Hungry for Daily Bread

Scripture: John 6:1-14

Back in January, pre-COVID-19, which now seems like such a long time ago, I stood in the Church of the Multiplication by the Sea of Galilee in Israel/Palestine, the very spot where it is believed that Jesus fed more than five thousand people with just a few loaves and fish as we heard in our scripture passage today. On the chapel floor, right in front of the communion table, is a beautiful mosaic - intricately laid tile by tile - which reveals a basket of four loaves of bread and two fish. I have this same pattern on my communion plate and chalice that I purchased there and we use at home for worship.
According to the scripture we just heard, the little boy had five loaves, not 4. The mosaic then, as you stand in that sacred space, invites you to look up, to the communion table, where Jesus might have stood in the midst of worship, fifth loaf in his hands, breaking it and blessing it, before sharing it with the gathered people.
Getting to walk and explore the landscape of Jesus, his disciples, and his people, it was apparent why a miracle story like the one we heard today would have been so popular. It’s in all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Mark and Matthew, in fact, have it twice. And while area around the Sea of Galilee was fertile countryside, you don’t have to travel far to leave that green behind and end up in the dusty, at times desolate, rocky hillsides.
Jesus was distinctly aware of the hunger of his disciples and the community that surrounded him. They were hungry for a lot of things - they were hungry for a leader who could offer them a future free of oppression and violence. They were hungry for spiritual wisdom that gave them meaning and purpose. They were hungry for a sign that God was still acting and listening.
*And they were also just plain hungry for a meal.*
Jesus and his community lived with the day-to-day reality that one storm, one wildfire, one drought, or even one cruel decision by King Herod or Roman imperial authorities could deny the daily bread that his people needed. Life was hard, so when he taught his disciples to pray in Matthew 6, he guided them to ask for daily bread, for the food they needed to get by each day, indicating God was listening to their needs.
That day on the mountainside, as the crowds swarmed after him, Jesus became aware that these people needed bread, and so he fed them - all five thousand plus, keeping in mind that besides the men there were women, children, aunts, uncles, grandparents, second cousins mixed in. No one went home hungry that day.
Our world today is not that different than Jesus’ - there are so many hungry people.
Right now, according to a recent Hunger Survey from the Capital Area Food Bank, released before the pandemic, at least 1 in 10 neighbors in the Washington DC region are food insecure, meaning they “lack access to reliable, nutritious food on a regular basis”. At least 1/3 of those are children.
Add in a deadly pandemic that has swept through our country, and an estimated additional 250,000 people in just the DC area only have had to seek assistance, making those lines at local pantries and distributions long and slow.
Right now, due to COVID-19, some people still don’t know when they will get back to work or have a reliable paycheck again. Experts are worried that evictions will create a new wave of neighbors looking for places to live.
Even this weekend, at least a half a million people have been uprooted from their homes as wildfires break out on the West Coast. When it is safe, many will go back to find ashes.
Right now, friends, people are hungry - hungry for justice, hungry for change, hungry for their daily bread.
So what would Jesus have us do as his disciples?
How does Jesus’ miracle of multiplication invite us to respond?
First, we must sit with the idea that God desires to feed us. In other Gospel stories, Jesus hands the bread and fish to his disciples who then share it with the crowd. That’s pretty cool - a reminder that we are part of Jesus’ distribution network, but in the Gospel of John, Jesus hands out the food himself. **What an image.** Jesus, Emmanuel, God With Us, takes on the presence and care of a cafeteria cook at a local elementary school, a volunteer helping at the Day Center or Community Place Cafe, or even a caring neighbor who picks up a few extra groceries to leave on a doorstep. (Kids, don’t ever criticize the lunch lady - she might be Jesus.)
In John, miracles are called signs - they point the way or they tell us about Jesus, and so this miracle reaffirms the good news that we have a Creator who has not abandoned us or left us to misery but suffers alongside and seeks to nourish our bodies for our daily struggle.
