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"Imagine all the people, living life in peace. You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one." – John Lennon
How many of you knew those words were from a song by John Lennon, once one of the Beatles? Here’s another flash from the past for the Boomer generation. Khalil Gibran, who wrote The Prophet, said: "I prefer to be a dreamer among the humblest, with visions to be realized, than lord among those without dreams or desires." And Jim Valvano, a winning coach of NC State basketball back in the 1970’s, said, "Be a dreamer. If you don’t know how to dream, you’re dead."
Many sources refer to Joseph of the Bible as a dreamer. And he was, as we saw in the passage last week. He dreamed of sheaves and the sun and moon and eleven stars, or in other words, his family, bowing down to him. This angered his 11 brothers so much that they sold him into slavery and told their father he was dead.
But Joseph was also an interpreter of dreams. Do you remember the story? While in slavery in Egypt, Joseph, who had grown to be a handsome young man, caught the eye of the Pharaoh’s wife. Joseph resisted her advances, and she had him thrown into jail. Later, the Pharaoh became angry with his cupbearer and baker for some reason, and threw them into jail as well, for a short time. While there, they had dreams that troubled them. Joseph interpreted the dreams for them. So when Pharaoh had a dream that troubled him, the cupbearer remembered the young man in the jail who had interpreted his dream. The king sent for Joseph, and Joseph interpreted the dream in such a way that the Pharaoh seemed to accept. Joseph gave all the credit for the gift of interpretation to God, and he never promoted himself to fill the position of making sure that the kingdom prepared for the famine to come. But Pharaoh saw wisdom and discernment in Joseph and appointed him to take command. "Only in regard to the throne will I be greater than you," he said to Joseph; "See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt." (Genesis 41:40, 41).
Thus God entered into the land of Egypt and set the scene for Joseph’s reunion with his brothers. At the end of this wonderful story, at the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph said to his brother words that perhaps sum up much of the biblical message: "Do not be afraid!" he said (as the angels and Jesus also often said). He continued: "Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today." (Genesis 50:19-20) God is present in and works through all circumstances in life. Though we may not always acknowledge it, God is ever present and working, even in the darkest and hardest moments of our lives. "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose," the letter to the Romans tells us (Romans 8:28).
Joseph attributed his ability to interpret dreams totally to God. "It is not I," he told Pharaoh, "God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer." (Gen. 41:16) "God has revealed to Pharaoh what God is about to do" he said (v.25). "And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about" (v.32). Joseph gave all the credit to God.
After interpreting the dream, Joseph simply said that the Pharaoh would need to select someone "wise and discerning" to take charge, one who could appoint overseers to handle the crop production, saving enough to work through the famine. The Pharaoh, this mighty man who ruled Egypt, never questioned Joseph’s interpretation. The Pharaoh, who was not a believer in Joseph’s God, miraculously responded by asking, "Can we find anyone else like this – one in whom is the spirit of God?" Pharaoh saw no one else like Joseph and immediately appointed this young Israelite man who had been in jail to rule over Egypt, under no one except the Pharaoh himself. (God works in mysterious ways, and through the most unlikely of people, the Bible shows us, time and time again!) And Joseph lived up to the task. Joseph successfully led Egypt to survive the famine so well that Joseph’s brothers, starving in Israel, would travel to Egypt to ask for food many years later, reuniting the family. But that part of the story will come in the weeks ahead, as we continue this preaching series on the story of Joseph during the month of August. Even our guest preacher, Barbara Fletcher’s son Tully, will preach on the Joseph story next week when we welcome him home and to our pulpit.
But what do we think of this dream interpretation? People still seek to interpret dreams today, although we often approach them from a more scientific and psychological angle than from a spiritual sense. Dr. Milton Kramer, a clinical professor of psychiatry at The University of Illinois in Chicago supplies a Dream Decoder. He says that Dreams of Powerlessness, like trying to run from something yet unable to move, or trying to scream at something or someone frightening yet unable to make a noise, mean that the one dreaming is facing a difficult decision. He says that Dreams of Natural Disasters, like tornadoes or tidal waves, destroying everything we hold dear, mean that we are worried about losing something. He says that Dreams of Unpreparedness, of rushing to make a flight yet unable to find the ticket, or a new mother unable to find her baby, are dreams of the fear of performing well. There are Christian interpretation of dreams available as well, books and websites that guide us in our interpretations.
Dreams are important in Bible stories. Dreams are mentioned over 100 times in the Bible. Joseph and Daniel interpreted dreams sent from God. Jacob dreamed of a ladder going up to heaven. Solomon dreamed of God asking him what Solomon wanted. And Solomon asked for wisdom to govern the people of God. God was so pleased with the request that he gave Solomon wisdom and riches. An angel appeared in a dream to tell the other Joseph that it was alright to marry the pregnant Mary, mother of Jesus. And the wise men were warned in a dream not to return to King Herod after taking their gifts to the Christ child.
We want to interpret our dreams for our own lives. And that may be helpful. But notice that biblical dreams were not for the sole benefit of the dreamer. Jacob’s dream told him that his offspring would be God’s people. Solomon’s dream led him to rule God’s people wisely and to build the Temple where many people could worship God. In the NT, Joseph’s dream made way for the Son of God to be born, and the wise men’s dream protected the Christ Child from a scrupulous king. In our story today, even the Pharaoh’s dream set the scene for Joseph to be put into a power of position where he would meet his family again and right an old wrong with a powerful message about God’s presence in the world. Walter Brueggeman’s interpretation of this passage says, "God’s plan transcends all else. But it is still tied to concrete historical action"1
Where, then, do we see God in the concrete world of today? What are our dreams for the future? When we lose our jobs and have to spend our savings to pay the rent, when our spouse dies too young and our whole world changes, when we get a dread disease or even the infirmities that come with age attack us, it is hard to dream at all. Our dreams become more like nightmares. Even the Church has trouble with dreaming, as the Body seems so divided these days. We cannot come to a general consensus even on the interpretation of Scripture. Economic woes can threaten our ministry, and our very existence, as we see many smaller churches closing their doors for good. As we look at the world events, with economic turmoil, political divide, civil disorder like the riots in London and the uprisings and wars in the Middle East, we may find it hard to dream of a world of peace, a world where the Bible dreams that "they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks;" where "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they war anymore" (Isaiah 2:4).
And yet the Bible tells us over and over again, with stories like this one of Joseph, that God has a plan, that God is involved in worldly events, even, and maybe especially, when they seem so dire.
A great dreamer in the 20th century spoke eloquently of his dreams for our country, even for our world: "I have a dream," said Martin Luther King, Jr., in the midst of civil riots in the segregated south. "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners, will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." "I have a dream" he said, "that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." "I have a dream today," he said, going to the Scriptures, in the Book of Isaiah, "that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and ‘the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.’" Martin Luther King Jr. understood the dream and vision of God to be of something greater than you or me, but rather something available for all people. He looked for a time when "justice [would] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24).
Joseph’s interpretation of the Pharaoh’s dream led to salvation for many, many people, including his own family, in a time of famine and death. Jesus too had dreams, of the kingdom of God as like a mustard seed, "the smallest of seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches" (Matt. 13:31-32). "If you want to become my followers, deny yourselves and take up the cross and follow me," he said (Matt.16:24). He had dreams of us taking care of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the prisoner, the "least" among us. Jesus had dreams of all of us, his disciples, going out to all nations, baptizing and teaching. And Jesus, of course, made those dreams all possible with his sacrifice of himself to save us.
So we see that all of these dreams that we have talked about today are of something greater than us. They look beyond individual lives and families. They look towards the welfare of all peoples. Maybe we as a church could dream of ways to meet the future well, not so much of growing in numbers, but of providing more space for ministries of inreach to our members, and outreach to our community; of sharing our buildings even more with helping organizations; of preparing space and resources to care for people in the event of a natural disaster, war, or destructive riots. At the same time, we should, of course, look to see how we can work to prevent some of those very things from happening as a people – caring for our an environment that human advances tend to erode rather than to protect; finding ways to bring people to the table together in mutual and respectful conversation; working for justice and peace for all peoples and all nations. For in talking of the bread and cup of the communion table,
I Corinthians reminds us "we who are many are one body" (I Cor. 10:17).
