Canon Huber: “Come, Fear Not, Share in God’s Abundant Life”
The theme of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention that just concluded last week in Anaheim, California, was a South African concept of ubuntu: that means I in You and You in me. During a visit to the Cathedral eighteen months ago Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained the idea of ubuntu. He said it goes like this, “a person is a person through other persons. I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.” In other words, my humanity is not defined by my standing apart from or above others—but with others in mutual relationship.
We’re separated by so many barriers. All sorts of walls divide us—class, race, gender, orientation, language and culture, even religion. Robert Frost in one of his poems writes, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” But his neighbor, piling rocks on the fence between their properties, keeps saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost protests, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
This morning’s first reading from the letter to the Ephesians is a celebration of “the breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of God in Christ. In this beautiful letter the author’s principal example of that love is the unity of Jews and Gentiles in a new unified community. If anyone doubts the power of the Holy Spirit in inviting Jesus’ disciples into a whole new understanding of the world, then just take a look at the make-up of the early church. Within the first generation of Jesus’ followers we see people gathered where walls had previously separated them. Scripture could be quoted to show why Gentiles and Jews should not associate with one another. Yet in just a few short years after the first Easter/Pentecost experience Jews and Gentiles were coming together in Christ. The writer speaks of “him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”
At General Convention the Episcopal Church took a few more steps to break down the walls that keep some of its members from full participation. “All the Sacraments for all the Baptized” was a mantra heard throughout this triennial meeting. Movement was made toward recognizing the faithful, monogamous, committed, loving relationships of the church’s same-gender couples and acknowledging that God has called, and likely will continue to call, people regardless of gender or orientation to ordained ministry in this church. We need to do that same prophetic work around the economic, racial, and cultural divides that keep us separated one from another.
It’s so often fear, isn’t it, that keeps us separated from each other, fear that keeps us from embracing the concept of ubuntu, and fear that keeps us from knowing God’s abundant life that is offered every time we gather at this table. The most repeated command in Scripture is “Fear not, do not be afraid.” In today’s gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “It is I; do not be afraid, you can trust me.” Theologian John Ortberg, quoting his friend Lloyd Ogilvie, makes note that there are 366 “fear not” verses in the Bible—one for every day of the year including one for leap year!
Today’s gospel text is all about putting our fears aside and trusting in God’s outstretched hand. I suspect even if you are not a regular churchgoer, you know the story of the feeding of the 5,000. It is the only miracle story recorded in all four Gospels and then it’s repeated twice again as the feeding of the 4,000. In one version or another, Jesus feeding the multitudes is recounted six times. The repetition suggests the significance of this story as a metaphor of God’s abundance. It’s a story that says that we don’t have to allow our fears to get the best of us, we don’t have to hunker down, dig our heels in, or put up walls between us. In God’s economy there is not only enough to go around, there is abundance. This story says that in God’s kingdom, community is the source of grounding and identity. “I am human, because I belong, I participate, I share.”
Scripture scholar Walter Bruggemann, who was also at the Cathedral recently, talks about the Bible being set as a liturgy of God’s incredible abundance. The Bible situates the world in the midst of God’s continual giving. And today’s gospel is a story about extravagant giving, trust, overcoming doubt, and confronting our isolation. In the other accounts of this story, the apostles’ solution to how to feed all these people was to send them away. Let them fend for themselves. Enough of them! Enough of “the other.” But Jesus sees we need to be fed, we need the bread of life, and we need each other. In both Mark and Luke’s accounts of this story, Jesus has the crowd sit down in groups of 50 or so. It’s in these groups that they share what they have and in that sharing they realize God’s abundance. “I am a person, because I belong, I participate, I share.” And there is more than enough for everyone.
Tragically, we, who live in the most materially abundant place in the world, feel desperate too much of the time and worry that we don’t have enough, because too much of the time we guard how we allow ourselves to participate, share, and belong to one another. And we miss the blessing of God’s abundance.
Throughout the Bible bread is a symbol of God’s extravagant love and ceaseless self-giving. Manna from heaven was given to the children of Israel, wandering in the wilderness. Morning by morning the hand of God provided. And in today’s story, the disciples, along with the thousands who were fed, recognize not only their connection to their ancestors in faith but to Jesus as the bread of life: “whoever comes to me shall not hunger and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Jesus, the face of God in the world, feeds us, nourishes us, sustains us, and gives us life—even when we find ourselves in a dark lonely deserted place.
At evening, Jesus’ disciples launch out into a boat to cross the sea. There is a storm. It is dark, and the sea becomes rough. They are terrified and Jesus says, “It is I, do not be afraid.”
This all sounds good, you might be thinking, but where is God’s abundance when it seems the world has taken absolutely everything away?
On Friday morning, I heard the most horrific news. A family I know lost both of their children, two 20-something-year-old sons, in a car accident. Incomprehensible! How do parents come to grips with such devastation? Author Pam Durban writes of such loss: “That is the sad night when I felt the power of death move over me, the power to empty, to take everything from you and leave the world intact and unchanged, just to show you that the place where you lived so confidently—as though it were the whole world—was in fact so minute a fragment of this larger world.”
Alone, empty, deserted by life itself. In split second everything is changed forever. A phone call such as my friends had late in the night on Thursday saying, “There has been an accident, I’m afraid the news is very bad.” You are deserted. Perhaps some of you know that place.
Friends, today’s gospel also promises that this is precisely when Jesus has abundant compassion upon us, because he does know that place. When we become lost and deserted by life, he comes to us; he speaks to us he feeds us and promises that we will never go hungry or walk alone.
The multitudes follow Jesus to the deserted place because they are desperate to make sense of life. Their hunger is not just physical, but goes to the very core of their being. I know many of us can identify with that.
The Christian faith is about the mystery of being met by Jesus and being encountered, blessed, fed, and joined together as God’s one family. The Christian faith is about trusting in God’s abundant providence poured out for us in Jesus even in the most deserted and isolated places when we are walled off one from another. Jesus, the bread of life offers us the strength to break down the fences that keep us from living as God’s one family. The bread of life infuses our hearts with an extravagant love to embrace our neighbor who has had absolutely everything taken away.
We come here and gather for a meal, we break the bread and pass the cup. We belong, we participate, and we share, and in that sharing find ourselves in the presence of God. The fears that keep us one from another are slowly dissolved. And when we think all hope is lost, when we are alone and deserted, hope comes in an enveloping love through the one who says, “It is I; I am with you, do not be afraid.”
A member of the congregation wrote in an email recently why he comes here. I thought he might mention the preaching or the music or the liturgy. Sorry friends, none of us up here on the platform were mentioned. He said he comes here because he belongs: “I’m nourished and given courage, and in my illness [and he is quite ill] I’m held by God. I come here because I meet Jesus in the love of this community.”
So come to this sacred table in the spirit of ubuntu, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Come as part of God’s one, big, rambunctious family, come when the deserted place has thrust itself upon you and taken everything. Come to eat the bread and drink the cup of God’s abundant love to all generations. Come to take your place with Moses and the children of Israel and the 5,000 who dined on loaves and fishes and the saints and martyrs throughout the generations. Come not because you must or that you are righteous, but because you have been graciously invited. Come not because you are certain that you believe just the right thing, but because you seek life and transformation.
Come not because you are in control, but because you are strong enough to acknowledge your dependence on God’s abundant grace. Come, fear not, and share in God’s abundant bread of life.