Sunday, May 27, 2018

Sermon - The Gospel according to the Rolling Stones

"Don't seem right, do it?" siad Topper. "It ain't right," replied Fin. "Not at all."  Jack guzzled his wine and wiped at his beard.  Mayhap it's right as we can't see it...."  Topper scratched his bald head and hummed in thought. "Still don't seem right," he proclaimed when he'd hummed enough.  Jack dropped his flaon to the deck, and it rolled away clattering. "Yea, well, what seems ain't always what is." - from Fiddler's Green, by A.S. Peterson.

click here for audio

What seems ain’t always what is.
I remember a family vacation with our kids to Mount Rushmore.  On the way, as we drove across the flat interstate of South Dakota, a thunderstorm the likes of which I never saw before or since overtook us.  It was so bad that we had to park a couple of times under an overpass to protect our minivan from the driving rain and occasional hail. The flatness of the terrain meant that, when the rain stopped falling on us for a while, we could literally see the storm move off in one direction or another. In fact, we could look around us for miles and see several distinct storms in different locations.  And in between them, and above them, we could see sparking blue skies.  That was comforting when we were under the overpass with scared kids – during the worst, with dark clouds seemingly swallowing us up, we could remind them of those blue skies and tell them that the storm would pass, that those blue skies were still up there, that above the storm was peace and calm and a God who is in control, that the storm would pass but the blue skies would stay. What seemed to them, for a moment, to be utter disaster was in fact not at all the state of the world.
Let’s return to the apostles just after the end of last week’s story, the feeding of the five thousand in Matthew 14.  The very next time something arises that is not what the apostles expect – this time it is their own storm – they are terrified. This is still in the same chapter; the scripture says it happened “immediately,” so it is likely the same day. They have just seen thousands fed from one lunch, yet they do not or will not count on the provision of God when a new and different threat arises. Short memories. The storm seems like it will overtake them, and they have already forgotten that there are unseen blue skies, that what seems ain’t always what is.
Let’s look at our scripture for the day. Exodus 17:1-7:
The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin,traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.  So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lordto the test?” But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at oreb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
 How can the Israelites, the children of God, fall prey to ordinary concerns like being thirsty?  They have seen God’s power displayed in Egypt – boils, frogs, gnats, the angel of death.  They have left their bondage and headed to the Promised Land, pursued to a shore where the sea has opened for them to pass and then closed on their enemies. Just two chapters earlier, in Exodus 15, they came to a place, called Marah, where the water was too bitter to drink; there they saw Moses, at God’s direction, throw an ordinary piece of wood into the pool, and the water phenomenally became sweet and potable.  They have seen God provide quail and manna for their daily food. 
The Hebrews have short memories.  They grumbled about their taskmasters in Egypt, and God delivered them.  They grumbled when they reached the Red Sea, and God delivered them.  They grumbled from thirst in Marah and from hunger in the desert, and they got pure water and miraculous food. All they have needed His hand has provided, yet their past deliverances are not enough to convince them that the current drudgery will not do them in. They have trouble remembering blue skies.
Sound familiar?
The Israelites’ present struggle, their life as wanderers through wilderness guided by God’s promise, seems overwhelming. I do not mean to suggest that this is a minor concern – historians agree that there may have been more than two million Israelites in the desert, so food and water were a real issue.  But, the Hebrews’ experience has been that God is more overwhelming.  Yet, they grumble.
Now, they thirst again.  The recent events at Marah – the last time they were thirsty – apparently mean nothing to these people.  They have come to a campground that does not have a nearby spring, and they once again sink to the lowest common denominator.  Their life becomes all about the most mundane:  They are thirsty.  "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?" [Exodus 17:3] To them, it seems that life is over, that God has abandoned them, that Providence has moved on. But what seems ain’t always what is.
This time, there is not wood to throw in the bitter pool; instead, there is the staff of Moses to strike an ordinary rock.  And the water pours out.  An extraordinary God works to solve an ordinary problem.
Last week was Pentecost Sunday. We did not make a big deal of it, other than mentioning it in the Order of Worship. There is a name in the traditional church calendar for the time of year beginning today, the First Sunday after Pentecost.  The time between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, and again between Pentecost and Advent, has a particular name in the traditions of the church.  Do you know what it is?  It is “Ordinary Time.”
Today is the 8th Sunday of Ordinary Time.
You can see why we Protestants don’t use that term much. What could be more boring than Ordinary Time?  What could possibly be less important, less sexy, less enthralling then thirty-three weeks of Ordinary Time?
The famous French monk Brother Lawrence embraced his ordinary times.  His work The Practice of the Presence of God grew out of years of working in a monastery kitchen until he was finally promoted all the way up to fixing sandals.  The ordinary became, for Brother Lawrence, the time and place best to meet God.  He wrote:
The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer.  In the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Supper. [The Practice of the Presence of God., 230-32.]

I am a baseball fan.  In August, when every day at Rangers Ballpark is in triple digits, baseball has its own version of Ordinary Time.  In baseball parlance, it is known as The Dog Days.  In a 162-game season, the enthusiasm of April wanes as the calendar pages turn. The All-Star game is over. The postseason is still over a month away. The weather is hot and dry. It is hard to stay excited.... Those are the Dog Days.
We all have Dog Days.
We have them in our marriages. It is not that we want out, or that we think we have made a mistake, or even that there is anything particularly wrong. It is just that years of marriage have followed years of marriage, and enthusiasm ebbs.
We have them in our jobs, of course. No matter how called you are and how much you love your job, there are weeks that pass that require commitment simply to get up and go back to that same office or wash another load of clothes and cook another meal.
We have them in our spiritual lives. God is still there, just as God has always been. We are neither tired of God nor wanting to take our turn as the Prodigal Son. We merely lack enthusiasm.
The Dog Days can make it hard to teach or preach.  They can make it hard to witness, to work as a Christian, to serve the Lord with gladness. How can I find it in me? The Dog Days seem interminable, and we seem useless to God.  But remember, what seems ain’t always what is.
The answer, of course, is that we can't find it in us, for we really have very little to say. The answer, of course, is to turn to the One who has no Dog Days, for what God has to offer never fails. Our faithful God just keeps bringing it. God's mercies - gifts, grace, goodness - are new every morning.
The truth is that my marriage is precisely what I need, that my wife is God's gift to me, that our life together is precious and right. That job you sometimes dread – whether it is at an office or in your own home - is the way you live out God's call on your life, and you are in fact where you know you ought to be.  That is the lesson of Brother Lawrence.
Ordinary Time has a different potential problem for us from what the Dog Days bring to baseball players.  Beyond exhaustion and tedium, we can experience the silence of God.  And that can be scary.
I should not be upset about it. Like the Israelites with their memory of bitter water turned sweet, I remember times of clarity, times of direction and spiritual certainty. I know without doubt that God has spoken to me multiple times.
But it is not always so well-defined.  Like the Israelites at Meribah, I can forget my experience with God – even from yesterday.  Between the mountaintops of spiritual clarity are weeks and weeks of Ordinary Time.
And that is ok. The will of God has been demonstrated to me vibrantly, at times through study of scripture, through prayer life, through worship, through song, through the voice of a friend or a mentor, through experience.
Other times, though, the voice of God is elusive and even silent, for a while. The temptation is to say, “I am thirsty. Why didn’t you just leave me back in Egypt?”
            I go through times, as do you, when God is not talking. At least, I cannot hear Him. I am reading scripture every day. I am active in church. I am praying. I am listening. I don’t hear anything. God is, or seems to be, silent.
But – say it with me now – what seems ain’t always what is.
Eileen Berry has written:
 In Your word I find the echoes of the questions in my mind;
Have I fallen from Your favor, is Your ear to me inclined?
When Your silence is unbroken, though my prayer ascends each day,
Father, keep my faith from failing, in the face of long delay.
When the troubled thoughts within me hold me wakeful in the night,
And the shadows that surround me seem to hide me from Your sight,
Father, bring to my remembrance mercies shown in days gone by.
Help me rest upon Your promise: You will not neglect my cry!
While You wait in gracious wisdom and my doubts begin to rise,
I recall Your loving-kindness and lift my hopeful eyes.
While Your hand withholds the answer, I will not withhold my heart;
I will love You in Your silence, I will trust You in the dark. [Molly Ijames and Eileen Berry, “In Your Silence,” 2011]

My good friend Susan Lanford tells the story of driving on the interstate in Nashville, a busy six-lane loop of the city known as I-440.  Driving in the middle lane, where she routinely drove, Susan one Monday noticed a new sign that she had never seen before. The sign said, “Center Lane Does Not Exist.”  Susan was stunned, and not more than a little bothered.  After all, she was driving in the center lane.  She could certainly see it. For the rest of that week, every time she drove that way, she saw that same sign: “Center Lane Does Not Exist.”  It about drove her crazy until Saturday, when Susan, driving with her then-teenaged daughter Bethany, told her the story of the sign and supposedly non-existent lane.  When they got close enough to see it, Bethany rolled her eyes and let out one of those famous teenaged daughter sighs before saying, “Mom, the sign says, ‘Center Lane Does Not Exit.’”
The silence of God felt in our ordinary times can make us feel powerless to control what is happening to us. We feel that life is moving along without us. We wonder if we are driving in a lane that does not exist anymore.
When it seems that God has ceased speaking, Bible study holds little of new interest, and worship itself seems routine. Before long, we can wonder if we ever really heard God speak. Fixing sandals is just not doing it for us.
Perhaps the silence is meant to allow us to take advantage of rest. Perhaps the church fathers knew what they were doing when they built some Ordinary Time into the calendar.
When God is silent, or seems silent, we remember that we walk by faith, not by sight... or by hearing. We know what we know. What seems ain’t always what is. God is still present, even if quiet.  Manna still comes.  New mercies are still a part of every morning.
God is not playing tricks on us. When I hear Him clearly, I walk, obedient and trusting, with Him. Then, when the voice of God is not distinct to me, I know I am already on the right road; I walk where I know to walk, and I trust that I am where He wants me. A big facet of faith is confidence that I am being led, even when I don't hear the commands. If I follow where God is leading when His voice is clear, then I know I am on the right path when I am not hearing Him so well. Even when I read the signs wrong.
The question then, is how then shall we live during Ordinary Time?  If the Dog Days are to be expected … if the silence of God is not a reason to pull the alarm, then how should we live our lives?

Today’s scripture, as we have read, is the story of Meribah, of the place where God made water come from the rock.  I cannot think of a better illustration of our struggles with Ordinary Time than a people wandering in wilderness who are thirsty.  They grumble.  They forget what God has done.  These chosen people have had a front row seat for God’s recent history, from plagues to Passover to the parting of the sea; but it all seems to have vanished from their collective memory.  All they know is that slavery seems a lot better in glorified retrospect than this current situation appears going forward.

And that brings me back to the question: How should we live our lives in Ordinary Time?

I think my answer will surprise you.  I believe the answer is found by turning to the Gospel according to those historic theologians, the Rolling Stones.

Yes, from the same band who gave us “Sympathy for the Devil” comes a word of wisdom.  The biggest danger of Ordinary Time, of the silence of God, is feeling empty. It is the determination that we can’t get what we want.
Some of you may claim to be too old or too young to remember the Rolling Stones, or you may turn up your nose and say you are too cultured, or too refined, or too something to know anything about what is generally referred to as the World’s Greatest Rock-n-Roll Band – formed in 1962 by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Ian Stewart, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts – and still going.  Other names have come to and gone from the band’s roster over the years, but the signature of the band stays the same.  It is Mick Jagger, strutting around the stage with his hands on his hips, singing the catch phrase lyrics that have symbolized much of what the band offers:

I can’t get no satisfaction. Though I try, and I try, and I try, and I try, I can’t get no satisfaction. [Jagger and Richards, “Satisfaction,” 1965]

We can learn a lot from Mick, Keith, and the boys. After all, they are just repeating the thoughts of the hymn writer. In Clara Tear Williams’s great hymn we sang early in the service, “Satisfied,” there is a third stanza not included in those white hymnals that says: “Poor was I and sought for riches, something that would satisfy. But the dust I gathered round me only mocked my soul’s sad cry.” [Clara Tear Williams, “Satisfied,” 1875.]
 We seek riches, or fame, or fun, or substance, or substances, or whatever, in a search for something that will satisfy.
Possibly, the Stones know their history: Ponce de Leon and his search for the fountain of youth... The seekers of El Dorado... The Crusaders in quest of the Holy Grail... Marco Polo... Columbus... The Apollo program... Searching for that indefinable… something. Waking up for another one of the Dog Days, hoping that today will be different from yesterday.
Perhaps Jagger and Richards are students of mythology. The myths are full of the search for satisfaction: King Midas, who craves gold, only to destroy his own family... Daedalus, who yearns for his place with the gods, only to see his wax wings melt as his son Icarus, dominated by hubris, flies too close to the sun... Pandora, who aches for answers, only to unleash horrors on the earth... Narcissus, who longs for himself, only to drown in the pursuit of his conceit....
They try, and they try, and they try…
Maybe the Stones are going back even further in getting the inspiration for their song. Remember Ecclesiastes from a few weeks ago? It is, after all, Qoheleth who speaks of one whose soul’s sad cry is mocked by all his possessions, his wives, his money, his subjects, his palaces, and his helpful proverbs - who declares “vanity, vanity, all is vanity… a chasing after the wind.” [Ecclesiastes 1:2, 14] For those of you who are not proficient in Biblical languages, what Solomon is saying is “I can’t get no satisfaction.”
Satisfied comes from the Latin word satis, which means “enough.” Being satisfied does not equate with driving the right car, or smoking the same cigarette as a rock-n-roll idol, or having the wealth of Solomon. Being satisfied comes from having enough.
You see, we hit the Dog Days.  We find our lives to be nothing more than ordinary.  We know we are poor and thirsty…so we try, and we try, and we try, and we try, and we pant for the fountain we cannot find.  What we discover is that we gather dust, and we thirst. Oh, there may be fine things and bottomless wineglasses at our fingertips, but it is not enough. We can’t always get what we want. Our souls crave. Egypt starts looking a lot better.
But there is a fountain. There is One who opened the life gate, who satisfies our longings.  There is the One who brings water from the rock.
Providence is less about declaring that God exercises control over every event and more another way of saying that God delivers, God gives, God supports, God feeds, God supplies. The word Providence is akin to its cousin words provide and provision. As Jim Denison says, God always redeems what He allows. Until the end comes, there will be disease and storm.  There will be divorce and betrayal. There will be hunger.  There will be thirst in the desert. But there will also be God, and thus there will also be Providence.  There will be rocks in the desert from which the water flows. The Lord is our Shepherd.  We shall not want.
Before we moved to Texas, I was a member of First Baptist Nashville, a mecca for singing great contemporary choir pieces. I remember the first time my choir sang Bob Mulloy's arrangement of "Satisfied," that hymn we sang from the white hymnal. Mr. Mulloy, who taught at Belmont College with my parents and was the father of two of my high school friends and a tremendous composer, director, and teacher, sent his arrangement to our choir before it was even typeset. We tried hard to read our copies of his handwritten manuscript during rehearsal. You see, Mr. Mulloy was dying, and he wanted to hear us sing his song. He had no time for publication schedules.
As we sang today, the old hymn includes these words:
All my life long I had panted for a drink from some cool spring that I hoped would quench the burning of the thirst I felt within. Hallelujah, I have found Him, whom my soul so long had craved. Jesus satisfies my longing. Through His blood I now am saved." [Clara Tear Williams, “Satisfied,” 1875.]

When the time came to sing it in concert, I remember Mr. Mulloy in the front row, left (as I looked out from the choir loft), in the balcony. His tired, sick, drawn body was unable to restrain the Hallelujah erupting from his countenance. His breath was failing, but he was saved. He did not get what he wanted, but he got what he needed. He did not have to try, and try, and try; he had found satisfaction.
I don’t know what you think will satisfy you. I don’t know if it is career. I know something about that, for I have made a couple of significant career moves. Each was the right thing for me and my family, and I made those moves following God’s leadership, but they are not enough.  Your work may be in the kitchen or fixing sandals or publishing newspapers or building bridges.  You may swell with pride at a newly finished painting or a signed contract, but it is not enough.
I don’t know if it is family for you. I have a great family. My wife and my kids are incredible.  You know my parents. We spend time together and we play together and we pray together. God has given me that family, but it is not enough.
Perhaps you search for it in your friends. I have the greatest friends in the world. I can push any of several speed-dials on my cell phone and know without doubt that anything I need on this earth will be lent, or given, to me if I am in trouble. I know that a shoulder and an ear and a heart are reserved for me. There are tears and cheers. Blest be the tie that binds our hearts. But it is not enough.
Even this church, this new venture that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt God has called us to start and has given me the privilege of co-pastoring, is not enough.
You see, Solomon teaches us that we can have career and money and family and friends and be empty. Now that I mention it, we can learn that from David and from Saul and from Napoleon and from Nero and from Marilyn Monroe and from countless other rich, popular, gloomy souls. Come to think of it, we can learn that from the Rolling Stones.
On the other hand, we learn from Job that we can lose career and money and family and friends and yet find that we do indeed have enough.  We learn that from Brother Lawrence.
And we learn it from Jesus, who said, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world but lose his own soul?” [Matthew 16:26]
You see, enough comes from only one place. Enough is Jesus, and it does not matter what else you have or don’t have to go with Him. You can be on the mountaintop or in the valley.  It can be Christmas Day or Ordinary Time. You can be making a big career move, or you may have been laid off this week. You may be wealthy, or you may be destitute. You may be in perfect health or waiting anxiously for that call from the specialist. There is nothing wrong with jobs and education and money, but they are not enough. There is nothing comforting about unemployment and lack of opportunity and empty pocketbooks and scary doctor reports, but they cannot stop – indeed they cannot even contain – satisfaction. Jesus leads us to Meribah, where He brings water from the rock in a weary land. He fills our cup.  It overflows.  Brother Lawrence calls it a “torrent of grace.”
That is what Bob Mulloy and Clara Tear Williams wrote about. And it is what I hear when the Stones sing that they try and they try and they try and they try and they can’t get no satisfaction. We don’t earn it or try for it or buy it or smoke it or sleep with it. We don’t get educated enough or rich enough or popular enough.
The hymn says that we thirst and all we find is dust. Jesus says it this way:
Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life. [John 4:13-14]

Believe it or not, it is the Stones themselves who provide the answer in their second-most-famous song: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.” [Jagger and Richards, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” 1969.]
In my benediction each week, I remind you what Paul tells us, that God can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. [Ephesians 3:20] The presence of Jesus transforms the ordinary to the extraordinary. He is rich enough. He is broad enough. We can throw it all on Him, for He bears our burdens. He is what we need.
We started this three-week series on the Restaurant Miracles with Debra reading to us from the 35th Chapter of Isaiah. Listen again to these words of the prophet:
The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy…. [and] they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come…." Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. [Isaiah 35:1-6]

It is the story of Meribah: water from the rock.  What seems ain’t always what is. What was not there before is there now. It does not just trickle, it gushes.  The ordinary has become extraordinary. We are transformed.
Baseball players get through the Dog Days. Truth be told, they enjoy the Dog Days, for what could be better than playing baseball for a living?
So too, tomorrow, another day of Ordinary Time, is to be enjoyed, to be savored, for what could be better than walking with God, than finding what God has new for me today?
God tells us to take the staff He has given us and strike the rock. And behold, water comes out.  Listen!  Can you hear it?
The historical, mythological search is over. We do not have to try and try and try.  All we have needed His hand has provided.
He is enough. I am satisfied. I have found Him. I am saved.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Sermon - Bring Them to Me


When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns.  When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.  As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”  Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”  “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.  “Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.  They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children. - Matthew 14:13-21
audio - click here

One of the benefits of meeting at 1:00 in the afternoon is that I get to hear other preachers on Sunday mornings.  A few weeks ago, I was listening to one of my favorites introduce what he perceived to be a very controversial topic, and he began by saying, “I sure would rather be preaching on the Feeding of the Five Thousand.”

Well, I know what he meant, but that does not mean that I think that preaching on this scripture is easy.  Even though the text is familiar and the story has a happy ending, this Restaurant Miracle is nonetheless deep and complicated and challenging at our most basic levels.
This is not primarily a story about how Jesus wants to feed the hungry.  It is not primarily a story about generosity. It is not mainly about cooperation or the importance of looking out for the less fortunate. It is not even primarily a praise of a little boy who offers all he has to Jesus. It undoubtedly touches on all of those, but they are not the point.
There are two overarching themes of this famous story. One message here is obviously the power of God through Christ, the miracle-working ability of the Son of God.  We will talk about that a lot today.  And there is a second lesson that has become clearer and clearer to me over the last few years.  This event is about faith, about what faith looks like, about how the followers of Christ are supposed to live life. We do not have only one solitary faith event – conversion – and then, after we become Christians, never again step out in faith. I want to introduce this text by having you think about this: The Christian life is a series of acts of faith.  I want to challenge you as Christians and as Trinity River Church that faith is your call.  C.S. Lewis writes:
[To have faith in Christ] means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. [Mere Christianity]

In examining faith, we are going to look at prayer and knowledge and responding to God. And to be sure I am not misunderstood, let me be very clear – saying that faith obligates us to act does not diminish in any way God’s action or God’s power. This is, after all, a miracle story. Jesus does the hard work. We are incapable of doing what only He can do. As I discuss how we should act in faith today, please do not mis-hear me and think I am saying that it is all on us, that it is up to us to fix the world’s problems or our church’s issues all on our own. Nothing is further from the truth.
That said, it would also be wrong to say that God does not expect us to participate, to obey, to follow His commands. We must live out our faith. God is not limited by what we do – He could choose to act without us – but scripture teaches that miracles most often happen when we join in. The four friends let the paralytic down through the roof. Before Jesus heals, he asks the man to stretch out his withered hand. The blind man goes to the river and washes. The servants at the wedding have to fill the jars with water. Most often, miracles occur when we are stepping out in faith. The call for us to act is not because God cannot do anything He wants without us but rather because Jesus very clearly asks us to.  He generally does not help us walk on water until we first get out of the boat.
As I have done before, I want to define faith for you by quoting Peter Kuzmic, a pastor and European seminary professor:  Faith is the courage to dance to the music of the future. I will come back to that.
We get a great view of what faith looks like in this very familiar New Testament miracle account, the feeding of the 5000.  Even non-churchgoers and those not well-versed in scripture know this story. This is the only miracle, other than the resurrection of Christ, to be recounted in all four gospels.
There are those who view this as a miracle of selflessness. Their version of the story is that when one boy offers his lunch, then everyone present is overcome with the urge to share, and suddenly they dig deep in their pockets, divulge the existence of food they brought with them that they have not admitted to before, and divvy what they have with the person sitting next to them as mass generosity breaks out. I don’t believe that. That is not what the scripture says, and I view that interpretation as an attempt to account for the miraculous, to come up with a reasonable explanation for an inexplicable divine act. This is a sho’-nuff miracle: Jesus touches five loaves and two fish and transforms them into food for all. No doubt the disciples are caught up in Jesus’s words of abundance and gratitude, and no doubt they then distribute what they have… but what they have goes from nothing to more than enough solely at the word of Jesus. This is a story about the power of God, for whom no task is too great, who takes very little and does the great and wonderful.
But I also notice that Jesus does not perform the miracle until he first asks the disciples to act.
Jesus and the apostles are grieving the execution of John the Baptist. They have tried to retreat, and the crowds have followed them. The apostles, making sure the logistics are covered, point out to Jesus that the hour is late and it is time to dismiss the crowds who are getting hungry. They pray - for, after all, prayer is simply a religious word for conversation with the Almighty - and tell Jesus what He should do.
 I mentioned last week that today I would discuss this idea – bringing both the problem and the solution to Jesus. I pointed out its opposite, when, at the wedding in Cana, Mary took a problem to Jesus and made no suggestion at all what He should do.  She simply said, “They have no more wine.” 
Mary’s way is not the apostles’ way on the mountainside. They are quite sure they know the solution – send the people away so they can buy food. We are all often guilty of this kind of prayer. Intercessory prayer is a decidedly New Testament concept, and we are indeed often called to lift the needs of our brothers and sisters to the throne of grace. What we tend to do, however, is exactly what the apostles do. Not content to point out the people's need to Jesus ("they are hungry"), the apostles proceed to tell Jesus what to do ("send them away so they can go to the villages and buy food"). How often we do the same - going to Jesus with our own program and expecting Him to bless our choice of how to address the need.
Jesus surprises the apostles as He often surprises us. He says "no." He has no intention of sending the crowds away. Jesus continues, moreover, to tell those saying the prayer that they are the answer to the prayer: "You give them something to eat."
Prayer does not always work that way. God does not answer every prayer by pushing the responsibility onto us. Many, many times, God’s response comes from sources of His own, sources we cannot imagine. That said, however, there are also many, many times when prayers act as a mirror, pointing us in the way to address the need.  Our grandmothers would have said something like, “the prayer that works best is the prayer we put our feet to.”  Fredrick Douglass said, “I prayer for freedom twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” [Noyes, Rufus King, Views of Religion, https://archive.org/stream/cu31924029088593#page/n75/mode/2up/search/I+prayed+with+my+legs]
How often is our prayer simply a disguised request for the mantle of responsibility to be lifted off our own shoulders? We have little trouble praying for AIDS victims in Africa when we are half a world away and not infectious disease specialists. When the issue is the hunger of those immediately around us, we may hesitate to pray, because we know the answer may well come back to us: "You give them something to eat."
Notice the order of what happens here. If I were writing the story, I would tend to put it in this order: (1) Jesus finds the loaves and fishes that someone in the crowd has brought; (2) Jesus performs the miracle and expands the food to an amount sufficient to feed the crowds; (3) then Jesus shows the newly created banquet to the apostles and tells them, "Here it is boys.  Pass it out.  Set up the buffet." That is how I like things to happen - I like to know the program, see clear evidence of the results ahead of time, know that the path to which I have been called will be fruitful. The apostles, however, don't get a formula or a set of empirical results on which to rely. They do not know what Jesus is going to do. They tell Jesus that the crowd is hungry, and He responds, “You give them something to eat.” At this point, the apostles are at what Henry Blackaby calls a "crisis of belief that requires faith and action." [https://vimeo.com/98678761] Jesus gives them an instruction that has no apparent chance of success - there are virtually no raw materials with which to operate, and the apostles have no ability to make this plan successful. All they have is Jesus. Faith says to follow Jesus. Jesus has told them to feed the crowds. It is crisis time.
Let’s be honest. The apostles’ answer is exactly what we would be inclined to say: "We don't have enough food."
Not a surprising answer.   The Greek word tells us that there are 5000 men there.  The number goes higher when the women and children are taken into account. The apostles answer reasonably.
I want to propose to you that faith is not reasonable.
When I say that our faith is unreasonable, it sounds at first like something we should not share, but that is not what I mean at all.  “Unreasonable” does not mean ignorant, silly, vain, stupid, unworthy, or anti-good sense.  It just means not based on human reason.  I mean faith is beyond our reason, beyond our ken.  It is not subject to scientific formula. In fact, not only do I not believe that our faith is ignorant, I believe there is much that we know. We cannot prove by anything but the words of scripture and our own experience; but, as Christians, we can and do know.
Jesus says that we shall know the truth, and the truth will make us free. [John 8:32] The concept of what we can know is all over the New Testament:
·   When the apostles ask Jesus why He speaks in parables, Jesus responds that “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given” to them. [Matthew 13:11]
·   After Jesus speaks to the woman at the well, she tells her friends that she has met the Messiah. They run to meet Jesus and then tell her, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the savior of the world.” [John 4:42]
·   At the Last Supper, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will bring glory to Him by taking what is His and “making it known.” [John 16:14]
·   John finishes his gospel by saying that “we know” that what Jesus has said is true. [John 21:24]
·   Paul tells us that in Jesus we have been enriched in all our knowledge [1 Corinthians 1:5], that we know the mystery of His will. [Ephesians 1:9]
·   John tells us that this is how we know we are His: that we keep His commandments and walk as Jesus walks. [I John 2:3,6]
·   He tells us that we know we have passed from death into life because we love our brothers. [1 John 3:14]
·   And we know that we live in Him and He in us because He has given us His Spirit [1 John 4:13], which Paul calls a deposit that guarantees our inheritance. [Ephesians 1:14]

Of course, we see through a glass darkly. We do not know now as we will one day know. [1 Corinthians 13:12] Still, the key to all this scripture is that there are things that we know. We do not know it all; we will never know it all. We cannot know our way to heaven – salvation is a matter of faith and the heart, not knowledge and the brain. But, as children of God, one of the great gifts we have is insight, clarity, knowledge, the unraveling of at least some of the mysteries of God.
A key gift of God to us Christians, of course, is hope. We typically use that word wrong – I "hope" she will go out with me, I "hope" the Cowboys win the Super Bowl, I "hope" it doesn’t rain tomorrow, I "hope" Mom orders pizza tonight. Those are not hope – those are wishes. When hope is used in scripture, it is always in the context of confidence, of what we know. 
So now, back to my favorite quotation, from Peter Kuzmic: “Hope is the ability to hear the music of the future; faith is the courage to dance to it in the present.” Hope is not a wish. Hope is real. Hope is knowledge. Having hope means that we know what is going to happen. The writer of Hebrews says:
Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of His purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, He confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. [Hebrews 6:17-19]

So, hope is the ability to hear the music of the future, and faith is the courage to dance to it today.  But that does not mean everybody understands.  Another of my favorite quotes came to me out of a fortune cookie: “Those who dance are thought crazy by those who cannot hear the music.”  Not everyone hears the music of the future, and to them, our faith dance is perplexing.
We shall know the truth, and the truth will make us free.
Taking that verse out of its setting in the Gospel of John is dangerous. I see it on pediments in courthouses where I practice. “The truth shall make you free.” And yet many who walk down those hallways have no idea how to access the truth that is described.
Jesus is specific on how we know the truth that makes us free. With the preceding verse, John 8:31, in context Jesus says this: “If you continue in my word, then are you my disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” That is a different ballgame – we can certainly know many things in many ways, but we can only attain that particular freedom-giving knowledge one way: we have to have an encounter with the one who is truth. We commune with the Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth.
That was a long detour into the idea of knowledge and hope, but it was for a purpose.  Three is no reason to act in faith if you don’t know what you have faith in. Our unreasonable faith is not ignorant. Our faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance of what we do not see. [Hebrews 11:1]
So if we can know things, how does that affect our faith? 
If faith is dancing to the music of the future, if Jesus’s answer to the prayer is “you give them something to eat,” then we have to face the fact that faith is active.  Faith is doing something. Please don’t get distracted with some faith vs. works debate in your mind in terms of salvation. I am not discussing how to be saved. That has nothing to do with what I am talking about.  I am preaching to and about people who are already saved. The subject is the faith of Christians. I am talking about your faith right now.  I am talking about the faith of Trinity River Church. We pray, and we hear an answer from Jesus, and He tells us to do something.
Why do we too often fail to step out in faith? To be sure, there are a multitude of reasons out there. Some Christians deny they hear God telling them to do anything.  Others are wrapped up in their perception of call – often the same and only call they have been comfortable with for decades – and they do not leave room for God to change it or add to it. Some claim that God does not speak to them, does not let them know anything He wants them to do. And some others never ask.
But for most of us, the issue is more nuanced than that. We do ask. We do hear. We know what God wants us to do. And yet we still do not do it. So that brings me to the question – What are the excuses we offer as a substitute for faith?
To answer that, I want to take what may seem like another detour, this time to the Old Testament, to the tale of the burning bush. Keep your finger on our Matthew text, and turn with me back to Exodus 3, the mother of all lists of justifications and explanations and whines we give to God. This is a long passage to read in the middle of a sermon, but please read with me.  This is a great story. While he will become a hero, Moses is not there yet. At this point, he is the king of excuses. Starting at the beginning of Chapter 3.
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.”  “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.  The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey ... And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.  So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”  But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”  Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”  God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ ... Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?” Then the Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” “A staff,” he replied. The Lord said, “Throw it on the ground.” Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. Then the Lord said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.” So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. “This,” said the Lord, “is so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you.” ... Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” The Lord said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind?Is it not I, the Lord?  Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”  But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.”  - [Exodus 3:1-15, 5:1-5, 10-13]

What are the excuses that we offer as a substitute for faith? They are the same that Moses offered so long ago. Let me warn you that at this point I am going from preaching to meddling.  Some of these will likely hit close to home for you.
·         Excuse #1 - Who am I? This is Chapter 3, verse 11. Why are you choosing me?  What do I have to offer?  I have no raw materials. I am just a lowly shepherd. I am a nobody. God, you’ve got the wrong person.
·         Excuse #2 - Who are you? Chapter 3, verse 13. Who should I say has sent me? When they ask me who you are, what should I tell them is your name? In other words, what possible authority is behind this task? Obviously implied here is this: What can you really do, God? How can you fix this problem? Who cares that you are commanding me?
·         Excuse #3 - What if it doesn’t work? Chapter 4, verse 1 – What if they do not believe me? What if telling them that God is with me is not enough? What if they don’t care about God, or don’t believe in you? What… what do you mean “what do I have in my hand?”  What do you mean “what can I bring you?”  What do you mean “pick up that snake?”
·         Excuse #4 - I can’t do it. Chapter 4, verse 10. I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.  I am not talented enough. God, you did not do your homework… You are not really up on your facts. I don’t know very much. I am barely keeping my head above water. I cannot answer hard questions. I fail regularly. I am a sinner.  I am not good enough, whether you are looking at talent or behavior. I have inherent weaknesses that you must have forgotten about. This job is too big for me.
·         Excuse #5 – I just don’t want to do it. Verse 13 of Chapter 4: Please send someone else. Max Lucado calls this response “Lord, here am I. Send Aaron.” [Max Lucado, Six Hours One Friday, p.57]
Does any of that sound familiar?  We say we believe. We proclaim our faith. But then, when God hears us and honors our claim of faith and calls on us, asks us to act in faith, our responses are all too predictable.  Who are we? Who are you to send me? I don’t have the stuff.  I can’t do it.  I am not talented enough. You have got the wrong person.  Please, God, won’t you please just send someone else?
Now, let’s turn back to Matthew 14, back now to the feeding of the 5000.  What do the disciples say?  See if these sound familiar.
·   Who are we? – Jesus, you have to send the people somewhere else to buy food.  Don’t look at us.  By the way, we are tired.  You have been preaching all day.
·   Who are you? – Jesus, you don’t have any food for them. You have to send the people somewhere else.
·   What if it doesn’t work? – This is a remote place.  There are a lot of them and a few of us. All we have is one little boy’s lunch.
·   We can’t do it. – We don’t have any food. It would take more than six months wages to buy enough.
So, then what happens?
Jesus's question in answer to the apostles is the same as God's question in answer to Moses: "What have you got in your hand?" It is the same question He asks us. Moses had a staff in his hand, and God told him to throw it down. The apostles had five loaves and two fish, and Jesus demanded that they "bring them to me." For us, our crisis of faith is to accept what we learned last week, that the recipe of whatever we have, added to Jesus, is enough. Our problem, plus Jesus, equals a solution. What does Trinity River Church have that God is asking us to bring to Him?  What is in your life that Jesus is waiting for you to turn over to Him? What are you grasping, clinging to, in your hand?
Yesterday, Bishop Curry knew what he had in his hand – 14 minutes, 18 million worldwide viewers, and the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He could have given a traditional royal wedding sermon. He could have bowed to the staid traditions around him. He could have looked around at the royals, not to mention Elton John and David Beckham and George Clooney, and decided that no one in attendance was interested in the death of Jesus Christ or the Greatest Commandment.  Instead, he looked at what was in his hand and brought them to Jesus, and the world heard the gospel.  Judging by my social media feed, the world will never be the same.
Don't be too hard on the disciples. They could laugh at Jesus. They could look around dumbly. They could wait for more explanation. Fortunately, the disciples don’t pull a full-on Moses.  They raise questions, but they don’t make all the same excuses.  They stop short of that last excuse, that last whine, that last Moses-like “Please, just send someone else.”  They demonstrate some beginning level of faith that Moses, at least at the burning bush, had not yet learned. Instead, they take some action. Jesus tells them to feed the people, and they look around to see what food they have. They come up with five loaves and two fish. That is better than most of us would do.
When we hear “five loaves and two fishes,” we might be tempted to think that sounds like enough at least for a family of five or six. The loaves here are not loaves of bread like we buy at the grocery store or what you see on the communion table before me.  They are about the size of bagels. They are made from barley, not even wheat.  They are cheap.  The fish are not ixthus, the usual Greek word for fish.  These are about the size of sardines, usually made into a paste to be spread on the bread. This is nothing more than a Lunchable for one. 
The disciples do what Jesus says to do.  They bring the lunchbox to Him. Jesus blesses the two sandwiches and leftover biscuit, and there is more than enough. God transforms the staff and empowers Moses to let the people go. And God waits for us to act in faith.
It is easy to see a miracle of Jesus that has just happened in front of you and respond to it appropriately. If you see Jesus heal someone, you are likely to bring your own sick friend to see Jesus. That is not really faith. That is just good sense. It is not a great step to lead the thirsty to the water fountain.
It is not easy to respond to the command of Jesus as though you can already see the miracle when the miracle has not happened yet, to tell thousands of people to sit down to a dinner you cannot imagine. It is not easy, but it is faith. It is the crisis of faith; it is so tempting to give in to the idea that this emperor really has no clothes. This is nothing more than a staff. These are no more than a couple of fish and pieces of bread. I am no more than what I am. This church is just 9 people in a borrowed sanctuary at an awkward time.
It is easy to invite people to the hot church that is baptizing dozens every month and has hundreds in attendance. It is not easy to ask people to dance with you to the music of the future, to come to a place in its raw beginnings, meeting in a place with stained carpets and holes in the roof and drums we’ll never use. It feels like being asked to feed thousands with one boy’s little lunch.
Faith dances today to the music of the future.  Faith is bringing the thirsty to the desert because the master tells you to.
One of you said to me after last week’s sermon that I should not feel burdened for the church, that we are on schedule, that we are new, and that development will take time. I agree. If being burdened means that you picture me losing sleep over our future, I am not. I rest firmly in the knowledge that we are in God’s hands and that God will do what God will do. I believe that God has called this church into existence and that God will accomplish His will. I know what Jesus can do with a little bread and fish, a few jars of water, some mud and spit.
I also believe, however, that God has called us to assist Him with that will. If by “burdened” is meant that I feel a strong push to encourage all of us, me included, to do our part to find where and when we should meet, and then to take whatever place and time that is and do everything I can to allow the Word of God to speak to those God brings to that place and time, then yes, I am burdened. I look at it as opportunity. I look at it as one of the jobs as a co-shepherd of this congregation. To be honest, I look at it as a great joy.
Like those on the mountainside, we are hungry. We are needy. We are ready to come to the Lord’s table, to have Him break once again the bread of life as He did that day on the mountain. We come to the table of the Lord unsure about our church’s future, uncertain of how He will lead us. We are praying for His direction and come to His table in communion, as His body, to join with Him in this search.
Faith is of course reliance on Jesus. When I talk about what Jesus asks us to do, I am not for a minute suggesting that we can do any of it on our own. I have been clear about that. We act with the strength, direction, and power of Jesus. We act in total reliance on Him. But it is not a reliance that sits in a recliner and observes. Faith is not a spectator sport.
Some of you are praying for Trinity River Church, for your family, for yourself.  Some of you are praying for a new sense of the Spirit.  Some of you are praying desperately for a sense of God’s direction for our next steps.  The answer may come thundering back, or echoing back, or whispering back – "You give them what they need." You have no idea how to do it. You don't see the raw materials. All you know is that God has called. You are at a crisis point.
 “What have you got in your hand?  What have I already given you?  What is in your own backyard?  How I have I trained you?  Whom have I placed around you?  You lead them.  You invite them.  You bring them. You give them what they need.  You step out on faith.”
Jesus is waiting for you to offer what you have. His words, as in the gospel, will be simple: “Bring them to me.”