Sunday, September 16, 2018

"Faith and Fear." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church. Mark 9:30-37.


"Fear and Faith"

Mark 9:30-37


In last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus traveled to the region of Tyre and then to the Decapolis.[1]  In today’s text, he’s back in his home territory of Galilee, but “he did not want anyone to know it.”  The reason he didn’t want anyone to know he was there? He had some important teaching to do with his disciples.
            Some very important things have happened in the meantime.  In Caesarea Philippi, Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who are people saying that I am? Who do you say I am?” Then he began teaching the disciples about what awaits him in Jerusalem and about the cost of following him. Peter, James, and John had seen Jesus transfigured on a mountain.[2]  Later, Jesus cast a demon out of a boy.
            Now, as they’re passing through Galilee, Jesus is trying again to avoid being noticed while he continues to teach his disciples, saying, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”  But the disciples didn’t understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Maybe they don’t want to understand. This is a hard teaching about a Messiah who suffers and dies.
            I wonder what the disciples might have asked if they had not been afraid.  Are we really very different?

            I agree with David Lose that it’s important to ask good questions. But our fears can get in the way. What fears pursue you during the day and haunt you at night? What worries weigh you down so that it’s difficult to move forward in faith?”[3] Our fears have a way of sneaking into our very being, and robbing us of the abundant life Jesus came both to announce and to share.

            Did you notice? The disciples don’t ask Jesus any questions in response to his prediction of his crucifixion because they’re afraid. And the next thing you know they’re talking about who was the greatest, who was going to have a place of privilege and power in the coming kingdom.
            Fear can do that. It can paralyze you. It can motivate you to look out only for yourself.
            This isn’t the only time Mark contrasts and faith and fear. In the fourth chapter of Mark, after Jesus stills the storm that had terrified the disciples, Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” As he was restoring Jairus’ daughter, he tells the distraught father, “Don’t be afraid. Only believe.”[4]
            The opposite of faith is not doubt--but fear.  The kind of fear that can paralyze you… distort how you perceive reality… and drive you to despair.

            The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying and were afraid to ask him.
            In the house in Capernaum, Jesus asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way? But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.
            He called the twelve and said to them, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.  Then he took a little child and put it among them, and taking it in his arms, and he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
             
            Now, in ancient times, a child was regarded as a non-person, or a not-yet-person, the possession of the father in the household.   When Jesus held up a child as an emblem of living in God’s household, and perhaps even as a stand-in for Jesus himself, he was challenging the social norms of the day.
            This child was as important to Jesus as the vision on the mountain. Jesus wanted his disciples to see the child…and welcome the child.  Not because the child is innocent or pure or perfect or cute.  No. Jesus wanted them to welcome the child because the child was at the bottom of the social heap.  In Mark’s gospel, children aren’t symbols of innocence or holiness. More often, they are the victims of poverty and disease. Jesus brings the child from the margins into the very center.

            But, surely, we want to think, we are different.  We value children in our churches and in society. And yet…

            In the United States of America--one of the richest countries in the world-- children remain the poorest age group. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, nearly one in five children--12.8 million in total-- were poor in 2017. Over 45 percent of these children lived in extreme poverty at less than half the poverty level.  Nearly 70 percent of poor children were children of color.  The youngest children are most likely to be poor, with 1 in 5 children under 5 living in poverty during the years of rapid brain development.
            Child poverty hurts children. Child poverty hurts our nation’s future. It creates gaps in cognitive skills for very young children, puts children at greater risk of hunger and homelessness, jeopardizes their health and ability to learn, and fuels the inter-generational cycle of poverty.
            Ponder this: 3 million children in the U.S. live in families surviving on $2 a day per person.[5]  I hope you’ll take that statistic home with you and consider what $2 a day per person would buy and what it wouldn’t.
            Something else to ponder:  More than 400 children who were separated from their families at the southern border are still separated from their families.
            These are moral issues that reflect how we are living our values in our society. When we look at the federal and state budgets and see actions to limit access to medical services for lower income Americans including children, or cut-backs in nutrition programs for children, we need to see how these actions affect children’s lives.
            Do we see the children? Do we welcome them?
           
