Sunday, August 30, 2015

Give Me That Pure Religion

James 1:17-27
August 30, 2015
William G. Carter

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

I grew up in a time when preachers started popping up on television. Before my era, a preacher talked to the people who were sitting right there, in front of the pulpit. They had to show up to hear the Word of God preached. But when TV infiltrated the Christian faith, suddenly there was the phenomenon of a preacher talking to people that he or she would never meet. Ever think how strange that it?

One Sunday morning before we left for worship, I distinctly remember flipping through the channels. How old was I – six or seven? And there was this preacher, I think he was from Oklahoma. His show started with some snappy music, his charming wife stood by his side, the camera zoomed in on his enormous smile, and he declared, “Something good is going to happen to you today!”

He said it to me. He said it to thousands of TV viewers at once. He didn’t know any of our names, but there he was, this Oklahoma preacher whose hairdo defied gravity, announcing we would all be receiving miracles. Something good was going to happen! And I knew he wasn’t talking to me. I had to sit between my parents for a very long hour in church, and then come home to eat pot roast. Didn’t seem very good to me.

Years later, when my Grandma Margaret was in the nursing home, I went out for a visit. To my surprise, she was watching that very same preacher and loving every minute. She commented on the huge choir. She hummed along with the traditional hymns. She smiled as glistening preacher spoke of hope and optimism. For a moment, I thought she was going to reach for her checkbook when he mentioned his brand-new book and tape series, available for $29.95. “I just love this,” she said. “It’s pure religion.” It’s pure religion.

In his letter that circulated around the early church, Brother James speaks about pure religion. It’s an appealing notion . . . like a Bible with gold-tipped pages, floating down on a cloud. You don’t have to read it, just revere it. You don’t have to know anything about how the words actually got on the page. No, you can declare the book is holy, wave it around, and expect the miracles to come. For some people, for a lot of people, that is pure religion.   

What is pure religion? When somebody says, “Give me that pure religion,” what do they want?

You can go to that big church with the marketing budget, get caught up in the big production, drink the Kool-Aid for a while, and maybe you discover they avoid anything controversial. If the youth worker’s son gets arrested for drugs, the youth worker and his family disappear. There might be a sermon series on “You Too Can Have a Happy Marriage,” which never mentions the multiple wives of King David and conveniently ignores that passage where Jesus says, “I have come to divide families, a man against his father, a woman against his mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:34-39). Oh no, you’re never going to hear about anything unpleasant. You can’t grow a church that way.

For the people who love that stuff, they regard it as “pure religion.” And they might quote James, chapter one: it’s staying “unstained by the world.”

Since my father died last month, I’ve reflected on some of our conversations. We talked a lot about faith and church. I remember one time, when I was studying to become a minister, he came to visit for a couple of days. One night, as we walked the streets of Princeton, he told me about a movement to expel one of our church’s pastors. What was the man’s crime? He had marched with Martin Luther King in Selma for voting rights and then came back to our little town in upstate New York and talked about it just a little too much.

“Many got tired of hearing about it from the pulpit,” Dad said, “and a lot of people thought it was time to make a change.” For some people, that is pure religion. Read the Bible, but not the newspaper. You can live in a little bubble and avoid the world. 

And whatever you do, don't talk about money, sex, or politics. Especially politics. On the surface, that may sound like good advice. Anybody here want me to tell you how to vote? “No, preacher, just stick to the pure religion.” 

Yet as William Sloane Coffin Jr. once noted, if Moses had never talked politics, Pharoah would still have God’s people enslaved. So maybe it’s not that simple.

In all fairness, “pure religion” would focus on the relationship between God and people. God creates us and says, “Go flourish.” We go out and create one mess after another. God goes out for a walk and says, “Where are you?” Ever since Adam and Eve, we’ve replied, “We heard you coming and we were afraid” (Genesis 3:9-10). There are no new plots in the Bible; that book reads us perfectly. It points out none of us are all that pure.

