A Little Abundance
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” Jesus says that in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s one of the most profound and confounding statements made in religious history. Think about it, “Blessed are you who are hungry, for you will be filled.” Does this come naturally to us? To bless—actually bless—our hunger? Certainly, it undermines every message we’re sent in our culture about pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps and the definition of success being a life lived in comfort without the shadow of need ever darkening the door.
Jesus (as usual) has another perspective. Satisfaction or ease, according to Jesus, is not an enviable position. Jesus turns the world on its head—puts the first last and the last first. Jesus, with Godly eyes, looks into the face of need not with pity or with fear or with despair. Jesus is so unintimidated by need, so confident that need shall be met, that he is able to bless hunger as the prerequisite condition of true fulfillment.
It's easy to come across this line in the Sermon on the Mount and sort of just dismiss it. We want to roll our eyes a little bit at the naivete of hippie Jesus. This isn’t the way the world works. Let’s just hope it’s bit of harmless poetry. A one off. He’s not gonna bring that up again. To those of us who are full already, Jesus’ perspective can make us a little uncomfortable. Because Jesus confronts us with the knowledge that what we are full of does not satisfy us, and that we might need to divest ourselves of our comforts, in order to find the path to true fulfilment. And that is unwelcome news.
But it’s much harder to dismiss the story of the Feeding of the Multitude, the loaves and the fishes, which essentially takes that one wild line from Jesus’ sermon (“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,”) and breathes it into a full-blown, not-to-be-ignored miracle. It takes that impossible line and turns it into an impossible-possible reality.
Other than the resurrection, this is the most central miracle to our understanding of our faith. As you all know, it’s the only miracle that’s recorded in all four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And in both Matthew and Mark the miracle is recorded twice. So, six times we return to this miraculous feeding. Six times. Let’s put that into a little more perspective. The story of Jesus feeding the disciples, sharing bread and wine with them at the last supper, a story we retell every time we perform the sacrament of communion, is recorded only three times. John’s gospel leaves it out entirely.
But listen again to the language John uses to describe the feeding of the 5,000: “Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.” Does that sound familiar? It’s very close to the words of institution we speak over the bread and the wine during communion. So, many scholars believe that when John’s Christian community sat down to the sacrament of communion, instead of recreating the last supper they were recreating the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Archaeologists have uncovered an ancient church used by the earliest Christians near Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee, which many believe to be the likely location of the feeding of the 5,000. And they uncovered an altar in this church—the altar that would have held the sacrament of communion. And on the altar is a mosaic depicting fives loaves of bread and two fish.
You cannot get away from this miracle, from its centrality to our faith, from its beautiful symbols, or from the simple presentation of its almost incomprehensible message: God aligns the abundance of heaven with the scarcity of earth. That’s an inescapable gospel fact demonstrated over and over again. It is good news for the poor, the hungry, the powerless, the mourners, and a caution for the rest of us. As Mary sang when Jesus was still in her womb: “God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich God has sent empty away.”
God aligns the abundance of heaven with human need. As I mentioned in the children’s sermon, the disciples do not yet recognize this reality. We don’t have enough money to feed them! Well, we got some bread and fish, but what good is so little in the face of such need? Jesus demonstrates this great mystery to them. Do you feel how mysterious this miracle is? That’s a key to understanding it. Jesus doesn’t turn the rocks on the ground into bread for everyone. Jesus doesn’t magically multiply the fish in front of the crowd as they ooooh and aaaah. He just sends the food out. And somehow, by some miracle invisible to us, there is more than enough. Do you see the key there? The miracle is not that God will turn your one loaf into ten loaves. The miracle is that when we allow God to touch the little that we have, God is able to make it sufficient. But if we hold back what we have, what we do, who we are from God, then no amount of anything that we ever get will ever satisfy us.
