story of Jesus and a crowd sitting on the side of a mountain with the sun setting on a long day of listening and learning.

I think most of you know the story of the feeding of the multitudes.  It’s very popular and well known in our churches (though as I looked back through our records we have only preached on it once).  It’s  a favorite now, and it must have been in the early church as well since it appears in one form or another 6 times in the course of the 4 gospels.  The details change from place to place, but the essentials remain the same.

In Matthew, 5,000 people have gathered in the wilderness between villages.  I say 5,000, because that’s the number in the text, but it was probably more like 12,000 once you include the women and children that are mentioned (almost as an afterthought).  The people followed Jesus to see the man who had been doing miracles of healing and to hear his wisdom.

The crowd spent the day listening to the strange new rabbi share a vision that was less-than-orthodox but filled with hope and promise, and it must have been a long day.  Lunch time passed and everyone ate whatever food they had brought with them.  Evening drew near, and children began to complain about being hungry.  Parents began to argue about when they should head home.  And the rumblings reached the ears of the disciples who were taking it in turns to walk among the people and get a sense of their response to the message.

They shared their concerns with Jesus, urging him to finish up so that they could all go and find something to eat.  But Jesus wasn’t quite done.  He sent them to find food for everyone just as they would have it this was their home, and they returned with five loaves of bread and two fish.  Setting aside their concerns, Jesus took the food and blessed it and it multiplied to feed all 12,000 people with left-overs for the next day.

In the context of the gospels, this is a very simple miracle story – though I think if we were hearing it for the first time, it would seem much stranger than it does now.  At least it is straightforward even if it is a bit hard to believe.  And it tells us that Jesus – that God – still has the power to provide abundantly when the need is great.  But it’s not just the story of a miracle that took place long, long ago in a country far, far away.  It’s deeper and more powerful than that, and it flows across time to affect the lives of people today.  It clashes with society’s story and it can touch our hearts if we let it.

I could go on for a while and talk about how that can happen, but I’ll Sue Clemmer Steiner show you what it looks like as she shares the story of how Matthew’s story has come alive in her experience….

A couple of times a summer, [when I was a child], a thin man dressed in black would politely knock on our back door about an hour before suppertime.  His face looked old and weather-beaten, and despite the heat he always wore layers of clothing.  The little cart with his belongings sat by the front gate.

He would ask my mom if there was any food he could have that night.  So she made extra of whatever she was preparing for dinner, keeping me inside the house while the man waited on the back steps.  She filled a plate for him, and he sat on the steps and ate.  After finishing his dinner he knocked on the door, said thank you, and continued on his way.

Afterward my dad would launch into stories of the many hobos who passed through our small Pennsylvania town on freight trains during the Depression, looking for a meal and sometimes sleeping in the sheds at the family feed mill.  “They’re homeless,” said my day, “down on their luck, and it’s good for us to feed them.”

My mom’s action, supported by my dad, left a deep impression on me….  Sixty years later, when I pray about Matthew’s telling of the feeding of the multitude , it’s the words “You give them something to eat” that beckon.  Like my mother, I hear these words addressed to me.  And like the first disciples, I’m overwhelmed….

I am surely infected more than I know by the invasive script of North American politics and culture.  This scarcity script tells me that I need to protect what I have and grasp for more.  It encourages me to look after my own interests and succumb to new and ever more exotic cravings. 

[Yet, as I ponder Jesus’ amazing act of compassion] I’m startled to find a new script emerging, drawing me in.  It’s a script that begins not in fear of obligation but in compassion, and it leads to awe….  Jesus blesses and breaks open what is surely not enough and dares us to offer it to others.  As he does this, God’s economy of abundance emerges.

Perhaps, I can help set the stage for such miracles when I pay attention to my own cravings for more.  I can pray with Isaiah, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?  Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good.”  For when I do that my spirit is nourished, I catch a glimpse of God’s economy of abundance, [and I step forward to share that gift with others.] [1]

The feeding of the multitude is not just a story about God’s gifts.  It is also a challenge to us to join in – to reach out and share what we have been given so freely – to break free from society’s story of scarcity and lead others into and the abundance found under the reign of God.

That’s a good enough message, and maybe I should stop there.  But I remember saying in my last sermon that we might do well to spend more time wrestling with the well-loved scriptures as well as the challenging ones.  When I did that with this text, when I used a few tools to dig a bit deeper, I discovered a truth that John Shearman puts this way:
Perhaps, he says, we moderns may tend to focus too much on the miracle of the loaves and fishes when we should look more closely at what it expressed.  That appears to have been the more important aspect of [the stories in Matthew’s gospel.]

Jesus had just heard about the execution of John the Baptist. It was an ominous turn of events. Whether or not we accept the tradition that John and Jesus were related does not matter. It does not mean as much as the fact that Jesus grieved for John's death.  We might even think of John as Jesus' mentor with whom he had had close association at the time of his baptism and possibly some time before that. He wanted to be alone not only to mourn but probably to talk with his disciples privately about the dangers he now expected lay ahead for himself and for them.

A colloquial translation of vss. 13-14 implies that his departure in a boat was secretive, but that the crowds "got wind of it" and followed him on foot. The traditional site shown to tourists … was not far from the villages of Capernaum, Gennesaret and Magdala. It is an even shorter trip by boat across the northwestern bay of the lake. When Jesus saw the crowds who had gathered on the lakeshore, "he had compassion on them." … We might say, "He felt it in his gut." [And,] no matter how great his own need for privacy and time to grieve, he felt that their need for his attention was greater. [2]

As it turns out, this “simple” scene from Matthew is actually more like a parable than a miracle story.  We could almost reframe the story to begin with “the Kingdom of God is like a crowd of people who spent the day listening to a rabbi, and, when the time came to eat they found nothing but a small boy’s dinner to feed them….”

A parable ….  One that teaches us, as all parables do, about the reality we make for ourselves and the reality that God wishes to give us.  And what I get from this parable is this:  God provides abundantly. 

Whenever we find ourselves in need … whenever we look around us, and there is not enough, God takes whatever little bit we have to offer, breaks it and transforms it so that pours down on us as a blessing. Whether it is food or water we need, whether it is reassurance or courage in the face of fear, whether it is hope or dreams to lead us forward, God has the power and the desire to meet our needs … and not just in some idyllic future.  God has the power and the desire to provide for us here and now.

Thanks be to God, AMEN.

[1] Christian Century (July 23, 2014), 21.
[2] John Shearman as written in a post to Midrash list serve on July 28, 2014.