Please do NOT waste your time...
NOTE: Here are my worship notes for Sunday, August 19, 2012. They are shaped by the recent death of my sister, the Lectionary texts for this week and the wisdom of M. Craig Barnes in The Pastor as Minor Prophet.
As many of you know, I spent the better part of last week attending to my sister and family as we gathered for her eventual death. Whenever possible it is our practice to gather with our dying loved ones and share our commitment by being present for one another in whatever way is needed in those final days. Not only does this bind us closer together in this life, but it joins the living with the dead in the next, too. In fact, being present together in death allows us all to share a small portion of the mystery of God’s grace that is poured out whenever the dying cross over from life into life everlasting.
It is a sacred albeit sometimes agonizing privilege – and thanks be to God that most of my family was able to share this blessing with my sister Beth in her hard but love-filled crossing over. Like St. Paul said, “We do not sorrow as those who have no hope… for we believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We trust by faith that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus and we know that everything works for good with those who love the Lord. That is why we are certain that neither death nor life, angels nor principalities, things present nor things to come, powers, height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Now each night when our watching and waiting for that day was over – or deep into the night when we took shifts sitting with Beth – I found myself thinking of Paul’s words as I read and re-read these words from a book about the work of the pastor by M. Craig Barnes. He writes: “As a pastor I have watched too many of my parishioners use up most of their fleeting years making choices that really don’t matter."
· Do you hear the prophetic word of the Lord in that terse observation? I have watched too many of my loved ones use up and waste most of their fleeting years making choices that don’t really matter. Ouch!
· Imagine my surprise, too, when I got home and looked at the appointed readings for today only to discover these words in Ephesians 5:
Don't waste your time on useless work, mere busywork, the barren pursuits of darkness. Expose these things for the sham they are. It's a scandal when people waste their lives on things they must do in the darkness where no one will see. Rip the cover off those frauds and see how attractive they look in the light of Christ. Wake up from your sleep, climb out of your coffins; Christ will show you the light! So watch your step. Use your head. Make the most of every chance you get. These are desperate times! Don't live carelessly, unthinkingly. Make sure you understand what the Master wants.
So let me share with you a few thoughts today about what it means NOT to waste our fleeting years on useless work or the barren pursuits of darkness. You see, it is my conviction that when an idea keeps resurfacing in your life, showing up over and over, that is one of the ways God’s still speaking voice comes to us. And we ignore these words at our own expense. Specifically, let me try to share with you two broad insights today:
· First, what is at the core of Christ’s controversial teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood? In John’s gospel these are simultaneously fighting words and words of refreshment – sounds of challenge and solace – both paradoxically presented in the proposition that those who abide in Christ Jesus will be nourished forever in this life and dwell forever in God’s peace in life beyond death.
· And second, what I sense this means for us at First Church when it comes to our ministry of Christian Formation. For when Jesus told the crowd NOT to waste their time just eating perishable food, but rather to feast on his Living Bread come down from heaven, he wasn’t kidding. This was an invitation to live beyond the obvious, to go beyond the lowest common denominator, to commitment to a life greater than popular culture – and everybody needs helping doing this – because we don’t get it automatically.
The over-arching truth that John’s gospel teaches us is this: unless we abide in the Lord, unless we are grounded in Christ Jesus, unless our deepest identity is born of God’s grace so that we know and experience ourselves as the Lord’s beloved: our lives will be wasted. We will run around looking for love in all the wrong places.
· We will buy into the addictive obsessions of our consumer culture that lures us into purchase after purchase in pursuit of happiness.
· We will work ourselves into exhaustion – and then the grave – thinking that what we do in our public and professional lives is the solution to our inner emptiness.
· Or “we will cling not to our dreams but to the hurts of yesterday – as if they could improve the past by holding it so tightly” – only to discover that at life’s end we’ve grown into mean-spirited, cynical and self-absorbed cranks who have pushed both people and God away.
The gospel of John, however, offers us an alternative: we do not have to live as empty, obsessed, afraid, addicted, hungry, mean-spirited and exhausted human beings. That is neither God’s will for us now nor is it God’s plan for our eternity. No, we can be filled with the living bread come down from heaven so that our lives right now have meaning and depth and integrity – and our existence in life beyond death can be filled with grace – If we abide in the Lord.
