Decisions, decisions

File:Byzantine fresca from St-Lucas.jpgWatching for the Morning of August 26, 2018

Year B

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Lutherans don’t like to talk about decisions. Well, some Lutherans. There is a deep strain in the Lutheran branch of the Christian community that recognizes that the only important decision is God’s decision. It’s not that God’s decision for us strips us of our own will or responsibility; rather that the wonder of God’s grace and faithfulness overwhelms our resistant and rebellious hearts. Can a person swept off their feet by the love of another really say it was his or her own choice? It sounds as self concerned as it is. We are not heroes for choosing God; God is the hero for choosing us. The Biblical record makes clear that we humans have shown ourselves persistently unworthy of God’s faithfulness.

But here we are, this Sunday, with Joshua confronting the generation of those who have taken possession of the land with the challenge to “Choose this day whom you will serve.” And Jesus is pressing the few followers who remain after his offensive talk about eating his flesh and blood, asking, “Do you also wish to go away?”

Choose. Are you staying or going?

The author of Ephesians will urge us to “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power,” and “put on the whole armor of God.” There is a choice to be made in the daily walk of Christian life. A daily choice. And there is an implicit choice, too, in the words of our psalmist who rejoices that “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles.” But the poet also acknowledges “Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.” There is a choosing that happens, and the choosing has consequences. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.” There is a redemption that surpasses all our sorrows.

So we must choose, even as the beloved must choose whether or not to trust the love that has come to them, whether or not to abide in the love that comes as gift, whether or not to be faithful to the lover who has chosen them.

The Prayer for August 26, 2018

Keep us, O God, in your eternal Spirit
that, when challenged by your word,
we may never turn back from following you,
but always confess and believe
that you have the words of eternal life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 26, 2018

First Reading: Joshua 24:1-3, 13-18 (Appointed 24:1-2a, 14-18)
“‘Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.’” – Joshua gathers the people following the forty year wandering in the wilderness and the occupation of the promised land and challenges them to put away their foreign gods and serve the LORD with fidelity.

Psalmody: Psalm 34:15-22
“The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry.”
– The concluding section of an acrostic poem declaring God’s fidelity to those who are faithful to him.

Second Reading: Ephesians 6:10-20
“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”
– The author uses the metaphor of a Roman soldier’s armor to call the community to faithfulness to God.

Gospel: John 6:56-69
“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’” – The words of Jesus about eating his flesh has revealed that many even among his followers do not understand the meaning of the sign of the bread (the feeding of the five-thousand) and they turn away. Jesus then asks the twelve: “Do you also wish to go away?”

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Byzantine_fresca_from_St-Lucas.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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The heartbeat of the world

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Watching for the Morning of August 19, 2018

Year B

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Wisdom weaves through our first two readings and the psalm this Sunday, but they aren’t the right texts to go with this Gospel. They work. They are good texts. Jesus is talking about the bread of life and the bread of life is certainly the teaching, the wisdom, the word embodied in this Jesus. But the portion from John 6 before us this week shows another facet of the sign of the loaves and fishes. Jesus uses graphic language about munching on his flesh and blood – language sure to reveal that the crowd around him doesn’t “see”, doesn’t “believe”, doesn’t “come” to this bread from heaven who brings true life to the world. It is offensive language to people for whom eating blood – or meat with the blood still in it – is strictly forbidden by God. The ancient texts declare that the blood is the life, and must be poured back into the earth from which all life comes.

This language, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” echoes with more than the wisdom of God and the teaching of Jesus. It is language we hear in the other Gospels during the night in which Jesus is betrayed, when takes up the bread saying, “This is my body,” and the cup, saying, “This is my blood.”

Jesus’ words on Sunday are part of the turn in this chapter towards the death of Jesus, his sacrifice upon the cross, his giving of his blood and flesh. This is the language of sacrifice when the people would offer to God the blood, to the priest a portion of the meat, and take the rest for a feast that signifies reconciliation and table fellowship with God. In place of Jesus’ real flesh, this “lamb of God” offers to us bread and wine as body and blood. The blood, the life, that belonged only to God, is now given also to us.

