Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
Somewhere in Lewis Carroll's wonderful stories about Alice in Wonderland, the White Rabbit says to a frantic Alice, "Don't just do something, stand there." Don't just do something, stand there. It's the opposite of our Protestant work ethic, drilled into our heads as children as our parents shouted at us, "Don't just stand there, do something!" We find our worth in all the "doing." of our lives. Many senior citizens feel they are no longer useful to society if their health does not permit them to be out there "doing." something productive. When we meet someone new at a party, we often ask what they do for a living, linking closely our living with our doing. If something is wrong in our lives, our churches, our workplaces, schools or nation, everyone will call out for someone to do something about it. Clergy commonly hear folk ask at a time of tragedy or fear, "Why doesn't God do something?"
When those who had just experienced the miracle of being fed by Jesus followed him across the Sea of Galilee, they were full of questions. Prominent among their wonderings was the question "What must we do to perform the works of God?" Perhaps somewhere in their minds was the hope that if they just got the formula right, they, too, could produce enough food to feed thousands out of a few loaves and fish. When Jesus told them the work they had to do was to believe, that wasn't enough. "Okay, "they responded, "so what are you going to do to convince us you are legitimate? What work are you performing? Let's see more bread like Moses did so we know you are not a one-hit-wonder!"
Jesus is trying to convince them that indeed, God already has done something, performed a work so wonderful that it will make possible all the works of good the world needs forever. The Word, the "work." if you will, has been made flesh and dwells among them. The bread that Jesus incarnates is the bread which feeds the deepest and most basic of human hungers: the need to connect with God. Whether or not people are aware of that hunger, this bread will enable them through that connection to be empowered to do whatever works God needs them to do. Without that connection, there are only a few loaves and fish and a lot of frustrated and confused people.
Jesus is trying to get them to stop focusing on the doing of things and simply to stand still long enough to understand how God yearns to be one with them. In doing so, they will acknowledge that no matter how many works they do, they cannot be in charge of their own salvation, or the salvation of the world. You cannot be in control, Jesus says, but you can join with the one who is and so find freedom and energy and power to do amazing things. But before there is any doing, there must be a being still to know that God is God.
It is getting harder and harder to just be. It is getting harder and harder to not think we need to work at everything including our relationship with God. Many of us say to ourselves if we had just prayed more God would have looked after me. We are almost built to believe that we are always in control. The secret maybe just to be and not to be in control
Obviously, this was as frustrating to Jesus' listeners then as it is to so many folks today. I experienced this in an interesting way several years ago when I went to El Salvador with a group from my church. The church had a long-standing relationship with a health and welfare agency in the country, and a group of 5-10 people went down every summer to work on projects, often painting or building or doing medical projects. The year I went down, the "work." project fell through for several reasons. We found ourselves with seven days ahead of us and no work to do. Some of our group became frustrated immediately and wondered why we had bothered spending the time and money if there was nothing here to do.
The director of the agency, however, a wise and faith-filled Salvadoran woman, invited us to look at our trip with different eyes. She helped us to see that our purpose was not to "do." with the people of the villages, but to "be." with them. We began to see that we needed to make connections with their lives to understand better how our lives and theirs might join in service to God and one another. We needed to see life through their eyes, to experience the world as they did, if even for a short time. We needed to receive the gifts they had to give us, and not just think we were here to help them. After a week of living and talking with our new Salvadoran friends, we came home with a new energy, a new interest in them based not only on how we could help them, but on the fact that we were one people in Christ. It was no longer about us bringing bread to them, but about us being partners in seeking the bread of life on many levels.
In John we are told “Do not work for the food that disappears,42 but for the food that remains to eternal life – the food 43 which the Son of Man will give to you. For God the Father has put his seal of approval on him."44
In verse 42 we find a reference to spoiling, that is more focused on the temporary nature of this kind of food. In other words, do not work for the food that disappears. Note the wordplay on "work" here. This does not imply "working" for salvation, since the "work" is later explained (in Joh 6:29) as "to believe in the one whom he (the Father) sent."
