Sunday, August 26, 2012 – Sermon on John 6:56-69

John 6:56-69

Has anyone here ever flown on a plane?  If you have, raise your hand.  You know, I figure that there are two kinds of people on airplanes – those who like to talk to the stranger they are sitting next to and those who don’t.  You know, you either sit down to the person next to you and you are immediately curious about who they are and where they are going, or else you avoid eye contact at all costs and look at the ridiculous things to buy in SkyMall Magazine.  Among pastors, there is sort of a running joke about that time on a plane when someone asks you what you do.  Most of the pastors I know either create an alias for themselves, saying that they sell paper, or they just try to keep the conversation focused on the other person. Because they know that if they say they are a pastor, they can be almost certain that they will spend the next 3.5 hours either listening to someone’s life story and problems, or they will spent the entire time defending they faith to someone who just wants to poke holes in it.  But there are a few pastors who jump at the opportunity to talk about church, faith, and religion with a stranger on a plane. Rollie Martinson is one of them.

Rollie is the academic dean and a professor at Luther Seminary.  He tells a story about a time when he was on a plane.  During the meal, he and the man next to him exchanged greetings and politely introduced themselves.  But then, after a few minutes into the conversation, Rollie, who is never shy and always direct, turns to the man and says, “So…do you go to church?”  The man responds, “You know, funny you should ask. We have all of our lives, but we just quit.”  The man goes on to tell Rollie how six weeks earlier, his family had returned home from church and they sat down together and asked, “What happened this morning?  What did we do?  Did it matter? Did it have any impact on our life?”  And they discovered, as they listened to one another, that very little of significance happened.  They learned that church really wasn’t engaging them and the experiences they face in real life.  They realized that the church speaks in a language they don’t understand and it just doesn’t seem to make any difference.  And in light of all the other things going that they felt did impact their life, they wondered why they continued to go to church.  So they quit.

How do you respond to that?  Does the church still have significance in your life or do you get where this man is coming from?  Does the church speak a language you feel you can understand, or not so much?  I mean we use phrases to talk about Jesus like, “eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being of the Father.” We talk about resurrection from the dead and power through death, the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, loving your enemies, and atonement.  Some days, it seems like the things we say within these four walls feels about as clear as mud.

A similar thing is going on in the gospel story for today.  Jesus is speaking a language that the people around him don’t quite understand. Now watch how they respond.

This is the last week of five in which we hear about Jesus as the bread of life.  Jesus is still preaching to that crowd of 5000 that he fed with a couple of loaves and fish.  But the meal Jesus offers them doesn’t come from the fields or the sea, but from his very own body.  Jesus says to them that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will abide in him and he will abide in them.  And that whoever does this will live forever.  The crowd, who are now referred to as disciples, say to themselves, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it.” But the English translation –  “difficult,” doesn’t quite get at what the Greek word there really means.  The word really means “hard”, as in solid and dense, something that would leave a bruise if it hit you in the arm.  So what the crowd is saying is that this teaching is like banging your head against a brick wall.  It’s hard. You can’t quite break through it. You can’t understand it.   This is craziness, they are saying.  This is insane.  This doesn’t make any sense.  But does Jesus slow down? Make it softer? Does he explain any of it? No.  Jesus ramps the sermon up a bit, saying, “Well, if that offends you, what if you see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?  It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. But among you, there are some who don’t believe.”  I mean, does anyone understand what Jesus is talking about?  They certainly don’t.  And so they leave.  The crowd of 5000 disciples leaves.  Just like the family of the man on the plane.  You know, when things start to lose their meaning or you don’t really feel like you understand, it is pretty tempting to just leave, isn’t it?  It just goes to show that…Jesus wasn’t really all that good at church growth.  I mean, he went from a congregation of thousands to one of about a dozen in just a matter of moments.

But did you notice what Jesus does when the people leave?  Nothing.  He doesn’t do anything.  Why?  Why not just try to make it easier to understand?  Why doesn’t Jesus give the people what they want?  Isn’t that what most churches would do if put in a similar situation? If people are leaving a church in droves, the church would try to spice up the worship with a guitar and drum set.  It would try to make the sermons more interactive with a screen and cool videos.  But Jesus…just lets them leave, without a word.

And, I don’t know about you, but there is something about it that speaks volumes of love to me.  To be given the freedom to walk away.  To be given a choice.  To be told, “You can stay or you can leave. It’s up to you.  I won’t force you either way.”  Seems like a lot of love.

But then we get one of the saddest lines in all of Scripture…Jesus looks at the twelve disciples remaining, and he says, “Do you wish to go away too?”  Anyone who has ever been abandoned by their friends or their colleagues, anyone who has suddenly found themselves isolated and alone, knows the depths of Jesus’ heart and fear in this very moment.  “Do you wish to go away too,” he asks his friends

And Peter has this beautiful line, a line that we sing every Sunday, “Alleluia, Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia, Alleluia.”  To whom can we go, Peter says.  The twelve disciples stand their ground; they aren’t going anywhere. But you know, this line from Peter, it sounds like a confident statement of faith.  But there is part of me that hears in it exhaustion as well.  These disciples have left everything behind, their families and jobs and friends.  And now that the crowd has left…where else are they to go?  Might as well, keep following Jesus.

Which makes me wonder, why are you here?  Why do you keep following Jesus? What have you come to church looking for?

I read a story this week, where a Presbyterian pastor in Philadelphia spoke about a newcomer to church, who had attended a new member class but was reluctant to join. He’d been a Unitarian. He’d read authors Dan Brown, Bart Ehrman and Sam Harris. He wasn’t sure if he was a skeptic, a seeker or an agnostic, but he was pretty sure he was not a Presbyterian. And so he asked a lot of questions – mostly about the creeds, other religions, the relationship between faith and science and what it means to believe in Jesus. He smiled and listened politely when the pastor tried to answer his question, but it just wasn’t doing it.   Finally, the man said, “Thanks. I appreciate your time, but I just don’t think (church) is for me.” So they shook hands and parted ways.  He, like, Jesus, gave him the freedom to leave.

The next Sunday, the pastor, in the middle of the service, watched as this very same man slipped into a pew at the back. He sang some hymns. He didn’t say the creeds.  When it was time for communion, the man shuffled his way forward alongside everyone else. The pastor was tempted to ask him then and there what had changed, but instead, he simply said, “The body of Christ, given for you,” and placed it into the man’s hand.  Then after the service, the pastor said, “Hey, I didn’t expect to be seeing you again.” The man simply smiled and shrugged.  It was as if he was saying, “Where else am I to go?”

Oh yeah, and the man from the plane earlier.  Rollie asked him to talk to his pastor before quitting the church.  The man told his pastor everything and the pastor said, “I would like to interview you for one of my sermons.”  So the man shared his story of wanting to quit the church during the interview with the congregation and afterwards, 13 people came up to him and expressed that they felt exactly the same way. And now…that man has partnered with the pastor to start a group within the church that gets together to share real stories from their lives as a way to think about and engage their own faith life.  It became something that matter for him and his life and now that man and his family have returned to church.

I don’t know why you are here today. But I do know this whole faith thing isn’t easy.  At times, it can be exhausting.  Especially when suicides seem to be around every corner, when crops are withered and wasted by drought, when people are still looking for jobs and just trying to get through year okay.

But where else can we go?  Where else can we at least join to together in the struggle and mystery of this life?  And that’s just it. It is something we do together.   Notice that Peter didn’t say, “Lord to whom can I go?”  No, he said, “Lord, to whom can we go.”  This life of faith is not something we do on our own.  We go together.  It is something we share together.  In relationship.  And when it is shared, we make up the body of Christ.

And so in times of uncertainty and when there is the temptation to leave, may we, like the disciples, also come to know that Jesus, the bread of life, the one who abides within you and those next to you is the Holy One of God. The one with the words to eternal life.  To whom else can we go?

Sing again with me, “Alleluia, Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia, Alleluia.” AMEN


Sunday, August 19th, 2012 – Sermon on John 6:51-58

John 6:51-58

A couple of weeks after Elliot was born, a family from Aurora surprised Lauren and I by telling us that they had named one of their calves after Elliot.  So there is now Elliot the baby and Elliot the calf.  We were honored and over joyed.  Now, Elliot the calf, as I’ve been told, has been rambunctious and difficult to handle at times.  I fully expect the same from Elliot the baby at times, too.

After Elliot the calf won a couple of ribbons at the fair this week, his owner and I were talking about him and how they planned to keep him around for about one more year.  And then….well…you know.  Suddenly, it dawned on me.  It won’t be long before Elliot the calf, named after my own son –my flesh and blood – will not longer be Elliot the calf.  But instead, Elliot the hamburger. Or Elliot the BBQ sandwich.  It won’t be long before someone is taking Elliot the calf’s flesh and blood into their own body.  Which felt a little creepy to think about.  It sort of calls into question the joy of having someone name their cow after your first born son.

Our gospel text is equally, if not more, creepy.  If fact, I actually pray that there are few people visiting a church for the first time today, because this isn’t the story you want to begin your journey into Christianity on.  You hear Jesus say, “Eat my flesh and drink my blood,” and no one would judge you if you headed for the door.  It sounds more like a cult than a way of life.

The Jews that Jesus was speaking to found it equally as repulsive, I think. “How can this man gives us his flesh to eat?” they ask.  As faithful Jews, they knew their dietary laws and how to be kosher.  In the laws of Leviticus, it says, “If anyone of the house of Israel … eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people.  For the life of the flesh is in the blood;” (Lev. 17:10-11). The life of the flesh, the life of the creature resides in the blood.  So if you drink the blood, you drink in their life and their soul. For our Jewish brothers and sisters who keep kosher, they take meat and they soak it in water for about 30 minutes, and then they sprinkle it with salt to draw out any remaining blood, and then they wash it twice more.  All to prevent the consumption of blood – so as not to consume another creature’s life force.

But yet Jesus, a Jew speaking to other Jews, says eat my flesh and drink my blood.  And it is completely offensive and goes against the very religion that they share.

But maybe we’ve emphasized the wrong word in this story.  Maybe what is shocking isn’t that Jesus says, “Eat my flesh,” but that Jesus says, “Eat my flesh.”  That the Son of Man, that God the creator of this world would actually come down from the heavens and become a part of this creation.  That this God would have flesh to give should be what shocks us.

Which, if you think about it, goes against much of our own understanding of religion and spirituality.  Don’t people often think they have to go another country in the East, or hiking in the mountains, or to yoga in order to encounter God? And thus it is shocking to think that God is encountered in flesh and blood in the everydayness of your life.  Not in the special trips and the intentional prayers, but in the check out line of Walmart, the computer room of Jostens and the high school cafeteria.  It is in the chemo therapy center and at family reunions, the diner at the fair, the cattle barn behind your house where God actually shows up in the flesh and blood.

So Jesus says there is Divine flesh and blood in this world and then he says, “Eat it, drink it.”  And as we all know, what you’ve eaten has an affect on the rest of your day.  To eat heavy and greasy food leads to you feeling heavy and greasy.  To eat sugar-packed energy food, like a bowl of Halloween candy, leads to you being packed full of busy energy.  To eat of Jesus’ body and blood is to lead you to be the very embodiment of God in this world. It is to consume the very life force of Jesus. It is to have Christ actually dwell and abide within your very own body, making you the body of Christ at work in the world.  The way we as the ELCA is the motto of the ELCA – God’s Work, Our Hands.  This confesses that God’s flesh is actually present in our world through your hands!

When a couple has lost a child unexpectedly, they don’t want an invisible god that they can’t see, or touch, or hear.  They want a god with flesh and blood.  One that can hold their hand and walk beside them.  Or when time has taken its toll on a man’s body and he has lost all ability to care for himself, he wants a god who can feed him and wash him and carry him.  A God that so loves this world that God would actually enter into it through your own bodies which can be seen, touched, and heard.

Which is the good news of this text and, perhaps, is what actually makes this a perfect text for those who are new to Christianity and those who’ve gone to church their whole life.  Jesus invites us to consume him.  To take him into our bodies, which means that Jesus isn’t just off somewhere else needing to be found.  Where we have to go search him out in the beautiful mountains.  And Jesus isn’t grasped for in the tingling feeling of a bedtime prayer.  It reminds us that God is not and chooses not to be distant and intangible.  But that God actually promises to show God’s self to you and to me in the flesh and blood of creation.  In this world.  That God does not remain as a beautiful thought in our head and in our hearts, but that God actually has become incarnate in this world, a substance that can be touched and tasted.  We don’t simply follow Jesus, or hang out with Jesus, we consume Jesus.

This is the good news and promise of God.  And it is for you and your flesh and blood.  But how else will you know that this is a promise for you unless you can taste and see it with your very own eyes?  Which is what happens when we gather at this table.  When at this table, you get to see who this promise belongs to. It belongs to the one with bread and wine in their hand.  Come, eat and drink…Jesus is given for you.  AMEN

Sunday, August 12, 2012 – Sermon on John 6:35-51

John 6:35-51

For those of you who have been at church the last couple of weeks, you know that we have been talking a lot about feeding and bread.  We are right in the middle of the Bread of Life series of the lectionary, where for five weeks, we hear about Jesus as the bread of life.  We have read how Jesus fed a huge crowd of people – five thousand, in fact – with just five loaves of bread and two fish.  And then how the people get hungry again and so they chase after Jesus to see if he will feed them again.  Instead of offering them bread to eat, he offers them himself – the bread of life.

