God Commits



Inspired by Genesis 6:5-22; 8:6-12; 9:8-17

Today, we begin our journey through the great stories of the Bible with one of the most horrifying, violent, catastrophic stories of all the books of the Bible! It continues to astonish me that we have turned this disturbing, murderous story into a cute little children’s tale! My firstborn’s room was covered in Noah’s Ark scenes! The wallpaper, mobile, stuffed animals, blankets, pillows, all had selected scenes from this story. Selected scenes! There were some scenes of course that were intentionally left out.

Now, at this point of the sermon, I was going to share with you some graphic scenes of how I imagine the flood taking over the land and people and animals, but then I reconsidered. But this is a sad story! Imagine if this was filmed? You think those SPCA commercials are sad? You know the ones, with Sarah McLachlan singing her song Angel in the background? Now imagine that song only with scenes from the flood! Yeah, that kind of sad.

But for some reason, all the horrifying aspects of this story, have traditionally been glossed over. And I think they did that for at least two reasons. One, it’s easy to, because we are on this side of the flood. Meaning, we are on the winning side of this story. So it’s been easy for people of faith over the centuries to dismiss the violence. But the other reason they have done that, a deeper reason mind you, is because they didn’t like to dwell on what this says about God.

Think of it this way, if we just took this story at face value, then we are saying that God, disappointed in God’s very own creation, decided to murder everyone, animals included, except one family and the animals they brought. And we’re just supposed to be ok with that? I mean, is that really the God we believe in? Is that really the God you and I have come to know? I’m arguing with an emphatic no! That this kind of behavior is actually contrary to what we have come to know about our God.

So, how do I reconcile that with my love of scripture? And I do love scripture! And not just as a piece of literature, but as a vehicle that God has used, through humans, to communicate some of God’s most precious truths. But the key phrase in that sentence, for today’s purposes, is through humans. God did not write the Bible with God’s own hand, but used human hands to craft it, which meant human minds, which meant that humans got to interject their own truths as well, and some of them are false truths. So, what does this have to do with the Flood? Well, one of those false truths got inserted into this story. Tell me if this sounds familiar because we still do this to ourselves: something bad happens, and so we must have deserved it.

As a pastor, I come across this bad theology all the time. Whether it’s after an unexpected death, or some other life tragedy, or maybe after a natural disaster like in our story for today, so many of us ask the question, “What did I do to deserve this?” We skip asking, “Did I do something?” and go right into, “What did I do?” Or, what did we do to deserve this?” But, whether we get that answer or not, the question implies that there is some outside force that caused this bad thing to happen to us, as punishment for whatever we think we did to deserve it.

And what outside force do we attribute these punishments? God! And why do we do that? Because of stories like the Flood, that give us a scriptural basis to believe such false truths. And I ask again, is that really what we believe about God? Is that really how we believe God works? I don’t. And you don’t have to either. In fact, you can refuse to believe that and still continue to love scripture! How about that!

Because when we remain in such false truths, all we do is set ourselves up for failure and despair. Because the hard truth of life, as many of us know, is that at some point, at many points for some of us, bad things happen! It’s inevitable! There’s no escaping them. Some are worse than others sure but we all have them. As my Hebrew professor used to say, sometimes stuff happens! Only she didn’t say “stuff!” And there doesn’t have to be some cosmic reason why “stuff” happens. But if we allow ourselves to believe that, that one, we deserve it, and two, God did it, how are we supposed to climb out of that, and then continue in this relationship with God as if nothing happened? Too many cannot, and then we wonder why people aren’t going to church these days, or have given up on religion altogether.

Well, at least one reason is because so many of us maintain these archaic ideas about God, and we do so because they’re supported in scripture. But here’s how I and many others approach the Bible that can make all the difference. It is a collection of writings, of all different genres, poetry, drama, comedy, romance, fantasy, political, song, you name it, it’s probably in the Bible somewhere, but all of them are there for one purpose, to try and figure out who God is, and who we are. And some of those writings are successful at that and some of them fail, and some of them do both. I’m guessing that most of them do both. And this story of the Flood is an example of just that.

The stories found in the Bible are the ones that survived for hundreds of years as oral stories before they were finally written down. Imagine that, being only spoken for hundreds of years before someone finally thought, “Maybe we should be writing these down!” And so they did, and here we are reading them thousands of years later. And so we have to ask ourselves, why these stories? What was so important about these stories that survived? What were the ancients of our faith trying to communicate to us about God and ourselves? What was God trying to communicate through them to us? And where did they succeed in that transmission and where did they come up short?

Some fascinating questions, that can lead to some very fruitful and life-giving conversations if we let them, if we aren’t afraid of them. In this story of the Flood for example, if we can get past the fact that God may in fact not be a murderous perpetrator in this story, and that there may be other reasons why the author would put that in there, if we can get past that, then we can ask, what else can this story teach us about God and ourselves? Are there Godly truths here to be gleaned, in the muck of the human false truths that got slipped in there? And most importantly, is there gospel to be found here? Is there good news to be found in this story?

And the answer, of course, is yes, and here are two that stood out to me, but of course there are more than two in a rich story such as this but I’ll leave those for you to glean and chew on this week. The first is this, we are not perfect, and we never will be. In this story, God realizes just how imperfect we are. So imperfect, that we have made a mess of creation. And so God, according to the author’s interpretation of things, comes up with this final solution to wipe out 99.9% of creation and restart from there.

Now, again, if you can get past that, and I know, it takes a few leaps and bounds—by the time we get to our Gospel readings in Advent, we’re gonna be in great shape let me tell you, we’ll be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!—but if you can get past that, you come to the part where God has another realization, after the Flood, unfortunately, when God realizes that humanity is going to be just as imperfect, and will always be so, no matter what God does, and so comes to a decision.

God could have completely started over at this point right? We would have never known! Many other cultures have their gods doing just that in their creations stories! Completely starting over! The Aztec gods took five tries to get it right! But that’s not what our faith ancestors were trying to communicate to us about our God. They wanted us to know that our God, instead of starting over and trying again, decided to just love us, imperfections and all. And so, God does a very ungodly thing, compared to the gods of other cultures, and sets God’s bow down in the clouds.

Now, remember how I said that we have turned this story into a cute little children’s tale? Well, one of the ways we have done that is read the word bow and thought rainbow. Because rainbows are pretty! Who doesn’t love a rainbow? If you don’t like rainbows you better check for a pulse! Everybody loves rainbows! However, I hate to burst your bubble, but it’s actually not a rainbow that the author is writing about.

In the original Hebrew, it’s actually a bow, as in the weapon kind. Not a pretty rainbow. But what I love about that is, again, what were the ancients trying to convey in this image of God setting God’s weapon down in the clouds, never to be used again? That our God is so committed to us, in spite of our imperfections, faults, brokenness, sin, whatever you want to call it, that God is permanently setting down God’s weapon of war. God has committed to not fight with us over this.

God is committed to not trying to make us into something that we are not, that we will never be—perfect—and instead, commits to loving us just the way we were created. And so, as one Luther Seminary professor put it, God is changed in this story, not us. God is changed because that is how much God loves us, and is committed to us. It is not our commitment or faithfulness that is going to see us through the floods of our lives, it is God’s commitment, it is God’s faithfulness to us that will. Thanks be to God. Amen.

When Jesus Attacks!



Inspired by John 6:56-69 

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone, and had to stop and remind them, that you’re on their side? As a parent, I find myself doing that quite a bit. I may not always use those exact words but I often find myself in conversations with my children, and having to stop and remind them that I’m not the enemy here, that I am in fact on their side, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now.

I can tell they need that reminder when I notice that they are reacting to a conversation in a way that I didn’t necessarily intend, maybe they’re getting angry, or sad, or defensive. Those are the times when I feel I need to remind them that what they are hearing in the conversation, even though it may not sound like it, is being said with their best interests at heart, not my best interests, theirs. And sometimes that reminder is received well and sometimes it’s not, I get that. I remember being on the other side of those conversations myself with my dad.

But parents don’t have a monopoly on these kinds of conversations do they? Sometimes you have to have these conversations with a friend. You know, one of those, “I have something difficult to tell you but please remember that I’m telling you this as a friend”, kind of conversations. Or maybe you’ve had to have these kinds of conversations with a coworker, particularly if you are their supervisor. They may start like, “Let me begin by saying how much I appreciate your work here.”

And if you’re on the receiving end of that, that’s when you brace yourself right? “Oh God, what did I do now? This is going to be bad!” As you give a nice white-knuckle grip to your chair. And when I’ve been on the receiving end of that conversation, my worst fear is never realized, I wasn’t fired, but just given some constructive criticism. And afterward I’d crawl into a hole and want to die for a while, but I’d get over it and hopefully was a better employee for it.

When you’re on the receiving end of those conversations, when someone has to remind you that they are on your side, is hard. It’s hard because you feel attacked, and so you get defensive and angry, and often times they seem to come out of nowhere. Now, it’s one thing when you feel attacked by a parent, or by a friend, or by a boss or coworker. But what do you do when you feel attacked by Jesus? Because that’s exactly what happens to some of Jesus’ disciples in our story from the Gospel of John today.

Last week we talked about how Jesus doubled down on the whole “I am the living bread” talk with “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood”, and how difficult that was for them to hear. Well, to their credit, they voice that struggle! Not directly to Jesus of course, cuz why would they do that when they could just talk behind his back! But he overhears them say, “This message is harsh. Who can hear it?”

They feel attacked by Jesus, and they leave. And it’s important to note here that John says that these were disciples of Jesus that left. Not the Jewish opposition that he was writing about earlier in the chapter. These were disciples! These were on the Jesus bandwagon, right up until this point, when some had to jump off. It was just too much for them. For a Jewish community, all this talk of eating flesh and drinking blood sounded too much like cannibalism. It was a hurdle that they just couldn’t jump over.

Which got me thinking, what can we do, when we feel attacked by Jesus, so that we don’t end up like these disciples and jump ship? How do we remain on board, remain on the Jesus bandwagon, when we feel attacked by Jesus, when we feel judged by Jesus, when we feel Jesus calling us to do something we really don’t want to do, when we read a Bible passage that convicts us to the very core?

What do we do then? Now, if some of you are thinking to yourselves, “Jesus would never judge me!” Wrong! Jesus is all about judgement! But let’s not confuse judgement with condemnation. Jesus judges us all the time! What Jesus promised not to do, is condemn us. But let’s not sit here and pretend that Jesus is just going to turn a blind eye to our bad behavior. Or ignore the evils of this world. Or not call us to do difficult work for him.

That’s what Jesus came for—to transform this world, one disciple at a time! Unfortunately, that transformation isn’t easy, to say the least, and sometimes, it can feel like we are being attacked—attacked by the very person that claims to be the bread of life, the living bread that came down from heaven. Which brings us back to the question, what do we do when we feel attacked by Jesus?

Well, there’s a few things I think we can do, three in particular that I’d like to share now. First, consider the alternatives. Jesus was ok with people walking away! I didn’t hear him begging for any of them to come back! Moreover, as they’re walking away, Jesus turns to those still there and asks, “Do you also want to leave?” As if to say, “If anyone else wants to go, there’s the door!” Now, I think when he asked that he expected the answer was no.

But at the same time, I’m sure all of those still standing there had considered the alternatives! And I don’t see Jesus condemning us for that. I always joke with people that if I ever had to leave Christianity, I’d become a Buddhist. But I can only joke about that because I’ve actually considered it! At various points in my life I’ve probably considered just about every religion. But nothing has kept me from sticking with Jesus…yet! But it’s actually been helpful to my faith to explore the alternatives, not harmful.

A second thing I think we can do when feeling attacked by Jesus is take a quick glance over our shoulder, take a look at your life’s path behind you, and see who Jesus has been for you in the past. Has he ever left your side? Has he ever failed you? Now, I’m not gonna stand up here and pretend that everyone can easily answer no to those questions. For some of you, maybe the answer is yes, Jesus has failed you! You do feel that Jesus has left your side in the past. So then have that conversation with Jesus! And with those whom God has placed in your life to have those conversations with! I’ve been there.

I’ve had to sit Jesus down and say, “Look man, I love you, and I say this as a friend, but you gotta know you really hurt me!” But I’m able to stand here, as a follower of Jesus, as your pastor, because I had that conversation with Jesus. We came out on the other side of that conversation better for it! Not overnight mind you. We gave each other the silent treatment for a little while after that. He can be stubborn, let me tell ya! But we never can seem to stay mad at each other for too long!

Finally, and maybe most important thing we can do when feeling attacked by Jesus, is remembering, and believing, that Jesus is always, and forever, on our side. When we get a difficult word from Jesus, whether it's in scripture, or in worship, or in our heart or mind, remembering who Jesus is can make all the difference. As difficult as Jesus can be sometimes, as stretching, as bitter-tasting, as offensive as Jesus can be, Jesus is on your side. And being open to hearing that can be difficult, when he sits us down for that difficult conversation, when he sees us get angry, or sad, or defensive, and says, "Hey, I'm on your side!" And "I am the bread of life…he living bread that came down from heaven"—on your side. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Clean Your Plate



Inspired by John 6:51-58

I learned some of the worst eating habits growing up. Hopefully my mom doesn’t hear this sermon. Seriously though, I think I struggle with my weight to this day partly because of the eating habits that were formed as a child. For instance, we were expected to serve a “healthy” portion of food, and by healthy I mean a good size mound of food on your plate. If you didn’t, you got a weird look, or were asked if you were sick, or, depending on the mood of the cook, it was taken as an insult to the cook.

Not only a healthy portion but you had to take a portion of everything that was made. You couldn’t pick and choose what you wanted to eat no matter how much you don’t like vegetables! And just for added measure, there was a nice layer of guilt thrown in, because after all, the cook has worked all day and then came home to cook for you, and that’s all you’re going to eat, after the cook slaved all evening in the kitchen? Many times this was all communicated with just a look mind you but we got the message. And don’t get me started on the reaction when you didn’t get seconds!

But an even worse habit existed, and this one has been diabolical to my belly! I don’t know if you had this in your family or if you called it something different but in my house it was called “clean your plate.” And of course, it doesn’t mean take your plate to the sink and wash it. No, it’s even more sinister than that! “Clean your plate” meant that not only were you guilted into serving more than you probably should have, but now you have to eat it all, whether you are full or not! “You served it, you eat it” was a common catchphrase in my house. Did you all have stupid little catchphrases like that growing up? Parents think they’re cute don’t they? We had a lot of them. Sometimes I think my mom thought she was running a convenience store at home, “No shoes, no service”, “You serve it, you eat it.”

That’s got to be the worst eating habit I was taught though. To this day, it is so difficult to walk away from a plate that still has food on it, even when I am full. But the expectation was, you had to consume all of it, in its entirety—every serving of every dish that was made, that you put on your plate. There was a comprehensiveness to dinner time at our house growing up. It was an all or nothing affair. And we always ate together. Taking your plate to your room or eating later after everyone else, was just not an option. This is how you ate if you were going to be part of my family. Period. You served a healthy portion, of every dish, you got seconds, you ate it all, and you ate it together. Or you just didn’t eat. That option, as we were constantly reminded, was always on the table.

As we continue reading through the sixth chapter of John this month, today we come to one of the most disturbing passages in this Gospel, outside of the crucifixion. Jesus, who is still continually referring to himself as the bread of life, or the living bread that came down from heaven, as we heard last week, gets a ton of opposition to this kind of language, but instead of dialing it back, what does Jesus do? Doubles down!

“You think that was disturbing?” Jesus says. “Try this on for size, ‘unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” If John was a playwright, you’d see in brackets, audible gasp from crowd! [Gasp!] Because that would have been scandalous to their ears! I can’t think of something that would have been harder on their ears than that! Unless he said, that now they had to eat bacon wrapped shrimp! Because Jews aren’t allowed to eat shellfish or pork, for those who didn’t get that joke.

I mean, it’s hard on our ears to hear this kind of talk from Jesus, it was doubly hard on their ears because dietary laws were so ingrained in their religion. Something we just don’t have in Christianity. Now normally, when you hear this passage, most pastors will immediately point you to the table, to communion, to the bread and wine. But as you have come to learn, for better or worse, I’m not normal, nor am I like most pastors. So I’m not immediately going to point you to what goes on here at this table every Sunday after reading this particular passage, at least not yet.

It’d be too easy to jump right to communion talk right now and quite frankly, it’d just be lazy preaching. We can get there, and probably will, and there’s nothing wrong with interpreting this passage in light of this table but let’s not start there. Let’s start by reading this passage, as if this table, and what happens there, doesn’t even exist. I know, scandalous right. Well, at least I’m in good company.

Here’s why I feel compelled to ignore the table for right now. This is only the sixth chapter of John. The last supper is far down the road, chapters and chapters away. The likelihood that Jesus had the image of people gathering every Sunday around a table of bread and wine while he said, “unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you” is highly unlikely. John may have, while he was writing this, but Jesus probably did not. So if Jesus wasn’t talking about communion, then what was he talking about? Last week we talked about taking Jesus seriously when he claims himself to be the living bread that came down from heaven, and what that actually entails, especially when his bread isn’t exactly what we wanted, or when it causes us to do things we don’t really want to do.

In this week’s passage, Jesus is just driving that home, hard. Albeit, using some disturbing, if not altogether crude language. But he gets his point across. Think of it this way, when Jesus talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, that’s his way of saying, it’s all or nothing people. I’m not a buffet. You can’t pick and choose which parts of me that you want to consume and which parts you’re just gonna pass on. Neither does Jesus work at Burger King, he’s not here to make it your way. As odd as this may sound, Jesus was a “It’s my way or the highway” kind of meal. Let me give you a few examples of what he’s talking about here. We can’t pray “hallowed be your name” and then use God’s name to persecute others. We can’t pray “thy kingdom come” and then not lift a finger to help it get here.

We can’t pray for “our daily bread” and ignore the needs of the hungry in our world. We can’t pray “forgive us our sins” and hold a grudge. We can’t pray “deliver us from evil” and then turn a blind eye to the evils of this world! Jesus says, “Uh-uh, this is my house. And when you’re in my house, you’re gonna clean your plate!” Jesus is offering new life for this world, and the only we can serve it to this world, is if we eat all that Jesus is cooking up! Every dish, every side, every vegetable, not just the juicy meats of salvation but also the Brussel sprouts of service to this world. Every last bite! Because Jesus is not a buffet! Jesus is the living bread, come down from heaven, right onto your plate! And like a loving mother, Jesus asks, “Are you gonna clean your plate today?”

So, whether we realize it or not, when we come to this table, we are answering Jesus with a resounding “Yes!” “We’re going to clean our plate this week.” For that is exactly what we are doing when we come to this table, with hands outstretched, we come to consume all of Jesus, everything he’s cooked up for us. The tasty, deliciousness of his love and forgiveness—and the bitterness of his call to service and sacrifice on behalf of the world. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says, “living bread that came down from heaven.” So come, consume all of me, Jesus asks, flesh and blood, for the sake of the world, to bring new life to the world—through us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Pumpernickel of Life



Inspired by John 6:35, 41-51

So we are still in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, as we have been for three weeks now, and where we will remain for the rest of the month. It’s a long chapter and Jesus had a lot to say about the bread of life, as he keeps referring to it over and over again in this chapter. The challenge for us preachers is to find something new about it every week. Thankfully, Jesus, at least through John’s eyes, is pretty long-winded in this Gospel, so there’s a lot to work with. However, there are some overlapping verses each week. I share all this with you because if you aren’t already, by the end of the month you may be asking, “Didn’t we already read this recently?” It’s going to start sounding a bit repetitive, but hey, it’s John, what did we expect?

Last week I focused on a question from the crowd in our story, and I’m going to do the same today as well. So, in our story for today, a particular group in the crowd is beginning to grumble. Every church has a group like this right? If you don’t know who those people are at Bethlehem then you’re probably part of that group. Kidding! Just kidding, Bethlehem doesn’t have any grumblers!

Anywho, these grumblers are identified in this translation as the “Jewish opposition.” Now, as a side note, past translations used to just say “the Jews” rather than the “Jewish opposition.” This is problematic for a couple reasons, first, labeling them with the blanket statement “the Jews” is anti-Semitic, because, secondly, it’s just not accurate. Think about it, not all Jews opposed him, his own disciples were Jewish, Jesus was Jewish! But like any group, there’s a subgroup of nay-sayers. And that’s who John is referring to here.

So these nay-sayers are grumbling, like we all catch ourselves doing from time to time, and they grumble with this question, “Isn’t this Jesus, Joseph’s son, whose mother and father we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” So this group is being very logical about all of this, which makes it hard to debate with a group like this. In their minds, they know his mother and father, they probably remember seeing Jesus as a little boy, climbing trees, getting on his mom’s nerves, doing all the ordinary things that little boys do, and they’re like, “Came down from heaven? I remember seeing this kid play in the mud! Came down from heaven? Get a load of this guy! Pshhht.” Or as one commentator put it, “He’s clearly not from heaven—we know his parents.”

