Reverend Philip Stringer
LET US PRAY: Gracious Lord, Bread of Life, feed us with your Word, and speak to our hearts, that we may love and serve only you, now and forever. AMEN
Me in the wilderness of Great Smokey Mountain National Park -- looking for solitude and quiet.
In spite of hardship, I enjoyed the trip-- but instead of quiet time to consider the bigger issues of life, I found that all I could do was consider the immediate issues at hand-- one step at a time, watching for firm footing, rationing my water and food along the way-- looking for a safe place to rest.
There were times when I truthfully didn’t know how I was going to make it out. I was pushing my muscles and bones to their limits-- I could feel it. I didn’t know how I would make it-- but it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t.
I was continually mindful of God’s presence with me-- and although I knew that it was up to me to push my bones and muscles up the mountain, I also knew that God was with me, and somehow-- some way-- I would make it.
There are many times when life is not what we expect it to be-- in fact, perhaps most of life is that way. There are surprises and hardships and tragedies along the way.
But today’s Scripture texts speak to us, reminding us that God’s grace exceeds our every need -- often in unexpected ways.
That might sound cliche, but today I want you to consider how the over-abundance of God’s grace that is poured out on you can strengthen your daily life in ways that change the way you think about your life and about the ways that you impact the world around you.
The world can be a harsh and dangerous place -- not only in terms of the wilderness like I experienced in the National Park-- but also, and especially in terms of the cruelty of people. The world can be a harsh and dangerous place.
John the Baptist was murdered during a dinner party, and his head was brought in on a platter to entertain and amuse the guests.
When Jesus heard the news, he must have felt in a new way, just how overwhelming the troubles of the world are. The crushing weight of the world seems unrelenting. Jesus surely knew better than any that tyrants rule and the gentle get trampled.
We often think of the wilderness as being a harsh place, but when Jesus heard the news about John the Baptist, he withdrew from the jungle of civilization to a deserted place, in order to find peace and clarity.
Do you ever feel that way?-- as if the troubles of your life will just swallow you up. Do you ever feel like the world is such a mess that you’d just like to run away from it all -- even if only for a while?
The crowds that went after Jesus must have felt that way, too, because they ran to be with him. They were hungry for hope and relief from the burdens of their lives. And it was there in the wilderness that Jesus met them and turned this “deserted place” into a classroom of God’s grace.
This isn’t the first time we read about God working in the wilderness. In fact there are many references, but perhaps most notably in this case is how God fed the Israelites with manna after they followed Moses out of Egypt. Every day they awoke to find the strange, bread-like substance on the ground -- and they were able to gather up only enough for the day, so that over time they learned to rely upon God’s grace. They learned that by grace they received their daily bread.
I have a hard time learning that lesson myself. How about you? I start worrying about tomorrow. Are we saving enough? What if someone gets sick or there is a disaster?
Don’t the disciples play an interesting role in our Gospel story? Their confidence in Jesus seems to have its limits. “Jesus, it’s getting pretty late. The people seem pretty happy right now, but we anticipate trouble. They’re going to need to eat, so send them away so they can fend for themselves.” It isn’t the extraordinary needs that some of the people have that bother them -- like injuries and diseases. It’s the ordinary needs that everybody has that troubles them.
It’s as if they are saying, in effect, that they believe Jesus can care for some of your needs -- the unusual ones -- but for your everyday need, you’re on your own. It’s everyone for him- or herself.
When Jesus fed the crowd that day, he gave them a sign of just how far God’s grace reaches into our lives. Yes, God will be there for you in times of trouble. But just as importantly, God is filling every moment of your life with blessing.
I wonder about our confidence in that. I wonder if we believe it for ourselves, and I wonder if we are willing to believe that what is true for us is also true for everyone else. I wonder if we can learn to be compassionate like Jesus was compassionate -- and if we can learn to have faith in the power of God to satisfy us.
