The Bread of Life

The Bread of Life

Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo.

The text is John 6:24-35.

One of the occasionally amusing (and often annoying) things about living with young kids is that they tend to believe the world revolves around them and their desires.

My family and I stopped at a rest area in Ohio when we were traveling there a few weeks ago. On our way back to the car, my six-year old declared that she wanted a lollipop. I refused, wanting instead to get back on the road as quickly as possible.

She whined, “But I want a lollipop!”

I had a snappy comeback: “And I want kids that aren’t whiny!”

“Well then,” she said matter-of-factly, “you should have bought me a lollipop.”

I lost. She still didn’t get a lollipop, but I still lost the argument. To be honest, I didn’t even feel all that bad it. I was more impressed than frustrated. That was a remarkable amount of witty logic for a six-year-old to employ in the heat of the moment, but it was all in the service of satisfying her own desires.

That’s the way kids are, isn’t it? Their needs and their wants take precedence over every other concern. My experience as a parent is confined to the world of babies and toddlers, but I’m told that teenagers are the same way.

And it’s not just kids and teenagers either. A few years back, I read a book on relationship advice with friends. The theme of this book, like so many self-help and pop-psychology books on the market, was “how to structure your relationships so that your needs will be met and your desires fulfilled.”

All in all, it wasn’t a terrible book, but I noticed how the author kept putting the individual’s needs and wants in first place over the needs of the relationship, the family, or the community. The book assumed that a self-centered view of reality was normal and healthy.

So, it’s not just kids that do this. Adults too are capable of selfish temper-tantrums. People of any age can fall into that trap of Me! Me! Me!

Jesus found himself in the middle of just such a group in today’s gospel reading. This passage comes directly on the heels of last week’s reading, where Jesus miraculously fed a crowd of five thousand people with only five loaves and two fish. This event got people’s attention, so they start following Jesus en masse.

And then, Jesus turns around and shines the blinding light of truth on their self-centered obsession with their own needs and wants. He says to them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”

People are interested in Jesus because of what he can do for them. He has demonstrated an ability to meet their needs and fulfill their desires, therefore they are interested in following him (but only because “[they] ate [their] fill of the loaves”). Their own selfish needs and desires still sit enthroned at the center of reality. They are only interested in Jesus because of what they think he can do for them.

But Jesus isn’t about to start playing that game. His reason for performing this miracle was not to meet their needs, but to serve as a sign. Sign is the term the author uses for Jesus’ miracles in John’s gospel. They are called signs because the point is neither the miracle itself nor the need being met, but the deeper truth to which the miracle points.

Jesus’ goal is not to cater to their whims and desires, but to direct their attention toward the truth on which their lives are founded. This is why he tells them, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life”. It’s not about the bread, it’s not about their needs, it’s about God. God is the true center of reality, not us with our individual needs and desires. Therefore, our relationship with God is never a means to an end, but always an end in itself.

When Jesus’ multiplication of loaves and fishes draws comparisons between himself and Moses, who gave the Israelites bread (manna) in the Hebrew Bible, Jesus once again directs the people’s attention back to God: “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.”

Notice the difference in verb tenses here: It’s not about Moses, who gave (past tense); it’s about God, who gives (present tense). God gives us each day the things we need (i.e. “our daily bread,” so to speak), not to fulfill our desires, but to remove the obstacle of our constant obsession with our own needs and wants so that we can then focus our attention on what really matters. If we stay focused on our own needs, then we’re missing the point.

I think people tend to remain stuck in this self-centered existence because, in a practical sense, they are atheists. Regardless of whether or not they profess faith in a God or practice a religion, they live their lives as if there was no God, no one looking out for them, no one loving them, and no arms holding them now and for eternity. This “practical atheism” (as Dr. Martin Luther King called it) is far more dangerous to Christian faith than the “philosophical atheism” held by some people. Practical atheism, living as if there was no God, keeps us trapped at the center of our selfish little universes, driven by the force of our own insatiable hunger.

Jesus comes to set us free from all that. What Jesus ultimately wants for us is a life that is deeper, richer, fuller, and more abundant than a shallow, self-centered existence driven only by urge to satisfy our desires. Jesus gives us this day our daily bread so that we can look past the bread itself (i.e. “the food that perishes”) and look to Jesus himself as the “bread of life” (i.e. “the food that endures for eternal life”).

We are called upon to do that very thing each Sunday in the Eucharist: with the eyes of faith, we look past these elements of bread and wine and see in them the real spiritual presence of Jesus himself, the bread of life. We are fed here with the bread of his Body and then sent back out into the world, where we can stop obsessing over our own needs and desires and look past the elements of our circumstances to “seek and serve Christ” in everything and everyone.

This is what it means to live a Christian life, a life that is centered in Christ. This is the “abundant life” that Jesus offers us in the sacrament. It’s not about us and our needs; it’s not about bread; it’s about Jesus, and Jesus is “the bread of life. Whoever comes to [him] will never be hungry, and whoever believes in [him] will never be thirsty.”

Sitting Down and Giving Thanks

Sitting Down and Giving Thanks

The text is John 6:1-21

Has anyone ever solved a complicated crisis by panicking? I doubt it. (But that hasn’t stopped us from trying.)

When unexpected events occur, people tend to react strongly as the “fight or flight” response kicks in. Scientists refer to this as the sympathetic nervous system. It’s that part of the human brain that immediately kicks into gear during a crisis. The pulse races, blood-pressure rises, and muscles tense as the body prepares to either run or fight.

This response is rooted in our evolutionary need for survival. Our ancestors’ bodies, going back millions of years, were hard-wired to react in this way whenever a predator or enemy appeared. The sympathetic nervous system (i.e. flight/flight response) is our brain’s way of keeping us alive in dangerous situations.

This is a good thing and we should give thanks for it, but it has its limitations. If “fight” and “flight” are our only possible responses to crises, we will never rise above the level of instinctively reacting to every new situation in fits and starts that are probably not very helpful to the resolution of our more complex problems. In order to solve these crises, we need to change way we think.

There is an interesting sentence, often falsely attributed to Albert Einstein: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” (Note: Einstein never actually said this; what he said was, “a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to higher levels.”) Either way, the point is the same: that it is essential for human beings to find some way of relating to our problems that transcends the reactivity of fight vs. flight. We have to “raise our level of consciousness,” in a manner of speaking.

I believe Jesus presents us with just such an opportunity in today’s gospel reading.

It begins with a crisis: a massive crowd of people with not enough to eat. Jesus starts by naming that crisis. He doesn’t gloss over the problem or ignore it; he simply states it like it is, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”

The disciples react with their standard fight/flight programming. You can hear the desperation in Philip’s voice as he exclaims, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” And Andrew, though he tries to think creatively, still comes up short, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” They can’t imagine an immediate solution, so all they see is the problem. What we have here are disciples in a moment of full-on panic.

Jesus’ response in this moment is characteristically unexpected and counter-intuitive. He says to them, “Make the people sit down.” This is the exact opposite of what one would want to hear from a leader in a moment of crisis. Our fight/flight response wants to shout, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” Our panicked reaction demands instant gratification. But Jesus tells us the opposite. He says, in effect, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” When I picture this conversation in my head, I imagine Jesus having to repeat himself a lot.

Jesus: “Make the people sit down.”

Disciples: “What?”

Jesus: “Make the people sit down.”

Disciples: “Why?”

Jesus: “Just do it. Trust me.”

What he does next is equally counter-intuitive. He takes the meager offering given by the little boy and gives thanks. Sitting down and giving thanks are literally the last two things that panicked people will think of doing in a moment of crisis. They would much prefer to get up and run, fretting the whole way home.