And it is curious that Brother James would use the word “purity.” Katharos  is the Greek word. It means “clean” or “unstained.” As if that’s possible. Do you really think that’s possible?

The Pharisees went to Jesus to complain. They were the guardians of purity, the advocates for a holy life. They believed that all of life should be defined by God’s Torah, a very noble belief. So they went to complain to Jesus, our Lord, and they said, “The people around you aren’t very pure.” It’s not a new comment.

“The people around you don’t wash their hands.” That was the religious imperative that all of them kept: wash your hands, wash your food, for you wish the outer cleanliness to match the inward desire. And Jesus groaned, and he reminded them of what the prophet said: they say the right words, but their heart is not in it. 

Ever wonder why religious people complain so much? It’s like the bumper sticker that I saw on a rabbi’s car: “The longer I complain, the longer God lets me live.” That man knew the Psalms!

Do you really think purity is possible, all the nasty stuff that spews out of our hearts? And here we are, talking about “pure religion.” What in the world is pure religion?

Let me go on record to say I don’t know. I really don’t. Given the lies that people tell or the stories about ourselves that we distort, given what James calls “the growth of wickedness” and the capacity for self-deception, given the elaborate ways that people push forgiveness and reconciliation away, it is hard to tell. James says it: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless” (1:26). And in the next verse, he talks about “pure religion.” What is that?

At this point in the sermon, you might expect me to pull a rabbit out of my hat and give you the answer. But I’m about to make it worse. Did you that Jesus never mentions “religion”? He never uses that word. In fact, in all of the New Testament, “religion” is mentioned only four times, and two of those times are here in this passage. One time in Acts, when the apostle Paul is talking to somebody who doesn’t understand him (26:5), and another in a throwaway verse in Colossians (2:18), when the writer downplays the term. A case can be made easily that “religion” is not a big deal in the New Testament.

In all of his teaching, Jesus is not interested in religion. Rather he’s interested in two things: our love for God and our love for neighbor. And when love of God and love of neighbor intersect, we have the rule of God – the kingdom of God. That’s what matters.

In fact, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent time in a Nazi prison, he began to reflect on something he called “religionless Christianity.” He was in prison, like the apostle Paul, and had some time on his hands. He saw how the whole religious system of his country had gone off the rails and led to the hatred of the Jews. And he saw the day was coming when most people wouldn’t think of themselves as “religious” at all. They wouldn’t use big theological words, they wouldn’t set their clocks by the time of worship services.

What would make it “Christianity” is that would be all about following Jesus, and hearing him say anew, “Love God, love neighbor.” Bonhoeffer said it’s all about praying for other people – putting yourself in their situation and suffering with them – and it’s also about righteous action, defined as doing what it right for both God and neighbor.

You don’t need candlesticks and incense for that. You don’t need elaborate committee structures and lists of appropriate duties and behaviors. Either you love God and love neighbor, or you don’t. That, my friends, is what points to “pure religion.” It is not a religion of those who purport to be pure. No, James tells the truth: a pure, undefiled religion not only remains unstained by the world – it cares for the widows and orphans.

“Widows and orphans” - that’s Bible Talk for those in greatest need. In Bible times, the widow or the orphan had no income, no security system, no guarantee that they would eat, no promise that they could ever flourish. James, like Jesus, stands in the great tradition that says you care for those around you who are most vulnerable. You show your love for God by showing love to the neighbor in the greatest need. That’s the only religion that really matters.

Or to put it another way, any religion that doesn’t care for those in need is not a religion at all. “You shall love the Lord your God, you shall love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.” And when the two loves are held together, you have the kingdom of God.

It’s hard to keep this clear because the world does stain us. James speaks of the “world” as a symbol of what’s wrong with our planet and the people on it. “World” is a system of great selfishness. “World” is where people deceive and tell lies (3:6-8). “World” is the location of self-indulgence (4:1-4). “World” is where neighbors are sorted by their bank accounts, and sidelined if they are poor (2:1-10). It is so easy to catch the world’s germs, and to get infected by the poison of “me first.”

