Sunday, August 9, 2009

B: Proper 14 (8/9/09)

John 6:37-51

I Kings 19:4-8

Some years ago, there was a television commercial for a popular lemonade drink mix that portrayed several evocative images of summertime: napping on the beach, eating watermelon, kids snapping towels at each other, and, of course, drinking a glass of cold lemonade on the front porch.

One that they neglect to include, however, is as classic a summertime cliché as any, and that’s a whiny-voiced child, in the back seat of a car on a family vacation, asking the age-old question, “Are we there yet.”

It’s a summertime tradition that kids just pick up—by osmosis, I guess. No one ever taught it to me, but I certainly put that question to my parents several times. And I certainly never taught it to my kids, but they managed to find out about it anyway. It’s a silly question, of course, and impatient parents are apt to answer their impatient children with a touch of sarcasm: “Of course we’re not there yet! If we were there, we’d be there, and you’d know it. So just keep quiet!” But I think most kids are more sophisticated than adults give them credit for, and they don’t really mean to be taken literally when they ask that dreaded question. They are, however, trying to express their discontent with the status quo. They are trying to give voice to their weariness with the journey. They are trying to communicate the longing, the eager expectation, with which they contemplate the prospect of being “there,” wherever “there” might be.

In its childish directness, the question, “Are we there yet?” is really rather profound. It’s very much an adult question too. Only, for adults, “there” not something as tangible and simple as grandmother’s house or Cedar Point or Disneyworld. The concept of “there” probably varies from person to person. But, for most of us, it includes such characteristics as freedom from fear, freedom from anxiety, sickness, pain, abuse, deception, and poverty, just to name a few.

In the Old Testament, Isaiah paints a word picture of “there” as a great banquet, an all-you-can-eat affair with food enough, and then some, for everybody. Not just any food, but “rich” food, but you don’t have to report to your cardiologist about what you've eaten.

In the New Testament book of Revelation, “there” is described as “the Marriage Supper of the Lamb,” where saints and angels worship around the heavenly throne and where sorrow and pain are no more, neither crying, but life everlasting.

Over the last twenty years, I’ve made several road trips across the country, and I've noticed that the interstate highways have numbered markers every mile, so you can track your progress to the next state line. With a little mental arithmetic, you can figure out how close you are to “being there.” California, for some reason, has been the glaring exception to this rule—there are no mile markers on the highways, and with their financial problems, there may soon not be any highways! But in that sense, California roadways have something in common with the road to the Messianic Banquet, the road to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, the road to Heaven, because this road, the road to the Kingdom of God, does not have any mile markers either. We know something about where we’ve been, and we know we’ve come a long way—as a human race, as the people of God, as the church of Jesus Christ, and as individual human beings and believers. And we know that it is not just an infinite road we're on, we know that the road comes to an end at the City of God, and all will be well. But there are no mile markers along the way to tell us how long we’ve got to go. “Are we there yet, Lord?” we ask, and the patient answer comes, “Not just yet, but you'll know when we are.”

It can be tempting to become discouraged by such uncertainty. It’s one thing to courageously bear a heavy burden, but to bear it without any knowledge of when you'll be allowed to lay it down only intensifies the suffering. Many times in my ministry I have had suffering people ask me to pray that they will die, and I have shuddered at the thought that I might someday have to go through the torment that produces such a request. Yes, it is tempting to become discouraged, as indeed it was for the Elijah the prophet when he felt like the world, and God, had abandoned him. But then, just as he had cried himself to sleep, an angel touched him, and he woke up and saw that a hot meal had been prepared for him, and after a little coaxing from the angel, he got up and ate, and we are told that this meal sustained him in the desert for a very long time. What a gift that was, and I’m sure Elijah was very grateful. Still, there’s no substitute for “being there.”

But as you and I look back at this little incident from our perspective, we can see that this miraculously-provided meal was not just literal food for Elijah’s literal body, but a sign of God’s faithfulness and dependability. It was a sign to Elijah that he could end the pity party into which he had worked himself, and quit grumbling, quit complaining. It was a token that God would provide for his needs, and he just needed to get on with what it was that God called him to.

But what of our grumbling? What of our incessant interrogation of God, “Are we there yet?” Jesus is himself the answer to our grumbling and our murmuring and our questioning. “I am the bread of life,” he says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever, and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” And the way Jesus gives us this bread of life which is his flesh for the life of the world, is through the sacrament of the Eucharist, of Holy Communion with his own Body and Blood. When we ask Jesus, “Are we there yet?” his answer is, “This is my body, this is my blood, do this in remembrance of me.” It is Christ’s very presence with us, and for this reason we approach the sacrament, which alone is called in Christian tradition the blessed sacrament, with thanksgiving and with reverence.

This is why we genuflect—literally, “bend the knee”—when we approach an altar which holds the consecrated bread and wine, the sacramental presence of Christ. When we reverence the sacrament in that way, we are not worshiping bread and wine, or the metal, wood, and stone which contain and support them. We are worshiping Jesus, our Savior and Lord—him through whom all things were made, incarnate, crucified, buried, risen, ascended, and glorified—may his name be praised!

Yes, in this Blessed Sacrament, the Lord of the universe is present in our midst, and that is a source of great comfort. But even greater comfort is found in the fact that, in this Blessed Sacrament, we are present with him. That may seem like a meaningless distinction, and, I’ll grant you, it is a subtle one, but it’s important. What significance can there be in the difference between Christ being present with us and us being present with him?

Well, it has long been the teaching of the church that, in the incarnation, God assumed the human condition, not by incorporating himself into humanity, but by taking humanity into his own divine nature. So, to say that in eucharistic worship, God is present with us is true as far as it goes, but the whole truth is that, in eucharistic worship, we are present with God, where God is. God is the host, we are the guests, not the other way around. God doesn’t visit us in the Eucharist, we visit God. Now, there’s a tremendous insight to be had here, so stay with me. It bears directly on the “Are we there yet?" question.

I want to tell you about one of my fantasies. I’ve often fantasized about what science fiction writers would call “worm holes” in space. In this fantasy, you can, if you know where to do it, drive your car into an ordinary-looking carwash or drive-through lane of a fast food restaurant or some such, in, say, Warsaw, Indiana, and emerge from the other end of an ordinary looking carwash or fast food drive-through in, say, Warsaw, Poland ... or wherever. The only catch is, you can’t stay there. You have to find your way back to that “worm hole” and come home before sundown, or you turn into a pumpkin, or something. If you want to actually stay in Warsaw, Poland, or wherever, you’ve got to get there the old fashioned way, by putting in the miles, one after another.

I know this sounds bizarre—it's my fantasy, after all! But this is what the Eucharist is—it’s a worm hole into Heaven. It allows us to visit the Messianic Banquet, to eat from the table laden with rich foods, to taste the milk and honey of the Promised Land. We can visit virtually as often as we’d like—daily if we’re in a community that celebrates the Mass that frequently—but we can’t yet take up residence. We’re still pilgrims. We’re still on the way. We have lessons to learn on the road before we can stay for good. But when we get there, we’ll really be there, and how glorious it will be!

Our worship today, humble as it may be, is the worship of the number that no man can number around the throne of the Ancient of Days and the Lamb that was slain. We will eat and drink from the banquet table of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. For a moment, we are “there,” and these moments sustain us in the journey toward being there permanently.

If I seem to harp on the importance of faithful attendance at Sunday Mass, as I know I do sometimes, it isn't because I want to scold or be a nag. It’s because there are so many distractions on the road to Heaven—tourist traps, junk food, neon lights and oversize billboards—there are so many distractions, and I don't want to lose anyone, Jesus doesn't want to lose anyone, along the way. I want us all to be there together. Come, eat this bread, drink this cup. Visit heaven. Amen.

No comments: