Friday, July 20, 2012

Sermon: "A Boy and His Lunch"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregationsl Church Of Amherst, NH
July 15, 2012

John 6:1-14

“A Boy and His Lunch”

John Mark was an inquisitive child. He lived with his parents and his three brothers in the small fishing village of Capernaum, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. John Mark was only 10-years-old but he was more adventurous and intellectually curious then his three older brothers.
His mother encouraged this, which is why on this fine morning she allowed him to linger in the garden studying a butterfly while his brothers went on ahead to help their father haul the day’s catch of fish onto shore.

John-Mark was fascinated by things that were out of the ordinary.
Most likely because he and his family were Gentiles living in a village that was predominantly Jewish. He knew what it was like to be different.
And the butterfly that caught John Mark’s eye in the garden that morning was a living example of the beauty that can be found in difference.

Having sufficiently satisfied his curiosity and with the morning fleeting by, John Mark ran into the house, grabbed the lunch basket his mother had prepared for him and his brothers, and he set off skipping down the road to join them by the seaside.

But just before he arrived at the spot where his father normally anchored his boat, John Mark noticed a commotion arising on the shoreline. People were piling into boats and running up the road that skirted the seaside, chattering on about some prophet who had set sail with his followers and who was last seen headed to the deserted shore on the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee.

John Mark had a sense as to whom it was they were talking about.
It was probably the same prophet who had approached two local fishermen, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, and lured them away from their boats and their livelihood. Causing them to cast down their nets and leave their poor father to fend for himself.
 John Mark had seen this prophet in the village before.
The local men called him Jeshua.
There was nothing special about him. He looked like an ordinary man, but rumor had it that he cured a man who was possessed by an unclean spirit, and he healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law when she came down with fever. 

Now John Mark was raised to be open-minded, but casting out demons, and healing the sick? Weren’t those magician’s tricks?
Besides, why would someone who had powers such as these be living in Capernaum?? Why not just conjure up a castle and a bevy of servants and live the good life in Damascus or Antioch?
 Why spend your nights sleeping on the ground, and your days talking to a bunch of dirt-poor fisherman in a back-woods place like Capernaum??
It just didn’t make sense.

In reality, what Jeshua was best known for was stirring up trouble in the local synagogue. John Mark didn’t attend synagogue himself but he had heard the older boys in town talking about this man who was always getting into debates with the local rabbis - challenging their beliefs and answering their questions with questions of his own.

John Mark loved a good debate as much as the next boy, having been schooled by his father in the nuances of philosophy, but when it came to religious beliefs you either believed or you didn’t…right?
If your beliefs were very different from the majority of those in your faith tradition then why stick around and argue with them?
Why not just go out and start your own religion? Build your own Temple, pray to your God in your own way?
It just didn’t make sense.

But with all the commotion going on by the seaside that day, John Mark let his curiosity get the best of him, and before he knew it he was running along the shore road, his lunch basket swinging beside him, making his way to the deserted place on the far side of the sea, where the man named Jeshua was reported to be.

By the time he got there, there were already thousands of people gathered on the hillside overlooking the shore. The prophet was standing in a boat on the shoreline.  John Mark watched him step out of the boat and walk up the hillside with his 12 followers in tow. John Mark waved to Andrew and Simon Peter but they didn’t see him as the crowd surged forward.
Once they reached the top of the hill, Jeshua signaled for his followers to sit and then he leaned over to say something to the one named Philip.
John Mark could not hear what he was saying so he quickly pushed his way through the crowd to get himself within earshot of the action.
Using his lunch basket as a battering ram, he quickly found a way to make the tightly packed masses move aside and let him through.

John Mark poked his head through the front of the crowd just in time to hear Philip tell Jeshua, “Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little."

Bread? Why did they need to buy bread? John Mark wondered.
They weren’t thinking of feeding all these people were they? These people had followed Jeshua on their own accord. If they were foolhardy enough to come all the way out here without anything to eat then let them suffer the consequences. Let them find their own food.
As he thought this, John Mark instinctively tightened his grip on the basket that his mother had lovingly packed for him and his brothers that morning.

