Monday, August 31, 2009

B: Proper 17 (8/30/09)

Deuteronomy 4:1-9

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

I’m grateful that my parents sent me to Sunday School—beginning more than a half-century ago now!—and that I learned, through repeated exposure at various grade levels, the grand biblical narrative of the history of the Hebrew people, the nation of Israel. I learned about Abraham and Sarah, their son Isaac and his wife Rebekah, their son Jacob and his wives Leah and Rachel and their twelve sons. I learned about one of those sons, Joseph, whose brothers sold him as a slave to Egyptians, but who was able later able to redeem that act of betrayal by rescuing his family when a massive famine struck their part of the world. I learned about how Jacob’s descendants multiplied into a great nation while they were in Egypt, so much so that they became a threat to the native Egyptians, whose king enslaved them in hard labor. I learned how Moses, a Hebrew child raised in the Egyptian royal court, was called by God to lead his people out of slavery into freedom, and how God liberated them by leading them through the divided waters of the Red Sea and through the wilderness of the Sinai desert for forty years until Joshua, Moses’ successor, led them across the Jordan River to the land that God had promised would be theirs to settle in and prosper in and otherwise enjoy.

On the eve of the crossing of the Jordan, just before his death, Moses made what was possibly the most important speech, the most critical pep-talk, of his entire life. Up until that point, the Hebrew people had been a nation without a land, a people without a piece of real estate that they could call their own. For more than an entire generation, they had been nomads, living in tents, always on the move. Before that, they were slaves. Now everything was about to change. They were going in to take possession of the Promised Land. They needed to learn a different way to live. Moses, in his final act of leadership, wanted to help them create a clear national and ethnic identity. During their wilderness sojourn, the people of Israel had indeed come to know God—Yahweh, the LORD—as a living reality, one who guides and directs, and with whom communion and fellowship is something to be desired and sought. But that was in the desert, where they literally needed to be guided day by day. Now they were going to live in settled towns and villages, tending crops rather than gathering manna every morning, pasturing their herds and flocks in the same general area rather than being constantly on the move. They needed to learn a new way to live, and Moses was right there with the prescription—which was the Torah, the Law of Moses.

Moses saw the Torah as God’s gift by which to accomplish the goal of creating a new national identity for Israel, a means of constantly reminding the people who they are and to whom they belong. The Torah consists of outward public and private observances—613 individual statues, to be precise. They govern a wide array of concerns, ranging from corporate worship to healthcare to criminal justice to family relations to social and civil relations to economic order to sexual behavior and even personal diet and hygiene. Each of the 613 individual laws was intended to help shape and form the people into a community that “walks with the Lord,” that continues to rely on the Lord for provision and guidance and direction, just as they had done during the forty years in the wilderness. Far from being an oppressive yoke around their necks, the people were encouraged to see the Law of Moses as a veritable gift of life, straight from the hand of a gracious God. Listen to Moses’ words to the people:

And now, O Israel, give heed to the statutes and the ordinances which I teach you, and do them...Keep them and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.' make them known to your children and your children's children.

Well, as you know, the people of Israel settled the Promised Land. Years and decades and centuries passed. The Law of Moses was successively “forgotten” and “rediscovered” several times. Some of the leaders of Israel were faithful to the Lord and led the people in His ways. More, however, were unfaithful, and led the people astray. There were periods of peace and prosperity, but longer periods of great political and social and military turmoil. Eventually, about 500 years or so after they had crossed the Jordan, Israel was once again largely a landless nation, as they found themselves in exile, only to have a remnant return some seventy years later and re-establish the capital city of Jerusalem. During the rising and falling of their national fortunes, the people of Israel—the Jews, as they eventually became known—engaged in an ongoing struggle over how, or how not, to adapt the Torah to the changing circumstances of their existence. In the process, their understanding of the Torah tended to become rather brittle, rather mechanical, exceedingly legalistic. Layer after layer of “expert” opinion on the interpretation of the Law of Moses piled themselves on top of one another. In time, this collection of interpretation and explanation began to weigh more than the actual law itself. People got caught up in these secondary matters of interpretation and lost their focus on the laws themselves and the intent behind the laws. This gave rise to various classes of professional Torah scholars and teachers—such as priests and scribes—as well as “parties” within Judaism—Pharisees and Saducees come readily to mind if we’re familiar with the New Testament, but there were others as well. These scholars and teachers and parties all offered conflicting viewpoints, and the Torah came to be seen as an end in itself, rather than a means to a holy end. Keeping the Law correctly in every detail became more important than knowing God and pleasing God and having fellowship with God, which was the whole reason for the Law in the first place.