So today and the next two weeks, we will be talking about Jesus as the bread of life.  And in today’s text the bread can start to taste a little…..stale.

I mean, you heard the opening verses; it just isn’t all that exciting. In fact, it is kind of confusing.   “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’”  After a while it just sounds like all the same religious talk that we’ve heard so many times before.  All the same stuff you can read on billboards all the way up I-35.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, Jesus is the bread of life.  If you believe in him, you’ll get to go to heaven when you die. So, believe in him.  I don’t know about you, but I find that eventually, I just start to tune it out and think about my grocery list.

And it is too bad, really, it has come to this.  Because these words in the gospel of John were never meant to be boring and stale.  They were meant to be earth-shattering and life-changing.  But that’s what happens to words sometimes, they can wear out and they don’t always mean what they used to – in fact they can change their meaning all together.

In 1675, a fire devastated London and among the ruins was St. Paul’s Cathedral. Christopher Wren, an architect was selected to rebuild this Cathedral.  For 35 years, he worked on St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Can you imagine going to the same work site for that amount of time? Finally once it was finished, he was able to show it off to Queen Anne. And when she sees it, Queen Anne says, “It is awful, it is amusing, and it is artificial.”  How would you feel if after 35 years, the Queen called your hard work awful, amusing, and artificial?  And yet, as the story goes, Christopher Wrenn bowed down with a huge sigh of relief and thanked her. Why?  Because back then awful meant awe-inspiring, amusing meant amazing.  Artificial meant artful.  Do you see how words can wear out? And their meaning changes over time. And it is in the meaning of the words that the difference is made.

For example, in our text, Jesus talks about eternal life.  When you hear the phrase eternal life, what do you think of?  Heaven, right?  You believe in Jesus and you get eternal life.  You think of the gift you receive after you’ve died.  You think of the time you will spend with family and loved ones in that mysterious place called heaven.  This is where most of us go…and, you know, I hesitate to say this…but I think that is when the bread just starts to taste stale. Because it is just like everything else in our culture –  it is a works and rewards system – run fast enough, jump high enough and you will get the gold.  If you study hard enough, you get the good grades and the good college.  If you believe in Jesus, you will be rewarded with heaven.  And so Jesus and heaven…just starts to sound the same as everything else.

But there is just one problem.  In the Gospel of John, when Jesus speaks about eternal life, he is not speaking about heaven or an afterlife.  He is talking about new life now.  Jesus has come down from heaven to bring new life now.  This concern is for this life now, not the next.  Why? Why be concerned about this life?  Because it is in this life that 1 billion people are living in poverty, living on $1 a day.  That’s 1 in every 7 people.  It is in this life where young people are being sold into modern day slavery at our own Mall of America.  It is this life where religious intolerance leads to Wisconsin Sikhs being killed in their very own place of worship.

When Jesus is talking about eternal life in the gospel of John, he is talking about new life now.  And sometimes it feels like we need new life now, doesn’t’ it? A friend of mine, who is a pastor, always asks the couples he is about to marry this question: “Why do you want to get married?”  Never, he says, have any of them said, “So that they will take care of me when I am old.”  None of them ever say that.  Instead they say, “Because life is better with them, then without them.  Because colors shine brighter and deeper when they are around.  Because this world is sweeter when this person is in my life.”[1]  The same is true of Jesus.  We follow Jesus so that he will take care of us when we are old and dying.  We trust that he will, but that isn’t why we follow him.  We follow him because life is better when Jesus is apart of my life.  Life is brighter and sweeter.  And even when it is a painful and hard life at times, it is still life that is deeper.  Jesus doesn’t want eternal life to wait. He wants it to start right now. So Jesus says feed on me.  Take me into your body.  Let me be the very beating of your heart; the spirit of your soul.

So, is Jesus the bread of your life? Does Jesus impact your life now?  How? And when Jesus impacts your life, does Jesus ever offend you?  Sometimes, in order for there to be new life, for us to change our lives, we have to be offended first with the difficult truth about our lives.  And in the very next line of our text, we learn something about Jesus that confronts and offends our way of life.

In the very next line, we learn that the crowd who was with Jesus…were the Jews.  Now this isn’t the offensive part.  Jesus was a Jew.  But in the gospel of John, they were Jesus’ primary opponents.  They were the people who didn’t even believe in him.  Now, even this isn’t all that offensive.  What is offensive is when we remember what Jesus did with this crowd of opponents just about 20 verses earlier.  He fed them.  Jesus fed his opponents.  And we are disciples of Jesus. Do we feed our opponents?  People say all the time that we are a Christian nation…so when we come across opponents to our country, do we rain down bread from the heavens upon them?  Do we drop boxes of bread down on Al Qaeda?  No, we rain down bombs from heaven on them.  I know it sounds crazy, but what if we did rain down bread from the heavens?  How would the war on terror be different if we had planes carrying crates of food instead of crates of missiles?

Now if you are not offended yet, hang on.  Jesus has one more thing to say in our text. Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.”  What Jesus is saying is that you are not in charge of your own faith.  God is.  And again, in a culture like ours, where you get what you work for and where you are expected to make a successful life for yourself by constant self improvement.  In a culture where nothing is for free, it must be earned…Jesus says you don’t get to come to him on your own.  You don’t work for your faith.  It is just pure gift given from God.  No one comes to Jesus on their own free will.  You don’t choose God; God chooses you.  And that should offend us.  Because people will come to Jesus by the grace of God who do not deserve to come to Jesus.  Not by our standards anyways.  They might not behave as we think they should. They might not attend worship as often as we think they should.  And they just might be a down-right rotten person.  And what about those who don’t believe in Jesus? I hear the fear in the voices of parents and grandparents when they tell me about their child who doesn’t believe in God anymore.  Well, according to Jesus, it isn’t really up to them anyways.  And maybe we just need to be more patient, because in the very next line, Jesus says, “All shall be taught by God and everyone who has learned from God comes to me.”  Which means God welcomes everyone to God’s own self.  And that is radically inclusive.

Jesus says he is the bread of life and that by eating of this bread, we will have eternal life, meaning new life now.  And this bread, Jesus offered to his own opponents.  And that should frighten us.   It should offend us.  And it should confront us. Because when Jesus says all he really does mean all.  No exceptions… no outcasts… no one left out.  Which means God welcomes everyone to God’s own self.  Which means the people of God is a very, very large group.  And in that group are people we do not want to see there.  People we don’t think belong there.  God offers the bread of life to all.  Even the people we think don’t deserve it.  And actually God offers it even us –  who don’t deserve it.  This is the bread of life.  And suddenly, it doesn’t seem so stale anymore. AMEN

[1] A story told often by Alan Storey.

Sunday, August 5, 2012 – Sermon on John 6:24-35

John 6:24-35

It has been just over two months now since we settled on a mission statement for our parish. I think for the most part, many of us have it memorized.  Many of us could remember it if we were asked on the street one day.  But the truth is I don’t want us to just simply know and remember our mission statement.  I want us to embody it.  To live it out.  To let it sink in our bones.  To let it affect the way we see the world, so that we are looking for ways in which we see people being fed in body, mind, and spirit with the love of Jesus.

While I was at the diner this past weekend, I carried our mission statement with me.  I kept reminding myself – Feeding Body, Mind, and Spirit with the Love of Jesus, that’s what we are doing here.  But how?  Can I see it?  And as soon as I started asking myself those questions, I started to see things just a little differently.  Suddenly, when Alivia Kubista would bring someone their hot beef special with a smile on their face, and they can’t help but smile back, I realized that she wasn’t just serving hot beef special that day – she was serving joy.  And hope.  And welcome.  Or when the people in the kitchen are working so hard to give safe food that is worth what they paid for, I realized we aren’t just serving two over easy eggs with a side of sausage – we are serving care and compassion with a side of justice.  And when I see the people working the people working the diner laughing together and joking around, I realized we weren’t just serving the customers – we were serving each other with love and friendship and relationship.

I learned that feeding people body, mind, and spirit with the love of Jesus can be really fun.  And really fulfilling.  But, you know, what I also learned.  I learned it can be really frustrating too.  It can be really frustrating when you run out of items that people have already paid for.  It can be frustrating when you could use about five more people to serve the line that is out the door and you learn the next batch of people aren’t coming for hours.  And it can be drive you crazy to watch all the food people throw away on their plates.  I can tell you, Jesus is the last one on your mind at that point.  Feeding people body, mind, and spirit can be…frustrating.

