Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Stale Bread - a sermon

Back when I was a kid, we had to read a story in school -- I’ve tried to find it but no luck. The gist of the story was that a boy wanted to buy a soda, and was going to pay for it by returning bottles for deposits (or something like that). As he went along, he discovered that he was a bottle short and couldn’t afford the soda. But he also knew the old store owner would just tell him to put the bottles in back and would never count.

So he went, dropped off the bottles, and collected the soda he’d been tasting all the way there. On his way home, the soda tasted flat, sour, unpleasant. All because it was guilt ridden.

This is not all that different from the story of David and Bathsheba which we’ve been reading the past few weeks. David gets Bathsheba, but now he’s faced with the prophet Nathaniel and forced to acknowledge that HE is the one who has done wrong. He is faced with his own guilt, and the fruit of his sin is bitter indeed.

Not that guilt is the only way to make the fruits of our labor so bad -- or to use another metaphore, to make our daily bread go stale.

There’s another book in the Old Testament called Ecclesiastes, and in it, the author essentially says that everything is meaningless. “Vanity of vanities,” he writes. “All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil? There is nothing new under the sun.” For him, life is empty, meaningless, dry, stale. And this supposedly from the king -- from a guy who has everything.

But then, when did having everything ever bring us meaning or joy or purpose. I’ll admit, having enough food in our bellies and having sufficient shelter from the elements is a good thing, but beyond that, what’s the point?

Sometimes we delude ourselves into thinking that having stuff will give us meaning, will be enough to make life all right. We work hard and finally burn ourselves out. We invented vacation to take care of that (and I’m all for vacation!), but even that doesn’t suffice.

Jesus found the crowd he had fed to be in that frame of mind. They were thrilled with him because he had filled their bellies. They wanted to make him king because he could produce food out of nowhere. This was impressive.

It was like Moses who gave the people manna in the wilderness. THAT was impressive. And let’s face it, if someone said to us, “I’ll give you guaranteed endless and sufficient food forever,” we’d sit up and take notice.

But Jesus says this food -- even manna -- is just stale bread. Or at least, it will turn stale because it is, ultimately, just stuff. It’s temporary, fleeting, dust.

The bread we crave will go stale before we can ever fully appreciate it. Because like David, like the author of Ecclesiastes, like the boy in that story, like the crowd in the gospel the bread we crave is material bread. It gives no meaning, no purpose, no life.

But Jesus, unlike Ecclesiastes, which finally just ends with a resigned note to do one’s duty, gives life. He says, “I am the bread of heaven. Come to me and you will never hunger again. You will never thirst again because what I give will never go stale.”

What Jesus gives is honest and loving and eternal -- it is nothing short of God’s abiding love. He says that whoever eats the bread he offers will live forever -- not merely exist or survive but LIVE. His bread never loses its taste, remains forever fresh.

To take in the bread of heaven is to become part of Christ’s body, to enter into the divine. As mere humas, we have to do so with tiny little bites because we can’t handle God’s fullness. But we’re invited to take part in that eternal bread. Whether any of us does or not is up to each of us individually. Bon appetit. Amen.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Fear and Loafing - A Sermon

If you have not heard the good news, I am delighted to share it with you now: Vacation Bibel School is over! No, really, it was a fantastic week with kids enjoying themselves so much that I’ve received at least two e-mail from parents asking us to keep their children for the rest of the summer! Of course, I mean that the children, asked why VBS could not go on longer.

In all seriousness, there was a special feel to VBS this year, and I think part of it was the phenominal work that so many people put into it, and the remarkable faith that the volunteers expressed. Twice, I went to the volunteers and said, “I don’t know, gang, we may have to cancel.” Twice they said to me, “We can do this, and we want to.”

My fear was that we were competing with bigger churches, using the same program during the same week (don’t ask me how that happened). My other fear was that we didn’t have enough staff or enough kids to justify the work. Sometimes, pastors need to hear words of courage from their parishioners, and that’s what I got from this amazing group.

All I can say is, when it looked to me like the spiritual cupboard was bare, people here found bread to spare.

By the way, four kids actually attended another church’s version of Camp E.D.G.E. in the morning and ours in the evening. Their parents told us that they really loved how even though they were the same programs, they were completely different. So as exhausted as I am by the week, I’m also thrilled.

Now, the kind of fear that I experienced was the kind that said, “I can’t do it. This will fail. Woe is me.” But you know other fears. The fear of David in today’s Old Testament: “I’m going to get caught!” Or the fear of the disciples in the Gospel which can roughly be translated as, “Eek! A ghost!”

All that fear, when you think about it, is rather silly. I mean, King David’s is justifiable because he knows he’s going to get into trouble if he gets caught. And with all his experience with God, he ought to know that he can’t hide what he did from God. But instead, he decides to do even worse harm by committing murder. He is so focused on what’s good for David that he ignores God and God’s people altogether. I’m guessing we’ve all been there. It’s not a good place.

But then, no fear feels good. The disciples were afraid of a ghost even though they have just returned from a mission trip in which they were healing the sick and casting out demons! They’re terrified of what they think is a ghost even though Jesus just fed 5,000 people with a couple of loaves and fishes! Why did they not get it? Are they that slow?

On the other hand, don’t we have enough experience with the disciples to know the answer to that question?

On the OTHER hand, we have even more experience with Jesus -- with God in general -- than David and the Disciples. We’ve heard their stories and seen God’s love and power for millenia. We -- or I should say I -- ought to know that all things are possible with God, that when we are doing God’s will, fear is generally misplaced.

It’s true that we can’t know how things will turn out when we start something new. But we don’t have to, either. The disciples had no idea that they would be able to cast out demons -- but Jesus told them to, so they did.

They had no idea that five loaves and a few fishes could feed 5,000, but Jesus said, “Make them sit down,” so they did.

Yet even so, we shriek in fear at things that we think might embarrass us or expose us to harm or just overwhelm us. We forget the lesson of the loaves just as quickly as we forget the lesson of the cross. And we forget God’s promise.

That promise is that God will feed us with what we need to do the work we’ve been given on this earth. And God will never abandon us but will love us always.

That might not seem like much, but it is enough to drive away fear. We have enough to do the job. That’s all that’s promised, and that’s all that’s needed. We might not know exactly what the job is or how it’ll turn out, but we can always move forward knowing God is with us.

Which makes my fear about VBS seem all the sillier. Fortunately, God knows our fears,forgives them, and helps us move beyond them. Because the thing we can trust most is that God loves us always, and love forgives even our lack of faith and our fear. Amen.