Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 14B] - August 12, 2012 (1 Kings 19:4-8 and John 6:35, 41-51)

Bread that comes at just the right time.

Those who are familiar with the story of the bestselling book or blockbuster movie, The Hunger Games, know that is a familiar theme: bread that comes at just the right time. As I understand it, the book has been somewhat controversial. The plot is a bit violent, centered on the events of gladiator-type games wherein teenagers from different districts are pitted against each other in a survival-of-the-fittest contest. The circumstances are made even more harsh by the realities of its bleak, futuristic setting: there are pompous haves and humble have-nots, and, as the name of the series implies, there is barely enough food to go around. A disproportionately small class of eccentric elites callously exerts power and authority over the rest of the population who are divided into gulag-like districts. The name of this dystopian country, interestingly, is Panem, a made-up word that happens to bear a strong association with the Latin word for “bread.”

At several key points in the story, the heroine and main character, Katniss, is saved just at the most critical point by the surprise appearance of bread. One of those instances is when she, as a young girl, is essentially abandoned by the tragic death of her father and the ensuing despair of her grief-stricken mother. Forced at a young age into the role of breadwinner for her family, she has nowhere to turn. At one desperate point, she sits huddled in the rain outside of the town bakery at the point of extreme starvation, even contemplating death. Suddenly, without any explanation at all, the baker’s son (whose name also happens to be Peeta—another bread name) appears from the back kitchen door into the bleak mist with two burnt loaves in his hand. Katniss originally thinks the discarded loaves are intended for the pig slop, but then he reaches out to her, without a word, and places them in her hand. Charred on the surface, but still warm and steaming underneath, the bread is simple but delicious. Katniss wonders if he might have burnt them on purpose just for her. Whatever the motivation, whatever the opportunity for foreshadowing the gesture might provide, it is still bread that comes at just the right time. Later in the story, bread will appear, again, right when she needs it—only this time it will literally fall down from the sky by way of a silver parachute, a gift from a person outside of the arena of the Games who wants her to live.

For those of you who are not familiar with the story of Katniss and Peeta and the rest of The Hunger Games need look no further than this story of Elijah in our first reading to see and example of bread coming at just the right time. Fleeing for his life from the evil Queen Jezebel, Elijah takes off empty-handed into the wilderness for protection. He asks that he might die. Then—voila!—hot cakes and a jar of water. He continues for another forty days and forty nights, rejuvenated for his fight against injustice and idolatry. Nice books, Suzanne Collins, but the prophets of Israel played the original hunger games!

Come to think of it, the serendipitous appearance of bread—or whatever else it is we really need—is something we’re all familiar with: the seemingly random gesture of kindness from some stranger…the Facebook comment or message from a friend who happens to call to check in just when you’re at your lowest...the rainfall that staves off a record drought. I remember a colleague of mine telling me of a time when he was in seminary. Between the tuition bills and the costs for books and housing and health insurance, they were so destitute they couldn’t rub two pennies together. They opened up the refrigerator one night for dinner and all that was in there was a package of sliced cheese. Dejected, he shut the fridge door and instead went to get the mail. There, in the mailbox, was a simple check written for $25 from someone at their home congregation.

When we think about it, our lives are filled with these kinds of occurrences. Bread or some other form of sustenance often arrives just when we need it, or it is there all along and we finally wake up to it. The random graciousness of strangers and friends alike points us to the goodness of God.

Now, if I stopped the sermon there, most of us would likely take home a good message today, one that might open our eyes a little more to the ways God is constantly providing us the things we need for life. It would be a nice reminder, perhaps, of the truthfulness of Martin Luther’s explanation to the first article of the Apostles’ Creed, as he writes in the Small Catechism: “I believe that God provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support my life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.”[1] Stopping the sermon here could provoke us to overdue thanksgiving, calling our attention to the many ways God our Father has always been laying down those cakes on the hot stone for us, often when we least deserved it. And, as I said, that would be appropriate and good thing to call us to do.

However, I’m pretty sure that is not the message that Jesus has for us this morning. The people speaking with Jesus in this sixth chapter of John are fully aware that God routinely provides them the stuff of daily bread…yea, even though the world often snatches those provisions away from us, and even though we misuse and mis-receive them in the first place. These folks know the story of Moses and the manna God provided in the wilderness. They know the story of Jezebel and Elijah and the hot cakes that give him strength for forty days. All those examples of bread—and those myriad ones we could add to it—are ways, you may say, of God drawing us to himself, of God drawing us to his great goodness that we may give thanks and praise.

But they are not the way our Father intends to draw us though Jesus. All those other stories do include ways in which a hunger was satisfied, often at the last minute, but Jesus comes to address a deeper hunger yet. Jesus, by contrast, has not come to draw us to God by handing out gifts, one by one, showing up as a surprise $25 in the mailbox, or as morsel of food at just the right time, or even as the man who can feed 5000 with five loaves and two fish. Jesus, rather, comes to satisfy a hunger for eternal life, a hunger for true union with the one who created us. Jesus comes to draw us to God by giving, yes, but by giving his life. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus says. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

You see, the kind bread that the Israelites ate in the desert may fill our bellies, but it is Jesus’ words of grace and forgiveness that God’s people may truly live on. They give us life because in them we hear that God loves us—indeed, that God loves the entire world. Love is what we’re created for—it’s what we’re created from—and is what our lives really desire above all else. Jesus comes to provide that, and like the hot cakes of bread that fuel Elijah for his escape from the vengeful Jezebel, the assurance of God’s love revitalizes us as we engage the world. Jesus’ words also bring love in the form of forgiveness, which satisfies the hunger caused by our sin. Like the character Katniss in her Hunger Games, we are ravaged by the brokenness of the world and our own sorry shortcomings. Appetites of selfishness have left us incomplete and starving. Only the One who created us can rescue us and set us free from sin...from outside our arena.

It is Jesus, then, who is then given at just the right time. On the cross we see that not just his words, but his own flesh, nailed to a tree, will be what rescues us from the brutal hunger games of our human existence. Provided at the point we are at our lowest, at the point the world is at its darkest, Jesus’ body on the cross becomes the guarantee  that God will never, ever, ever leave us hungry and alone. In this complete gift of Jesus—words and flesh—we are able to see the self-giving nature of our Father. No other demonstration of bread-giving in the history of time even comes close to showing the depth of God’s love as Jesus in his death. He is handed over, not just so that we may be saved from starvation, but that we may be saved from an eternal separation from God, that we may be raised with him on the last day. This is the message Jesus wants us to hear.

And we respond, as Jesus tells the crowd, by hearing and learning what this means. It is not always easy to understand, and I’m not sure we can ever completely learn what Jesus brings it in its entirety, but faith begins and is restored when the Holy Spirit prods us to wake up, see the cakes of bread beside us, and wake up and take the words of Jesus offered here…and feast. Then journey will then not be too much for us.

Over the next couple of weeks some of our Epiphany young people will make the trek to college. Those who just finished high school this past June will be going entering the college environment for the first time. As they leave us for a while, other college students will begin joining us here in worship at Epiphany as students at the University of Richmond or VCU. Jezebel won’t be chasing any of them—thank God!—but they will be entering a time of wandering and wilderness. It will be an exciting time of discovery and new beginnings, yes, but also a time of temptation, loneliness, and disorientation. They will encounter beliefs and ideas and communities that may challenge long-held assertions, just like we all do, from time to time.

Years ago I heard one ELCA pastor who has experience in campus ministry talk about this disorientation that college Christians often face in those first years from home. She explained how many of them felt as if their faith was even being dismantled, brick by brick. She urged them to watch for the gifts of bread amidst that feeling of falling and losing. Those gifts would be there, often just at the right time, but not to shun them, even when it all didn’t make sense. Hers was a reminder for them to wake up, make their way to a community that was gathered around the bread and wine of our Lord, to seek out periodically those people who were gathering around the living words of Jesus and learning to live by them.

Years before the trilogy of The Hunger Games was ever written, this pastor was offering advice about how to survive in a world that is simultaneously exciting and discouraging. Take the bread, she said, when the arms reach out to you in the rain. Take the bread, she urged, when the silver parachute descends on a Sunday morning at the nearby congregation. Take the bread, she advised, as the pastor offers it at the altar, for I do believe that is part of what Jesus is talking about here.

We will hold all of our students in prayer, but over the next few weeks in particular, just as we are aware of the perils and surprises of our own lives. Following that pastor's advice, and following the example of exhausted Elijah, we wake up and grasp at that life-saving morsel so that the journey will not be too much for us. A piece of the One who will raise us on the last day, it will often be coming at just...the right...time.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Martin Luther. Small Catechism

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 13B] - August 5, 2012 (John 6:24-35)

Every three years, the Revised Common Lectionary, which is the fancy name for the cycle of Scripture readings we use in our worship, features these readings from the 6th chapter of John. Because the gospel writer John fashions the chapters of his gospel as single scenes or themes from Jesus’ ministry, with often one whole chapter devoted to a specific occurrence or teaching, we end up getting five weeks in a row of bread.

Well, that’s one way to put it. Really what we get is five weeks in a row of Jesus talking with various crowds and his disciples about the bread of life. It’s a fascinating and meaningful episode of Jesus’ life and teaching, but, used in worship so repeatedly, it does start to feel like bread, over and over again. It’s like going to a restaurant on several Friday nights only to discover the same bland thing on the menu. This theme actually began with our gospel offering last week. As some of you may remember, we heard the story of Jesus’ miraculous sign in which he multiplied five loaves of bread and two fishes to feed 5000 people. Those crowds follow after Jesus and his disciples and pretty soon this long conversation ensues about why Jesus performed that sign and what it all means. It will continue for a few more weeks…so prepare yourselves!

Here’s the funny thing: we pastors notoriously complain about these five weeks of bread talk. It’s like carb-loading, homiletically-speaking. If you think it’s bland to hear so much on one topic for five weeks, just imagine preparing sermons and choosing hymns for it. Nowhere else in the lectionary (that I know of) do we spend so much time on one chapter and motif. And, yet, as I reflect on it—on this overabundance of bread readings—there seems to be some wisdom to it, and maybe a bit of prophetic justice, too. Who am I to complain, for example, about five straight weeks of talking about Jesus as the bread of life when most of the world must subsist on nothing but bread? Who am I to demand some variety in church Scripture readings…or in the words of the hymns…or even in my own preaching…when most of the world has absolutely precious little variety in much of anything?

We live in a corner of the world where just about any amount of any kind of food we can imagine is but a five-or ten-minute drive away. Many, however, still live in places where the energy of each day is literally given to making sure the belly doesn’t grumble too loudly at night. The focus on bread here in our worship these weeks could, in fact, mirror the real world’s focus on real bread, spurring us to consider how we view food and how we might share from our abundance. Furthermore, a steady diet of the same thing might force us to come to terms with how necessary we really think Jesus is for life, or how central a choice he is on our busy menus.

You see, the people who followed Jesus in his day and age probably had the same type of relationship to food and bread as those who live in developing nations today. There’s rarely enough to go around, and you have to work hard just to get that. They encounter Jesus as he miraculously feeds a multitude—or maybe they just hear about it—and he is instantaneously popular. In fact, in the portion just prior to today’s reading, they try to make him king. He manages to escape that plot, but they track him down, no doubt looking for more bread. It is easy to understand their M.O.: if this man can provide it so easily, then they need to find a way to keep him around.

In fact, this whole episode reminds them of the days their ancestors trudged through the wilderness and survived on the bread their leader, Moses, provided bread for them. It was a constant, never-failing supply, this strange manna. They didn’t really know what it was, but they learned to receive it and live on it. Each morning they would walk around picking it up, using just what they needed that day because if they tried to collect more and save it, it would get wormy. The manna got them where they needed to go, a day at a time.

Granted, it was not always delicious. It was nothing like the sumptuous selections they supposedly fondly remember from Egypt, but the manna was always there, and they didn’t have to do anything to receive it, other than follow God’s instructions. And although they probably could not explain why, they knew it satisfied them.

So it appears to them that Jesus can provide the same kind of sustenance that Moses did, the same kind of hope for survival, but it also appears they are missing the point on at least two accounts. You see, Jesus has not come to give God’s people the kind of bread that Moses did. In fact, Jesus has not come to bring us bread at all. Jesus is here to be bread. God has rained him down on us from heaven so that we may have life. His words, surely, are something for us to live by, but it really goes beyond that. His actual life is what humankind longs for: that is, a perfect devotion to God our Father, as well as a pure compassion in community with each other.

Sin has left us empty, starving. Jesus will be the feast that fulfills us at all times and in all places…even when we betray him, when we turn our backs on him, when we look elsewhere for spiritual nourishment. The crowds want him to given them this bread always. On the cross, he will even die to make sure that will happen.

The second point they are missing is that they don’t have to do anything to receive this bread of Jesus. It is human nature to make faith into a work: to think that we must do something to deserve the goodness of God. In this case, the people want to know—thinking of their ancestors with those baskets—what they need to do for this bread to be theirs. Do we need to perform daily devotions? Come to worship each week? Perform a good deed each day? Say prayers every night? Get the kids in Sunday School? What can we do to ensure we’ll get our share? What’s our end of the bargain and how can we control, contain, commodify this bread that will never leave us hungry?

The feeding of the multitude
In the questions of the crowd, we hear our own deductions about how God works, that there is some hidden this-for-that that we haven’t considered. But Jesus promises them that’s not how his bread works. God simply provides it. Out of great love and a desire that we flourish, God provides his Son, that we may have life. Trust in him is what follows on our part—but it never depends on it. We don’t love Jesus and follow him for the things he can provide us. We are to love and follow Jesus because he alone is exactly what we need to truly live. Like the bread and the fish that multiply without explanation, life with this person is so much greater than without him, and we can’t always explain why.

The crowds misunderstood Jesus and the bread he gave and therefore wanted a way to keep him around so that he could keep on giving. Little did they know that he would find his own way to stay present, tangible, real, right at the heart of their community. They could gather and share another set of loaves. Again, inexplicably, he would be there, multiplying forgiveness and love like he did the night before he died.

We have just had a week where and awful lot of attention was given to eating. In this case, it two pieces of bread with a piece of chicken in between. Next week it will probably be something else. People assigned all kinds of social and political meaning to the decision to eat at Chik-Fil-A or to boycott their food because of the actions and words of the owner. Trust me: I am not going to wade into those dangerous waters today or any day and tell anyone which restaurants they should or should not patronize, but one thought did cross my mind.

Namely, what if people of God on all sides of any issue were not primarily known by their participation in or absence from a meal at a fast food chain, but instead by their association with this meal? What if people of faith on either side of this issue made a bigger deal about showing up for sustenance here, taking a place at a meal that reminds us all of true freedom? Forget about the social or political statements we make by eating or not eating at Chik-Fil-A. What about the bold statement you proclaim weekly that you come here and nowhere else for nourishment, for forgiveness, for hope? The world is often a wilderness, with people taking sides, pointing fingers, sitting in judgment, and looking in all sorts of places for the bread that lasts. Yet every week you line up to “eat more Jesus,” and declare to the world that the bread of life has been given for you.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.