            Joyce Ann Mercer suggests that Jesus’ treatment of children shows his “struggle and resistance to the purposes of empire.” The politics of empire favors relationships of power and privilege, while the politics embodied of the kingdom of God lifts up the lowly, and those with no power or privilege. [6]
            Jesus came to live among us, full of grace and truth.[7]  He proclaimed the reign of God, preaching good news to the poor and release to the poor and release to the captives…teaching by word and deed and blessing the children.[8]
            Do we see them? Do we welcome them?  If we don’t, what are the fears that hold us back from fully welcoming them?
           
            Jesus called his followers to live out gospel values. He calls us to extending hospitality to those who were considered little more than property.  He healed when he wasn’t supposed to, touched people he shouldn’t have touched.  He taught that all our ideas about greatness mean nothing if we don’t stoop down low enough to see the little ones in our midst.
            That day in Capernaum, Jesus held a little child in his arms and brought the words of heaven down to earth. I imagine Jesus whispering in the child’s ear, “You are God’s beloved child.”[9]
           
            The good news is that God has named us all as beloved children and calls us to welcome children in Christ’s name. This isn’t as simple or limited as it might seem. It means caring for children-- not only our own children and grandchildren, but children of migrant workers and asylum-seekers, children of poverty in our cities and impoverished rural areas.
            The good news is that Jesus has promised to be with us always and has given us the Holy Spirit to lead and empower us.  In this broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.[10]
           
            Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!  Amen!


Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
September 16, 2018
 


[1] Mark 7:24-37
[2] Mark 9:2-8
[3] David Lose, “Faith and Fear,” at his blog In the Meantime. https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1619

[4] Mark 4:40; Mark 5:36
:
[5] Child Poverty, at Children’s Defense Fund website:  https://www.childrensdefense.org/policy/policy-priorities/child-poverty/

[6] Martha L. Moore-Keish, Theological Perspective, in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2. Location 3408.
[7] John 1:14.
[8] “A Brief Statement of Faith” of the Presbyterian Church (USA), 1991.
[9] I’m grateful to the Rev. Dr. Barbara K. Lundblad for this image in “A Hopeful Fanatic.” http://day1.org/4049-a_hopeful_fanatic
    
[10] “Brief Statement of Faith.”



Sunday, September 9, 2018

"Welcome Table." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Mark 7:24-37



"Even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." - Mark 7:24-37

"Welcome Table"

Mark 7:24-37; Proverbs 22:1-2, 9-9, 22-23; Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-10, 14-17


Let’s be honest. This passage is difficult. Disturbing.
            Can you the desperate, pleading look in this woman’s eyes? The yearning in her voice? Her desperation--that she would cross over barriers, seeking healing for her sick daughter?  She literally throws herself down at Jesus’ feet.  She risks her dignity…and risks being shamed—to enter a home where she isn’t wanted, to throw herself down in front of Jesus, who didn’t want to see her.
            And how does Jesus respond?  Not in the way we might have hoped.  This woman is literally begging for help for her daughter, and Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
            If Jesus' words trouble you, you're in good company.  Biblical scholars have struggled with this saying for centuries, but especially, I think, over the past few decades.
            In the parallel story in Matthew, Jesus doesn't even answer the woman.   When the disciples urge Jesus to send her away, Jesus says, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."[1] 
`           It sounds like Jesus is dismissing and insulting this woman.  Now, a few commentators have tried to soften the effect. In their interpretation, Jesus was talking about feeding cute little puppies.  But that wouldn’t really be an accurate translation.
            One interpretation softens the story by saying Jesus isn’t really insulting the woman. He’s just testing her. She passes the test, and her daughter is healed.
            I think this story is troubling for a number of reasons.  It seems that Mark wants to be sure we know who this woman is.  He tells us, “the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by descent.”  In other words, she’s not Jewish.
            Contrast how Jesus responds to this un-named Gentile woman with the named male, Jewish leader earlier in Mark.  Jesus went with Jairus and healed his daughter.  No problem. 
            But now Jesus is in Tyre, which is Gentile territory, when he says “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 
            I think Mark wants to make sure what a big deal it is when Jesus ultimately performs the miraculous healing. 
            So, what do we do with this story? 
            Some scholars believe that Jesus had a long-range evangelistic plan to go to the Jews first, and then later to the Gentiles.  In their thinking, Jesus isn't so much saying no--   as he’s saying, "First things first.  One thing at a time."
            But the language Jesus used!    "Dogs?"   From what I've read, it's a racist, derogatory term commonly used at the time by some Jews who wanted to put down gentiles.  A lot of people in that culture in Jesus' time thought this Gentile woman has no business being in the company of any Jew-- much less the Messiah. So, some scholars believe Jesus was giving voice to the traditional beliefs of the time as a test of the woman's faith, while some believe he was voicing those narrow beliefs to let her make the point that needed to be made.
           Jesus has been challenging a lot of the traditional religious beliefs and breaking through a lot of the barriers that separated people.

            Some scholars believe that this desperate, emboldened woman changed Jesus' mind about his mission and who he was called to save. I lean toward that understanding myself, as I remember the context.   In Mark’s narrative, this story is sandwiched in between the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand.  Is the bread of life that Jesus offers intended only for the children of Israel?  Or is there enough for everyone? 
            I know there are people who are troubled by the idea that Jesus would change his mind. I think we need to keep chewing on this for now.  Like Jacob at the River Jabbok—we need to keep wrestling with it until we receive a blessing. 
            Consider this: Maybe Jesus hasn’t quite fully realized the implications of his kingdom at this point. The religious tradition of his time was concerned with dichotomies of who’s in and who’s out, who’s worthy and who’s unworthy, who’s inside God’s salvation plan and who’s out.
            Maybe at this point, he really believes he has come for the Israelites--until he has this encounter with this Syrophoenician woman who tests him, stretches his imagination and reminds him that God’s kingdom includes all people-- Jews and Gentiles and Samaritans-- everyone.
            Could it be that God’s kingdom is so big, so gracious and wildly inclusive that it even takes Jesus a little while to really comprehend it?
            In any case, this woman doesn't back down.  I love the way one of my colleagues puts it:  "Dog indeed!  She keeps right on nipping at Jesus' heels."[2]   The woman dares to take his metaphor and turn it back on him.  Even on these terms, there still should be something from him-- some scrap of grace-- for someone like her, someone who comes to him in faith.   The woman seems to trust in the abundance Jesus keeps teaching about.  She seems to be challenging him to judge her by what's in her heart. 
            Where the religious establishment and their traditions could only see an outsider-- Jesus sees the woman's heart of faith, and her persistence, and he heals her child.  From this point on, Jesus continues to expand the circle of God's mercy to include those others consider outsiders.  He welcomes all who put their faith in him.  So, when you look at the big-picture story, it does look like Jesus changes his mind and his plan.
            That's good news for us.     We are all welcome.   We are all included in the circle of God’s mercy.   When Jesus opened himself up to mission to the whole world, it meant his church would be open to the world.  In response, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be open to those whom some people see as outsiders, outcasts, and sinners.  We are called to open ourselves to the whole world in mission.  
            So, what does all this mean for us today?      
            The Syrophoenician woman and the friends of the deaf and mute man refused to believe that God’s mercy and healing are limited to insiders and people like us.  They believed that Jesus could immediately meet their needs.  They embodied a faith that trusts in God’s goodness and abundance—a faith that pushes past legalism and exclusivity. 
            When we allow our ears and our hearts to be open—the Syrophoenician woman can teach us that, in God’s abundant economy, there is enough for everybody.  There is enough--if we reach out and share.
            As Jill Duffield points out, the lectionary texts for this Sunday are Christianity 101 or perhaps basic instructions for being a decent human being. Taken all together, Jill suggests a list of ten basics:
  1. God created everyone. Every. Single. Person. We have that in common no matter our other myriad differences.
  2. Integrity is more valuable than material wealth in the eyes of God. Therefore, always choose a good name over great riches. (Um, that might be a timely word, friends.)
  3. The Lord pleads the case of the poor. Ergo, so should we.
  4. Generosity is a blessing all around, for the giver and the receiver.
  5. Don’t exploit the poor. (There are too many examples to list how the poor are exploited: title loans, cash bail, prison labor, subprime loans, higher prices on groceries in food deserts. The list is very, very long. Do a little digging into the policies and systems in your community, pick a few and hold them up in contrast to Christianity 101 this week.)
  6. A person’s value does not equate to their monetary net worth. A person is valuable because, well, see number one on this list. God does not care how much or how little is in your bank account. See number two on this list.
  7. Love your neighbor as yourself. Really. Not in theory, but in daily, tangible practice. See number 5 for more information.
  8. Faith is visible to all. How we live reflects our deepest beliefs, revealing what and who we truly value. (Please don’t go to lunch after worship, clearly having been to church, and treat the server badly and leave a meagerly tip. Please, just don’t.)
  9. When someone comes to you in pain and suffering, at the very least treat him with dignity, respect and kindness, even if you cannot do for him what he hopes you can do.
  10. When someone comes to you in pain and suffering, do what you can do to alleviate her pain and suffering, no matter who she is, where she comes from or how that pain and suffering came to be.[3]
            The story about the Syrophoenician woman is a turning point in the gospel, as Jesus re-defines who is acceptable in God’s eyes. The healing in the gospels turns out to include stories about healing of divisions in our communities and society. Strangers are welcomed. Outsiders become part of the family of God. God’s law is the law of love-- the love in our hearts and the hospitality and compassion we live in our lives.
            My friends, this is GOOD NEWS!  So, like the people in the gospel story, may we be astounded and say, “He has done everything well!”
            As followers of Jesus, may we embody God’s abundant compassion, so that people will look at us. May they be astounded with us, and say, “They do everything well!
            So be it!   Amen!


Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
September 9, 2018





[1] Matthew 15:21-28.
[2] Heidi Husted, “When the Gospel Goes to the Dogs,” in Christian Century (Aug. 16, 2000)  https://www.christiancentury.org/article//when-gospel-goes-dogs

[3]  Jill Duffield, “Looking into the Lectionary.”   https://pres-outlook.org/category/ministry-resources/looking-into-the-lectionary/



Sunday, September 2, 2018

"Where's Your Heart?" A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"Where's Your Heart?"

Mark 7:1-23; James 1:17-27



What’s at stake here?”
            Some biblical scholars argue that the conflict in this story mirrors a similar conflict in Mark’s community. Mark was a non-Palestinian Gentile, and he was writing to a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians who were arguing over whether it was necessary to keep a kosher table at church gatherings.
            “’Don’t you understand?’” Mark asks. “’Don’t you see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’”  Thus, Mark says, Jesus declared all foods clean.”
            Other commentators have a different take on what the conflict is about. They say it’s about teaching humanly constructed religious ideas as God’s law. “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”  These scholars say the main point is about obeying God’s commandments, rather than human traditions and rules.
            But I agree with Tom Long when he says this is about using moral posturing to sidestep the commandments, that it’s about keeping our hands ritually washed while being up to our elbows in evil.[1]
            To paraphrase Walker Percy, it’s like getting an A-plus in ethics class and flunking life.

