Sermons That Work

Today’s Lessons Are Important Ones…, Proper 13 (B) – 1997

August 03, 1997

Today’s lessons are important ones because they give us vivid insights into our relationship with God. In fact, they hold up the whole notion of relationship: Relationship — the elastic dynamic between living creatures in which we are engaged whether we like it or not, whether we choose to honor it or not. And while these lessons address relationship with God, the learned lessons can be applied to our relationship with the different parts of our own selves, to our relationships with other human beings, to our relationships within our environment, and to our relationships with all the living things held therein.

What can we pull out as we work our way through the lessons? Starting with Exodus let’s highlight several things. One, God hears us, whether we think we have a relationship or not. The congregation complains to Moses and Aaron, God hears them and responds, again through Moses and Aaron, even though not specifically addressed. Another, we are able to identify people who have a rich relationship with God and to “run” our relationship with God through them. This is all right at times, and is appropriate at an early stage of spiritual growth; but at some point, if we want to truly become whole and as God wants, we have to ask our Moses or as Aaron to step aside and we must ourselves listen to and respond to the living God.

A third point: God responds to the people’s complaining about being hungry by giving them food from heaven. Meat and bread. The bread is not recognizable as bread at first, but Moses says, “This is the bread God has given you to eat.” And this bread nourishes and sustains them through many generations in the wilderness. Because the bread is different — a bread from heaven — and the quails from heaven, too, the process of when, where, and how to obtain both is different from the usual. A funny point: God — obviously through years of experience – – has some questions as to whether the congregation can “get” the instructions for dealing with the new food. But they do, as we learn elsewhere in the story, though not without some trial and error along the way.

So, here we have a beautiful story: God listening to our hunger and responding by giving us food to nourish and sustain us. God and the people use an intermediary whose relationship with God is personal and mature, and that is fine. The only problem, as we learn down the road in the Gospel for today, is that people who are not in direct relationship with God tend to forget about the relationship. The congregation and its descendants forgot about Moses saying that God had given the bread, and after not too many years began to think of Moses as their benefactor, not God. Just as we tend to shoot the messenger who brings bad news, we tend to crown the messenger who brings us good news, forgetting the source of our blessing.

Let’s turn to the part of Psalm 78 assigned for today. The Psalmist is obviously very tuned into how God has worked in human life in an effort to build relationship, and is sad about how things have gone. He feels that human beings have not been responsive to God’s efforts to make the relationship strong and secure and a joy to both parties. “Listen,” he says, “hear my teaching,” and he reviews what he sees for anyone paying attention.

God has done praiseworthy deeds, shown forth God’s power and done many wonderful works to get our attention and hopefully get us interested in engaging in relationship. God has even produced the Law and worked many marvels to that end (providing manna being one of them.) God’s purpose has been to establish the essential cords of relationship: trust, an open mind, a steadfast heart, and a spirit faithful to the other party, in this case, God.

For the most part we have not become engaged in the relationship; or, if we have been engaged at times, the relationship has not sustained for any length of time. Generally this has cost us, and we find ourselves perpetually hungry for relationship (consciously or unconsciously), yet saying “no: to it even as it is offered to us every single day. Why do we do this? Because there is a cost to relationship, and the cost is giving up being hard-headed, stubborn, unstable, rebellious, and randomly faithful. In short, the cost is giving up being all alone and calling all the shots by yourself in favor of being in relationship and working things out in companionship with another — listening and hearing, reflecting and responding, listening and hearing again, and eventually moving on — together, in companionship, in relationship, in trust of one another, in openness, in commitment, with a spirit faithful, one to the other.

This is a hard choice. It doesn’t sound hard when you hear it, but it is very hard in practice. We like things our way. We like the idea of “God our servant,” straightening up and picking up the pieces, ready to wait on us should we take a mind to be waited on, showing up when we beckon, following orders fast and efficiently, not bothering us in any way. If God can’t accommodate to our lifestyle, get out. We like to see God the way St. Paul saw women or the way we all see people who we really don’t want to have anything to do with. Paul said women should dress nicely, be quiet, sit in the back, speak only when spoken to, and do what they’re told. We feel that way about God: look nice, be quiet, stay out of it, speak only when spoken to, do what you’re told.

Hard to give all that up in favor of being in relationship, of trusting another being, listening, talking together, acting together, living together, enjoying each other. Hard to give up being alone and hungry for all that; turning down the food of angels that God provides, food enough forever. That’s what the Psalmist talks about in his song.

Ephesians pretty much carries out the same theme running through the Exodus passage and Psalm 78. Though Paul refers to the “I don’t want to give up having it my way even though I’m hungry and miserable” crowd as Gentiles, the category pretty much refers to anyone opting out of relationship with God. Paul adds a few more characteristics to the Psalmist’s list of what you have to give up if you engage in relationship: being insensitive, ignorant, alienated, corrupt, deluded, and greedy; but the picture doesn’t change much with the additions: lonely, hungry, miserable — but on your own.

What is new though, is the reference to Jesus. Who is this Jesus? Another intermediary like Moses? It doesn’t read that way. Jesus is not the messenger; Jesus appears to be the message. So here we are introduced to God’s new attempt to make it easier for us to engage in relationship with God. Jesus is a human being who is also God. The law and wondrous works having failed to usher us into relationship, a human being who is also God emerges. Since human beings seem to relate better to human beings than they do to God, seem to learn about relationship from being with each other, God gives us a human being, also God. Worth a chance.

Paul talks about learning life from living in relationship to Jesus. The true life of companionship and engagement with God can be learned by living in companionship with this human being, Jesus. Listening and responding to Jesus, you find yourself in relationship, and in a relationship that is nourishing and joyful, that is peaceful and holy. Your old alone and hungry self drops away as you listen and respond, as you engage with this person who is the Christ. You are renewed in the spirit of your mind, you are new — created according to the likeness of God. This is what relationship does. It makes you new, it makes you whole, it makes you holy. It feeds you forever.

On to the Gospel. Here we get an intimate look at Jesus and his own intense, personal and fully shared relationship with God. The story is familiar. In the wilderness the day before, thousands of people were fed bread. But this was “old way” bread not manna, not the food of angels that lasts forever. The people have been fed, but with food that allows them to be hungry again. Jesus is aware of all this. “You are looking for me because of yesterday’s bread,” he says. “What you should be working for is food that endures for eternal life.”

Let’s stop for a minute at this point. In Exodus, the food that endured for eternal life was manna. It was the food the people needed to thrive and survive. Here with Jesus, times have changed, and the food that the people need now to thrive and survive is still heavenly food, but it does not resemble the manna of Exodus. Heaven has more than one food to offer; heaven has the food we need for any kind of hunger. The food for relationship with God.

The crowd gets interested in food that endures for eternal life: “What work must we do for it to be available.” Jesus answer, “Your work is to believe in the one God has sent.” Your work is to believe, to enter into relationship with me, with God. Now, this is a critical statement in religious life: your work is to believe. Most of us think that our work is to do good deeds, to not hurt other people (that is, “to not sin” — for the effect of sin is to hurt other people,) to be helpful, to make the world a better place. But look here, our work is simply to believe! And God has made it easier this time: the God we are to trust, the person we are to believe, is human, Jesus.

We don’t have to try to remember a far off God; we can relate to a human being who is always with us to the end of the age. The crowd Jesus is talking to get a little skeptical. How do we know that’s right? What sign are you going to give us so we know? What work are you performing? Then they mention Moses and the manna, and here we run into the problem that crowning the messenger creates: We forget God is our benefactor, not Moses. Jesus sets them straight, and mentions, as every lesson today has, that bread from heaven gives life to the world.

Give us this bread, the crowd says. And Jesus responds, come to me and get it, come and never be hungry, come and never be thirsty again. Enter into relationship and you will have it.

Do they come? Some do and some don’t, just like us. Some are still waiting on God the servant, maintaining their aloneness, hungry but at least on their own. This is a choice God allows, a choice that can be made from a million different grounds, from ignorance to arrogance, to misunderstanding the human beings become who they are supposed to be by living in relationship with God and one another.

Come to me. How deeply our heart wants to hear someone say that. Let me stop you from being hungry and so very thirsty. I will give you everything, but you have to come. Come, into relationship; come, into my life; come, into my kingdom. I love you, I am happy to see you; come, let us live together, to the end of the age.

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Christopher Sikkema