You see, John’s gospel is one long midrash on the Old Testament: he begins with the truths of the Old Testament stories and then creatively shows how Jesus sometimes affirms them but also sometimes offers an alternative, too. Within the Jewish tradition a “midrash is a way of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond the simple distillation of religious, legal or moral teachings. It fills in many gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at” in the text and seeks to find practical ways of living the faith.
· So, for example, the Old Testament begins with the story of origins in Genesis, right? And it tells us that “in the beginning, God created…” all things out of nothing: ex nihilo. That means that everything that has ever been created owes its existence to God. We come into being – and have an identity – because of God.
· It also means that when we seek to claim or create an identity beyond or without God, there is not a different identity waiting to be discovered, there is only emptiness. A void… a hunger and longing for without God at the core of our identity, we return to nothingness.
John’s gospel affirms that spiritual insight but also goes on to do something else, too, do you recall? Once again the story begins, “In the beginning God created…”
· Only now John adds some interpretation telling us that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Christians speak of Jesus as the Word so John wants us to know that from the very start of God’s creation the essence of Jesus Christ was at work, too.
· That’s why he goes on to say that: “All things came into being through him, and without him was not one thing that came into being.” Then he wraps it up saying: In Christ, “what has come into being… was life, and this life was the light of all people… that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Are you with me? Do you have a sense how John was creatively playing with his Old Testament roots and insights? Well, the same thing is happening in today’s lesson, too – but now John is playing with the story of Moses and the manna that God rains down from heaven to feed the frightened and complaining people. Do you know that story? It comes from Exodus 16 and describes a time when Moses and those who had fled the slavery and oppression of Egypt were wandering in the desert wilderness searching for God’s promised new home.
· The people were hungry – and as people are want to do when they get hungry – they were complaining – murmuring is the Biblical word: grousing and carping about being uncomfortable and afraid and empty.
· So what happens? Moses prays to the Lord, God promises bread from heaven and manna fell each morning with the dew. Literally manna means “what is it?” So this story speaks to us of God’s daily gift every morning of a mysterious, honey-like bread from heaven offered in grace for the nourishment of God’s people.
Well, John builds on this Moses/manna foundation but offers an alternative, too. Notice that in John’s story the people are still complaining – murmuring, carping and kvetching – for this seems to be the human condition when we are not grounded in God’s identity. Whenever we live in a way that is disconnected from God’s grace, not only do we wind up hungry – or empty, anxious and dissatisfied – but our discomfort leads to complaining.
· So first Jesus feeds the multitudes – fills their physical hunger with bread and fish – and then goes on to talk about a deeper hunger that can only be satisfied with living bread: Don't waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last.
· And when the people ask Jesus about where to get this food that will not perish, he tells them that HE is that food – I am the Living Bread come down from heaven and made flesh and blood – so if you want to stay filled you will eat my flesh and drink my blood: The real significance of that Scripture is not that Moses gave you bread from heaven but that my Father is right now offering you bread from heaven, the real bread. The Bread of God came down out of heaven and is giving life to the world." They jumped at that: "Master, give us this bread, now and forever!" Jesus said, "I am the Bread of Life…
Do you see the connections John is making between the Old Testament story of Moses and the manna and the New Testament ministry of Jesus? And let’s unpack something important in these words because if we just hear the literal sounds and not the symbolic truth of what Jesus is saying, it is horrible and cannibalistic and incomprehensible, right?
· You see, when Jesus talks about being the bread of life he does NOT mean he has become a loaf of bread, ok? Rather, he is saying that without an identity grounded in God we will feel empty – hungry – without shape or purpose in the void of life – much like time in the beginning before God created. He’s speaking to our longings and fears, our anxieties and hungers.
· So he goes on to say that the only way this longing and hunger will be ever satisfied is by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. But remember: Jesus is NOT being literal here either, ok? This is a rhetorical tool for talking about his whole being – the totality of Jesus – his life, death and resurrection. His teaching, his spirit and his purpose for coming down from heaven. His totality, in other words, equals his body and blood.
· Am I communicating here? Is this clear?
You see, to eat flesh that still has blood in it is an abomination in Judaism – it is against the Law – so clearly by choosing these words Jesus meant to challenge his people into thinking and living more deeply and faithfully.