Second, God is also concerned with our whole hunger. Later in Chapter 6, Jesus, drawing from this miracle, says to the gathered crowds, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus is able to care for the immediate reality of a people who are hungry for today’s meal and also offer them a deeper nourishment that sates their hunger for wholeness and healing. Through Christ, there is food that will sustain his people beyond even this life.
Jesus’ mission was always looking beyond just the present - God is always working to bring transformation to a hurting, broken world.
Finally, there are always leftovers in God’s reign. At the end of the meal, baskets of bread and fish are returned to Jesus. Through the power of Christ, there is enough and then some to go around. We live in a world where things may seem scarce on the surface - if we will look deeper, we find God is providing more than enough for our needs and our neighbor’s needs.
And so if we know there will be enough, some of us might not choose to overload our plates on our first pass down the buffet line.
If we know there will be enough, some of us might invite more of our neighbors to the dinner table.
If we know there will be enough, perhaps we can reimagine how our society will operate, creating a world where no one goes to bed hungry. Can you imagine that?
Bread for the World, a Christian evangelical hunger relief organization, guides many followers of Jesus who are motivated to work toward such a world. According to their website, Christians have so often spent most of their energy in direct action - food kitchens, pantries, and other support to neighbors in need, but Christians are learning to impact policy, the laws and regulations made by our government which shapes our economy. In recent days, Christians have written their representatives and Senators to demand an expansion of food assistance, especially to families with children. Right now, kids in our county can go to local schools for free and pick up breakfast and lunch - no proof income needed, making it so easy to make sure our children have someone in their fridge. It’s saving lives and comes out of faithful followers of Jesus lifting their voices and demanding a change.
But even deeper than that, Bread for the World is linking hunger with other policies - like criminal justice reform. When a person in a community is locked up for a non-violent offense, they lose opportunities to provide for their families. It creates a cycle that makes families dependent on assistance, placing stress on the poor in our community. Add on top of that the historic reality that our criminal justice system hurts especially communities of color. If we want to imagine a world without hunger, we also must imagine a world without racism and inequality of all kinds.
What would it look like if our faith was exhibited in these ways - not just through the incredible work we do as a congregation through the Day Center, Community Place Cafe, and winter homeless shelters - but also through a growing voice to our leaders from city to county to state and federal, asking and demanding a community where no child goes to bed hungry? (I’m going to let you sit with that.)
Jesus in a miracle of sharing bread and fish gives us a glimpse of what is possible.
Our presence is needed, just like Jesus, doing the hard work of passing out brown bag lunches, contributing resources that support gift cards going to neighbors in need. Embodying God’s love for those who are hungry is a way to show up with Christ. And church, this week, you are going to hear about a special way to help us upgrade our kitchen, long overdue, so we can serve more of our neighbors to reflect Christ’s love.
But we are also called like Jesus to point to the world that God desires for us - a world where famines, hurricanes, droughts, and pandemics don’t stand a chance against our ability to share, persevere, and flourish.
One of the great apocryphal stories about our church is that when we built this building, the strong amazing women leaders of our church demanded a small kitchen. They rejected the traditional role of women spending a lot of time there, preparing meals for a hungry congregation. Rather, that rejection challenged us to see our kitchen as an extension of our mission, a shared mission. Our kitchen is not a place for one gender - it is a place for all of us who are committed to live to the way of Christ, whether that means cooking pancakes, roasting turkeys, making peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, or just scrubbing dishes.
If it was good enough for Jesus to do kitchen duty, it’s good enough for all of us.
We are hungry for our daily bread - may God answer that prayer through our church and through our lives.
Thanks be to God.