But Jesus knows something the disciples don’t: sometimes the solutions to our problems only emerge when we give ourselves the space to sit back, quiet down, get centered, and take stock of what we do have. Once we’ve removed the blinders of crisis, an “attitude of gratitude” can show possibilities where panic shows us only despair. Jesus understands this truth; and he wants us to understand it too. That’s why his first response in an emergency is to sit down and give thanks.

The amazing thing is that this course of action ends up being far more productive than anything offered by the panicking disciples. As we all know, a miracle happens. What’s interesting is that this is the only one of Jesus’ miracles (other than the resurrection itself) that is recorded in all four gospels. What’s even more interesting is that no one sees it happen, or even knows it has happened until after the fact.

There is no description of the bread as it is multiplied in the crowd. The people simply eat and continue to do so until everyone has had “as much as they wanted.” Somewhere, somehow, something miraculous has happened, but no one can explain it. There is simply this hidden abundance that emerges out of the perceived scarcity.

And Jesus does nothing to explain himself in this moment. He simply lets the mystery remain a mystery. What he does instead is invite his disciples to “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” I think he does this as a reminder to them for future reference. He wants them to look back on this moment and see how God was able to do so much with so little. He wants them to adopt a similar posture of sitting down and giving thanks in the midst of a crisis.

This pattern of action has the power to raise the level of human consciousness above the panic-driven fight/flight response. Jesus, in this miracle, gives us the wisdom and power to look beyond the crisis of the present moment and cultivate open minds that conceive creative solutions to pervasive problems. This is what it means to look at the circumstances of our lives through the eyes of faith, instead of the eyes of fear.

This, more than anything else, is what I think we need in our present-day society. We live in a media-saturated culture that boosts TV ratings by advertising one crisis after another. In the noise of chaos, pundits and candidates are shouting back and forth at each other, bewailing problems and demanding instant solutions. We divide ourselves into polarized tribes and factions with an “us vs. them” mentality. And the only result from this approach is more panic. Our current state, as a culture, is that “low level of consciousness” that is ultimately powerless to solve any of the persistent problems we face as a planet. The best this level of consciousness can do is replace one set of problems with another, going around and around ad nauseum on this dysfunctional carousel without end.

But Jesus offers us a way off the merry-go-round, a way to break the cycle to a new level of thinking. It is sitting down and giving thanks.

We should make room for that kind of intentional sitting down every day. We need a steady diet of prayer and meditation in order to keep our minds centered on God in the midst of daily chaos and crisis. This is the primary work exemplified by monks and nuns in various religious traditions around the world. They sit long enough to hear that “still, small voice” speaking the Word of Love directly to their hearts. It may not sound like literal words or look like an ecstatic vision, but you can see the effect in the way they live. And one need not be a monk or nun to benefit from it. All of us can make space for that voice in our lives, even if it is for only a few minutes every day. We can read a passage from the Bible, say a few prayers, but mostly listen and sit still in the silence. This little discipline can bring us a long way toward that raised level of consciousness that makes a difference in the way we approach life’s problems.

The other thing to do is give thanks. This, of course, is something else we can (and should) do on our own every day. But there is a special way in which we do this every week as the Church. The Greek word for “giving thanks” is eucharistia, which is where we get the word Eucharist, which is another name for the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (or Holy Communion). The Church gathers together each Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist: we take this little offering of bread and wine, give thanks and bless it, break the bread, and distribute it to everyone.

When we give thanks (Eucharist), we remember all the good things God has done for us in the creation of the universe, the preservation of life, the wisdom of the prophets, and above all in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In response to God’s goodness to us in all these things, we offer back to God everything we have and everything we are, we ask God to send the Holy Spirit upon the gifts to bless them, sanctify them, and transform them (and us) into the Body and Blood of Christ.

In a global economy that runs on crisis and scarcity, the act of giving thanks for the goodness and abundance around us is nothing less than radical and revolutionary. It undermines the foundational principle upon which capitalism and consumerism are founded. We are invited, brothers and sisters, to “be the change we wish to see in the world,” not by jumping up and panicking, but by sitting down and giving thanks for all that God has done for us in Christ Jesus.

Is there Enough to go Around?

Is there Enough to go Around?

Originally posted on North Presbyterian Church:

The text is Mark 5:21-43

Is there enough to go around?

“A great crowd gathered around Jesus.” Somebody once counted as many as five thousand (not including women and children). The crowd followed him “like sheep without a shepherd” and “pressed in on him.” Obviously, there was no way for him to minister to so many people. Faces blurred together. Names would be forgotten. Obviously, someone’s needs were bound to be overlooked in the mix.

Is there enough to go around?

Time was short and running out quickly. Jesus had to move fast. The word “immediately” appears no less than 41 times in Mark’s gospel; 3 of those times are in today’s reading alone. Jesus is always in a hurry. No one could expect one man to be “All things to all people.” Obviously, some people would have to wait until Jesus came back through town next time… except that…

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Mythbusting: “It all depends on you”

Mythbusting: “It all depends on you”

Originally posted on North Presbyterian Church:

The text is Mark 4:26-34.

We’re going to do a little bit of “myth-busting” this morning. And the “myth” we’re going to “bust” today is this: It all depends on you.

This is one of the great myths of modern society. It says that we are the masters of our own destiny. It says that, through the power of reason and technology, we can answer any question and solve any problem. If only we would put our mind to it, there is nothing we cannot do.

Like any good myth, there is some truth to this one: We humans, corporately and individually, certainly have a role to play in the unfolding plan of destiny. Reason and technology are wonderful things that give us insight into the way things are and how they might be made better. Hard work and determination have their place, and are necessary to apply the truths…

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Jesus Moved My Cheese

Jesus Moved My Cheese

Originally posted on North Presbyterian Church:

The text is Mark 3:20-35.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (a.k.a. the Unforgivable Sin).

Today we’ve got another one of those “clobber passages” from the Bible that tend to make people nervous when they read them.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, his family, and the religious scribes, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”.

People are terrified at thought that there could even be any such thing as an “eternal” or “unforgiveable sin”. We don’t want to believe there is anything we could do, say, or think that might put us forever beyond the reach of God’s grace. This question is especially important for us Reformed Protestants, who believe so firmly that we are saved “by grace, through faith” and not…

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God is Still Speaking

Originally posted on North Presbyterian Church:

"Beneath the noice, below the din, I hear voice, it's whispering in science and in medicine. I was a stranger, you took me in." -U2, Miracle Drug By Peter Neill (Flickr: u2-1 CC BY License) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons “Beneath the noice, below the din, I hear voice, it’s whispering in science and in medicine. I was a stranger, you took me in.” -U2, Miracle Drug
By Peter Neill (Flickr: u2-1 CC BY License) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been interesting to note the dramatic increase in the number of Christian talk radio stations over the last two decades or so. When I was a kid in the 1980s and 90s, we didn’t have anything like that in my town. There was one Christian radio station a few towns over, but it was just far enough away that I couldn’t get the signal at my house, but would start to hear it as I drove into school in the morning.

Since then, evangelical subculture has grown much bigger, so it’s not at all uncommon anymore to have one or more Christian stations on the dial. Every…

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Seek Ye First the Rat Park

Hey there Superfriends and Blogofans!

I’m delighted to report that I have an article that’s just been published for Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice. The article is a theological piece I’ve been working on for the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Task Force on Drug Policy Reform.

Check it out at their site:

Seek Ye First the Rat Park

Preventing drug abuse and treating addiction on a societal level means ‘building a Rat Park’ for humans. The solution to the drug problem is not more incarceration or military intervention, but the pursuit of shalom and the kingdom of God. As our communities begin to reflect the love of the Triune God, with resources invested in community development, social justice, substance abuse prevention, medical care, education, and treatment, we will be creating avenues toward healing human pain, rather than simply numbing it with addictive behavior or chemicals.

Click here to read the full article