So James says keep clear. You can’t be purer than God; that is self-deception. And you can’t ignore your neighbors, especially if they have needs; that would be evil. Instead, pursue the purest religion: “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep yourself unstained by the world.”

This is what we are called to do, as Jesus himself has done. Jesus got his fingernails dirty by caring for other people. That is how he remained unstained by the world. And even when the world put him on the cross for living a God-centered, neighbor-directed life, one of the very last things Jesus ever said was this: “Take care of my mother” (John 19:26-27).

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Sermon at Grace Cathedral

50th Anniversary of Guaraldi Mass
August 15, 2015

It is good to be in the house where 
jazz was officially welcomed into worship.
This is the place . . .
but if truth be told, 
jazz was in the church long before that.

Jazz had crept in through the side door. 
When forced laborers arrived from Africa, 
they brought the five note scales they knew so well.
As those notes bumped into the tempered notes 
of their European importers and overseers,
the clashing notes turned blue.  
God was in the blues. 
That is how jazz feels. 

Jazz sneaked into the pulpit long before.
Any time a preacher reads three or four verses of scripture
and then talks for eighteen more minutes, 
you hear all of the new material that bubbled up
from the jambalaya of study, prayer, reflection, 
perspiration and holy inspiration, 
all the while simmering in the pot of human need.
The dots on the page created a conversation in the air. 
That is how jazz sounds.

Jazz has stood in the narthex, 
as ushers had to improvise
where they would seat the unexpected strangers.
Jazz has robed itself in the sacristy, 
when the servers ask,
"Do we have enough bread to feed all these people?"
Jazz has been abiding in the church from the beginning,
because wherever the Holy Spirit is, Jazz is.

And this is the house where Jazz was first welcomed.
By all accounts, it was a bumpy welcome.
Critics had dismissed jazz as saloon music, 
forgetting that the whole earth is the Lord's, 
and any ground can become holy ground,
God willing.

Buffoons dismissed jazz out of their racist dispositions, 
believing it unworthy of a God who creates everybody.

And the Pharisees are still out there, 
declaring Jazz is not worthy of their spiritual superiority;
If it touches them, they could get infected.
They might even tap their feet to God's drummer.

But wherever the Holy Spirit is, Jazz is.

That is why people can get offended. 
They don't want God to get too close.
They are anxious about defrosting 
and leaving puddles on the floor.
They worry the Spirit of God may blow wild and free,
and something might happen that is not written down 
on the worship bulletin.

When Jazz was welcomed here,
the moment was marked by hymns sung
to the wild, unpredictable, life-giving Spirit of God. 
Imagine that. 
"Come Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire,
  and lighten with celestial fire."

On that day, angular syncopations and clashes of dissonance
became the moment for the Spirit to dance
as the soul of Christ breathed fresh life. 
That is the best reason to welcome Jazz into this or any church:
to keep the church from suffocating
on piety that has run out of breath.  

We live in fearful times, you know. Almost as fearful as 1965.
The fundamentalist still fears the Holy Spirit, 
frightened that God might do something
that hasn't yet been written down. 
Rather than embrace the hard work
of living the life of Christ here and now, 
the fearful Pharisee still cherry-picks a few favorite verses
to wield as blunt objects,
living an unconverted, unloving life.

It is hard work for anyone to follow the Christ
who still touches the leper, 
heals the hemorrhage,
and repeatedly crosses the boundary into Gentile land.
It is hard work for the Christian to follow the Christ
off the page and into the real world.
But as we hear the Mass of Guaraldi 
with the ancient chants ignited by
the rhythms of Brazil and harmonies of California,
let us affirm that a life of health and holiness
must be lived out here and now.

Where Jazz is, the Holy Spirit is. 

This is the Spirit of God who loves the world, the whole world,
the world that yearns to be whole.
God goes into the world through Jesus to replace fear with awe,
violence with reconciliation, love-for-self-alone with love for all.
God's love is just that expansive and life-giving.

And should that love be crucified, it will begin again.
This is eternal love,
resisted by many,
yet persistently inviting us to become a new creation 
in the power of the Spirit.
The world cannot turn out the Light that God sends to it,
neither can the church quench the Spirit's fire
by splashing holy water on it,
for it is God's intent to bring us completely alive.

When the Spirit comes,
the ankle bone is connected to the leg bone,
the ten little toe bones start tapping,
and all God's children shall dance.
Isn't that what we want, more than anything else?

Thank God for this house where Jazz was officially welcomed,
for the saints who made it happen, 
for the Spirit who fills us with joy of Jesus.

© William G. Carter. All rights reserved

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Wonder Bread and the Life of Eternity

John 6:35,  41-58
August 9, 2015
William G. Carter

So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me." 

I think my childhood friend Joey was the first to talk to me like this. We had planned to play a little baseball, as I recall. When I rode my bike over to his house, he opened the door wearing a white shirt and a clip-on tie. His hair was combed sideways, and his cowlick was glued down with a little Dippity-Do. “I can’t play ball today,” he said, looking back over his shoulder. “Mom says I have to go to church and eat the body and blood.”

He wasn’t a Presbyterian. No Presbyterians talked that way. No, Joey was a Catholic. His family often went to church, sometimes on unusual days that they called “obligations.” That particular day must have been one of them. So he was going to church to “eat the body and blood.” He waved to me on my bike as his family drove by in their Chevy.

Soon thereafter I was sitting in my own church wearing a white shirt, a clip-on tie, my hair combed sideways reinforced with a dab of Dippity-Do. The minister stood behind a table, held up a hot dog roll, broke it, and said, “Take, eat, this is my body given for you.” Given my recend conversation with my friend, I sat up straight with attention. What was in the plate that the old man was carrying toward our pew? Was he carrying a plate of little pieces of skin?

Alas, I discovered the tray was full of precisely carved cubes of Wonder Bread. As I reached for one, my mother murmured, “No, don’t. Not until you know what you’re doing.” That is my first recollection of the sacrament of Holy Communion.

I could spend the next fifteen minutes of my sermon unpacking that memory. There is a lot there to unpack, beginning with the charge, “Not until you know what you’re doing.” That experience took place almost fifty years ago, and I confess, when I take communion, I still don’t know entirely what I am doing. Oh I know, I’m supposed to. I can read the prayers out of a book. I can generate a religious experience as well as any other cleric.

And I passed a battery of ordination exams many years ago, one of which asked the question, “What do you say when the youth group asks on a retreat if you can give them communion with garlic bread and birch beer?” That was an actual exam question, to which I gave an acceptable answer that I have long since forgotten.

But let me say it to you straight: when we break the bread and pour the cup, it is a profound mystery - for me, and for you. I knew at a young age that it was more than a funeral meal with Jesus. Jesus died, and Jesus rose from the dead. We remember his self-giving death when we have communion, but we do in the presence of Christ who is alive. We don’t call it “the Last Supper,” which was a onetime event. The Table is for the Lord’s Supper, and we “celebrate it,” much like every Sunday morning when we celebrate a Little Easter.

That makes it a mystery. One thing I know about the human psyche: we don’t know what to do with mystery.

Much of the last five hundred years, we have lived through a continuing effort to remove all mystery from human life. We analyze everything scientifically. We work to remove all ambiguity. We develop technology that we can put in our cell phones, to know precisely where we are located and how long it will take to drive to Nutley, New Jersey, or wherever else we want to go. In some ways it has been a vain attempt to control life, and overlook the truth that life is largely uncontrollable.

I asked our friends John and Connie, “When is your daughter Andrea due to have her baby?” They said, “August 1.” Hmm, nothing manageable about that. Maybe it’s time to ride a Jeep down a bumpy road, if that will help.

Meanwhile, if I hear anything from people within the church or burned out on the church, whether spiritual-but-not-religious or religious-but-not-very-spiritual, all of them have a deep hunger and thirst for holy mystery. Either they want a living experience of God in their lives, or they want a God who is far more alive and live-giving than the lesser gods they have grown tired of hearing about from a distance.

