Sunday, July 28, 2018 Monterey UCC, 10:00am
2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145:10-18; John 6:1-21
There is an essential giftedness at the heart of all things. When I hear today’s passage
from John’s Gospel, the feeding of the five thousand and the miracle of Jesus walking on water, I feel compelled to speak about something God has placed on my heart, to which I am called to bear witness: this essential giftedness at the heart of all things. One of the biggest gifts God has given me was the opportunity to spend last year in the Community of St Anselm in London. The community was started by the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Yes, it’s in Lambeth Palace, his London residence, but no, our rooms and shared spaces weren’t overly luxurious, and we didn’t get waited on or anything like that. It’s a young community-- just heading into its fourth year-- that differs from most traditional religious communities in that no one makes lifetime vows. You apply and sign up for one year, to live with other young Christians from different denominations and different parts of the world. Before we ever met or knew each other, we chose to commit to each other, and to submit to a rule of life. We chose: To cook and clean for one anotherTo pray with and for each otherTo be transparent, in confronting and forgiving one anotherTo be one body in Christ, even when it hurt, even when it felt too difficult, even in moments when just sitting at the same table with a particular brother or sister in the community required a small miracle of grace. And for me, it was a big commitment of listening daily to the Jesus we meet in this passage from John; the Jesus who approaches us in the midst of our trials to say, ‘it is I; do not be afraid.’
Daily life in our community centered around praying together three times a day-morning prayer, midday Eucharist and evening prayer. We also had two personal prayer times in silence. We shared meals around this rhythm of prayer. The rest of our day varied between community meeting time, teachings on faith from visiting professors and clergy, practical tasks to build up our community, and times of sharing and recreation. We spent two days a week serving at different charities in the city. I was blessed to be at L’Arche London, eating, praying, working and simply ‘wasting time together’ with residents who have learning disabilities, and their assistants. And of course, we danced to Abba. Life this past year was simplified in some major ways. My schedule was handed to me by someone else; I didn’t have to worry about working to earn money or pay bills; and conversations with my brothers and sisters in the community could happen face to face, each day. We could rely on each other for advice and support. But with pressures and expectations of life outside the community gone, I had to face, head on, some of my deeper fears. The whir and anxiety of college life had dissipated, but I found that the mechanisms of grading and judging, of seeking recognition and approval, were deeply ingrained in me. Without a system to validate and sustain these habits, they were out in the open. They affected my relationships with others and with myself, something I couldn’t hide from in the silence of our prayer life at Lambeth Palace or the simplicity of L’Arche. I felt akin to these disciples in today’s Gospel who witness Jesus feeding the crowd and calming the storm, as they struggle with their fear of scarcity and their fear of the unknown.
It’s just before Passover, John tells us, before the feast of unleavened bread. Before the celebration of God passing over his people and giving them a new life: liberating them from slavery, and revealing to them the law, what it is to live in God’s way.
And yet, in that season of remembering God’s faithfulness and provision, Philip and the other disciples look out at this huge crowd surrounding them, this huge hungry crowd, and they feel helpless. Jesus has asked an impossible question-- doesn’t he know it’s impossible to feed all these people? ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little,’ Philip replies. And just hours after Jesus does feed the gigantic crowd, the disciples again find themselves over their heads in fear as a figure approaches them on the lake. Terrified, they see a ghost, not their friend. As Jesus says to Peter, who follows him onto the water in Matthew’s account of this story, ‘O you of little faith.’ After my year in community, I hear these words of Jesus as endearing rather than chastising. Jesus gives his friends bread, and wisdom, and a revelation of his peace, even though their faith is small. The disciples’ availability to being taken up in Jesus’ giving inspires and resonates with me. There’s a tenderness and a smallness about how God met me this year-especially when I was little of faith, scared of scarcity and scared of yielding to the unknown.
Once the initial honeymoon phase of meeting my new brothers and sisters in St Anselm wore off, I was faced with my own poverty of spirit. I wanted to love my brothers and sisters but it was hard to get out of my own head. It was hard to accept their love and forgiveness when I held onto self-pity and guilt for doing or saying the wrong thing. I wanted to be free not to worry about praying the most, getting to breakfast first, and cantoring flawlessly, but I found myself consumed by these petty things, and ashamed for it. One mistaken comment in a community meeting could have me feeling regret for hours,without space to really listen to others or realize they didn’t expect perfection from me. It was unnerving, knowing that they saw my flaws, and yet chose to love me, even when that was a struggle for them. It was unnerving to trust other people so deeply.
