Your love is extravagant

Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-21

What comes to mind for you when you hear the word “extravagant?”

By definition extravagance has to do with a lack of restraint in spending money or using resources. It’s a word associated with luxury, lavishness, comfort and indulgence. An extravagance is usually something optional, over-the-top and unnecessary, a waste really.

Yet Scripture tells us that God’s love for us is extravagant.

High and wide and deep and long, it breaks through our human dimensions of time and space. Intimate and endless, it transcends our reason and understanding. Inclusive and enduring, it defies all earthly limits and all our efforts to contain and control it.

In our Gospel this week, we read of God’s extravagant love being unveiled to a large crowd of people who had followed Jesus across Lake Galilee because of his power to heal the sick. Among them was also a large number of pilgrims heading towards Jerusalem to offer the traditional unblemished lamb as a Passover sacrifice in memory of their liberation from slavery in Egypt.

Now, we know from Mark’s retelling of this event that the disciples had recently returned from their own healing and teaching ministries and were tired, so Jesus had taken them off to a desolate place along the shoreline in the hope of having some time to eat and rest and share with them.

But when he was confronted by this mass of about 15 000 people (including the women and children of the group) so desperate to know of the power and presence of God moving among them that they had run on foot to get ahead of him, Jesus’s heart was full of compassion.

Because God’s love for us is extravagant: high and wide and deep and long, it breaks through our human dimensions of time and space so we’re never unwelcome, never unwanted, never intruding. When we reach for God, our needs are met with power, our deepest longings with loving-kindness.

Knowing full-well how he would deal with the massive crowd who just longed to be near him, Jesus asked one of his disciples, Philip, where they could buy enough food to offer hospitality to them all.

Philip’s reply is interesting in the way in which it demonstrates the difference between our own mindset and God’s. Notice how Philip actually avoids the question that Jesus asks of “where” this food can be bought and responds with how much it would cost if everyone was to have even a little piece.

Philip was blind to the extravagance of Christ’s intentions because of his own preoccupation with numbers: the size of the crowd, the cost of the food, how much – or how little – each person could have in order to keep their expenditure to a minimum. In Philip’s eyes, the extravagance of love that would be demonstrated by feeding a crowd of this size was reduced to a more symbolic act of offering a mere mouthful – and even that was beyond their current financial limitations!

His friend and fellow disciple was a little more creative. At least Andrew took the initiative to find a nearby food source. But even as he presented the child with his five barley loaves (a poor man’s bread) and two small fish, he evaluated what was on offer against what was needed and concluded that it just wasn’t enough.

But God’s love for us is extravagant … even though we are slow to comprehend both its nearness and its magnitude. Intimate and endless, it transcends our reason and understanding. When we focus on our limits, God reveals the untold riches of God’s glory and favour. When we are driven by the sense of “not enough,” God unveils a power and a plan beyond what we could ever have imagined or guessed at or requested.

So Jesus instructed the disciples to have everyone sit down. Imagine what welcome words those must have been to these desperate, hopeful, hurting people who had run so far from their homes to find him in the desolate place.

And he took the little that was on offer from one of the little ones in the gathering – who, for the record, isn’t named or even numbered among the 5000 because of his young age – and he gave thanks to God and began breaking it so that the disciples could share it out among the people.

Miraculously, the food multiplied, and everyone ate as much as they wanted, until they were completely satisfied. From the little that was offered, grew – in the breaking and the sharing – not just enough to feed 15 000 people, but more than enough with twelve baskets full of leftovers being gathered together!

Because God’s love for us is extravagant … but in no way over-the-top nor unnecessary nor wasteful. Inclusive and enduring, it defies all earthly limits and all our efforts to contain and control it.

Growing from a little, multiplying through dividing and sharing, this is what the table, the cross, the church, the kingdom of God is all about!

Yet, the immediate response of the people to this extravagant love was the desire to take hold of Jesus and forcefully make him their king. God-with-them on a grassy hill no longer measured up to their ambitious scheme to overthrow their Roman rulers so Jesus withdrew into the hills from the God-over-our-enemies mentality that even today seeks to cleave and crush and conquer.

Even the disciples were in danger of getting sucked in to this predictable plot which is why – in the other gospel accounts – Jesus, in fact, commanded them to head across the lake towards Bethsaida without him.

Their inability to control and contain the extravagance of God’s love, God’s plans, God’s kingdom was soon made apparent as a strong wind began to blow and the waves got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and they couldn’t even manage to get themselves to where they wanted to go.

But Jesus came towards them, walking on the water, speaking words of profound truth and deep peace: “Don’t be afraid. It is I.” And they happily took him into the boat with them and landed immediately at the place where they wanted to go – even though, through their own strained efforts, they had only made it about halfway to the opposite shore.

Those words in the Aramaic allude more strongly to “you know who I AM” than just “it is I.” Against the backdrop of darkness and the desolate place, at the time of Passover, with the manna-like provision of bread and the Moses-like power over the sea, these words are the climax of this chapter and the heart of the Good News: that Christ Jesus, the son of the Great I AM WHO I AM and I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE is the extravagance of God’s love given shape, present and active and moving among us.

As they landed at Bethsaida, on the opposite end of the lake to Jerusalem, Jesus resumed his work of bringing God’s great love for the world within reach of everyone. Soon everyone would hear him confess …

“I AM the bread of life,”

“I AM the light of the world,”

“I AM the good shepherd,”

“I AM the way, the truth, and the life.”

And they would know it was true for he fed the 5000, restored sight to the blind, sought out those for whom society no longer cared, and rose from the dead to restore to us the very fullness of life.

As we gather as church in a particular time and a particular place, we sit in fellowship with one another and in the refreshing presence of God to be met by the extravagance of God’s love and fed from the Bread of life.

The challenge though is not to try to control or contain what we receive as though God’s love is not enough but to allow the resting place of God’s love to become the very source and root of our life as the people of God within our particular community.

God’s love for us is extravagant. May our love for the world be no less high or wide or deep or long.

 

Come. Drink. Flow.

A reflection for Pentecost. Based on John 7:37-39

There is a story* told by the rabbis of old of a great and harsh desert which people were hesitant to cross because of its scorching heat and shifting sands. In the midst of the barren and dangerous wilderness was a well so deep that you couldn’t even see down to the water within it so people had forgotten what it was and what it was there for.

One day, a man who had to cross the white sands came across it and stopped to wonder at its presence and its purpose. And, as he wondered, he noticed a rusty, cup-shaped object half-buried nearby and a half-a-dozen golden strands scattered around around the strange structure.

While hundreds of others had passed by in too much of a hurry over the years, this man took the time to examine each new discovery, and to wonder whether they fit together and if they could somehow help reach the damp coolness that he could feel coming off from the inside of the sturdy stones.

After a long while of pondering and playing, he settled on tying all of the strands together and the big cup with a handle to one end.

Cautiously, he lowered it into the pit and, just as he reached the very end of his makeshift rope, he heard a strange sound and felt the weight of the bucket – for that’s what the rusty object was – shift.

So he heaved and he heaved and, finally, hauled out a bucket full of the purest, clearest water. And as he drank deeply, he was changed – along with his whole view of the desert world around him.

Now the story actually has two endings. In the first, the man set off on his way again, leaving the bucket and the many strands tied together so that the next person could easily reach and taste the transforming water. In the second, before heading off he carefully untied the golden strands and scattered them again so that the next person to come across the well would have the experience of figuring out the puzzle and finding the treasure of the deep well for themselves.

I wonder which ending you think best.

 

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus finds himself in a dangerous place: the Jewish leaders already hate him and are plotting to kill hm, his disciples are pressuring him to be more of a public figure than he wants to be, and the people are whispering about whether he is a good man or simply a great liar.

Yet, as he stands on the temple courts on the last day of the great festival of Tabernacles, he extends this gracious, grace-filled invitation to them all:

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.

We all need to hear this invitation on this day of Pentecost for we are living in dangerous times; in a dry and barren place cunningly camouflaged as a welcoming oasis by the luxuries of air-conditioning and uber-eats and internet shopping and thousands of uplifting, motivational messages sent straight to our inbox or Facebook stream.

Even as we advance technologically and acquire more and more stuff to give substance and a vague sense of purpose to our pretty mediocre, mundane lives, we lose the capacity for silence and wonder, for compassion and justice, for unconditional and all-encompassing love.

Like the man in the desert who took time to pick up and put together all of the scattered pieces and gain the refreshing, transforming waters of the deep well, we need to mull over and take time with Jesus’ words to us today if we long to live beyond the shallowness and superficiality of this day and age.

 

In an inhospitable, suspicious world of high fences, diverted faces, and people always on the GO-GO-GO, Jesus’ first word to us is one of intimacy. COME!

“Come” is the eternal invitation to “approach,” “advance,” “draw near.”

“Come” is the starting point of a conversation, a friendship, a journey, an adventure.

“Come” reminds us of the open arms of God and God’s continual desire to be with us …

… even when we are broken, disobedient, angry, fearful, empty, questioning, thirsty.

The first step towards deeper, Spirit-filled living lies in drowning out all of the noise, the pressure, the demands, and taking a deliberate step closer to God.

“Come.”

 

But drawing near to God is just the beginning for the next word comes as a command: DRINK!

Imagine for a moment that you are out at a friend’s house, sitting comfortably together when she asks you if she can get you anything. Immediately, you reply, “Actually, I am quite thirsty. I would love a glass of water!”

She returns a few minutes later with a cup of cool, clear water in her hands which she holds out to you but you simply sit there and stare with your own arms crossed. Will your thirst be quenched by looking at the glass?

Of course not!

It requires you to reach back, receive, and deliberately drink deeply of what is on offer.

How many times do we come to God and feel like we are leaving empty-handed, with unanswered prayer, because we’ve actually been holding on too tightly to things that distract and destroy us? How often do we make time to draw near God in worship and walk away feeling irritated or unfed because our constant internal critique of the worship team, the sermon, how we were greeted – or not welcomed – at the door has kept us from hearing the word that God intended?

“Drink.” Jesus commands.

“Take hold of the grace, the love, the wisdom, the peace, the healing, the guidance, the strength that you find in my presence and make it part of you.”

Once again, the act is deliberate. “Drinking” requires attention and intention – not to mention a good dose of humility for reaching out and taking hold is an expression of something we lack, of something we need.

 

But when we drink deeply of the Spirit of God, when we take the grace we have received into our minds, our hearts, our homes, our communities, something amazing happens: we are changed in a way that changes the world.

Jesus’ final word to us in today’s reading is a promise: “living water will flow from within them.” FLOW!

Many years ago, we purchased a home with an annoying dripping tap next to our patio. The constant trickle of water stained the bricks black with algae that Darren (my husband) had to scrape off every few weeks. He tried brute strength to force the tap closed. He even replaced the rubber stopper but still the water drip-drip-dripped.

Eventually, at my mom’s suggestion, we placed an old cast iron bath tub beneath it; filled it with soil, and planted Louisiana irises which flourished from the constant trickle that had once irritated us so.

Now I’m not suggesting that we, as Christians, become irritating drips to others, but I am wondering: if a trickle of water can bring a bathtub of soil and bulbs into an abundance of life and beauty, what can the free flowing waters of God’s Spirit accomplish? If the unexpected treasure of a deep well in the midst of the desert can change the way a man sees the world and make him consider the legacy he wants to leave for others, how does the Spirit within us open up new ways of looking and loving and living?

“Come. Drink,” Jesus says, “And the Spirit will flow.”

We need to be intentional about the first two words, then God will take over and open the floodgates for there is an everlasting abundance of Spirit to be shared.

Why, then, do we keep trying to tighten the taps? Why do we so often hoard and hold into the grace we have received as if there is not enough to go around?

Raised in the desert world as we are, we learn lies from an early age like, “I’ve earned this,” or “people like that are not worthy,” or “I won’t give them a hand because they’ll take the whole arm.” These moral judgments, entitlements, inadequacies all act like dams in the river of God’s Spirit, interrupting the flow.

 

This Pentecost may we receive the word of invitation and come to God as we are – deliberately drawing near.

May we hear the command and drink deeply of the grace on offer from the One who loves us most and knows exactly what we need in this present moment.

And may we trust the words of promise and break down the barriers in our hearts which keep the Spirit from flowing in a way that brings beauty and life to others.

***

* This story has been draw from the Godly play lesson entitled “The Parable of the Deep Well.”

 

Fasting by feasting

*** a sermon for Ash Wednesday based on Isaiah 58:1-9 and John 60:30-35, 41***

Today is the beginning of Lent – a 4o day period of repentance and fasting as we prepare for the coming of Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection in which we focus on our relationship with God, often giving up something as a sign of our desire to walk the way of suffering and sacrifice with Christ.

For many of us, this is not a new commitment; not a new journey. Many of us have, in fact, grown up in homes and churches where the Lenten language is familiar and fasting is  common practice. Really, even the secular world now recommends that people participate in this Christian custom because of the health benefits associated with abstaining from certain meals or food groups.

So, at the beginning of this well-worn, world-sanctioned season, let us acknowledge that, like the Israelites, we are well-practiced in these particular religious rituals: we lament in loud voices, we come forward for the imposition of ashes with sad faces, we dress somberly, we dismiss our colleagues’ invitations to lunch with an offhand “I can’t. It’s Lent. I’m fasting.”

But often, like the Israelites, our outward actions do not reflect our inner state. Truth be told, we feel smug in our self-imposed suffering; proud of ourselves for our willpower, our discipline, our sacrifice. And just below the often-authentic desire to repent, to be different, lurks the unconfessed belief that God will owe us something good for what we’re putting ourselves through, for doing the right thing.

And yet, like the Israelites who went through the right religious motions, we miss the point of this period, of this practice, and the fast we offer is not really the kind of fast that God desires.

Sure, we may cut out sugar, but that means nothing if our lives lack the sweetness of God’s love. We may give up caffeine, but it’s pointless when we still cling to to our grudges, our disagreements, our prejudice. We may go without meat, but what does that matter when we show no concern for those who go without bread, without shelter, without dignity, without justice on a daily basis? We may even waive all but one meal a day, but if we won’t abandon our ambitions, our pride, our busyness it’s all for nothing.

This struggle is not a new thing. Even Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, wrote in the 4th century to the Christian community of the time:

“Do not limit the benefit of fasting to the abstinence of food, for a true fast means refraining from evil. Loose every unjust bond, put away your resentment against your neighbour, forgive him his offenses. Do not let your fasting lead to wrangling and strife. You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother; you abstain from wine, but not from insults – so all the labour of your fast is useless.”

How do we get it so wrong? And how do we, on this first day of Lent, put aside the “right” religious rituals to which we have become so accustomed and enter into a true spirit of sacrifice and penitence?

Our Scripture reading from John’s Gospel holds the key.

The story is set after the miraculous feeding of the 5000 where the crowd wants to crown Jesus as king, and a time of teaching at the Feast of the Tabernacles where the crowd wants to kill him for preaching against the legalism that binds them in favor of what God really wants.

In the conversation with those who have followed him hungry for more, the question from the people reveals their preoccupation with their history, with the beliefs and practices of their ancestors handed down over many generations: “What miracle will you do?” they ask him. “Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, bread from heaven. So what will you do?”

Jesus shocks, and even offends some of them, by explaining that he is the real miracle – the true bread sent from heaven to give his life for the world.

It is a disruptive moment in which Jesus challenges their tradition, their faith; in which he proclaims that they should not be following Moses, a man who worked miracles, but God in heaven who made such miracles possible. He contests their tendency to follow after that which is temporary and unsustainable while that which is transformative and eternal is right in front of them. He opposes their desire to be satisfied – to be full – by revealing that it is only in the brokenness of his body and the giving of his life that they can enter into the abundant and the everlasting.

Perhaps our preoccupation with tradition is why our fast fails; for instead of fixing our eyes on our Father in heaven, we focus on that song, that ritual, that preacher who – for a moment – made us feel satisfied.

Perhaps it is our infatuation with the tangible: we fast from food, from television, from Facebook, from the things that we can physically give up rather than the powers that possess our minds and our spirits – the lust, the fear, the hatred that has taken hold in our hearts.

Perhaps it is our absolute lack of understanding that the fullness of life is not found by mourning and praying and fasting for forty days but in a costly and ongoing commitment to the broken and shared life of Christ… which is why so many of his listeners grumbled. They wanted a ready supply of food for their stomachs, not a lifetime of sacrifice and surrender. And, honestly, are we any different?

This year, may the Lenten invitation be clear: not just to fast for the sake of fasting, or because that’s what we think good Christians do, or because we hope to earn God’s favor going forward for the rest of the year; but rather to feast on Christ, to feed on the eternal, to nourish our souls with God’s Word, to spend time in his presence, to open ourselves up to uncomfortable conversations, to make ourselves vulnerable and available to that broken and shared life, and to be surprised by the abundance…

of mercy,
of generosity,
of forgiveness,
of love,
of peace,
of joy  that emerges when this season centers around the Bread of Life and the fullness of life on offer in Christ.

A true fast starts with and is sustained by feasting on the One who gave up all that we would never be hungry, never be thirsty. Will you grumble and complain, or partake and eat in the Feast that is set before you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The power of a name

When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You know that your name is safe in their mouth.
~Tess Scott

In John 20:11-18, angels, titles, roles, designations – mommy, wife, daughter, reverend, sister, friend – cannot break through Mary’s blinding loss and grief. Yet by uttering her name, Jesus changes EVERYTHING!

What, then, does the name that I use for God change?

What would I name You, God?

Father, with a lap more expansive than the night sky You created and all-enfolding arms,     stronger than the mountains but gentler than the ocean’s breeze?

Redeemer, with a servant’s hands and humble heart and broken body upon the cross?

Liberator, who flings wide the gates of death and turns the valley of trouble into a door of hope? 

Do I name You Love, with and within me; patient, forgiving, reconciling, enduring, inspiring, alluring?

Or God of Israel, Holy One, full of power and might; zealous for my affections; worthy of may adoration?

Nay, Lord, though these You are, and thousands more beside … friend, teacher, master, healer, Spirit, Light, Shepherd, breath, living waters, eternal word ….

At Your invitation, I dare this day to call you “lover,” “husband” – my beloved, my betrothed;
  to risk a deeper intimacy with you than I have ever known;
   a full surrender;
    an absolute and unequivocal “yes” to life walked with You day by day and hand in hand.

To You alone
who knows my secret name,
my hidden depths,
I give my life
as I say “YES!”

 

 

 

In the beginning

A Message for Confirmands based on John 1 and Genesis 1: 15 September 2013

In the beginning …

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.

In the beginning …

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

In the beginning …

Our God is a God of beginnings.  God is present at every start.

God is there at the moment of conception as two cells come together and merge and divide miraculously into fingers and toes and a beating heart and a mass of grey matter that has potential beyond our imagination and understanding and, even within the womb, a personality that sets each child apart and makes them as unique and special.

God is there at the first moment of independence – the first breath, the first inhalation of life, of Spirit; the first exhalation; the first cry; the first angry shout; the first word; the first step; the first fall.

God is there at the inauguration of our work: the first time we help mom in the kitchen, the first time we take responsibility for a pet, the first time we put on our school uniform, the first test we write a test, the first job we have, the first time we change our mind about what we want to do with our lives, the first time we dream about the mark we want to leave on the world.

God is there at the blast off of love – the first time that someone catches our eye and takes our breath away and becomes the center of our thinking, our being, our doing.  God is there at the first stuttered conversation, the first date, the first kiss, the first beak-up, the first heart ache, the first faint rustling of hope that this is something we should try again.

And God was there the first time that we met together as confirmands.  Some came shyly, some reluctantly, some because their parents insisted that they attend; some because they didn’t want to sit on their own at Children’s Church, some because they saw a gathering of similarly-aged young people and were curious; some because confirmation was the next part of their spiritual journey that they deliberately wanted to go through.

Yet why they came was actually unimportant.  As were their differences in terms of age and personality and levels of maturity and experience of church and understanding of this faith we call Christianity.

What is important is that God was there – in the beginning.

No.

That’s not quite right.

God was there before the beginning.  When things were formless and empty and dark, even then God was there and God said, “Let there be light” and there was light.  And there was Life – in the beginning.

We sometimes forget that because life is not always good or kind or enjoyable.  Sometimes it is scary and messy and incomprehensible and utterly beyond our control.  Sometimes – through our own choices – or through the choices of others, life subjects us to unbearable suffering, excruciating pain, heart-breaking disappointment.  Sometimes it is merely the boredom and the dullness of our daily routine that eats slowly away at our passion, our vision, our courage.  Sometimes we don’t know which way is up, or which road to choose in the multitude of forks that lie ahead of us.

Yet God is there.

In every moment, in every sense, in  every memory, in every thing that sustains life, God is there.

Like the many to whom John refers in his Gospel we do not see that.  Though God is in our lives; though our lives were made through God, we don’t recognize God in every moment: both good and bad; the times of smooth sailing and the encounters with stormy waters.

Yet God has been with us since the beginning.

No – since before the beginning God has been active and moving and present; in you and in me.

As our leadership listened to the testimonies of the confirmands yesterday that is the word that they shared: God is there.  As we have gathered as church, as guild, as community it is a word we experience: God is here.  As our young people have made vows today they have asked, “God walk with me from this day forward” in the faith that God has been with them since the beginning.

And to those who receive Him, to those who believe in His name, God gives the right to be children of God.

To our confirmands this morning I want to say that this is, indeed, just another beginning – a start into what it means to be a child of God.  It is an adventure into discovering your uniqueness, your belovedness, your part beyond this community and within the whole of God’s creation.  You are never alone, never unseen, never unimportant for you are made and named by God and utterly precious in the eyes of God.  God is there – in the moments that spark light and life and energy and passion and in the moments that seem empty and formless and dark.

God is there.  And we, your very extended family, are here too – to nurture and encourage and support you; to point you to the signs of life and light in the moments of darkness; to reflect God’s glory; and to be to you a place in which you can experience God’s grace and truth.

To those of us who are in need of such encouragement and support, who have lost our first love for God, who have wandered away from the paths that lead to life, let me remind you: our God is a God of beginnings and you can begin anew with God in this moment, on this day.