Perhaps the spiritual key to this mystery is to accept that rich or poor, hungry or satisfied, lowly or mighty, all of us are in a state of ultimate need if we don’t have that which is of ultimate importance—God. In one story, Jesus meets a devout and rich young man. This young man has lived a blameless religious life, but longs for more. Jesus tells him there is one last thing he must do: Go, give away everything you have to the poor, and then come and follow me. And the rich young man goes away very sad because he has so much. And Jesus laments how hard it is for the rich, for the full, to enter the Realm of God. It’s not class warfare. The gospel writers are very careful to tell us that Jesus loved the rich young man. It’s just a psychological reality of human nature. We are easily distracted by bright and shiny things. We fundamentally believe that power and privilege are necessary for human flourishing. And we horde resources we don’t actually even need.
We saw what happened with toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic, right? There was no scarcity. There was no lack of TP. There was no slowdown in production or distribution. We had the same amount we had always had. But just the thought of scarcity, just the idea that our toilet paper supply might be…wiped out, left many of us heading into the bathroom with Kleenex and the napkins left over from last night’s takeout. There was no scarcity though. It was the idea of scarcity that led to us being a world of toilet-paper haves and toilet-paper have-nots.
Jesus is telling us that the opposite is also true. If we believe that what we have been given, when it intersects with God’s perspective and power, is not only enough, but more than enough, that attitude gets around. Everybody breathes a little deeper. Suddenly, there are leftovers everywhere. And that’s an important part of the message of this miracle to us today. As we try to figure out how to reboot in-person community, in-person church, in-person ministry, it is so critically important for us to come together and just get out there, and we don’t need to oversell it. We don’t need to overthink it. We don’t need to have or do or be enough. Right? “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.” All we need is a little abundance. A little abundance is 10% substance, 90% attitude. And that is how Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish.
This is why this story is so important. It’s the whole story of the good news in one event. It’s the whole story of how Jesus provides for us and then pushes us to provide for others from the place of abundance that he has welcomed us home to. It only takes a little abundance to get a miracle going. Don’t you have just a little? Don’t we at least have that? What if we trusted that it was enough to make miracles?
I’ve been listening to a song all week—one of my favorite songs, the Beatles Come Together. You know it! “Come Together, right now, over me!” It’s part of the soundtrack of the 60s! Quintessential. People—coming together—right now. It’s positive, it’s urgent, it’s fun. Great song!
Have you ever listened closely to the other lyrics of Come Together? Right after the chorus, they go like this: “He bag production / He got walrus gumboot / He got Ono sideboard / He one spinal cracker / He got feet down below his knee / Hold you in his armchair you can feel his disease.” John Lennon once referred to these lyrics as quote “gobbledygook.” But then there’s that chorus—bright, bold, and inviting “Come Together, right now, over me!”
The 60s were a watershed decade in American history. And it’s easy to romanticize the past as a simpler, more innocent time. But just scratch the surface and you see what an oversimplification that is. There was Camelot, sure, and there was a presidential assassination. There was the Civil Rights Movement and civil rights legislation, but there was also Jim Crow, segregation, lynching, the assassinations of Black leaders, and church bombings. There was the summer of love, and there was the war in Vietnam. There was the moon landing, and there was the Cold War and bomb shelters. Even the song Come Together itself was originally written by John Lennon to be the campaign song for Timothy Leary (the guy who popularized LSD) as he was running for governor of California against the famous actor turned politician, Ronald Regan. Only in America, people! Some things in American politics have been with us for a long time. And just like today, in the 60s there was culture and counterculture. It was a time of polarization and division in American life.
And then at the tail end of 1969 here comes this song and this incredible chorus, so necessary and transformative: “Come Together, right now, over me!” But then if you leaned a little closer to your AM radio or if you turned up the volume on your record player a little hoping for some insight, all you heard in the rest of the song was just a jumble of nonsense: “He roller coaster / He got early warning / He got muddy water / He one mojo filter.” Huh? Say what?
It’s almost like the song is saying, “We know the medicine we need to heal what ails us as a people. We need to come together. But we don’t know how to write the prescription for that medicine. We don’t know what to say that will actually bridge the divides, overcome the fear, and get us working together again. So, we’re just gonna fill in that bit with a little bit of playful babble and hopefully you all don’t notice before the chorus arrives again…” Come Together, right now… but we don’t know how.
Obviously, there’s a reason why I’m listening to this song now. It’s our second Sunday back in person together in the sanctuary. After more than 16 months apart, we need to come together again. After 16 months of being dragged behind the wagon of life together and of community, we need to get back on that wagon and take the wheel. What I believe is that we don’t want a tepid return to community. After the drought of this pandemic, we need to jump back into the deep end and commit ourselves (maybe even more than before) to figuring out how to swim together again.
As 21st century Westerners we generally have a problem of thinking of everything in terms of being consumers. Marketing experts say we’re exposed to 4,000 to 10,000 ads per day, all reinforcing the idea that we are, first and foremost, the consumer. Many of us work 40+ hours a week trying to make consumers happy (it’s called a job), reinforcing the mantra in our minds that the consumer is king. People used to have personality. Today we all have “brands.” We used to share photos of our vacations and our kids. Today we market ourselves on social media.
We think of everything in terms of being a consumer. Do I like this product or not? Am I happy with the service I’m receiving or not? But the problem is, of course, that community is not something that can be consumed. It cannot be consumed, it can only be participated in. And that participation is a give and a take, not a take and a take and a take and if I’m happy with the product or the service, I’ll think about getting involved. It’s oxymoronic. It can’t possibly work, right?
So, it’s important that we jump back into neighborliness and back into the work of church, which is offering the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world, because if we all hang back at the edges to see if the community spontaneously produces a product or a service that we like, and want to invest in, and associate with our brand, we’re all going to be disappointed. We cannot consume community, we can only make community, and we can only do that if we come together. We cannot consume church, we can only be and do and offer the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we can only be and do and give if we come together. But that’s not always easy for us. It’s getting harder and harder. Because we’re mad, we’re scared, we work too much, and there’s too many good shows on TV.
The other reason I’m thinking about this song right now goes way beyond church reopening. There is so much at work to divide us in our larger culture right now: COVID has kept us apart—literally, physically apart—and it’s divided us politically. Racial inequities and ideological disagreements about how to even talk about hose inequities continue to plague us, keeping us apart from one another. Our national conversation is devolving. We’re more interested (or at least more successful) at hurting the other side than we are at doing the most good for the most people. We’d rather fight over political sideshows than cooperate on the pressing matters that affect all of our shared interests.
In the past it was credibly said, “Let’s make the world a better place. Let’s leave it better than we found it.” And now many of us feel that we don’t even have that option anymore. The pending environmental catastrophe due to climate change, just beginning, will require our unprecedented best efforts just to leave the world less worse off than it might be rather than better than it was. The only way for us to begin to tackle global catastrophes is with global solutions which can only happen if we come together. The only hope for our polarized infighting is to turn outward with a shared goal and vision, which can only happen if we come together. But that’s not easy. It’s getting harder and harder. Because this hard work is essentially spiritual work. It will require repentance, compassion, sacrifice, difficult conversations, commitment and courage. And we’ve pulled up our own roots out of that spiritual soil. We’re on another journey now. The religion of Jesus is not the religion of victory over enemies, it’s the religion of turning yourself entirely over to God’s purposes and to the great benefit of all people. Isn’t that what coming together is? And it isn’t easy.
Well, it wasn’t easy for the churches that Paul founded to come together either. And we see that in our scripture reading this morning the letter’s author believed that the churches needed a little reminder. The reminder was not to come together, the reminder was that God has already brought you all together. God, as usual, has a different perspective. As the Bible tells us on more than one occasion, “With God, all things are possible.”
It is possible for us to come together because God, through Christ, has already broken down the boundaries that separate people. “You’re a Jew, I’m a Gentile. It won’t work.” “Yes, it will,” says God. “But I’m a man, you’re a woman, I’m a slave and you’re free, we’re not the same, we’re different you and me. We can’t come together. I listened to that John Lennon singing that song, and you know it was just a bunch a baloney other than that chorus!” “But you’re already together,” says God. “You just don’t know it yet. You just keep on forgetting my ways, how I work, what I do.
“First, I broke down the boundary between myself and you. I sent Jesus Christ into the world. I emptied myself into the limits of flesh to be as close to you as skin-on-skin. I lived with you, taught you, died for you. Whatever boundary was there, I wiped it away.
“And when I did that, I broke down the boundaries between people. I taught you to love your neighbors. I commanded you to love your enemies. I said yes to the Samaritan, yes to the Syrophoenician, yes to the Ethiopian eunuch, yes to the lame and the blind, yes to the tax collectors, yes to the Roman centurion, yes to the Gentiles, to the ends of the earth I said YES. I brought you all together in me. You’ve already come together. You just keep forgetting who I am, what I do, what I ask.”
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
Beloved, faith in Christ means that we believe and live as though the boundaries that once separated us from others no longer exist. Through Jesus Christ reconciliation and community is always a possibility. The only thing that can separate us from one another is putting our faith in divisions and hatred, rather than in the unbounded ocean of love that is God all around us.
We can’t ultimately control what other people think and do and say. But we are responsible for our ourselves, for our response to God’s grace. It’s up to us to live out our lives as an offering to community, rather than seeing community as a product to be consumed or a service to be rated with one-star reviews. And if we can live our lives as if this truth of the Gospel is true and alive and liberating, if we can live out the truth that God has drawn near to us, so close now that God dwells within us, and if we believe that one person alone cannot stand as a temple to God, but that all of us together in love and justice, without division or exclusion, can become God’s dwelling place on Earth, then I believe we can all come together.
When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
Sometimes, if something feels too good to be true, we might just pinch ourselves a little, just to make sure that we’re not actually dreaming. So, give me just a second here…Tom, could you give me a pinch... Okay, you’re all still here, yes? What a relief! I wanted to make sure because sometimes a dream, pleasant though it may be, is nothing more than a figment of the imagination.
But, remember, that’s not how God thinks about dreams or about the dreamers. The Bible tells us that angels show up in our dreams to bring us good news. And in dreams, prophecies can be revealed to us. And even God can show up in your dreams. When God made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis, even though God knew how to talk to Abraham when he was awake and had done so before, and even though God knew how to show up in person on the earth and would do so with Abraham later, when God first makes the covenant with Abraham, God waits until Abraham falls into a deep sleep and then comes to him in his dream to make that covenant, that promise, that new beginning that changed everything.
Why? Why a dream? Why does God trust the space of our dreams for the most important business of our lives? After 16 months away from this sanctuary and away from each other, maybe we feel “like those who dream” just because it feels too good to be true to be back together again. But there’s another way to be like those who dream—to be like the Judean people returning to Zion, singing psalms and rejoicing, after generations in exile, to be like Abraham getting the news that even though he is old and has no children, God is making a covenant with him to become the father of a great nation.
We’re not like dreamers just when it’s too good to be true, but also when it’s so good that we get a glimpse of God’s vision for our future possibilities. Seeing such a vision, not a figment of the imagination, but God’s dream of the possible—it’s like a dry riverbed in the wilderness of Negeb after the rains finally fall, and overnight there’s an explosion of life and flowers and colors in the desert. Dreams—full of joy and possibility—are a sacred space where revival can be planned.
We are like those who dream when the thing we thought was impossible becomes our possibility again—to be a father, to be a nation, to be an in-person church. The arrival of possibility is not the end of the dream—it’s the beginning of the dream. Don’t wake yourselves up yet! Parenthood, nationhood, churchhood—they’re visions of possibility that we dreamers must hold in our sacred imaginations long after we’ve woken back up to the hard work of reality. That’s why the poet William Butler Yeats wrote, “In dreams begin responsibilities.” Because this Sunday, with all its joy and freshness, is not only this Sunday. This Sunday is just the beginning.