It was getting close to lunchtime and his father and brothers were most likely bringing in the mornings catch right about now.
They would be expecting John Mark to be there on the shore waiting to deliver the 5 loaves and 2 fishes that would sustain them for the remainder of the day.
Little did they know that John Mark was miles away from where he was supposed to be, having impulsively followed a preacher man who used parlor tricks and fancy words to convince others to do his bidding.
A so-called prophet whose own followers couldn’t agree on who he was or how his words and actions were to be interpreted.

John Mark didn’t know much about the Jewish faith, but what he did know is that there didn’t seem to be much consensus on how to interpret the words written in their sacred texts.  The men on the hillside were arguing even now.

Off to John Mark’s right there was a group of men who called themselves Sadducees, who saw the written law of Moses as the only law that the Jewish people needed, and who rejected the man-made laws and traditions that grew up around the sacred text. They were convinced that Jeshua was a false prophet because he kept insisting that God would resurrect the dead. Resurrection was nonsense, according to the Sadducees, and this Jeshua character was blasphemous for even speaking of it.

To John Mark’s left stood a group of Pharisees, who unlike the Sadducees expanded upon the law of Moses and adhered to additional laws and traditions meant to keep the faithful in line.
If you stepped out of line the Pharisees were the first to call you on it, and Jeshua was always stepping out of line.  He spoke of a Divine love that was overly merciful and far too inclusive to come from the one true God.
God loves tax collectors and prostitutes? To the Pharisees Jeshua was a heretic for sure.

Then there were the Zealots, who very nearly came to blows right there on the hillside that morning as they discussed how to bring Jeshua into their fold. The Zealots were political revolutionaries who believed that the only way to overcome the oppressive rule of Rome was to overthrow those in power, using violent means if necessary.
The Zealots believed that Jeshua was sent by God to be the leader of their revolution, as he preached a message that was subversive and laced with anti-Roman rhetoric. Jeshua was the liberator they had been waiting for.

John Mark noticed that here was one group on the hillside that was equally despised by the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Zealots - these were the Samaritans.  They were outsiders, interlopers from the north, who practiced a watered down version of Judaism and who were unwelcome in the cities and villages of Judea.  Disdainful looks came from all around.
But the Samaritans liked Jeshua; he treated them as equals and he spoke to them with love.

Finally, there were the more common adherents of the Jewish faith who didn’t feel the need to distinguish themselves with a secondary label. They went to synagogue on the Sabbath, followed the law of Moses and honored the traditions passed on in their communities.
They too were tired of Roman rule, but they were just as tired of all the infighting that went on within their faith.
The Jewish people needed to stand together, not tear each other apart, and Jeshua just may be the one to unite them. They wondered if Jeshua was the Messiah that God had promised them. A savior who would bring them together, lead them to freedom, and reinstate their standing as God’s chosen people.

With all the religious tension on the hillside that morning, John Mark couldn’t understand why the first words out of Jeshua’s mouth had to do with food.  Why was he talking about bread?
Perhaps Jeshua thought if he fed the masses, they’d actually listen to what he had to say.
Then again, he was always going on about the need to feed the hungry and give to the poor, maybe he was just demonstrating what he wanted others to do. Leading by example.
John Mark had also heard that the people who followed Jeshua would often have meals together and break bread in his name, maybe this was just his way of indoctrinating them to the practice.

While John Mark pondered all these possible explanations, he failed to notice that Andrew had spotted him in the crowd….and before he knew it, the disciple was standing right in front of him, casting a shadow over the startled little boy.

“What do you have in the basket?” Andrew asked.
“Just a few pieces of bread and some fish,” John Mark stammered. “Just enough to feed me and my brothers,” he quickly added, as he moved to hide the basket behind his back.
Andrew quickly snatched the basket and looked inside.
“Come with me boy,” he said.

John Mark obediently followed Andrew.
He could not disobey the command of an elder and admittedly he was fascinated with the idea of getting closer to the man named Jeshua.

Andrew approached Jeshua, and with some weariness in his voice he said, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?"

