Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The Work of God

Sermon Delivered August 5, 2012

The bread of life, the bread of heaven – these are phrases that are typically only spoken in Christian worship. Here’s one that is a lot like it that I bet you’ve heard in a lot of different situations – the stuff of life. Now that’s one you could hear or say  just about anywhere! 

Sometimes “the stuff” is a really satisfying meal. Sometimes it is something less tangible like a memory or an observation of someone else’s experience. Children playing, a young couple struggling, a husband or friend sitting by a bedside in a hospital – that’s the stuff of life. We make it through life experiencing both joy and sadness, both hope and fear. 

Kahlil Gibran once wrote, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” Of course it does not feel that way when we are in the bottom of that cup. When you are in the bottom of that cup you just want to get out, to be comforted, to have some assurance that the light at the end of the tunnel is not an incoming train.
Those are times when nothing is better than food to comfort the soul, and somehow bread, or breading, is often a part of it. That’s because bread has been a part of every civilized, agrarian culture throughout the whole of human history. In fact, wheat is so infused in our diets that those who have allergies to gluten find it pretty difficult to eat anything!

Bread, some say, is a cause for war and a means for peace. In fact, in ancient Hebrew, the word for bread and war is the same word, differing only in punctuation. Christians, it seems, have been concerned about hunger since the time of Jesus. “What do we do with this crowd?” they asked. “You give them something to eat!” he replied. 
Note that the disciples came to Jesus out of self concern. They were afraid of an unruly crowd. Jesus responded out of compassion for the crowd, not concern for his disciples. Now the crowd has come to Jesus directly, and it seems that they get the “Grumpy Jesus” that we have seen before. 

“You’re only here because I fed you!” he says. And they respond, as sheep often do, with something kind of like, “Ma-a-a-a. We’re hungry.” We have all done this, and some seem to craft a theology out of it – a theology of hunger and need, a theology that expects God and prayer to work like some confused version of a vending machine and slot machine.

Well Jesus does not seem to affirm that sort of thing here. He tells them that they have been putting in a whole lot of effort for food that is not going to last. Instead, they should be working for food that does not perish. Of course this peaks their interest. Notice that it is the crowd, not Jesus, who interprets the invitation of Jesus to be about the work of God.

Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man” and tells them that God’s seal has been placed upon him, and the crowd responds with something like, “Wow! How can we be a part of what God is doing?” And Jesus’ response is at once too simple and too complex to comprehend, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

And that is precisely where the trouble starts. And that is precisely where the trouble always starts. We proclaim Jesus as Lord. We proclaim Jesus as Saviour, and somehow we still find ourselves queuing up in lines of support or derision over bread, over the stuff of life, over love, and over relationships. Sometimes it seems that the body of Christ is ever on its way to splinter and schism.

Yet Jesus still speaks to us and offers us release from the hunger that drives us to take control. Jesus still reminds us that God is in the business of sustaining us through faith. And faith is so simple, yet so complicated – it is, in fact, the stuff of life.

In a strange way I am reminded of a recent commercial for a truck. Two men meet at a block party and the truck owner is asked what he does. The truck owner looks stunned as he flashes through memories of hard work on a job site and tremendous adventures with his family. The point is obvious – this truck will transform your life. 

Maybe so, but not without proper credit and financing. Now, here is a good place for the obvious metaphor of Jesus as our creditor and financier. Let’s just step over that for a moment and get to the deeper issue. Nothing offers transformation apart from the love of God. Not only that, transformation is not a one shot deal. The human creature is too complex for that. Paper is burned and it becomes ash and smoke. 

A person is created and recreated again and again throughout a lifetime. So, when Jesus says that we will never hunger or thirst, he does not mean that we will not have needs. He means that our deepest need – our deepest hunger – has already been met. Now ours is to live as a people who are so certain of God’s active presence that we become the works of God through our belief! We become people of forgiveness and hope and – dare I say it – resurrection!

We become, as Paul said, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers so that we might equip the saints for the work of ministry – for the building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God. And that requires us to be transformed again and again.

Do you believe that is possible? Metaphors for transformation can grow thin at times, but it does strike me as interesting that we often try to live like a butterfly – a being that has been transformed from the inside out for once and for all. Although I do think there is some truth in that – transformation should be radical and recognizable – I really like the idea of bread better.

Flour and sugar and other things are baptized in water, risen to new heights with yeast, and confirmed in the trial of the oven. We, as a people, have the opportunity to be transformed in this way in our worship. And we, as a people, become transformed over and over again in our life together in our prayer lunches and committees, in our phone calls and visits to one another, and in lives that reflect the grace we have received here in such a way that it shines into the hidden places of this present darkness.

Like the Israelites, we will grumble. Like Moses and the disciples we will turn to God out of a mixture of fear and compassion for those we have been called to liberate. And like God, for there is nothing to compare God to in the end, God will show up to provide the stuff of life – compassion, forgiveness, and sustenance.

We will continue to struggle with our ability to assist those in need – as well we should – and we will do our best to provide those things we know that we can. Perhaps we cannot pay a utility bill or provide shelter, but no one ever leaves without the offer of food and without the prayers of our community. For we are a priesthood of believers, and we believe that the works of God are done through our hands – no matter how strong or frail they may be. That is, of course, why we pass the plates of bread and juice to one another during communion. 

As we do so today, I want to invite you to participate in a tradition that seems to be fading in the church today. As you pass the bread, I invite you to say, “This is the body of Christ, broken for you.” Or you might simply say, “This is the Bread of Heaven brought down for you.” As the juice is passed, I invite you to say, “This is the blood of Christ shed for you.” Or you might even say, “This is the cup of eternal life offered for you.” If you know the person’s name, please include it. 

I’ll tell you why it matters to say these words. This offer is from God, and it is personal. Faith may be private, but it dies in a vacuum. This table is not a place for the exercise of private religion. This table is the place to be transformed! This table is the place to become joined into the Body of Christ, so that we might be broken for the world! And to God be the glory for that, now and forevermore! Amen.
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