What Difference Does Any of This Make?

credit:istock

August 1, 2021

A sermon based on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Ephesians 4:1-16; and John 6:24-35

Dear Friends in Christ,

What difference does this make? What difference does any of THIS MAKE? That was the question I asked myself as I finished reading through what I thought was my third and final attempt at a message for you this Sunday. What difference does any of this make in our lives after this hour together is over and we go back out into the world?

You came or joined us online fully expecting to sit for a minute or two to ponder at another week behind you and another one about to start, to confess and be absolved of your sins, to hear a few stories about God and Jesus, hear me try to make sense of these stories for 15 minutes if you mind doesn’t wander off,  sing a few songs, say a few prayers, eat the bread, drink the wine and maybe leave a little something in the offering plate as you depart and get on with your day.

 It’s a routine many of us have done our whole lives – even before we knew we were doing it. Until we couldn’t – at least not in the ways we have always done it before. And yet life still went on. And so, as I read through the lessons and Gospel for today, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of cynicism creeping in. Manna from heaven, unity in Christ, just believe and never again hunger or thirst. As I looked in the mirror, as I surveyed my heart, as I thought about you and the community in which we live, the nation and the world – it all sounded rather trite.

 In the context of our current  communal experience on the timeline of human history, I couldn’t help but think – what difference does any of this make – this worship, these words, this faith in God – because it sure seems like this world – that we are a part of – is as messed up as when Moses was leading the Israelites in the wilderness and a Man who fed the hungry and healed the afflicted was hung up on a cross to die a brutal death by the powers that be.

What difference does any of this make to the farmer who just lost his livelihood to a brutal drought, or the lines of tourists waiting at the gate to Glacier, or the cattle rancher forced to cull his herd because he can’t feed it, or the concert promoter bringing in thousands of revelers to our community, or the exhausted wildland firefighter called to fire after fire in an endless season of fire, or the ER nurse seeing patient after patient arrives with a potentially lethal virus that could have been prevented, or the former business owner whose livelihood was lost, or the new business owner finally seeing a profit, or the family who just celebrated a joyous reunion, or the woman who has spent the last 16 months painfully alone.  What difference does it make to those who tell me they have never felt more distraught, bitter, angry, frustrated, depressed, isolated, divided, doubtful, depressed, sad, on edge, anxious, afraid, and hungry for life?

Have we not evolved at all in our human endeavors since we cried out: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Indeed, the past two years have seemed like a biblical wilderness experience. COVID has impacted every facet of our lives from early 2020 to the Spring of 2021. We’ve seen the rise of racial tensions and been called to a racial reckoning. Economic disparity is as evident as ever as many lost their jobs and their homes while others are cashing in on newfound wealth. Political polarization and disinformation are rampant and threatening our democracy.  The earth is at once drying out and burning up and drowning in epic flooding upending lives and communities. And now, within a matter of days, we’re learning we face a “different virus,” that threatens to upend our semblance of normal life once again.

 What difference does God make in this wilderness?

While the wilderness for those of us accustomed to its raw beauty and proximity can be a source for rest and recreation there is another kind of wilderness place – a place you didn’t expect to be in, a place that’s unfamiliar and beyond your control, a place of testing and doubt, and a place that calls into question much of what you thought mattered in life.

Whether you are adventurous or not, you’ve probably been there. It’s the place you may find yourself in right now, or after a divorce, a significant death, the loss of a job, a career or lifestyle-ending injury, a loss of a significant friendship, a challenge to your ideals, or a serious diagnosis. It’s that feeling you get deep inside when the life you once knew is suddenly pulled out from under you. You feel bewildered, broken, and alone.

 These wildernesses have a way of stripping away all the trappings we bring with us in life to make it more livable – the comforts of home, the security of routine, our notions of self and the things that make us happy. In their wake we are forced to reckon with our deepest most basic longings – the hunger for a sense of identity, belonging, meaning, and purpose we’ve made our way through life trying to satisfy.

That’s a hard hunger to fill, especially in the wilderness.

St Theresa once said that the hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.  Substitute a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and meaning for life and the message is the same. When we have it – it feels like we have everything. Without it it feels like we have lost everything.

The Israelites knew that feeling. They had been wandering for a very long time – their sense of place non-existent, their sense of identity in flux, and their trust in their leaders Aaron and Moses, waning. On top of this, they are hungry. No wonder they start waxing nostalgic. I can’t blame them. When my present gets tough, I tend to linger in the before times – longing for the life I once had. After all, it was what we know and with familiarity comes comfort. Never mind the fact the Israelites had escaped brutal enslavement, at least they had lamb stew and bread to eat. Wandering as they are without a sense of identity or place – it is easier to see the benefits of the past they left behind instead of contemplating the possibilities of what could be. 

Hearing their protest, God intervenes by providing manna and quail for them to eat – and reminding them of His presence. God knows that a hungry body, heart, and mind can focus on nothing else than satisfying that hunger and so God provides – food for the body as well as restoring their sense of identity – as God’s people with a future and a promised land.

And that’s why all this matters. You see, if I lingered more with God than in the wonders of my past, I would recall many of those times weren’t so wonderful until God made them so. 

It’s no wonder this story is recalled as Jesus speaks to his disciples and the crowd that didn’t just follow – but chased after Him to Capernaum. Here we find Jesus fresh off his miraculous feeding of the 5000, walking on water, and stilling the storm. Not only is the crowd still hungry, but they are full of questions for the man they want to be their king.

They’d not had a Passover feast quite like the one they just experienced, and they wanted more. There was something about that bread – and more than likely the fish too. (But who wants to do a 6-week sermon series on smelly fish?)

Like his Father, Jesus had satisfied their hungry bodies, now He is determined to satisfy their hungry minds and hearts. He wants them to feel a deeper hunger – one that doesn’t come from scarcity but from abundance. He replies to 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.  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.”

And that’s why God makes a difference for us today.

Like the crowd, we are accustomed to surviving life as best we know how. We seek control, power and protection against our vulnerabilities, and we see ourselves as the proper agent of that security.  In this sense, our trust is rooted in ourselves, and we are left to find our sense of place, purpose, belonging, meaning, and yes – love in whatever way we can. More stuff, more accolades, more money, better performances, higher scores, more wins. The saying you are what you eat holds true. Not all the bread we eat is good for us.

Think about the variety of bread we make regular meals of in our lives today. It is usually very tasty at first, easy to digest and often offers immediate satisfaction but in the end, we are left with an unpleasant feeling inside. We feel distraught, bitter, angry, frustrated, depressed, isolated, divided, doubtful, depressed, sad, on edge, anxious, afraid, and hungry for life. We eat all kinds of bread. And we do all kinds of things to get it – sometimes to the point of depression, desperation, depletion, even, ironically, starvation. No matter how much we eat, it will never be enough.

If this is what we do to define ourselves, to find belonging, to bring purpose to our lives – no wonder we are starving! It’s a very different bread of life than what God wants for us. Jesus didn’t just come to perform miracles, impress people, and preach a good sermon. He came to meet us in our deepest hunger. To satisfy our deepest most universal needs of belonging, identity and purpose. Jesus doesn’t just feed us this with bread – he becomes the bread and fills us with the very presence of God. 

It’s when we are driven into the wilderness that we realize this bread we’ve been relying on for survival isn’t enough. Sure, it’s often easy to come by – tantalizingly so at times – but it won’t feed us for the journey ahead. I came to this stark realization myself even before I started working on this sermon – and that is why God makes a difference. 

As more and more of the things I filled my pre-pandemic life with were shut down or taken from me – even my running when I broke my foot – I literally began to ache inside. While I thought I was filling my life with the right survival gear or eating the right kind of bread – you might say – just as on many of my wilderness outings – I realized I had left behind one key piece of gear – trust. Trust that the God who created me and provided for me up to this very moment is enough for me. That there the only limits on God’s provision in my life are mine. That in God, my identity is secure and because of that I can hope.

God’s greatest desire is to be present with us in all our wildernesses – creating, sustaining, and nourishing us with the Bread of Life. When you open your hungry heart to Jesus and invite him to join you each day, you see things differently. You live differently. You discover that you are not a solo traveler in the wilderness of life. Rather, you belong to a creator and creation far greater than anything or anyone this world can provide. As St Paul writes, we are a part of one body and one Spirit, called to one hope in one Lord, with one faith, through one baptism into one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 

And because of this, our false notions of self and others are replaced by the ability to see and love ourselves and others as persons created in the image of God rather than issues to be overcome. We say yes to a life set free from the captivity of believing we have to be someone we are not and instead live as God already made us to be with many different gifts. Gifts that when shared with the community give us a new purpose in carrying out God’s goodness for all to receive. Secure in our identity in God, we choose love and forgiveness over anger and retribution; and we relate to each other with intimacy and vulnerability rather than superficiality and defensiveness.

If history is any indicator of what is to come, we have a lot of wilderness times ahead but when we see through God’s eyes, listen to God’s voice, and walk with God’s steadfast presence the wilderness can be a place of transformation instead of brokenness.

Jesus is the bread of our life so that we may live life, not just hunger for it.

And that makes all the difference.

Amen.

The Wilderness

Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

I never thought I would see the day that my faith would be a point of contention in the halls of Congress but alas, as a practicing, believing, and prayerful Christian, I watched as senator after senator demanded from the latest Supreme Court Justice candidate a statement professing that she would separate her faith from her judicial decisions. I admired her candor and resolute responses in which she affirmed her ability to separate the two, but I was troubled that people of faith who align their lives with a higher power should be forced to do so – especially in a country founded on the basic tenet of freedom of religion. “What difference does it make?” I spewed at the talking heads on the screen.

Courtesy: Catholiclane,com

Though the citizens of the US have not always supported the rights of others to practice their faiths, seeing it as antithetical to our founding as a “Christian Nation,” our Constitution stands on the side of all beliefs or the lack thereof. Needless to say, it got me thinking about just how we separate from and align our lives with God and begs the question asked oh so long ago of a group of Pharisees and Herodians trying to entrap Jesus into defying the Roman empire: “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” This question, of course, was posed to the Pharisees and Herodians in response to their question as to whether Jesus thought it was “lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

Faced with this trap question, Jesus didn’t do what our politicians do today, which is to answer a different question, the one that he wished he had been asked. Instead he turned the tables on them and trapped them—the Pharisees at least, who seemingly adhered to a strict textual interpretation of God’s Law, including having no other idols before me and having no coinage (which bore the Divine Emperor’s image) in the temple — in their own question. Having caused them to display the coins in their pocket – Jesus tells his questioners to “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

But back to our lives and the world we live in today – though some of us may have fewer coins and more cards in our pockets and purses these days – we still disagree on taxation and aligning our lives along ruling parties. But I am not just talking about money and the things we spend it on, or taxes and whether or not we should pay them, nor am I just referring to the political party we identify with. I am talking about our whole lives. What do we give to God? Or perhaps the better question is, what are we taking away from God? If you believe as I do, that all things are created and inspired by God, then there shouldn’t be much to ponder; yet we so want to delineate that part of our lives which belong to God from that which belongs to – whatever we deem appropriate.

Granted, on the surface of this biblical story we hear Jesus saying there are things that belong to God and things that belong to the emperor. But I believe this message hits closer to home – there are the things that we allow God to handle and the things we want to have complete control over in our lives; the things that give us a bad taste in the mouth or that we can’t trust to the unknown. We try to separate our life and world between church and state, religion and politics, sacred and secular, saved and sinner, charity and taxes, spirit and matter, freedom and masks, death and life, heaven and earth, the divine and humanity, as if they are completely separate and unrelated, as if they are in opposition and have nothing to do with each other, as if some things can be trusted to God while others we need to keep well within our tight grasp.

In doing so, it becomes easy to allow the things we give to the emperor – the things we demand control of – to reign over our lives. We forget that when we embrace that everything and everyone belongs to God, our lives are not necessarily easier or without struggle – but so much richer and more colorful – less bleak and more hope filled. When we let go of the need to be right all the time, the need to stand in judgment, and the need to control the outcome of everything and trust that it all belongs to God we start living more wholly and have less want. 

This time of pandemic and isolation has provided me with a wealth of opportunity for personal reflection, condemnation, exhortation, and commiseration. I have caught myself projecting my misery on to God and reveling in the joys of my own abilities. I have found myself hyper critical of others in how they are handling this time of novel non-coexistence while patting myself on the back for my righteous isolation that has led me to profound darkness at times. I have scowled at the abysmal political polarization confronting me from those I love and respect and then question my own personal convictions and belief in the common good.

As I prepare to vote in the most important election of my lifetime (emphasis on my – because I know the intensity and ramifications of these times must be put into historical perspective) part of me just wants to say: “God, I know you got this” while part of me is stricken with fear for the days months and years that lay ahead. Part of me wants to say: “Can’t we just give it ALL to God?” but the other part of me knows that this already is all of God’s, and for such a time as this He has called you and me to step forth in faith and with the intelligence and conviction he has inspired in all of us –  senators, congressional representatives, candidates for offices, Supreme Court justices, and the likes of you and me – to do our very best for one another and for Him.

Maybe when we recognize and accept the great conflict in all of us to let go and yet hold on in realization that everything belongs to God – the struggle and the victory – maybe that’s when we really begin to follow Jesus. We can stop searching for answers and scapegoats and begin seeking life. We can hold to the self-evidencing truth that the earthly powers that be do not govern our heart or our mind.  That’s when faith makes a difference, and lives are changed.

“Get out the message—God Rules! He put the world on a firm foundation; He treats everyone fair and square.  Let’s hear it from Sky, With Earth joining in, And a huge round of applause from Sea. Let Wilderness turn cartwheels, Animals, come dance, put every tree of the forest in the choir— an extravaganza before God as he comes, as he comes to set everything right on earth, set everything right, treat everyone fair.” – Psalm 96: 10-13 The Message

Let your light so shine!

September Ponderings

A smokey afternoon by the river.

In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.  – John 16:33

September with its golden days, crisp mornings, and quieting evenings has always been my favorite month. With 16+ years of education, the “back to school” sense is ingrained in my being. September announces a return to a familiar rhythm of life with the added bonus of a few new beats – by this time each year I know a little more, have grown in some way, and see life just a little differently. No matter how much I may love the spontaneity of summer’s spirit in my life, this return to the familiar – to a well-practiced routine – brings a sense of comfort, even rest, to my adventuring soul.

There is supposed to be a mountain in this scene!

Except, I am feeling anything but restful this year and the familiar rhythms of life seem just out of my grasp. The brilliant golden hues I have always associated with September have been stolen by awful wildfire smoke – echoing the reality of everything else this year – and I am feeling completely out of step with things. Call it COVID-confusion? In years past, my back-to-school sentimentality has been satisfied by going “back to singing” with the Crown Choir, the Valley Voices, Community Choir, and church choir – my camaraderie in harmony! Harmony – oh what a foreign idea in 2020!

Sadly, I am left longing for all of the above as COVID19 has infected the joy of these activities with fear and taken them away.  I feel like I am wandering in the wilderness only this wilderness was not of my choosing. I am unsure of my footing; not certain I am prepared and have no idea what lays ahead – and I am growing weary. Weary of not needing a planner but in definite need of a calendar and daily lists just to keep me focused and on track with the passage of time.  Weary of the unknown, weary of the unsettled nature of my life. I am restless and want my life back!

Indeed, like me, the world appears to be especially weary. The pandemic persists; the political climate continues wrought with tension; the earth’s ecosystems are being ravaged by water, wind, and fire. People have been forced from their homes into the unknown – some will never go back.  And beyond that, no one’s personal difficulties have lessened in any way. So much unsettledness and restlessness. Restoration is needed at every turn!

The other morning, I was actually able to laugh at a news story. Amid all the other stories that morning of the fires out West, the political firestorm that just keeps getting hotter and more distasteful by the day, the protests and fires in our cities, the injustices felt by people of all walks and perspectives, the disparities in our economy, not to mention just how infected at every turn our lives continue to be by the COVID19 virus – I literally laughed out loud – at the news that there might be signs of life on Venus and the excitement that stinky phosphoric discovery brought to the scientists – and to me – for just a moment. Who among us hasn’t dreamt of escaping to a better place – to someplace familiar – to a place called “the way it used to be” – you know – quiet, peaceful, like last February – and yet we know that isn’t how life works.

All the events of life, even such dark events as a pandemic, war, fire, flood, protests, violence, and unrest are not in and of themselves a definition of our end. Each moment is like a seed that carries within itself the possibility of becoming the moment of change. A change we may not have sought out at first, but a change that will be with us for the long haul. We cannot run from this present time in search of a place where we think life is better.

Rather, we must reckon with our time, our place, and who we are in the process of becoming. As one writer recently put it: “The world will improve not on an arbitrary day but when you all decide to make it a better place” In truth, this time of upheaval is freeing us to choose a new identity and a new way of being in the world. I think back to the wilderness years of the Israelites, who chastised God for leading them into the awful unknown and wanted to go back to their fleshpots and pharaoh. Better the enslavement they knew than the scary freedom they didn’t know.

Much like the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt, we are in a period of wandering – a rather uncomfortable one at that – into a new way of being.  As a person and as a country, we are on a journey towards a new identity with a new set of practices because the old way of doing things, of being in this world, may have seemed to be working fine for a few but wasn’t working for the many.  Our sense and understanding of freedom need to be restored. True freedom is not just the absence of oppression or servitude – freedom means taking on a new identity – taking on a new sense of how we are defined and seen by others. True freedom allows you to claim your place in this world and gives you the responsibility to live well. True freedom means choosing a better way to live – not just the familiar one. True freedom means choosing to do what is right rather than insisting on being right. True freedom allows us to trust that God is always making things new and this time of uncertainty is all about that process.

There will be significant challenges to our sense of the familiar and the comforts of “old” in the days and months ahead. Who will we be when this day, this season, this time passes?  As much as I long for the comforts of the familiar, I pray for the courage to live into the new identity God is leading us to. Letting go of old ways is hard, being reformed and refined even harder, putting our trust in God the hardest of all. But when we do, living in the knowledge of God’s grace and mercy and His ever-creating being, we will be restored and set free.

Be glad, people of Zion,  rejoice in the Lord your God, for he has given you the autumn rains because he is faithful. He sends you abundant showers,   both autumn and spring rains, as before.  – Joel 2:23

A new day dawns.

Let your light so shine!

You Have Worth in Christ

The words came at me like a cleaver, blunt yet cutting, slowly digging into my very core. We were in the middle of a conversation about life, direction, purpose, and personal responsibility.  Was I perhaps too reliant on the Lord in the course of my life?