Dream, then, as you will, for we all dream. But maybe as we think about Joseph and Jesus and the Bible’s messages about dreams, we can change the way we interpret and use our dreams, whether they be night dreams or day dreams. So, when we dream, let us dare to dream big! Dream for the restoration of our world and of all people, in the one kingdom of God! Dream of wholeness and peace for all people. And then may we work to make it so! All glory be to God! Amen.
1 Brueggeman, Walter, Genesis (John Knox Press, GA, 1992), 332
Audio not available
I don’t know how much of it had to do with Joseph.
Sure, it would be wise of the tattle-tale with a privileged position in the family not to rock the boat. It would have been wise for him to actually be a helper, like the text claims he is, instead of bringing a bad report on his brothers. He gets the love, a fancy coat, and a good deal of resentment from his siblings. It would have been wise to keep quiet. But, instead, everything he does seems to rub salt in his brothers’ already raw wounds. He has these dreams, which he proudly offers to anyone who will listen. Sheaves of wheat stand in a field, and all of theirs bow down to Joseph’s. Then the moon and the sun and the stars, symbolizing all the rest of the family – parents included – bow down to the ridiculous dreamer. At this point even his father gets annoyed: “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?”
The anger built, and built. If you’ve ever been really mad, at a sibling, you know how they felt. Somehow it’s the strongest with people we love. Jacob sends Joseph out to find his brothers and the flocks, to “see if all is well.” Jacob simply wants a report, but the brothers, I am sure, count Joseph as a spy. I can hear them now…Look, guys, look who is coming, strolling over the plains in that fancy robe. You feel how hot it is out here, he doesn’t have to wear that robe. I wonder what he will say about us this time. I wonder what report he will bring back to dad this time, who will most certainly believe him over us. It filled them with fury, until one speaks the thought others had: let’s kill him, and throw him in a pit. No one has to find out. No one has to know. Then one of them says something remarkable: “Here comes this dreamer,” he names Joseph. “Come now, let us kill him…and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” And we shall see what will become of his dreams…
Because even though it started with Joseph, I think it was really about those dreams. The dreams Joseph had for who he was, for their family, for who they were all to be. These dreams, for us and for others, grip us, drive so much of what we do. I am not talking about the monster-in-the-corner dreams, or the recurring falling dreams. I am talking about the dreams that change things, like prophets like Isaiah and Micah voiced for justice, a Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial kind of dream. Maybe it’s a vision of your family, of who your kids will be, of the gifts they bring, of the people they will become. We fill our lives with dreams, for those we love, for the ways our careers will work, the successes we will have, the things we know, deep down, we can make happen if only given the right kind of chance. Sprinkle in a way to retire early, travel the world, spoil the grandkids, reading for long afternoons in the back yard.
But these dreams, even the best of them, seem so tenuous at times. We dream for a world in which our leaders can speak to each other with humility and grace, and we turn on the news and see them posturing to a bank of cameras. We dream for a world in which spouses don’t cheat or abuse, in which addictions and mental illness don’t cling to people we dearly love. We dream about safe schools, troops coming home, institutions from churches to banks to governments that operate with integrity, that are filled with people with honesty and compassion. And another leader is caught up in a scandal, and another dear friend calls to say that her marriage is falling apart. We yearn for a world in which no one goes hungry, and that everyone has a safe and warm place to sleep. And then you head downtown one evening and see someone walking with a blanket and a bag, sliding up underneath a bridge to sleep. And you meet someone, like our Middle Schoolers will as they serve in Durham at Housing for New Hope, Urban Ministries, Threshold and the Food Bank, and you see how it is terribly easy for our dreams to be crushed, for hope to slip right through your fingers…
That is one reason I believe this Joseph narrative is so important, and worth us lingering over here in these warm days as summer concludes. After creation and the flood, the prehistory of the Israelites, we leap into a series of longer narratives. God calls to Abram in chapter 12 and, even through a series of threats to the promise, God’s presence is constant. God speaks to Abram often. Angels show up in Abram and Sarai’s tent. Even when things get hard, there is a clear sense that God is nearby, waiting in the wings with redemption. A couple of chapters on Isaac, and the narrative jumps to Jacob, the trickster, the younger brother who supplants his older twin, who steals his birthright, who runs away, finds refuge and a wife, begins to build a life. This is more visceral, gut-level stuff, and God is still very near, near enough to wrestle with, physically wrestle with, by the banks of the Jabbok river. Jacob and his brother Esau reconcile, and they worship together. But this Joseph narrative, longer than the other two, is different.1 God doesn’t pop up much, doesn’t make grand pronouncements. The beginning of this narrative is tough, with the sense of dreams lost in the midst of family tension. Not much hopeful happens, which feels like the news lately, with the debt ceiling/credit rating debacle, as a helicopter is shot down in Afghanistan and more brothers and fathers and son and daughters die. This narrative begins with a feeling of desperation. But, the text says to us as we read, it is in times such as these we get to choose. We can choose to believe that it is all chaotic and meaningless. Or, as the Joseph story argues, we can choose to believe that even when things feel most desperate, God is at work, waiting, underneath the surface even, nudging, coaxing us into greater faithfulness. Sometimes it feels like hope is lost and, after a time, at the last minute, grace bubbles up where you least expect it.
We were back from vacation last Saturday night, and I was getting ready to head down to University Presbyterian in Chapel Hill to join my colleagues there for worship. I flipped on the news and, in a random story in the midst of the debt ceiling childishness, was floored. It was a story about a woman in Iran named Ameneh Bahrami. In 2004 a man named Majid Movahedi proposed marriage. She refused, so Movahedi got some acid and attacked her, pouring it on her face, leaving her severely disfigured. She lost her sight and suffered horrific burns to her face, scalp and body in the attack. It is a legal right for victims in Iran to ask for a strict enforcement of Islamic law, under which an attempt is made to reach a settlement with victims or their families. If no agreement is reached, then “qisas,” or eye-for-an-eye retribution, is enforced. This is the same kind of sentence called for in the Hebrew Scriptures, in Leviticus 24. Under the Iranian judiciary’s policy, convicted murderers are sentenced to death. In 2010 authorities amputated the hand of a convicted thief. In this case the court had ruled that a doctor would pour a few drops of a corrosive chemical in one of Movahedi’s eyes as retribution. And early last Sunday morning they stood in a doctor’s office, ready to apply the punishment. And eye for an eye. And at the last minute, Bahrami stepped forward and said, ‘no.’ She stopped it all. Told the doctor to step back, and told the people gathered that she forgave him, as he sat, weeping, against the wall. He still has to serve some jail time, still has to pay a fine. But he can see, even if she won’t again.2
There is much to come. Joseph goes through fits and starts, gets in trouble, then works his way out of it. For a period he is quite powerful. Then it collapses again. But hope persists. Not in grand dramatic ways, not most of the time. But in the slow and subtle moving of the Spirit of God, who creates us and claims us and promises to never, ever let us go. Who plants within us dreams – for us and for the world – that through that grace we might be more than we are, filled with forgiveness and sustained with power. And God never gives up on those dreams, even when we might be tempted to. Joseph gets close. His father, thinking him dead, surely does. “Amazingly,” Brueggeman again reminds, “even as Joseph heads off to Egypt, God has still not abandoned the dream…”3 And God will not do so for you or for me.
All praise be to God. Amen.
- This idea comes from Walter Brueggemann’s Interpretation: Genesis, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 288. “Its presuppositions suggest a cool detachment from things religious that is contrasted with the much more direct religious affirmation of the Abraham and Jacob stories.”
- Brueggemann, 306.
Mysteries and crime-solving shows have been popular for some time, and still are. From Dragnet and Adam-12, to The Rockford Files and Murder She Wrote, to Law and Order, CSI, NCIS, and so many more now than before because we have so many networks, we like crime shows. Even some of the medical shows, like House, solve mysteries surrounding diseases. We like to watch these shows that solve the mystery and resolve the issue, with the bad guy (or gal) getting caught, and justice prevailing for the victims.
