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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I Have Seen the Lord
“Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord…” (Jn. 20).
Mostly we live on the shallow surface. We usually assume we understand the facts, that the everyday world exists in the way that it appears to us. But at certain moments we the vast depths of our unconscious life startles us. Out of seemingly nothing there arise titanic fears, desires and feelings that we do not understand. These forces grip us. They shape our thoughts and actions. Yes, we are rational beings. But there is so much more. In many respects we are a mystery to ourselves. Karl Barth writes that for us the truth is like a butterfly escaping through the fingers of a child (471).
If you asked me how I was last week, I would have gone on about how I’m adjusting to this totally new form of life, how great it has been to have our children home at various times over the Pandemic, that it won’t be long now until we can be together. But sitting here in the Cathedral this week I saw what was really in my heart. Deep sorrow.
I thought of close family members who almost died of COVID and our niece’s brain surgery. I remembered others who did die during the pandemic: my godfather, the college friend who was godmother of our children, two beloved uncles, another friend from my wife’s high school, a close family friend who I knew from the time he was ten. I helped him prepare for confirmation. He was a member of this congregation. And we still have not buried him. There is so much more that I cannot even tell you about.
But I don’t need to because you still remember: collecting bulk food, the flashing signs saying to stay at home, a spree of buying guns, the sirens in New York City, the people dying alone. Instead of regarding masks as a way that we can all protect the most vulnerable we turned them into another symbol of tribalism and politics. Although Americans make up 4% of the world’s population we account for 20% of the world’s COVID deaths. We have been hating and distrusting each other to death. We see new ways that race and poverty kill people.
We continue to roll from tragedy to tragedy. This week after all the new gun violence and anti-Asian racism we heard the testimony of those traumatized witnesses of George Floyd’s murder. It is enough for us to break. We have made our home in a kind of tomb.
That day here when I looked up past the immense columns I watched the dappled sunlight streaming through the stained glass window of Mary Magdalene. And it was almost as if she looked at me with great kindness and whispered, “I have seen the Lord!” God is God of what we see and of what we don’t see. God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.
And Jesus gives us more than just ideas or beliefs. Jesus brings us nearer to God. This happens through practices, rituals, symbols, words, stories and prayers that help us. Jesus takes one of the worst things ever invented, a torture device called the Roman cross, and makes it into the tree of life, a sign of hope that God is with us in the worst suffering we can imagine.
Jesus gives us a way to navigate the depths that we experience in our existence, that mystery that we can only approach through symbols and intuitions. This morning I want to talk about the way John’s Gospel acts as a kind of guide through this world. I am going to talk about the big picture, the focused picture and our picture. So let us enter the world of John’s Gospel together.
- The Big Picture. A mystery lies behind the Gospel of John. We do not know who the author is. But this writer is completely clear about the purpose of the book. He says that it is written, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:31). I think this new life is the purpose of Easter.
There are no accidents in John. He uses an elaborate and rigid structure with recurring themes (like the struggle between light and darkness). These connect the various incidents he describes. He uses seven titles to refer to Jesus (like “Son of Man,” “Messiah,” “Son of God,” etc.). Jesus speaks about himself using seven “I am” statements (like, “I am the true vine… the bread of life” or “the Good Shepherd,” etc.). There are seven signs or miracles that help the reader understand who Jesus is.
The book is divided into two parts. In the first Jesus teaches and heals people. The second records the last days before his death and resurrection. Between these, two sisters convince Jesus to bring their brother Lazarus back from the dead and out of the isolation of his tomb.
At his later trial Jesus tells the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world” (Jn. 18:36). And indeed it is not. At his last supper he washes he followers’ feet and shares a meal with them. He teaches that it is more important to serve others than to have power over them (Jn. 13). He says I tell you these things so, “that your joy may be complete” (Jn. 15:11). There is a kind of Epilogue to the Gospel in which the disciples are fishing and the resurrected Jesus tells them to throw their nets over the other side of the boat. Suddenly the nets fill to a breaking point. It’s an illustration that Christians are most effective when they listen to Jesus.
- The focused picture begins after Jesus’s body has been broken and laid in the tomb. It begins in the mysterious darkness of Easter morning. Mary Magdalene arrives to find the stone rolled away. She runs to tell Peter and the Disciple who Jesus loved. This Beloved Disciple is the one lying reclining closest to Jesus at his last supper (when Jesus announces who will betray him). Although Peter denies him three times, the Beloved Disciple has a secret power. It makes him fearless in the face of death. And so the Beloved Disciple is present at Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.
On Easter morning the Beloved Disciple outruns Peter but waits outside the tomb. This is where things get a little complicated. The author uses three different Greek verbs for seeing. First, there is an empirical seeing which can include perceiving something beyond sense experience. This is the word the author uses to describe Mary Magdalene and the Beloved Disciple’s first experience of the tomb. Second, there is a form of detached seeing, as spectator does. This is the way Peter is described as he sees the linen wrappings in one place and the face covering in another. Finally when the Beloved Disciple experiences the same thing, the author writes, “he saw and believed.”
This brings us back to the mystery of John. At the end of the Gospel the author reveals that he himself is the Beloved Disciple. My friend the Bible scholar Herman Waetjen believes that the Beloved Disciple is Lazarus who Jesus brought back to life. And that seeing the same kind of face covering in Jesus’ tomb reminded Lazarus of his own resurrection. For Herman that face covering also refers to the one Moses wore in the presence of God. He explains that when it was removed, there was nothing that would conceal the glory of God as it shined through them.
We may be able to learn from someone who came back from the dead, but the abyss of experience that separates us from that person makes it hard. After the two other disciples return home we have Mary Magdalene still waiting at the tomb. When Mary first turns she sees or fails to see Jesus in the same way that Peter did. She mistakes Jesus for the gardener. But when he says her name “Mary,” she understands who he really is. She goes back to the others and says, “I have seen the Lord” (using the same word the Beloved Disciple did).
When we are in the dark, when we are lost or confused or feeling hopeless, Jesus seeks us out like this. Often it happens through the church as the body of Christ on earth. But God can do this work through a friend, a memory, a fresh loaf of bread, the shimmering leaves of a birch tree or a stained glass window.
- Our picture. All my life I have not paid much attention to the role of the face covering in this story or to the way that masks – actual ones and metaphorical ones like race – conceal the glory of God that should be shining in us. But there has never been a year like this. We are nearing the end of a period of unprecedented isolation. Over this time it has become far harder for us to communicate and understand each other.
The preacher Frederich Buechner writes, “You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own; but you cannot become human on your own.” Rowan Wiliams the former Archbishop of Canterbury writes, “When we say that Jesus is risen, we mean that there is no sense in which he belongs to the past; his life is never over. When we celebrate the Eucharist we do not put flowers on a memorial slab; we meet a living and active presence.”
At Bible study this week a member of the Cathedral congregation talked about being hit as a pedestrian by an SUV and hurled 10 feet in 2010. It seemed almost certain that she would die, and if not doctors expected that she would be just a shadow of herself. But Jesus came to her in the form of another person who had been in a similar accident. She says, “It was not a near-death experience, but an encounter with transcendence. I was pretty devout before but all of a sudden I began to see the peace, unity and love that lies so near and all around us.” That joy and wonder is so tangible in my friend, my sister in Christ.
On my way here today I ran into three congregants at different intersections and I felt that same thing. My heart leapt with joy to see them in person. When we see each other next we are going to look a little older and a little more uncertain and awkward about how we reach out. But the glory of God will really shine through us again, because we have life in His name. His joy is becoming complete in us.
I have seen the Lord. Alleluia, Christ is risen!
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3.1 The Doctrine of Reconciliation tr. G.W. Bromiley (NY: T & T Clark, 2004) 471.
 Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T & T Clark, 2005) 409-418.
 Peter W. Marty, “The Post-Pandemic Church,” The Christian Century 24 March 2021.
 Rowan Williams, Candles in the Dark: Faith, Hope and Love in a Time of Pandemic (London: SPCK Publishing, 2020) 11.