For as long as I have conceived of morning and night my faith has been a central part of my life. Yes, there was a time I veered away from the concept of church, but the Lord redeemed me during a time of complete brokenness and it was then that I moved beyond just practicing my faith to having a deep relationship with Him.  But every relationship has a dynamic, and not all dynamics are positive. When those words were spoken to me, I was caught off guard. Was my faith simply a crutch to lean on during difficult times?

“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10

Later, pondering deeply as I walked alone, I found myself questioning my relationship with the Lord. Had I become too dependent on Him as I made my way through life? This question haunted me for days and weeks!  I felt at odds not only with the person who had brought this idea to light but at odds with my Lord!

Then I began to feel at odds with myself, ashamed for my lack of spiritual integrity. I felt weak in my faith, me of all people, the one who encourages others to look to the Lord for strength, rest, and resurrection, the one who considered going to seminary and still contemplates the possibility of a theological vocation from time to time!  What sort of hypocrite had I become? I should have defended the Lord but instead, like Peter who denied Him, I questioned Him in the face of ridicule. Needing to be identified as the strong woman I am, not someone who was insecure and unsure of my steps or weak and reliant on others (not even my Lord),  I did not defend the One who has been grace-filled and just in my life.

About this time, I was fortunate to cross paths with a man who makes a point of actively living his faith in his life during a conference at 100Fold Studio, a servant-focused architectural firm based in Lakeside, MT.  The firm offers architecture students and graduates a six-week studio internship in which they explore how Christian principles can inform a career in architecture. Speakers from around the country with expertise in design, business, and world missions focused on faith and vocation through lectures, small groups, and one on one mentorship.

Dr. Kenneth Elzinga, the Robert C. Taylor Chair of Economics at the University of Virginia was the main speaker and the one who caught me with his message. While he certainly had insight on how these future architects and designers might finance their careers, he shared a far greater message of living out your faith in your daily work and interactions. He encouraged us, as the Apostle Paul did to the Romans, to not be ashamed of the Gospel or the role your faith has in your life.

“You have worth in Christ,” was his opening comment, and because of that, he makes no secret of his faith in the workplace, which for him is the staunchly secular arena of academia.

Listening to Dr. Elzinga speak of his courageously open faith in an atmosphere where such open religiosity raised the ire of department chairs reminded me that while God does not need defending by the likes of me, He does ask me to recognize His place in my life and not be ashamed of it. Dr. Elzinga shared a story of his early years at the University. He had placed a Bible on his office desk and when one of his fellow professors saw it he told him he would never gain tenure with a Bible on his desk. Dr. Elzinga certainly had moments of doubt and career consternation, but his inner certainty of his faith withstood intimidation. He continued to be open about his faith and while he never blatantly proselytized he welcomed discussions on faith. When students came to him with troubles, he listened and guided with love. Often, upon seeing his Bible on his desk students would ask him to pray with them. Soon he began asking the students if he could pray for them. Most of them said yes. In time, even his colleagues turned to him for spiritual support in times of need.

Despite, if not because of, his open faithfulness, not only did he gain tenure but he is now a distinguished chair of the University, regularly leads campus Bible studies and serves on the board of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He admits it was not always easy being unashamed of the Gospel and at times faced harassment, felt threatened in his career, and even felt as if he had failed in his efforts to quietly and gently share the Gospel through his actions, not just words. Yet, looking at his career and record from my standpoint, he certainly came out the winner with his Lord by his side.

Dr. Elzinga spoke about our human tendency to want to control everything in our lives. It is a natural state. It is not easy to go forth in faith – especially for young graduates who have the whole world ahead of them. We like to trust in our own abilities. Because we know our limits and can expect a certain outcome, we place our trust in ourselves and things of a concrete nature. We take pride in accomplishing things on our own.  It is when we find ourselves facing difficulties that we begin to look elsewhere for support. Dr. Elzinga proposed that difficulties in our course of life are God’s way of getting our attention. If we don’t have difficulties in life we start to walk on our own. Many would counter that it is good to walk on our own – that independence is a sign of strength. There was a time in my own life that I felt pretty sure of myself and pretty sure that God did not have His eye on me, nor did I need Him to. I was strong in my own right and thought I had everything under control in check. No need to let anyone into my world. No need to ask for help when I in truth I needed it.

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Alas, the Lord understands our prideful natures, and will occasionally take steps to knock us off our high horse to remind us who is in control. I don’t know about my self- assured friends, but I know I have been bucked off my stallion a few times in the crazy course of my life. Surprisingly, I was able to get up, dust myself off, and walk with my head held high shining in my Lord’s light. Sure my knees were a little skinned and my pride shaken in front of more than a few onlookers, but I did not doubt for one moment my worth in Christ. That is the amazing thing about Christ. He doesn’t ask for much but His gifts are gracious. If we open our hearts to Him and accept Him into our life, He will lead us down right paths and love us just as we are.

So how do I affirm and defend the Lord’s positive role in my wayward life in the face of those who have attained, seemingly on their own, certainty in the direction of their own? How can I not question my trust in Him?

As Dr. Elzinga pointed out in his remarks on being broken and redeemed, we can find the answer written in His Word. Perhaps I should spend more time with the original self-help anthology and less time trying to appear strong and self-reliant. The Lord sees and knows all my strengths and weaknesses. Placing my trust in Him will ensure a steadfast spirit within me.

 But he said to me “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”   ~2 Corinthians 12:9

Leaving Jesus

A sermon based on John 6:56-71 

Well, here we are at the end of the loaf. Over the last four weeks we have had a crash course on the amazing goodness of a particular kind of bread –  one that works miracles as we saw in the feeding of the five thousand, bringing the true source of life to the hungry masses; we learned the difference between a bread that perishes and a bread that endures for eternity; we heard Jesus declare himself to be the Bread of Life, the living bread that came down from heaven to truly nourish us; and last week Jesus professed that He will give us his own self, his own flesh and blood, to be one with us in relationship to sustain us on our journey into eternity. Pretty heady stuff if you ask me.

In today’s Gospel reading, we come to the end of heady bread. Jesus is met with disenchantment. Even his closest followers are having a hard time comprehending what Jesus is telling them. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Sensing that he was losing some if not many in his audience, rather than changing his message to an easier one to grasp, he asks them if they will understand when they see him, the Son of Man, ascend to the heavens. He further explains that it is the Spirit, His spirit, that gives abundant life; the flesh and will of man is useless in this regard.

Ironically, Jesus finds himself speaking to an emptying room, as He was preaching in the Synagogue, the place where his followers expected to at least draw near to the presence of God. And yet, when God offers them more than just nearness but oneness with him, it is more than his listeners can handle.

You would think that by their initial reaction that Jesus had just stated his position on the upcoming election rather than offering an invitation to an abundant life in relationship with him. Yet many leave him – many who had followed him steadfastly, who had witnessed and believed in the miracles he had performed. What he was proposing was just too much. No longer was he simply feeding and healing and meeting their needs for survival; Jesus was asking them to reject this life and come to Him, to think beyond the literal, to imagine life in abundance, life beyond measure. Life beyond their control. They don’t even have to choose. Jesus said, “For this reason, I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” God has already granted them the invitation to a relationship with Jesus and a life with Jesus in them, it is already theirs if they will only believe.

A life beyond our control. We don’t even have to choose. Jesus said, “For this reason, I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” God has already granted us the invitation to a relationship with Jesus and a life with Jesus in us – it is already ours if we will only believe.

From our enlightened perspective on this happening of some 2000 years ago, you would think we would “get it.” But, we live in a reality of belief and unbelief And, with our enlightened perspective comes lives that are complex, perhaps even intellectualized. We live in chaotic times governed by money, power, status, profession, principles, policy, and possessions; times focused on individualism, validation, and justification.  times demand logic and reason. We deal with this chaos and busyness and brokenness on a daily basis – living it, fleeing from it, sometimes thriving on it.

Deal with life long enough and sooner or later you realize that one aspect of life is complicated, even scary at times – that of relationship. It is at once something so inherent and vital to human life and yet something that can cause so much pain. Relationship opens us up to vulnerability, the unknown. Which is why it is so much easier to place our trust in that which we know, that which we can control – the self. Reason tells us so. But God is asking us to reject this kind of thinking and come to him. To cast the burdens of this world onto Him and live in abundance with him. And we so want to, don’t we? We try. But sometimes this world gets the better of us.

There are times when this relationship that God offers us may not seem so apparent – when God seems very far away – during the dark of the night, perhaps, when our failings and insecurities replay in our mind, or by the bedside of a loved one in the hospital, wondering why?  Or maybe in the early morning,  when you wake up alone and wonder why your spouse has left you or why no one wants to be with you? Or in the waning light of day as home beckons and you think about your family – the “family that won’t speak to one another” – or the friend who let you down again – and you wonder why things have not turned out the way you hoped. You wonder if they ever will.

Because sometimes our lives with God seem no different, no “better” than those who live theirs on their own accord – who have the freedom to just be and do, trusting only in what they know – themselves. Whether it is our family life, our jobs, our money, the things we do for fun, our sports, our health, our relationships, our time, our goals, our goals for our kids – we don’t just trust these things to anyone and when we don’t trust these things to anyone, someone, God – these things become our god.

I grew up in the church. My parents were church planters and builders. My earliest memories are often from times in church. I always knew that Jesus loved me and oh, how I loved Jesus. My Grandma used to delight in telling the story of seeing the 5-year-old me standing on my bed with that Sunday’s bulletin in hand preaching the Good News and singing Holy, Holy, Holy at the top of my lungs. I had a zest for life and a love for the Lord right up into high school. But then things began to change. In my senior year life started getting complicated. The friends I had run with had graduated, getting straight A’s didn’t seem to cut it anymore, there was disorder in my family and disorder in the church, we were moving once again, my life seemed to be out of control – and Jesus seemed very far away.

I loved to exercise though, and I was good at it – from lifting weights to running and everything in between. I found some solace from the chaos that I was fleeing in those activities. But it wasn’t enough. I still needed a sense of control. At that point of my life, food and exercise seemed to be the only things I could control, and I succeeded.  I was good at something again! I became so focused on that feeling of success and control that I didn’t need my family, my friends, or the church that was once my life, or God.

This is how betrayal works, at least according to John. As John scholar Karoline Lewis writes, “betrayal in John is not believing that the abundant life Jesus offers you is real. Betrayal is that which causes you to believe that this life is for everyone else but you. Betrayal is anything and everything that makes you think you aren’t someone Jesus could love.”[1]

Yeah, I knew God loved the world, but me? No not anymore, no, I was a special case, not worthy of the kind of indiscriminate love that came without demands or stipulations. I believed that rejection and marginalization was simply my lot in life; that real relationship lived only in my hopeful imagination. Real relationship? That meant belonging, intimacy, want, desire, mutuality, reciprocity, nurture, safety. That kind of relationship exists only in books and movies. The same books and movies that tells us that God manipulates instead of promises. That’s the kind of God the disciples were expecting and in which the world still wants us to believe.

When you are in the mucky thick of it, life, real life, life lived, abundant life is hard to fathom, hard to accept, hard to imagine that it could be yours. And so, like Judas did, I walked away. I went away to a place that only I could control. I couldn’t deal with the perfection I thought a relationship with God required nor could I handle the unknowns of life that requires us to trust in God!

We all have the proclivity in us to walk away from this relationship, to leave Jesus.  As Lewis writes, “Judas’s betrayal (in John) is fundamentally a rejection of relationship, but it is also an unwillingness to receive life beyond measure, an inability to accept that abundant life could be true, a reluctance to envision, to dream, to picture that when God said God loves the world that it actually meant him – and means you.”

By age 23, I had become the master of my sorry destiny. Until I died twice, once in my bedroom when my heart stopped beating and again in an ambulance. I found myself at rock bottom, in ICU with tubes sticking out of every cavity of my body and wires taped to my chest.  I remember hearing the doctor tell my parents that my 54-pound body was dying and if things didn’t turn around drastically I would be lucky to make it another 4 weeks. In that moment I realized that all the control I thought I had gained through mastering my body had, in reality, brought me to the gates of hell.

Sometimes we don’t know what we have lost until it is gone – and I had lost everything.

Oh Lord, to whom can I go??

But you know – the foundation of my life had never left me, God was always there – I just had to believe again – to let him in.

There was no altar call, no rapturous music, no radiant light – just the beeping of monitors and the hushed hospital hustle outside my curtained off room and the promise of a better life, a more abundant life – waiting for me. When I gave my life back to Jesus – including the food and the control – he fed me with the Bread of Life – and there was peace in my heart again and a renewed will to live. I entered a residential treatment program in the desert of Arizona that was grounded in Christ. Through equine therapy I learned how to trust again and grow in relationship with someone other than myself. Most importantly, l discovered what a relationship with God was all about. It wasn’t one of manipulation or control. It was a relationship of grace and love. To this day there isn’t a moment that I do not thank Him for the breaths I take and the abundant life I have in him.

This is what the closing of John 6 talks about. Peter knows the truth. When asked if he too will walk away he answers, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter has experienced Jesus, sat around the fire and eaten with Jesus, and he believes that Jesus is who He says He is. God in the flesh. God committed to relationship and wanting to be in relationship.

And yes, we do know that Peter experiences his own crisis of belief later in the story – just as I still do from time to time, but in John, Peter does not deny who Jesus is, Peter denies who Jesus wants him to be.

We forget just how vulnerable we are when in relationship. Relationships mean being known and knowing. Not wanting to be known for what we really are we acquiesce to fear and walk away especially from our relationship with God. We walk away before he gets too close. We trust only certain aspects of our lives to him, sometimes just our dying. We temper God’s desire for relationship with us in our living, never mind that He came to us in flesh and blood to be one with us, to know our joys and our pain, and to die for us so that we may have him in us for all time. We put the truth of His incarnation in a box as if it was only a temporary moment in God’s time and not meant for our time.

