Sermons For These Times
The parish where I served before coming to Grace Cathedral, St. Peter’s in Port Chester, New York, was always overflowing with food. Literally. Feeding people was in this community’s DNA: they hosted a soup kitchen 13 times a week, feeding thousands of people; area grocery stores dropped off endless crates of food donations for passersby to rifle through on the lawn; and there was almost always someone cooking up something delicious in the kitchen. Every Thanksgiving, we gave away 200 turkeys. One day, someone we’d never seen before knocked on the door in the pouring rain and, without explanation, dropped off 1000 bagels. The quantity of food that was served and eaten on any given day was staggering and, even on the days when the soup kitchen volunteers were forced to forage through the pantry and scrounge up a meal out of whatever odds and ends they could find, there was always more than enough to go around. Most days, I was sent home from work laden down with food that, no matter how hard I tried to refuse, I couldn’t: steaming styrofoam containers of soup kitchen leftovers, whole chickens that wouldn’t fit in the freezer, heaps of produce leftover at the end of the day that otherwise would have gone to waste. I rarely brought a lunch to work and could go weeks without needing to grocery shop.
Prior to serving that community, I might have told you that the Biblical feeding of the thousands was an improbable or perhaps exaggerated miracle, but now? I believe it because I have seen it, over and over again. I believe because I have experienced miraculous, divine abundance in my own body and tasted its sweetness. Feasting in a community scarred by food insecurity. Generosity flowing out of real and urgent poverty. Abundance overflowing despite fears of scarcity and without calculating the cost. Community being built while organizing canned goods, chopping onions, and ladling out big scoops of spaghetti.
These feeding miracles, where Jesús and his disciples find themselves in the midst of an enormous, hungry crowd and turn a preposterously small quantity of bread and fish into a lavish feast, appear in slightly different forms in all four Gospels. In every case, the disciples balk and scoff at Jesús’ command to feed the crowds with so little food. These stories speak to a universal, hard-wired human fear that runs deep in all of us: a fear that there will not be enough. Not enough food, not enough money, not enough jobs.
But the fear goes deeper than panic over a lack of material things. Underneath all of those very real and very practical fears, there’s an undercurrent of terror, a demonic voice that plants a seed of suspicion in our hearts that there’s not enough love to go around. Not enough attention. Not enough respect and recognition. That fear, when it runs unchecked, drives us to compete for resources, even when they are abundant. To hoard and stockpile, to bolster our sense of security however we can. That fear makes us defensive and anxious. When we are in its grip, we fail to recognize the abundance of what we really have – and the even greater abundance that would be possible if we opened our hands instead of clenching our fists.
When we read these stories about the feeding of thousands, it’s easy to get caught up in the technicalities, proposing theories for how exactly Jesús was able to make this tiny amount of bread and fish last for so many people. Maybe everyone ate only a tiny crumb. Maybe the people in the crowd were inspired by Jesús’ generosity and added their own little bits of food to the basket as it passed them. Maybe a lot of things. We really don’t know.
But I venture to say that, when we overanalyze the miracle, we’re missing the point. This story exists, not as a how-to guide for hosting a massive picnic with limited resources, but as a challenge to all the ways we have convinced ourselves that there is not enough to go around – or that we are powerless to change the status quo. Where we have bought into a false narrative of scarcity, the story of the loaves and fishes is a powerful counter-witness to God’s outrageous abundance. Where we feel paralyzed by overwhelm at the tasks that face us, the Gospel reminds us that small actions, undertaken with great love, can cause a cascade effect, bringing healing and nourishment to thousands, without regard for our limited sense of what should be possible.
We all have our own loaves and fishes stories. They might not have anything to do with bread or seafood, it’s true. But we all have had moments in our lives when we got more than we thought we deserved, or when something was easier than we expected, or when there was, in fact, more than enough food to feed all our guests. Moments when God challenged our fear of there never being enough and gave us a glimpse of that heavenly abundance that God always dreams of bringing into reality on earth. I invite you to take a moment and reflect – where are those loaves and fishes stories in your lives? Those moments that are beacons of grace in times of struggle, signposts in the wilderness of our fear, and nourishment to keep going forward on our own journey with God? Where have we encountered abundance beyond our wildest imagination? How has it transformed us?
The key to understanding the miracle of the loaves and fishes isn’t actually in the Gospel story at all. It’s in one extraordinary verse from the letter to the Ephesians that, not by accident, the lectionary pairs with this story from John’s Gospel. It’s a verse that, if you’ve ever attended Evensong or prayed evening prayer, might be familiar to you because it’s one of the options for closing our common worship: “Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” Repeat.