Delving into Scripture passages can be a bit like solving a mystery. We want to know who, when, where and why the crime occurred. And we want to know who, when, where and why the Scripture passage was written.
There would seem to be little mystery around today’s Gospel passage, though. This story of the Feeding of the 5000 is widely known, even among those who do not read the Bible. But there are actually some rather interesting things to learn about this passage. It is the only miracle, besides, of course, the resurrection, to appear in all four Gospels. In two of the Gospels, Matthew and Mark, there is a parallel story soon after this story, the Feeding of the 4000, which involves 7 loaves and a few fish. And there are differences in the stories in the different Gospels. In both Matthew and Mark, the Feeding follows Jesus learning about the death of John the Baptist. In Matthew, Jesus went to be by himself; in Mark, he wanted the disciples to go away to a deserted place to rest and recuperate. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the disciples wanted Jesus to send the crowds away because it was dark and they needed food. In John, Jesus asked the disciples about finding food for the people, as a way to test them. Only in John did the little boy appear with the 5 barley loaves and 2 fish. In Mark, the disciples went and found that all the food there was 5 loaves and 2 fish. In Mark and Luke, Jesus told the disciples to make the people sit in groups of 50’s and 100’s. In Mark, 5000 men were fed, but Matthew adds an unspecified number of women and children to that number.
So details differ, but with a story that must have been so popular with the early church because it was told over and over, there are also some striking similarities in these four Gospel versions. There is always either the mention of or the sense of Jesus having compassion for the people, even though his intent had been to have some time away to reflect and rest with the disciples. Mark even explains the compassion Jesus had for the people “because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). In all of the Gospels, Jesus initiates the meal with the words the church uses to institute Holy Communion. Jesus took the bread (and fish), blessed it, broke it, and gave it. Only in the Gospel of John did Jesus distribute the food directly to the people, though. In the other three Gospels, Jesus gave the food to the disciples to distribute to the people. In all versions, the people ate and were “filled” or “satisfied,” and there were many leftovers, twelve baskets full. Clearly, a miracle occurred.
In our scientific and logical world, many try to explain the miracle away. Some say other people had food, and brought it out when they saw the disciples trying to distribute such meager provisions. Or perhaps, others say, the people treated the meal like we do communion, only taking a little bite, and thus the meager amount was able to be spread among so many. Such explanations might help our need to solve mysteries, but they diminish the story of the miracle that Jesus performed.
To a people who know better than we in this community what it means to be hungry, such a miracle story about food would be welcomed and celebrated. Feedings and food occur often in the Bible. The people of God were hungry as they crossed the wilderness towards the Promised Land, and God provided manna for them, enough for each day. There is a very similar story to this Feeding of the 5000 in II Kings. In a time of famine, a man brought 20 loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain to the prophet Elisha. Elisha said very similar words to those of Jesus. “Give it to the people and let them eat.” The servant, like the disciples, could not conceive of how so little food would help so many people. Elisha said again, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” And indeed the people ate and there was some left. (II Kings 4:42-44) Our passage, then, also fulfills this Old Testament passage.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the first temptation for Jesus, after having been in the dessert alone for 40 days and nights, was to turn the stones into bread, so that he might eat. But Jesus refused, saying, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matt. 4:4) And so we know that these stories that involve food are also about so much more. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus said in the Gospel of John, in the words we often use on communion Sundays, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35). With the liturgical language, the story also points us forward in the Gospels, to the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples before his crucifixion. And again we know that the story is about much more than just feeding our bodies.
Feeding our bodies is important, although most of us in this country are over-privileged when it comes to food. “Give us this day our daily bread,” Jesus taught us to pray. Our bodies need to be cared for, nurtured and fed on a daily basis. God does not neglect the most basic human needs.
The international relief organization, Food for the Hungry, which strives to feed the hungry and to provide emergency relief to people in times of famine, drought, flood, other natural disasters or even wars, reports on its website that the world actually produces enough grain to provide every human being on our planet with 3600 calories a day. 3600 calories is much more than most of us adults even need on a daily basis, although it may not be more than we consume. And yet statistics show that over 1 billion people worldwide are chronically undernourished, and about 24,000 die of hunger-related issues every day. It makes no sense that we have enough food, and yet so many are starving. That seems to be mystery we cannot solve or fix!
Jesus gave the food to the disciples to distribute in our story. As followers of Christ, we also have a responsibility to share food with the hungry. And we do so when we give to the Food Bank and to the other helping agencies we support. We do so when we prepare and serve the Shelter Meal once a month, and when we serve and sit down to eat with the IHN families. We do so when we hand out our Helping Hand bags to the folks begging on the street corners. It is obviously important that we continue to find ways to help those who do not have enough food or shelter or income, for over and over again, the Bible calls us to care for the “least” among us.
In Jesus’ time, food was much more scarce. The people who followed Jesus out into the wilderness could not walk to the nearest fast food joint, or even to a restaurant. They would have to go home and prepare whatever food they might have there. And it would not be a quick fix. Much of their hunger would be for this basic need, to feed their bodies before their souls could be fed as well. They also came to Jesus to be fed with teaching and healing. So feeding the people of God can also mean more than giving food. For “One does not live by bread alone…”
We who are mostly well fed hunger as well. We just hunger for different things. Perhaps we are here week after week because we hunger for something that cannot really be offered to us anywhere else. Here we worship and study the Bible and fellowship and serve through helping organizations like Habitat and STOP Hunger now; and we do it in community with other people who are seeking the same kind of nourishment. “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you,” Jesus said (Matt. 7:7).
Just after this also familiar passage, Jesus asked, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” Jesus answers his own questions: “If you then, who are evil (i.e.,sinful, broken), know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask!” (Matthew 7:9-11).
Perhaps part of our struggle, then, as modern, intelligent, well-informed people is to ask and to rely upon God. With food, we are used to buying large amounts, storing it in fridges or freezers, or to just going out to a restaurant or fast food place when we want to eat. Often we want to feed our spiritual needs the same way, to find a quick fix. Yet in our hearts we know that spiritual food does not come as if in the fast food line. In order to truly live as the people of God, we need to be fed spiritually every day just as much as we need food for our bodies every day.
In our story, the people followed him as Jesus sought time away for himself and his disciples. Yet Jesus graciously met their needs. the Gospels tell us numerous times that Jesus withdrew from the crowds. Jesus retreated to pray and to nurture his spiritual life. Most times, his disciples, his community, his church, were with him, at least physically. We know that they did not always understand or help, though. In our story today they wanted to send the crowds away. In the Garden of Gethsemane, they could not even stay awake with Jesus. We followers of Christ sometimes fall short, but we keep trying. Being a part of a faithful community helps to keep us on track. But we all need Sabbath time to restore our souls.
Though we like to solve problems and mysteries, one thing we learn as children of God is that we cannot know everything, and we cannot solve everything. Yet when we gather as we do here on Sunday mornings and other days of the week, when we “retreat” from the worries of the world and call upon God, we are perhaps a bit miraculously renewed and fed so that we can go out into the world again and meet the issues of each day with a greater sense of peace and well-being.
I found a cartoon as I prepared for this sermon. It shows a market street in biblical times, with people gathering around booths labeled “Loaves” and “Fishes.” The seller has added a sign to the booth, so familiar to us as we shop and get bargains like the book table that says, “Buy 2, get one free.” But this sign says, “Buy 2, get 5000.” We enjoy the joke! And we could use such a miracle to help us feed the hungry among us. We also can appreciate that Jesus feeds our needs in miraculous ways.
Our Isaiah reading occurred in what is called “The Book of Consolation,” chapters 40-55 of the book of Isaiah. The people of God were in exile at that time, living under oppression, treated as slaves. So they were not well fed. And they were far away from their holy city and temple. Their needs were not being met, either physically or spiritually. The prophet called them to come “buy” food and drink, yet without money, and at no price. He offers something greater than food and drink. He offers the “everlasting covenant.” Even as an oppressed people, he tells, them, they are blessed and will be a witness to other people and nations. Even in exile, God glorifies them.
So we know that God can spread a table, even in the wilderness! God cares for our needs, and meets them. And God miraculously gives us even more than we ever asked for. God gives us Himself – Christ risen in triumph over sin and evil and death. In Christ, we are fed. In him, we are nourished. Let us seek the Bread of Life every day of our lives, and seek to share it with others, that all might be fed and satisfied.
Praise be to God! Amen.
Every person matters.
That was a phrase that speakers came back to, over and over again, at breakfast on Friday. I got to sit proudly with about 25 other Westminster folks at a breakfast in support of Housing for New Hope, a remarkable organization that fights homelessness in Durham and Orange Counties.1 They build apartments, create networks of supportive services, meet immediate needs, advocate for affordable housing in all levels of government. We ate and heard powerful stories, stories that remind us that there is deep human need, that the right combination of passion and understanding can have a tremendous impact but that, through it all, we must not forget that every single person matters. From the formerly homeless man who was given an apartment but didn’t sleep there for 2 months – he went back to the park he had slept in before – because the apartment reminded him too much of solitary confinement in jail. To the board members in Washington a few weeks ago meeting with our congressional delegation. To the new tenants learning to read, to write their own stories, to learn what it is like to have hope about their lives. Speaker after speaker, the theme was strong. Every person matters.
Jesus sets up a majestic scene. We are in the heart of it now, right in the middle of Holy Week. Matthew gives us 20 chapters on Jesus’ birth and baptism, preaching and teaching from village to village, town to town. In the final 8 chapters Matthew slows things down, focusing us in tightly. Jesus enters on a donkey on Palm Sunday in chapter 21; he moves right into the temple and begins throwing tables over, with the moneychangers who have made it, he says, ‘a den of robbers.’ He speaks right to the Pharisees and Sadducees, answering those who challenge his authority, warning them, through his parables, that they should be careful. They aren’t the ones who get to decide who is in and who is out, who gets invited to the wedding feast. He turns from the religious leaders to the crowds, calling those crowds to see through those religious leaders’ hypocrisy, to see through their greed and their legalistic pronouncements.
In chapters 24 and 25 he moves into his closing argument. In these two chapters, Tom Long notes, we find Jesus’ fifth, and last, major section of teaching. This time the main theme is the final judgment and the ultimate victory of God at the end of time.2 This section includes the last things Matthew has Jesus say to his disciples. Immediately following he records the plot to kill Jesus, then we move right into the Last Supper, Jesus betrayal, and his arrest. We are right on the edge of the end of this part of the story, and Matthew records Jesus reaching out, far beyond, even in some wild apocalyptic language.3 He is trying to help them understand that, as hard as things are about to become, there is a promise even beyond this age that matters, that gives them hope as they fight through each day. They don’t know it yet, but He is giving them promises they will cling to long after He is gone.
And here, at the end of that final teaching section, Jesus draws us a scene of the final judgment. He has been swimming in arguments with the religious leaders about the law and the promise, about who is truly grafted into the tree of the descendants of Abraham. In some ways they were not terribly different from the theological debates that raged throughout the Reformation, and that remain in play in many corners of the church. Who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? Who gets to decide? Who has gifts they get to use to serve, who gets to be ordained, and who has to sit outside as the arbiters of righteousness clang the gates shut in their face? Jesus draws a magnificent portrait of the throne room, angels bathed in glory. All the nations are gathered, and there will be a sorting, like a shepherd sorts the sheep from the goats, the chosen from the not chosen, to sit at the right hand of God. The king, Jesus says, will issue his invitation, and then he tells them why: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” I was naked and sick and in prison and you reached out and helped. You did something for me.
But the blessed sheep still don’t get it. When did we see you that way? When was it? They repeat each situation exactly. And then comes the punch line, the line they didn’t see coming, the line that would make the gathered crowds gasp. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” I imagine they sat in silence for awhile.
This dramatic disclosure, Long again argues, that Jesus Christ is present in the world in the least of these, is the focal point of this parable. The world will be judged according to whether it did or did not show hospitality to Jesus Christ, the Messiah clothed not in royal majesty but coming to the world hidden among the least of these.4 Jesus is always to be found hanging out in places we don’t frequent, with people the world shuns and discards. With the old woman sitting in a nursing home alone. With the homeless man huddled over a trash can. With those who are poor and sick, left out and mentally ill, with those society shoves aside because they can’t do anything for us, can’t get us anywhere, can’t influence anyone powerful on our behalf. With the young woman who checks us out at Harris Teeter with a sad look in her eye. With the teenager who wonders if he is gay, but fears his family, fears his church, will tell him he is damned, instead of holding him close and telling him that we love him, that God loves him. It is easy to quote this passage as a rationale for serving a shelter meal. ‘We do it for the least of these,’ we say. And this ministry of service, which is at the core of our identity as a church, is crucial. But even below that, I believe Jesus is telling us – here at his last opportunity before he moves towards his death – that he is, even now, transforming each and every one of our relationships. They don’t have to be what they were. I am among you, he says. Beside you, in front of you, in the line with you at the post office. My Spirit is alive in every single person you meet, alive in a special way in those who the world ignores, uniquely present in the poor and powerless. The church that seeks to follow this Jesus MUST be in those places, with those people, looking and listening, bearing witnesses, seeking that Christ alive and loose in the world.
So I need you to help me make sure we are that kind of church. One of the many things I love about you is how well you greet people here, the strangers that come into our midst for worship. You are great about welcoming them, bringing them through the line so Betty and I can meet them afterwards. But I have learned about a couple of times recently when folks have come to worship and no one greeted them. When or who or why don’t matter. What I need you to do is make sure this never happens again. Even more, I think this could be an opportunity to practice what this text calls us to do – to welcome each person we meet as if they were Jesus Christ himself. You wouldn’t ignore Jesus in the pew beside you, would you? So I want us to be serious about it. I, like Haywood did before, ask the officers-elect to meet one new person each week. They come to officer training on Tuesday night with their notes. They have met one of you, and tell us a little about you. The group this summer has done a great job of it. I emailed all of our officers last night and asked them to do the same thing throughout the fall. We are going to come back to it at session meeting and deacon’s meetings, learn who they met, who else they are getting to know. You can’t be in community with people you don’t know. I want to challenge you ALL to join us, to really pay attention every single person in this community in the month coming up. I am going to bug you and ask you when I see you. I want you to stop me in the hall and tell me. I want you fill up my email inbox with messages. I met Sally, I don’t know why I hadn’t met her before, we realized we lived near each other, that our kids knew each other, that she has some wonderful gifts. I want you to do it in three ways. 1) In worship. Right here. 2) Not here. Folks who aren’t here who you haven’t seen in awhile. Go home and call them. This is really important. 3) Out there. In the world. Particularly those that seem powerless, pushed to the margins, that nobody else seems to be paying attention it. This can be tough. It is really hot outside. We are so often tired or late, making lists in our heads. But we must be at work in those places. The church must be at work in those places.
Last week we all gathered in the fellowship hall to say goodbye to our dear friend and youth director Rebecca Mattern. She stood up, after some people said some nice things about her, after the youth sang, and thanked you. For loving her, for seeing her through some really hard times. You all have transformed my life, she said. Because that’s what real community does. It makes us better than we would be otherwise, freeing us to continue to push and serve and make a difference in the world. As you did it for Rebecca, I know you will do it for Taylor, for Kara and Katherine, other new staff members starting soon. I wonder who else, in the pews beside you, standing at an intersection, in line with you at Target, that we might get to know, that you might meet with extraordinary kindness. You never know, she might be Jesus.
All praise be to God. Amen.
- Learn more at www.housingfornewhope.org
- Tom Long, WBC: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 265.
- “In order to teach people who were fully in the stream of history about a divine victory that is anchored out beyond history’s edge, Jesus’ language is stretched almost out of recognizable shape.” Long, 265.
- Long, 285.