That is to say, Jesus was teaching his beloved that if they want to be filled and nourished by the true bread come down from heaven, they would have to take the totality of him into their very bodies and hearts and lives. The way they lived and thought and acted would have to be nourished by a radical trust in Christ Jesus as God’s bread come down from heaven. Consequently the Apostle Paul said: don’t waste yourself and your time making decisions about life that don’t matter. Be fed and be nourished on Christ Jesus and you will have the best food of all.
And this brings me to why I think all of this matters so much to us at First Church at this moment in our ministry and life together. We live in a time when almost nobody really believes and trusts in God – and I am not talking about what we say together on Sunday morning or what is printed on our money – but how we live. For the most part, most of us are functional agnostics with a profound inclination towards superstition.
Just consider how it is we pass our faith on to our children: we teach them that they can be whatever they want to be – we help them get good opportunities for school and sports and music – and trust that they will know what to do with all of these options. But the truth of the matter is that they won’t – and don’t – know what to do with all these options because unless they have learned to experience in their core that they are God’s beloved – unless that have been guided to cultivate an identity born of God’s grace – it isn’t going to happen.
Professor Barnes puts it simply: When we seek a different identity derived from anything other than God, we don’t actually become different, we only return to the nothingness that existed before God created our lives… so the truth is that if God is not creating our lives, then those around us are.” The culture is, our hungers are as well as all of our fears and longings and anxieties.
· So think about this: our current model of Christian Formation for our children acts like 70 minutes of Sunday School each month can overcome and compete with our addicted, violent, sexually confused and greedy popular culture that saturates our children with thousands of seductive and tantalizing commercials every day.
· I’m not kidding – our model of 35 minutes of God talk every other Sunday – is what we offer our parents and children as a foundation against an identity born of emptiness and fear. You can’t get away with that kind of minimalism in sports or music or school, right? But we have the uncritical sense that this is acceptable to the Lord when it comes to shaping the identity of new people of faith.
No wonder I keep hearing Jesus say: Don't waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. Or St. Paul: Don't waste your time on useless work, mere busywork, the barren pursuits of darkness. Or M. Craig Barnes and the prophetic voices of Christ’s church: I have watched too many of my parishioners use up most of their fleeting years making choices that really don’t matter.”
To which I have to add my own voice saying: me, too. I’ve seen too many beautiful people making too many choices that really don’t matter and wasting the fleeting years that have been given to us as a gift. And if you are wondering if I’m reacting to my own sister’s recent tragic death, let’s just say that it is all connected, ok?
So let’s cut to the chase: If you want to be filled – if you want your hungers to be satisfied – if you want to live beyond your longings and addictions and obsessions and fears – then you need to feed on Christ Jesus in his totality. NOT from the lowest common denominator – NOT as an add-on to an already too busy life – and NOT as an incidental. But at the core - the essence - the true body and blood.
That is why I have asked our Church Council and our Christian Education Ministry Team and all the parents in this community to rethink how we care for our children and help shape their identity as God’s beloved in the world. This is life and death, beloved, for them, for us and for others. Over the next few weeks I will be sharing some of the specifics of this new commitment with you – so keep your eyes open for the updates – but for today simply know that they all emerge from the word that Jesus uses over and over again in John’s gospel: abide.
· Abide in me he tells us over and again – rest in me – trust in me – live in such a way that everything you do is grounded in God’s grace.
· For then you will be filled – nourished and strengthened by the true and living bread come down from heaven – just as he promised: In the same way that the fully alive Father sent me here and I live because of him, so the one who makes a meal of me lives because of me. This is the Bread from heaven.
And this promise is not just for our children. Maybe you, too, sense that in your life – in our church – in our culture or politics the time has come to be strengthened and nourished by God’s grace – maybe you have a deep longing to be nourished in the same way Christ was by the Lord – maybe in some way you are ready to stop wasting what little time you have on choices that don’t matter so that you can be fed by the bread come down from heaven… if that is true, then I invite you to join me in singing this gentle but profound affirmation as a prayer that you, too might know all the riches of Christ’s grace.
All the riches of his grace, all the fullness of his blessing
All the sweetness of his love: he gives to you, he gives to me.