Sunday, August 2, 2020

Sermon: “Make a Joyful Noise: God of Grace and God of Glory” (“Mythbusting for Jesus”), Matthew 14:13-21 (August 2, 2020)


The Church has many roles to fill: gospel-spreader, caretaker, relationship-builder, and so on. None of that should be surprising to you. But it MAY surprise you to know that one of the Church’s most important roles is that of myth-buster. No, I don’t mean that Christians should have their own TV show on Discovery Channel, but we should be similarly concerned about making sure that pervasive cultural myths, especially those directly related to our faith, get disproven (or “busted”). Believe it or not, God’s people have been involved in myth-busting since the days of Abraham: the Torah’s laws were intended to help the Hebrew people demonstrate that the larger culture’s way of life wasn’t the only or best way to live—myth busted. Scripture recorded and codified all of the myth-busting from Abraham through Jesus (who was VERY disruptive to the status quo) and beyond, and today we’re still supposed to live it out in every aspect of Church life. Disproving society’s expectations and turning them on their head is in our very DNA!

And yet, even we sometimes fall prey to the myths that our culture perpetuates—especially when it comes to the “rules” of how and when to help others. Lucky for us, though, when we’re unsure if something is a cultural myth or a sacred truth, we can always turn to the resources of our faith to help us figure it out. Conveniently, today’s scripture reading about the feeding of the five thousand is a perfect example of Jesus turning our expectations upside down, and today’s hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” summarizes these truths beautifully. In fact, the first verse essentially asks God to empower our myth-busting: O God, pour your power on your people, so that we might lift up the Church’s story and help your truth bloom from a bud of hope to your fully flowered kingdom. And then its refrain prays again and again for the wisdom and courage required for the task. So let’s get to it and start busting some myths!

The first category of myth that we tend to encounter are myths about ourselves. What we can and can’t do; what we should and shouldn’t do. If we’re not careful, these myths can become self-fulfilling prophesies. The second verse of our hymn warns against this: we need to be freed from the fears that bind our hearts, keeping us from effective ministry. But fortunately, Jesus is an expert myth-buster, and methodically destroys every excuse that we come up with not to help others.

Right out of the gate in our scripture reading, Jesus addresses the myth that broken and hurting people can’t do ministry. In verse 13, Jesus discovers that John the baptizer, his cousin and friend, had been violently murdered by Herod. Understandably, he needs some time alone to process this terrible news. But almost immediately, he’s surrounded by people seeking his healing. If he bought into the myth, he could have said, “Now’s really not a good time, everyone,” or “Look, you need to find someone else to heal you,” but he didn’t. Instead, he feels compassion (the Greek word implies a deep, emotional reaction) and gets to work healing them. Does this mean we should ignore our own needs in order to meet the needs of others? Of course not. Self-care is vital—why do you think Jesus withdraws in the first place? But Jesus is able to recognize when the needs of others were urgent, and he was able to meet them as he was in that moment: distracted, emotional, and hurting. Myth busted.

Which of God’s beloved children today need you to put aside your own concerns to help them with their urgent needs?

The next myth directed at ourselves is probably one of the most common ones: the myth that one person can’t make a difference. The disciples are puzzled when Jesus tells them to feed the crowd: “How can we do that? There are too many people!” But Jesus insists, “Just bring me what you have.” When he’d distributed the food and sent the disciples out into the crowd, a mere twelve people were able to hand out food to each and every person there, well over five thousand individuals. Where there seemed to be a deficiency, God created abundance. Whenever our response to someone’s need is, “I’m not enough”, God says, “Bring what you have.” Myth busted.

Instead of thinking about what you lack, what CAN you offer to others in Christ’s name?

“From the fears that long have bound us, free our hearts to faith and praise.”

The next category of myth that we encounter are myths about others. Our culture loves to create narratives about outsiders in order to justify our own self-serving behaviors. The third verse of our hymn addresses our stubborn attitudes towards others: “Cure us of our desire for war, our pride, our selfishness, so that we might not miss your kingdom’s goal of wholeness in unity.” Jesus has something to teach us about these sorts of myths, too.

The first myth Jesus addresses is that there’s a limit to how much help people deserve. We like to criticize people who take advantage of multiple different social programs or charity organizations. We derisively call them “welfare queens” or “leeches”, and we say they’re taking advantage of the system. And maybe they are; we don’t know their motivations. But Jesus sees things differently. When he sees the needs of the crowd that’s following him, he heals them, no questions asked. And when they come to him with yet another need, he feeds them, no questions asked. According to the myth, he didn’t owe them anything else; he’d already helped them out (plus, he’d already done plenty of healing and feeding in earlier chapters). But Jesus doesn’t put any conditions on his ministry: if there’s a need, he meets it, no matter how often. Myth busted.

When have you judged someone for needing more than you were willing to give?

The second myth about others is so ubiquitous that it has its own catchphrase: “God helps those who help themselves”. This myth says that if a person’s needs aren’t met, it’s their own fault, a twist on the idea of “personal responsibility”. The disciples fall victim to this way of thinking themselves: “Send the crowds away,” they say, “so that they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” It probably isn’t meant maliciously; it just seems like the logical response. But Jesus doesn’t seem to understand: “Why would I send them away? Feed them!” Jesus’ default is to figure out what HE can do to help others, without pausing to assess what they’ve done to help themselves. And lest you think that’s just a “Jesus thing”, remember his command to the disciples: “YOU give them something to eat.” He expects the same from his followers as he does from himself. Myth busted.

When have you used “personal responsibility” as an excuse not to help one of God’s children in need?

“Shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things but poor in soul.”

The last category of myth is about “the way things are”. These myths encourage us to shrug our shoulders and say, “That’s just the way it is” instead of making any sort of effort. The last verse of the hymn asks for deliverance from this attitude: “We recognize the evil in the world, God; don’t let us abdicate our responsibility to confront it.” Since Jesus is all about the impending Kingdom of God, he’s especially adamant about busting these myths.

In this story, you might recognize the myth of scarcity: “There’s just not enough for everyone.” Our society is built around this myth. And certainly, nobody would argue that five loaves of bread and two fish is enough food to feed over five thousand people…nobody, that is, except Jesus. Jesus doesn’t do anything especially miraculous to his lunch; just a blessing and distribution. Yet through the simple act of sharing what they have, the disciples find that there’s enough for everyone, PLUS plenty of leftovers! Maybe we don’t need as much as we think we do. Maybe faithful sharing of our resources WON’T force us to go without. Myth busted.

Where are you seeing scarcity where there’s actually abundance?

The second myth about “the way things are” actually stems from a truth: that there are some things beyond understanding. The disciples’ general cluelessness through the gospels proves this well enough; it’s the principle of “now seeing in a mirror dimly” that Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians. The myth lies in the conclusion that’s often drawn from this truth: we shouldn’t bother doing anything about things we don’t understand. The disciples can’t comprehend how five loaves of bread and two fish could possibly feed such a large crowd, so they conclude that there’s nothing they can do. They’re not just being dense; that’s not something that your average person would have any way to comprehend. Jesus didn’t expect them to understand. Jesus DID expect them to do something anyway. He didn’t accept the solution of turning people away just because the disciples didn’t understand the mechanics of the meal. The people needed to be fed anyway. All the disciples needed to do was follow Jesus’ instructions—no understanding required. Myth busted.

How can you push through your lack of understanding to meaningful action?

“Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.”

These are just a few examples of the myths that confront us every day in the world around us. There are countless more. Sometimes it’s really hard to identify them as myths. But this is the work of God’s people: to bring God’s truth to the light, so that the lies we tell ourselves are revealed as what they are. To be myth-busters for Jesus. So ask yourself: what myths do I need to bust today? May God grant us the wisdom and courage to find out. Amen.

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