Dec 26

O Little Town of Bethlehem

We must not think even for a moment that the whole world was watching for a Savior the night Christ was born. For most people in most places on that ancient night, there was no deep mystery hanging in the air, no excited anticipation, no anxious wondering about whether this night would be the night God finally acted. Jesus’ birth was never destined to be headline news, even if there had been such things as newspapers or CNN. And no one was camping out in Bethlehem waiting for a royal announcement the way reporters and gossip columnists surrounded St. Mary’s Hospital in London last year awaiting the birth of Prince George. If you had walked into one of the great cities of Jesus’ day, Rome, say, or Athens, and said, “Something amazing is about to happen in Bethlehem, this very night,” you would have gotten the same reaction I had when I told people I was appointed to a congregation in Forest Hill: Where’s that?
Not only was almost no one watching for a Savior, hardly anyone would have believed that something so important as his birth would happen in a place like Bethlehem. Sure, we hear the reading from Micah, “As for you Bethlehem of Ephrathah,” and right away we know what the prophet is talking about. But not back then. Calling Bethlehem a city is a bit like calling Bel Air a metropolis. Nothing happened in Bethlehem; nothing had happened there for over a thousand years. If there was a bright center to the Roman Empire’s universe, Bethlehem was the planet furthest away. Even Jerusalem, the closest “big city,” was a backwater town by Roman standards. Appointing governors to Palestine was one way for the Roman emperor to rid himself of troublesome or incompetent aristocrats. The Jews weren’t the only ones who disliked Pontius Pilate.
The story of Jesus’ birth, especially to those of us who have known it all our lives, can seem so normal. Of course Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Where else would he go? Why wouldn’t there be room to stay in town no one ever visited? Where else would his mother put him except a manger? Whom are the angels supposed to tell if not the shepherds? The more we hear this story, the more it starts to sound like something that does belong on a Hallmark card. Sadly, the more “natural” the Christmas story seems, the more desensitized we become to the shocking story that the Lord of the universe took on human form as a baby born in almost total obscurity in a place virtually no one had heard of and found himself plunked down in a cow’s food dish because even the ridiculously unimportant people of Bethlehem couldn’t find room to shelter his mother in anything like human quarters. In the place of this scandal we drop our sentimental baggage of Charles Dickens, The Nutcracker, Currier and Ives, and Christmas crooners. It’s almost like we’re afraid to believe in something this strange and troubling, so instead we try to fit it in with much more manageable things like Christmas magic and the season of giving. Ironically the only scandals today are the Grinches who want to wish us “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” the Scrooges who proudly wear their bah-humbug disbelief on their sleeves instead of covering it over in Thomas Kinkade pastels, and the preachers who dare to mention the cross in a Christmas Eve service when everyone just wants to hear about the baby. We’d like our Christmas to run on autopilot, please.
Our world today isn’t all that different from the world Jesus entered two thousand years ago. Most of us still live day to day; most of us still don’t know what to expect or hope for this Christmas. Most of us do not want Christmas to be interrupted by anything or anyone. If someone told us something important, something grand, mysterious, and wonderful was about to happen, something that would shake the very foundations of our world, we’d turn our attention toward someplace like Washington D.C., New York City, or Beijing. But Christ was born in Bethlehem, away from the centers of commerce and power, on the outskirts of the margins of society. And Christ’s flesh continues to appear in unknown and unexpected places. Places less like Rome, and more like Forest Hill.
Mere bread, simple bread, and a cup of grape juice are easy enough to write off. They’re the stuff of child’s snacks. Hardly divine. Each time that we celebrate Holy Communion together, Christ’s flesh breaks into our world in the elements of bread and wine. That happens every week, right here at Centre, in Forest Hill, of all places.
Anybody can give a helping hand to someone else. Anybody can receive a small gift from another person. These things happen every day. There’s nothing special about them. Yet Christ’s flesh extends itself as the hand of a worker in our food pantry, offering a bag of groceries to a neighbor, and Christ’s flesh opens up in the hands of the person who receives the food. Christ’s flesh giving; Christ’s flesh receiving. That happens each Wednesday, right here at Centre, in Forest Hill, of all places.
People have been shaking hands for at least the last 2500 years. Millions of people shake hands every day. The cool and the germaphobes among us give fist bumps. Millenials hug everyone. It’s all perfectly ordinary. When we pass the peace as an act of worship, Christ’s flesh becomes palpable, and forgiveness becomes tangible in the embrace of fellow believers. That happens every Sunday at Centre, in Forest Hill, of all places.
Holy Communion. The Food Pantry. The peace of Christ. Centre Church. Forest Hill. Bethlehems, all. No headline news; no royal announcement; no one watching. But Christ appearing, in humble ways and lowly places, just as God promised he would do.
Perhaps you’re satisfied with the seasonal happiness of Christmas magic, with chestnuts and children and cherished moments. But if your desire has been stretched, if you yearn for something deeper, something troubling enough to require belief throughout the year, then don’t make your pilgrimage to Bethlehem a once-a-year event. Return as often as you can. Commit to living on the outskirts, at the margins, in places where strange and mysterious and disturbing things can happen, where God himself appears in the most ordinary—and therefore the most unimaginable—ways. Amen.

Aug 04

You Give Them Something to Eat

            In the middle of the lush fields and summer green of Forest Hill, the desert can seem a long way off. The closest desert, as far as I can tell, is somewhere out west, Texas, maybe, or New Mexico or Colorado. Here it’s easy to forget what deserts are like—or to pretend that they don’t exist.

            The truth is, deserts are a lot closer than we care to think. In fact, I imagine just about all of us have been in some kind of a desert at some point: the desert of loneliness, the desert of despair, the desert of depression, the desert of sin. One of the scariest deserts to face is the food desert. Recently, the term “food desert” has been used to name neighborhoods and towns that have no easy access to food, or at least to good food, because grocery stores and other food providers won’t set up shop. Often these food deserts are in urban areas like Baltimore or Philadelphia. As close as these cities and their food deserts are, they still seem a million miles from Forest Hill, a small town of a few thousand people that has at least three large, well-stocked grocery stores, not to mention produce stands and even farms. But food deserts aren’t just found in the cities. Every time a person goes hungry, she finds herself in a food desert. Every time someone must choose between paying the electric bill and buying groceries, he finds himself in a food desert. Every time children arrive at school without having breakfast, they and their families find themselves in a food desert. Friends, we are surrounded by the desert.

            In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus enters his own desert—well, wilderness, really, not, strictly speaking, a desert. Jesus finds himself in the desert for the same reason Moses enters the desert a thousand years earlier—he’s fleeing from a Pharaoh. In Moses’ day, it was an actual Pharaoh, an iron-fisted ruler who cruelly sought to destroy the Israelites. We’ll be hearing more about this Pharaoh in just a few more weeks. In Jesus’ day, the “Pharaoh” is King Herod, not an Egyptian but a puppet of the Roman Empire. In the passage just before our gospel reading this morning, Pharaoh, I mean King Herod, has executed John the Baptist. Jesus hears about John’s death and heads for the hills near the Sea of Galilee.

            Like Moses, however, Jesus does not enter the desert alone. Oh, he means to. He’s escaping, seeking some time to himself to recover from the news of the Baptist’s death. But Israel follows Jesus into the wilderness as surely as they followed Moses across the Red Sea, disrupting Jesus’ plans for some needed respite.

            Jesus, of course, does not send them away: he saw them “and he had compassion for them,” Matthew tells us. Jesus doesn’t accept their presence reluctantly; he feels for them. He loves them. He heals them. And then he feeds them.

            This last part is the part most of us probably know, the feeding of the 5000. The disciples come to Jesus near the end of the day and say, “Jesus, it’s getting late. Send them away; they need food. The roads aren’t safe at night.” The disciples realize that they and the crowds are in the middle of a food desert.

            Jesus says to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” You can imagine how the disciples would have panicked—where could twelve men find food for 10, 15, maybe even 20,000 people? After all, they are in the middle of a food desert. There’s nothing here. We have nothing to offer them; only these five loaves of bread and two fish.

            “It’s enough,” Jesus says.

            “Enough? For 20,000 people?! It’s not even enough for us twelve!”

            “Bring them here to me.”

Last spring, when I learned that I would be appointed to Centre, two things got me excited about serving here. First, the District Superintendent told me that you have weekly communion. I love that. I became a pastor so that I could preside at the Eucharist. Second, the District Superintendent told me you had a food pantry. Feeding hungry people is so important to the church’s witness and mission in the world. I’ve been to the food pantry twice already, and I am so proud of how our church dedicates a space in our community building to share food with people from our community who are lost in food deserts. And it’s not just our own pantry. We have members who serve those without homes at local shelters and who work with Mason-Dixon Community Services. I’m excited about the ways we serve our community.

Maybe you don’t see a connection between celebrating communion every week and serving our hungry neighbors every week, but I do. And so does Jesus. Look at what happens when the disciples give him the five loaves and two fish: Jesus “looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples.” Sound familiar? It’s the same thing Jesus does in the Upper Room. Matthew 26:26 reads, “Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’”

It’s also the same thing that happens every Sunday here at Centre: we offer to our Lord bread and the cup, we give thanks, and we break the bread, trusting by faith that it somehow is Christ’s body, broken for us. The bread for the 5,000 and the bread for Holy Communion are united in Christ’s acts of thanksgiving and sacrifice.

The past few weeks we listened to parables from Jesus about life in the garden. We heard about weeds and wheat, fields and seeds, treasure and pearls. All of it leads up to the feeding of the 5000. Matthew places this story just after these parables. It’s as if he—and, of course, the Holy Spirit—was trying to tell us, “The bounty of God’s garden is for the good of God’s people. God’s bounty is for the physical and spiritual needs of his people. Feed on Christ in thanksgiving at his Supper; then, go and feed his people, your neighbors. Offer to Christ what you have received from God, and he will bless it and return it to you, for the sake of others.”

            Two weeks ago, at the pantry, our church served three families who found themselves in food deserts. Last week we waited two hours, and nobody came by. If our pantry only reached one family for the entire year, it would still be worthwhile.

And yet I am haunted by Jesus’ words: “You give them something to eat.” Is God calling us to do even more with our pantry? Is Jesus heading out into nearby deserts ahead of us? Do we feel compelled to follow him? In our weekly communion service, where all who come are fed, all receive the same thing, and all are given enough of what they need, is God giving us a glimpse of his vision for this vital ministry?

Jesus had compassion for the crowd. “He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking up 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.” So may it be with us. Amen.