This sermon was preached Aug. 9, 2015 at Lutheran Church of Hope in Anchorage, Alaska, based on John 6:35-51.
Yesterday I spent my morning at the Walk to Remember, an annual event for people who’ve experienced the loss of a child, to remember, to grieve, to share, and to know they aren’t alone. After being the Children’s Hospital Chaplain at Providence for 11 years, I got to reconnect with families that have been coming every year for nearly a decade, and families I’ve known for just a few months. This event, sponsored by the Children’s Hospital at Providence and Hospice of Anchorage, breaks my heart and fills my heart. We remembered Charlie. River. Isabelle. Shalom. Avery. Jude. Owen. Skylar. Samuel. Nicholas. And so many more.
And it’s because of experiences like the Walk to Remember that I love this reading from John, for it’s promises of hope, for a day when no one will be hungry or thirsty, for Jesus’ promise that “I should lose nothing of all that (God) has given me but raise it up on the last day,” that one may “eat of this (bread of life) and not die.”
And I struggle with this reading, because it’s hard to find hope and comfort in a promise that “you will not die” as I walk with grieving parents and grandparents and siblings and friends.
And I’m apparently not alone in struggling with this teaching, because immediately the people who were listening to Jesus pretty much said “Wait a minute. Isn’t this Jesus, Joseph and Mary’s kid? We know them … how can HE say ‘I’ve come down from heaven?’” And a few verses later, the disciples say “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?”
But first a little context. We come to this teaching after Jesus has just fed 5,000 hungry people miraculously with five loaves of bread and two fish. And for those listening to Jesus, the talk of the “bread come down from heaven” would have echoed back to the Exodus, when Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt into the wilderness. When they were starving, God “rained down bread (manna) from heaven,” and fed them. Always enough.
I appreciate this, because whether we’re talking about literal or figurative bread, literal or figurative life and death, it is clear that God DOES care about our physical needs, about the very literal feeding of the hungry.
This text also echoes for me back to a previous chapter in John’s gospel, when Jesus meets a Samaritan woman, alone at a well. They have an amazing conversation despite the potential walls of her being a single, Samaritan woman who has had five husband, and Jesus being a single Jewish teacher. And in that conversation (John 4), he tells her that “Everyone who drinks of this (well) water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” And she goes on to tell the people of her city, people who likely had previously shunned her, to “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” He changes her life, and she becomes essentially the first witness to who and what Jesus is.
There’s a lot to love about these teachings. Over and over again, Jesus is clear that whoever comes to him will never be hungry, and whoever believes in him will never be thirsty. Everything that God gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.
The bread that I will give for the life of the world – the whole cosmos – is my flesh. Whoever believes has eternal life.
And yet, for those of us living in the here and now, sometimes those promises of eternal life are not so comforting as we, with our human hearts, grieve the losses of people and things that we lose to which we have become attached. Lives, relationships, places, work.
Frankly, as I sat with this teaching this week, I felt like I had more in common with Elijah, who (1 Kings 19:4-8) went a day’s journey into the wilderness, after having his life threatened by the queen, came and sat under a solitary broom tree, and asked, “O Lord, take away my life.” Elijah didn’t see any hope or comfort, and I wasn’t sure I did either.
But then I had a powerful conversation with a friend dealing with a difficult illness, a scary illness, and we talked a lot about what it’s like to feel vulnerable and helpless, not knowing what the immediate future holds. She said “I wish someone would just say to me ‘It must be really scary being discharged home when you still feel so helpless.’ ‘It must be really scary to know that your life has been turned upside down, that you’re dependent on other people suddenly to take care of you, pack up your things, make sure you’re eating safely, take care of your child.’” My friend knows she’s improving. She knows there’s hope she’ll get better, and that this is temporary. But, as we talked, sometimes we just need some empathy.
I spent a lot of time this week with Martin Luther, and his writing “The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ – Against the Fanatics,” and was struck by his reminder that
“God is the sort of person who likes to do what is foolish and useless in the eyes of the world.” In other words, God is the sort of, well, God, who meets us precisely in those weak, vulnerable, scary moments. Those death and loss times.
