The heartbeat of the world

File:Altarraum-Kreuz in Taizé.jpg

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.

+   +   +

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

File:N.D. de la Chapelle 812.jpg

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.

+   +   +

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

File:Fountain of Eternal Life (23140323736).jpg

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.

+   +   +

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

From grace into grace

File:Weltchronik Fulda Aa88 103r detail2.jpg

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.

+   +   +

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

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.

+   +   +

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

The bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh

File:Hans Holbein- The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb.JPG

Once more on Last Sunday

(I have written also about last Sunday at my blog Jacob Limping. But there are things we need to say before moving on to next Sunday and the next portion of the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel)

John 6:35-51

51 The bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.

This word ‘flesh’ matters. We have a hard time holding on to it. We tend to spiritualize Jesus. We talk about his death in abstract terms. We think of him as a transcendent reality. We attribute to him our notions of divinity above suffering. It was a long, hard, battle in the ancient church to keep Jesus grounded in the flesh. His own flesh. His own bleeding and dying.

We can imagine Jesus in the flesh, but the price is usually that we relinquish the claim that he is the incarnate one, the embodiment of God. Jesus becomes a prophet and a martyr, a mere man, not the incarnate Lord of All. But if we hold on to his divinity, his uniqueness, his status as Son of God, we tend to lose his humanity. Somehow we have to hold on to both.

This word ‘flesh’ matters. It is not just Jesus’ teaching that was given to the world. It was not just a vision and a hope and a promise. It was his flesh. He hungered. He ached. He wept. He drank and danced and soiled whatever ancient equivalent there was for diapers. He chased butterflies and learned to break rocks and build. The Holy One was enfleshed. He was one of us. Fully human. Fully flesh.

The bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh

What he gave for the world was his flesh. And he gave it all. He surrendered up his laughter and joy and feet and hands. He surrendered up his head to thorns and his back to stripes. He surrendered up his flesh to death.

And he surrendered up his flesh to resurrection.

This life giving manna is not just the flesh that dies; it is the flesh that lives, flesh that is raised, flesh Thomas can touch. The risen Jesus is not a spirit being; he is an enfleshed being. It is a flesh beyond death, a flesh not bound by the realities of our world this side of Eden, a flesh that participates in resurrected life, a flesh that is a real part – the true nature – of God’s glorious creation.

This crucified and risen flesh is the bread that brings true life. Jesus is more than teacher or sacrificial lamb; he is the bringer of the age to come. Resurrection has broken into our world. The tomb stands forever empty. The re-creation of the world is dawning. The Spirit is breathed out. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, the new reality in which all debts are wiped away and we live in God and God in us.

Most of us are more comfortable with the notion that God is in heaven and we are on earth until, hopefully, we too go to heaven. But God reigns in heaven; God wants to reign on earth. God’s purpose is to set right his world, to raise his world from its bondage to death into its true life.

In the flesh of Jesus the resurrection has come. The new creation is dawning now, here. Here is heaven on earth. Here is risen life now. Here is the age to come that will never perish. Here is forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing. Here is true love of God and neighbor. Here is the holy.

The bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh

The meaning of Jesus cannot be shaken loose from the body, the flesh, the physical reality of skin and bones and breath, of laughter and loving, of eating and drinking, of anger and tears and spoken words. It cannot be shaken loose from that body made dead and that body made alive and all creation carried on his shoulders from death into life.

 

Image: Hans Holbein: The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521, Oil on wood) [Public domain].  File: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hans_Holbein-_The_Body_of_the_Dead_Christ_in_the_Tomb.JPG#file

Heaven’s true bread

File:Lippi, pietà del museo horne.jpg

Watching for the Morning of August 9, 2015

Year B

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 14 / Lectionary 19

So we have seen the sign of the bread (two Sundays ago) and heard the conversation that Jesus is the true manna from heaven (last Sunday), now we hear that this true manna from heaven gives life – not to sustain us for a day, but eternally.

Our readings this Sunday begin with Elijah fleeing for his life only to be met in the wilderness by a messenger of God who provides bead and water for his journey. As God gave Israel bread and water in the wilderness, God provides for Elijah to bring him to Horeb (Mt. Sinai) where he will be encountered by God.

With the psalmist we sing of God’s faithfulness and hear the exhortation to “taste and see that the LORD is good.”

In the reading from Ephesians we hear the call “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” with specific exhortations for our life together.

