Sunday, July 31, 2011

Perfect! Give ‘em here. That’s plenty. Watch…

Many thanks to Twitter friend @thedaveone, who pointed me toward the article about Sal Dimiceli, which figures heavily in this sermon. Dr. John Fairless at the Lectionary Lab helped me focus my thoughts on Jesus' grief, as well as his compassion, and "Girardian reflections on the Lectionary" provided the background material for "splagchnizomai."

Genesis 32:22-31
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Romans 9:1-5
I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit — I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.

Matthew 14:13-21
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Jesus had just heard horrible news – the kind of news that hits like a slap to the face; gut-wrenching, mind-numbing, incapacitating news. His cousin: a man he’d grown up with and loved, a man whose willingness to baptize changed Jesus’ whole life – was dead. Killed at the hands of the despicable King Herod.

Most, if not all of us, have been in this place. Reeling from shock, confused, unable to think… of course his first thought was that he needed to be alone, to get away from the noise of the crowd, their neediness, the challenges of the scribes and the Pharisees, the pressure of proclaiming the Kingdom, if only for a little while.

So he got in a boat and set off across the lake. I can’t say if the disciples were in the boat with him; I suspect they watched him float away and decided to walk around the lake to meet him. As they trudged off for the long journey to the other side, word spread, and before long thousands of people had dropped what they were doing, tied on their sandals, and joined the trek.

And I imagine Jesus there, alone, in the boat, probably paying very little attention to things like setting the sail properly, or rowing, or whatever it is one needed to do to get that particular watercraft from one side of the lake to another. It was a time to grieve and a time to cry. Yes, I’m sure there was prayer; probably along the lines of asking “why?” as his thoughts turned inward, ever inward…

Jesus was, of course, God-made-flesh. But how easily we forget that God-made-flesh was, well, a human being. Jesus was on a life journey, a journey where he learned and experienced and dealt with everything every other human being has ever had to do – potty training and learning to use a fork and learning to walk and read and talk, and, yes, to feel the crushing grief of losing someone we love to Death.

Who knows how long that boat took to cross the lake? Who knows how deep Jesus fell into that well of loss, of sorrow, of grief? Perhaps, at last, the rocking of the boat coaxed him into a fitful sleep…

…a sleep interrupted by the sound of voices. Lots of them. Thousands. Jesus wiped the sleep from his eyes and peered over the railing toward the slowly approaching shore…

…and something happened. Our New Revised Standard Version translation puts it mildly enough, it says that Jesus saw a great crowd and had compassion for them. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? But I want to suggest this morning that something far deeper, more seminal happened right then. You see, the Greek word for what happened in that moment, splagchnizomai, is derived from a word in the Greek translation of the Old Testament which described the removal of an animal’s innards during ritual sacrifice. It’s a much more decisive, even violent word, than what we understand “compassion” to be. Eugene Peterson’s “Message” translation of this Scripture says that Jesus’ heart went out to them, and that’s closer, but it’s much more like Jesus’ love for that crowd – his desire to help them, to heal them – that compassion was so great that it was as if his very heart was torn from him.

And the miracles began. Jesus did what Jesus does – he loved them, he healed their sicknesses. And healed, and healed some more. For hours and hours. As the shadows grew long, his disciples finally came up to Jesus. “Dude, it’s getting late, and these folks need to go find a village and get some dinner.”

Jesus never missed a beat, going from person to person, touching, blessing, healing. “Nah, they don’t need to go anywhere. You give them some supper.”

“Um, Jesus, not to argue with you or anything, but we’re not exactly McDonald’s here. Five loaves, a couple of fish, that’s our inventory.”

And I know that the Gospels don’t record it this way, but I can see Jesus looking up, smiling, and saying, “Perfect! Give ‘em here. That’s plenty. Watch…”

I suppose the disciples could have held back: “What are you, crazy? This is my lunch! Go get your own loaves and fishes, man!” – but they gave them over to Jesus, and the miracles began anew.

Thousands upon thousands of people sat on the cool grass as Jesus blessed and broke the bread and the fish, and passed them over to the disciples to begin handing out.

The disciples must have thought their Rabbi had lost his ever-loving mind. But they dutifully did as they were told, and walked out among the people, passing out food. And passing out food. And passing out food.

There wasn’t too little after all. In fact, there wasn’t just enough. There was an abundance! Way more than they needed!

There are enough lessons in this passage to fill a month of sermons, but I want to focus on just a couple, which given the news reports over the past couple of weeks, may be particularly important.

I think it’s curious how, in times of natural disaster, we reach out to those in need, giving time and money and goods and services, but in times of economic uncertainty live we’ve been seeing lately, what with the debt ceiling debate, we act more like a person who is experiencing grief – we pull inward, circling the wagons, trying desperately to hold on to what we have. We crawl into our boat, pull our shawl over our head, and hope the people in Washington on both sides of the aisle will stop playing fast and loose with our future before it’s too late.

And we look at the need around us, the millions of homeless in America, the ten million people in the horn of Africa facing starvation according to the UN, those still living in tents and FEMA trailers after the tornadoes here in Alabama, and we see our resources and worry that it just isn’t enough, that we can’t even begin to address the overwhelming problems facing our planet.

But Scripture teaches differently, doesn’t it? We try to focus inwardly, but the Holy Spirit pulls us outward, pulling our heart, calling us to Christlike compassion. Jesus sees what there is, says, “Perfect! Give ‘em here. That’s plenty. Watch…”

Kathleen Toner of wrote this week about a Lake Geneva, Wisconsin woman, Jennifer Cervantes, who for years struggled to make ends meet. She worked all she could, but her paycheck never seemed to cover living expenses for her and her five kids. Hard as she tried, she kept falling further behind.

Desperate, Cervantes decided to write a letter to Sal Dimiceli, whose newspaper column might be considered a "Dear Abby" for the down and out.

Within a few weeks, Dimiceli showed up on her doorstep. They talked for a while, and then he offered to pay one month's rent as well as her outstanding gas and electric bills. He also went to the local grocery store and stocked the family's empty refrigerator.

It was just another day's work for Dimiceli, a 60-year-old real estate broker whose weekly column in the Lake Geneva Regional News focuses on people in dire straits. Through his column and his nonprofit, “The Time Is Now To Help,” Dimiceli has provided about 500 people a year with food, rent, utilities and other necessities. All this, despite the fact that the economic downturn hit his real estate business hard. He gives away at least 20% of his income, and relies on donations to his nonprofit, as well as a network of supporters, for the rest.

When Dimiceli began writing his newspaper column eight years ago, he wrote it anonymously, using the initials “W.C.” It stood for “With Christ.”

For Jennifer Cervantes and about 500 people across Wisconsin and Illinois, Dimiceli has been the healing touch of Jesus, moving through the crowds.

Is Sal Dimiceli unique? If so, he certainly doesn’t have to be. Maybe you and I can’t impact 500 people a year, but we can do something, somewhere, for someone, on some level. What sets Sal apart from so many others is that, when Jesus held out his hand for the loaves and fishes, Sal didn’t hold back.

Jesus looks at what we have and says, “Perfect! Give ‘em here. That’s plenty. Watch…” Will we hold back, mumbling, “This is mine, you get your own,” or will we let go, and see the miracles begin anew?

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