United Lutheran Church
Grand Forks, ND
July 30, 2006
It's been about seven years since I went to China through Luther Seminary. As part of a small group of seminarians, I spent two weeks in Hong Kong and then got on a plane to travel to the city of Kunming in Western China. The bulk of our time in this part of China was spent visiting villages up in the mountains outside of Kunming. A typical day would entail driving up the mountain to the village. Now, since these villages were small, this was a big event. In many cases,we were the first Westerners they had seen in a long time and they wanted to welcome their fellow Christians who traveled halfway around the world to visit them. The entire town would come out to greet us and then we were welcomed to dinner. In our eyes, the dinner seemed rather humble, consisting of rice, pork and vegatables. However, for these villagers, it was a BIG deal. We ate graciously and then went to the church service.
After a wonderful send off, we would go the next village and get another big welcome and yes, another big meal. And if you went to another village...you'd get another meal.
The thing is, you couldn't refuse the meal. I mean, the townsfolk wanted to cook a special meal to welcome their guests. They wanted to fellowship with their fellow Christians and they had to have the best for us.
I can tell you after eating all that rice, it was about a month before I could even touch the stuff again.
As I look back on that experience, I know that it didn't matter that we had eaten at the village down the road. The food was just a way of saying thanks and welcoming us. For these people who lived in a society where the government ranged at times from indifferent to hostile, this meeting was important. These poor, mountainfolk gave their all to make sure we had a good time.
Today's gospel text reminds me a lot of those Christians in China. It's a pretty familiar text, in fact it shows up in all four gospels. Jesus and his disciples are attending to the needs of the multitude and for some reason, it becomes clear that the multitude needs to be fed. Jesus takes a boy's lunch, blesses it, and then has his disciples distribute the meal among th e crowd. There is enough to feed the crowd of 5,000 and then some. What makes John's story interesting is that the crowd is a little bit more active. They see this sign from this person and decide to make Jesus king. He decides to give them the slip, but even though Jesus could feed a crowd with some bread and sardines, he wasn't that good at evading a crowd of people. What happens next is not found in the appointed texts for today, which is a shame, because this portion of John 6 is probably the heart of this text, not the miracle itself. What takes place is a discourse between Jesus and crowd. The crowd sees Jesus as a someone who will fill their bellies, an eternal meal ticket. Jesus is talking about being the Bread of Life and that those who eat this bread will never die. The discussion goes back and forth until the crowd leaves dejected and puzzled. How can this man be bread, they ask. He expects us to eat his flesh and blood?
The crowd missed an opportunity. They had an encounter with the holy. It was God in Christ that fed this crowd as God had done thousands of years before with their ancestors in the desert. Jesus took what seemed to be not enough to feed a crowd and fed everyone, with more than enough left over. God in Jesus had shown generosity. Instead of being thankful, the crowd was greedy. They saw Jesus not as the Son of God, but as some first century version of McDonald's, someone who could provide for them the food they needed on demand.
So, as you Lutherans are fond of saying, what does this mean for us?
I've been aware that the theme here at United during the summer is “Breathe Deep” a chance to rest and take in God's goodness and breath out the Spirit. The crowd had a chance to take in the goodness of God. They had a chance to just sit, rest and breathe in God. The problem was they were too busy looking for their next meal to sit down and rest.
I can tell this text has some importance in my life. As some of you might know, I'm the pastor of a new church start in the Twin Cities. It takes a lot of work to get a church off the ground. In the past year or so, our church was busy trying to grow and grow big. We moved to a certain part of town we thought would grow and developed services that we thought would pack them in.
And you know what? It didn't. Very few people showed up to these services and those of us on staff felt a bit dejected. I can't speak for the other staff, but I tend to think that I got my eye off the mark. I was busy trying to make the church attractive to people. Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it became the central focus. Our church is named Community of Grace and I wasn't allowing myself to experience that grace and share with it others. I fear that I was making Jesus into a commodity, just like the crowd in John.
The thing is, Jesus invites us all to a banquet where we can fill out empty souls. We don't have to do anything to receive it, but just receive it. And when we do, something happens. We want to go out and share that generosity with others. That's what we do when we come to the table. We are invited to Christ's table and we are reminded of God's graciousness on the cross. And when we have finished, we go out into the world to bring God's message of salvation or healing to a hungry and hurting world.
There is one person at Community of Grace that reminds me that being church is about coming to the table. Jim has been a member of the church since the beginning. He didn't come to Community of Grace because of any special thing we did, but simply because someone asked. This was someone who felt estranged from church for a long time and now felt welcomed. And you can see it on his face during Sunday worship. It doesn't matter if the musicians hit a wrong note or if the pastor has a hard time trying to break the communion bread, he just takes it all in-like a man at a banquet table who hasn't had anything to eat in a long time.
This is who Jesus is to us: setting a table for us and welcoming us. All we have to do is take a rest from our busy lives and eat it up.
I have to leave you with one more story. Since it's summer and Community of Grace meets in the evenings, I've taken it to visit other churches. I recently visited a Lutheran church in Minneapolis and during communion, a mother and her daughter who was recently adopted from China come forward. She held her hands open expectantly waiting for the bread. The pastor gave her the bread and she gobbled it up with passion.
THAT, my friends is how we should come before God; expectant, waiting and taking it all in.
The meal is ready. Just remember to say grace beforehand. Thanks be to God. Amen.