(posted 9/21/20)

Oh, no! Not again! Yes, again.

Here we are again having to make a statement regarding unarmed African American men being shot and killed by police.  Two more incidents have surfaced for the world to see our behavior.  Saturday August 22nd, Trayford Pellerin was shot eleven times and killed in Lafyette, LA.  Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back at point blank range Sunday, August 23rd, and is paralyzed in Kenosha, WI.  Peaceful protests took place, only to be interrupted by violence and fires, and a shooter leaving two protestors dead and another seriously wounded.

“How long, Lord, how long?”  Four hundred years is a long time.  African Americans, also known as Black People, have never really come up from slavery in these United States.  The lynching of Black people after emancipation provided frightening oppression for Black people and entertainment for White people.  It was also a stark reminder of the racist ideology of white supremacy.  This violent tactic was designed to keep freed African American men, women and children in their place.  This mindset and narrative have been the driving force behind the continuation or the perpetuation of systemic and institutional racism.  Law enforcement has served as the strong arm to enforce Jim Crow laws, and legislation that legalized segregation and discrimination ever since.  And it is still at work today, unfortunately on too many occasions brutal and aggressive.  There is no comfort in thinking that authorities may take your life, because it is open season on Black people.  BLACK LIVES MATTER!

When will it ever end?  Many thanks to the men and women of the NBA, WNBA (basketball), NFL (football), MLB (baseball), NLS (soccer), PGA, LPGA (golf) and the NHL (hockey); they all participated in a wildcat strike in their respective professional sport to say, “Enough is enough!”  We all need to pay attention to the issue that continues to surface when unarmed Black people are killed.  Racism needs to be dismantled, police reform and accountability is needed for better community relations.  Human rights for all people of color and the marginalized are threatened by the continuous social and political injustice against Black people. 

Personally, I respect the comments from Julia Jackson, mother of Jacob Blake.  She has been blessed with peace from God.  She has been able to make an appeal for peaceful protests.  She was able to pray with everyone in the hospital room, including the police, and express a sense of forgiveness for all she has endured.  God’s love is amazing, people are helped and aided through the trials and tribulations of life trusting and depending on the love of God.  This love helps us to love and forgive our enemies.  Prayers and forgiveness have not brought these murderous atrocities to an end.  So, I also want the love of God that burns within us like a holy fire against those things, like racism, that are not like God. 

Some of us may not have the courage to go out and face tear gas, rubber bullets and billy clubs.  But we can do something from where we are and help those who are on the front lines, for their protection and care.  Let us pray for tough love.  Love that asks for the strength to keep on toiling through exhaustion, tear drops and frustration.  Pray for the boldness to stand with righteous indignation.  I pray that the people of God will be awakened from our complacency and liberated from our timidity.  That we will be endued with power from on high by our deep spirituality and our passion for justice.  Let us pray for the love of God to be active in our lives.  “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4: 13)

- Rev. Dr. Timothy James, administrative secretary for the National Convocation

(posted 9/1/20)

