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.


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.