            What might this look like in our time?   Some government officials quote a verse from Romans 13 out of context to justify separating children from their parents at our borders, saying we are to obey the laws of the government, which has been ordained by God--which is one of the verses that has been used in the past to defend slavery and other evils.  Some people twist Jesus’ statement that we will always have the poor with us to justify not working to alleviate extreme poverty. They might say we can’t afford safety net programs that address hunger or homelessness, even though the richest people have received generous tax cuts,
            Can we understand why Jesus got angry with the Pharisees and the scribes, exclaiming, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, and calling on the words of the prophet: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”[2]

            Jesus was calling out the Pharisees and scribes for passing off human ideas as God’s commandments. 
            Now, the Pharisees were people who took their religion very seriously.  I believe they sincerely wanted to serve God faithfully. They were criticizing Jesus’ disciples for not living according to the tradition of the elders.
            Let’s back up a minute and remember the context of this encounter.  Just before this, Mark has told how Jesus fed 5,000 people… and walked on the water… and healed the sick. 
            The Kingdom of God is breaking out around them, and the Pharisees don’t seem to notice.  The sick are being healed.  The hungry are being fed.  Good news is being preached to the poor.  These are the things that Isaiah had prophesied that would be signs of the coming of the Messiah, but the Pharisees and scribes want to talk about hand washing and tradition. 
            A moment of GRACE is breaking into the midst of time and space.   Not only can’t the Pharisees and scribes see it-- but they keep asking the wrong questions.  They’re asking, “How can we protect our tradition?  How can we get folk to do things our way?
            Too often in the church, we ask the wrong questions.  How do we keep everybody happy?  How do we avoid conflict?  How will we survive?  “How do we make everybody follow our rules? How do I get everybody to do what I want?
            In the meantime, there are people inside and outside the church--people with broken hearts… broken dreams… and broken lives.  People who are lonely.  People who need to be restored to community.  People who need to be fed…and healed…and loved.

            Now, the process of spiritual growth is hard.  Sometimes it can be downright scary.  So, it’s no wonder that sometimes we, like the Pharisees, feel safer clinging to rules or traditions or familiar ways of doing things, rather than look for ways God is trying to use us to bring the kingdom of love and justice into the world.
           
            Jesus accused the religious authorities of being “hypocrites.”     The Greek word Mark uses for hypocrite has a revealing history.  It literally means an actor—a person who acts out a set dialog or script.
            In accusing the Pharisees of being hypocrites, Jesus was inviting them to put down the mask of outward appearances.  In giving them a list of things that can defile people, things which come from within, Jesus was challenging them to examine their own hearts honestly, and to pay attention to what’s really important.   We have been set apart as a holy people for a holy purpose:  to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
            It’s much easier to point a finger at the sins of others than to look inward at the things that can defile.    Yet today’s gospel lesson makes it clear that we need to pay attention to where our hearts are.  
            But what does that look like?
            In the epistle lesson we heard today, James fleshes out Jesus’ summary of the Law and giving some specific ways we need to live into “the perfect law of liberty.”
            If we are to love our neighbors, then we need to be engaged with them, relating to them, and caring for them. That long list of vices Jesus quotes defile us because they all divide us-- from God and from each other, our neighbors.
            What does it mean for us to be holy, and "undefiled"? James offers an interesting definition in his letter:  "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for widows and orphans in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."[3] James teaches that religious practice is judged on what we do.  Widows and orphans were the most vulnerable members of ancient societies; they had no means of support, no means of getting any, and no one to look out for them.  Caring for them means to attend to the needs of the poorest of the poor, those whom nobody else cares about or feels responsible for.  That is true religion, true holy conduct.  That is what we have been set apart to do.
            We know God partly through our traditions.  But we worship the one true God, the God of ever-ongoing creation… and new possibilities.   God overcomes sin and death with new life.
            Jesus came proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is near, calling people to repent, to change.
            In Jesus Christ, we have the perfect example of a person who is holy and whole.  The gospels tell us that Jesus went about preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives.  He taught by word and deed.  He blessed the children.  He healed the sick and ministered to the brokenhearted.  He ate with outcasts…forgave sinners…and called all to repent and believe the good news of God’s love and forgiveness.
            The world tries to set limits on what we believe is possible and sets boundaries that set us apart from “them.”   But Christ came breaking down the dividing walls and showing us that there is no such thing as a hopeless case.  There is nobody outside the circle of God’s love.   In Christ, there are no “others”—only neighbors.   Because God loves our neighbors, we are commanded to love them too.
            I like the way one of my colleagues puts it, in a sermon entitled, “Dirtiness is next to Godliness:” 
            Our hands are made clean and holy, not by washing them, but by getting them dirty.  Our hands have been set apart to reach out into the dirtiness of the world’s injustices and impurities on Christ’s behalf, to touch with compassion those considered untouchable or unclean by our social mores, cultural divisions, or political commitments. [4]
            As Teresa of Avila famously put it, "Christ has no body now on earth but yours… no hands but yours…  no feet but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which God’s compassion will look upon the world.  Yours are the feet with which God will go about doing good.  Yours are the hands with which God will bless others now."
            God has fully revealed God’s love for us in Jesus.  In response to that love, God wants us our love in return.  We are called to worship God through our total devotion…and through our ministry to all God’s children in need, as we love as Christ loves.  God’s way is a tradition of self-giving love.
            So, in the midst of the daily struggles and questions we face every day, may our hearts be in the right place.  May our hearts become more and more open to God’s love and life.  
            Amen.



Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
September 2, 2018




[1] Thomas G. Long, “Moral Words, Evil Deeds”, in The Christian Century. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2009-08/moral-words-evil-deeds

[2] Isaiah 29:13, according to the Septuagint.
[3] James 1:27

[4] I’m indebted here to the Rev. J. C. Austin, in “Dirtiness is next to Godliness,” (Madison Avenue Pulpit, 2003), a sermon posted in the past at website that no longer exists.


Sunday, August 12, 2018

"Sharing in the Life of Christ." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.



"Sharing in the Life of Christ"

John 6:35, 41-51


We’ve been spending some time in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel.  A few weeks ago, we heard the story of how thousands were gathered to hear Jesus teach.  The people in the multitude were hungry, and the disciples told Jesus they needed to care for them. All they could come up with was a little boy with five loaves and two fish. It must have been an amazing sight as Jesus took that little bit of food, gave thanks, and everybody gathered there had enough to eat, with baskets of food left over. It was such an amazing thing that people wanted to make Jesus their king.
            Jesus had provided for the people beyond belief. So, they went looking for him.  When they found them, Jesus told them that the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
         The people said, “Give us this bread always.”
         That’s when Jesus declared to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
            The people in the crowds who had made such efforts to find Jesus after he’d crossed the lake began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”
         They said, “Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
            Jesus answered them: “Stop grumbling among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God. Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me.


         The people in the crowd don’t get it.  They were trying to fit Jesus into their frame of reference. The crowd’s misunderstanding is understandable enough if they thought of Jesus as the prophet like Moses.  There was a popular belief that God would provide manna again in the final days.  This was connected with the hopes of a second Exodus.  Many people thought that the messiah would come on Passover, and that manna would begin to fall again.
         The people in the crowd are stuck in their faith development.  They have hopes, based on their traditions, and they want Jesus to give them what they want:  manna from heaven, and a political leader to overthrow the Roman oppressors in a new Exodus.
         In the first six chapters of John’s gospel, Jesus has encounters with several people and groups. Needy, troubled people come to Jesus, and they fail to comprehend.   Nicodemus thought Jesus was talking about being born again from his mother’s womb, when Jesus was talking about spiritual rebirth, being born from above.”
         The woman at the well thought Jesus was talking about a drink of water from the deep well, when Jesus was talking about his presence that fills a thirst no earthly water can quench. 
         The man by the pool thought Jesus was talking about healing that would come from bubbling water stirred up by an angel, when Jesus was telling about healing that would come from him.
         Jesus’ detractors think because they know who Jesus’ father, Joseph, was and where he came from, that he couldn’t be bread from heaven or give life to the world.  
         The crowd that followed Jesus regarded him as a teacher. They witnessed his miracles. They also knew him as one of their own, a man from the old neighborhood.  Some of them had watched him play as a child and learn his trade. In other words, they know him.  He’s a lot like them, so they can’t see how he can be all that special. They can’t believe he could be the one God sent to redeem them.


            Now, when we read about people in Scripture behaving badly or failing to act faithfully, our first impulse may be to judge them. We tend not to identify with them.  We’d like to think that we would have known better than they did…that we would have done better.

         And yet, consider the audacious claim that Jesus is making. Who ever heard of a God having anything to do with the ordinary, the mundane. If we believe in an all-powerful God who lives up in the clouds, it’s hard to believe in a God who is willing to suffer the pains and problems, the humiliations of human life. No wonder the crowd grumbles against Jesus’ words.
         No wonder the leaders of the Jewish religious establishment was offended. To them, Jesus was making an audacious claim.  Claiming that he was the source of eternal life? They thought that was blasphemous. Claiming to be living bread that came down from heaven? Ridiculous! They can’t understand how he can make these kings of audacious claims about himself any more than they can understand why anybody would believe him.

         Can we relate to any of this?   
        
          I hope we’ll ponder this prayerfully:  can we be bold enough, audacious enough, perhaps even foolish enough, to confess that God uses ordinary people and ordinary things to accomplish God’s will and to bring the world to God’s amazing love and God’s justice?
          
         The bread Jesus is talking about is God’s gift. But we can only be nourished if we accept the bread that is offered.  

         Like the people in today's gospel story, we have a decision to make.  We can decide to follow Jesus and let God's presence and power direct our lives...    or we can ignore Jesus and spend our lives on other things.
         We make this decision in big ways at confirmation...  or when we decide to join the church.  But we also make it every day in lots of little ways. 
         We make a choice every time we decide to listen to God's voice   or ignore it when it tells us that we're special...  God's beloved children… called as partners in Christ’s service.    We make a choice every time we hear God's voice calling us to love everyone---those who are close to us…and even strangers...  even our enemies.
        
         Throughout the sixth chapter of John, in all the talk about bread, something has been said over and over which is the real offense behind all the other offenses.  In fact, it's the offense of the Gospel:     we have life by grace.  The bread God gives from heaven gives life to the world. 
         The conflict of the gospel is in how we choose to respond to God's gift.   The question we have to answer is this:  Do we determine our own lives...  or does God? 
         In every paragraph of this chapter of John, it's clear that the people around Jesus want to be in charge.  They demand that Jesus do what Moses did.  They demand signs.  They want proofs so that they'll have adequate reasons to decide that Jesus is really from God.  They want Jesus to be king-- the kind of king they wanted. 
         But, over and over again, Jesus keeps saying one thing:  life from heaven is a gift.    Trust this, and life is yours.
        
         The message of the gospel really isn't so hard to understand.  It's hard to accept, because it cuts across all the calculations and achievements that we want to do to earn our salvation. 
         Every day, we need to choose.   Standing before God's amazing grace, how do we respond?
        
         The good news in the gospel story is about grace...  about God's gift to us.   The bread in the wilderness was a gift.  The bread as word from heaven is a gift. 
         From the very beginning, God has been giving us of God’s self and inviting us to take this sustenance and use it as a source of being the light of the world on behalf of God’s kingdom.  God calls us to go out from our gatherings of prayer and praise to work in partnership with Christ to feed a hungry, hurting world. There are so many who are hungry…many who are hurting… many who are searching.
         May we become a people that begin to extend life eternal… a people who live out the meaning of sharing in the life of Jesus to a hungry world.
         May it be so!



Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
August 12, 2018