I suppose that is a life-long lesson, isn’t it; Something we are continually learning as we journey through the wilderness of this world. But I do believe we can learn to be compassionate and that our faith in God’s grace can grow. And as our faith in God grows and we learn to be compassionate, our lives become instruments of God’s grace.
<<<< RESPONSE TO WAR IN UKRAINE >>>>
EPIDEMIOLOGIST-- famine is not a natural phenomena. A consequence of the sinfulness and brokenness of the world. The war in Ukraine is a perfect example of this. Ukraine has been described as the “breadbasket of the world” — It produces 10% of the world’s wheat, 15% of the world’s corn and 13% of the world’s barley. It also produces more than 50% of the world’s sunflower oil.
The United Nations World Food Program supplies grain to the poorest regions of the globe — Bangladesh, Egypt, Moldova, sub-saharan Africa...
As a result of Russia pulling out of the grain deal that allowed Ukrainian grain to be exported, over 22 million tons of grain are stranded.
The director of the World Food Program recently stated, “Failure to open (the ports in Ukraine) will result in famine and destabilization and mass migration around the world.”
You and I can’t do much to address the immediate problem of Russia refusing to allow safe passage of grain— but we ARE addressing the effects of the war by assisting Ukrainian farmers as they face a challenging future.
In the current counter-offensive in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian military has recaptured thousands of kilometers of farmland.
We are there — working with other Christians — to help the people of Kharkiv. Lutheran Disaster Response has allocated $1M to the farm recovery program. The director of Lutheran Disaster Response stated, "“Even as the Russia-Ukraine war continues, the (response) project will provide concrete support for families in Kharkiv and serve as a sign of hope for the future of Ukraine as crops are planted and farms reestablished. Lutheran Disaster Response is glad to support (this effort) as part of our commitment to long-term recovery.”
Our presence there — in the name of Jesus — goes beyond the physical threat of food insecurity. Beyond the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing, they also need— just like you and me-- they need to know they are not alone. That someone sees them, knows them and cares about them. They need to know that they matter and that tomorrow can be different. Just like you and me, they need hope.
These are the gifts that Jesus offers all of us. Herod threw a party where John the Baptist was murdered -- and in the wake of this terribly evil display -- in response to what Herod did -- Jesus threw his own dinner party -- among the sick and needy, feeding them with compassion and love. Jesus’ response to evil was to show love and compassion.
And not only in the wilderness on that day -- but in the wilderness of this day, too -- here, at this table. (Herod took God’s messenger and slaughtered him to destroy and silence God’s will). At this (altar) dinner party, Jesus -- the lamb who was slain on the cross -- offers himself to fulfill God’s will to bring life and healing to all).
When we give our offerings that seem so insignificant in the face of the world’s needs -- Jesus takes what little we can give and feeds the world with all that we need. But the difference isn’t only in the usefulness of what we give. Perhaps most importantly, our hearts are being changed as we -- like Jesus -- return good for evil.
After Jesus fed the people, they gathered up the leftovers and put them into baskets. Don’t you find that to be a curious footnote to this story? The center of attention is Jesus, and the miracle of Jesus was in the feeding of the people. But the baskets give the punch, don’t they. The baskets make it all sink in for us. When we look at the baskets, we see the evidence of God’s excessive compassion.
Jesus fed all the people -- and when they were all satisfied, there was still a mountain of food left over. God’s grace exceeded their every need. You and I can be like those baskets. That’s what I challenge you to do. Be a basket case for Jesus.
OUR BASKET FROM LINCHUAN VILLAGE-- worthless to others, precious to us. Not because of what it is but because of what it represents.
It’s not about the baskets -- they were probably rather ordinary themselves. It was what the baskets showed the world about God’s grace that mattered.
Here (at this table) are bread and wine that are more than food and drink for your body. They are the means by which God’s grace is poured out for you — and you become a sign to the world of God’s grace.
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
By the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us, I do believe we can learn to be compassionate and that our faith in God’s grace can grow. And as our faith in God grows and we learn to be compassionate, our lives become instruments of God’s grace.
Baskets of God’s grace. You and me.