So, beloved, you dreamers you, welcome back to the joy, to the community, to the revival, to the possibility, to the church that is both our pleasant dream and our joyful responsibility. Hallelujah! The choice is yours: You could pinch yourselves and simply allow being here this Sunday to be the fulfillment of the dream, or you could let this Sunday become the foundation of a revival.
And let’s be honest: After 16 months out of the habit of in-person worship, in-person meeting, and in-person community, we need a revival.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
Who among us hasn’t suffered over the last 16 months? Some of us have been luckier than others, but all of us have suffered. For 16 months we have sown in tears. God’s promise is that our tears are never wasted, and our suffering is never meaningless. Locked arm-in-arm with our troubles and our trials is our liberation and our revival.
Not every saint makes it to the Promised Land, of course. But Moses, who led the people through the wilderness for 40 years, and who died before reaching that Promised Land, still goes to the mountaintop and is allowed to see the Promised Land before he dies. Not all our saints make it to the Promised Land, but that makes it all that much more important that we fulfil the possibility of the dream, of the vision they shared with us.
Our time apart may have been the most productive time we have ever spent learning about the ministry of Jesus Christ and what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ. The lives we have lost, the loneliness we have suffered, the depression that has laid beside us in bed at night, the tears of mourning and loss we have wept in rooms by ourselves with no one to offer us a hug—here are the very seeds of the harvest we shall gather! Here are the goads that are driving us deeper into the arms of our joyful and crucial mission—bringing good news to the world. We need one another!
Marie Kondo, the world-famous organizer, author, and host of “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” has a fascinating ritual when she starts with a new client—and her clients are people who are struggling with various levels of hoarding, clutter, and disorganization. She takes all of their clothes and puts them in a giant pile. Then she tells her client to pick up each piece of clothing and see if it still “sparks joy” for them. If the piece of clothing brings them joy, they put it in the keep pile. If not, they thank it for all it’s done for them, and they put it in the give-away pile.
This is another part of revival: To plant new seeds, we need to make room for the new garden beds. After 16 months of tears, we need to make a lot of room for the dreams and the possibilities. And we know this for sure: the God we worship and serve is a God who sparks joy in us always. And if something is getting in the way of the joy we feel and the joy we show to others, it’s high time to thank it, whatever it is, and dismiss it. After 16 months of tears, we’re ready to say goodbye to the things that don’t bring joy to us or to the community we serve.
Revival doesn’t necessarily mean going from nothing to a whole lot of something. Sometimes it means simplification—getting back to basics, cleaning out the cupboards, opening up the windows and letting a fresh breeze into the house. When we get rid of the things that don’t spark joy for us, we open up the space to establish healthy habits in our lives. In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus is at the very beginning of his ministry. And he decides that it’s time to commit himself to the dream. The time has come for him to announce himself and his ministry to the world. How does he do it? Did he try to gain an audience with the high and the mighty to announce himself to the powers of the world? No. Did he pull together a crowd of thousands of the common people to announce himself to the masses? No. Did he climb to the top of a mountain to announce himself to the heavens? No. When Jesus went to declare the extraordinary news of who he was to the world, he didn’t do an extraordinary thing. He did a simple thing—he went to his hometown synagogue. He went to church—and this wonderful little line--as was his custom.
Jesus is the Messiah who always manages to do a lot with a little. And, in fact, one of his biggest recommendations to those of us who have a lot is to give it away until we have just a little, so that we don’t get distracted from what matters most by the many, many, many luxuries, entertainments, comforts, and privileges that ultimately do not matter at all.
And this is how many of us live our lives. The most important things—our health, our joy, our relationships, the meaning and purpose of our lives—are crowded out by the less important concerns and pursuits—status, power, pleasure, money, clutter. And these less important pursuits often leave us feeling empty and miserable and despairing that there’s nothing more to life than a hamster wheel of work and consumption. And there is nothing “more!” But there is something “less!” Simplify! Give it away! Let it go, if it doesn’t spark joy! Come back into the customs of your heart!
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.” In other words, your Sunday, your day of holy rest, is not there to give you a chance to recover just enough to go running back to the rat race on Monday morning. You’re not a beast of burden, are you? Your Sabbath day is about transcending civilization—beating it at its own game—reclaiming your sacred center from the world and returning it to the One it came from and whose claim upon it can never be successfully dissolved or disregarded. Coming to church should not be one more thing in the competition of priorities and events and schedules in your life. Church is the Sabbath habit that simplifies your life, returns you to yourself, and highlights the true joy that so many of us have been missing.
And so Jesus reads the scroll:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
It is the distillation of Jesus’ mission in the world. A mission that he passed on to the Church—to all of us. After reading it he rolled up the scroll and sat down and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The scripture is fulfilled. But the ministry is just starting. The dream is just about to begin.
Beloved, may this Sunday not just be the end of 16 months of tears. May it be the beginning of a revival of your Sabbath, a revival of your soul, the revival a vital, life-saving, joy-giving mission.
God Shed His Grace on Thee
2 Corinthians 12:2–10
Happy Fourth of July everybody. Please, drive safe and sober this holiday. Don’t blow any of your fingers off, please. If you’re at the beach, wear plenty of sunscreen. Watch out for sharks. Don’t forget to put your thunder shirt on your dog tonight. This is a tough weekend for a lot of dogs. And if you manage to do all that, and you’re having a pretty good fourth of July, maybe say a prayer for the good ol’ US of A on her 245th birthday.
We’re not feeling quite as spry as we were some years back, but you never know. I’m nowhere near ready to count the old girl out. Things are tough right now. These are some hard years. And difficult times lead some people to look for any excuse to behave badly. BUT there are also deep wells in this country of pragmatic sense, hard work, creative ingenuity, and selfless sacrifice. This morning I’d like to talk to you about maybe getting the bucket to go down a little further in those wells. We might need a longer rope—the wells are deep, and they’re nowhere near dry—no way.
Funny thing I’ve realized about democracy: If you live in a country where everybody seems to agree all the time, you probably don’t live in a democracy. Democracy is designed to bring the will of the people to the government, of course, but it’s also designed to hold the people together as a nation even as we disagree. When most everybody has a right to speak, and most everybody gets a vote, the world gets loud with opinions. There’s a competition of ideas and interests. There are appeals to our ideals and to justice and fairness. AND there’s mudslinging and name calling and baloney, and plenty of frustration to go around.
You know, it wasn’t God’s idea to put a king over all of Israel. But the people came to Samuel and his sons who were acting as judges over the individual tribes, and they said, “We want a king! Things will be easier with a king! One guy to ride out in front of us and tell us all what to do!” So, Samuel prays to God, “Hey, what I do with these people?” And God says to Samuel, “Listen, tell them how lousy kings are. Tell them he’s gonna send your sons off to fight his wars, and he’ll take your daughters for his servants, and he’ll set you to plowing his fields, and he’ll take the best of your wine, and your oil, and your livestock and give it to his favorites, and you’ll all basically become his slaves and won’t be able to say a word against him. And if after telling them all that they still want a king, well, we’ll give ‘em a king.” So Samuel tells the people how lousy the king’s gonna be. And the people still want a king! “Everything will be easier with a king! One guy to ride out in front us and lead us! It’ll all be worth it for that.”
It’s an understandable mistake. It’s tempting to want to quiet the voices of dissent and disagreement, voices of conspiracy, rage, and sometimes hate by shutting the whole project down. Just shut it down. Give us a king. One guy, one opinion. Everybody else, shut up!
In a country as large and diverse as the United States, with such a complicated history of ideals and failures, it’s not surprising that there are such big differences of opinion about the state of the nation. It’s unfortunate to me that the loudest voices seem to be at the extremes, and they seem to be saying (even more loudly recently) that you have to choose a team: You can either love your nation uncritically or you can criticize it lovelessly. Those in the middle who choose to love their nation while acknowledging its flaws or who choose to quarrel with their nation—like a lover working for a better shared future—are made out by both extremes to be suckers, simpletons, and traitors.
As Christians we see how God works to redeem the whole world—by loving us unceasingly and by offering us sharp warnings when we stray from the narrow path. That may be all well and good for God, but apparently in the United States today, you can’t love America and criticize her, you can’t criticize America and support her. So, patriotism has become artificially bifurcated into pro and con, when God has given us hearts that are big enough to contain both deep love and passionate critique.
I love in our scripture reading this morning that in Paul’s refusal to boast, he manages to boast quite a bit, doesn’t he? That’s the wonderful way that Paul has with words. Paul was writing this as a letter to the church he founded in Corinth. He’s replying to a letter they sent to him. We don’t know exactly what that letter said, but it seems like there were possibly some other preachers moving in on Paul’s turf, and they were maybe badmouthing him. “Oh, Paul?” they might have been saying, “Yes, he’s a nice guy, but a little boring, don’t you think? Take a look at me, I’m the newest, fanciest, holiest thing in Corinth.”
So, Paul feels like he has to respond. He doesn’t want to play the bragging game. At the same time, he wants everybody to know that if he were to stoop to their level and play the bragging game, he’d definitely win. But even as he relates being taken up to the third heaven (in the third person, of course, to be humble about it), he still manages to keep his feet on the ground. Sure, Paul could boast all day about his spiritual bona fides, but he knows ultimately that won’t serve him, serve the Church in Corinth, or serve God. So, very quickly he transitions to bragging not about his strengths, but about his weakness—the thorn in his flesh.
We’re not exactly sure what this was. Chronic pain? An old injury? A disease? We don’t know. But since he doesn’t name it or describe it, the folks in Corinth must have all known what he meant. Maybe even the new preachers were putting Paul down for it, “Oh Paul?” they might have said, “He’s a fine enough fellow, I suppose, but I do wonder why God hasn’t cured that old limp of his. Did I ever tell you about the time God cured my lumbago?” But (in one of the most extraordinary lines in all of scripture) Paul reminds the church in Corinth that his ailment is a sign of God’s grace and favor because “power is made perfect in weakness.”
In 1887 Lord Acton famously wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” More than 1800 years earlier, Paul understood the temptation to power and invincibility, and chooses instead to brag about his weakness as the piece of his humanity that keeps him human and brings him closer to God.
Paul’s words are shocking to us because he’s saying something most of us are too afraid to say—that there’s nothing wrong with being weak. But there is something terribly wrong with trying to pretend that we’re not. Every boast of perfection, Paul says, should be a boast that acknowledges our vulnerabilities. Because boasting that doesn’t is a denial of God’s grace. Paul prays three times to be healed. And God answers, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Perfect people (and flawless nations) don’t need God to shed his grace on them. I need God’s grace shed on me because I am not perfect. I am flawed and working to improve. America needs God’s grace because we are not perfect. We are flawed and if we’re going to improve, we’re going to have to work together.
Improvement and working together require two key, related ingredients: Grace and Love. It would be a terrible mistake to limit our patriotism to the idolization of a whitewashed history, just as it’s a mistake to drain our struggle for a better nation of the lifeblood of our most profound and positive connection to that nation—our love. Loving the nation doesn’t mean you have to love everything America has done or is doing. I don’t. Loving America doesn’t mean you have to like everybody living in America. I don’t. But in a country this big, this diverse, this beautiful, you can find something to hold onto and call your own, some community to cling to, some kid whose future you care about. Disenchantment and outrage are not sufficient to write a new chapter in American history. The brighter future of our more just nation will be written down by the hand of grace in the ink of eyes-wide-open love, or it won’t ever be written at all. Don’t put your fingers in your ears when someone tells you the story of a piece of the American landscape that needs to be changed. And as you tell those painful and difficult stories, don’t forget that you have every bit as much right to love your home as anyone else.
So, beloved, let’s say a prayer for the good ol’ US of A. But let’s also commit ourselves to working together as an American people for the American people. In the words of Tacitus, let’s set ourselves in loving competition with our forebears, and let’s build a better future for all from the uneven grounds of our triumphs and failures, relying on the grace of God to make our flaws more perfect and our love more known.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations