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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bread is useless unless you eat it

My sermon for this week was based on John 6:35, 41-51.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Ok, so that title should be a pretty obvious point, but it seems that it is a point that still needs to be made.

In order for bread to nourish you, you have to eat it.  If you are hungry and you put bread in your pocket, no good.  If you are thirsty and somebody gives you a picture of a glass of water, no good.  If you want to absorb the lesson of a book, it won't do you any good to balance the book on the top of your head.

In other words, just being in proximity to bread will not suffice.

In the same sense, just living near a gym won't make you fit, just being in proximity to a police station won't make you a law-abiding citizen, and more to the point, just being in proximity to a church will not make you a faithful person.

We have all met people who are regular churchgoers, who punch in and punch out regularly for their weekly hour of power, and yet who seem to miss the very fundamental lessons that Jesus was trying to convey.

Part of this might have to do with the language we use in church.  Most of our language, like in any organization, is highly codified.  Much of it, not surprisingly, is based on Scripture.  Two such phrases come out of the Gospel passage for today: "I am the bread of life" and "Whoever eats of this bread shall live forever".  Jesus makes both of these statements about himself, or at the very least, the Gospel author attributes those words to Jesus.

These words and concepts are echoed in some form or another at every single Eucharist, every time we take the elements of Communion.

But what do they actually mean?  Do we actually know what Jesus meant by "bread of life" and what he meant by "live forever"?

Because the pretty obvious point is that every observant Christian who take Communion still hungers and thirsts, and every observant Christian dies, despite the promises Jesus makes in today's Gospel.

The equally obvious point is that Jesus is not talking about bodily hunger or bodily life and death.  Rather, he is talking about spiritual hunger and spiritual life.

Following hot on the heels of the feeding of the 5000, where Jesus satisfies the physical hunger of the people, he invites them to reflect on spiritual food (see last weeks' sermon).  This spiritual food, as I mentioned last week, is that which feeds others: acts of kindness, generosity, love, compassion, forgiveness and justice.  Spiritual food is every value and virtue of goodness, those which Jesus exemplifies.

But what does all this have to do with eternal life?

In the original Greek, as well as in English, the word "eternal" has two meanings, one quantitative, the other qualitative.  In other words, one refers to an amount of time, the other to the quality of time.

"Eternal" can mean endless, existing forever, without beginning or end.  God is certainly that, but the other definition of "eternal" is valid for all time, essentially unchanging or immutable.

So which definition did Jesus have in mind when he invited his listeners to eternal life?

Traditionally, most Christians have associated "eternal life" with Heaven.  The idea, it would seem, is that we are supposed to do good things, NOT because just because they are the right things to do, but because we are trying to buy our way into Heaven where we can live together with our relatives an friends forever and ever.

Am I the only one who sees a fundamental problem with this?  Foremost, this means that we are trying to buy God's love, which is one of the things Jesus criticized the Pharisees for.  It is fairly evident that Jesus' mission and ministry focused first and foremost on how we should act in this world, how we should treat one another.  He seems to have had relatively little to say about what would happen in the afterlife, or whether there even is one for that matter.

My personal feeling is that we should be more focused on how we live our lives day to day.  What happens afterwards will take care of itself.

We spend so much time worrying about what we put in our bodies, but what are we feeding our souls?  Are we more worried about what happens when we die than we are about how we live?

The answers to those questions should be fairly obvious.  Today, I hope we all choose the focus on the right things.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Soul Food

My sermon for this week was based on John 6:24-35.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Here's the punchline: we are supposed to be feeding one another spiritually.  We are meant to nourish one another, help one another grow and become better than we are.

A few years ago, the "Occupy" movement was at its peak, and while it seems to have lapsed into obscurity somewhat, it did leave an indelible mark on our culture.  Tellingly, that mark was in the form of a bumper-sticker slogan: "We are the 90%".

This refers to the alarming statistic that 90% of the world's wealth is in the hands of the 10% richest people in the world.  The corollary is the bumper sticker: the 90% remaining of us subsist on 10% of the world's wealth.

Furthermore, the bottom half of that 90% have to subsist on a mere 1% of the world's wealth.

So to visualize, imagine you and nine of your friends get together and order a pizza.  Would if be fair for your nine friends to have to split one piece of pizza while you stuff your face with nine slices?

Hell, no.  But this is our world.

Superficially, the story of the Feeding of the 5000 (which immediately precedes the Gospel for today) can be seen as a lesson about food justice.  On its surface, it is a story of people who have food feeding those who do not.

Hey, food is great, we all need it, most of us have more of it than we need, and there are many people out there who live on the edge of starvation.

But I think Jesus actually wanted to push the meaning of this act further.  Jesus wanted us to learn a lesson and have a change of heart.  He wanted to feed us spiritually, and the act of feeding us literally was meant as a token of this spiritual food.

 I think this principally because of what he says to the crowd in today's Gospel passage when they follow his and find him on the other side of the Galilee: "You are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life".

There are people out there who are bottomless pits.  They take and take and eat and eat and never give back.  Nothing they have will ever be enough, and they do very little to contribute to the common good of their churches, families, communities or workplace.  They fail to be spiritually moved by the many gifts that are probably present in their lives.

Jesus is calling us to be better than that.

The crowd was fed and they followed Jesus to be fed again.  Perhaps they were looking for real food, which Jesus gave them one way or another, and perhaps they were looking to be fed spiritually, we Jesus certainly did through his teachings and ministry.

But the problem is that at some point, enough is enough.  Hey, we all have to be fed, literally and spiritually, but at a certain point, we also have to say, "Ok, I am full!  Now I need to go out and do something with this".

The whole point of eating is so that we have the energy to live and work.

The whole point of feeding spiritually is that we have the energy to go out and do ministry.

I see church as breakfast: I go there to get my soul food for the week.  It is not the extent or even the principal expression of my faith.  It is where I go to recharge, refresh and recreate my energy.

But I have to do something with that energy.  I have to pass it on.  I have to pay it forward.

Let's operate under the assumption that the true miracle of the Feeding of the 5000 actually consisted of the example Jesus set by sharing his food with those who had none.   This encouraged others with food to share with their neighbours.  Now imagine if each of those 5000 people had in turn gone out and fed 5000 people each.

Any good at math?  25 million people would have been fed.

These people would have been fed literal food, which in and of itself would have been a great feat, but their spirits would have also been fed with the virtues of hope, generosity, kindness and love.

These are the real things Jesus was serving up.

No, you can't eat hope or love, but there is no food in the world that can satisfy loneliness, depression or hopelessness.

Today, I pray that we would all feed one another that we we hunger for most.

Faith is a moving target

Sorry folks, no audio for this one, forgot my recorder at home.

My sermon was based on John 6:1-21, however.

I want you to imagine something.  I want you to imagine the scene of the Feeding of the 5000, the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.

One of the best-known stories in all of Christendom, it is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels.  This ought to tell you it has something important to say.

So I want you to imagine the scene: late afternoon/early evening on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  Warm breezes, a nice sunset, perhaps.  5000 people gathered together (for those of you who worked at the Maxville Highland Games this weekend, there were 5000 people there, just to help you visualize).  Imagine being seated on the grass with everyone else.

Who are you in that story?  When you picture yourself, who are you?

Without fail, people always respond, "One of the crowd".

Wrong.

We are actually supposed to see ourselves as Jesus in this passage.

Let me explain why.

There are two possible interpretations of what happened that day:

1. The line that Christianity seems to have traditionally taken, that Jesus, through the power of God, magically and miraculously multiplied the loaves and fishes.

2. That Jesus set an example for the crowd by sharing their meager fare, thus allowing an opening for a spirit of generosity to flow throughout the crowd, those of whom who had brought food sharing with those who had neglected to.

Either way, one could say a miracle happened, because is generosity any less of a miracle than the multiplication of food would be?

And then Jesus gets up and leaves.  His work there was supposed to have been done.  His lesson was transmitted, and the crowd was supposed to have figured it out and gone and done likewise, but they did not.

The problem is one of comfort.  Not unlike some churches, the crowd just wanted to be with Jesus, to live in that bubble of his teaching and charisma, to bask in his presence, and quite possibly to have someone do the thinking and the acting for them.

But the problem is that ministry exists out there.  Ministry is something that can happen in a church, for sure, but for the most part, we are literally preaching to the choir.

North American churchgoers need to realize that they are no longer the recipients of the message of Christ, they are the ministers of said message.  We are not supposed to bask in Jesus, we are supposed to do what he did.

Jesus gave of what he had and that is what we are called to do.  We are called to minister to the needs outside our walls, outside our churches, in our communities, in our world.

The world is hungry and thirsty.  Jesus did not stay in one place and feed a small group of people forever and ever.  He fed them, equipped them for ministry, and asked them do as he did.

I hope we are prepared, willing and able to do the same.