The sign of the feeding of the five thousand is all these things. It is receiving the life that comes to us from the realm of God: it is about Jesus teaching, his way of life, his deeds of grace and mercy, his command to love, his sacrifice, his presence in the community, his gift of the Spirit. This bread from heaven is content and relationship and the feast to come. It is a participation now and forever in the reality that is Christ Jesus, the embodiment of all God’s Word, God’s speaking to us that lies at heart of creation and is the essence of God’s encounter with the world.

So we will hear, this Sunday, wisdom personified, calling like a patron summoning guests to banquet at her table. And we will sing the psalm that invites us to come and learn the way of the LORD. And we will hear the author of Ephesians call us to live “not as unwise people but as wise.” But the Gospel will invite us not just into Jesus’ teaching, but into the table fellowship where heaven and earth are united and our hearts are joined to the true heartbeat of the world.

The Prayer for August 19, 2018

Eternal God,
in the body and blood of Christ Jesus, broken and shed,
you have opened for us the way of everlasting life.
Grant us faith to trust your gift
and live your love for the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 19, 2018

First Reading: Proverbs 9:1-6
“Wisdom…has sent out her servant girls, she calls from the highest places in the town…’Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.’” – Wisdom is personified as a hostess calling the people to come to her banquet and feed on her teaching.

Psalmody: Psalm 34:9-14
“Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”
– The poet calls his hearers to learn the way of God.

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:15-20
“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.”
– The author continues the exhortation for our life together, encouraging us to be filled with the Spirit.

Gospel: John 6:51-58
“‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’” – the reflection on the meaning of the sign of the feeding of the 5,000, continues with Jesus provoking the crowd with graphic language about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Altarraum-Kreuz_in_Taiz%C3%A9.jpg By Christian Pulfrich [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Bread for the journey

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Friday

1 Kings 19:1-8

1Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets [of Baal] with the sword.

The reading as appointed for this Sunday doesn’t include these words. It begins without explanation in verse 4 saying “[Elijah] went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree.” There was a time in which the average person in the pew knew the story of Elijah’s dramatic confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. They would have known that the northern kingdom of Israel’s king, Ahab, had married a Sidonian Princess, Jezebel, and she had undertaken a project to bring Israel’s ancient faith into the modern world, replacing its god of the exodus and wilderness with Baal, the god of rain – replacing the God of justice and mercy with the god of fertility and prosperity. The average parishioner would have known that a profound religious conflict was underway, that Jezebel was murdering the prophets of the LORD, and that God had declared through Elijah that if Israel wanted to worship the god who gives rain, God would show them who truly ruled and announced there would be no rain except at God’s word.

When the burden of the drought became unbearable, with the king plundering the resources of the countryside for his own table and horses, Elijah summoned the people and proposed a showdown with the prophets of Baal. Each would lay out a sacrifice but neither would bring fire. Each would pray for their god to send down fire from heaven. The prophets of Baal did their ecstatic prayers all day as Elijah stood by taunting them to shout louder suggesting Baal “is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”  Then, to demonstrate the truth of the LORD, Elijah drowns his altar with water before offering his prayer. Fire promptly descends and consumes everything: offering, altar and the surrounding ditch of water.

An uprising occurs where Elijah orders the murder of the pagan prophets. The queen, however, is enraged and unconverted. She solemnly vows to kill Elijah who flees into the wilderness; his triumphant cultural revolution has failed. There, in his exhaustion, fear and despair, he lies down and prays to die.

There was a time everyone hearing our small portion of the reading would have known all this backstory, but no longer. And maybe the language of murderous religious strife is too toxic for our day. But without the backstory, the power and drama of the meal eludes us. Wondrous bread in the wilderness is one thing; bread when all hope is lost is another.

The God who feeds Elijah is the God who again and again delivers when hope is lost. From the very first narrative of Adam and Eve evicted from the Garden, or Cain with the blood of his brother on his hands, God provides a future when the future is lost. A new beginning is given to a world engulfed in violence through Noah. The line of Shem ends with Abraham and a barren wife, yet a child is promised and given. Jacob is sold into slavery, imprisoned by a lie and lost in the dungeons of Egypt, but rises to rule. Israel is in bondage but God opens the Red Sea. In the wilderness without food or water, a rock yields a river and the heavens rain manna. When Jerusalem is destroyed and the people in exile without hope, God announces a new exodus: make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” It is the central narrative of the scripture.

There is so much more in our little narrative than a wondrous heavenly meal given to an ancient prophet. It is the gift of hope, the promise of a future, a journey worth taking into the presence of God.

We hear this story as people who see the painful wounds of the world and the terrible capacities of the human heart. In every sanctuary is a cross – testimony to the brutal reign of human empire in the nails and pierced side of Jesus. We hear this story in the midst of our personal journeys to fearful places. But the grave is empty. And from the wounded hands of a risen lord we, like Elijah, are fed with bread for the journey.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:N.D._de_la_Chapelle_812.jpg By Michel wal [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

And I will raise them up

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Watching for the Morning of August 12, 2018

Year B

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Again we are in John 6 this Sunday. Again we hear Jesus declare, “I am the bread of life.” And again we are confronted with the inability of the crowd to understand what Jesus is talking about. Indeed, the conversation grows testy, this week. Jesus asserts that he has come from the Father to bring life to the world, but they reject his claim 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’?” Jesus retorts that their fathers ate the manna and died; it did not bring them true life. He is the living bread that brings true life – and then alludes to his death: “and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Our first reading on Sunday will tell the story of Elijah fed by an angel, a bread from heaven that sustains him on his forty day journey to Sinai. The psalmist will sing of God’s deliverance and invite us all to “taste and see that the LORD is good.” And the author of Ephesians will urge us to “put away…all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” All these texts will lead us back to the words of Jesus, the promise of the resurrection, and he who is the true source of life, the one who brings to the world the imperishable life of God.

The feeding of the five thousand was a sign pointing to the true bread that brings the true and enduring life. But the crowd has not seen in this Jesus the promise of the Exodus and Sinai fulfilled; they have seen only the gratification of their hungers and desires. They look for the bread that perishes rather than the gift of life born from above. They have crossed the sea and met Jesus on a mountain but failed to see in this Israel’s journey out from bondage, through the wilderness, to the mountain where they heard God’s voice and were shown the way of true life. They fail to see in Jesus the fulfillment of God’s work of liberating the world from its primal alienation from the source of life.

They are like their ancestors who died in the wilderness. But those who come to Jesus, who abide in the one sent by the Father, who live in and live out the Father’s faithfulness and love – they shall never perish. The life of the age to come is theirs even now: “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.”

The Prayer for August 12, 2018

O God of truth and life,
draw us to your self,
and feed us on the bread of life,
which is your Word, made flesh for us
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 12, 2018

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:1-8 (appointed 4-8)
“Then [Elijah] lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water.” –Jezebel has vowed to kill Elijah for his triumph over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and he flees into the wilderness. There a heavenly messenger meets him and provides bread for his journey to Horeb (Mt. Sinai).

Psalmody: Psalm 34:1-8
“O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.”
– The poet calls upon the community to join him in his praise of God for all God’s goodness.

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:25-5:2
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
– The author speaks to their common life, urging them to live in love, recognizing that they are members of one another in Christ.

Gospel: John 6: 35-51 (appointed 35, 41-51)
“Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” In the conversation that follows about the meaning of the sign of the feeding of the 5,000, the crowd rejects Jesus claim that he is the bread that comes down from heaven: “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’?” Jesus responds that the manna in the wilderness did not truly bring life, for the people died; Jesus gives life that shall never perish.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fountain_of_Eternal_Life_(23140323736).jpg By Erik Drost (Fountain of Eternal Life) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The bread of life

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Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life. (John 6:27)

The message from last Sunday, August 5, 2018, based on the assigned Gospel reading:

John 6:24-35: When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were beside the sea, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

25When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26Jesus 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. 27Do 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.” 28Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30So 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? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ “ 32Then 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. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

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.”

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There are things we need to remember as we stand before this passage from John’s Gospel. Last Sunday, today, and for the next three weeks we are reading from this sixth chapter of John.   This chapter begins with the account of the feeding of the five thousand, then explores the meaning of what happened on that mountain.

When I was a rookie preacher, pastors would groan and roll their eyes at these five Sundays. They would joke about this being a good time to go on vacation or assign the preaching to an associate pastor or student intern. They would say things like, “How many times can you say that Jesus is the bread of life?” But the answer to that question, apparently, is “Not enough,” because as many times as we have heard it, we keep chasing after things that perish trying to fill the hunger of our souls.

John gives a whole chapter to this subject, one of only 21 chapters in his Gospel. And it’s not a short chapter; there are 71 verses here, only 11 fewer verses than John uses to tell the whole passion story. This chapter takes up nearly 10% of John’s Gospel. Clearly this subject is deeply important.

As we read through this chapter we see that the problem is that the people don’t understand what happened on the mountain. They don’t see what they’re supposed to see in the feeding of the five thousand.

This is not a narrative about some thickheaded people long ago and far away; this is a narrative about us. Jesus wants us to see, to perceive, to comprehend what happened on that mountain. John wants us to understand that Jesus is the bread that feeds us with true life. Unfortunately, like the crowd, we get preoccupied by our bellies.

Last Sunday we heard the account of the feeding of the five thousand. We can’t go over everything in that narrative, but there are a couple of pieces that are necessary to remember as we go forward. First it was near the time of Passover, the feast of unleavened bread. This is the time when Israel remembered and celebrated how God set them free from Egypt. It’s also the time when Jesus was lifted up on the tree of the cross.

This feast of unleavened bread was tied to the Passover story with the idea that the people had to leave Egypt in a hurry and didn’t have time to wait for their bread rise. But yeast is also associated with impurity, with falsehood, and this was a period when Israel was to purify itself of all falsehood. So Jesus is not just the bread from heaven; he is the true bread, the pure bread, the holy bread.

Second, in our story of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus – and the people – have crossed the sea and gone to a mountain. You can’t use that language without remembering Israel’s fundamental story of being delivered from bondage and death by crossing the Red Sea and journeying into the wilderness to encounter God at Mt. Sinai.

The feeding of the five thousand is a fulfillment of the Exodus story. It is a reliving and transforming of Israel’s experience with God who fed them manna in the wilderness and made a covenant with them at Sinai. As God freed them, provided for them, taught them, and formed them to be God’s people in the wilderness so, again, Jesus is feeding, providing, teaching and forming us to live God’s true, imperishable life of mercy and love.

If the people Jesus fed had eyes to see, they would see all of this. They would see that Jesus is fulfilling that Passover, fulfilling God’s deliverance, giving God’s true bread in the wilderness, and embodying God’s word, the fullness of the living voice of God. They would see before them the fullness of life, the true life that God intended for us, the life of the garden and the age to come, the life that is enduring and eternal.

And this I need to say again and again: when we hear the words translated ‘eternal life’ in John’s Gospel we are not just talking about life after death – and we are certainly not talking about life in a heaven somewhere – we are talking about the life that is eternal, the life of God, the life for which we were created, the life of the age to come when the world is forever free from its bondage to sin and death, the life of the world healed and made whole – a life lived now that shares in this true, imperishable life of God.

It is a life of compassion and joy and truth and healing and wholeness. It is a life of the Spirit. It is a new wine at the wedding feast, it is a birth from above, it is living water. It is reconciliation and peace and hope and courage and truth and justice. It is the life that vibrates in harmony with God who creates the world in love.

If the people Jesus fed had eyes to see, they would see that Jesus is the fulfillment of Passover, the embodiment of God’s deliverance, the true manna from heaven, the incarnation of God’s word, the fullness of the living voice of God. They would see that what was before them was the fullness of life.

But the people didn’t see this. They saw someone who could fill their bellies.

These are a people who live with hunger. Ninety percent of the population are subsistence farmers. They are dependent upon the vagaries of nature for their existence. They need the rains at the right time and in the right amounts. They need their crops to survive pests in the fields and in the barns. If locusts sweep through the land they will eat the whole crop; you will have no food for the next year.

These are a people whose bellies never get enough. They don’t have a Safeway open 24 hours a day or fresh vegetables shipped in from all over the world. They drink wine because wine is a way to preserve grapes and has calories; they’re not worrying about vintage and labels.

There is no sugar or chocolate, ice cream or cookies, only dates in season. The loaves Jesus uses are made of barley – because barley grows on poor land. But barley has half the food value of wheat – that’s why it’s the food of the poor. We think of Peter as a fisherman, but he was catching fish under an imperial license as a contract laborer for fish that are turned into a luxury product for the Romans.

And these are people who give up to half their crop in taxes and rents – and from the rest they need to save seed for the next year. They live with hunger. What they saw on the mountain was that they could eat as much as they wanted and there were twelve baskets left over. What they see in Jesus is someone who can end their hunger. They say to themselves, “If this man were in charge we would never be hungry again,” and they want to make him king. Let’s have this guy instead of Herod and Rome.

They don’t see in this Jesus their true exodus, their true Sinai, their true bread of life. They see someone who could fill their bellies.

This is the human religious impulse. We understand that there are things beyond our control. Whether it’s fire or storm or the economy or the affairs of nations or the changes and chances of life – the unexpected disease, the sudden accident, the drunk driver, the thief, the stray bullet from a policeman’s gun, the tree that falls on someone out riding his bike. We understand the uncertainty of life and we turn to the realm of the divine for protection. When bad stuff happens the gods must be angry. When good stuff happens the gods must be pleased. So we do what we can to keep the gods happy with rituals and prayers and sacred stones and sacrifice. The most precious thing we have to give is life itself, so humans throughout history have offered up the lives of goats and bulls, captured enemies and even their children. There was a time people would come to church out of a vague sense that it pleased God and kept God on their side.

The human religious impulse is to get the gods to take care of us. And so we when we pray the Lord’s Prayer our attention is on our daily bread rather than God’s name being holy and God’s will being done. We pray for forgiveness and slide over the words about forgiving others. We are focused on ourselves. Our fears. Our hopes. Our desires. We don’t understand the truth to which this bread points us.

Let me be clear. It’s not that God doesn’t care about our fears, our hopes and our desires; it’s that there is so much more. This event on the mountain provides real bread for the hungry. There is real wine to rescue the family at the wedding in Cana. There is real healing for the man born blind. There is real life restored to Lazarus when he is called forth from the grave. But the thing to see is not the wonder of one life restored. The thing to see is the source of life who stands before us. There is true life in his teaching. There is true life in his example. There is true life in faithfulness to him.

If we see only our wants, needs and desires we will miss everything, so Jesus says:

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.

When the people hear Jesus speak about working for the bread that endures for eternal life – and the word there is ‘into’ the bread that endures into eternity – they respond

“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.”

They get stuck on the literal meaning of the word ‘work’ and want to know what are the tasks that God requires of them. What are the ritual obligations? What are the prayers that must be said? What are the deeds that must be done? They want to know what will please God and keep God on our side. But the answer is not about ritual obligations. The answer is a life of fidelity to Jesus. God’s favor does not have to be won, it needs only to be seen and entered and lived: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Here, again, it is important that we remember that this word ‘believe’ doesn’t refer to giving assent to a set of ideas. It is about a life of trust and faithfulness: Daring to live the compassion of God. Daring to live the generosity of God. Daring to live the love of God. Daring to bend to wash feet. Daring to forgive those who sin against us. Daring to live God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. Daring to trust that goodness and mercy are the enduring truths of existence. Daring to believe that truth and care of neighbor is our true and imperishable life. Daring to trust and follow this Jesus as the true bread of life.

Amen

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Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flickr_-_Gaspa_-_Cairo,_venditore_di_pane.jpg By Francesco Gasparetti from Senigallia, Italy (Cairo: venditore di pane) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

From grace into grace

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Saturday

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

3“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.”

I have laughed at the petulance of the people in the wilderness. It’s a comfortable position of moral superiority – as if I would not have been among the grumblers.

It’s an easy thing for a pastor to do, faced as we are with grumblings in our congregations and people whose eyes sometimes seem to be less concerned with the Promised Land than the fleshpots of Egypt. It’s oh so seductive, as you read the story, to imagine that you occupy the sandals of Moses. But such a hearing of the text, however delicious, is not only presumptuous, but altogether too shallow. It makes caricatures of the people of Israel as well as the members of our congregations.

