Tuesday, August 4, 2009

B: Proper 13 (8/2/09)

John 6:24-35, Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15, Psalm 78:14-20, 23-25

As most of you know, I recently returned home after being away for three-and-a-half weeks. Let me tell you—strange things can happen in a refrigerator when you ignore it. The night after we got back, I was cooking dinner and reached for a jar of peeled garlic cloves that I had just bought a few days before I left town. Yuck! They were all moldy. Sure enough, the “use by” date on the lid was July 8, so I was just plain out of luck. Garlic is perishable.

Garlic isn’t the only thing that perishable, of course, and mold isn’t the only bad thing that happens to food as it “ages.” The whole reason we invented refrigerators in the first place was to slow down what eventually happens naturally to anything that human beings might want to eat: it rots. It becomes inedible—in fact, poisonous. Bread, meat, dairy products—they all spoil at different rates, but pretty soon they all become good for nothing except compost.

Even our own bodies, in fact, are looking in the same direction. We may not be headed for the compost heap, but we’re all going to get recycled nonetheless, either in the form of dust or ashes. If you’ve ever studied physics, you may remember what they call the Second Law of Thermodynamics, otherwise known—much more succinctly—as entropy. Left untended, that is, order naturally disintegrates into chaos. When I was in California over much of July, I noticed that the vegetation along the sides of the highways, which has always been well-watered and well-tended, is in many places looking quite neglected—a reflection, no doubt, of the severe budget crisis that state is facing. What is beautiful and orderly when it is well-cared for becomes chaotic and wild—or just dies—when it is not well-cared for.

Perishability is a fact of our lives at several levels. Garlic cloves grow mold in the refrigerator. Weeds grow in our gardens if we don’t pull them. Our bodies get sick and old and eventually die, no matter how many body parts get replaced by made-in-Warsaw substitutes. And all these instances of physical perishability are just signs of the emotional and spiritual perishability that are part of our experience as well. Relationships, even with those whom we see every day, let alone those from whom we are separated by great distances—relationships take effort to maintain. If we don’t pay attention to them, they’ll eventually die before our eyes. And in our American culture, where freedom of individual choice is practically worshiped as an idol, we have a cafeteria of spirituality—a spirituality supermarket with a virtually endless array of options and alternatives, but very little by way of time-tested spiritual anchors to which we can tether ourselves. Spirituality trends come and go as fast as fashion trends, and what is the hot new thing today will give way to something else tomorrow.

This morning we continue to make our way into the sixth chapter of St John’s gospel. Jesus has miraculously fed a whole crowd of people from five small barley loaves and two fish. Then he and his disciples get into a boat and row to another spot along the shore of the Sea of Galilee for some “alone time,” but it doesn’t work, because large numbers of people take the land route and find them. Jesus says to them, in effect, “Look, I know why you came. You don’t really care that much what I say; you just want some more free food!” (I like to think he says this with a friendly grin, and not with a scowl.) But then he adds, “Hey, don’t worry about getting more of that food I gave you out in the country. That stuff is perishable; all moldy and rotten by now anyway. No, pay attention to the food that stays fresh indefinitely—‘the food that endures to eternal life’—the food that you get from…moi…because God the Father has put his stamp of approval on…moi.”

Jesus is challenging these people to see the bigger picture, to get beyond their short term needs and desires and see the bigger picture. They begin to get it, but slowly at first. They understand that God is somehow in the picture, so they bring up manna—the mysterious bread-like substance that their ancestors had lived on a thousand years earlier as they wandered around the Sinai desert for a generation, food that just appeared every morning outside their tents. “Oh! Now we see. Are you going to give us something like manna?” To which Jesus might have wanted to say, “You’re getting warmer, but not quite there yet. Sure enough, I’m talking about ‘bread from heaven.’ But it’s not something you’re going to find lying on the ground like manna (which, by the way, was quite perishable). The bread that God wants to give you is life-giving not only at a physical level, like the bread I gave you out in the country—but life-giving spiritually, cosmically, mystically.” To use the words of the actual scriptural text rather than my attempt at a light-hearted paraphrase: “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.”

Of course, the reason we read the gospels is to apply them to our own lives--or, more accurately, to apply our lives to them: to somehow put ourselves in the picture, to identify with the characters in the story. So here we are, anxious and hungry. Let’s be honest: We’re all anxious about something this morning; we’re hungry for something. Some of us may be anxious about material security, about literally how we’re going to provide food for our bodies. We may be hungry and thirsty for health and wellness, either physical or emotional, or both. Some of us are hungry for a healed or restored or rejuvenated relationship with somebody—a spouse, a parent, a child, a friend, a colleague. Some of us are hungry for acceptance or recognition—either for ourselves, or for our dearly-held convictions, or both. To some extent, we have all known Jesus—or at least suspected Jesus—to be a source of the sort of food we’re looking for. So we follow him to where we think he might show up, just as the people in John’s gospel follow him to the lakeshore near Capernaum. On a Sunday morning, we think he might show up in a church, and so we’re here—we’re here hungry for the food we think he might be capable of providing.

After Jesus tells the people about the bread which the Father provides—“the bread of God…which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world”—they eagerly respond, “Lord, give us this bread always.” We are here this morning with the same request on our lips—implicitly and silently, at least. And as such, we are right where Jesus wants us. We have, in effect, walked right into his benevolent trap! After the people say, “Lord, give us this bread always,” Jesus springs the trap: “I am the bread of life; those who come to me shall not hunger, and those who believe in me shall never thirst.”

I am … the bread of life.

Jesus is not merely a provider. Anything he might provide for us, in fact, is necessarily perishable, just like the garlic in my refrigerator, just like a spotlessly clean bathroom or kitchen, just like a thoroughly weeded garden, just like the manna that fed the people of Israel in the wilderness.

No, Jesus is not merely a provider; Jesus is himself the provision. Jesus is himself our imperishable food. We are perishable, and everything around us is perishable. God alone is imperishable. In Jesus, God communicates his own imperishable life to us. Unlike any food that he might provide, Jesus himself, and Jesus alone, satisfies us completely and permanently. When we participate in Jesus, we participate in the life of God—the liberating, death-conquering, eternal life of God. And the central thrust of the sixth chapter of St John’s gospel is about one particular and concrete way in which we participate in that life, which is what we come here to do anyway, which is to celebrate the Eucharist, to share in the eternal self-offering of God the Son to God the Father in the power of God the Holy Spirit, to have “holy communion” with Christ, and, through him, with one another. Praised by Jesus Christ, our true and living bread. Amen.

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