Monday, August 6, 2012

Bread of Life - Sunday Sermon, August 5, 2012

Chaplain Mel Baars
August 5, 2012
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; John 6:24-35

“Bread of Life”

About fifteen years ago, a man by the name of Spencer Johnson wrote a small, modern parable about two mice and two “little people;” it was called Who Moved My Cheese: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in your Work and in your Life. This book stayed on the New York Times Business Bestseller list for five years. Businesses would buy the book in bulk and hand it out to employees for professional development and company retreats. It was the topic of many a self-help or motivational seminar. Over the years, the book permeated every stratosphere of our culture. It was even used in churches to address declining membership and a subsequent need to reevaluate the way the business of faith and worship was conducted.

The story was simple. There were four characters who all lived in a maze. Their main life goal was eating cheese—not a bad life if you ask me! Early in the book, they find a “cheese” station where they eat their fill of dairy day after day. One morning, however, they discover that the cheese is gone. It has been eaten up. The two mice saw this coming, so they have already left this first cheese station in search of a new source of sustenance. The other two “little people,” Hem and Haw, who are representative of humans, go back to the empty cheese station the next day hoping that the situation may have changed overnight. When they arrive to find that there is still no cheese, they are gravely disappointed. They become angry. They shake their little fists at the injustice, and they play the blame game. Somebody must be responsible for their suffering. After a while, Haw decides to go and look for a different cheese. His hunger pushes him beyond his fears. But not Hem. He is comforted by his old ways and routine and afraid of the unknown. He would rather go back to the empty cheese station, even though there is no cheese left, than venture out into new territory. Hem clings to what he knows, and just gets hungrier with each passing moment. Eventually he asks himself this question: What would I do if I weren’t afraid? It is certainly a fair question. If there was no fear, what would life be like? How different would it be from life as we know it?

Our Old Testament story today begins with disgruntled malcontent. Someone has moved their cheese and the whole congregation of the Israelites are complaining about it. They are angry and playing the blame game, too, saying that they would have been better off dying by the Lord’s hand in Egypt, because at least there they had food, instead of starving to death in the desert. The picture that they paint is bleak even though, just one chapter earlier, they were dancing and singing praises to God as they gladly followed Moses through the parted Red Sea, narrowly escaping Pharaoh’s Army. How quickly they forgot all that God had done for them?

If we are honest, though, we may admit that we have found ourselves in this dark place, too, in the midst of transition and change, and being driven by our fear and doubt instead of strengthened by our trust and faith. Like Hem, like the Israelites, most of us are creatures of habit. We like to feel comfortable and safe. We like to know what to expect, even if it means that we aren’t truly satisfied, even if it means we are slaves to our fears. A false sense of control seems better than nothing, at least until our illusions come crashing down around our feet.

From the sidelines, it is easy to be critical. If anyone should have faith, it’s God’s chosen people. God had made a way for them to be freed. They had experienced, firsthand, God’s power and might. They knew, beyond a shadow of doubt, that God was there for them, shepherding them away from their captivity. But, all of that happened yesterday. Today is a different story. Today they are hungry. Today they are afraid. Today they can’t help but wonder if this new “freedom” they have been given is a good thing. I can’t help feeling compassion for them. Away from the only home that they have ever known, floundering around in the desert, they feel lost and alone. All they have to hold on to is God’s promise of a better place, a land flowing with milk and honey. And, even though God had come through for them again and again, memory can be incredibly fleeting. They may have known what God had said and even what God had done in the past, but the bottom line is this: they are hungry now and their hunger feeds their deepest fear, that God may not be so good after all.

In moments of doubt, when there are more questions than answers, we would almost always choose to cling to what we know, even if it’s unfulfilling or toxic, even if it’s abusive or harmful. Rather the devil you know than the devil you don’t. The thought of facing uncertainty, of moving into uncharted territory, purposefully going through a season of unknown, this is too much to bear. One of my high school teachers used to always say that until the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same, we mostly stay the same.

But, God is calling us to something more, something better. God is beckoning us to walk away from the slavery that we know, whether that is our anger or disappointment, our hurt from failed relationships, our addictions and our fears, our bitterness and resentment, all the different kinds of chains that bind us and keep us from living life fully. God is making a way for us to leave all of that behind and enter more deeply into a mutual relationship of love and gratitude, the kind of relationship where we trust in God more than we trust in ourselves and our own devices. Most importantly, we are reminded in this story that God is always with us, guiding us with a rod and staff, giving us all that we need to live life well.

I know most of you have either received or seen a greeting card sometime in the last fifteen years with the “Footprints” inscription on it. It is definitely overused and arguably trite. I actually can’t believe that I am even talking about it in a sermon. In fact, when I was in divinity school, my preaching professor threatened our class that if we ever, under any circumstance, used “Footprints” as an example in a sermon, we would be automatically failed. But, whenever I see this inscription, I can’t help but recall the first time I read the story when I was young and much much less cynical. I remember tears springing to my eyes and chill bumps covering my arms, because I realized in reading it, how easy it is to lose sight of God’s presence in our midst. When illness strikes a loved one, when our relationships begin to falter, when we get the breath knocked out of us in one way or another and we only see one set of footprints in the sand, our first thought is that we have been left alone. Our fear, hurt, anger and doubt blinds us from seeing that God is still with us, carrying us through the wilderness, bringing us safely to green pastures and still waters.

This is the difference between the parable about mice and little people and our story about the Israelites. Instead of having to go on a massive search to find cheese, having to negotiate the maze all alone, God gives them their daily bread. It may not be the bread that they are used to. It may not even be recognizable to them. When they see it on the ground, they even say to one another, “What is it?” It must look like some of the food we find in the DFAC. But, Moses tells them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given them to eat.” It’s not what they expect or even hope for, but it is the bread that they need. It is enough for them to live.

When Jesus quotes this story in John’s gospel, he reminds his mostly Jewish audience that God’s provision has not wavered from that day in the wilderness when manna rained down from the sky. Just as God gave the Israelites bread from heaven to satisfy their hunger, God continues to provide the bread needed for life. Now, though, the hunger that is satiated is not of the belly, but it is of the heart. Jesus is a kind of bread that ends hunger for good. He is the bread of eternal life.

Just because we know this is true, doesn’t mean we won’t struggle with our hunger or our doubts or our fears. We are human after all. But, we can ask ourselves the same question that Hem asked when he found himself facing the unknown. What would we do if we were not afraid? How would we live differently? How would we love? How would we serve in Jesus’ name? How would we share Good News with the whole world? When we come to this table, when we eat of this bread and drink of this cup, we are reminded again and again of God’s steadfast provision, of God’s saving love in Jesus Christ. In the end, despite all our hunger and fear and doubt, this is the bread that changes our lives forever. It is the bread that matters most. It is the true bread of life. It is all that we need, and it is more than enough. Amen.

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