Monday, May 16, 2011

"Fed" - Sermon for Easter 4A

“Fed” – Stephanie Wing, 5.15.11
I think there is very little that gives my grandmother more pleasure than feeding her family.  She knows the foods that we like best and always has them ready when we come for a visit.  One summer, my sister and I were there for a two-week visit, and when my parents came to pick us up, I had gained 7 pounds! My mom told my grandmother we wouldn't be able to come again for such a long visit if that happened again.  One of our favorite treats was a homemade milkshake.  The next summer during our visit, my sister and I would weigh ourselves each night and say, "Grandma, I didn't gain any weight, can I have a milkshake?"  
My grandma can make just about anything, but at the heart of each meal is her homemade bread.  She has a big basin that she uses to kneed the dough - by hand, of course - and because of its size, she puts it right in the middle of the kitchen floor and goes to work.  She makes at least a dozen loaves at a time, and freezes what isn't used right away. Bread is served at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and often for an evening snack.  It is true that one cannot live by bread alone, but I'm not sure that my grandmother could live without it!
In our short passage from Acts, breaking bread is mentioned twice as a central act of the early Christians.  In last week's reading from the Gospel of Luke, we read of how the disciples first recognized Jesus after the resurrection.  It wasn't until he broke bread with them that their eyes were opened.  Breaking bread over a fellowship meal was the last thing Jesus did with his disciples before his trial and crucifixion.  The breaking of five loaves to feed the hungry crowd of thousands was one of Jesus' most enduring miracles.  In fact, the earliest Christian artifacts incorporated images of bread from Jesus' ministry. 
The earliest images of Jesus in Christian art often depicted him as the Good Shepherd, an image that figures most prominently in the gospel of John.  In the gospel of Mark, when the disciples return to Jesus after having gone out teaching and healing others, Jesus encouraged them to come away with him to a desolate place to rest for a while.  However, the crowds find them and follow them, and we read that Jesus had compassion on them, for they were like "sheep without a shepherd."  Jesus teaches, and as the day turns to evening, he gathers up all the food that can be found - five loaves and two fish.  He tells the people gathered to sit down on the "green grass."  They were in the wilderness, but suddenly they are sitting down in green grass!  The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures...
What else does the Good Shepherd do?  He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  He anoints my head with oil, and my cup overflows.  The shepherd feeds the flock, and the Lord, the Good Shepherd, feeds the flock abundantly.  Jesus is both the good shepherd and the bread of life.  Jesus leads us beside still waters, and invites us to drink of living waters that quench all thirsts. 
Have you ever thought about how much eating and drinking Jesus did in his ministry?  The Pharisees noticed it.  In Luke, the Pharisees ask why Jesus eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners.  They go on to say, "John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink."  Jesus' response was that you can't make the wedding party fast while the bridegroom is with them, but soon the bridegroom will not be with them, and then they will also fast and pray.
After Jesus' death and resurrection, there was indeed time for fasting and for prayer.  We read that the early church devoted themselves to prayer, and to the teaching of the apostles.  The believers were all together and kept everything in common, selling their goods and distributing the money to anyone who had need.  Though their fasting included periods of abstaining from food, their fast also included giving up their personal property, the everyday comforts of life, in order to take care of each other, and to take care of those in need.  Perhaps you have heard the saying, "Live simply, that others may simply live." 
Fasting is not about starvation, and giving away the things of value to us is not about self-deprivation.  It is about recognizing Jesus as Lord of our life, and giving up the things that too easily distract us, the things that too easily become of central importance in our lives.  The fast does not deny the goodness of food, or the necessity of certain worldly items, or even the pleasure that we derive from abundance.  A fast reorients us, it re-orders our priorities, and helps to put our needs, wants, and desires in place, so that we may be in proper relation with God and with each other.
A fast also reminds us of our ultimate dependence on God.  We quickly become self-reliant, confident in our ability to put food on our tables, a roof over our heads, and insurance to protect the things most valuable in our lives.  I dare say that many of us have little experience with true hunger, or with deep material need.  A voluntary fast, or truly sacrificial giving, opens us to experience the provision we are promised by the Good Shepherd.
Yet to paraphrase the book of Ecclesiastes, there is a time for everything - a time for fasting and prayer, and a time for feasting and fellowship.  The early church gathered frequently to break bread together, to share with each other as there was need, and to share together the abundance of what God had given them.  It is good for us to eat together.  On Friday many of us experienced that goodness, both in the celebration of Nancy Gabhart's birthday, and in the Bingo night and fellowship dinner later that evening.  It is good for us to gather together and enjoy the gifts that God has given to us.  Doing so gives us an opportunity, like the early Christians, to eat our food with "glad and generous hearts."
Eating together is just one way that we are fed by the Good Shepherd.  We are also fed in devoting ourselves to teaching and learning, to studying the Bible together and individually, to worshiping together and learning more about what it means to follow Jesus.  We are fed in praying together, in being upheld by the prayers of others, and in the gift of being able to hold up others in prayer.  We are fed in community.  We are fed by the work and ministry of the church.  And just as we are fed, so we are called to go out and feed, to invite others to the feast, and to share what we have been given so freely, that others may come to taste and see that the Lord is good.
Our reading from Acts gives us a window into how the early Christians worshiped, as well as their posture of service and outreach.  And we read that day by day, the Lord added to their numbers.  Early in Acts, we read that the followers of Jesus numbered about 120.  Then after Pentecost and after Peter's first sermon, three thousand were added to their number!  The early church grew by leaps and bounds through the proclamation of the good news, and as they lived life together as the gathered body.  As their life and worship and service flowed together, the church grew.
If we, as a church, are faithful to God's call to us for worship and ministry, then we, too, will grow.  That growth is happening now.  It may not be by the thousands, or hundreds, or even scores, but it is growing in the number of youth coming here each Wednesday night, and in the excitement that they have to invite their friends to come and see what God is doing here.  It is growing in the mission and outreach of this church - Little Dresses...., Dress for Success, the Congregational Care Team, the hygiene kits for disaster areas, Second-Wind Dreams, mission opportunities in our backyard and beyond.  It is happening in Sunday school classes, in Bible study, and in our fellowship. 
Each time we celebrate the Lord's Supper, we are called to remember the abundant feast that God provides.  We are invited to be fed by the good shepherd, to see the table that God sets before us, and to drink from the cup that overflows.  We are invited to lives of prayer, study, worship, fellowship, and service.  We are invited to be fed by God through those activities, and to be fed by God here at this table.  Eating and drinking at this table reminds us that we are feasting with the bridegroom, that Christ is present with us.  Our prayers and fasting, our giving and our service, remind us that we are also living in a time of anticipation of Christ's return, and the hope and assurance of God's extravagant love and grace. 
Coming to this table reminds us that we are connected to each other, not just those of us gathered here, but in some ways, more importantly, those who are not here.  We are connected to those who do not feel welcome at the table, for one reason or another.  We are connected to those who have not heard the invitation.  We are connected to our brothers and sisters who are still in need, and I can't help but think that we have been entrusted with our riches so that we can use them to share God's blessing with others.
The feast is abundant.  I have not yet been to a meal at this church where we have run out of food, and I know that God's kingdom is like that, too.  So let us come to this table and be fed.  Let us be fed at the hand of our Good Shepherd, and let us devote ourselves to the care and feeding of all of God's sheep.  As we have been fed, so let us feed.  As we have been blessed, so let us bless.  As we have been loved, so let us love.  In the name of Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd, amen.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Thanks be to God for the rain...

Like many parts of the country, we have been soaked with rain for the past month or so, and though the last week has been dry, I woke up this morning to rain again.  I'm ready for the rain to be done, and the cold front that is coming through is not exactly a welcome visitor, but on this Saturday, I am thanking God for the rain.

We were supposed to take the youth to Shaker Village today (Mercer County day - free admission and free rides on the riverboat), but the rain has given us a great excuse to cancel the outing.  I don't think the ground needed any more rain, but I sure needed the break - and more accurately, the break from one work thing to work on another - my sermon for tomorrow.  I normally have my sermon finished before the weekend so that I can actually enjoy some Sabbath time, but this week has been a beast.  In fact, the last few weeks have been rather beastly.

Andy and I are usually quite good at guarding our days off (Friday and Saturday), but this is the 3rd week in the past four that have been 7 day work weeks for us.  Last week we finally had an entire day off on Friday, but even on Saturday Andy was working on his sermon.  Next week I will also have another 7 day work week thanks to a meeting in Louisville Friday and a called Presbytery meeting on Saturday. 

Yesterday was particularly taxing.  We had a surprise birthday party at the church in the afternoon for a member who has had to move to Louisville to an assisted care facility.  It was wonderful, and a great gift to be part of it, but it was nearly 3 hours of being "on."  We had just two hours between that and the next event, during which I decided to get the oil changed in one of our cars and discovered that one of our tires is close to blow-out - the tread is coming off.  Two weeks ago I had a flat tire on the other car, and so this just adds to the stress.  But I had to get back to the church before I could get it taken care of in order to be there for a fellowship dinner and Bingo night - another great event, but another 3 hours of being "on."  I could feel myself having a difficult time being truly engaged in conversations.  I was completely missing entire sentences of conversations, feeling very fragmented and distracted all at once.  My body and mind were both telling me that I needed a break.

I got home last night and was more aware than I have been in a long time of being completely emotionally tapped.  Even though it was our "day off," it was only really 6 hours of work, and I used to work 50-90 hours a week before Seminary, so what gives?  For one thing, it was 6 hours of very extroverted work, and this introvert was screaming for some quiet.  For another thing, it is coming in the midst of a sustained month or more of working too much without a real break.  Many pastors take vacation or some kind of time off soon after Easter.  All of the Lent, Holy Week, and Easter busy-ness requires some rest.  But we had nothing planned this year, and we've had a number of situations at the church that have demanded above and beyond pastoral care since Easter.

I was recently speaking with another minister about days off.  I said that we really try to preach and model Sabbath, but for some in the congregation who routinely work 7 days a week and all hours of the day (and pride themselves on it), it comes off sounding either lazy or luxurious (nice work if you can get it...).  He realized that a major difference between his current congregation and the former congregation he served is that there are many more professionals in the congregation - doctors, lawyers, and others who routinely put in 70 hours a week.  In his former church, when he was working 45 hours a week or so, he felt like he was on par with most of the congregation, but he now felt an unspoken pressure (probably both internal and external) to put in more time.  Complicating his situation, the church he currently serves has gone (in the past few decades) from being a multi-staff church down to him being the first solo pastor.  His predecessors were a clergy couple serving as co-pastors, each technically 3/4 time, but from what he hears, the wife probably worked time and a half, and the husband full time.

Of course, Andy and I are currently serving as co-pastors, technically each 3/4 time.  Each year we sign something with the Board of Pensions stating that we are both working under 35 hours a week.  In exchange, the church saves money on our medical coverage, avoids having to meet Presbytery compensation minimums for each of us.  Sometimes this works.  Sometimes, having that external boundary gives us a little more support in setting certain boundaries.  Internally, it allows me to give permission to myself to be more flexible with the schedule at certain times.  And yet...  we haven't been counting hours, and I don't even want to guess at what our weekly average has been over the past month or so.  It's not fair to us - we aren't getting appropriately compensated for the work we are putting in - and it's not fair to the church, or to the solo pastor who will follow us. 

It's hard to complain about a call that we helped to negotiate and that we accepted.  It's not as if the church can afford to pay us more but isn't.  It is a stretch for them to have us here, too.  And it is hard to "complain" about the work that we have been called to do, when it is a joy to be able to do it. 

And yet...  I'm tired.  I'm tired, and I still have to finish my sermon for tomorrow.  And tomorrow will be a full day at the church (9 or more hours), and the start to another full week.  And so I am thankful for the rain, that allowed us to cancel the event that I didn't have the energy to do today.  Our people need a break, too.  After all, a busy weekend of church activities doesn't just involve us.  Our people also need their rest and re-creation.  And as lectionary readings from Luke remind us this week, when Jesus was pressed in on all sides by the crowds who came to see him, he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.  Shall we follow?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

May newsletter note

A pastor friend had the following update on his Facebook page on Easter Sunday afternoon: “It is finished, he cried! and then went to bed for a well deserved nap....or something like that...”  It is no wonder that many pastors take vacation the week after Christmas and the week after Easter.  The Advent and Christmas season is certainly busy, but it is nothing compared to Lent, which culminates in Holy Week and Easter.  It is both the holiest and often most exhausting of weeks for pastors, and by the time Easter Sunday afternoon rolls around, we are all ready for a nice, long nap.
Easter is in many ways a climax and a culmination of the six-week Lenten journey.  It is probably the Sunday when individuals who have any connection to a church are most likely to go.  Then the Sunday after Easter, attendance is often lower than usual.  It seems that pastors and regular church-goers alike feel the need for a bit of a nap after all of the Easter festivities.  And yet…
Easter Sunday is just a beginning.  It is the beginning of our particular faith story as Christians.  The gospel stories – no matter how miraculous, amazing, or inspirational they may be – are simply good stories without the resurrection.  What makes the good stories the Good News is the historic yet timeless event of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The resurrection was an end of sorts, but even more so it was a beginning.  Only after the resurrection took place could the events, miracles, and teachings of Jesus be properly understood.
The Lenten season developed as a time of preparation and self-examination for converts to the Christian faith.  The Easter Vigil was the time when these catechumens would finally come forward to receive the sacrament of Baptism, thus joining the church.  Easter Sunday was just the beginning of their journey in the life of discipleship.  So too, for us, Easter is just the beginning of our journey of discipleship.  Though our self-imposed Lenten disciplines have ended, the practices of daily discipleship remain, including prayer, reading Scripture, worshiping together, and proclaiming the Good News to others both in our speech and in our actions.
Easter is not just a “high” holy day, full of fanfare, pomp, and celebration.  It is not just a once-a-year event.  We are people of the resurrection, and every Sunday worship service is a celebration of the reconciliation that we have through Jesus Christ.   Because of the Easter assurance, because our Savior lived, died, and in resurrection conquered all powers of evil and death, we have hope and confidence to live as we are called to live, as children of God.  When it feels like we are at the end of our rope, when the stresses or demands of life seem too heavy to carry, when we have nothing left to give, we can move forward with the assurance that our redeemer lives.
Easter grounds us, but it also upends us.  It shakes us out of our sleepy living just as surely as a sunrise service.  We are reminded that because of what God accomplished through Jesus Christ, we are changed.  Our lives are claimed – they are not our own.  We are called to be followers of Christ, and only in light of Holy Week and Easter can we understand the implications of that call.  If the disciples thought that the difficult part of their journey of following Jesus had ended with his crucifixion, they were sorely mistaken.    Easter afternoon didn’t include a nap – it included marching orders, as Jesus told those closest to him to go and spread the Good News.
Now that Easter has passed, are we ready to be Easter people?  Are we ready to respond to the resurrection reality of God’s grace and reconciliation through Jesus Christ?  May it be so!