Archive for August, 2012

The following sermon was preached at Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, OH, on August 19, 2012.  It was written on John 6:51-58

This Thursday was the end of my clinical pastoral education unit.  More commonly referred to as CPE, the ELCA requires that all candidates for ordination learn how to provided spiritual support in a clinical environment.  Like many of my seminarians, I fulfilled my CPE unit during a 12 week summer intensive.  During my intensive I worked full time as a hospital chaplain intern for the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire.

A teaching facility of Dartmouth College, this hospital was an ideal learning environment.  One of our goals was learning how to make “cold calls.”  A cold call is exactly as it sounds, knocking on the patient room of a person knowing nothing other than their last name, and asking if they would like to speak to a chaplain.  The point of a cold call is for spiritual caregivers to develop the capacity to invite someone into a conversation without having any idea on how that conversation will go, and to show the least suspecting individual that their spirit is valued by another human being.

Needless to say, making a cold call is not easy.  Providing spiritual care in a hospital is not easy, particularly since I was providing spiritual care to all faith traditions, Christian or not.  I kept asking my supervisor for some sort of tool, some sort of book that would help make these encounters easier.  Surely I could carry scripture with me, or a prayer book of some sort.

My supervisor told me I needed to enter these rooms with my hands empty and my heart open.  He said, “You know, God as a voice told Adam and Eve that he loved them and they should trust him not to eat the fruit.  They didn’t listen.  Then God told the Israelites that he loved them and they should trust him to follow the laws he put in writing.  They didn’t listen.  So God came down as a human, and told them he loved them face to face.  That’s when things started to change.”

Today as we look at our passage from John, we see Jesus doing just that – sharing the love of God face to face with the people.  This is a pivotal moment in the John narrative, a point where the gospel shifts and the road to the cross becomes clear.  This is the moment where things start to change.

The gospel of John has a different flavor than the other three.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all share information from one central source, source Q.  Q is a source that adds a level of historical integrity to the other gospels.  While occasionally John has a few stories and events that are found in the other gospels, Q segments don’t come into play.  John’s message is less focused on historically grounding the ministry of Jesus, and more focused than the others on emphasizing that Jesus is the Messiah in the flesh, the incarnate Son of God.

Because of this human emphasis, John shows Jesus repeatedly engaging in in-depth conversations explaining that he is in fact the Messiah.  Today’s gospel is one snippet of one of those conversations.

This conversation began a few weeks back with the feeding of the multitude.  This miracle is one of many demonstrations in John where Jesus shows that we can count on God to provide for our needs, to sate our hungers.  The community doesn’t exactly understand this message, so the conversation moves to Jesus telling the people “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever drinks of me will never be thirsty.”[1]  Again, this message isn’t overly clear to the people.  Last week’s gospel passage ended with Jesus explaining that not only is he the bread of life, he is also the bread of heaven.

Today’s message begins exactly where last week’s gospel ended, with Jesus professing, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”[2]

Looking at the Greek of this passage, I was surprised to discover that the word John uses for eating can also be translated as “to munch.”  I don’t know about you, but when I think about Holy Communion, I have never envisioned myself as “munching” on the body of Jesus.

Yet, when we participate in Holy Communion, our Lutheran tradition confesses that we are consuming a literal presence of Jesus.  Christ is in, with, and under the elements, so that the morsels we eat are both fully bread and wine while being fully the body and blood of Christ.

However, a communion conversation isn’t John’s focus.  John never shows us a traditional last supper moment, with the dialogue of “This is my body…this is my blood…do this in remembrance of me”.  This gospel instead shows Jesus washing the feat of the disciples.

So we must ask ourselves, without a communion connection, what is the point of this lengthy dialogue about the body, bread from heaven, bread of life?  Why is this conversation so important that it takes us five gospel lessons to finish reading?  How can a conversation that began with a hungry crowd help us understand our own faith?

As I read this passage, I am reminded of an infant I met on one of my hospital units this summer, a child in the Intensive Care Nursery.  Annalee was born at 30 weeks, weighing a little over one pound.  At 30 weeks, she should have been at least triple her size, but because of a genetic defect, not enough oxygen went to her brain and her body did not grow like it was supposed to.

This dangerous birth weight resulted in a variety of birth defects.  Her lungs were ill formed, her heart had not closed, her kidneys and liver in failure.  Because of her breathing issues, Annalee had a trach installed in her neck, which is a breathing tube so thick in relationship to the rest of her body that she could not swallow or cry aloud.  She was fed through a tube directly into her stomach.

I became very attached to this family and to the beautiful little girl who, without the tubes, would have looked like a perfectly formed baby from the outside.  I found myself fascinated in how the nursing staff tried to normalize Annalee’s life.  When I met her, she was 6 months old, and like many young infants, smacked her lips at the smells around her.  Because of the trach in her neck, she could not swallow anything greater than her own saliva.  She will mostly likely never eat solid food, never be able to munch.

But she could taste.  I’ll never forget watching the developmental specialist brush applesauce across Annalee’s lips with a tiny paint brush.  The applesauce was not enough to force her to swallow anything solid, but just enough for Annalee to lick the sweet treat off of her lips.

That applesauce brush sated a hunger.  For Annalee, whose tummy was always full because of a tube in her belly, the applesauce brush sated her hunger for taste.  For her parents and myself, that applesauce brush sated our hunger for an innocent child who is unable to eat to be able to experience the pleasure of food.

When Christ tells us that through his body and blood we will be fed bread and wine of the heavens, he is telling us that in him and through him, our hungers will be sated.

Hunger is an important part of our human experience.  We may hunger for food.  We may hunger for love.  We may hunger for financial security, a job that fulfills us, better relationships with our children, a cure for cancer.  We may even hunger for things that may do us harm; like revenge, alcohol, drugs, nicotine, vengeance.

My CPE supervisor told me that it was when God came into human form and talked to people face to face things began to change.  I have thought about that statement many times and wondered if I was standing face to face before Christ, what would be the change I would look for?  What would be the hunger that could only be sated by coming face to face with God’s presence on earth?

It begs to ask, what is the hunger that keeps us from realizing that our needs have already been sated?  What is the hunger that keeps us from experiencing Christ in, with, and under the elements of our life?

We all have barriers that keep us from experiencing the grace Christ’s presence in our lives.  Often times, those barriers are found within our own grief and expectations.

Part of why John depicts such a long conversation is because people kept asking Jesus to re-create the miracle of the feeding.  Their expectation on being fed physically kept them from seeing how they were fed spiritually.  Despite Jesus saying that he is the bread from heaven over and over again, people kept missing the message.  The very next lines after where our message ends shows the disciples saying to Jesus, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”[3]

I sort of wish the formers of our lectionary would have left that verse in, because to me it names a tension this passage evokes.  Jesus tells us that the hunger of our salvation is sated in him, but quite frankly, this teaching is difficult.  Who can accept it?

Who can accept that there is a little girl in New Hampshire who can only experience taste when someone paints her lips with applesauce?  Who can accept that there are many of us in our Divinity family who are living pay check to pay check, trying to find a way to be fiscally stable?  Who can accept when tragedy occurs, loved ones die, and families break apart?

It is in these moments that we need to realize that the expectations of our hungers can serve like barriers to experiencing the grace of God.  The disciples are right.  This teaching is difficult.  It is difficult when we are so caught up in the munching and the drinking that we lose focus on what those physical manifestations tell us.  We eat this bread and drink this wine because in doing so we remember that Christ abides in us.

Christ tells us, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”[4]

We may never accept that there is a little girl in New Hampshire who can only experience taste when someone paints her lips with applesauce.  We can be sated in knowing that Christ abides in her, loving her with every stroke of the brush.

We may never accept that there are many of us in our Divinity family who are living pay check to pay check, trying to find a way to be fiscally stable.  We can be sated in knowing that Christ abides in those experiences, and will never forsake us during the darkness of those moments.

We may never accept when tragedy occurs, loved ones die, and families break apart.  We can be sated in knowing that Christ abides in those moments, grieving the losses along with us, standing strong behind us as we move forward.

God loved us enough to come down in human form and abide within us, sating our hungers as we face them face to face.  It is in the embrace of love that we can release our barriers and feel the gift of Christ’s sacred change.

[1] John 6:35

[2] John 5:51

[3] John 6:60b

[4] John 6:54


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