Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Bread of Life Is a Gift from God

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; John 6:24-35

Today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings both refer to a miraculous gift of food. The Exodus reading is a story from the lives of the Israelites just a short time after they have escaped from slavery in Egypt and crossed the Red Sea – or the Sea of Reeds, as the Hebrew is often translated lately. God has shown the folks sign after sign of divine power and provision for the Israelites – but they seem to have already forgotten.

Now they are stuck out in the wilderness and they are hungry. They must have run out of the food they took with them, and haven’t had time to gather or grow more, and so it seems they will die of hunger. But God hears their cries and provides. There were quails, birds, which settled on the ground every evening – so they had meat.

And they had a mysterious substance they called manna. It is a delicious, sugary derivative of the tamarisk bush, native to the Sinai peninsula. Manna is a crystallized form of tamarisk sap, processed and excreted in drops by insects. It falls from the bushes in the morning, and is a round, white, and flaky substance which has the appearance of hoarfrost. They had never seen it before, so without God saying “I have given you this manna to eat,” the Israelites would not have known it was good food.

The manna could be used in many ways: ground in mortars, boiled in pots, and made into cakes. They ate manna for a long time: for the 40 years of wilderness wandering, so it’s a good thing they could be creative with it.

In last week’s gospel reading, Jesus fed the whole crowd of 5,000 people gathered around him with the bread and fish from a boy’s lunch basket. For today and the next several Sundays, we will read portions of what we call a discourse, a sermon or explanation of what the feeding means for God’s people.

The crowd was attracted to Jesus by the healings he did. They watched and followed him to see what else he could do – what other tricks he would perform. So, this feeding of the crowd made a major impression on them. They remembered when God gave their ancestors manna every day in the wilderness with Moses, and wondered if Jesus could do the same for them: provide bread and fish for the rest of their lives.

If the folks gathered were poor – and most probably were – they often were hungry. It was a treat to be able to eat their fill their bellies. They worked hard just to feed and house their families. Imagine never having to work again for food, or to even have extra money for some discretionary spending on new clothes or new tools.

But Jesus quickly corrects their focus. They are thinking about the magical appearance of a lot of food. Jesus wants them to focus on the source of the food – God. They still don’t get it. They don’t care where it comes from, but if it comes from God, that is an added bonus. They want to have it every day.

You might remember the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus offers her living water– and she thinks he intends to put a well in her back yard. Give me that water every day, she asks.

But the living water and the bread of life are not things to be consumed. They are spiritual gifts from God – the gift of grace. Grace is undeserved love and acceptance and forgiveness. Because God loves us and cares deeply for us, God wants us to have whatever we need. Yes, we need food and water and housing and especially in our rural area – transportation, and in our present time – telephones and maybe even computers. But if we don’t have God, we have nothing. God knows that in addition to the basic necessities, we also need a relationship with God in our lives. We maintain a relationship with God by worshiping frequently, studying scripture to learn more about God, and a prayer life which includes listening as well as talking to God.

One aspect of our relationship with God is founded on remembering that everything we have comes from God, which is Jesus’ message to the crowd. Yes, we like to think we worked to earn what we have, but that is how God provides for us. I’d like you to do something.

I invite you to take your bulletin and a pencil, or you can just do this in your head. I’ll give you several topics and I’d like you to make an accounting of all that you have or have had. Of course, some of our lives are longer than others.

First, write down your income for a year, in approximate numbers, $20,000, $40,000, $60,000, or whatever. Before or after taxes – it doesn’t matter. If that number is less than last year, make a note: has it still been enough to live on, even though you may have had to make some adjustments to your lifestyle?

Next topic: Do you have a car or some form of transportation? Are you able to get to the grocery store and to the doctor and to church? It may be that your form of transportation is in a friend’s car. Write down the type of transportation you have.

Next topic: Think about your family. How many sisters and brothers do you have? Are you married, or in a significant relationship with someone? How many children, grandchildren and great grandchildren do you have? Write down something about your family.

Next: How do you communicate? Do you have a phone of some sort in your house? You may also have a cell phone and a computer. Write down how many phones and computers you have.

Now: think about your job – the one you have now, or the one you had before you retired. Your job may have been raising children and taking care of your spouse. Don’t discount it! Did your job provide meaning to your life? Were you able to use your God-given gifts? If it was “just a job” did you have meaningful relationships with your coworkers? Did your job provide you with income so you could support your family? Write down something which says how important your job was to you.

Next, how is your health? While it may not be what you had as a child, are you still able to get up and function? Are you able to take care of yourself? Make a note that you still have decent if not perfect health.

We could include lots of other topics. In the explanation of the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed, Luther includes favorable weather, good government, and protection from danger and evil. But we don’t have all day, so I’ll make this next topic the last one.

In many places in the world it is dangerous to be a Christian and to openly go to church. We don’t have that problem here. Write down how many times in an average month you worship at church – include worship at places other than Hope. Add to that the number of times you are at church for an activity. This could be Bible study, choir rehearsal, quilting, meeting, or eating. These are all ways in which you connect with God and with God’s people.

We like to think that what we have … is what we earned or what we deserve. We like to pretend it came to us because of our own efforts. But none of it is because of us. We have what we have because of God’s love for us. The Israelites ate manna and quail in the wilderness because God cared for them. The crowd with Jesus ate bread and fish because of God’s love for them. This is what Jesus wanted them to understand: Not that he could work miracles, but that God cares for us humans and wants to provide for us all that we need, and then some.

Jesus is the Bread of Life – which means that through him, we are provided with everything we need each day, including God’s love and forgiveness. Your challenge this week is to pay attention to everything you have and everyone you encounter, and to remember that everything and everyone in your life is a gift from God. Give thanks for all that you have, and be ready to share God’s love and forgiveness with everyone as freely as Jesus did.

Please pray with me: Lord of all, you freely give us what we need and then some. Help us to remember it all comes from you, and encourage us to freely give your love and care to others. In Jesus’ name, Amen

Monday, July 27, 2009

All the fullness of God

2 Kings 4:4-42-44; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21

Our readings start today with a little miracle story, just 3 verses in Second Kings. There are several miraculous feeding stories about Elisha, and today’s text is one of them.

A man came to offer a portion of his tithe to Elisha. Most of it went to the temple, but Elisha also received some of the tithe, in the same way that the bulk of your offerings go to the general ministries of Hope, but other offerings support special ministries like VBS and the Dade City kids and quilting and the food pantries.

The Prophet Elisha has been told by God that there will be plenty of food for this hungry group of people, even though it seemed there would never be more than a bite for each of them. It’s not clear who the hundred people are – possibly disciples of the prophet, or perhaps just a group who gathered to hear him preach.

In any case, they are hungry, and a man happens to be approaching with some food. Elisha asks that it be given to the people gathered in front of him. If we assume that the barley loaves are like loaves of pita, they certainly will not feed 100 people. However, God’s power multiplies the bread, so that all have enough to eat, and there were still some loaves left over.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus does the same thing. He takes a boy’s lunch and multiplies it to feed 5,000 people. In modern terms, the boy had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a small bag of potato chips, and a few baby carrots. This was not a lot of food! But God’s power multiplied the lunch, so that all have enough to eat, and there was still some food left over.

In the Elisha story, there is no reaction recorded, but in the Gospel story, we do get the crowd reaction. While we don’t read what the disciples thought, we do know what they were thinking before the miracle.

Jesus asked Philip, “Where can we buy bread for these people?” Falling into the trap, Philip responds, “What are you thinking? We can’t afford to buy that much food!” Philip doesn’t think Jesus can feed hungry people, even though he has seen him turn water into wine and heal hundreds – perhaps thousands – of people by this time.

Andrew has an idea, but knows it won’t work. “There’s a boy here with his lunch, some bread and some fish. But that certainly won’t feed this many people!” He, too, doubts the ability of Jesus to feed this many people.

Probably, the disciples agreed with the crowd, and thought “Jesus is the prophet who has come into the world.” Along with the prophet came the hope of salvation – the eviction of the Romans from their land, and a return to the glorious days of King David. So, the people likely began to shout, “King Jesus! King Jesus! King Jesus!” But, that’s not what God wanted for Jesus, and he withdrew to the mountain by himself.

We all have images of who God is, what God wants from us and for us, and what God is capable of doing. Our images tend to put limits on God, describing God in human terms – because that’s what we understand. The people of Jesus’ time saw God’s salvation as it had once been, in the shape of a human hero-king named David. They could not imagine a God who ate with sinners as well as with Pharisees and scribes. They could not imagine a God who wanted to love and forgive everyone, including the crippled and the foreigner. They could not imagine a God coming in human form and dying as a message of salvation. Their images of God were shaped by their past, and by their current human perceptions.

Today, we still struggle with these same concerns. Our images of God are shaped by our human understandings. We interpret scripture in ways that still limit who is loved and forgiven by God. We analyze miracles and try to explain them in scientific terms, instead of accepting them as miracles, mysterious and gifts from God. We pray to God for healing, but we don’t really expect it.

Throughout human history, our images of God have been human-sized, which means too small. The Apostle Paul has an answer for us. He writes, “I pray that you have the power to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of God. I pray that you know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. And I pray that you are filled with all the fullness of God.”

Let’s try hard to take the human limits off of God, and imagine all the fullness of God.

When we are asked to increase our giving to Hope, we say with my buddy Dick in Michigan, “I’m really having trouble trusting God that far.” Wouldn’t it be better to trust God to stretch what we have? Why can’t we expect God to multiply what we have, so that it does ministry at Hope and far beyond human expectations? Let’s give according to all the fullness of God.

When we imagine inviting someone to worship at Hope, we are usually sure they will reject us, or our words will not be just the right ones, or they already go to another church, so our invitation will be wasted. We don’t expect God to be present in the situation, to help the words come out of our mouths, and to open the heart of the one we would invite. We don’t count on all the fullness of God to bless our interaction and help it bear fruit.

When we as a congregation consider taking on a new ministry, we fear there won’t be enough money to do it, and we won’t have enough people show up to make it happen, and we don’t have the right space or the right equipment. We forget to count on all the fullness of God.

When we set our hearts on doing whatever it is God wants us to do, we can depend on all the fullness of God to make it happen. What does God want?

Of course, God wants to have a relationship with us – in prayer, in worship and in study, all ways in which we can grow to appreciate all the fullness of God.

But in response to that relationship, we are to love and serve as Jesus did. We are to feed the hungry, house the homeless, welcome the stranger, include the outcast, visit the sick and the imprisoned, and share the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Your challenge this week is to watch for ways in which you limit God, and then to imagine the same situation with all the fullness of God. If you have trouble with that, imagine Jesus in the situation with you. How would he respond? Would he heal the hurting person? Would he multiply the resources? Would he love the person you don’t care for?

Let’s lay claim to all the fullness of God and try to imagine a limitless God, one who is able to accomplish wonderful things in our midst. Amen