The people of Israel have seen wondrous deeds, though I suspect the wondrousness has been exaggerated in the retelling. There are hints in the text that the events at the Red Sea (technically, the Sea of Reeds) weren’t like the Cecil B. DeMille drama. In fact, most of the Biblical “miracles” are really pretty ordinary events – but events that were wondrous in their timing. That the wind blew all night to dry up the marshland enabling the Israelites to escape is wondrous in its timing if not spectacular to behold.

So these people have been rescued by what moderns would likely call “good fortune” (a phrase that explains nothing and refers to an ancient deity in the Greco-Roman pantheon) and now they are hungry and thirsty in the wilderness. They are refugees in flight, not a triumphant victory parade. And there, in the barren lands of the Negev, the thought of perishing slowly in the desert makes the suffering of Egypt seem preferable. It is a choice we all often make. The long road to freedom requires a great deal more courage and sacrifice than most of us muster easily. We can put up with a great deal of tyranny for a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs.

I know that the larger sweep of the Biblical narrative is a story about a broken covenant and rebellious people. So from the perspective of the generation assembling the narrative in exile in Babylon with Jerusalem in ruins, the story is about the persistent faithfulness of God in spite of our faithlessness – even as it yet summons us anew to faithfulness.

But as I ponder the story, as I consider all the different layers in the narrative, I begin to see something other than petulance; I see grief. They didn’t ask to die in their beds; they wished that God had slain them in Egypt. This verse is the corporate equivalent of Jeremiah declaring that God should have killed him in the womb or Job lamenting the day of his birth. It is the cry of despair born of grief. It is the parent or lover who wish they could have died in place of their beloved.

Job has lost all his family. Jeremiah is forced to witness the folly of his nation as it plunges towards destruction and the terrible suffering of siege. Israel in the wilderness was not a happy march into freedom. This was a people who had lost a life, however harsh. Yes, they have fled the suffering of their bondage. But they had also fled in fear for Moses had made this people a stench in the nostrils of Pharaoh. They were blamed for Egypt’s troubles. They had become the object of the nation’s hate. There is language in the story that they were driven out of Egypt. However cruel and harsh life in Egypt had been, they had lives and homes there. Now it is gone and they are in a cruel desert: weary, hungry, thirsty, and far from a home of any kind. We can see why they would say it would have been better to have died in Egypt.

What they find in the wilderness is mercy. However easy it may be to mock their faithlessness after the wonders they have seen, this is a story about mercy. God saw. God heard. God provided. There is language in the story about faithlessness and testing, but first we find mercy.

God does not provide them with riches. What God gives is bread enough for the day. But it is enough. And slowly it leads them forward. Step by step it leads them towards their encounter with God at Sinai. Day by day it sustains them until they find rest in a new land.

Those little pieces of bread we receive each Sunday morning are a far cry from the feast envisioned by Isaiah or celebrated in the vision of the New Jerusalem. But they are enough for the day. They are sufficient for the journey. They witness to God’s persistent faithfulness. They call us to journey on. And in that bread and wine we find the promise of life and a world borne forward from grace into grace.

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This post is adapted from the post From Grace into Grace in 2015.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWeltchronik_Fulda_Aa88_103r_detail2.jpg By Anonymous (Meister 1) (Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We come to be the new creation

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Friday

Ephesians 4:1-16

11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

This is one of those Bible verses that is too easily brought into the service of the church as an organization. We can hear offices in the institutional church rather than charisms in the community. We can picture persons in authority rather than the multitude of unique gifts, talents and graces that make for a vibrant and meaningful community.

Jesus didn’t come to build an organization. He came to bring the new wine of the feast to come. He came to bring new birth to an aching world. He came to fulfill the promise of the prophets of a day when every heart is turned to God. He came to open eyes, free the bound and gather the scattered. He is the dawn of the new creation, the healing of the world.

The words that matter in this verse about apostles and prophets, pastors and teachers, are these: “until all of us come.” Until all of us come to the unity of the faith. Until all of us come to the knowledge of the Son of God. Until all of us come to maturity. Until all of us come to the measure of the full stature of Christ. Until all of us come.

The church is not an institution with officers; it is a community with charisms. It has not arrived with buildings or priests or sacraments; it journeys towards our wholeness. We are a pilgrim community heading towards the promised land. We are a people seeking to be conformed to the image of Christ. We are mendicants looking to be filled with all the fullness of Christ. We are children of the dawn preparing for the full light of day. We are seeking to grow into the full stature of Christ. We seek to feel his compassion, breathe his Spirit, live his love. We look to embody his truth and life. We come to be born from above, to be delivered from the dominion of death and darkness, to live the feast to come. We come to bring each other into “The measure of the full stature of Christ.” We come to be the new creation.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Porto_Covo_July_2011-6.jpg By Alvesgaspar [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Bread from heaven

File:Krzyż w lesie - Grabarka.jpg

Watching for the Morning of August 5, 2018

Year B

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

It takes three hours each day to grind by hand enough flour for a household of five or six. It is a burdensome task passed off to the lowest ranking (newest) daughter-in-law of a family compound. And this is only the last labor in the long chain of plowing, sowing, reaping, winnowing. Daily bread was the central occupation of ninety percent of the population.

And hunger was familiar. We need to remember the food insecurity of the ancient world when we hear about the feeding of the five thousand and all that follows in John’s Gospel. The Biblical narrative is full of references to famine. It is not just the backdrop for great stories like the widow of Zarephath or the journey of Jacob’s sons to Egypt for grain – a journey that has them bowing at the feet of the brother they sold into slavery in fulfillment of young Joseph’s prophetic dreams. Famine and hunger are persistent realities in the Biblical world. Drought, locusts, marching armies – a year’s hope can be lost quickly. And the tax burden at the time of Jesus and tenancy requirements of the landless took half of your crop. So when this Jesus is able to turn five small loaves into food for five-thousand (plus women and children) it is understandable they want to make him king. These were barley loaves – the food of the poor – and there were twelve baskets left over!

Now Jesus has to fight off the crowd. This bread was a sign pointing to something other than our bellies. There is a bread here that is eternal. There is a life here that is imperishable. The new and abundant wine, the living water, the birth from above, the word made flesh – it is here before us in the word and person of this Jesus, bearing to us the life that abides.

Sunday we listen to the first part of Jesus’ encounter with those who ate their fill. He will press us to see beyond our bellies, past our wants, needs and fears, past the perishable to the imperishable, to that life of loyalty to and trust in the embodied Word of God, the living incarnation of God’s voice, the way of compassion and truth and all that is eternal.

In preparation for this word of Jesus we will hear first the story of Israel murmuring in the wilderness, ready to abandon the way of God for the fleshpots of Egypt. We will sing the psalm about God’s faithfulness in providing manna even when the people showed no trust in God. And then, just before we hear the words of Jesus about the bread of life, we will hear the author of Ephesians urging us to live this transcendent life:

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…

Daily bread is life, but ordinary bread and the life it sustains perishes. Before us stands a bread from heaven, a love immeasurable, a truth enduring, calling us into his imperishable life.

The Prayer for August 5, 2018

Heavenly Father,
you sustained your people through the wilderness
with manna from heaven;
sustain us through the days of our lives
by the presence of him who is the true bread of life,
your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 5, 2018

First Reading: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, “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.” – Delivered from bondage in Egypt, but now running out of food in the wilderness, the people cry out that it would have been better to perish with full bellies than follow God into freedom.

Psalmody: Psalm 78:22-29 (appointed 23-29)
“He rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven.”
– The poet sings of the faithfulness of God who provided for the people in the wilderness.

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:1-16
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
– The author begins his exhortation for the community to live in keeping with the grace of God they have experienced in Christ.

Gospel: John 6:24-35
“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.” – The crowds seek Jesus after the feeding of the five thousand, but Jesus challenges them to see that the true bread from heaven was not the manna God gave them in the wilderness. The true life-giving bread is present to them in Jesus.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Krzy%C5%BC_w_lesie_-_Grabarka.jpg By Kornelia Głowacka [CC BY-SA 3.0 pl (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/pl/deed.en)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons