Being Filled

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 | Psalm 111 | Ephesians 5:15-20 | John 6:51-58

One of my favorite stories that I remember reading about Zen Buddhism is the story of the student who finally gets the chance to go to the master teacher so he can “get” it. Whatever books he’s read or classes he’s taken or meditations he’s done, this is his chance to learn from the Master. So the teacher invites the student serve the tea, and he’ll tell him when to stop. As the student pours the tea, he slows as he nears the top of the cup, but he keeps pouring as he is an obedient student. As the tea overflows the cup and spills onto the table and floor, he can’t take it anymore. “Teacher, the cup overflows; it’s making a mess.” (I’m completely paraphrasing this story!) The teacher looks intently at the student. “How can you learn anything when your mind is so full? There is no room for anything else.” I imagine the teacher pouring the tea onto the floor, placing the empty cup on the table and saying something like: “Now, we begin.” This empty cup is like the “beginner’s mind” that you might have heard of before. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is the title of Shunryu Suzuki’s book of collected talks (because Zen Buddhists don’t give sermons or homilies; they give dharma talks or just talks; this one is particularly about Buddhist practice). The beginner’s mind, like the empty cup, is ready to be filled.

I thought of this story in the midst of our “Bread of Life” section of the lectionary because it seems like Jesus is absolutely trying to fill us with the Good News that he is the Bread of Life. Each week, as we read a different section of the gospel, we’ve poured out our cup to be ready for a new lesson, but we’ve kept a little from the previous week, a rich flavorful bit.

But we don’t really have a beginner’s mind, even if we have forgotten all we heard last week. Like the Jews last week who thought they knew where and who Jesus was from and even the Jews this week who think they know what it means to eat flesh and drink blood, we, too, know a lot–or at least think we know a lot–about religion, life, and everything else. Our cups, our minds, are pretty full. Or, our minds can be full of figurative scar tissue or barricades, so damaged are they from bad theology or abuse. We could have been taught that we’re too far gone for redemption, not good enough, and/or that God’s love is conditional. The Bible, the “Word of God” could have been used to alienate or abuse us and others we care about. Even if we had room in our mind or our teacup, we wouldn’t want anything from the religion department to come anywhere close.

We might not have tea ceremonies in The Episcopal Church, but our worship follows the same structure–the same liturgy–week after week to provide stability, security, and predictability (at least in form) for us to settle in our place and let God abide in our midst. In A Hidden Wholeness, former educator and writer, a Quaker named Parker Palmer, writes about the soul of a person being like a wild animal in the woods. I picture a fox. For us to be able to get a glimpse of this animal, we have to be really still and patient, unobtrusive and gentle even in our presence. Even if we think we have them tamed in our certainty and knowledge or have them caged away in fear that they might be endangered, this soul still yearns to encounter God. In fact, studies have shown that while most people these days don’t identify as religious, they still have a sense of awe, experiences that kindle wonder, and a recent study shows that it’s not fancy coffee, shiny lights, or the perfect music program that bring people to church.

People come to church to encounter the presence of God.

I hope this is true or has been true for you here at our church.

Because an encounter with the presence of God strengthens faith and belief or maybe gives it to us for the first time. Venturing out in vulnerability, whether we’re a wild fox or proud student, we risk encountering the presence of Christ: maybe it’s with outstretched hands to receive the Body and Blood and not fully understanding how this feeds us but knowing that it does. Jesus asks us only to believe to be able to be fed by him. He fed the 5,000 physically. When I was dropping my son off for school the other day, I lamented that he hadn’t had breakfast. “It’s alright, mom,” he said. “We have Eucharist at 10:00, anyway. Isn’t that supposed to fill me up?” He’s a smart alec, but at least I get the idea that he’s paying attention to what’s said in church!

What’s important for us today is to know that through our belief in Jesus Christ, we are fed eternally, in a way that’s not to be replicated or substituted by anything. Like a mother’s milk for her baby, Christ nourishes our spirit with exactly what we need, individually, and strengthens us for whatever might threaten our wellbeing. Whatever we try to substitute for to fill our hunger for the spiritual food, we’ll soon realize we’re a bottomless pit, never satiated or satisfied. For Christians, Jesus truly is the Bread of Life–that which fills us and draws us nearer to the presence of God if we dare to believe such Good News.

Being nurtured and nourished in our belief, could we respond like Solomon if God appeared to us in a dream and asked us what we wanted God to give us? Solomon apparently gave God a good answer when he asked for a wise and discerning mind because God also goes ahead and gives him the health and riches that most everyone else would have wished for. But in the reading, we’re given insight into Solomon’s thought process. Before Solomon responds to God, he thinks about where he comes from: from King David, the mostly faithful, righteous, and upright servant of the LORD. Solomon has huge shoes to fill in following David. Solomon also ponders the reality of the situation, what is at the moment: God is, as ever, faithful in the covenant established with David and the chosen people. Then Solomon realizes who he is: a humble servant chosen for a daunting task, leading the multitudes of God’s chosen people. Does he really have the qualifications for this? What does he need for this impossible mission? An understanding and discerning mind. God agrees.

At the clergy wellness program Padre and I attended this week, one of the leaders was a Native American woman from Arizona. As she shared her stories, I imagined her going through a similar thought process as Solomon if God appeared to her. She’s actually a canon in her diocese for Native peoples. I believe she said there are 12 tribes represented in her diocese. She knows where she comes from. Arizona is her home; she belongs to one of the tribes; and she knows that her people and others like her have been severely under-represented in our religious tradition (as well as others). She told me that she is one of two such canons in the country since budget cuts have taken their toll, but she knows that the Native people need advocates, that awareness of their ways needs to spread before it is lost, and that there is much work of reconciliation yet to be done. She describes who she is with openness; she wears multiple hats, and even with all her work, she takes care of her 86-year-old mother whom she lives with. If God showed up to her in a dream and asked her what she asked of God, I’m sure there are many things that she could ask for, but it would not be a stretch to imagine her responding with a request for a wise and discerning mind, so that she could accomplish the mountain of responsibilities she carries.

What would we ask for if God appeared to us in a dream? If God asked what All Saints’ wanted from God? (If God appears to you and asks, please let me share a list!) Of course we know the correct answer: an understanding and discerning mind. But we can go through Solomon’s thought process to get there. Where do we come from? A twinkle in the Bishop’s eye? The effort of the community 11 years ago to pull All Saints’ together here in Bentonville? Even more than that, we come from the diocese, from the national church, from the Anglican Communion, from a rich tradition that bears all the hallmarks of triumphs and struggles of living faithfully in relationship with God. What is now? There are a plethora of opportunities and potentialities before us in regard to our ministries, our worship space, and our involvement in the community. Who are we? We are an open, welcoming community, willing to engage in difficult questions and to be good neighbors, loving as Jesus taught us to love. What do we ask for going forward as we strive to be the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement in Bentonville? Even before we need millions of dollars, we need wisdom that comes from an understanding and discerning mind.

Even though God said there was no king before and no king after that had the wisdom of Solomon, we can be thankful that we’re given this clue for how to make wise decisions. Within the process, there’s a good dose of humility and honesty, which we all have the potential to embody. Whether we encounter God in a dream, in church, or in a teachable moment, I hope we all have that beginner’s mind that’s ready to be filled with the fullness of God, in all its glory and mystery.

 

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Jesus Feeds His People

Sermon at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 2 August 2015

The Scripture Texts for Proper 13, Year B, Track 2  are:

Exodus 16:2-4,9-15 | Psalm 78:23-29 | Ephesians 4:1-16 | John 6:24-35


Jesus has a way of attracting the crowds, doesn’t he?

It’s true that if you offer food, people will usually come, and those who have a specialty tend to gain loyal followers. Jesus always seems to get his hands on some bread. We don’t have accounts of him making it (I’m sure there’s a Martha or Mary on hand for that), but Jesus will take the bread, give thanks for it, and share it with those around him–whether it’s five or five thousand people.

We can imagine breaking off our portion of the loaf, dipping it in the oil, enjoying the company of others. There is such contentment in being fed, being comfortably full. There’s no doubt that Jesus fed his people.

But the contentment of being full wanes as hunger rolls around again. After their digestive lull in which they seemingly miss Jesus walking on water, the crowd of five thousand wakes up to presumably realize that they are hungry again and that their meal ticket has moved on.

With a nagging and growing hunger, they pursue Jesus, the one who not only healed people but fed them. When they catch up with Jesus, he confronts their hunger head on. They don’t really want to talk about a prophet or rabbi; they want some more food.

When Jesus offers the true bread from heaven, that’s what the people want–the good stuff that endures for eternity and gives life to the world.

“Sir, give us this bread always.”

I wonder if they could comprehend what they were receiving.

I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. “Believe in me and never be hungry, never be thirsty.”

Really, Jesus? Just believe and hunger goes away?

Do you want to be the one to explain that to one in five children in the U.S. who suffers from food insecurity, children who don’t know where their next meal is coming from? It’s no wonder the people started to ask for another sign, because it’s crazy talk to ignore the needs of our bodies. We have to be physically nourished to do any kind of work, and we have to work to provide nourishment to our families.

We spend a lot of effort just trying to survive.

But you know, the crowd is listening to Jesus.

In his presence, they attend to his words and hear his promises to give life, to do the will of God, and never to drive away those who come to him or to lose those given to him. He promises eternal life and resurrection. (This is primarily in the verses we skip between this week and next in the lectionary.)

We’re listening hard, just as they must have been in Capernaum.

Our bodies are not eternal. Jesus knows that. Jesus lived in the flesh, in the confines of the physical body. We all are bound to the temporal world and live and die as mortals. Jesus knew and knows our hunger in the physical body. Jesus knows hunger, knows pain as we know it, though on a scale that we cannot fathom.

Jesus knows hunger as we know it, and maybe he saw it as one of the few ways we can understand true desire, true longing.

If you have ever felt within you a fullness of life that swells your heart and threatens to overwhelm you with joy because you feel Love, then chances are you have been in the presence of Christ. There is a fullness and wholeness that come from being in this presence that envelops us with a peacefulness that does pass all understanding, and words fall short.

Stillness. True contentment. Things of the world tend to fall away. Remember hunger? Aren’t you hungry? Oh, yes. But there’s plenty of food, enough for everyone. So content are we feeding on the presence of Christ, the bread of heaven, that we eat a bit and pass it around. There is an abundance, which is enough for everyone.

When we operate from this place of abundance, we are in the good days, quite aware of Jesus in our lives. “Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray. We do the work of believing, as Jesus said, so that we can be fed with enough to live in this precarious balance between the temporal and spiritual. We come close to loving God, neighbor, and self, living in right relationship with each other.

But we are of this world, and our awareness shifts in any given moment, our focus easily distracted. It’s natural to get hungry and need to eat. It’s wonderful to be full, take a nap and go into what I call digestive auto-pilot. What isn’t in our best interest is to be separated from God. Separation sets us up for bad days.

We can get separated by lack of belief sparked by tragedy or apathy. We can get in our own way. As soon as we put ourselves first, focus on what we want, think we are in control or can judge others, we lose focus on the presence of Christ that is still, as always, right before us. Unless we sustain our belief in the one whom God has sent, we will hunger, we will thirst. There are many ways to suffer. We can be so hungry that a snack pack looks like a feast and so empty that we can eat and eat and never get full, the void being so great.

We need to be reminded sometimes that our heart and soul has known the fullness of Christ and was created in God’s image. Having known the peace of God, we want to return to it, we long for it. We ask for ourselves and for others, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

It’s already been given. It’s up to us to see it, and we don’t have to look far or try to imagine anything. It’s here and now. We can expect to see Jesus, if we first believe he is here. Those of you at Women’s Institute heard Bishop Stephen Charlston say that in matters of Spirit, we are more accurate to say “believing is seeing.” It is up to us to do the work to find the bread of life in our midst. It is our responsibility to do the work of believing.

I know that wherever I could have gone after seminary, I would be able to find Christ, but I can’t imagine being anywhere else right now. In this place, the hard work of believing is being done, and that belief radiates from our very being.

As I get to know you better, you’ll teach me the ways you sustain your faith, how I can work with you to strengthen our belief. I look forward to what we’ll learn and share together in the upcoming Faith Journey class, to which all are welcome. Already, in this place, I see life being shared. With gratitude and generosity, our abundance is shared with those who come searching.  Look at the eyes of those who are working and of those who are searching, and we cannot help but see that Jesus is here.

Any and all of you who were here Thursday night in body or spirit know the power of this community, the significance of coming together to be fed. Hope and healing were on the menu that night. Nearly two hundred were fed.

There’s plenty more to feed, and there’s more than enough to go around.

Jesus is still feeding his people.

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