It’s one of my favorite Bible verses of all time. It reminds us that, while all power is God’s, we are the vessels. God doesn’t act in a vacuum. God works through us. Through our hands and hearts and words. Through our fragile and imperfect human bodies, God is able to turn a bread crust and a few fish into a feast for countless thousands. Through us, even through our fear and doubt, God is able, not just to exceed our expectations, but to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Grace upon grace.
In my own experience, the miracles of abundance that God works through our human bodies usually aren’t especially glamorous. They tend to involve things like unloading 70 pallets of canned goods in 90 degree heat, washing towering stacks of crusty serving dishes, or figuring out how many favors to call in to keep 200 turkeys frozen when they unexpectedly get delivered a week before Thanksgiving. I don’t imagine the Biblical feeding of the thousands as a serene, peaceful picnic – I imagine it more like the average soup kitchen line, with people squabbling over who was there first, trying to cut the line, and complaining that, actually, they don’t really like bread and fish and would like an alternative option please. We don’t do ourselves any favors when we romanticize this story. Miracles can be gritty and embodied and human and still be miraculous.
The question becomes – as people who have received such abundance, who have seen and heard and tasted this grace beyond measure, how will we live differently? Will we let these experiences of grace start to change our story, start to challenge and calm our deep seated fears that there isn’t enough? Can we begin to trust in God’s abundance and relinquish our death grip on those things we think will keep us safe and secure? Can we begin to share our own loaves and fishes without fretting over how far they will go or how much we will have left for ourselves? Can we trust that we have enough? Can we trust that we are enough?
Glory to God, whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation in the church and in Christ Jesús forever and ever. Amen.
In her 1985 comic strip, Dykes to watch out for, the cartoonist, Alison Bechdel, first introduced what we now know as the Bechdel test: a set of criteria that seeks to measure the representation of women in media. The test has 3 simple parts: to pass, the piece of media needs to have 1) at least 2 women in it, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man. The Bechdel test is an imperfect barometer of representation, but it is a useful starting point when engaging with media. Mostly, it is stunning how much of the content we consume does not even come close to passing.
And the Bible is no exception to this trend. You need to scour the Scriptures very closely to find stories that pass the Bechdel test and, even then, most of them just barely fit the bill. Mary and Elizabeth? Close, but they’re talking about their babies in utero who are both…male. Ruth and Naomi? Also good candidates – the Book of Ruth features many conversations between these two women, but even they spend a lot of time figuring out how to set Ruth up with Boaz. The truth is, the Bible speaks about women plenty, but it rarely lifts up non-male voices. A slim minority of the women mentioned in the Bible actually have names. And Biblical women are often typecast in much the same way the modern media slots women into narrow,
one-dimensional tropes – Eve, the temptress; Mary Magdalene the repentant sinner. None of this is especially surprising. The Bible is a product of its time and cultural milieu. It describes a world that was built for and by men, and that had little use for recording the private lives of women. But the Bible, subversive and holy text that it is, also regularly transcends the world it describes, giving us glimpses of a different way of being, a new, divine world being born among us right in the midst of our ordinary, imperfect existence.
In our Gospel reading today, we see the gap between those two worlds, in another story that comes close (but not quite) to passing the Bechdel test. The story of the beheading of John
the Baptist is most certainly not where most people go when they search the Bible for subversive, feminist texts. Herodias and her daughter are not celebrated as Biblical heroines like Ruth, Esther, or Mary. In contrast to the revered “good girls” of the Bible, who follow God’s word and establish themselves as moral exemplars, we have before us today two Biblical “bad girls”. Women who scheme and plot and arrange the murder of a prophet out of their festering resentment. Women whom history casts as villains.
But are they really so bad? Or is that just what we’ve been conditioned, by centuries of patriarchy, to think? Let’s take a closer look. This story, for all its complexity, is a very rare account in the Gospels of 2 women speaking to each other without a man present, and the ONLY instance in the entire Bible of a mother speaking to her daughter (ponder that for a second – I didn’t believe that could be possible when I stumbled across that factoid, but it is true). It is a grisly tale of blame, oppression, and violence. It is a story of desperate, angry women who do what they need to do to survive in a world that isn’t built for them.
The writer of Mark’s Gospel sets the scene: Jesús is doing deeds of power and arousing the suspicion and fear of those in authority, including Herod. The death of John the Baptist is really only included here as a flashback, because Herod hears about Jesús and is paranoid that John, whom he beheaded, has come back to life. Herod had John arrested and imprisoned on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. John had (correctly) told Herod that it wasn’t lawful for him to marry his brother’s wife while his brother was still living. And so, we’re told, Herodias (interestingly, not Herod) holds a grudge against John, wants to kill him, but can’t. Whoa. Let’s stop there for a moment.
Who is at fault here? Is it really Herodias who, oh, by the way, doesn’t even really have her own name but is referred to as a derivative, a possession of her powerful husband? Or is it
the oppressive force of misogyny that allows Herodias to be handled like a trading card, shuttled around between powerful husbands with no say in the matter, only to then be accused by a
sharp-tongued prophet of violating religious law? If you were Herodias, wouldn’t you be annoyed too? Is she really the deserving target of John the Baptist’s ire?
Fast forward – Herod throws himself a birthday party, a lavish and probably debaucherous celebration. If we read between the lines, we can infer that his wife and daughter (who is also called Herodias – take note, even royal women are lumped together into one, indistinguishable, subservient category) weren’t invited. They lurk in the wings until Herod calls for his daughter and asks her to dance for his guests. This is not a cute, innocent, or voluntary dance – this is a forced dance of oppression and abuse, the objectification of a child to satisfy the appetites of powerful men. In works of art as well as in theology, Herodias is depicted as a morally depraved, promiscuous temptress but, here again, we must ask ourselves – who really deserves the blame? Is it the child? Or is it the people who forced her to dance in the first place? We might think the answer should be obvious, but a closer look at our world today reminds us of how much easier it is to place blame on the victim than to face pernicious systems of oppression head on – the sky high juvenile incarceration rates of BIPOC children in our country and the continued detention of migrant children at our border speak for themselves.
But this dance, fraught though it is, brings an unexpected opportunity. Herodias’ performance pleases Herod, who, suddenly overcome with emotion, beckons his daughter to come close and offers her anything her heart desires, up to half his kingdom. It is a ludicrous proposition, illustrative of Herod’s capriciousness – what would this oppressed child, who doesn’t even have her own name, do with half a kingdom?
But Herodias is savvy. She sees Herod’s offer for what it is – a Golden ticket – and runs to consult her mother on how to best leverage it. And, of all the things they could have asked for, they request the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Why? Why this? Perhaps it’s because, in this deeply imperfect and broken world, this was as close as these women could get to an assertion of freedom. John the Baptist wasn’t the real source of Herodias’ anger, but perhaps he was the only target she could safely lash out against. Power repressed will eventually find an outlet, healthy or not. Violence begets violence. Realistically, there wasn’t much Herodias could have asked for that would have measurably improved her own quality of life and her daughter’s. Life inside the palace, miserable though it may have been, still brought more security than life anywhere else. These women were trapped. And trapped people do desperate things.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condoning what Herodias did. Murder is still murder. There is no turning her into a Biblical heroine. But there is so much more to this story than meets the eye. Grisly and distressing as it is, this tale paints a picture of the world that Jesús came to save – and the oppression that Jesús came to liberate us from. Toppling the thrones of the powerful and lifting up the oppressed. Sweeping away an unjust system where blame is placed on victims while the powerful escape unscathed. Breaking cycles of violence and creating a world where all are free to exercise their own agency. A world where we don’t need tests to measure representation because everyone is known to be worthy of their own name, their own voice, and their own story
The portion of the Gospel we read today is not a particularly hopeful chapter, and that’s ok. It’s one scene of a much broader story of salvation, just as the darkest chapters of our own stories are part of a much bigger narrative tapestry. But, if we want the healing, the new life, the redemption that Jesús offers, we cannot erase the ugly and unflattering bits of our history. We
must bring them to light of God’s grace. And we must read these stories – our stories – critically, examining our own complicity, our own tendencies to blame victims and turn a blind eye to oppressors, our own perpetuation of cycles of violence, so that we can begin to welcome in the new world God longs to build in our midst.
Let us pray now, for the coming of that world:
Just and loving God, grant us the expansiveness of your vision. Where we are quick to assign blame, give us curiosity to look deeper. Where we reduce our fellow human beings to tropes and labels, give us courage to listen to one another’s stories. Where we feel constrained by the limitations of this world, give us strength to shatter walls of prejudice and oppression. And hasten the coming of your dream, where every human being may live in dignity. Amen.
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“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth… when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy” (Job 38)?
For a season we lived on the edge of an enormous beach wildlife preserve on the island of Maui. Every morning before dawn I would take my ten foot stand up paddle board parallel to the shore going upwind. I traveled over fabulous green reefs and because I was standing, I could see through perfectly clear water deep into the world of sea turtles, octopuses and tropical fish. Building morning winds would blow me through the whitecaps back home.
To surf during a favorable tide sometimes I would paddle later in the day to a downwind reef. Then I would fly along the face of mirror-like waves feeling a perfect freedom. As the wind grew stronger I knew I had to leave soon before it became impossible to make it back.
I remember one Saturday just riding a few more waves that I should have and then facing a kind of wall of wind as I turned back. Lying down flat and paddling the board was only enough to get me half way home. Feeling humiliated I had to carry the paddle and heavy board along the beach through howling winds with my in-laws and friends watching. Wind and chaotic seas can remind us that we are not in control. There is something about God’s creation that attracts me even to the point of danger.
Henry David Thoreau writes, “I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows… Give me a wildness that no civilization can endure… Nature is a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features…” “The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence.” For Thoreau that “Intelligence” is God.
While modern technology has made it possible to understand and control the world in new ways we still inhabit a wild universe that we can never fully understand. For thousands of years wise people have studied the place of human beings in the world. The poetic beauty which I love in the Book of Job stands in this tradition. Today we will study Job together. Our homework will be to read the last four chapters of the book.
Scholars guess that an anonymous author composed the Book of Job in seventh century BCE. It tells the story of a fabulously wealthy man named Job who lived in the distant country of Uz. None of the characters in this book are Israelites. It is impossible to place any events in history. All of this helps us to avoid being distracted by any historical or cultural questions. It makes the writing feel timeless, as if it could have just happened.
After providing a quick inventory of Job’s many possessions and giving a short account of his piety, the scene changes. Suddenly the reader finds herself in the heavenly realms at a kind of senior staff meeting. In it God describes Job as “blameless and upright.” God says that Job, “fears God and turns away from evil” (Job. 1). Among the “heavenly beings” there is a figure called by the Hebrew word “Satan” which means adversary, accuser, prosecutor.
Addressing God, Satan argues that of course Job is righteous. You have, “blessed the work of his hands.” But if you were to take these things away he would “curse you to your face.” And so God delivers Job over to Satan and terrible things happen to him.
In one day Job learns that all of his possessions have been stolen or destroyed. His children, who are in the habit of feasting together at their eldest brother’s house, are all killed after the building collapses in a wind storm. At first Job shows a miraculous composure. He says, “the LORD gave and the LORD has taken away, blessed be the name of the LORD.”
At this point as the first chapter draws to a close the reader might think that this book will answer the question of why God allows suffering. But it never does.
Job has three friends Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamanthite who go to console and comfort him. For seven days and nights they sit with him without saying a word.
For the author these three represent the best that ancient Near Eastern philosophy has to offer about the nature of the world and human beings. Each one speaks and then Job rebuts them in turn. When you get right down to it their argument is simple. It goes like this: “God is just. God arranges all things according to the rules of justice. Because Job is suffering, somehow he must have sinned.”
They reason that Job must be guilty of some secret wrong-doing. So they even go as far as to make up sins that they suggest Job must have committed.
As Job is tormented by painful illnesses and the assertion of friends who tell him that it is his own fault, he loses control. He knows he’s innocent. Just as God said at the beginning he is “blameless and upright.” He starts contradicting himself, wondering out loud what is happening to him. He used to think that God was just, but he simply cannot reconcile this with his suffering.
Job even suggests that God, “mocks at the calamity of the innocent” (Job. 9:23). Throughout these speeches Job no longer speaks coherently. He defends God, cries out in pain, doubts God’s goodness, confesses his own ignorance and finally in his last speech he demands that God hear him. He insists on seeing God face to face.
At this point another younger friend named Elihu suddenly appears. Elihu suggests that perhaps Job’s suffering is to prevent him from committing a future sin or that it is a way that God is shaping his character for the better.
And then Job gets his heart’s desire. God answers him through a voice coming out of a storm, a whirlwind. But rather than giving a straightforward response, God answers with a series of questions. These lines invite the hearers to imagine the vast perspective in time and space that comes with being God.
God says, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth… when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?… Have you entered into the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you?” (Job. 38).
God asks Job questions about massive planetary forces and distant constellations of stars, “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow… Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion.” I love how God then asks Job if he understands the intimate details of other living creatures like lions, ravens, oxen, asses, and even ostriches. God says, “Do you know where the mountain goats give birth, Do you observe the calving of the deer?” God even tells Job what a battle feels like from the perspective of a war horse (“When the trumpet sounds, it says ‘Aha!’ from a distance it smells the battle” (Job. 39).
God has the power required to fashion the worlds and at the same time knows the intimate secrets of every living creature. There is a logic to saying God is just, therefore the world is just, therefore sin is punished by suffering. But God points to a much deeper logic that still eludes us today. Job and his friends have relied on the false assumption that the tiny horizon of their life experience is enough to understand and accuse God.
In the Old Testament the sea stands as a symbol for chaos and disorder that threatens human life. God goes on to talk about mythical animals that personify this energy: the behemoth and leviathan. In the Bible these are symbols of danger. God’s world is good but it is not safe.
Why is there suffering? God does not answer this question except to point out that we live in an amazing, mysterious world that is more apt to evoke our awe than to prevent us from suffering. In the end Job apologizes to God and acknowledges his foolishness.
To the friends, God says that Job has spoken rightly. Certainly God does not suggest by this that everything Job said was perfectly accurate. What I think this means is that God understands Job’s struggles and honesty. God appreciates Job’s desire to encounter holiness. I think this is what God wants from us too.
In the end God restores everything that Job lost – his possessions and strangely in a dreamlike way even a new family. These things are not a reward for having believed or acted rightly, but just a generous gift like the gifts we receive when we really see the beauty around us.
My friends this COVID time has been like a terrible storm at sea but here we are together again. Jesus was not asleep on a cushion in the stern of our boat. Jesus has guided us and brought us to this new shore.
During this time many of us have learned like Job to bring our disappointments, despair, even our criticisms and indignation to God. We have realized again the futility of thinking that we can stand even with God, or see the world in the way that God does. We are growing up to recognize that we do not have to defend God’s ways to critics, but have only to speak of the hope that God inspires in us.
We have begun to realize even more deeply that we inhabit an unsafe world, whose beauty, wildness and mystery will always surprise us. And that God’s love and care for every creature will always exceed our understanding.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, thank you for gathering us together, for bringing us safely to the beginning of this day in which we might behold you in a new light. Thank you for the mysterious wildness that surrounds us and inspire us to preserve the richness of your creation. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” The Natural History Essays (Salt Lake City, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 1980) 113, 130, 128.
What is the Kingdom of God like? This is a question that people of faith have wrestled with and argued about for generations. In the Gospels, Jesus devotes a great deal of time to spinning parables that compare the reign of God to images and situations taken from the ordinary lives of his listeners. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, a pearl, a woman who loses a coin, a sower; it is like everything imaginable and like nothing we know. The kingdom of God is a bit of an enigma – close enough for us to glimpse in our own lives, but not fully realized yet. It is the dream that God has for us, the world God longs to build among us. But, while it gets a great deal of attention in the Gospels, wondering about the nature of the Kingdom of God is not unique to the time of Jesus. These questions of authority, kingship, and God’s role in it all have their roots deep in the stories of the people of Israel, including the portion of 1 Samuel we heard today.
Where the Gospels use parables to describe the Kingdom of God, 1 Samuel offers us a story: a story of how God’s kingdom, God’s dream – plays out on the canvas of human history, complete with plenty of plot twists and unexpected detours. In this story, tension occurs when God’s dream collides with human ambition and greed. God adapts, listens, and responds, bending the arc of human history toward justice. Here, God and the people of Israel desire two incompatible things – and through the divine engagement with that tension we glimpse what the Kingdom of God is like.
The issue at hand is a big one: should Israel have a king or not? A human king, that is, distinct from the kingship of God. That question was the subject of last week’s reading and it’s crucial backstory for the portion of the narrative we read today. Basically, Israel wants to be just like its neighboring nation states, with a king and a palace and all the pomp and circumstance of a monarchy. Israel wants to fit in. They’re tired of being the awkward kid at the cafeteria table, with uncool clothes and a weird lunch. But God has dreams for Israel that go well beyond such conformity. God knows what happens when authority is invested in one, all-powerful human with no checks and balances and God is not a fan of this kind of kingship.
The conversation that ensues between God and Israel (here reluctantly represented by the Prophet Samuel) is awfully reminiscent of deliberations between exasperated parents of adolescents who have been worn down by constant wheedling. At the end of the argument, God acquiesces – “Fine – you want a king? You got a king. But you’re probably not gonna like it…”
And that is where our story picks up today. Under the rule of their first King, Saul, Israel is, unsurprisingly, in the midst of growing pains. They are struggling under the capricious and unpredictable rule of their monarch. Just as God predicted, being royal subjects is not quite what the Israelites dreamed of. So, when Saul’s leadership starts to spiral out of control, God intervenes, rejecting Saul as king, and sending Samuel on what should be a treasonous fool’s errand – to visit Jesse the Bethlehemite and appoint a new king from among his sons. While the old King is still living and reigning. Which is exactly as dangerous as it sounds – Samuel fears for his life.
God’s dream does not hold space for petty tyrants and egomaniacal leaders. God’s dream does not play by the rulebook of human nation states and governments, where rule is inherited through bloodlines and continues regardless of the injustices being done. God’s kingdom does not look like the rigid power structures of this world. God’s dream is adaptive and responsive – when things don’t go according to plan (and they often don’t), God drafts a plan B. God is not afraid to do a new thing; to shake up the existing order; to seek justice, come whence it may, cost what it will. God’s dream is infinitely more than what we can ask for or imagine. And it almost always comes as a surprise.
In pursuit of God’s dream, Samuel finds himself standing before a line of 7 potential monarchs, ready to anoint a new king from among Jesse’s sons. Seven is a significant number in the Bible, signifying wholeness and completion. And yet, the irony is, despite appearances to the contrary, the picture here is not complete. Even with so many options on the table, Samuel does something extraordinary: he turns to Jesse and asks, “don’t you have any more sons? God hasn’t chosen any of these.” Here it is: the dream of God bursting the boundaries of our narrow assumptions. Where we see limitations, God sees possibilities. Where we are quick to settle for scarcity, God pulls back the curtains and reveals an abundance beyond our wildest imaginations.
And in that abundance, God chooses the person who wasn’t even thought worthy to be in the room where it happened. Israel’s new king is the youngest, least experienced, least qualified candidate for the job. Someone has to go get David from the fields, that’s how much of an afterthought he was. God makes a way where we fear there is no way. God does not see as we mortals see, but with a sight that transcends our limited imaginations.
What does this mean for us? What does the appointment of a king thousands of years ago tell us about the inbreaking of God’s dream here and now? Every one of us knows what it feels like to make a decision under constraints, to feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, to feel like we have no good options but need to pick something anyway because life moves on. For so many of us, this scarcity mindset has been the backdrop for the past fifteen months of the pandemic. We have all, in various ways, felt the sting of loss, and the pain of options disappearing into nothingness. We have watched our carefully-made plans be shattered by circumstances outside of our control. We have felt helpless against the raging forces of both the virus and the pandemic of racism, inequity, and violence that it exposed within our society. We have needed to compromise, to settle, to sacrifice. Perhaps we have wondered where God was throughout it all.
The cost of the pandemic is incalculable. But the past year of extended isolation and restrictions have not only impacted our economy and our healthcare system. On a much more intimate level, it has also shrunk our imaginations and dulled our dreams. When we feel the walls of the world pressing in around us on all sides, our instinct is often to shut down. And yet, it is in these very situations where it is most important to open ourselves, to listen for the voice of God, whispering in our ear, calling us out of our fear, calling us to look again when we think we’ve identified all the options. Because God is always, always ready to shatter the walls of our narrow-minded thinking and reveal the limitless possibilities of God’s dream. God is always doing a new thing. The only problem is, for us to see it, we need to reckon with our brittle assumptions and allow ourselves to be surprised.
So, as we continue to emerge from the wilderness of this pandemic, as we survey our options and make plans for what comes next, I invite each of us to ask with a truly open heart: In our discernment and deliberations, what options have we left off the table? What have we assumed is impossible? Who’s not in the room? Who have we written off or excluded? If we want to discover God’s dream for us, if we want to know what the Kingdom of God is like, we need to begin by searching in the least likely places. If we want to be renewed, we first must let God kindle our imaginations. People may think we’re being ridiculous. I certainly imagine that’s what Jesse the Bethlehmite and his 7 eldest sons thought when Samuel picked David to be king. But God’s economy does not follow the rules of our world. Again and again, God surprises us by lifting up those people and circumstances that we are quick to dismiss, turning the world as we know it upside down.
What is the Kingdom of God like? What is God’s dream for us? What spiritual debris do we have to clean out of our hearts to make room for it? Where are our own imaginations pinched by fear, greed, or prejudice? Because, where we see binaries, God sees limitless possibilities. Where we feel constrained, God stands ready to liberate us into a reimagined way of being. May we trust in that divine abundance and find delight in being surprised by God’s dream. Amen.