This awkwardness about mystery is one of the issues dangling in our Gospel text. Jesus is arguing with some of the religious leaders of his time. They don’t like it that he speaks in metaphors. He says, “I am the bread of life,” and they say, “What’s he talking about?”  He says, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they say, “Is he crazy? We know his mom and dad.”

Then he says, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you don’t have any of my life in you.” With that, some of his own disciples say, “Eww! That’s gross.”

Well, if you take that literally, of course it is. But when has Jesus said anything literal in the Gospel of John? Just about every time he opens his mouth, a metaphor floats out. The literally-minded will miss the truth that he wraps in figures of speech.

He says, “Nicodemus, you must be born again.” And Nick says, “Do we have to have to crawl back into our mother’s wombs?” Of course, it is totally lost on Nicodemus that Jesus is suggesting a feminine attribute of God. Think about this: God is the One who gives birth again… and again and again.

Or to that woman in Samaria, who comes by herself to draw water from the well, Jesus says, “If you knew who I am, you would ask and he would give you living water.” She looks at him, daring to talk to a female at high noon in the village square, and says, “Where is your bucket?” She doesn’t perceive him yet, as John Calvin would one day, as the fountain of God’s grace.

Over and over, he speaks of God’s grace and truth in metaphors that dance and sparkle. “I am the light of the world.” “I am the Good Shepherd.” “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (that’s one thing, not two). “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (that’s one thing, not three; you know, three-in-one).

To understand Jesus as John reveals him, one must have a vibrant understanding of language. Otherwise when you hear him say, “eat my flesh and drink my blood,” you might miss what he is saying. You might drive a steamroller over the mystery and try to flatten it out.

So what is he saying? Is this transubstantiation talk? No, it isn’t. Nobody talked officially about transubstantiation until sometime in the eleventh century, somewhere in France. Even then it would take another 300 years for the Roman church to talk it out some more, before the Protestant Reformers would protest about it.

What is he saying? The Gospel of John was probably written down around 90 AD, some 60 years after the resurrection. What John reports in the words of Jesus is the living experience of the early Christians. As they gather at the Table, they receive the grace and truth of the Lord. The bread and cup are a way of taking the mystery of Christ into our lives, our souls, and our bodies. In eating “the flesh” and drinking “the blood,” Jesus becomes real to them. It has always been that way for those who welcome him into their lives.

All the elaborate theories will come centuries later, from theologians who apparently had a lot of time on their hands. Conversely, the critics outside the church didn’t comprehend the metaphors that are given to the faithful. There are accounts from Roman officials accusing the early Christians of being cannibals, among other things. And of course, they couldn’t understand.

 The heart of the matter is that Jesus Christ is our life. He is risen and alive, for God is alive. His invitation to “eat and drink” is the invitation to take part in his life. It’s what he calls “the life of eternity.” (zoe aionios)

A lot of times we translate this phrase as “eternal life.” I believe that is a flat translation. That, for many people, is a life that goes on and on forever. When a lot of folks hear about “eternal life,” they think only about the next life, about heaven.

But Jesus is speaking of something far greater. He is speaking about this life, the only life we get. When he points to “the life of eternity,” it’s a way of referring to “the life that God lives” or “the life of the Risen Christ.” It’s a way of being and doing, serving and loving, forgiving and rejoicing, here and now. Certainly it continues into the future for as long as God’s eternity shall last. But it starts here and now, by taking the mystery of Christ into our mouths and hearts and hands. As he says somewhere else, the mystery is like a small seed that can grow until it fills us.

Bread and cup are the means by which we return regularly for this mystery. And baptism is the way we begin the journey. Watch what happens in a few minutes. It may look like we merely splash the water on the brow of little Eloise and say the magic formula – but at the heart of it all there is a deeply profound truth: she belongs to the Risen Christ today and forever. His love embraces her and her family. His justice sets a plumb line for her life.

In the years to come, if we all work together to tell her what the mystery of Christ is all about, she can be shaped in his image. She will not grow up to be a racist. She will never walk by a hungry neighbor. She won’t ever demean somebody with whom she disagrees. She will find her strength in the living words of God.

That’s the journey all of us are on: we are Christians becoming Christians. We are claimed in the covenant love of God … and we have to grow up and become like Christ. It takes a while: hearing the Bible stories, learning the skills of worship, forming the words of prayer, practicing the works of mercy, until all of these things become life-giving practices.

Along the way, we keep returning to the Lord’s Table, to eat his flesh, to drink his blood, to receive his power to keep going on. It matters not if we have perfectly cubed Wonder Bread or flat, dry matzoh. What matters is that we keep returning to Christ, our hearts broken open, ready to receive the life of eternity that is his holy gift. 

This is the wisdom of God for us this day. And it prompts a question that I have wanted to ask for the thirty years of my ordination. I am going to ask it of all the Protestants in the room. Here is the question: if Jesus invites us to receive the life of his eternity through the bread and cup, why don’t we have communion more than we do? 

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Staring Into a Full Refrigerator

John 6:24-35
August 2, 2015
William G. Carter

So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “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.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."

The experience is a common one, at least in my house. It’s about 9:00 in the evening. The shadows have begun to fill the house. I will get up from whatever I am doing and wander into the kitchen. Maybe I will get a cup of cold water. Then I will open the refrigerator, look inside, and stand there for a few moments.

If my wife looks up from her knitting project, she might say, “Are you hungry for something?” I don’t know. “Didn’t you eat enough at supper?” Sure I did. Just look at me. “What do you want?” I’m not sure; maybe it’s in here. We are blessed that our fridge is almost always well stocked. “Well, if you don’t know what you want, don’t stand there with the refrigerator door open.” OK, fair enough. But I stand there for another minute or two.
Do you ever do that?

What was I looking for?

Was I looking for a late night snack? A slice of smoked gouda cheese to put on a couple of crackers? A jar of salsa for a handful of chips? Or do I really want a glass of cold milk with a squirt of Hershey’s chocolate? It’s difficult to say. I know I’m hungry, but it isn’t always for food.

I can understand why some people went looking for Jesus. The day before, he fed them a hillside banquet. The menu was simple – barley bread and fresh fish – but it was more sustenance than those country folk expected, more food than they had ever seen in one place, more abundance than anybody believed possible. Nobody actually knows how everybody got fed, but there was no question about the leftovers. And there was no question that Jesus was at the center of it all. So they go looking for Jesus.

Are they looking for something to eat or are they looking for something else? Yes! They don’t exactly know what they want, but they are looking for it, looking for something, looking for him. And in this light, they are like just about everybody else in the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John is written with the conviction that everybody is looking for God. That is the single human quest: to find God, to know God. On the very first page of his book, John says God is the Source of all things, so John calls him “Father.” All of life comes from God. God’s life is the light of all people. Light and life are all around us. Yet no one has ever actually seen God. Some see the light, all breathe the life, but nobody has seen the source.

On page two of the Gospel of John, Jesus is walking along and he is spotted. A couple of people start following where he is going. He stops, spins around, and asks, “What are you looking for?” They don’t have a good answer. They simply stay with him. Pretty soon, they are the ones who want to enlarge the circle. We don’t know anything that he said to them, don’t know if he did any miracles that they could see. But there is something about him that they want to be around.

That vignette gets repeated over and over again in the pages of John’s book. On page three, a religious leader named Nicodemus goes looking for him. On page four, it is a heretic woman, a Samaritan. On page five, it is a royal official with a sick child. One after another after another, they look for Jesus. By the time we get to chapter six, it’s an entire crowd. They have heard about the healings, they have sensed his power and presence – and then he feeds them somehow, and then he disappears.

You see, that is the other side of the story: you can go searching for Jesus, but he is free to withdraw, to stay out of sight, to remain ten steps ahead of where you want him to be.

Not everybody has the courage to say so, of course. To hear some people talk, life is always sunshine at high noon, faith is obvious, the Bible is crystal clear, and Jesus answers every prayer. Well, good for them. I find such simplicity to be artificial, a bit thin and empty, and unrealistically amplified.

On the night my father was dying, I prayed distinctly, “Lord, come to us and give us a sign. Relieve my dad’s distress. Take away his pain.” I really wanted this … and there was silence. If there was a response, it was at a frequency that I could not hear. If there was a sign, it came earlier in the day, in the words of the Psalms that I had put into the air for my family: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” “I lift my eyes to the hills; my help comes from the Lord.” “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not his benefits.” Those words were the bread that sustained the dark night’s journey.

And when the final help came, about 12:40 in the morning, most of us weren’t there to see it. My mother called to wake us up, saying simply, “His pain is over now.” I never doubted the help, but neither was I surprised that I missed it when it came. That’s the nature of faith – we reach for something that we cannot quite see, we chase after a God whom we cannot capture. And in that ambiguity and apparent absence, we hunger for the fullness of God. Nothing else will do. Nothing less than God.

This is hard work for a lot of people. When they realize that they cannot grab hold of God, sometimes they give up on the whole faith stuff. Most of the time, however, they grab hold of something a whole lot smaller than God. The alcoholic reaches for the bottle, the foodaholic stares into the refrigerator, the workaholic gets high on work, the shopaholic is intoxicated by acquisition. The sports junkie gets hooked on all the babbling commentators, the anxious soul feeds her fear addiction by watching the 24-7 Angry News Channel, and the cultured despiser spends way too much energy making fun of Donald Trump.

And can you see what all of this is? It’s a tremendous distraction from the fundamental human hunger, and that is the hunger to know God.

Jesus looked at the hopeful crowds and said, “You chase after me because you ate a lot of bread.” He sees through the superficiality. Yesterday’s bread soon goes stale and moldy. The Real Bread, the bread from heaven, is the bread that stays fresh every day.  

It is hard to believe there is a bread that stays fresh, of course, so when some of them heard this, they play a little Bible game with Jesus. They meant well, but it was a goofy thing to do, especially with him. They said, “We remember where it says in the Bible, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” They remember an old story about Moses and the grumbling tribe of escaped slaves. They lick their chops and rub their bellies and wait for the manna to fall on command.

But Jesus won’t play that little game. There is something more to real faith than remembering ancient Bible stories of what happened way back when. Jesus expands the verb tenses. The God who gave bread through Moses is the God who gives bread right now. God is not an ancient relic, locked away in the pages of an old book. God provides for us and for all - past, present, and future. There is a hidden benevolence in all things.

The trick, of course, is seeing such heavenly generosity, or at least trusting it if we don’t see it right now. That may be the most elusive pursuit of faith, but once again, it is the essence of what faith is all about. We trust God enough to pursue God. Jesus says, “The work of God is for us to believe.” If I might translate, that means it is God who desires that we have a life of depth and well-being. It is God who takes responsibility to create belief and trust in our hearts. As we chase after God, it is God who ultimately finds us.    

Remember that. Trust that. If doubts plague us or if other shiny objects distract us, my suggestion is that we pay attention to our own deep spiritual hunger. Listen to the deepest yearnings of your heart. Don’t settle for worldly razzle-dazzle or other-worldly religious hype. Look for the Real Bread. Seek after what is life-giving, not merely for you, but for others. Spiritual hunger is a spiritual gift, because it can propel us more deeply into the God who is the Source and Destination of our lives. Be a good steward of your deepest longing.

Today as we gather around the feast table of Christ and his saints, I am still thinking of my father, of course. It is a way of longing for our heavenly Father. Years ago when I was young, our family was having Sunday dinner. It had been a communion Sunday in our church, and the conversation turned to the small size of Wonder Bread cubes that we had been served at the Lord’s Table that morning.

Suddenly one of my family members blurted out, “I think I know why the church is so stingy on the bread. They want us to stay hungry for the Real Thing.”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.