John 6:35, 41-51
"Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”"
Prayer – Still-speaking God, we live in a world where so many voices are clamoring for our attention. We have politicians speaking, shouting, tweeting. We have the church speaking a word of prophecy and a word of judgment. We have our jobs, our families, our friends all trying to have a word with us. Remind us again that your words reflect your character, your love, your grace and your mercy. Help us to consider, to ponder, to question and finally to recognize your truth with and for us – amen.
Years ago, Harry Emerson Fosdick, then at the height of his influence as minister of Riverside Church in New York city, was making a tour of Palestine and other countries of the Near and Middle East. He was invited to give an address at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, where the student body comprised of citizens of many countries and representatives from sixteen different religions had gathered. What could one say that would be relevant or of interest to such a mixed and varied group? This is how Fosdick began – “I do not ask anyone here to change their religion; but I do ask all of you to face up to this question – What is your religion doing to your character?”
This was a call to consider one of the greatest issues of human belief: religion and life, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism or any other faith tradition and character, word and spirit. Emerson once said, “What you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear a word you say.” Jesus’ discourse in this whole sixth chapter of John’s gospel had two things to consider – spirit and life. “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Food for thought.
I have been a reader all of my life. It is not surprising when you have an English teacher for a mother who loved to read. And must admit I am eternally grateful for my mother in that she gave birth in me, the love of reading. Throughout my 60+ years I have read simple books to great works of literature to more than my fair share of theology. Much of this reading has occurred over the last 35 years or so when I have perhaps paid more attention to not just the words on the page but what do those words mean to me and how do I apply those words to my life.
As a Minister of Word and Sacrament you might assume that scripture, God’s word, has been a book that I have gone to in my search for answers to many of life’s questions. One of the things I learned in seminary is that scripture can raise more questions than answers. Except for one thing; the Bible, God’s word, is a story of human history with God’s ongoing, steadfast love always coming through end the end.
Over the years I have read a variety of authors who have given me much to think about. Even as a youngster I read the Hardy boys, Chip Hilton along with some of the classics from Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson and Shakespeare. From those books and authors I learned a lot about character, of human failure, and of laughter and tears. My grandmother on my father’s side gave me many books related to life and faith and whether she knew it or not, perhaps she was grooming me for ministry even then by providing me with formative books that gave me food for thought.
In seminary I read the Bible religiously, no pun intended, but more from the standpoint of learning how to do exegesis, which is a fancy seminary term for translating a passage and figuring out what it’s meaning is through contextual and grammatical understandings. To be honest with you, it made most of us tired and we didn’t always learn a great deal about what God was trying to say through scripture. Rather we learned that our professors graded us on what they thought perhaps more than what God thought.
Since seminary I have read Henri Nouwen, Brian McLaren, Barbara Brown Taylor and Anne Lamott. I have read Leo Buscaglia, Robert Fulghum, Frederick Buechner, Cynthia Bourgeault and Richard Rohr. All of these authors have deepened my understanding of myself, of faithful living and of God. They have offered me words to consider, questions to wrestle with and encouragement for the journey of life and faith. Here are a few of their thoughts that I still chew on each day.
“You are Christian only so long as you constantly pose critical questions to the society you live in . . . so long as you stay unsatisfied with the status quo and saying that a new world is yet to come.” Henri Nouwen
“The Bible is not considered an accurate, absolute, authoritative, or authoritarian source but a book to be experienced and one experience can be as valid as any other can. Experience, dialogue, feelings, and conversations are equated with Scripture while certitude, authority, and doctrine are to be eschewed! No doctrines are to be absolute and truth or doctrine must be considered only with personal experiences, traditions, historical leaders, etc. The Bible is not an answer book.” Brian McLaren
“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace - only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” Anne Lamott
“One of life's best coping mechanisms is to know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you’ve got a problem. Everything else is an inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy. A lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat and a lump in the breast are not the same kind of lump. One needs to learn the difference.” Robert Fulghum
“A true religion is precisely one that can teach you how to recognize and honor God everywhere, and not just inside your own group symbols.” “All religion, if it matures, will move the soul from the performance principle (meritocracy) to the pure realm of grace . . . God mercifully doles life out in doses. Grace is too much for a moment.” Richard Rohr
“Physical and spiritual growth cannot be reduced to mechanics. I’m all for getting the mechanics right, but spiritual growth is more than a procedure; it’s a wild search for God in the tangled jungle of our souls, a search which involves a volatile mix of messy reality, wild freedom, frustrating stuckness, increasing slowness and a healthy dose of gratitude.” Mike Yaconelli
“I discovered that in the spiritual life, the long way around is the saving way. It isn’t the quick and easy religion we’re accustomed to. It’s deep and difficult – a way that leads into the vortex of the soul where we touch God’s transformative powers . . . Most of all we have to trust that scarred hearts really do have wings.” Sue Monk Kidd
These are just some of the lines, thoughts that I have recorded and reflected upon over recent years. I am sure you have your own lines to live by that you have reflected upon, you have wrestled with in your own lives.
I have also found moments in ministry that have left me with kernels of truth, morsels of reflection, or as we used to say in seminary – an AFGO – another ________ growth opportunity. Sitting with young parents as they try to make sense out of the loss of their baby; holding a 7 year old child as he or she says goodbye to a parent dying from cancer all too soon; listening to a spouse talk about the years of faithfulness and righteousness embodied by a loved one only to wonder where God was when a drunk driver hit him/her head-on; watching my dog Bailey jump into the back of the car only for our vet, Jackson Walker, say less than an hour later that she has liver cancer and there is nothing he can do but make her comfortable.
And the other side of that coin of suffering has been joy – the birth of Erin and Ben; walking Erin down the aisle to be married; being there when Ben hit his first homerun; seeing Cooper play goalie because the starter got hurt and saving the potential game-tying shot to a cross-town rival; sitting front and center the night the curtain went up when Blake played Clara in the Nutcracker; celebrating moments with my wife and church family. These moments of incredible joy have left me wondering just how special life can be.
Life can offer us all kinds of sayings, moments, relationships that can provide us with food for thought. Our gospel passage this morning is offering us words of spirit and life, words that sustain; words that invite deepening growth. It really doesn’t matter what provokes or provides food for thought – what matters is what we do with those words, those moments – do we let them reach down into our very being and move us, or do we try to ignore their impact upon our very lives? My prayer is that each of us relish those AFGO’s, those words, moments, times that provide food for thought. If so, life will be richer; sacred and transformative – may it be so – thanks be to God – amen.