But now, knowing the truth – knowing what it is to be in relationship with God and to live with Him in me – it is with joy and humbleness that I am reminded every Sunday in The Bread and Wine of the Spirit that lives in me, leads me, and sustains me.  And it is an abundant life with Jesus, the intimacy of the relationship with God – that I want you to know. You too are fed with the Living Bread of Jesus – His choice has been made, all you need to do is say yes Lord, count me in, I believe.

 

Amen.

[1] Not Just Bread Anymore, Karoline Lewis. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3676

 

Trail Faith

To trust God in the light is nothing, but to trust Him in the dark—that is faith.

~ Charles H. Spurgeon

On a recent Sunday, I was on an adventure in the mountains. Yes, I know I should have been in church, but it was a respite from the everyday life I have been living that was sorely needed. Besides, I was in the mountains thinking about God rather than in church thinking about the mountains, so I think I can claim a bit of redemption, no?

Anyways…. As many of you know, and now the rest of you do, in the few short years that I have resided here in paradise this former eastern Montana flat-lander has acquired quite the affinity for climbing mountains. This is actually quite an amazing feat for me, as anyone who knows me well also knows that there are significant reasons that my parents decided against naming me Grace. My blog site is suitably subtitled Tripping Gracefully through Life One Adventure at a Time. I have a fear of the unknown, a fear of heights, and a fear of losing control. But I digress…

I have acquired this affinity hiking mile after mile on and off trail, up rocky slopes and down scree slides. I have a quick, determined pace; eager to get to the top, but not so eager that I can’t stop to take in the beauty around me, do a bit of photography, and wax philosophically with my hiking partners. I always seem to fall into the lead on the trail, a place I am most comfortable – as it means I am in control – and I am not stepping on the back of anyone’s heels. I am a leader not a follower- I am my father’s daughter. I like to rely on my own compass – not someone else’s and usually it serves me well, usually…

So, on this Sunday there we were, hiking(!!) one of my favorite routes, the epic 22-mile (at least the route we took was that long) Dawson – Pitamakin Loop and after enjoying the best-ever turkey sandwich at Dawson Pass we headed on our way across the very rocky, trippy slope in-route to Pitamakin Pass. I kept thinking this route seemed a lot more precarious than the last time I hiked it 3 years ago… but then the earth shifts and so do rocks, so I pushed ahead. I was in the lead and determined as usual, so determined that it took me awhile to face the facts that we were NOT on the trail – my natural compass was OFF and I had us cliffed out – yes, cliffed out on the Dawson Pitamakin trail (who does that??). Unfortunately, my wayfinding had brought us to a point 200 yards below the actual trail in the portion of cliffs that sent my head spinning the last time I hiked this when I was ON the trail. (Granted, I was not as trail dusted and tested back then.)

Suddenly, this confident mountain goat turned into a quaking, peeping pika. I’ve climbed cliffs far more difficult than the ones towering above us this Sunday, but for some reason I was off my game. I felt out of control, and I froze. I am sure my face went white as a ghost and that turkey sandwich in my tummy suddenly didn’t feel so good. I was embarrassingly afraid. I began to doubt every step I took because my prior confident steps had landed us in a spot with no place good to land! In that moment, all the climbs I have logged disappeared. I didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t have it all together. My determined role as leader went tumbling down the slope with the rocks that did the same. I lost faith in my ability to navigate the terrain.

And then I heard it, this familiar, comforting voice pulling me out of the gripping fear that was causing my eyes to well with tears and my head to spin. “Erika, it’s up this way. Here, take my hand.”

Take it I did. I blindly trusted that someone knew what they were doing, because I sure didn’t. Scrambling up the cliff on a wing and a prayer I put my trust in something other than me. When I couldn’t quite get my trembling leg on the just too high ledge above me, a knee was bent to help me along. And with that, I did it. My innards quit trembling and I think some color returned to my face. I climbed the rest of the way up with vigor – and once I was standing on top I was ready to give my hand to my helper – though he didn’t need it. I felt safe and confident again.

We can’t face everything in life on our own. We weren’t made that way. It is scary to put our trust in someone else and difficult to have confidence in the unknown. We know that we are imperfectly human and thus we are placing trust in imperfect humanity. But when we allow ourselves to be helped by another we allow them to show mercy – acts that both parties can grow from and be blessed by.

It is easy to trust God, when the going is good – not so much when you can’t see around the cliff, or where your next foothold will be. By faith, we know that God is perfect and His power a certainty. When we trust God, we may not know what the outcome will be but we can rest assured in His mercy, knowing He is always with us offering a hand and bent knee along the way.

How kind the Lord is! How good he is!
So merciful, this God of ours!
The Lord protects those of childlike faith;
I was facing death, and he saved me.
Let my soul be at rest again,
for the Lord has been good to me.
He has saved me from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling.
And so, I walk in the Lord’s presence
as I live here on earth!
~ Psalm 116: 5-9