To the “fanatics” who argued that it “is not fitting that Christ’s body and blood should be in the bread and wine,” Luther responds “I might say equally well that it is not reasonable that God should descend from heaven and enter into the womb.” Likewise, it makes no sense that Christ “should thus humble himself below all men and allow himself to be suspended upon the cross as a most notorious evil-doer.
Jesus himself knew death, and not just any death, but a humiliating, suffering death. And it strikes me that in asking why we die, when we’ve been promised that we will live forever, that we’re asking the wrong question.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s a very reasonable, human question. It’s the same question that a few chapters later in John 11, sisters Mary and Martha both ask Jesus – Lord, if you had been here, my brother (Lazarus) would not have died. It’s a question we’re likely to keep asking, because, how can we NOT ask?
Of course we want to keep asking this question, because death – the death of loved ones, the many losses we experience, our own mortality – death makes us vulnerable and often experience pain.
Social worker and researcher Brené Brown, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, says “…After years of research, I’m convinced that we all numb and take the edge off. The question is, does our __________ (eating, drinking, spending, gambling, saving the world, incessant gossiping, perfectionism, 60-hour work week) get in the way of our authenticity? Does it stop us from being emotionally honest and setting boundaries and feeling like we’re enough? Does it keep us from staying out of judgment and from feeling connected? Are we using _____ to hide or escape from the reality of our lives?” (p. 72)
And I would add, does it separate us from God? Does it separate us from God’s love, God’s grace, God’s transformation in our lives?
She continues that “Understanding my behaviors and feelings through a vulnerability lens rather than strictly through an addiction lens changed my entire life. It also strengthened my commitment to sobriety, abstinence, health and spirituality. I can definitely say,
‘Hi, my name is Brene, and today I’d like to deal with vulnerability and uncertainty with an apple fritter, a beer and cigarette, and spending 7 hours on Facebook.’ That feels uncomfortably honest.”
Similarly, as Lutherans, we are called to understand our behaviors and feelings through the lens of the cross. Through the lens of that “God …who likes to do what is foolish and useless in the eyes of the world.” And that same God meets us exactly in those intensely vulnerable places.
Brown reminds us that “There is a full spectrum of human emotions, and when we numb the dark, we numb the light. … When we lose our tolerance for discomfort, we lose joy.” (p. 73)
I think we’re asking the wrong question. While we would rather find the magic key to avoid suffering and death, instead, perhaps we need to pay more attention to where God is. Perhaps God calls us to a different question — not why must we die, but how do we see God at work in our lives, lives that despite the interruption of death, are eternal. We want so much to be in control and to not feel pain, and yet we turn to God trusting that we are in the hands of a great, grace-filled mystery of love.
Luther reminds us that we may trust that “the body of Christ is present in the bread and that his blood is truly present in the wine. This does not mean that he is not present in other places also with his body and blood, for in believing hearts he is completely present with his body and blood. … For that he enters the heart through faith is a much greater miracle than that he is present in the bread.”
Luther reminds us that we find God’s presence in the Eucharistic Meal, because the living Word points us there. And that in hearing the gospel, Christ is brought into our hearts, the true Christ. “How that comes about you cannot know, but your heart truly feels his presence, and through the experience of faith you know for a certainty that he is there.”
As I think about the grieving people I walked, literally, with at the Walk to Remember, I think about the stories and messages I heard. People who said “It seems to get a little easier every day.” People who said “It feels like it’s harder every day that passes.” People trusting that they would be reunited with their beloved children one day, and couldn’t wait. Others who find comfort in knowing that through organ donation, their beloved brought life to eight others. Or that through a foundation made in a loved one’s memory, Owen’s Milk Money brings tangible support in breastfeeding to countless mothers, improving the lives of so many babies and families. And so many people told me how much it helped to realize they were not alone in their grief.
We may find Christ anywhere. And I hope we do. But we are promised to find Christ in the living Word. In the bread and wine we share. In the water with which we are baptized. And as Luther reminds us, “As (Jesus) gives himself for us with his body and blood in order to redeem us from all misery, so we too are to give ourselves with might and main for our neighbor.” May we too be signs of God’s hope, life and love to the neighbor, and indeed, find Christ there as well.
In the meantime, let us find Christ here. As the angel said to Elijah, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
Come and eat. Taste and see. Thanks be to God.