I looked out at my hopes and dreams for myself, and it was like looking out at a hungry crowd I had no way to feed. My desire to achieve holiness in my life at St Anselm and to communicate meaningfully with my friends at L’Arche was met by the stark reality that I was wandering into a relational territory, where love and time could not be measured. A territory where I began to see God’s deep desire for an economy of mercy, toward myself and others, yet fought the fact that this was out of my control. But as my spiritual companion often told me, God was quite simple in the midst of all this. And responding to God’s simplicity is simple. It’s what Andrew does in today’s story, albeit hesitantly. He dares to tell the truth. ‘There’s a boy here with five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they among so many people?’ He dares to communicate his poverty to God, just as he is. And Jesus thanks him for giving himself honestly, for handing his pride over. As foolish as Andrew may have felt, Jesus doesn’t laugh at or chastise him. He gives thanks to God. And among this poverty, among this mustard seed of faith, the abundance of God’s kingdom becomes evident. Andrew does not need an abundance of faith to become a channel for God’s giving. He and the boy with the loaves and fish only need to offer themselves to Jesus. And in the midst of this poverty Jesus opens the gates of his abundant trust in his Father, a faith that can feed all 5000 and then some. The time I struggled most with my spiritual poverty this past year was in Switzerland, on a 30-day spiritual exercises retreat. We were in silence, except for our communal prayers two to three times a day, and our half hour speaking with a spiritual companion each afternoon. Like many others on this retreat, I had come with big questions of vocation, hoping that God would provide answers. But when it came time to ask and pray about these questions, God became quiet. He was still present to me in music, still guiding me gently, loving me simply through the words of Bible passages. Yet I felt frustrated and worn down. God offered me patient faithfulness, and it was hard for me to comprehend that this gift, this quality of our relationship, was more important to him than getting this vocation show on the road. I wanted to go home; I wanted to quit. One day
I showed up to my spiritual accompaniment to say I felt I’d given all I had. I was broken down, and yet strangely comforted by the realization that I could not control God. That his holiness, his capacity to love, his timing, were all beyond me. My spiritual companion responded to all this, “Now you can be in truth. You can meet God as you both are, two together in their poverty.”
These words brought me back to my first silent retreat of the year, only a week long, where I had felt Jesus tell me to “own nothing.” I was meditating on the Eucharist during a time of Adoration and I just felt God saying that no one owns this piece of bread. Jesus does not hold onto ownership of his own life; he gives it completely for us. God does not hold onto ownership of his own son. Neither can we singularly own or understand Jesus. No, nothing is owned-- all is given. This is an invitation to live a given life, to give back my life, to recognize everything as gift. In the poverty of surrendering ownership, it is possible to accept the giftedness of Jesus. My spiritual companion’s comments also brought me back to the experience of being a helper on another week-long silent retreat. When I realized my time was not my own, but I was there to serve and give, I felt a great freedom. I received a joy just in being myself. I was drawn close to God in being emptied of my agenda so I could be available to welcome others. This wisdom of being together with God in poverty brought me back to the most painful and most joyful time I had experienced in my year of community, a public miscommunication that put me at odds with one of my fellow community members. It was as if I had tripped over one Domino that set off many others poised to fall. I couldn’t save face or reputation. In community, there was no purpose in “taking sides” to call one of us right and the other wrong-this kind of validation would have come at the cost of one another. It was so overwhelming that I just had to be in the present moment. All I could do was pray. And in my prayer, God released me from the burden of bigness, of an ego that couldn’t fit through this situation. God let me become smaller, and full of joy. That’s how I can best describe
it-- becoming smaller, and poor in spirit, and only able to give from God’s abundance-- love. Though it was a painful time for our community, I will always remember the strangeness of peace when, little of faith as I was, attached to success and popularity as I was, God carried me through what felt impossible. He showed me just how small and imperfect, and fully loved, I could be. This journey of emptying had brought me to that moment on my silent retreat where I again faced my hunger, my spiritual poverty. And there I met a Jesus who was not afraid of meeting me as I was. I met a Jesus who loves welcoming me with all my unmet desires. I met a Jesus who himself did not run from spiritual poverty but trusted the giftedness of his life and the gift-giving nature of an all-giving Father.
I am going to take a leap of faith here and connect today’s narrative of Jesus feeding the crowd, retreating to the mountain, and walking on water to the narrative of his last supper, prayer in Gethsemane, passion and resurrection. In both stories, Jesus breaks bread, then retreats from the expectations of the world and the crowd to pray, and eventually brings his presence of wholeness into a situation that just looks scary or tragic to others. Something I saw on my silent retreat was Jesus’ real challenge to have faith in his Father as he undergoes his journey of descents, toward the cross. I grew up in some ways feeling it was all inevitable, that he had the plot worked out in his head. I thought he anticipated the crucifixion, but also the resurrection. Like he was holding his breath, enduring by superhuman strength, waiting for it all to be over. But on my silent retreat, I came face to face with a Jesus whose faith was built not on superhuman, extraordinary miracles of his three years of ministry, but on the everyday events of his life spent in Nazareth. He entered the world poor as we are, he learned to pray from his parents, he learned to walk and talk, and to trust God as a Father. And he received his identity completely from his heavenly Father, who named him his Beloved at his baptism. This was a call he held onto even when persecuted for his faith in God’s abundant goodness. So many times,
scribes and Pharisees questioned his trust in God’s provision when the world seemed dominated by scarcity. But he chose not to own his own life; he chose to share all he had with the Father, and all they had with his followers. In the face of what felt scarce to his enemies, he shared, and so he was never alone. But I didn’t see a Jesus who foresaw all that the resurrection would look like. I was face to face with Jesus who grew in poverty into the fullness of being God’s son on the cross. He found perfect freedom in giving himself-- his own body-- to his friends and betrayers, and giving them his pride, his time, his love, stooping down to wash their feet as part of his last will and testament. He embraced his most trying journey of becoming poor. “No one can take my life away from me,” he says later in John, chapter 10. “I give it of my own accord.” Jesus chooses to feed the crowd of 5000 not so he can become popular or gain earthly kingship but simply to glorify God. I believe he was faced with the constant temptation of taking the easy way out, of accumulating power, but he retreats to the mountain after this story, as he retreats to the garden to pray after giving himself to his disciples in the last supper. He constantly returns to his Father to choose the narrow gate of receiving his identity fully from his Belovedness. As Jesus prays, out on the boat and miles into the lake, the disciples feel worlds apart from him. And I bet after seeing him crucified, or running away from the events, they also felt far from the God of love in whom he put his trust. How can Jesus be present in a world that violently forces him out? How can he be present in the midst of such a storm? Yet Jesus’ presence in his resurrection body, his body loved back into being by God, and his flesh-and-blood presence in the midst of the storm on the lake, are complete gifts of God to the disciples. Can we accept the gift of seeing the resurrection, of opening our eyes to giftedness, when we know the world is a place that kills Jesus? Where Jesus does not cure our storms from afar but comes-- often smaller than we expect, nearer than we expect-- to offer freedom from fear? Can we accept the gift of one who held nothing back-- the gift that we, too, do not have to save ourselves?
My year in the Community of St Anselm showed me that life as a measured give and take just does not hold up. There will always be scarcity. But life broken and given and shared, even in the littleness of what we have or who we feel we are, will always be united to Christ as he crosses to meet us. “Do not be afraid; it is I.”
Many of you know, or now know, that music is really important to me. And I want to conclude my thoughts this morning about God as the Giver by sharing a dream I had this year, about how music is a gift. And while I don’t have a conclusive picture of how I will practically live out my call and commitment to music, I do have this picture from God of what it means for me. So the dream: I’m walking up a small hill in a gentle breeze. To my left, I just happen upon a piano, a baby grand. I sit down to play it and I realize it’s just the perfect kind of piano for me. The action is good, it’s a big enough instrument without being over the top, and the sound is lovely. So I call the owner of the piano company, and just tell him my situation exactly as it is. I don’t even ask for the instrument-- it’s worth $5000 and I know I can’t afford it. I just say that I probably won’t do music for a career, I have a wrist injury that prevents me from playing piano so much, I’m spending time in Christian communities, but if I were ever to have a piano, I would really love this one. The next thing I know, the owner of the company and his assistant are coming up the hill, carrying a big box, smiling. “We want to give you the piano,” they say. I’m shocked-- I hadn’t even asked for it, and I wouldn’t be using it as much as someone who might make piano or piano teaching their career. But they insist. In the dream, I struggle to begin putting the pieces of the instrument together, but the owner of the company is relaxed. He reassures me that, in time, he will help. I don’t have to do it alone.
This dream for me is a sign of the essential giftedness of my life with music, even though I’ve been confused by my injury and other setbacks on this path. But I realized that there was a deep giftedness in what I did have with piano, in what I do have in music. I like how the dream ends with the pieces still needing to be put together-- God is still speaking there.
Next year I am looking forward, God-willing, to receiving another big gift. I plan to leave in September for Hautecombe Abbey in France, to live with the Chemin-Neuf Community. It’s a young community, started in the 1970s, that is based in the Catholic tradition while having an ecumenical vocation, is charismatic and Ignatian in spirituality, and is based in France while now being international and including members from many countries and denominations. It’s a community made up of celibate sisters, priests, vowed brothers, and married couples. I will be living in one of their main formation centers in France, doing a year of service. Praying with everyone there three times a day, participating in spiritual formation, and probably doing a lot of dishes and laundry, or something of that nature. Living in community opened up my eyes and my heart in many new ways to God. Mostly, it opened me to prayer as a gift, an act of giving myself and receiving from God. It wasn’t magic, and it wasn’t superhuman strength, it was just the abundance of God’s love that I witnessed. And so God calls me, and I believe all of us, onward to being witnesses to the essential giftedness of all things.
There is an essential giftedness at the heart of all things; this is the story of a year that left me grateful for this lesson.