Sermon – August 2, 2015 – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Pentecost 10
August 2, 2015
John 6:24-35

As many of you know, I just spent the last four years of my life living, learning, and ministering in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Bay Area is notorious for being one of the largest metropolitan areas with the smallest number of people of faith. Less than 5 percent of people living in this area declare having any kind of religious following or preference, an even smaller percentage of people claim Christianity as their faith, and an even smaller percentage (like, really small) would describe themselves as Lutheran. So, one of the realities of doing ministry in this place is that when people walk through our church doors, they will most likely be doing so without having any previous or meaningful experience of church in their life.
Now, there was one particular woman that fit into this category while I was serving my internship. Having no prior experience of church, she wandered into our congregation and decided to stay. One day I asked her what it was that kept her coming back to the church. She replied, “There are many things I like about this place but I think I keep coming for the confession and forgiveness at the beginning of the service. You Lutherans have the most realistic and authentic expression of what it is to be human. It is so refreshing to sit in a room full of people and openly admit that sometimes life isn’t perfect, that we struggle, and make mistakes, and that life goes on. I am tired of feeling like I need to make my life be perfect when it’s just not. Being a human is hard.” I was surprised by her answer but not at all by her critique of the world we live in.
We live in a world that is driven by a self-help narrative. Just think of all of the self-help books that are published each year— The best selling “self-help” books at Barnes and Noble include titles on how to get over your past, make yourself happier, how to overcome social anxiety, how to be a better parent, have more self-esteem, curing yourself of trauma, how to be a better spouse, even a manual on how to “heal yourself of emotions.” The existence of these products give us two conflicting messages 1) That these struggles are a part of what it is to be human and 2) If you are struggling with something you better fix it yourself. The message that is being sent is that if you struggle, you are alone, and you better fix it. No wonder we live in a world where illness, especially mental illness, is stigmatized. In our world, it’s not ok to admit that you’re not ok and it’s not socially acceptable to ask for help. In our world, you need to be your own savior and if you can’t, then you’re just not trying hard enough. If you’re not the most perfect parent, the most emotionally stable spouse, if you can’t save your self from yourself, in our world you are made to feel less valuable, less worthy of acceptance and love.
This is so deeply engrained in the fibers of our society that we often times don’t even recognize how unrealistic it is. Think about what you love about your spouse, parents, friends, or children: I doubt that you love these people because they are perfect, never make mistakes, or never struggle. Of course not! But for some reason, our own self-love is a bit harder. Perhaps we are so infatuated with “self-help” because we are constantly being told that who we are and what we bring to the world is not enough.
Sometimes I think we treat our faith in a similar way… If we just do enough, or serve enough, or read the bible enough that maybe, just maybe we can call ourselves good Christians. If we help ourselves to be good Christians then, just maybe, we can be loved by God.
I was thinking that perhaps this is a modern phenomenon but then I read of the disciples in today’s gospel reading.  They have just witnessed Jesus perform one of his greatest miracles and their first reaction is to think that they need to be performing miracles as well. They ask Jesus, “How can we perform the works of God?” It’s as if they want Jesus to give them the self-help book on not only on how to be better followers but also on how to be like God themselves. The disciples are operating under the assumption that in order to follow their rabbi and teacher, Jesus, they must be like him, to imitate him. The disciples want to feel like they are worthy of following Jesus, like the gift of bread is something they must earn. If Jesus is making loaves and fishes multiply then of course they need to be able to do so as well. If that’s true then of course they’re not going to feel like their actions are enough…because deep down the disciples know that they aren’t miracle workers.
Jesus’ answer is one of pure grace: “this is the work of God, that you believe in the one who God has sent.” Jesus prefaces what he is going to say to the disciples by telling them that what he is about to say will sound absurd but to take a chance and believe that it is the work of God. Jesus goes on to explain that being a follower of Jesus is not about recreating miracles, not about making bread appear out of thin air… not about what the follower can do…but that it is about what God is already doing, how God is intimately at work in the world. It’s a hard pill for the disciples to swallow because it makes a lot more sense to earn bread than to just receive it. It makes more rational sense to earn or validate God’s love than to just simply receive it as a gift.
Jesus continues explaining to the disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
This isn’t the kind of bread you can earn. This kind of gift wasn’t about what the disciples were doing and it’s not about what we’ve earned today. It’s not about how worthy we are, it’s about what God chooses freely to do for us. It’s pure love.
The disciples reply, “Lord, give us this bread always.”
The transformation of the disciples in this story happens when they finally let go of the idea that they need to be someone or be something in order to receive the love and new life Jesus offers to them. Or, that they need to be someone perfect or some superhuman in order to follow Jesus. Jesus meets them with these words: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.”
I think what the disciples were hungry for is similar to what many of us who live in this world may hunger for today. The disciples were hungry for a way to follow Jesus that was not just contingent on their own works— they were hungry for the work not of themselves but of God. Perhaps they were hungry for a God who met them where they were; A God whose love equipped them to love and serve their world.
In a world of unreasonable expectations, we long to be enough. Perhaps the new life is found in not setting ourselves up in systems that decide who is in and who is out, who is worthy, or who is valuable and who is not. The real work then is to believe that God’s saving of the world is indeed not up to us or our own abilities but is judged only by God’s unconditional love for God’s children.  In the end, this may be the hardest for us to accept—that God’s gift to us in Jesus, the bread of life, is not about us or our worthiness but about what God will continue to do for and through us.
What if church was a community we could come to and be embraced just as we are— amidst the struggles, in middle of those times that we feel like we’re not enough? Week after week when we gather here we are reminded of God’s love made tangible through the bread and wine of Holy Communion. It is a time that we are reminded of Jesus’ words, “I am the bread” and that there is no standard for who is worthy to receive this gift. Christ is the host of this meal and there are no barriers to God’s love for the world… just bread, wine, and an invitation to take and eat, this gift is given for you.
The promise of new life does not guarantee that we will never struggle again but instead gives assurance of the persistence of God who continues to meet us where we are. No matter what is going on in our selves, God promises to meet us here. Being fed by Jesus, the bread of life, means that no matter where you are in life you are loved. You are so loved. It is unbelievable how loved you are.
“So come to the table, you who have much faith and you who would like to have more; you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time; you who have tried to follow Jesus and you who feel you have failed. Come. Christ invites us to meet God here.”