Sunday, August 9th, 2015 – Sermon on John 6:35-51

You can listen to the sermon here.

John 6:35-51
35Jesus 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. 36But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39And 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. 40This 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.”

41Then the Jews leaders began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

For those of you who have been at church the last couple of weeks, you know that we have heard 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 barley loaves 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 the bread of a relationship. A relationship with himself – the bread of life.

So today and the next two weeks, we will continue to hear about Jesus as the bread of life. But 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. There is no bite. It just sort of bends into a mush of confusion. “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 along the highway. 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 my to-do list for the day.

And it is too bad, really, that 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. Offensive even. But I’m afraid we’ve lost the context into which they were spoken. And you know how it is when someone takes your words out of context. Suddenly the meaning can shift to something you never meant it to mean.

So our work this morning is to try and put John’s word back into context, so that we might discover a deeper understanding of these words.

And here is the context of John’s gospel. John is writing to a specific community of people. And it is a community of Jews that have been ostracized for their belief in Jesus. Or more specifically, they’ve been kicked out of their synagogue. Their church. Which is to say they have been separated from their entire social, religious, and communal life. They’ve been kicked out. Left behind. Abandoned. They’ve become outsiders. The not-included. Have you ever been kicked out of something? Or abandoned? Or left behind? Then you know what it feels like. And now John is writing down Jesus’ story… but he is telling it for them. They are the ones he’s thinking about as he decides how to tell Jesus’ story.

Whenever you read a story, you always identify with someone, right? You always find where you would fit in the story. I think John’s audience would hear themselves as the crowd of 5,000. As the ones out wandering in the desert fields, hungry, searching and seeking for something.

So now, let’s slow down and listen to those words Jesus speaks to the crowd of 5,000 but recognizing that they were written for a community that has been kicked out.

“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. (NOT whoever comes to the synagogue, whoever goes to church enough.)… Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone (anyone) who comes to me I will never drive away. (I know you’ve been driven away. I know you’ve been kicked out. I know you’ve been excluded, but I will not exclude you. I will never drive you 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. (I know you feel lost, I know you feel abandoned. But I will not abandon you. But rather I will raise you up.)

Suddenly, when I know the context and who the story is meant for, I hear it entirely differently. And those are earth-shattering, life-changing words for a community that has been left behind.

But then things start to shift. Jesus has been talking to the crowd. But then suddenly, the Jewish leaders show up. The insiders. The rulers of the synagogue. The ones who kick people out. And they start complaining. And at this point, John’s hearers would lean in because now Jesus is talking with their enemy – the ones who kicked them out of the synagogue. What will Jesus say?

And do you know what Jesus does? He offends them. He offends the Jewish leaders.

First of he says that he comes from God, which is absolutely outrageous, not only because they know his parents, they know where he grew up, but also that a human being – so common and ordinary – could be sent from God. As David Lose says, “Who ever heard of a God having anything to do with the everyday, the ordinary, the mundane, the dirty? Gods are made for greatness, not grime; they supposed to reside up in the clouds, not down here with the commoners. I mean, who ever heard of a God who is willing to suffer the pains and problems, the indecencies and embarrassments of human life? It’s down right laughable.”[1] It is down right offensive to the Jewish leaders.

But then Jesus goes on offending them. Because later in chapter 6 to tell them feed on him. To eat his flesh and drink his blood. And he gets gory about it – he actually says gnaw on my flesh and guzzle my blood. Which paints a much different picture than the somewhat tame and proper version that we partake in each week. Not a lot of gnawing and guzzling going on up here.

But the very idea to a Jew of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus would be unthinkable and make them sick to their stomachs. Because it goes against God’s law in Leviticus forbidding the consumption of any blood, because the blood is the life force of the creature. So to drink Jesus’ blood would be to consume the life force of Jesus. But that’s exactly Jesus’ point – because he will go on to say that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood abide in him and he abides in them, and suddenly there is no need to be in the synagogue in order to be connected to God. Because God is in you and you are in God.

Do you see? Do you see how John’s audience would hear that as a comforting word? You don’t have to be in the synagogue to find God. God will find you. I will be with you. You don’t have to be in church to find God. God will be with you. Out there.

So Jesus offends them. But then one more thing happens – they leave. It reads, “Because of this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” They leave him. Can you blame them for leaving? He’s just offended all of them. The only ones who stayed were the 12 disciples, who were probably offended too.

Do see what’s happened? Jesus – the Son of God –has also been left behind. Abandoned. Kicked out. The way John tells the Jesus’ story, Jesus becomes like those who have been cast out. And Jesus stands alongside them, in solidarity.

In World War 2, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor was sitting in the back of a truck with fellow prisoners heading to the concentration camp. Bonhoeffer was sitting next to a Russian soldier. As they travelled the Russian soldier and Bonhoeffer talked and became friends. When the truck stopped for the night and it became clear that many of the prisoners would soon meet their demise, pastor Bonhoeffer was asked to administer communion. He agreed and stood to begin, and invited others to stand, but the Russian soldier, his friend, remained sitting. He said he was an atheist and therefore it would be hypocritical for him to partake. Upon hearing his response, pastor Bonhoeffer sat back down and is reported to have stated, “Then neither will I partake, for how can I be sure that in leaving you for the communion table I would not be leaving Christ.”Bonhoeffer, in the name of Christ, stood in solidarity with his atheist friend.

Jesus stood in solidarity with those who have been kicked out and excluded. Those on the outside. And as a result, he offended most of the people on the inside.

And I’m willing to bet that if we are honest with ourselves, most of us are people on the inside. But as disciples of Jesus, we are all called to stand with those on the outside.

But here’s the thing – If we are going to be disciples of Jesus than we are going to have to be willing to be offended and not leave the conversation.

Last week I said sometimes I hesitate to ask a question out of fear of looking stupid. That’s usually the case, but sometime I hesitate to ask a question out of fear that I won’t phrase it correctly. I’m afraid of offending someone. And they might leave.

Last week, the ELCA hosted a live webcast on racism. And towards the end, Presiding Bishop Eaton encouraged congregations to begin having conversations around race and racism in our country. Which is a conversation I am afraid to have. Because what if I say the wrong thing. What if I offend someone and they leave? But what I loved about what she said is that we have to be willing to have that conversation and fail at that conversation. She said we will say something that is wrong or hurtful or ignorant or insensitive, but that is just the start to a conversation that just might heal our country.

Last week, we talked about being a place that asks our questions. If we are going to be that place, then we will also have to be willing to be offended and maybe even run the risk of offending someone, but not leave the conversation.

Today is the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. If God is calling us into a new day regarding race and racism in our country, and if we are going to stand in solidarity with each other as people of different races, we are going to have to be willing to be offended and maybe eve run the risk of offending someone, but not leave the conversation.

Jesus the bread of life will stand in solidarity with us. But Jesus the bread of life will also offend us for the sake of creating new life for all people. And that bread of life, suddenly doesn’t seem so stale anymore. Amen.

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2015/08/pentecost-11-b/

Sunday, August 2nd, 2015 – Sermon on John 6:24-35

You can listen to this sermon here.

John 6:24-35
24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. 25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32 Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 35 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.

Come, Holy Spirit, our souls inspire, and lighten us with your celestial fire. For if you are with us then nothing else matters. And if you are not with us, then nothing else matters. Be with us we pray in the name of your Beloved. Amen. (A Barbara Brown Taylor Prayer)

Four. Four. That is the number of questions that the crowd asks Jesus in today’s gospel. Jesus has just fed the 5,000 people, and afterwards, the crowd of people wanted to make him king. So he fled away to a place to pray. But the crowd searched him out and they start to ask him questions. Four, in fact, throughout the reading:

Jesus, when did you come here?
Jesus, what must we do to perform the works of God?
What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?
What work are you performing?

Four questions in 12 verses. Which means that over 30% of today’s gospel contains questions.

As you get to know me, you will come to learn that I love questions. I love when people ask questions. And I love to ask questions myself.

But hasn’t always been the case. It can be hard to ask a question. It can be vulnerable. Because it reveals that you don’t know something. You run the risk of looking stupid, which was always my greatest fear.

Now, I realize that this could easily become a sob story for me, but that’s not why I tell it. It is simply the truth. I was teased in high school for asking too many questions. By both students and teachers. Now to be fair, I think it was all in good fun for them. It wasn’t personal. But like water over a rock, it wore me down. And so I always felt nervous to raise my hand, but I also knew that I would never understand if I didn’t. I would never pass the test if I didn’t ask the question. So I did. And at times, I paid for it in laughter and jokes.

Now, if I may, one of the most affirming moments of my life was when my high school math teacher, who wasn’t shy about poking fun at the number of my questions either…he said to me on the last day of school, “You need to know that your questions got everyone else through this class.” And in that moment, I felt proud of my questions and no longer ashamed.

The thing that stands out to me about today’s lesson is the four questions that the crowd asks and the courage that it took to ask them.

Did you know that 16% of the verses of the gospel of John have questions in them. The most out of any gospel. And in fact, Jesus’ first words (and first words are important) are in the form of a question – “what are you looking for?” he asks two disciples.

So the crowd has found Jesus and they start to ask him questions. And truth be told, Jesus’ response is a little harsh. And a lot confusing. It can even sound like Jesus is scolding them.

The crowd asks, “Teacher, when did you come here?” and Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.

Here’s a question: but what if I don’t believe in Jesus, or more rightly, what if I struggle to? Or what if your kids or your spouse or your grandkids or your friend struggles to believe in Jesus? What does that mean for them?

Can we ask those questions?

A couple of weeks ago, I was meeting with a couple that is getting married this fall. They are a young couple in their 20s. Both were raised in the church, but they don’t go to church anymore. But they kind of want to. They just don’t know if they would be welcome in church.

You see, they have questions. They believe in God. They believe there is goodness in the world. They believe that Jesus was a good man. Inspiring even. But they’re not so sure about the miracles thing. They, like that big crowd, are seeking after something. They want to find a church. They just don’t know if it’s okay to, like that big crowd, have so many questions.

This past week, Mike and Julie and I attended an event at Luther Seminary title: Rethinking Confirmation: Signs of Hope in a World of Change. While the conference was quite good, it was our time in the car together that was most interesting to me. You see we drove with Pastor David Weeks and Jeremy, the youth director, both from St. Peter’s Lutheran in town. And on one of the drives, we started asking questions. Faith questions. What do you believe happens during a baptism? Are you made into a child of God or were you a child of God 5 minutes before the water started flowing? Do you believe in heaven and hell? Who gets to go and how do you know?

Two things stood out to me: First, before any answered the question, someone had to ask if it was a safe space to be honestly. We were a car full of Christian ministers and we weren’t certain we could be honest at first. The second thing I noticed – we didn’t all agree.

Topics like baptism, salvation, the afterlife, and a carload of ELCA church workers didn’t all agree.

Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe.” But we didn’t all agree on our beliefs. So, are we believers? Do we believe? Do we believe the right things? Who was right?

Now, I have no doubt that I was right about everything, but it’s them that I’m worried about, you know?

But seriously, it was a wonderful experience – to be so openly and respectfully honest with our questions and doubts. That safety to be honest and to ask questions – it fed me in a way that real bread cannot. It didn’t just give me energy… it gave me life for the day. I am the bread of life, Jesus says and he was with us in that car. Lord, give me that bread always.

Here is what I do know: in the gospel of John, “to believe” in Jesus is not about believing in information about Jesus. To believe in Jesus is not to believe unquestionably in his miracles or everything we say in the Apostle’s Creed.

Belief isn’t something you have to muster up in your brain and convince yourself of before walking into church. In the gospel of John belief is not something you do, but rather belief is a gift given and it is the gift of a relationship with God.

And the fact that the crowd is able to ask questions and engage in dialogue with Jesus is a symbol of that relationship. And the fact that Jesus is willing to say harsh things to them is a sign of the relationship, because we usually only say hard things in relationships that we trust. The crowd keeps wanting proof, signs, so that they can believe in their brains, but they get a dialogue and a relationship with Jesus instead.

And that is what you have too. A dialogue and a relationship with Jesus. Even if you don’t believe it.

A couple of years ago, in my former parish, I decided to have an “Ask the Pastor” sermon. The week before, I invited people to email me a question that they always wanted to ask a pastor. On Sunday morning, I handed out note cards and people could write down questions. And then during the sermon time, I opened them up and did the best I could.

And I was stunned. Close to 40% of the questions had something to do with what happens to an unbaptized child who dies. That was a deep question that so many of them were living with.

I suspect you are people with questions – important questions – buried deep within you.

Maybe you have questions about communion because you don’t really get it.

Maybe you have questions about Jesus feeding 5,000 and are we really supposed to believe that?

Maybe you have questions about homosexuality and same-gendered marriage and this Reconciling in Christ group that has started at St. John’s.

Maybe you have questions about prayer because yours go unanswered.

But maybe you feel nervous to ask your question because you don’t want to look dumb. Especially in a church so packed full of retired clergy and professors. Well, let me tell you something… they have questions too. Or maybe you are afraid to ask questions because you are a clergy person or a retired prof and you don’t want to look like you don’t know anything at all. Well let me tell you something, honest questions from you would come as a breath of fresh air.

Today’s gospel story – a dialogue with Jesus – began with a question. I wonder what kind of conversations we might have in the presence of Jesus if we began asking our questions. So consider this your permission slip. Seriously. You can ask questions here. Email them to me or Pam or any of our staff. Or write them on a note and slide them under our door. Or be brave and ask it to your table at coffee hour or in a small group gathering. Let’s make St. John’s into a safe space to ask our questions, just like that great big crowd did. In fact, we just might miss a conversation with Jesus if we don’t.

Amen.