Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sermon: Enough is Enough: Reflections on “Garden State”

John 6:1-16: Feeding the Five Thousand

6After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.*  2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, 'Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?' 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, 'Six months' wages* would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.' 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, 9'There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?' 10Jesus said, 'Make the people sit down.' Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they* sat down, about five thousand in all. 11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, 'Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.' 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, 'This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.'


When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.


In the fall of 2004, my husband and I were living in Adelphia, New Jersey, where I was serving as the pastor of a two-point charge and he was beginning his first year of doctoral studies. But, during the fall of 2004, our most notable characteristic was not what we did or where we lived, but the pending expansion of our family. Jackson was due on September 29, and in the midst of acclimating to a new house in a new town, new jobs and new work, we were preparing ourselves for the most radical newness of all: new life.
    My friend, Kara, who shared a due date with me, had her son, Owen on September 24. I thought that I would be next. Days past, weeks past, Matt's birthday passed, his father's birthday passed. My father had come to stay with us for a while, to greet his first grandson on the day of his birth. He'd been there for 5 weeks before Jackson showed up.
    In those days, inching along past my due date, we found creative ways to pass the time, and most of the time that involved going to see movies. One of the best we saw was a film starring Zach Braff (of "Scrubs" fame) and Natalie Portman called, "Garden State." I have come to call it a perfect film. It's a simple, slice of life story, well told. The characters are interesting and the soundtrack is evocative and smart.
    Zach Braff plays Andrew Largeman, who is an actor living in L.A. His father, from whom he is estranged, calls him in the opening scene of the movie to come back to New Jersey, because his mother has died. Andrew is 26. He returns home for the first time in nine years to attend his mother's funeral, and stays with his father in his childhood home. The scene is stark and painful. The distance is noticeable. At the funeral, he encounters some of his friends from back home, one of whom is a gravedigger. This reconnection establishes him back in this setting, with a home and peers, though these past relationships all seem forced and any happiness, simulated.
    Andrew meets Samantha the following morning at a doctor's office. Their connection is almost instant, and Samantha's effervescence is a welcome relief after witnessing Andrew's numbness to pain. He offers to drive her home, where he meets her mother, adopted "we-sent-money-to-Sally-Struthers" African brother, Tatimbeh, and dead hamster, Jelly. For the second time in two days, Andrew attends a funeral, this time for a hamster in the backyard of his new friend, Sam. He shares his story, and their relationship begins. Before long, Sam's mother is offering to show Andrew some of Sam's old ice skating tapes – she had the potential to compete in the Olympics, but Sam's mother slips and mentions that the epilepsy made her stop skating.
    Andrew, when prodded by Sam, finally shares with her and his friends about his mother and childhood. His mother was a paraplegic, and died after drowning in the tub. But, Andrew reveals that his father sent him away to boarding school after deciding that he was too dangerous. Andrew's mother had struggled with depression for many years, and this made him angry. One day, when he was 9 years old, he got angry that … he couldn't make her happy. He pushed his mother, and she fell. But, their dishwasher latch was defective, and the door had come open. She fell, hitting her neck on the countertop, and remained paralyzed from the neck down. Andrew shares that "a quarter-inch piece of plastic" has determined much of his life.
Two stories: woven.
Two dreams: broken.
Two people: coping.
    But then, a little miracle happens. They find each other. The day in which they need to, they find each other. And, instead of running from the pain, they choose to face it together. There is no mocking. No judging. There is only acceptance. And, from that acceptance grows the miracle of genuine, soul-tugging love.
    You know of this miracle, Saint Mark. I've heard this story told a few times this week, of the folks who helped guide us into this new way of being here. Those brave souls who took a chance and risked berating, judgment, hatred and misunderstanding to open the doors of this church to those who were most in need of Christ's welcome. Many of you watched that miracle occur, as the elderly said yes to the young and vibrant. And, none of us would be here today were it not for that miracle. The miracle of hospitality.
    Today, our text centers on the only miracle that occurs in all four Gospels: Jesus feeding the multitude on the hill near the Sea of Galilee. He has been teaching some difficult things about the laws and the prophets and glory and the love of God. Intending to rest, Jesus takes the disciples up the hill, but the crowd who has witnessed his signs of healing, follow him. Jesus' first question is where they will buy bread for all of these gathered to eat? Phillip shrugs and says that six months wages wouldn't be enough. Andrew then points out a little boy, who has give barley loaves and two fish. Jesus tells the crowd, at least 5,000 gathered, to sit down. Then, Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and broke the bread. Those gathered did not take a miniscule piece or bite, but took as much of the fish and bread as they wanted. When the crowd was satisfied, Jesus instructed the disciples to take up what was left, and the fragments filled twelve baskets, which is far more than they had to start.
    Many attempts have been made to explain away the mystery from this story. But, if all of the authors of the Gospels can agree that this story is a miracle, then I am willing to agree. Was the miracle that so many were fed with so little, or that in this simple act of offering, is it miraculous that the boy encouraged everyone to share with each other? Some argue that barley expands in your belly, so that one only has to eat a little to fill full. But, that's not enough for me. However, I can recognize the miracle that a boy shared his food (have YOU ever tried to take food from a young boy?), I think it's more wonderful that there was so much left over. I love it when God shows off a bit. It's not flashy – it's not like the fish turned into dill encrusted lemon caper salmon. The bread didn't suddenly become bruchetta. It's simple, but it's enough. And those gathered ate their fill.
    Our faith calls upon us to believe some strange things: the resurrection, the Trinity, miracles of healing. It's more strange, still, to come to know that our God knows us and loves us. Of all the oddities of this faith, this might be the strangest. When others were searching for a deity and struggling to make sense of the world, they ascribed infinite power to inanimate objects or fictitious characters. But, in these earthly understandings of "god," rarely did people crave a god that knew them, personally, and loved them. And yet, we know that the God of the Ages has infinite power and has subverted that power that we may know love. In place of judgment, is grace. In place of wrath is forgiveness. And who among us here couldn't use a little forgiveness?
    Because our God is one of accessibility – God gave us some strange ways to interact with that love. In the sacraments we celebrate, baptism and communion, we are invited to meet God in water and the Spirit, simple elements of bread and wine. These everyday acts of eating and drinking, washing and cleansing, are actions so simple that it's a miracle when we don't take them for granted. And yet, have you ever gone a little too long without eating? Your mind stops thinking about higher things and maintains a focus on this singleness of purpose: eat something. If you've ever tried fasting, you know that the exercise involves a big negotiation with your brain to turn itself off from needing food to function and focus on what lies beyond the basic urgency. And, for any of us who have been hungry – critically hungry – carefully hanging in the balance of where another meal might come – you know how the body needs to be fed. You know the importance of provision and sustenance. You know how delicious a single piece of bread and a good bite of fish can be.
    So, in offering us these sacraments of broken bread – tiny pieces of yeast, grain and water that don't appear to offer much – we find that we are satisfied. And why? Because God has said, "Come and eat your fill." There is no need for greed or wrestling at this table, because what God has provided is enough.
    Consider what God has provided for you, and consider your own longings. For what are you hungry? Justice? Peace? Health? Love? Friendship? Forgiveness? Acceptance? Understanding? Do you understand that it will take some kind of miracle for these things to come to you? But, you have to be willing to let the miracle occur. To recognize the "signs" of God's action in your life. And, I promise, they are there.
    John's Gospel calls miracles "signs." We look for signs everywhere, don't we? In the trivial and mundane. In the utterly significant things that we just can't miss. We do our best to read into the things that happen to us as signs of what our actions should be. But, the thing about God's miracles and signs is that they don't require a lot of interpretation. The people were hungry. And they ate. The bread was broken, and it was enough.
    For Andrew and Sam in "Garden State," they find a way to happiness despite their broken dreams. Sam shares with Andrew her "Tickle," which she describes as "The thing that I love most in the whole world."It is all that is left of her baby blanket, the blanket in which her parents brought her home from the hospital. Tickle is the piece that remains, and connects Sam back to her childhood, her infancy, her parents, the days before an unpredictable illness stole her dreams. This movie demonstrates the miracle of love, and love's capacity to take a scrap of what was and turn it into enough.
    On the day in which Jackson finally decided to get himself born, a full 9 days past his due date, we readied ourselves for what was next. I had to re-pack my hospital bag, since the seasons had changed. We loaded the car as the labor started, and drove for 45 minutes to the hospital in Princeton, New Jersey. On the way, we listened to the Garden State soundtrack, which is filled with evocative and earnest music. On a crisp October day, we drove, and we listened to this music as the bright blue sky led us forward into a new world of love and pain. This soundtrack was our soundtrack as we drove through the Garden State and anticipated the greatest shift our lives would ever know. We left behind an old life – a life where we came first and sleep was scheduled. We welcomed a new life – erratic and unpredictable, damp and floppy.
    And, by sunset, we welcomed a miracle – a healthy baby boy. And that was enough.
Amen and Amen.

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