These grumbling nay-sayers, can’t see Jesus for who he really is: the word made flesh, the bread of life, come down from heaven. They just can’t see it. And also like last week, it’s our sight that Jesus is trying to help us with. Last week Jesus was trying to help us see the signs and blessings all around us. This week, Jesus is trying to help us see the divine, the spiritual, in the ordinary stuff of life, in the flesh and bone of life. And if you think about it, that skill is pretty foundational to our life of faith. I mean, if we can’t do that, if we can’t see the spiritual in the ordinary, then what are we even doing here? Our whole faith is based on that concept. The Christmas story is rooted in God coming down from heaven, in the form of an ordinary baby, born to ordinary parents, in an ordinary smelly old barn.

Particularly for John, our author, if as the reader we don’t come to that conclusion, then he’d consider himself a failure. If we get nothing else from this Gospel, he’d at least want us to see the divine in this poor Rabbi, born a carpenter’s son. Now, to be fair to these Jewish nay-saying grumblers, seeing the spiritual, seeing the divine in the ordinary, is no easy task. We humans, struggle with this on a daily basis and on a global scale.

Our world has a hunger problem because we can’t see the divine in those that are hungry. Our world has an immigration problem because we can’t see the divine in the refuge seeker. Our world has a homeless problem because we can’t see the divine in the sunburnt dirty skin of a wanderer. Our world treats certain groups as less than, not just less than divine but less than human, because we can’t see them as who they are: children of the heavenly God.

So why do we have this problem seeing? Because deep down inside, I don’t think we really want this bread of life that Jesus is offering. Why? Because it’s too hard to swallow! Pun intended. It’s too hard to swallow because if you’re going to buy into this “I am the bread of life come down from heaven” business, than that means that you have to what? Take Jesus seriously! Take Jesus’ teachings seriously! Treating people like human beings. Putting other’s needs before your own.

Making your faith life and the faith life of your children and grandchildren, a priority. Which means coming to church every Sunday, notice I didn’t say regularly, because we all have a different idea of what regular attendance is don’t we? I know that game! Praying regularly. Reading your Bible regularly. Sacrificing your time, talents, and treasure for the sake of the mission of the church.

That’s a lot of work! That’s a lot of sacrifice! Why do you think Jesus calls his bread the bread of life? Because the bread of life is Jesus! And Jesus, causes you, to bring life into this world! Or at least, that’s the way that it’s designed to work. That is, until we take Jesus bread of life and realize that it’s pumpernickel! And if you like pumpernickel, just substitute whatever kind of bread you don’t like. Point is, sometimes we just don’t want it! Now, I’m not just making this up, there’s a clue in the text itself about this.

Unfortunately, it’s in the original Greek and doesn’t translate well into English. But when Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless they are drawn to me by the Father.” The Greek word for drawn is actually, “pulled” or, this one’s my favorite, “dragged.” “No one can come to me unless they are pulled to me by the Father.” “No one can come to me unless they are dragged to me by the Father.”

And let’s be honest, being called by God to do the right thing can often feel like being pulled or dragged by God. I like how the translators make it sound so romanticized, “drawn.” Ha! How many of us were dragged to church by our parents? How many of us were dragged to school? Dragged to a peer to apologize for something? We’re constantly being dragged to do something! But just because we are being dragged to do it, doesn’t mean that it’s wrong.

It just means we don’t want to do it! Even though it may be the best thing, the most life-giving thing we could do. Next week, we’re probably going to talk about how all of this bread of life talk connects to that table. But for now, let us work on our inability to see the divine, to see the spiritual in the ordinariness of our world and how taking Jesus seriously as the bread of life come down from heaven can help with that, even if we don’t like what that means, even if it turns out to be pumpernickel. Amen.

Count



Inspired by John 6:24-35

Signs. Miraculous signs at that. These are what the crowds are asking for in our Gospel reading for today. Which is ironic because this is already the sixth chapter of John and they have seen signs, they have seen miraculous signs. Just last week, you heard the passage right before this one, same chapter in fact, of the story of the feeding of the five thousand! One of the biggest signs that Jesus ever gave!

And yet, here they are asking for a sign, asking for a miracle in order for them to believe the words that are coming out of Jesus’ mouth. Feeding five thousand, not enough. Walking on water, not enough. Healing a sick person who’d been ill for thirty years, not enough. Healing the official’s son who was on the brink of death, not enough. Turning water into wine, not enough. Yes, all those signs and more, have already occurred in John’s Gospel at this point in the story.