And then we come to the wonderful words of the Gospel that show the crowd murmuring like Israel in the wilderness, but speak of the life that Jesus, the true bread from heaven, gives through his death and resurrection.

I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

Unfortunately the references to death and resurrection are skipped in the appointed verses, but they need to be read, for they draw out the meaning of Jesus’ promise that “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  The manna kept the people of Israel alive for a day; the death and resurrection of Jesus will keep us alive forever.

 

The Prayer August 9, 2015

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 9, 2015

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:1-8
“Then he 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.” – Elijah is fleeing the queen, Jezebel, who has vowed to kill him for his triumph over the prophets of Baal. In the wilderness he is met by a heavenly messenger who provides him 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.’” Continuing the reflection on the meaning of the sign of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus develops the idea that he is the true bread from heaven. The manna in the wilderness sustained the people for a day; through his death and resurrection, Jesus gives life that shall never perish.

 

Image: Filippo Lippi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALippi%2C_piet%C3%A0_del_museo_horne.jpg

From grace into grace

File:Weltchronik Fulda Aa88 103r detail2.jpg

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.

“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.”

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.

Cursed be the day on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying,
“A child is born to you, a son,” making him very glad.
Let that man be like the cities that the Lord overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon,
because he did not kill me in the womb;
so my mother would have been my grave,
and her womb forever great.
Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame?

It is the cry of despair born of grief.

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 the cause of 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. They had lost their life and their homes there, however cruel and harsh it had been.

But now they are in a cruel desert. Weary, hungry, thirsty, far from a home of any kind.

“God should have just killed us when we were still in Egypt.”

It is hard to hold to a promise in such times, hard to keep putting one foot in front of the next. Hope doesn’t come easily to the grieving. We see only what is lost not what might be.

In grief we tend to lose the thread of our story. The imagined future that has shaped our lives is lost to us. I remember a widowed woman in a nursing home, in a room she had shared with her husband, bitter that he had left her. “We were supposed to go together.”   They had been a couple without children or friends, but they had always had each other. Now she had lost the story line that had shaped her life.   It is the same with the death of a child or a sibling. One of my daughter’s early comments at the death of her sister was: “She was going to be my maid of honor.” It is the anguish of divorce, the crisis of a lost job or career.

In grief we lose the thread of our lives. The days become a wilderness through which we stumble, because we no longer know where we are going. My mother wanted to trade her life for my daughter’s. We all would have.

The wilderness is still wilderness. What was is no more and what will be is not yet. The people grieve – and God provides. Day by day there is bread enough for the day. And water is found in unexpected places.

There is a layer in this story of faithlessness and testing. But there is also a story of mercy. God provides. God leads. God upholds them even when they wish they had never been born. And the Promised Land comes. Not easily. Not quickly. But it comes.

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 bear witness to the promise. They call us to journey on. And in that bread and wine we find the thread of a new story, of a life and a world borne forward from grace into grace.

 

Image: By Anonymous (Meister 1) (Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Life-giving bread

Watching for the Morning of August 2, 2015

Year B

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 13 / Lectionary 18

File:340 MS 65 F168 V.jpgThe people come looking for Jesus, but Jesus rebuffs them. It is always uncomfortable when Jesus is rude to people. But they are on the wrong path and he needs to jolt them out of it. And he’s only just beginning.

We are talking about the meaning of the sign of the loaves and fishes. It will occupy us for the rest of chapter 6 in John, which we will read over the next four weeks. And the first part of this conversation is about the manna that sustained Israel during the forty years in the wilderness.

So we will read from Exodus of the people’s complaint and the bread they received each morning. We will hear the psalmist sing how God gave them “the food of angels.” And we will listen as Jesus challenges the people that the true bread from heaven, the true life-giving bread, was not the manna in the wilderness but Jesus: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

The reading from Ephesians speaks to those who have received Jesus as the bread of 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. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

In contrast to the unbelieving crowds hunting for Jesus the author of Ephesians takes up the image of the victory parade of the conquering hero entering the city and lavishing gifts upon the people. But our conquering hero is not Caesar returning from war with plunder, but Christ ascending to the father and lavishing gifts for ministry – gifts to bring the Christian community to full maturity in Christ, gifts to bring this life-giving bread to the world.

The Prayer August 2, 2015

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 2, 2015

First Reading: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
“Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.” – God provides manna in the wilderness and it is both a gracious providing and a test of the people’s allegiance to God.

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.

 

Image: Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, ca. 1411-1416.  Limbourg brothers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons