A Community of Formation: Being Formed in Empathy


Romans 12:9-21      Lectionary 22     August 31, 2-14


            Have you been following the McDonnell trial?  Our former governor and his wife are facing 14 felony charges of corruption.  Testimony has gone on for weeks, and now we’re awaiting the jury’s verdict.  Were Bob and Maureen’s actions illegal when they accepted gifts from a smarmy businessman (who has testified under immunity, by the way)?  That’s the legal question.  But what’s added spice is the way the defense has made use of salacious details about Bob and Maureen’s marriage!  I don’t know about you, but each day, I have found myself needing to check the Richmond Times-Dispatch (print and web site!): What is the latest revelation to come out of the mouths  of the witnesses?

And, if I may, let me make a confession.  On too many days, I’ve been motivated by voyeurism, as embarrassing disclosure has followed embarrassing disclosure!  (Has that been the case for you, too?)  On several days, the testimony was like a reality television show, as the lawyers probed about the difficulties in the McDonnell’s marriage, and whether Maureen had a romantic interest in the sleazy scumbag who was giving them money.  But let me tell you what’s been true on my best days.  Looking at former Governor McDonnell, his wife, Maureen, and their daughters, who have been at one or the other parent’s side each day, and who have even been called to testify, I have felt empathy.  I have tried to put myself in their positions, the daughters in particular.  What must it be like to go through such public humiliation?  How awful!

And how instructive, this morning, to read in chapter 12, in Paul’s letter to the Jesus people in Rome.  Last week we read the first part of this chapter.  Today we read the rest.  I think this is one of the most difficult chapters in the Bible, because Paul teaches that, when we’re centering on ourselves, we are conforming to the world.  The keynote verse is one we read last week, verse two: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.  Paul is teaching: “Do not center on yourselves.  Center on God.”  This morning, we read the rest of the chapter.  It’s Paul’s invitation to live in radically counter-cultural ways that become possible when we’re centered in the blessings of God’s compassion and love and grace.

We could spend a month of Bible studies on this 12th chapter of Romans, and that still wouldn’t be enough time to talk about all that’s in there.  It’s certainly impossible to say much about the chapter justice in a short sermon.  But here’s what seems to be true, for me, as I read this chapter at this point on my journey: empathy is the theme, in all the specifics of how Paul invites us to live as followers of Jesus.

The Bible says a lot of different things at a lot of different places.  A Lutheran way to judge among all the conflicting things that are in the Bible is to read the Bible through Jesus.  That means, to read the Bible and to give weight to differing messages according to what Jesus reveals about God!  Helpfully, in this morning’s gospel story, Jesus is explicit about how he has saved us. [1]  It is through his own weakness and suffering.

Think about this.  Jesus saves you and me through his weakness and suffering.  Here’s more: Jesus is profoundly present with you and me in our own weakness and sufferings.  What mystery that is – isn’t it? – that God would save us in this way?  And so, Jesus tells us, you and I are to take up our crosses, if we are to be Jesus followers.  That means we are called to live as disciples right there, in the day-to-day experiences of our own lives, whether they be joyful or full of suffering.

Paul is inviting us into the life of imitating Christ.  And the key is empathy.

It looks like, in the first five verses, Paul is teaching us how to treat each other within the community of Jesus people.  Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

In the rest of the chapter Paul teaches us how to be actively involved “in the world,” outside of this community of Jesus people.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.   Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.   Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.   Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”   Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Do you have trouble with that next to last verse, the one about “heap[ing] burning coals on their heads?”  Look for the quotation marks!  That’s part of a quotation.  That makes you want to see what Paul is quoting, right?  (See how important it is to read the Bible closely, before jumping to conclusions?)  As it turns out, Paul is quoting one of the Proverbs, in Proverbs 25:21-22, where the point is that an evil-doer is most likely to feel remorse when he is treated with kindness and compassion by the person he has wronged.  As Paul teaches in the final verse of this chapter, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Are any of the teachings in this chapter easy?  How hard it is to repent from our self-centeredness, and, instead, to act with empathy, with compassion, loving others as we love ourselves – because, in this way, we are loving God!

I’ve been reading a remarkable book by Leslie Jamison, called, The Empathy Exams.[2]   “Empathy,” she writes, “isn’t just remembering to say ‘that must really be hard’ – it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all.  Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to.  Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination.  Empathy requires knowing you know nothing….

“Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges.  Trauma bleeds.  Out of wounds and across boundaries….”  (In other words, empathy means that we have to know someone’s story before we make judgments.)

Leslie Jamison holds up her boyfriend, Dave, as an example of how to be empathetic. She writes, “Dave doesn’t believe in feeling bad just because someone else does.  This isn’t his notion of support.  He believes in listening, and asking questions, and steering clear of assumptions.  He thinks imagining someone else’s pain with too much surety can be as damaging as failing to imagine it.  He believes in humility.  He believes in staying strong enough to stick around.”

Listen again to the life Paul invites us into, in imitation of Christ.  “Let love be genuine” (not self-serving; not loving only those who treat us well).  “Love one another with mutual affection.”  “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”  “[D]o not claim to be wiser than you are.”  “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.”  “Beloved, never avenge yourselves.”  “[I]f your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”  “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Paul  is inviting us into a life of radical empathy, which is in imitation of Christ.  What is the trauma that a person is experiencing, which might be why she’s treating you so badly?  How might you respond with compassion?  In these ways, we witness to those who are not part of the community of Jesus people!  We are showing others what it is like to live in the way of Christ.  (This is the best “evangelism” program there is: to live in such a distinct, odd way that it provokes others to ask questions.  “Why are you acting that way?” they will ask.  “It’s because I am a follower of Jesus.  Want to learn more about this in the community I belong to, of other Jesus people?  Come and see!”)

Because, how can we possibly live this life of radical empathy?  Isn’t it is only possible with the encouragement of others in this community of weird Jesus people?  Doesn’t the Spirit constantly need to form and re-form us, as the events of our lives each day entice us to become “conformed to this world?”  Isn’t it true that the Spirit can form and re-form us in a community like this one named for St. Stephen, with our regular gatherings to receive nourishment  from God’s grace-filled salvation, so that we can resist being overcome by evil, but, instead, to overcome evil with good?

This is a community of formation.  God the Holy Spirit moves among us, forming us in the empathy of Christ, so we can see and listen and act in the same ways.

In the name of God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Pastor Andy Ballentine


[1] Read these verses – Matthew 16:21-28.  Actually, this passage is also “Part 2” of the gospel reading from last week – Matthew 16:13-20, so it’s important to read that first, since it provides the context for this morning’s dramatic story.

[2] Greywolf Press, 2014.

Who Do You Say Jesus Is?

 Matthew 16;13-20     Pentecost 11   August 24, 2014

 Jesus had one more run-in with the Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and Jesus had one more conversation with his disciples concerning their lack of faith and perception before he and his disciples headed out again. Their 25-mile journey from the small town of Galilee took them into the district of Caesarea Philippi. To understand the significance of Jesus’ words and questions to his disciples in context, it is helpful to know a bit about Caesarea Philippi.

The city is on the boundary between Israel and the world. It is built next to the face of a cliff, where a spring sprung forth from its base. Before the Romans occupied the territory, this area had been the center of worship of the Canaanite god Baal, and then later for the Greek god Pan. The area became known as “Panias.” The cliff face even today is speckled with carved niches. Statues of Pan and other Greek gods were put there in the cubby holes. This area had been conquered by Alexander the Great, and then by the Romans. Herod Philip changed the name of the city to Caesarea Philippi, honoring both himself and Caesar Augustus.

Brian McLaren writes:

The city was, in effect, Philip’s Caesar-ville. Imagine what it would be like to enter Caesar-ville with Jesus and his team. Today we might imagine a Jewish leader bringing his followers to Auschwitz, a Japanese leader to Hiroshima, a Native American leader to Wounded Knee, or a Palestinian leader to the wall of separation. There, in the shadow of the cliff face with its idols set into their finely carved niches, in the presence of all these terrible associations, Jesus asks his disciples a carefully crafted question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?[1]”

People have pondered that question since Jesus was born. To those who are lost, Jesus is the way. To the hungry, he is the Bread of Life. To the dying, Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is called “Emmanuel,” or “God with us,” and Jesus calls himself, “The Son of Man.”

When Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am,” Peter answered, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” People saw Jesus as someone both spectacular, and with whom they were familiar. They were looking through the past to gain understanding. It was hard for them to conceive of just how radical Jesus is.

Jesus said to the disciples, “Who do you all say that I am?” We can count on Peter, who usually just blurts things out, to do so again. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the God who is still alive,” he answered. In Matthew’s gospel, Peter’s is the first confession of Jesus as the Christ. His answer was right in words, but Peter was still without complete understanding. His response was as much a political assertion as it was a theological one. Remember the context of Caesarea Philippi. Peter thought Jesus was going to liberate the people from the Roman emperor. Jesus frees them, but not from their political oppression. Jesus frees them from sin and death. Peter’s confession that Jesus is the son of the Living God was right, but he did not yet know that Jesus’ suffering, and death, and resurrection would be how fulfills his role as Messiah. Peter understood Jesus as the son of the living God, but he did not fully understand what his confession of Jesus as Messiah meant, and I wonder if we don’t either.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked Peter, and asks us. Shortly, we say who Jesus is. We will confess, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary….” In the Nicene Creed, we say that Jesus is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made.” Our creeds and our confessions give us a framework upon which to build our faith and to make sense of it.  While our creeds are crucial, there is so much more to Jesus, and to our relationship with our Messiah.

My fear is that I will simply repeat words that I have heard, and that in doing so, I will put these “labels” on Christ. In doing so, I will put God in a box, a box that is not open to God’s surprises, God’s extravagance, to the God that is beyond my sight, and to the God of possible improbabilities.

But Jesus keeps asking us, and the question remains, “Who do you say that I am?” We say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord.” What exactly does that mean to us? To you? When we are on the other side of the walls of this church, what does it mean to you to say Jesus is the Christ, Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus is Lord? When you have just met the love of your life, scored well on an exam, or gotten a promotion, who do you say Jesus is? When you have gotten the diagnosis of cancer, received the official death certificates for a loved one, or watched your child make a destructive choice, who do you say Jesus is?

On Monday evenings, we have been meeting to discuss Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. She writes about times like these: “One of the hardest things to decide during a dark night is whether to surrender or resist. The choice often comes down to what you believe about God and how God acts, which means that every dark night of the soul involves wrestling with belief” (135).

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. In the fifth century, Augustine said, “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore, seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.” Augustine posits that faith restlessly seeks deeper understanding. About 600 years later, Anselm, who is “credited with coining the phrase, ‘faith seeking understanding,’ said that believers inquire ‘not for the sake of attaining to faith by means of reason but that they may be gladdened by understanding and meditating on those things that they believe.’[2]”

Who we are is intimately intertwined with who we believe Jesus is, whether we can articulate that or not. Discovering who Jesus is for us and for the world is a journey shaped by our experiences. We don’t have all the answers. Peter didn’t either, but he did have a passion for Jesus. And that was all Jesus needed to hand over the keys.

[1] We Make the Road by Walking. New York: Jericho Books, p. 117. Print.

[2] http://szezeng.blogspot.com/2010/10/where-did-phrase-faith-seeking.html

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

What’s Important?

 Matthew 15:10-28      Lectionary 20   August 17, 2014


            What’s important?  I don’t know about you, but that’s a question I need to ask and answer many times through day.

For instance, has anyone here decided to check your e-mail, to see if there’s anything important – and then, when you’ve looked up, it’s 30 minutes later, and there hasn’t been anything that’s important?

Has anybody ever jumped on facebook – for just a couple of minutes, right? – and, when you’ve looked up, you’ve wasted an hour and, again, everything you’ve been dealing with is trivial and unimportant?

What’s important?  How hard it is, sometimes, to avoid being distracted from noticing what’s important!

Then there’s the opposite difficulty – of discerning what’s important, out of all the information that’s pouring out of the screen towards you.  How often have you seen “Breaking News” on the bottom of the screen of one of the news networks – Pay attention to this!!!  This is important!!! – and you realize it’s nothing new.  It’s the same thing they were talking about when you last checked in four hours ago.  Or, how about the Weather Channel?  There’s disaster everywhere, and it’s coming this way!!!

We are bombarded by more information than has ever been available in human history.  But what’s important?  We feel frantically busy because our calendars are full of appointments and responsibilities and places to be.  (If your calendar is electronic, it beeps at you to increase the urgency.)  But what’s important?

*  *  *

            What’s important to the Pharisees in this morning’s story from the gospel of Matthew?  The story teller gives the answer to that question, actually, before our reading begins, in the first two verses of this 15th chapter of Matthew.  Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?  For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”

You may know that the Pharisees and scribes are two of the groups of leaders of God’s people, and it is their job to maintain “the tradition of the elders.”  Is that important?  Well, it’s vitally important to maintain the identity of God’s people!  With the Roman centurions occupying the country, with local Roman governors calling the shots, with the culture of the Roman Empire becoming more and more influential among the people, the Pharisees are teaching that God’s people can maintain their identity only if they separate themselves from those who are not God’s people.  They are to do that by living according to “the tradition of the elders.”  An important part of that tradition are the food purity commandments that are right there in the Bible, particularly in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.[1]  The Pharisees are challenging Jesus and his followers.  Why aren’t they doing what the Bible tells them to do?

In response, for the next eight verses in this chapter of Matthew, Jesus attacks the Pharisees, pointing out that they pick and choose which holy laws they observe themselves.  (Actually, all of us religious people do that, right?)  And, Jesus tells everybody that the Pharisees aren’t paying attention to what’s important.  [Jesus] called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  Could it be that Jesus is talking about the words that come out of our mouths that “defile” us – the words that we speak that hurt  and damage, that break relationships with other people, and with God.

Then, notice this: the disciples think Jesus is being too confrontational!   Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”  Jesus does not care!  His next words are even more harsh!  (So much for “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”)

For Jesus, what’s important?  Certainly not purity laws, for their own sake.  Jesus himself does some picking and choosing among Biblical teachings and he makes his point with a sharp contrast: “[W]hat comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.   For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”  

Evil intentions.  Murder.  Adultery.  Fornication.  Theft.  False witness.  Slander.  Jesus is focusing importance on these of the 10 Commandments  because these are behaviors that destroy community, and God has created us to live closely interconnected with each other!

Faithfulness and trust – towards God, towards each other – are so crucial for community among God’s people!  What’s important to Jesus?  It is that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind; and that we love our neighbors as ourselves – because on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.[2]  So, you and I make judgments, just as Jesus did.  Not all the teachings in the “tradition of the elders” are equally important, even if they’re in the Bible.  It’s a tragic mistake for people of God to break up with each other over what’s not as important as loving God with all our being and loving others as ourselves.  “Evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander”: certainly, those engaging in these behaviors are not loving others as themselves, are causing pain and division among others.  Tears fall from God’s eyes when we do that.  Jesus is saying, “Let’s keep the focus on what’s important, people.”

*  *  *

            But, as the story continues, it seems Jesus himself loses focus.  At the very least, he is very confusing.

First, he engages in a highly provocative act.  He journeys into the district of Tyre and Sidon – which “defiles” him, according to “the tradition of the elders” just by touching the soil, because this is purely Gentile, non-Jewish territory.  “Ok,” we think.  “This is performance art.  Jesus is pushing his point harder: that we are not to put great importance on rules that distinguish people who are ‘pure’ from people who are ‘dirty.’”

But then what happens?  He encounters an “unclean,” (which means a non-Jewish0 woman – which you would expect, wouldn’t you, since he’s in the district of Tyre and Sidon?  And aren’t you shocked by how Jesus demeans her?  The woman is desperate.  She is pleading for Jesus to heal her daughter.  She is not a member of God’s chosen people who are looking for the messiah, but she addresses Jesus in worshipful and messianic terms.  She calls him, “Lord, Son of David.”  In response, what does Jesus call her?  Remember?  He calls her a dog – because she is not of the house of Israel!

Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”   But [Jesus] did not answer her at all.  And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”   But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”   He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And her daughter was healed instantly.

Jesus himself had lost focus.  But then he remembers what’s important.  It is faith.  Faith is what God the Holy Spirit creates in our hearts.  Faith, evidently, shows itself in a person’s willingness to beg!  From the woman’s faith-filled heart comes her dogged persistence, because “faith is refusing to believe the Lord can be bad to faith.”[3]

*  *  *

God the Holy Spirit creates and re-creates this faith within us. The Spirit does this week by week along the journey – as we hear the Word of grace and forgiveness spoken, and as we eat and drink the Word of grace and forgiveness in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and as we are splashed with that Word of grace and forgiveness in Holy Baptism.  Week by week this happens; God creating and re-creating faith within us.  Then, from our hearts, come God-pleasing, community-building actions of love and servanthood.

This is important stuff!

In the name of God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Pastor Andy Ballentine


[1] Check out Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.

[2] Matthew 22:34-40

[3] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), page 105.




Dark Descent

1 Kings 19:9-18  August 10, 2014  9th Sunday after Pentecost

 You’ve heard of Elijah. No, not Elijah Blue, the son of Cher and Greg Allman-Elijah. Elijah the prophet, who prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of Ahab, and who is still revered in Jewish worship and celebrations. Christians know the story of the Transfiguration, when Elijah appeared at the top of the mountain, along with Moses, when Jesus appeared to be dazzling white. Peter, God love him, wanted to construct three houses, one for each of them. We know Elijah, too, because people in Jesus’ time thought John the Baptist was Elijah back from the dead.

The prophet Elijah had been courageous and bold in challenging King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel. He warned them that drought would come because they “had done evil in the sight of the Lord.” The Canaanite god, Baal, was responsible for rain, thunder, lightening and dew, and Elijah’s warning was an affront not only to the king and queen, but to Baal. Instead of Elijah and the king drawing pistols at twenty paces, Elijah set up a challenge between his god, Yahweh, and the Canaanite god, Baal.

Two altars were set up. Both were covered with wood, and sacrifices of fresh cut oxen were placed on top. Their gods were to send fire burn the sacrifices. The Canaanite priests went first, praying from morning until night with no success. Then it was Elijah’s turn. Just to humiliate the Canaanites further, he had the altar drenched in water. [What a reality show this would make! I can see the bumper stickers on the back of the camels, “My God can beat your god!”] Elijah prayed to Yahweh, and fire fell from the heavens, consuming not just the sacrifice and the wood, but the water and the altar as well. To top it all off, Elijah prayed for rain to end the drought, and the drops began to fall. Score: Baal – 0, Yahweh 10. Elijah couldn’t resist this perfect opportunity, and so he ordered the death of the priests of Baal.

Queen Jezebel was enraged, to put it mildly, and she sent word to Elijah that he was now a cursed and marked man. Jezebel would see to it that he was killed just like her priests were, and he ran for his life. He ran all the way into the deep wilderness, crawled under a sparse and scraggly shrub, and prayed, ”It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life [1Kings 19:4].” He lay down on the ground and went to sleep. The great prophet Elijah, giving up his passion, running away, praying for death, and sleeping.

The symptoms show that Elijah was depressed. Many of us will experience depression at some point in our lives. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that about 9 percent of adult Americans have feelings of hopelessness, despondency, or guilt. Major depression is the leading cause of disability for Americans between the ages of 15 and 44. There are different types of depression, and different causes. Other conditions, such as post-traumatic stress syndrome, cancer and alcoholism co-exist with depression. In my research, I found an interesting fact upon which to reflect. Among married men, there is a lower percent of depression. Among married women, there is a higher one. Just food for thought.

Martin Luther was one married man said to have had depression. His wife, Katerina, or Katy as he called her, once walked around for a week dressed in black from head to toe. When Martin finally noticed, he asked her why she was wearing all black. The feisty Katie replied, “The mood that you have been in, I was certain that God died.”

Difficulty concentrating and making decisions, physical exhaustion, feelings of worthlessness and of hopelessness, irrational thinking and anger are some of the symptoms of depression, and Elijah had most of them. It’s been suggested that ministerial burnout, which is a huge problem among pastors, may have played a part in Elijah’s crash and burn. [How wonderful that Pastor Ballentine has been able to be on sabbatical.]  “Let me die,” Elijah begged God.

How did God respond? He sent Elijah an angel to wake him, and tell him he needed to take care of his physical being. God sent this angel with water and bread. Elijah ate and drank, and then pulled the covers back over his head and went back to sleep. A second time, the angel woke him up to eat the food and drink provided by God. Strengthened, Elijah walked for 40 days and 40 nights, and stopped to sleep in a cave.

God came to Elijah and spoke. He did not say, “Elijah! Snap out of it!” He did not say, “I know just how you feel, Let me tell you about me!’ or “You think you have it bad? Let me tell you about Job!” He did not say, “Stop throwing yourself this pity party.” God did not say, “Have you tried supplements? I’ve heard samE is pretty good.” God did say, “What are you doing here, Elijah? I care about you. What’s going on?” And he told Elijah to get up and go wait for the Lord, and so Elijah got up and went.

He listened and looked for God in the usual places – wind, earthquakes, and fire. But he didn’t find God there. God was in the silence. And Elijah heard God ask one more time, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah gave God the same answer as before, “I’ve worked so hard for you! And now I am the only one left, and people want to kill me!”

Into Elijah’s depressed silence of his life, God whispered, “Go. Go back home. Go back to work.” God told him he would not be alone. “I will leave seven thousand in Israel who are not aligned with Baal,” God reassured him. And then God gave Elijah both something to do and someone to help to lighten his load. He told Elijah to anoint Elisha in his place.

God did not give up on Elijah, nor did God abandon him. God brought resources to care for his physical being, reassurance that he was not alone, work to do, and help to deal with his work. We are all susceptible to depression, self-doubt, fear and insecurity. In the midst of it, God is still faithful to us, and we are still useful in God’s kingdom. After you’ve listened to the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, keep listening. Listen to the silence. You might just hear the still small voice of God whisper to you, “Go.”

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin


That Holy Space in Between

Matthew 14:13-21  August 3, 2014    8th Sunday after Pentecost

 This is one parable that we know so well. This story of feeding impacted the early church in a unique way, as it is the only one of Jesus’ miracles that is recorded in all four Gospels. People had come to see and hear Jesus, and to be healed by him. Jesus saw the crowd, and had compassion for them. As the sun became lower in the sky, Jesus was still curing the sick. The sound of stomach’s rumbling and children whining began to escalate. People were hungry. The disciples wanted to send them to pick something up at Subway or McDonalds, but there wasn’t one around for miles and miles. Jesus said to the twelve, “YOU give them something to eat.” And they said, “We have nothing here but a two measly fish and a few loaves on bread.” Jesus said, “Bring them here to me,” and he blessed the two measly fish and few loaves of bread. The disciples fed the crowd and there were leftovers.

Many have tried to explain this miracle, but maybe we really don’t need to know exactly how it worked. The feeding of the five thousand is more than just a miracle of leftovers. It is a story of Jesus using created things to do redemptive things. When Jesus told the disciples to feed the people, the gut reaction is, “There’s not enough! I’ve got to hold onto what I have.” We hear Jesus’ concern for the crowds and their physical needs. He doesn’t ask those who are hungry for their church affiliation, or proof of citizenship, he doesn’t put a bill before congress; he simply recognizes their need, and tells us it is up to us to feed them. While the disciples thought in terms of scarcity and protecting what little they had, God acted out of God’s gracious abundance.

You all here at St. Stephen enact this story, responding with grace and abundance to the needs of the hungry. Our outreach efforts are one of the blessings to our community. We have learned and live this story of feeding. To be able to provide for others is a miracle, one that perhaps we relegate to a commonplace occurrence. As one commentator points out, “Sometimes we forget that to be provided for and to have our needs met are indeed miraculous moments themselves.[1]”

But there is more. The multiplying of fish and bread, and overcoming the need for self-interest are not the only miracle in this story. Let’s start at the beginning. After Jesus had told great crowds and his disciples several parables, stories, about the kingdom of God, he returned to his hometown of Nazareth. The people who should have supported him the most rejected him. It must have been quite a blow, not just for Jesus, but for the disciples, too.

Jesus just left Nazareth when he got news about his relative John the Baptist. King Herod had John put into prison. I can’t even begin to imagine this wild birthday party Herod threw for himself. To reward his step-daughter for her dancing for the guests, he agreed to chop off John’s head. Not only did John get the ax, his head was presented to Herod’s family on a platter.

This is the news that Jesus had just received when he climbed into a boat and went off to be by himself. On top of rejection by the people with whom he grew up, he was grieving John’s gruesome death. Today, we might recognize the trauma Jesus and his disciples endured. It was too much for Jesus, so he left. He went seeking solitude. We understand needing to retreat to a place of quiet sanctuary when we need to process and decompress. But the people from the towns followed him. A lot of people hoofed it out to the deserted place where Jesus had gone to recover himself. And Jesus had compassion for them.

Remember, the disciples, too, had been experiencing the effects of rejection, and they, too, were grieving. Their response to the crowd reflected this. “It’s late, Jesus. There’s nothing much here. Time to call it a day and go home,” they said. Disciples in a state of undoing don’t seem like the kind who would be able to accomplish much ministry. But Jesus takes their weariness, and turns it outward. “You do it,” he tells them. Jesus takes their heavy hearts and breaks them open to help feed others. And we have to wonder who was really fed.

“Surprisingly, unexpectedly, the feeding of the five thousand gives witness to what the space between death and resurrection looks like, for the crowd. For the disciples. Maybe even Jesus,” writes Karoline Lewis:

Where there is the knowing of profound lack, but experience of provision. Where we exist in the meantime of life, but can see, albeit dimly, solutions. Where and why and when we think we can’t go on, but then we do. Therein, perhaps is the miraculous. [2].

In an op-ed column in the New York Times, 36 year old neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi wrote about his diagnosis of lung cancer. He writes:

The path forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left…The pedestrian truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day? My oncologist would say only: “I can’t tell you a time. You’ve got to find what matters most to you.”

I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live[3].

The holy space between the sigh that says, “I can’t go on,” and “This is the day the Lord has made. I will go on,” this is where miracles happen. When the disciples told Jesus to send the people home, Jesus looked them in the eye and said, “They don’t need to go; you feed them.” In other words, ‘Live already. You can’t sit back and watch me do all this awesome stuff. Live it. Live life. I am counting on you. I need you.’”[4]

The space between death and resurrection is where God weaves our grief and our weariness and creates a new way of living with it. We are redeemed so that we might live, not focused on ourselves, but on the work God has given us to do.  When we drop to our knees and confess, ”This is all we have, Jesus,” Jesus bids us, “Bring it to me.” Then he takes it, breaks it open, and blesses it, and we will never be the same again.

[1] Lewis, Karoline. “When a Miracle is More Than a Miracle.” Working Preacher. July 27, 2014. Web. July 29, 2014.

[2] ibid.

[3] Kalanithi, Paul. “How Long Have I Got Left?” The New York Times. January 24, 2014. Web. July 30, 2014.

[4] Lewis, Karoline. “When a Miracle is More Than a Miracle.” Working Preacher. July 27, 2014. Web. July 29, 2014.

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin


(If you would like a copy of an earlier sermon, e-mail Pastor Ballentine or Pastor Griffin and s/he’ll send you a copy!)