Ready to Go

Scripture: Genesis 18:1-15

In the movie Just Mercy, based on the book of attorney Bryan Stevenson and his fight for justice for many wrongly imprisoned, there’s a scene that captures a little bit of the Southern hospitality that folks down in Georgia and Alabama pride themselves on. Bryan goes to the meet the family of one of his clients, Johnny D, who is sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. When he shows up to meet the family, it’s not just Johnny D’s wife and kids there - it’s neighbors and cousins and aunts and uncles who show up to find out if there can be justice for Johnny D. The wife of his client sees him for the first time and reaches out to hug him, and says, “Thanks for coming all this way - most lawyers don’t even have time to call.” Once they are gathered around the kitchen table, each time Bryan takes a drink from his iced tea sitting in front of him, one of the neighbors quickly refills his glass to the top.
And as the family and neighbors begin to talk, began to express their anger over what the justice system did to their family member, it’s clear that their hospitality is an invitation to Bryan - they are welcoming this stranger into their lives, some hopeful that justice can be done and others hopeless that anything can change. But it seems an act of faith in the first place to open up their home, roll out that famous sweet tea, and welcome this stranger even in the midst of their doubt.
Of course, if you watch the movie, you know that Bryan famously is able to win an appeal and free Johnny D from death row against a racist, corrupt system there in Alabama, and it all began with a little Southern hospitality.
In our scripture this morning, I want you to notice a similar pattern - how hospitality leads to God doing a new thing.
Abram, who is called the Father of Nations, had been called by God to get up and go to a new and distant land, a land that God was going to share with him. Abram and Sara embarked on what became a long and grueling journey. And as they traveled, it probably seemed like Abram was a little crazy - he and Sara, despite being promised by God to have numerous descendants, still had no children, and their hardships made it seem unlikely that they would ever settle down. They were at that stage in life where having children seemed biologically impossible. Whatever God had meant to Abram seemed a pipe dream.
Finally, on a hot day by the Oaks of Mamre, Abram is sitting on the front porch of his tent, trying to catch a meager breeze to cool off, when scripture says the presence of the Lord came by. While our translation identifies them as men, artists have reimagined this scene as the Visitation. A particularly famous icon has imagines the presence of the Lord as the Trinity - Creator, Son, and Spirit - strolling through the desert. Another creative icon imagines them as three black mothers, full of wisdom, creativity, and hope. Whatever Abram sees, he recognizes the very presence of God and rushes to make them welcome, bringing out cool water to wash themselves, pitchers of iced tea, freshly steamed crabs, and a great big bowl of Franklin’s onion rings.
This is an act of faith. Remember, the reason why we open our worship often with a Call to Worship, the reason why we confess our brokenness, the reason why we sing praise songs or quiet our hearts, is an act of faith to make the presence of God welcome in our midst.
Are we ready to get up and set the table for the presence of the Lord? Are we ready to lay out a feast of our lives and experiences for God to use? Are we willing to take a risk?
And so something remarkable happens - God responds to that sense of hospitality with remarkable, life-changing news.
These three divine messengers pronounce that Abram and Sarah will have a son in a year’s time.
Of course, Sarah, listening in nearby, laughs. She is not a villain in this story - in fact, she is the most level headed one. She’s realistic. This old couple had passed the age to have children. They are tired. They are worn out. It seems like their stories were coming to an end, not taking a surprise twist to a new chapter. So, she laughs. Are these strangers joking? Doesn’t God know how human bodies work?
Her laugh is tinged with the laugh of women throughout history who have experienced abuse, pain, separation, violence, and denigration and were told, it will never happen again - only to live in a world where it happens again and again.
Her laugh is tinged with black mothers who have lost their children to violence and were told by well meaning public officials, we are going to stop this from happening again. We are going to make reforms and changes. And then a week later, another life is snatched away.
Her laugh is tinged with the hopelessness of so many who longed for more in their lives from the people they expected to care and fight for them, including the church, but then experienced rejection or silence instead of healing and renewal. 
Sarah’s laugh is a laugh of incredulousness.
But God seems to laugh right back - “are you saying we can’t do this, Sarah?” Are you saying the Creator is unable to continue to create? Are you saying God can’t bring life out strange and unusual circumstances?
Because for once in the story of Sarah, God can deliver. In a year’s time, she will have a child. Her laughter challenges God to answer, to show and prove that another future is possible. For the Creator to show that even when it seems like hope has faded, there are new stories to be told and written. Even when injustice seems to have taken hold, something new might burst forth.
In the marches in our past few weeks, we have seen an example of the creative winds of the Holy Spirit as young people responded to a call to demand something new, to demand a change in this broken cycle of violence and racism in America. A couple of weeks ago, if you had told me that this would have been possible, I would have laughed at you. A couple of weeks ago, and even some moments today, I would tell how little hope I have that we will face crises of our time - crises that claim black lives, immigrant lives, trans lives, crises that are threatening our planet, crises that our threatening hundreds of thousands of people.
And in a blink of an eye, God laughs back. God says to us, “Are you saying this story is over, Nathan? University Christian Church, do you really believe that your mission as a faith community in this unusual time is over? Are you suggesting that God has retreated and given up on this planet? Are you giving up on the power of our God to heal us and transform us from diseases of body and soul, whether COVID-19 or white supremacy?”
God says, “Let me show you what is possible.”
Our invitation in these times is to meet God at the flaps of our tent, to roll out the iced tea and red carpet, and to look with a renewed hope of what is possible - not just for our world - not just for our lives - but even for our church. Will we have the courage to meet God in the eyes of a stranger, in the eyes of a young person marching for change, in the unexpected gift of hospitality that can come at any moments notice?
Are we ready to go where God is prepared to lead us?
May our response in this time be hospitality - to the power of the Spirit - to the unexpected stranger - to the work of justice that we once might have thought impossible. Praise be to God.

(posted 6/23/20)

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