The prophet Isaiah (40:31) reminds us that they who wait on the Lord will find the strength of eagles to run the race set before us, or rather to fly it! The work of believing is not an addition to the work of service; it is its foundation. (NET Bible)
Work not for the food. The first word must be emphasized. It is aimed at the chiliastic inclination to laziness in the enjoyment of miraculous food and resembles the word of Paul in Thessalonians (2Th 3:11-12). But the injunction immediately takes a turn designed to lead their mind to the essential point. There is a double oxymoron or paradox: (1) that they should not labor for the perishable food, which is the very thing they must get by working; (2) that they should labor for the heavenly food, which is not to be earned by labor. The solution lies (1) in the position of the exclamation: Labor, at the beginning of the sentence: Be earnest workers; (2) in the addition of the next words to elucidate the first. Work not for the earthly food, which perishes; even work for daily bread should not aim at mere material support and sensual enjoyment, but at the eternal in the temporal; (3) in the doing away of all thought of human production in matters of faith by the further words: “Which the Son of Man shall give unto you.”—The food that perishes; or rather, which spoils, corrupts. (Lange Commentary on the Holy Scriptures)
William Barclay points out the Roman Empire had many lavish feasts. They seem to be arranged to somehow to defeat the constant search for those things we hunger for. They were extremely lavish with peacock’s brains and nightingale’s tongues as two of the many supposedly grand dishes served. But somehow, they did not satisfy the hunger of the participants. The upper-class Romans were not only extremely rich but also extremely hungry and yet they never were satisfied. So, the question that surrounds these verses is what were they hungry for? It was not physical food, but spiritual food is what Jesus is telling us. Jesus is saying that they where hungry for love and spiritual enlightenment and where not getting what they needed. They thought that they could fill this gap in their lives by working hard and earning more and more. But that failed the upper-class Romans in their day and fails us now. Jesus calls us on to just be and let God be in control. That alone will appease their spiritual hunger. (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series Vol: The Gospel of John [Philadelphia, 1975] p212)
There are really two very profound lessons in these verses this week. The first is the power of just being, the power to stand still and let God do. There is secondly the fact that without us doing anything God will satisfy our hunger. God will fill us with love and spiritual strength. Stand still and receive God’s grace is the simple and healthy advice given.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
A mentor once told me to "Be instead of do." I remember looking at him as though he had grown a second head. What does that even mean?! Be what? And how can you be without doing? I am highly goal-oriented so the concept of "just being" was a foreign one to me.
It wasn't until I became a mom that I realized the importance of being (and learned how to do it). My daughter was a beautiful but colicky baby. She cried for hours and seemingly for no reason. I loved her with all of my heart, but it was hard to love the constant screaming. When she was awake, I frantically tried everything possible to keep her occupied and happy. I looked forward to the moment when she would nap so I could have a moment of peace. When she was asleep, I anxiously dreaded when she would wake up and the screaming would start all over again.
A few months after she was born, I saw something on television about a child's death and I was struck by the level of grief that poor family must be experiencing. It was at that point that my old mentor's words came back to me. My life had become all about doing and living for the future. There was no time during which I was "being" or even focusing on the current moment. I was living life for a future moment rather than embracing the current one. And I was unhappy because of it.
So, I decided to find a way just to be. When my daughter was awake, rather than anxiously wondering when she might cry or hungrily looking forward to her next nap, I would sit and enjoy her—show her things in the room, play with her, tickle her little belly. In my head, that could be the last moment that I ever spent with her and I wanted it to be one to cherish. I gave up on trying to accomplish household chores or work-related ones when she was awake and instead just lived in the moment—finding humor in the smallest (and often grossest) things that she did. I focused on the baby smell of her, the softness of her perfect skin, her sweet baby breath, the color of her eyes, and the expressiveness of her face. I challenged myself to savor each moment, no matter what we were doing and find some way to make it an enjoyable one. And I focused on my love for her and my gratitude for her existence. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dont-worry-mom/201203/the-power-being)
I remember the last time I saw her so well because of what happened that day. As my mom was helping feed and take my grandmother to the bathroom, I sat in the living room watching TV. My grandmother called to me and asked if I was ready to watch my Christmas dance recital video. We had talked about it for months now, and they had finally handed out the videos at school. I was so excited for her to see it since she had missed my recital.
Yet, when the time came for us to watch the video together, of me in all my ballet and modern dance glory, I said no. I don’t know why exactly, if it was the teenage angst in me not wanting to do what I was told. Perhaps, I was just too restless from being in my grandmother’s house all day cleaning. I was ready to go. I left the tape, and I think I told my grandmother we could watch it later.
The last time I saw her was when I slid that wooden door to her kitchen and walked out into the cold, Michigan air. I regret that moment so much. How I wish I could go back and just be. I’d go back and watch that silly dance recital video with my grandmother. I wouldn’t have been in such a hurry to go. I would’ve sat next to my grandmother, rested my head on her lap and laughed at the silly costumes we had to wear. I would’ve told her the parts of the choreography I struggled with. I would’ve pointed out the parts where I messed up, but no one could tell.
I would’ve stayed with her. I would’ve held her hand. I would’ve told her how much I loved her. I have would just been.
I got another lesson on “just being” that same year when my closest friend came into the girls’ locker room to find me. I was changing for dance class, and she came in the room trying her best to hold back tears. She told me her cancer had come back. She was afraid, and she came to tell me. Out of all her friends, she came and found me.
I don’t know what level of profundity a 15-year-old girl is expected to have, but again, I didn’t know what to do. It reminded me of my grandmother, when she was sick and frail. I was afraid. So I just hugged my friend. We stood there, her crying and me holding her in the girls’ locker room.
We stood. We cried. We embraced. Her mom stood watching us, and she let us just be. I wouldn’t change that moment for the world. Two years later, in our senior year of high school, my friend passed away. I still hold that memory of us in the locker room tight.
We don’t always have the most eloquent or beautiful words. We don’t have the right words or answers, no matter how much we want to. Sometimes, it is just a matter of being. Just being there through the hurt, the scary diagnoses and the uncertainty. There is so much power, so much unknown healing, in just sitting with someone in all of life’s hurt and confusion and just being. (https://themighty.com/2016/11/cancer-why-just-being-there-for-people-matters/)
The response of the crowd to Jesus' assertion that the work they need to do is simply to believe reminds one of the common response among a group of teenagers in a classroom when the professor is teaching, and someone shouts out "Will this be on the test?" The implication is that if it is not on the test, if it is not going to be useful in some immediate way to them, then it is not worth paying attention to.
St. Augustine would often end a service of Holy Communion with the words, "Be what you eat."
"I am the bread of life, "of course, reminds us of the bread and cup of Holy Communion. The liturgical term for what happens in the Prayer of Consecration, when we invoke the presence of Jesus in the elements of bread and wine/juice, is anamnesis. The word means "remember, "but remember in a very specific way. It means that what was past now comes into the present in a very real way. Understanding the bread as being in a very real way the Jesus of the past now present with us brings a new spiritual richness to becoming connected to Jesus through this sacrament.
The Talmud tells a story about the importance of focusing upon heavenly matters rather than physical possessions. Rabbi Hanina was a very poor man, yet very faithful. One day, though, his wife, frustrated by living with such modest means, approached her husband and said, "Since you are known as a man whose prayers are heard by God, why don't you do something to alleviate our misery? Why don't you ask for some of our money back?" The rabbi replied, "But we are very rich." "Yes, "his wife answered, "but why can't we make a few withdrawals from heaven once in a while?" Feeling an obligation to respond to his wife's request, Rabbi Hanina began to pray. Right away his wish was granted as a hand came down from heaven and presented him with a table leg made of solid gold. The object was worth more money than they could ever spend during the rest of their lives. But that night the rabbi had a dream. He dreamed that he was in heaven and it came time for dinner. Everyone sat down at tables made of gold. In fact, they were all three-legged tables. Rabbi Hanina then realized this his table kept toppling over because it had only two legs. When he awoke, he told his wife about the dream. Right away they both agreed he should pray to have the table leg returned to heaven. At once the hand came down from heaven and took it back.
We need to realize that whatever earthly goods we labor for can easily be taken away from us. German citizens have been outraged lately about the high taxes that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government has been imposing on them. Many people feel as though the very shirt is being taxed off their back. This past Christmas season, to symbolize their anger, a group organized people to send the Chancellor a shirt with a note attached that reads, "Dear Gerhard, I wish you a happy festive season and send you my last shirt to fulfill your greatest Christmas wish. That should make all further tax increases superfluous as I have nothing else left anyway."
America is a land where most people labor for the tangible goods they can purchase, rather than concentrating on spiritual matters like eternal life. Consumers in the United States spend $8 million per minute every day—totaling $4 trillion a year.
Jesus teaches that true happiness is only going to be found by believing in him. Some researchers now believe they are able to measure happiness. They have reduced it down to an equation: P + 5E + 3 H. In the equation, P stands for personal characteristics, (e.g., outlook on life, adaptability, and resilience); E stands for existence (e.g., health, friendships, and financial stability); and H stands for higher order (e.g., self-esteem, expectations, and ambitions) The equation was developed by two British researchers. They obtained their results be interviewing adults and asking them to choose five scenarios that made them more happy or less happy from a list of 80 different situations. Women's happiness was most affected by sunny weather, being with family, and losing weight. Men experienced more happiness through romance, sex, hobbies, and victories by their favorite sports teams.
In order to turn our focus from doing to connecting with God in doing the work of believing, we often would benefit from a disciplinary tactic used with children. The "time out." is meant to give a child some space to reflect on an inappropriate action, to calm down from being overwrought, to "get a grip." Time outs are usually measured according to a child's age, so a five year old would get five minutes, a ten year old, ten, etc. It might be valuable to understand a time out as work in connecting with God, and so make a discipline of giving ourselves that time based on our ages, time to reflect on our relationship with God.
A wonderful children's book called Farmer Duck (Helen Oxenbury and Martin Waddell (Cambridge, Ma.: Candlewick Press, 1991)) tells the story of a farmer who got one of his ducks to do all the work around the farm. Each day the farmer laid in bed and ate chocolate and yelled out to the duck, "How goes the work?" The duck eventually became exhausted and the farmer helped not at all. The other animals decided to rebel and chased the farmer of the property. Then they all helped the duck to do the work of the farm. What had been a sad and tiresome place became a place of joy. Thank goodness the one in charge of our world does not simply sit back and eat chocolates while we do all the work alone!
The work of believing is marvelously summed up in the well-known thirteenth century prayer by Richard of Chicester, "O most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother, may we know Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, and follow Thee more nearly; day by day."
There is an ancient collect which appears in many forms in modern prayer books which reads, "Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the silent hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the work and the changes of this fleeting world may rest upon Thy eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen."
Frederick Buechner defines believing as "less a position than a journey, less a realization than a relationship. It affects who you are and what you do with your life like believing your house is on fire or somebody loves you." (Whistling in the Dark (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988) p. 21)
Those of us who bake bread regularly know the common, often unspoken, prayer that we not kill the yeast. The yeast is a living thing that helps flour and sugar become more than the sum of their parts. The yeast gives body and richness and texture to bread as it grows during the rising process, a process that can take some hours. The work of believing means letting the yeast of God grow in us so that our other work may be more rich and satisfying.
When Jesus tells his questioners that if they eat of the bread he represents, they won't hunger and thirst, might he be speaking more literally than we usually think? If the people believe and become one with God through Jesus, then they will be centered in love and no longer hunger and thirst for more and more and more possessions in their lives. The whole social order would change and there would indeed be literal food and drink available for all.
Believing is something we do. In fact, it can be hard work. In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, there are 173 times that "believe." is used as an active verb, and there are only two times when the more passive word "belief." is employed.
We live in a culture where believing is being made constantly more and more difficult. In England, churches are not allowed to make a statement like "God exists." if they produce an advertisement for TV. A statement like that is forbidden from being broadcast because it is deemed to be an "unsubstantiated claim." according to the Independent Television Commission guidelines on advertising.
When epidemiologists trace the history of a particular outbreak of disease, they label the first person who contracted the disease as "Patient Zero." With the current AIDS epidemic in Africa, medical workers have identified a South African man who died in 1959 as the Patient Zero. When it comes to a lack of faith, who was the Patient Zero? According to the Bible, we would have to say that Adam and Eve share that designation. They set the pattern for putting greater faith in themselves and their own wisdom rather than believing God.
Historian Arnold Toynbee developed the "law of progressive simplification." By studying the rise and fall of twenty-two different civilizations around the world, he summarized everything he learned about the growth of human civilization in one law: the measure of a civilization's growth is its ability to shift energy and attention from the material side to the spiritual and aesthetic and cultural and artistic side. At its heart, that is what Jesus is saying in the Gospel reading. He is encouraging his followers to shift their focus from the material to the spiritual.
A documentary on PBS attached a label to Americans' insatiable desire to work for more and more possessions. They called it "affluenza." and described it as "a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more." (John DeGraff, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor, Affluenza: The All-consuming Epidemic (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2001) p. 2)
Andrew Carnegie's first rule of life was: "Make no effort to increase fortune, but spend the surplus each year for benevolent purposes. Cast aside business forever except for others."
Although Jesus tells us not to labor for what perishes, Americans seem to be addicted to their work. While Americans take an average of 13 vacation days a year, most of the industrialized world is on break for a much longer time. Italy tops the list with 42 days of vacation. They are followed by France with 37 days, Germany with 35, Brazil with 34, Britain with 28, and Canada with 26 days.
"The sort of economic practices needed to be a follower of Jesus are demanding....Most people will continue to place their trust in their possessions, will look to family and wealth for protection against scarcity instead of to Jesus and His followers." (Michael L. Budde and Robert W. Brimlow, Christianity Incorporated: How Big Business is Buying the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002) p. 163)
getting married brings a person the same amount of happiness as if they were to receive $100,000 a year. In contrast, if a people lose their jobs, the loss of happiness would be as if the person had lost $80,000. With regard to having children, the professor found that to be a break-even amount on his happiness scale. What dollar value would we assign to the joy of obtaining eternal life?
As Jesus tries to show us, earthly possessions are indeed fading and perishable. A typing error last November cost the UBS Warburg financial services company as much as $100 million. A UBS Warburg trader typed in an order to sell 610,000 shares of a Japanese stock at 16 yen each, instead of 16 shares at 610,000 yen. The order was canceled minutes after it was submitted. But in the interim, so many shares sold at the wrong price, the company suffered a massive loss.
The people who heard Jesus' comments probably had a difficult time interpreting and making sense of them. In like manner, a man from Gambia had a difficult time interpreting what happened to him. The African fellow was visiting in Germany this past winter. One morning he woke up, looked out his window, and discovered that his car was covered with a white substance. Immediately he hurried to the phone and called the police to report that his vehicle had apparently been vandalized. When officers arrived, they explained to the man that his car had not been vandalized. The white substance was simply snow—something the man from Gambia had never seen before.
Many times our labors are motivated not by the eternal life we hope to attain one day, but by the awards we might achieve along the way. There certainly are a lot of awards out there to be won. For a rather extensive list, you can consult a volume titled An International Directory of Awards and their Donors Recognizing Achievement in Advertising, Architecture, Arts and the Humanities, Business and Finance, Communications, Computers, Consumer Affairs, Ecology, Education, Engineering, Fashion, Films, Journalism, Law, Librarianship, Literature, Medicine, Music, Performing Arts, Photography, Public Affairs, Publishing, Radio and Television, Religion, Science, Social Science, Sports, Technology, and Transportation.
Jesus warned against obsessing about material things. But does compulsive shopping constitute a bona fide medical condition? Forest Laboratories, makers of Celexa, have funded at least three studies to test whether its antidepressants may help reduce the amount of time people spend obsessed with shopping. The early results indicate that Celexa may have some positive benefits. The current debate focuses on whether compulsive shopping should be officially recognized as a disorder in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, the so-called Bible of mental illnesses. A psychologist at Brown University denounced the idea, saying, "There is an absurd and frightening proliferation of labels for alleged mental illnesses, and that proliferation is greatly fueled by the drug companies' profit motive." Research indicates that between 2 and 8 percent of the U.S. population are compulsive shoppers or are at risk to becoming one.
"Just as our witness in the world is hurt when we do not integrate word and deed, so our discipleship suffers when it is reduced to propositional learning without the complementary experience of Christlike engagement with a suffering world." (Ronald J. Sider, Philip N. Olson, and Heidi Rolland Unruh, Churches That Make a Difference (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002) p. 174)
"He is richest who is content with least." (Socrates)
"When work is a pleasure, life is a joy! When work is a duty, life is slavery." (Russian writer Maxim Gorky)
Jesus expresses the deep human hunger when he declares, "Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." In many of the stories of Virginia Wolfe there are women who deeply yearn for more than what is permitted them by a male-dominated society. We see this in the film The Hours, much of which centers on both the life of Virginia Wolfe and the novel she is writing, Mrs. Dalloway. One of the three women is Laura Brown, a mid-Fifties housewife who feels smothered by the deadening work of housekeeping and mothering her young son and unexciting husband. Like Mrs. Dalloway, she is preparing for a party, a birthday party, and like the fictional wife, she considers suicide as a way out of her stifling situation. Mrs. Dalloway does carry through her intent. Laura Brown takes the less drastic, but still devastating, step of walking away from her marriage and fleeing to some distant city. Her life afterward may allow her more freedom, but we doubt that it was fulfilling. Had she possessed the faith described by Jesus as a relationship with him, how might her life, and that of those she left behind, have been different?
In Babe: Pig in the City the homeless dogs and cats come and beg for his help, a female poodle even saying, "save us." They have just witnessed an extraordinary scene. A savage junkyard had chased the little pig around and around the block. Then when Babe had fallen into the canal, the dog had plunged in after him, but his trailing chain and stake had become entangled in a bridge railing, causing him to hang helplessly over the water. When the chain slipped, causing the dog to become half submerged in the water babe, instead of standing by as every other onlooker did, dives back into the water and pushes a boat over to rescue the creature. Now the animals look to him for help because they are all starving. The animals in the hotel where Babe has been staying are also very hungry because the humans they have depended upon have been gone for several days. However, they do have a large jar of candy, which Babe asks them to share with the less fortunate street animals. The possessors are reluctant to do so, until the now revived junkyard dog speaks up on Babe's behalf, implying that they had better share, or else. They do. Soon all are embarked on a new adventure, one in which they find that Babe is up to the task of leading them.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
(Based on Psalm 51)
Leader: Create in us clean hearts, O God.
People: And put a new and right spirit within us.
Leader: Cast us not away from your presence,
People: And take not your Holy Spirit from us.
Leader: Restore to us the joy of your salvation,
People: And sustain in us a willing spirit.
O Great God of all, we come to confess that we trust action more than words. We ever hunger after demonstrations of your presence, instead of quietly trusting in your Word. In our achievement-oriented society, we feel we must always be doing, and we are blind to your constant upholding of the universe. Help us to be as well as do, to have integrity based on your once and for all gift of your Son.
O God, who has shown us in Christ that love is giving, accept these gifts from our hands as signs of our gratitude. Like the loaves and fishes of old, may they surprise us in their bounty, as you transform them into ministry in your name. In your steadfast love, receive what we give, using it for your aims and purposes, in Christ Jesus we pray, Amen.
O God, much of our effort is spent in trying to justify our own existence. Stop us in our tracks, turn our eyes upon You, and help us find grateful acceptance of your strong presence. When our plans are frustrated, or our dreams and hopes are dashed, give us eyes to see you still strongly with us, delighted in us for just being who we are, your children. Divorce us from the cult of achievement. Help us to celebrate being your family, your children, called to bear your name and your likeness.
Just as we smile when we think of our own children, and love them just because they are our children, so you smile on us, and care for us, even when we grieve your Spirit, and do not comprehend your gifts and intents. Give us insight into the kind of people you wish us to be, more than the things you want us to accomplish. And give us joy in being your children, through Christ, Amen.