Some 1200 years or so after the giving of the Law of Moses, Jesus appears on the Jewish scene. In one incident, as recounted for us in the seventh chapter of St Mark’s gospel, he encounters and engages the dry, brittle, legalistic handling of the Torah that had become so prevalent in Palestinian Judaism. Some scribes—members of a professional class of Torah teachers—notice Jesus’ disciples failing to observe one of the secondary interpretations of the Torah that had become standard ritual practice, and they take Jesus to task for it. Jesus wastes no time in condemning their legalistic hyper-technical approach to the Law:

There is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.

Now, as Christians, we need to be very careful not to read this passage in isolation from the rest of scripture. Yes, Jesus excoriates the scribes and their allies. He calls them “hypocrites” and “whitewashed tombs”—some pretty strong language. But he does not condemn religious practice itself. On the contrary, he faithfully observed it, even to the very end of his life on this earth. He was circumcised on the eighth day and presented in the temple on the fortieth day of his life. He accompanied his parents on pilgrimages to Jerusalem for religious festivals. He participated in synagogue worship while living and working in Galilee. Indeed, the Last Supper, at which he instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist, was, depending on which scholar you read, either a Passover or a Chaburah meal. Jesus was an observant, religiously practicing Jew during his entire life, even while speaking out against the abuse of religious practice.

You know, the word “religion” has a bad name in some Christian circles these days, but I would contend that this is undeserved. I think we can safely say, with ample scriptural support, that Christian religious practice, foreshadowed in the Torah, is an effective means to the end of fellowship with God. The particular things we do that would come under the category of the practice of religion are intended to help us know God better, to walk with Him and follow Him. They are channels of light and life. We make it a priority to come together for corporate worship on the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, because the resurrection of Christ is the foundation of our hope. We keep the seasons of the liturgical year—the feasts, the fasts, and the ordinary times—because doing so constantly drills us on the essentials of our faith. We say our daily prayers at regular times because we know that God is present in and works through the mystery of the repeated cycle of time. We fast on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday, and we keep the other Fridays of the year, outside of festival seasons, as days of special devotion, because we know that in fasting and prayer God speaks to us and leads us. We examine our consciences and confess our sins regularly because only by receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness can we grow closer to Him. Just as the Law of Moses formed the people of Israel and gave them a sense of national identity, so the practice of Christian religion forms us as the Church and gives us a sense of Christian “ethnic” identity.

Can these good things be abused by latter-day “scribes” and “Pharisees”? Yes, and they can be and have been and continue to be. I once had a newly confirmed adult—a college professor, no less, a smart guy—ask me on the very day of his confirmation: “OK, now what are the rules?” Clearly, he thought of the practice of religion not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. But, as we know, just because something can be misused doesn’t mean we should throw it out. Rather, we should discipline ourselves to use it properly, and teach others to do the same. Christian religious practices can be misused. But they are also the very means of grace, and we embrace them with joy and expectation that they will facilitate an encounter with the Holy, that they will escort us into the courts of the most high God. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Monday, August 24, 2009

B: Proper 16 (8/23/09)

John 6:60-69

Every third year—Year “B” in our cycle of Sunday readings— the month of August keeps us focused like a laser on the Holy Eucharist. The sixth chapter of John’s gospel is his great treatise on the Eucharist. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John does not give us an account of the Last Supper, Jesus’ formal institution of what we know as the Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion. Rather, what John gives us—something the other three gospel writers do not give us—is our Lord’s great discourse on the Bread of Life. Even though it does not include any command like “do this in remembrance of me,” the “bread of life” discourse is John’s version of the institution of the Blessed Sacrament. Over the last four weeks, we have seen how Jesus uses bread as a sign and symbol of God’s care and provision, and how the sacrament of the Eucharist extends this care and provision to us.

As Catholic Christians, we have a “high” view of the sacraments. We believe them to be not merely commemorative exercises wherein we are invited to “feel” God active and present with us. Rather, sacraments are objectively effective. Through them and in them, we have communion with God the Father, through God the Son, in the power of God the Holy Spirit. And all this happens whether we feel spine-tinglingly exhilarated or colossally bored, or somewhere in between. I, for one, do not always feel God actively working on my behalf, so to be assured in the sacraments that he is indeed doing so, whether I feel it or not, is a source of great comfort. No matter how I feel when I come to Mass, God always faithfully shows up.

But even as I claim this truth, I must be careful, so that I don’t cross the line between this wholesome doctrine and a distortion of that doctrine that sees the sacraments as mere magic, rituals through which we can manipulate God. Magic is always tempting because it offers gain without pain, a shortcut around the structure of reality. A pint-sized Popeye sees an enormous Bluto harassing Olive Oyl, but a mere can a of spinach turns him into a fighting machine, and he saves the day. (I realize you have to be of a certain age to recognize who these cartoon characters are, but hopefully you still get my point!) Or, in another example of how attractive the idea of magic is to us, we read about generations of explorers scouring the wilderness wherever there is a rumor of a fountain of youth, from which one draught of water will reverse the aging process, increase metabolism, turn hair the color of a child’s, eliminate wrinkles, re-calcify bones, and restore memory.

It is easy, I have found, for Christians to imagine that sacraments work the same way. In the early Middle Ages, there were those who figured that if the bread and wine of the Eucharist really convey the body and blood of Christ, then, if one morsel of consecrated bread and one sip of consecrated wine was good for them, then two, or three, or more would be even better. So they went to early Mass in one parish, the nine o’clock celebration in another, and the late service somewhere else again—all to get as much sacramental Holy Communion as they could. In time, the bishops caught on to them, and taught that this practice is really an abuse of the sacrament, and instituted the rule, which is still familiar to us, that, all things being equal—in other words, there are some exceptions—the rule that we should receive Communion only once in any given day.

Or ... there’s the caricature—and I emphasize “caricature,” because I know it was never representative of official teaching—the caricature of the old-fashioned lay Roman Catholic attitude toward the sacrament of reconciliation, whereby you can sin as much as you want during the week as long as you go to confession on Saturday afternoon. When the priest pronounces absolution, that gives you a clean slate, so you can start back in on whatever sinful activity you might be inclined to, because it, too, would all get forgiven a few days later.

The idea of sacrament-as-magic—whether it be Holy Communion, or confession, or baptism, or whatever—the idea of sacrament-as-magic leads to a perfunctory, mechanical, coldly formal kind of Christian practice that is actually not nourishing at all, but spiritually destructive. One of the greatest spiritual tragedies, one that I encounter virtually every day, is people who, through this kind of mechanical religious observance, are “vaccinated” with a small dose of Christianity and thereby effectively immunized against the real thing! Immunization is a good thing if you’re talking about a harmful infection, but Jesus Christ is not a disease! He is life itself. Serving him is perfect freedom and knowing him is eternal life. We don’t want to vaccinate ourselves against Jesus!

Yet, that is precisely what has happened to a great number of Christians, good people who may even be in church every Sunday, may even sing in the choir or serve on the vestry, and whose very religious observance has served to protect them from being infected with the fullness of the gospel, shielded them from encountering Jesus—Jesus who can turn lives inside out and upside down, Jesus who can make the blind see and the lame walk and the deaf hear, Jesus who can heal marriages, Jesus who can break the bondage of addiction, Jesus who can be a friend to the lonely and strength to the weak, Jesus who can be courage to the fearful and hope to the dying, Jesus who can forgive sins and restore wholeness and provide the sheer moral fiber to be honest and generous in a society that encourages us to be deceitful and selfish, to live in chastity in a culture than encourages indulgence.

This Jesus is supremely worth knowing. St Paul said that he counts everything else as garbage in comparison with knowing Jesus. If thinking that the sacraments are magic, if having a little bit of religion, is preventing us from knowing Jesus in all the fullness of his power, then we are most miserable indeed. God help us.

God help us.

In the concluding verses of the long sixth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus sets up a contrast. He says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is of no avail.” Now, before I attempt to explain what that statement might mean, and how it relates to the way we think of and experience the sacraments, I need to first say something about what it does not mean.

When Jesus (or Paul, for that matter) talks about “spirit” and flesh,” he is using figurative language. We can’t let ourselves jump to the conclusion that anything physical is fleshly and anything immaterial is spiritual. In the New Testament, “spirit” is anything that originates from God’s nature and God’s will. “Flesh” is anything that stands contrary to God’s purposes and intentions. So, I’s possible for something to be quite physical—an embrace, or a kiss, for example—and yet be “spiritual” in the way Jesus is using the term. And, it is possible for something to be completely immaterial—say, a philosophy of self-indulgence, for example, or a feeling of racial hatred—and yet be absolutely “of the flesh.” So, with all that in mind, back to Jesus’ saying: “the spirit”—that is, whatever accords with God’s nature and God’s will—“the spirit gives live, but the flesh”—that is, whatever is of the order of sin and death, contrary to God’s nature and God’s will—“the flesh is of no avail.”

Thinking of the sacraments as magic is looking at them through the eyes of the flesh, rather than the eyes of the spirit. They don’t work that way. They are ineffective when understood that way. The sacraments are real, God is objectively active in them, they don’t depend on our feelings. But they do require cooperative faith in order to accomplish their mission, which is to perfect the holiness of the recipient, to make the recipient of the sacrament more like Christ. Any work that God’s Spirit does in our hearts, sacramental or otherwise, requires cooperative faith. And faith is more than just a warm feeling of religiosity. Authentic faith is disciplined, and expresses itself in our actions, disciplined actions like worship, study, private prayer, and service. We might think of the sacraments like an acorn, which contains within itself all the genetic material necessary for the making of an oak tree. It’s objectively present, whether or not anyone knows it or feels it. But if that oak tree is ever going to happen, it needs the “cooperative faith” of rain, sunshine, good soil, and protection from squirrels and birds.

Christians in whom sacramental grace is nourished by cooperative faith are less apathetic and more concerned about the world around them, less selfish and more generous, less fearful and more courageous, less despairing and more hopeful, less inclined toward rationalizing self-indulgence and more inclined toward moral courage, less deceptive and more truthful, less abrasive in their dealings with others and more gentle, less prejudiced and more loving—bottom line, in such Christians, there is less sin and more holiness.

So . . . please do avail yourself of the sacraments. Live into the meaning of your baptism, make your communion as frequently as possible—weekly, at least, go to confession at least twice a year, ask for anointing when you’re sick. Take comfort from the fact that God’s presence in these means of grace does not depend on your feelings. But at the same time, don’t rely on them as if they were magic. For our physical health, a good diet is not enough—we need exercise too. The same is true of our spiritual health. The sacraments are an excellent diet, but we need the exercise of cooperative faith in order for them to be effective.


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.

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.