Sunday, August 3, 2008

Twelfth Sunday in Pentecost
Isaiah 55:1-5
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-2
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labor for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.

The kids will be going back to school in just a few weeks, as hard as that it is to believe. Seems like the summer just started and we are already thinking about what supplies they will need for their classes. This year is made even more complicated by the transition for Victoria to college. We’ve spent the last few weeks shopping for everything she will need for her dorm room and her classes. We ran into one of her former teachers who said, “Sometimes I think the ‘getting ready’ shopping is worse than paying tuition.” We have quickly discovered how true it is. I am beginning to wonder how we will manage to get all her new stuff to the school. Despite that, Victoria has had to recognize the difference between necessities and the ‘nice’essities.

It is a normal human trait to get confused about what we need and what we want. We really need very little to survive—some food, clothes, water and a shelter. Victoria’s summer reading for school is a book by Keith Bowden about a journey he took down the Rio Grande. “The Tecate Journals: Seventy Days on the Rio Grande” tells the story of Keith’s adventure. He had company along the way—one friend joined him for a few days of biking along the Texas/Mexico bank where there was not enough water to canoe, another friend who rafted with him through the Lower Canyons and a reporter who joined him for the last few days.

When they began the journey, Keith was shocked at how much stuff his friend managed to fit on his bike. He had modern gadgets and more food than Keith thought was necessary. His friend had no idea what to expect, but also knew his limits and prepared. Keith had very little, perhaps barely enough, to get him through those days. It was tough. Stores were few and far between, but they managed. Keith was grateful for his friend’s preparation when he had trouble with his bike; his friend had the tools necessary for a fix. Some of the adventures were harrowing, and Keith’s friend was extremely glad to finish his part of the trip. It was not easy living without the comforts of home, living with the uncertainty of what would happen ‘if’.

The irony of the trip was Keith’s realization much later how much stuff he was carrying toward the end. Perhaps he recognized the dangers of being unprepared, especially when he was traveling alone. Perhaps he found comfort in the knowledge that he had more than enough ‘just in case.’ At one point Keith was canoeing along the Rio Grande when he realized that he would have to portage his boat and supplies around a dam. This was an incredibly difficult task, especially since he had been warned of the dangers along the way. There are dangerous people along the river and Keith was afraid of what might happen.

As he was lugging his supplies along the bank, someone asked why he needed all that stuff. He told them that he was on a long journey and that he might need it. As he said it, Keith thought about all the places he had visited along the river. He spent time in some Mexican towns and homes and they had very little. Some of the stores where he shopped had less for sale than he had tucked into his one raft. The people he met and came to love didn’t need much—food for a day, water enough to drink and a place to lie down. In many cases that is all they had. In some, they had less. And yet, they were content. They were even happy.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” I don’t know about you, but I tend to prefer having just a little more. I don’t know what it is, but I always buy too much bread and then I end up throwing much of it in the yard for the birds. I like to have fresh bread available with our meals, especially the store baked kind that is still hot when I buy it. You can’t get much fresher. But we rarely eat all of it at one meal. By the next time we want bread the loaf has either gone stale or I have purchased another fresh loaf.

We need bread—food—to eat, but we don’t need so much that it will go back on our counter. We need only enough for today, that is why we ask God for our daily bread. We work so hard to have ‘just a little more’ and in the end it does nothing to make our life fuller or our soul more peaceful. As a matter of fact, chasing after ‘a little more’ is why so many of us are suffering from stress and depression. We don’t have the resources available for ‘a little more’ so we live in fear and discontent.

“The Tecate Journals” did not have a spiritual message, although many of the lessons learned on Keith’s journey did have spiritual significance. Remembering that God provides our daily bread will help us to live content with what we have instead of laboring for so many things that never satisfy us. As we come to rely on Him as our Provider, we will see that we indeed have enough to get us through the day and that there is even enough to share with others. We need not chase after ‘a little more’ because God provides all that we need and then some.

If today’s psalm sounds somewhat familiar, you are right, we looked at part of it just a month ago. In A WORD FOR TODAY for that week, I wrote “Today’s Psalm is a prayer of praise to the lovingkindness of God. The entire psalm is an acrostic, a poem in which each verse begins with a different letter of the alphabet. We do not see this aspect of the literature in English, and our passage is just a part of the entire psalm, but it is interesting to think about the importance of this literary technique. The psalmist found a way to praise God from literally ‘A to Z.’ How often do we think so much about God’s grace that we can write a poem using every letter of our alphabet?” In today’s passage we see the very things for which we are grateful.

God lifts up those who have fallen and raises those who are bowed down. In one of His parables, Jesus talks about those who go to a banquet and push their way to the front of the table. We learn that those who lift themselves up are sent to the lower seats, while those who have humbled themselves are asked to go to the head of the table. I’m not sure we will ever see that happen in our world, especially since most banquets are so well organized that there are nametags and seating charts. However, there is a banquet in heaven waiting for us. There are those in this world who think that even in heaven they will be seated at the front of the hall, but it will be the humble whom Jesus will call up to the head of the table.

The eyes of all wait for God to give food in due season. Is that as true today as it was in the days of the psalmist? I don’t think so. We are able to purchase fruit and vegetables throughout the year that were once only available at certain times. We are able to pick and preserve food for months and ship it from all over the world. The tomatoes are no longer as good as those we used to grow in our own backyards, but we can have tomatoes any day of the year. We can and freeze food so that it will keep for months and even years. We don’t have to butcher a cow to have a steak, we can go to the grocery store and purchase any cut of meat we want. We don’t have to wait for God to provide anything ‘in due season’ because we can get it whenever we want.

Yet, it is still God who provides. We might work hard for our money and we might take our energy to go to the grocery store to purchase the food and then cook it, but it is still God who provides. He satisfies our every need. I think that there is one thing that makes us very different from the animals. They eat and drink as it is available without care. Though I’m not so sure that the animals have any sense of theology, they live trusting in God. We are able to praise and worship God with words and deeds because we have been given the power to reason and we have been given the gift of emotion. We can recognize the source of our blessings and be thankful. We can experience the grace and mercy of God. But all too often we forget about God when we sit down to that feast of fresh fruit and hearty steak.

The psalmist writes “Jehovah is nigh unto all them that call upon Him.” This is not so true of human beings. Even with modern technology, we don’t have complete access to everyone we need, know and love. People go away, they aren’t near a telephone, or they are busy doing other things. We can’t count on everyone to be available when we need them. God, however, is right where He needs to be at all times. He is there for us, right next to us. Those who love Him, who humble themselves before Him, will know His grace.

We work hard because we appreciate the things that we have received by our own hands. As a matter of fact, many financial advisors encourage parents to teach their children to take responsibility for their own money. Allowances help kids learn to save and to make good decisions about the things they purchase. They take better care of those things for which they have had to work. They are more careful with that car they paid for and are more likely to spend wisely when they are spending their own money. Our family and friends were very generous with graduation gifts, so Victoria has been able to purchase many of the things she will use over the next few years on her own. She’s been very mature about her decisions, buying what she needs and not necessarily everything she wants.

When Jesus heard about the death of John the Baptist, He withdrew from the crowds in a boat and went to a solitary place. It was a difficult thing for Jesus to hear. After all, John was Jesus’ cousin and the messenger sent ahead of Him. Jesus’ fate was different, but similar, to John’s. They would both die. He may have left the crowds to mourn. However, He may have also heard that Herod thought that He was John the Baptist raised from the dead. Herod was afraid: power and fear are a dangerous combination. Jesus was in danger but it was not his time to die. He may have gone into hiding.

Whatever the reason for Jesus wanting to be alone, He knew that He could not stop ministering to the crowds. They were in mourning too. They may have also been afraid. John gave them hope and his death brought an end to his ministry. They did not know what to do next, except that John pointed to another—Jesus. They followed Him, running along the shore to where He would land. They went to Him for comfort and hope. In the midst of His own grief, He had compassion and ministered to them.

They stayed there a long time and the disciples became concerned for the well-being of the people. They told Jesus to send the people away from that remote place so that they could buy something to eat. They recognized their inability to feed such a great crowd. Even if they had the money to put on a great banquet, there was no where to purchase the food. Jesus said, “They have no need to go away; give ye them to eat.” They didn't argue with Jesus, but showed Him how little they had. How could they feed such a crowd with only five loaves and two fish? It was probably not even enough to feed the disciples traveling with Jesus.

Jesus took the bread and fish. He blessed it, gave thanks and gave it to the disciples to share with the crowd. When the feast was complete, everyone was satisfied and there were twelve basketfuls of bread left over. When it was over, Jesus had fed five thousand men plus women and children with just five loaves of bread and two fish.

In today’s Old Testament lesson God says, “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” In today's Old Testament lesson, Isaiah is speaking to the exiled Israelites with a promise from God. In the previous chapter, God's promise is for the rebuilding of the Temple. The invitation in today's lesson is for the feast that will come after—the dedication feast. Isn't it a bit strange that this passage would instruct us to buy while also telling us it is without cost?

The fifth definition for the word ‘buy’ in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “to accept or believe” as in “I don't buy that explanation.” Can you imagine the people to whom Isaiah is speaking these words and what they must have been thinking? They were still in exile and their future was uncertain. They might have found it hard enough to believe that they would ever be free, let alone to believe that they would celebrate the restoration of Israel, the Temple and Jerusalem. To these people, Isaiah says, “Come, you who are thirsty.” God promises that they will be satisfied, not because of anything they can give to God, but because of His faithfulness.

Part of Israel's problem is that they looked to other gods for their spiritual guidance. They accepted and believed—bought—the faith of those other gods. Isaiah says, “Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labor for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.” Things are no different in today's world. We insist on having more than enough, working to ensure that we are prepared for everything. This is true of our physical, emotional and spiritual needs.

Bookstores are filled with shelves full of books about spirituality. Many people are seeking a connection with the divine, and they are looking for it in all the wrong places. They are seeking a religion that meets their physical needs and are willing to pay for it. They are thirsty for the gift of life, but seek it in religions that require something. How could something as free as the forgiveness that comes from Christ be worth anything?

How could the water, wine or milk be any good if it is free? Many in our world reject the free gift from God and they refuse the good things He has to offer. God will provide for your every need, and as you grow in faith and trust, He will fill your heart with the desire for the good things in life. Jesus Christ is the bread of life. He is the Word made flesh. He was sent from heaven to live, die and rise again to new life so we can freely live in the love and glory of the Most High God. It costs us nothing. Eat and drink the gift of eternal life. Partake in the bread and living water that is Christ Jesus, and be satisfied. I can almost imagine Jesus saying to that hungry crowd, “Come ye, buy, and eat.” I can hear Him saying the same to us. In doing so, He did not require anything of the people in the crowd, only that they would believe.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ radical generosity seems wasteful. He miraculously fed thousands of people with a hearty meal of fish and bread. When it was over, however, there were baskets full of leftovers. What did they do with that extra bread? Was it used to feed the poor or did it go to waste? We do not know, the story doesn’t tell us. What we do see, however, is that God is radically generous. He doesn’t give out of some misplaced motivation, He meets people’s most basic needs, but He also does so with incredible extravagance. When it comes to all His gifts, we see in this story how there are always leftovers—something to share. He blesses us with amazing gifts, some spiritual some very mundane, but all are meant to be shared with the world. Our joy, our resources, our spiritual gifts are given in far greater quantity than we will ever need. In Christ we can be radically generous, too, sharing the love of God with the world.

Keith’s biking friend had so much that on one occasion he had something special to give to a family who helped them in their need. Keith was thankful for his friend’s over-preparation because they were able to share their good fortune with others. When there is some extra, like those twelve baskets of leftovers at the meal on the hill, we need not hoard it ‘just in case.’ God gives abundantly with a radical generosity, so that there is always enough not only for our needs, but also for the daily needs of the world.

In today’s epistle lesson, Paul was addressing a difficult question—what about the Jews? Paul was a Jew and he loved his people. He knew the blessings of being one of God’s people—the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the law, the worship, and the promise. Yet, he also knew that they were missing something, Jesus. It was a hard quandary for Paul, to know the people he loved did not know the assurance of faith in Christ, but also knowing that they were beloved of God. How do we deal with this dichotomy?

Paul wished that he could give up his salvation for the sake of his people, but we know that this is not a possibility. Only Christ could provide the salvation for the whole people. Paul could only live in hope, but hope is a solid foundation for our life of faith. In hope we will have the courage to go into a place and share the Good News of God’s mercy and forgiveness despite the dangers we face. Jesus had no time to mourn the loss of His cousin or to settle His own fears of what might happen. He took God’s grace to others.

We can walk through persecution, and even walk to our deaths, knowing that God’s promises are true. Though it is our calling to share the Gospel with the world, we need not fear our own failure. We rest in the hope of God’s promises. He knows what He is doing. He knows whom He has chosen. We can rest in the hope (which is an expectation and not a wish) that God will be faithful to His promises even when we can’t see it at this moment. We are called to love them, to hope for them and to share God’s mercy with them. There is always hope. And that is something worth ‘buying,’ even if it is free.

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