Sunday, August 26, 2018
Lectionary 21

Prayer of the Day
Holy God, your word feeds your people with life that is eternal. Direct our choices and preserve us in your truth, that, renouncing what is false and evil, we may live in you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Readings and Psalm
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 Joshua calls all Israel to serve the LORD
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20 Put on the armor of God
John 6:56-69 The bread of eternal life

Title: An End to Begin With

We don’t always get the ending we hoped for, do we. Yet, movies and TV, books and plays try to convince us otherwise. In fiction that is of human creation, we love and expect to see a well-ordered universe with clean, clear endings. Crimes are solved. Bad guys get their just desserts. Good people are graciously rewarded. Evil empires are brought down. Repentants are shown mercy and grace by just authorities. Reconciliations are filled with hope and fresh starts. Lessons are learned, and lives are changed. Star-crossed lovers are united. Truth is told, and wrongs are righted. We love a happy ending. It’s why we watch and read, and smile and cry tears of joy. But life tells us over and over again that these endings are never guaranteed and only materialize some of the time. Too often, recovery is not complete or possible, relationships disintegrate, lessons are ignored and stubbornness reigns on, obstacles remain in place, and disappointment most be embraced.

This morning our readings give us a variety of endings. One is, indeed, happy, one is puzzling. And one is kind of, do I dare say, disappointing.

From the book of Joshua we have a scene that depicts the end of 40 years of wandering the wilderness. Moses is dead. Joshua is the new leader of the Hebrews who were freed from Egypt and have come to the promised land to establish a nation. Joshua asks the people “Who are you going to serve?” And the people say “The God who saved us.” Role credits. It’s a happily ever after ending worthy of Hollywood. All is right in the world.

Our reading from Ephesians is from the last chapter, the end of the letter. For seven weeks we have been working our way through. We have heard that we are saved by grace through faith. We have been challenged to live vulnerably as the body of Christ. Challenged to live as a loving community in Christ. We have been encouraged that God is doing more through us than we could ever imagine. And then we get to this passage about armor that makes it sound like we do not have enough confidence in the battles that Christ has won for us and that we have to go out there and fight them ourselves. I do love the imagery of armor, and maybe I’m taking this too literally. But, I must also confess that I get uncomfortable when I hear some contemporary Christians fixating on “spiritual warfare” rather than putting their trust in Christ, so as to see that we are freed to live, and to fill that life with a focus on serving others and working for justice for all. Yes, the letter’s end is a bit puzzling as it seems to shift our reliance on God’s grace to our own power to fight albeit with some divine protections.

But the ending to focus on today, five weeks in the making, is the final scene from the sixth chapter of John. And I have to admit, for me, it is a bit disappointing. It has taken us five Sundays of gospel readings to get to today’s final verses. As many have heard, the whole chapter is centered on Jesus’ teaching that he is the bread of life. And since all of our readings are understood more deeply when we take them in context, let’s look back where we have been. See what kind of ending we were hoping for. Confront the mix feelings regarding the ending we do have.

The whole thing started with a wonderful opening scene – the feeding of the 5,000. As the opening scene in this chapter that is so totally focused on bread, it is the Biblical equivalent of that big number that starts off a happy musical. It not only grabs the audience’s attention and draws us in, but it sets up expectations that all will be well. Considering current Broadway offerings, it’s sort of like that opening number of Hello Dolly. The song is: Call On Dolly. We are introduced to the story’s prime mover, the problem fixer, the epitome of Jill-of-all-trades. We are assured from the beginning that Dolly will take care of everything and that a happy ending is just two and half hours away. We’re safe. We will be happy and satisfied.

Likewise, the folks at the feast in the field saw Jesus as the one who was going to take care of everything. He fed them and – if you remember that little verse at the end of this first episode in this bread chapter – they were ready to make him their king. But that was not the ending Jesus had in mind, it is the not the ending he had come to accomplish. So he withdraws to a quiet place on his own.

The next time we see the crowd, they are searching for Jesus. They want more. They want to stay close to the one who has satisfied them. Eat their way into a happy ending.

But Jesus knows that this is just the beginning and he does not want to merely fill their stomachs. He wants to fill their lives. Jesus challenges folks to see beyond the manna that was given in the wilderness, to see that the bread that he is will sustain all throughout the journeys of this life and on into the next forever. But the people can’t move their eyes off the limitations of today. They can’t see the hope-filled ending he is speaking of. They only see him as a lowly peasant. The child of people they know. They see him as powerless and limited as themselves. They only see the limitations in the endings that humans can provide. (Now I certainly am not pointing fingers of judgement at those folks. I know I am like-minded. Jesus says: “God provides” and I answer back with a whole bunch of “Yeah buts.”)

Jesus answers their questions and their doubts, our questions and doubts, with promises. He does not scold, he comforts. He assures us that he does not only provide bread – food that is quickly devoured and quickly forgotten. He promises to abide with us and us with him. To always be present. For the Jews who were listening to him, they knew that the bread of presence was in the Temple in Jerusalem. But Jesus is promising them the bread of presence that they can truly hold on to and eat, that will sustain. He is present with them in their lives, not just hidden away in the great sanctuary. He promises his divine presence that will never leave them. He will abide with them and them with him. He abides with us and we will him.

We are reminded of this every time we come to the table to receive Christ’s presence in the bread and the wine. We ask for this every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer when we ask: give us this day our daily bread. The bread that does not fail to feed us. The bread through which the Spirit gives life.

For the great climax to this long bread chapter, one would expect our ending to be a cry from the crowd “Feed us.” And the final scene be another wonderful feast. But that is not what John describes. Instead, some are still not able to take in this bread of life that is being offered them. Perhaps they feel they do not understand it enough. Or they do not believe enough. Perhaps they think it contradicts some tradition or ancient understanding. Perhaps they just need to think about it more.

But key to this ending is that Jesus does not chase them away. He does not say you must fully comprehend to receive. He does not say “explain it back to me so that I know that you know.” He simply says: “Abide with me and eat what I am offering.” Perhaps the most gracious thing that Jesus does for them and us is that he does not say “Eat and all your endings will be happy.”  He simply says, “Eat and know that I’m with you now and forever.”

But many disciples do leave Jesus here. And now, with the happy taken out of this ending, Jesus looks to those who have stayed and says: Are you leaving, too? To which they reply: Where else can we go? Who else speaks to us as you do?

Jesus speaks the truth. It is not necessarily what people want to hear, not what will get the most supporters, the most votes, or the most followers. But he speaks what we need to hear. Our earthly endings may not (will not always) be happy. But, in the promises of Christ we hear that we are never left alone. We are assured that the peace that is ours at that ultimate end is beyond our understanding. So, in the end all we can say is: “Jesus, who else can we go to? Feed us.” And in those words, there is always a promising beginning.

The Rev. Mark Erson,

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