Jeshua said, “Make the people sit down,” and then he took the basket from Andrew and he opened it.
John Mark began to panic. He wanted to scream, “That’s my lunch AND my brothers’ lunch. What are we going to eat if you give our food to all these people?”
John Mark was all for feeding the hungry and giving to the poor, as long as he and his family didn’t go hungry in the process. 

But he said nothing as Jeshua reached into the basket. The prophet took the bread and gave thanks to God, and then he passed the basket amongst the people.
The crowd pushed forward, with those in the front reaching in desperation to get their meager share before it was gone. Those in the back of the crowd knew that there was no hope that they would eat that day, but they too reached greedily for the basket.

John Mark just stood there. His lower lip began to quiver.
What had he done?
His family wasn’t rich. His father worked hard to catch those fish.
His mother worked hard to bake that bread.
Now because of his curiosity and his stupidity he had lost the only meal they would have that day.
As the people continued to pass the basket and he saw the five loaves, and then the two fish being broken apart and dropped into waiting outstretched hands, he felt the tears begin to sting against his cheeks.

And then something very strange began to happen.

The basket continued to be passed along the hillside, eagerly grasped by the twentieth and then the thirtieth, and then the fiftieth person.
Soon one hundred people had put their hands into the basket and brought them out again with bread and fish overflowing their grasp.
How could this be?
The tension in the crowd soon turned to giddiness.
Waves of laughter began to erupt as people followed the progress of the basket in amazement.
One man yelled to a friend who was reaching into the basket, “Hey Jacob!” Isn’t that the same fish that I just ate?”

The anxious fear that had descended upon the crowd when the small basket of food first began to circulate, was gone.
The fear that there would not be enough to go around, was gone.
The fear that the Sadducees, or the Pharisees, or the Zealots, or the Samaritans would take more than their fair share leaving nothing for anyone else, was gone.
The belief that one group or one person was somehow more or less deserving of reaching into the basket, was gone.

Suddenly John Mark understood why this prophet teacher known as Jeshua was so preoccupied with food.
Food was what sustained them.
Without food they could not live.
Yet food was a scarce commodity.
By giving the people an abundance of food Jeshua had shown them how much of their fear, and mistrust, and desire for power over others, came from a feeling of scarcity.
The feeling that there is not enough to go around.
When the scarcity was turned to abundance all of the people’s fears slipped away, and were replaced with joyous cooperation.

Could the same be said of love? John Mark wondered.

Did people fear, and mistrust, and exert power over others because they believed love was a scarce commodity?
Did they believe that love was so scarce they had to hold on to it, or hoard it, or withhold it from others to ensure that they would never go without?

What if there was enough love to go around?
What if love existed in abundance?
What if love could be passed along in a basket with each person reaching in and taking their fill, and passing it along to the next person without thought of who it was they were passing it to?
Nothing would be held back, no one would be denied, no one would go hungry, in a world of abundant love.

John Mark thought of the people in his life with whom he had been reluctant to share his love.
He thought of the friend who had angered him by breaking a promise, he thought of the man who had cheated his father out of a fair payment, he thought of the kids who wouldn’t play with him because he was a Gentile, and he thought of the people whom he had judged and avoided because they were different from him.
What would it feel like to love all of them, despite their transgressions, real or imagined?
What would it feel like to pass that basket to them without feeling as if he was giving something up, or being taken advantage of, or giving them more than they deserved?
What would it feel like to live in a world of abundant love?

Perhaps Jeshua was onto something after all, John Mark thought.
Perhaps he is not a magician or a heretic, but a true prophet who actually understands how God’s love works in the world.
Perhaps he is the savior that they ALL had been waiting for.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sermon: "Leave Your Baggage Behind"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church Of Amherst, NH
July 8, 2012

Mark 6:1-13

“Leave Your Baggage Behind”

If any of you have traveled by airplane recently you may be familiar with the new travel game that many people are playing.
It’s called, “How many bags can I carry on the plane and how much stuff can I pack into those bags to avoid paying the $25.00 checked luggage fee?”

On a recent trip that I took, the flight attendants announced that all the overhead luggage bins were full before the last group of people had even boarded the plane.
For many people the definition of a “carry-on” has broadened to include a large rolling suitcase, an overstuffed backpack, a purse that is bigger then a small-child, a slew of shopping bags, and a king sized pillow. 
This is the reason why I never choose an aisle seat when I fly - because I don’t want to be the one sitting underneath the overstuffed luggage bin when all those items that “may have shifted in flight” come crashing down.

Our attempts to carry all our baggage onto the plane when we travel may be influenced by our desire to avoid additional fees and long waits at baggage claim, but many of us tend to over pack to begin with, because we’ve convinced ourselves that we can’t go away for a week without bringing most of our belongings with us.
After all, you never know when we might need a winter coat and a bathing suit on the same trip.

Some air travelers today remind me of Mrs. Howell on the TV show Gilligan’s Island, who packed 10 suitcases with 200 changes of clothes for a 3-hour tour.

Some of us do make the effort to travel light, but while I carry only one bag onto the plane, I admit that I tend to pack way more in it than I need.  
I carry my laptop computer, my iPad, my iPhone, and the power cords and chargers for all of the above, then I add at least 3 paperback books, a sandwich, a water bottle, and a change of clothes just in case the luggage that I checked gets lost.
I carry all of this because with today’s inevitable delays, I never know how many hours we’re going to have to wait for the plane to take off,
and once we’re in the air I need something to distract me from the fact that we’re inside a metal tube hurtling through space at 500 mph, 30,000 feet above the ground.

The truth is, there are many reasons why we carry too much stuff when we travel:
We may fear we’ll end up needing something that we’ve left behind, or we’ve become so accustomed to being surrounded by the convenience and familiarity of our stuff, that we don’t know how to function without it.

In our gospel reading today, we hear Jesus’ now familiar command to the disciples that they must travel lightly as they journey out to spread the message of the coming of the Kingdom of God.
This is nothing new for Jesus, as we know he chastised those who were overly attached to their possessions.

But if we look at the text in context, we can understand why it was reasonable for Jesus instruct the disciples to travel lightly, with no bag, no food, no money, and not even a change of clothes.

They were sent out not in groups, but in pairs, and the first leg of the journey had them traveling long distances through the potentially hostile territory of Samaria, where possessions would not only weigh them down but would also make them vulnerable to the bands of robbers who frequented the back roads, just waiting for unsuspecting travelers to happen by.

But while Jesus may have been concerned about the safety of his disciples, it’s likely that the primary reason why he instructed them to travel lightly was to force them to rely on the hospitality of strangers.

With no bag to carry supplies and no money to buy food or pay for lodging, the disciples did not have the option of withdrawing on their own at the end of the day.
They had to rely on the kindness of the local residents to take them in and feed them, and it was through these trust-building interactions that they would ultimately spread the message of God’s love that Jesus had commissioned them to share.

It’s likely that Jesus did not want his disciples to be just another group of traveling prophets shouting a warning about God’s wrath to strangers on the street, but rather he wanted the disciples to take the time to get to know the people they were teaching and ministering to - to eat with them and spend several days and evenings with them, to learn their children’s names, to listen to them talk about their joys, and their frustrations…
…because we’re much more likely to listen to what someone has to say, and trust that their words are spoken with sincerity, when we’ve taken the time to get to know them, and when they’ve taken the time to get to know us.

Jesus instructed his disciples to travel lightly, and we are called to do the same. To step outside of the bubble of familiarity and comfort that we normally travel in and to instead open our hearts and our space to include what is unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

On a 5-hour plane ride, there are those of us who would rather spend the time reading a book or listening to music than talking to the stranger in the seat next to us.
But Christianity teaches us that love and fulfillment cannot be found in our possessions and the distractions they offer to us, but rather love and fulfillment can only be found in the relationships that we build with others, and with God.

We may lighten our load by leaving behind the physical baggage that we don’t really need, but Jesus calls us to leave behind our emotional and spiritual baggage as well.  Because this kind of baggage is much more difficult to carry and much more likely to keep us from becoming the people that God calls us to be.
In his book, “Traveling Light” Max Lucado describes how we all carry this baggage without even realizing we’re doing it. Lucado writes:

Odds are, you have bags in your hands right now. Somewhere between your first step out of bed this morning and your last step out the door, you walked over to the baggage carousel and loaded up.
Picking up a suitcase of guilt, and a sack of discontent.
You draped a duffel bag of weariness on one shoulder and a garment bag of grief on the other.
Add on a backpack of doubt, an overnight bag of loneliness, and a trunk of fear.
Pretty soon you’re juggling more luggage than a skycap.
No wonder you’re so tired at the end of the day.
Carrying all that baggage is exhausting.

We carry our emotional baggage for the same reasons why we carry so many possessions when we travel, because we’re afraid to leave them behind. Because they distract us from bigger fears that we don’t want to deal with, and because although they are heavy and slow us down, over time they have become comfortable and familiar - and we don’t know how to move forward without them.

Jesus’ disciples were reluctant to set down their emotional baggage as well.
The guilt they carried over leaving their loved ones behind, the fear of the dangers they would encounter on their journey, the uncertainty of not knowing if following Jesus was the chance of a lifetime or a huge mistake.

The disciples were also reluctant to let go of their spiritual baggage  -
The religious beliefs that kept them from fully embracing Jesus’ message.
Their beliefs regarding who and what the Messiah was supposed to be.
Their preconceived ideas about who was welcome in the Kingdom of God.
Their understanding of what they needed to do to EARN God’s love, forgiveness, and grace.

Jesus gathered up all the baggage that the disciples were carrying and set it aside, and in its place he gave them a simple message to carry out into the world:
God loves you, God loves us all, and we are to love God, and each other, as we love ourselves.

All the disciples had to do was walk into the world with their hands free, and carry this message on their lips and in their hearts.

This message was intended to release the people of God from the spiritual burdens they had been carrying for years. But as we know from reading the stories of the gospels, the people the disciples encountered were often reluctant to let go of those burdens.

In the same way, WE are reluctant to discard our spiritual burdens - the religious baggage that we’ve picked up and carried over the course of our lives.
The beliefs we learned in our youth, or adhere to as adults that have done more to distance us from God than bring us towards God.

The belief that we are too sinful and broken to be redeemed.
The belief that God’s love, grace, and forgiveness is offered only to a select few.
The belief that we have no power to enact change in the world, and we can only sit back and pray for God to make things right.
The belief that only those who follow our interpretation of the Bible and our conception of Jesus’ teachings will be allowed to enter the Kingdom of God.

This is baggage that has weighed down many Christians for far too long.
But just as it feels good to clean out our closets and discard what is no longer useful, imagine how freeing it would feel if we pared down our spiritual beliefs to the simple message that Jesus gave his disciples to carry:

God loves you. God loves us all, and we are to love God, and each other, as we love ourselves.

It seems counterintuitive to not want to rid ourselves of what weighs us down - but letting go is not easy.
Some of us have been carrying this baggage for so long, the handles have left permanent marks on the palms of our hands.
We may feel if we leave these familiar burdens behind we will lose a part of ourselves, a part of what makes us who we are.
Our fear, our guilt, our uncertainty over the future,
our restrictive religious beliefs that keep us sheltered and safe.

But this is what Jesus calls us to do - To set it all down at his feet.
To release our burdens to God and carry only God’s love into the world.

Realistically, we will not be able to let go of it all at once, but as we journey forward we can work on letting go of one burden at a time,
and trust our family, our friends, and God to help us to release our grip on what we no longer need.  

With each burden that we release, we come closer to understanding what it means to truly feel God’s love, and what it means to reflect that love back into the world.

 With each burden that we release, we come closer to walking in the footsteps of Jesus.
We set out on an unknown road, carrying only what Jesus has given us.
The promise of God’s grace, the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and the compassion of Christ’s presence.
And as we grow into seasoned travelers, we will discover that this all that we need.