Jesus knows this.  He gets a little frustrated in our text today.  Jesus has just fed five thousand people with a meager five loaves of bread and two fish.  But you know what happens about four to five hours after eating. – you get hungry again. But Jesus had slipped away, off to a mountain somewhere by himself.  But that didn’t deter this crowd.  They gathered the search party and went to find this Jesus who could feed them all so easily.  And when they find him, they begin a very confusing and somewhat funny conversation with Jesus.  As is typical with Jesus, he doesn’t exactly answer their questions in the way you would think.

The crowd asks Jesus – “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Simple question.  All Jesus needs to say is, “Oh about 11:30, last night. It was really late.  I went straight to bed.”  But no.  Instead, Jesus accuses them of searching him out just because they are hungry again.  They are not really there to see Jesus.  They are there to get their stomachs fed again.

And that’s what happens, isn’t it? You go and give some money or a sandwich to the guy standing on the highway off ramp holding the cardboard sign.  Or you mow an elderly woman’s lawn.  Or you send some money into the foodshelf.  You feel good about yourself.  They feel loved and appreciated.  But sure enough, the same guy is in the same spot, still hungry the next day.  The woman’s lawn needs cutting again a couple weeks later.  The foodshelf needs donations the next month.

Feeding people body, mind, and spirit can be exhausting because eventually…people get hungry again.

A couple of years ago, I was on a mission trip to Denver, CO.  We were there to change lives.  Not only our own, but the lives of the people we met.  There were people in desperate situations there and we thought we could change that.  One afternoon, we visited a homeless park.  With brown bag meals in our hands, we nervously approached, sat down, and we visited with people who lived there. Some were doing drugs, and drinking right there in front of us.  It was an utterly desolately and hopeless place.  And eventually, it dawns on me – in an hour or two, we are leaving this place.  And these people aren’t.    We sit with them, but eventually, we get to get up and leave.  In the end, did we change any of their lives?  Probably not.  Were some of them still lonely and addicted to drugs the next day?  Probably.

So Jesus fed these people, but they just keep coming back for more.  Because that’s what happens – people get hungry again.  They keep coming back so that they can keep getting what they want from Jesus.  Too often I fear that is why many people believe in Jesus, so that they can get what they want from him, rather than so Jesus can get what he wants from us.  And so Jesus says to them, “Do not work for the bread that perishes. The bread that is digested and goes away, leaving you hungry again.  Work for the food that endures for your whole life, which the Son of Man will give you.”  What Jesus is saying to them is that he doesn’t want them to just have bread that fills and feeds their stomachs.  He wants them to have bread the fills and feeds their whole entire life.  A bit of confusion ensues.  The group doesn’t know if they themselves are supposed to produce this eternal bread or if Jesus will prove himself like Moses by making bread rain down from the heaven.  Finally, realizing that it wasn’t just their stomachs that were hungry anymore, but that their spirits were hungry too, they just cut to the chase. “Sir, gives us this bread always.”  And so Jesus comes clean – “I am the bread of life,” he says.

And that is just it.  Jesus is the bread of life.  And not just any life.  Your life.  Jesus is saying that this isn’t just about our stomachs; it is about our whole lives.  Jesus wants to feed your whole life.  Jesus says he is the bread of life; he is the way to fullness of life.  And what is the way of Jesus? Jesus is the very revelation of God and his way to life is the way of loving your neighbor. Welcoming those who are unwelcome.  Not hating and destroying your enemies – but loving your enemies.  Jesus says, “This is the path fullness of life.  These are the things that will feed your whole life.”

For example, did you know that one of the recommended pathways through grief…is to go and care for another person.  It is to get out there and to help someone else who is in need.  That is the way. Because grief…it can just close everything in on you.  Sometimes when one person dies, their loved one seems to die as well.  I have seen it where a person dies much too young, and their spouse just shut down.  They can’t move.  They get depressed.  That’s what depression is…it is suffocating sadness.  But if they can find away to begin to care for someone else, often times a pathway through the grief is found.  My aunt lost her husband at a very young age, and she says, “The only thing that kept me alive is that I had two young children that needed me to take care of them.”  The pathway through grief is often caring for another human being in need.  Which is the way of Jesus.  Jesus is the bread of life. When you are dying inside from grief, the way of Jesus, the way of caring for others in need is the bread that leads back to life again.

What Jesus is saying to this crowd is that he can’t just be feeding their stomachs – to feed their whole life.  And Jesus wants to be a part of our whole life.  And sometimes, we can get so focused on one part of our life, like our growling stomachs or dark grief that we forget about the other parts of life that Jesus is calling us to.

Our mission statement is not just some business slogan.  It is not a clever idea or a mantra or pretty words to plaster around the church.  It is about what guides us and gives us purpose – and it is about challenging us.  Reminding us that being a disciple of Christ was never meant to be easy.  There will be days when we will hate this mission statement.  And days when we love it.

So maybe it is okay that feeding people can be frustrating.  The important thing is that when we do get frustrated, when we do forget why we do what we are doing, why it matters that we feed people when they will just be hungry again…it is important that we not forget that Jesus, the bread of life, is still at work and present in our frustrated feedings, even when he is the last thing on our minds.

Jesus calls us to be people who feed others with the bread of life, but before you feed others, Jesus wants to feed you. Which is what happens up here at this table.  We don’t come just because it is snack time. We don’t come just because we missed breakfast.  We don’t come for food that will perish.  We come to be fed with food that will not perish.  We come because we are people who are hungry for not just food, but for hope.  And healing.  And forgiveness.  And in being fed at God’s table, may we be given the strength and energy to be agent of God in giving those very same things to the people of God beyond these walls.  If you are hungry for hope and thirsty for a word of forgiveness in Christ Jesus, come take and eat. There is a place for you at this table. AMEN

Sunday, July 29 – Sermon on John 6:1-21

John 6:1-21

The feeding of the five thousand.  It’s a familiar story that we know quite well.  Jesus is surrounded by a large crowd.  It is getting late in the day and people start to get hungry.  Everyone looks around confused and unsure of what to do.  Jesus decides he wants to feed the people but the disciples say that it will cost too much.  Soon enough, it is discovered that one young boy has tucked away in his knapsack, presumably hidden from these hungry mob, 5 loaves of bread and two fish.  Which seems like a lot for just one boy to be carrying but the story goes on anyways.  This meager amount of food seems like a waste of time if you ask the disciples.  It will never be enough. I mean, what’s five loaves and two fish for five thousand hungry people?  But then Jesus has everyone sit down, he takes the loaves of bread and the two fish and he turns it into enough food for everyone to eat their fill and, in fact, for their to be plenty of leftovers too.  It’s a nice and familiar story.

I don’t know about you, but even though this is a familiar story, anytime a miracle story like this comes up, it always seems to throw me for a loop.  My mind takes over and I start asking all sorts of questions. Did that really happen? What’s the truth in this story?  Do you ever do that when you hear some of these Bible stories?  I often think that there has to be a logical explanation.

So that’s what I do. Often, I try to explain the miracle.  Like when Jesus is at the wedding at Cana and all the wine runs out and so Jesus magically turns water into wine so that the party doesn’t need to stop.  Sometimes, I wonder if he didn’t just dilute the wine that was there with water, thus seemingly making more wine, or if there were just extra jars underneath the table that no one knew were there.

Or let’s take the five barley loaves and two fish that feed 5,000 people.  I mean, did the fish and the bread simply grow back any time someone took a bite out of it, or did Jesus multiply them at the beginning into hundreds of loaves and fishes, dividing them among the people?  Or did it happen, as preacher Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, through the people being moved by this child giving over everything he had, that they could feel their hidden food weighing down their pockets and their heavy guilt weighing down their hearts. And so as the baskets were past and the people slipped some of their own bread and fish in, so as to share with everyone.[1] I  kind of like that explanation.

The reason I do this…the reason I try to explain miracles, I think, is because of all of the miracles that don’t happen in our lives.  If I can logically explain how this supposed miracle happened, then maybe I don’t have to wonder about why other miracles don’t happen.

But then, as I do these mental gymnastics when it comes to trying to explain Jesus’ miracle, I get stuck. And frustrated.  And angry.  Because suddenly I feel as if my whole life of faith is spent focusing on if and how something in the Bible really happened or not.  And the truth is, we can never know.  Which makes me wonder – maybe I am missing the point. Maybe the point of the story isn’t whether you believe that it happened or not or whether there is a logical explanation.  Maybe the point of the story isn’t worry about whether it happened or not, but what the story itself is trying to say.

In the movie Big Fish, Edward Bloom tells the story about the day his son was born.  As the story goes, using a fishing line that was so strong it could hold up a bridge and only his wedding as bait, Edward caught an uncatchable fish on the day his son was born.  Over and over again, at any chance he could get, Edward would tell this story, much to his son’s embarrassment.  And over time, Will began to hate that story.  Because he didn’t believe that story.  He knew his father wasn’t telling him the truth and he lost all trust in his father.  Over the years, they grew apart and their relationship was strained.  But then, many years later, Edward had a stroke.  And as Will sat beside his father’s bedside, in walks the very doctor who had delivered Will that day. “You ever hear the story about the day you were born?” he asks?  “Yeah, like a thousand times. He caught an uncatchable fish.”  “No, I mean the real one,” the doctor replied.  “On the day you were born, your mother came in about 3 in the afternoon. Her neighbor drove her because your father was away on business in Wichita.  You were born a week early. But there were no complications.  It was a perfect delivery. Your father was sorry not to be there…that’s the real story of how you were born.  Not very exciting, is it?  I supposed if I had to choose between the true version and an elaborate one about a fish and a wedding ring, I might choose the fancier version.”  Edward Bloom tells the story that on the day his son was born, he caught an uncatchable fish….using just his wedding ring.

Sometimes, the point of the story isn’t to worry about whether it happened or not, but what the story itself is trying to say.

So here we are today, we have a story about a man named Jesus.  A man whom we claim to be the revelation of God for us.  And he feeds five thousand hungry people with a meager five loaves and two fish.  It’s a story that says, “Jesus is about feeding people who are hungry.” Which to us means God is about feeding people who are hungry.  But what I can’t figure out is why Jesus used these five loaves of bread and two fish to feed everyone.  I mean, he’s Jesus.  Why didn’t he just make bread and fish appear out of thin air?  But no.  Jesus took this small offering of food, which really amounts to almost nothing when you consider the size of this crowd.  It says something that Jesus takes what this young boy has to offer, these puny, insignificant five loaves and two fish and uses them to feed the crowd gathered there.

It says that God can work with the meager offerings of the people of God to do great things for the needs of this world.  It says that God can take the puny and insignificant things that we’ve tucked away and kept hidden from those around us and God can use it.  It says that when you’ve got almost nothing to give, God can use that.

In fact, if we look back at Scripture, this seems like God favorite way to work in the world.  It seems like God’s favorite thing to do is take something that is broken, or worthless, or empty and to use it.  I mean, God used the barren and closed woman of Sarah to give birth to Isaac at the old age of 90.  God took Moses, a murderer, and used him to lead God’s people out of Egypt.  God used a poor peasant carpenter to be the savior of the world by dying on a cross.  In our Christian story, God does not conquer the world with power and might, God dies.  And then God is resurrected.  Which means God will go into the darkest places of the world, the most empty place, the place most void of any hope – the place of death and God will bring about life.  If there is one theme in the Scriptures that can feed us it is that God takes not our successes and our gifts, but our weaknesses and our meager places and uses those.

Last week, about 35,000 Lutheran teenagers gathered in New Orleans for the National Youth Gathering.  One of the speakers for the gathering was Nadia Bolz-Weber, a pastor out in Denver, CO.  Prior to the gathering, there was some concern among parents and clergy about her being a speaker because of her past.  You see, Pastor Nadia is a recovering alcoholic, whose past involved drug abuse, promiscuity, lying and stealing.  In response, she said, “(Those concerned parents and pastors) are absolutely right. Somebody with my past…should not be allowed to talk to you. But you know what, somebody with my present, who I am now shouldn’t be allowed to talked to you…because I am a flawed person.  I should not be allowed to be here talking to you, but you know what…that’s the God we are dealing with people.”

We are often told that our successes and our gifts are what we offer to the world.  To get good grades. To work hard.  To treat people right.  And these are all gifts to the world which God can use.  But the God we are dealing with won’t just use your strengths and your gifts, God will also use your broken places and your weaknesses too.

Sometimes I hear people talk about the way things used to be for our churches.  Back when the church was packed and the offering plates full.  Back when parents didn’t have to make their kids go to church. They wanted to go to church.  But maybe this time in the church when things are a little uncertain.. when the pews aren’t full, when we wonder if the offering will pay all the bills…you know, when it seems like there are 5,000 mouths to feed and only 5 loaves of bread and a couple of fish…maybe that’s rich and fertile soil in which God can use us to do great things.  Like make promises to a small child at their baptism, which we do today.

And what is so beautiful about baptism is that little Elizabeth doesn’t bring anything up to this font with her.  She doesn’t have a resume to show off, or any awards to present, or there is no part in the baptismal rite where we ask if she is a good enough child for God.  No. She comes to the font, just as we all do, with nothing. We don’t bring a resume of all the good things we’ve done to the baptismal font.  We don’t bring money.  We don’t bring anything.  It’s like God is asking us, “What do you have to offer me?”  And all we can say is “Nothing.”  To which God replies, “Fantastic.  I can work with that.”  AMEN

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Seeds of Heaven, pg. 51