As the reader, you might already be getting impatient with the crowds, wondering, “Come on people, when will it be enough?” And there’s the rub. We don’t ask that question of them because we know, we are them. We are the crowd who never has enough. Who is always looking for more. Who is rarely satisfied. And that may lead us to the biggest lesson we can learn from this story. But first, we have to acknowledge that we are a people who are constantly wanting more. And part of that I think is just our human condition. We are wired that way for some reason. Some have called that original sin. Some have called that a biology of survival.

However you want to label it, it just seems part of who we are as humans. But the other side of that is this, I also think it’s part of our American culture. O God, there goes pastor being critical of America again, he’s only been back for a minute! Calm down. American capitalism has brought many things for us to be grateful for, but I also think that it has enhanced, in much the same way a steroid does, something that was already part of our DNA as humans, and that is this trait of never being satisfied.

So it’s with that in mind that I’d like to dive a little deeper into this question from the crowd, from us, for more signs, for more miracles. Why do we do that so often? Where does that need come from for more signs and miracles? Well, the pessimist in me wants to just stop at our lack of ever being satisfied. We want more, more, more, and that’s all it is. However, if we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, which is healthy sometimes, I also think that we have a need for signs and miracles because we know that if we get them, we are that much closer to the divine.

And who doesn’t want to be closer to God? When we ask for a miracle, when we ask for a prayer to be answered; let’s say, you ask for her to be healed, and then it happens! That means that God was right there, right next to you! And you have a sign to prove it! Now, I don’t want to get into how prayer really works, let’s not go down that rabbit hole. That’s for another time and place.

For now, the only point I’m making is that sometimes we want more signs and miracles for selfish reasons, and sometimes, we want them to be closer to God. And God knows that, and I think God can appreciate that as well. However, I don’t think this is what Jesus is trying to help us with in this story. Yes, we first have to acknowledge this as part of our human and American behavior but that’s only the start. What I really think Jesus is trying to help us with, is opening our eyes—opening our eyes to see the signs all around us, the miracles all around us. But specifically during those in-between times, in between the signs and miracles and answered prayers. During what seem like dry spells of our spiritual lives, when God seems farthest away from us. Those are the times that Jesus is really trying to help us with here.

Because let’s be honest, those times are tough. And they’re not always dramatic, they’re not always a valley of the shadow of death, though sometimes they are. Many times though, those dry spells go unnoticed, that’s when they can do some real damage. I realized this last week. I noticed that I was just kind down in the dumps, and it was causing me to be negative about everything.

And what brought me out of that was a devotion that another pastor shared at a synod candidacy committee meeting in Berkley, which I was at. Her topic was grace, and she asked us to go around the table and share where we were seeing grace in our lives. And I was almost the first person to raise my hand to answer, which believe it or not is a very typical thing for an introvert to do when asked to share something in a group setting, “Let’s just get this over with” is what runs through our head. But I’m glad I didn’t.

Because what ensued was me sitting there, preparing my answer, which meant taking stock—taking stock of all the places that I was seeing grace in my life—which meant, recognizing the signs all around me, the miracles all around me, God all around me. I saw these in some very big ways, like through my role as a pastor or spouse or parent, but also in some very small ways, like in safe travels or in an unexpected smile or act of kindness from someone else.

So, my list kept getting bigger and bigger as people went around the room getting closer and closer to me, and when it got to my turn I shared a few, not all of them of course, because, introvert. But I still had a growing list of signs in my head that I could then take with me the rest of that day and beyond, and lo and behold my mood was changed, my negativity replaced with positivity. And positivity can be just as contagious as negativity, amen?

This is what Jesus was trying to get across to the crowds, who, God bless them, just weren’t getting it. Jesus was trying to point out that God was, and is, and will always, provide signs, miracles, big and small, blessings upon blessings, all around us. So, instead of the usual silence for reflection after the sermon today, I’d like to give you the same question to think about while Owen sings a song for us. I want you to take stock of the many signs around you, the many miracles around you, maybe they’re sitting right next to you, maybe they’re far away.

I want you to count your blessings, the signs of God’s love and presence all around you—the miracles that God has provided you. I want you to practice this here because the real homework is to remember to do that when you need it the most; to count your miraculous signs and blessings when you need it the most. When you are down in the dumps. When you are being negative and just can’t bring yourself out of it. When you are stressed. When you can’t sleep. Or maybe even help someone else do that, when you see them in that state of mind. As that old Irving Berlin song goes,  “If you're worried and you can't sleep, count your blessings instead of sheep.” May God’s miraculous signs and blessings be ever before our eyes. Amen.