Texts: Ephesians 4:1-16
“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.” – John 6:27
Holy God, quiet our minds, speak to us once again this morning, and remind us of why we still follow Christ. Amen.
Last week, while I was talking with my mother who turned 75 in June, a question came up that has been playing in the back of my mind ever since we ended the call on Skype. My mother has become surprisingly active in a Lutheran church in Southern Brazil. I use the word “surprisingly” because my mother was never involved in any religious institution when I was growing up. But she likes this Lutheran congregation and is very supportive of the young female pastor who was called just a few months after she started attending the services. But the congregation is made up mostly of older adults who, like my mother, moved to the seaside city to enjoy their retirement. Most do not want to be bothered with the many meetings and activities that have to happen in order to keep the church building open, the lights on, the choir singing, or the church programs running. The young pastor, my mother reckons, has given up on trying to get people more invested in the church. As we were chatting my mother said, “The pastor’s sermons are not hitting home. She is an excellent preacher, but she is preaching to us as if we already had one foot in the grave. I wish she would give us a reason to remember that we still count, that we are still alive, and might still be able to keep this church in business.”
After listening to my mother, I could not help but ask myself if my own sermons are hitting home. I wondered if the proclamation of God’s Word on Sunday morning speaks to you, keeps you engaged, and gives you a reason to want to be in this business of being a disciple of Jesus Christ through the mission and ministries of this church at the heart of Plymouth.
The late Dutch Roman Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen once said that preaching is not a skillful rhetorical technique preachers use to manipulate people into the Kingdom of God. He said, “preaching means more than handing over a tradition; it is rather the careful and sensitive articulation of what is happening in the community so that those who listen can say: ‘You say what I suspected, you express what I vaguely felt, you bring to the fore what I fearfully kept in the back of my mind. Yes, yes – you say who we are, you recognize our condition…”; when we listen we receive the Word of God.
Pastors do their very best to pick up on the questions and issues that are weighing on the hearts of the people we are called to serve. Every preacher keeps the proverbial ear to the congregational ground to have a sense of what kind of hopes and dreams, hurts and fears, joys and worries church members are holding in their hearts. We pay attention, ask questions, take notice, and listen carefully so when the time comes to seek God’s guidance in our sermon preparation, we have enough understanding of the church to create a sacred dialogue between Scriptures and the lives of the men and women in the pews. Pastors know that each person in the service has a different reason to be in church and every preacher’s prayer is that at least some of what people hear on Sunday morning will hit home. And if I were asked to give a more precise definition of what “preaching a sermon that hits home” means to me and I would say that it is a sermon that not only articulates what is happening in the community, but that also encourages us to think seriously about the spiritual and religious commitment each one of us has made to follow Christ for as long as we live.
In today’s Gospel lesson, like a good pastor would, Jesus brings to the fore what is in the heart of the crowd that has been following him around. He addresses what they are not willing to name, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” As you recall, last Sunday we reflected on the first 15 verses of the 6th chapter of John. Rather than sending away the thousands that had tracked him to the lakeshore, Jesus took five loaves and two fish, blessed them, broke them and gave enough food away to satisfy every single man, woman and child. In a world of scarcity and daily hunger, the abundance Jesus made available was unimaginable. People were so enraptured by the idea of what someone like Jesus might be able to do for them that they wanted to make Jesus their king whether he wanted to be crowned or not. The Gospel of John tells us that when Jesus realized the real intentions of the crowd, he stole quietly away and found refuge in the mountains.
The same crowd that craved for the food Jesus gave away had a hard time understanding who Jesus really was and what it meant to follow him. In their hearts, Jesus was a prophet, a miracle worker, a religious teacher, a rabbi, the son of Mary, a young man from Nazareth, perhaps even a caring social or political activist that could satisfy their hunger. When they found Jesus on the other side of the lake, they asked: “Rabbi, when did you come here?” In the original Greek, this question was more than just a simple inquiry about the time of the day or the moment Jesus went ashore. As if playing with words purposefully, John uses a Greek verb that can be translated as “coming into being.” The intention of the Gospel writer was to uncover how little the people who sought Jesus out, understood who Jesus was as a man of faith, as a child of God. They might be eager to be the recipients of Jesus’ abundant blessings, but they were still clueless about how Jesus came into being and what was Jesus’ purpose in human history.
At this point it was pretty clear to Jesus that his teachings were not hitting home. He wasn’t upset that the people might have other personal, religious or political reasons to be in his presence, but he wanted to make sure their needs, their hunger, their fears, their wounds, or desire to enjoy life did not cloud their ability to see and understand why Jesus, who had once been the woodworker of Nazareth, became the Christ of history; why Jesus felt called to give up carpentry to become “the bread of life.” So Jesus preached to the crowds and said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”
Sometimes our pursuit of personal satisfaction, safety, and even acceptance and meaning gets derailed by our warped understanding of what we deem to be relevant to our wellbeing and happiness. Too often, we are driven by our selfish desires to seek fulfillment in our personal achievements. Too many of us judge our wellbeing by what we get out of life. Think for a moment of how often we talk about our children by telling others how high they have climbed socially or we speak about our grandchildren only in terms of their professional accomplishments. We seldom name the kind of human beings we, or our children, or our grandchildren are becoming. We judge people not by who they are, but by how much they have in their checking account; where they went to college; what kind of car they drive; how many exotic places they have visited while on vacation; or the kind of lifestyle they can afford in their retirement; how influential or well-connected their friends are. In our achievement-oriented world, we are taught to think of people in terms of their usefulness and, very seldom, in terms of their intrinsic value as human beings. The crowds in John’s Gospel were following Christ because they believed he could give them the kind of material stuff they wanted most; but they failed to see why the former woodworker came to a place in his life where God’s love was clearly visible in the way he lived. They failed to see who Jesus was and what mattered most about his humanity and his faith.
But Jesus believed that if people were given a new meaning for their lives, they would change; they would see what matters. So this Jewish carpenter who became the spiritual “bread of life” for millions of women and men kept on instructing, teaching, healing and feeding people in the hopes that they might find purpose for their lives in the life-affirming faith Jesus practiced. He confronted the emptiness at the core of their being and urged them to find meaning and purpose in God. He gave human beings a reason to live for something much bigger than their hunger for bread. Jesus never gave up on the hope that if not all the men and women in the crowd, at least some would listen to his words, understand his mission, and would say to themselves, “Aha! This is now hitting home. I know my reason to be alive.”
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said very wisely, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” Jesus’ why was to bring God’s saving love to humankind. And it was this sense of calling that got him up each morning; it was this why that inspired him to have compassion on the crowds; it was this why that empowered him to give bread to strangers; this why showed Jesus how to be faithful to God’s dreams for humanity, how to carry the cross, and even how to face death. He was able to keep going and to deal with the how’s of life, because he had a greater WHY to live for.
There comes a time when all of us have to ask what is the why that gives meaning to our existence. It does not matter whether you are 8 or 80 years of age, every single one of us needs to have a reason to breathe, to eat, to get up in the morning, to go to bed at night, to love, to live and to be human and alive. As long as we are breathing and able to think for ourselves, we must ask what is our true why in life. When you are alone at home, in your bed, driving to work, taking a shower, eating your dinner, boating on the lake, going on another trip, doing your grocery shopping, sitting in the pew what do you tell yourself your true purpose to exist is? Are you only striving for the bread that perishes or are you also searching for greater meaning? Are you working to have more than you need to live a full life or are you also choosing to give of yourself so others may have life abundant? Are you conforming to the expectations of society or are you truly living out your why?
Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, wrote in one of his books that those prisoners in the concentration camps who had lost their faith in their purpose to exist were doomed. With the loss of faith in the why to live, they did not know how to stand up against the cruelty suffering and hunger of each day. They simply gave up. They allowed the circumstances to determine their lives and eventually they gave into hopelessness and despair. Having a purpose in life, a reason to being is as essential to the human body as eating bread and drinking water. And Christ says that when we have faith in God through him, we find our why to follow him, be his apostles and live more fully for something that matters and saves human lives from meaninglessness.
When my mother described what is going on in the Lutheran church she attends, I asked myself whether our own church might not be in a similar place. We are an older congregation with many retirees who moved to New Hampshire to enjoy nature and the slow pace of life in the Lakes Region. Some of our members already had to make the tough decision to move to retirement homes as old age is taking them to the edge of their time on earth and a few others are asking how much longer it will be before they also make the same move. Having given so much to this congregation, there are some of you who are wondering if you have not given enough and now is the time to just enjoy simple things like a Sunday morning on the lake, a quiet walk in the woods, a relaxing morning in bed or a day with your children and grandchildren. Singing in the choir, attending church meetings, getting up on Sunday morning to come to church all of a sudden seem too much of a personal effort to keep our church in business. I am sure that there have been plenty of Sundays when you told yourself that the sermon just did not hit home and you wondered if there is still a why to keep you involved and engaged in our ministries and mission.
What you have not heard from this pulpit is a sense of pastoral resignation before the reality of aging. I believe very strongly that each one of you still counts. As a pastor, I believe that all of us still have a reason to work together to keep this place of worship alive, not only to nurture our own hearts and minds, but as a beacon of God’s love and grace in this town. As Christian author Parker Palmer says in his new book entitled “On the Brink of Everything,” “Old age is no time to hunker down, unless disability demands it. Old is just another word for nothing left to lose, a time of life to take bigger risks on behalf of the common good.” I have enjoyed Palmer’s book about his own experience of growing old so much that I am reading it again. In the book, Palmer recognizes that “there’s no antidote for the gravity that takes us to the grave,” but he also understands that aging is a privilege that gives people the choice between stagnation and decline or discovery and engagement. In Parker Palmer’s words, “For people like me [meaning “him”], the notion that old age is a time to dial down and play it safe is a cop-out. Those of us who are able should be raising hell on behalf of whatever we care about.”
In a few minutes, we will gather around the Lord’s Table to remember how Jesus raised a ruckus and took big risks because he knew his why to live for. Through his faith in the God of life, Jesus became the spiritual bread and the living water that gives purpose to people who are not ready to let the circumstances of their lives – not even aging - determine who they are and how they will live. Jesus gave his life in the hopes that his why might also be ours; that his courage to live for the things he cared about would become ours; and his preaching and teaching would fill the existential vacuum in the core of our hearts and would give us a reason to keep raising hell in the name of justice, in the name of human dignity, in the name of peace, in the name of the least and the last of God’s children, in the name of the future of our loved ones, our planet, and the human race.
As Palmer put it, there is nothing romantic about aging and dying. The first one is a privilege and the second is not up for negotiation. In a congregation like ours where more than 50% of the congregation is well into their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, it is good to be reminded that your age is a gift. And so is the time you have left to make your why to exist count. Rather than giving into stagnation and decline or focusing only on your own personal satisfaction, ask yourself how you can reclaim your why to come to church and how you can make your own life into spiritual sustenance to others and to the future of the church and the human race. Ask yourself how you can continue to be a disciple. Ask yourself why you still feel called to remind other human beings that there is a way to believe that will give purpose and real meaning to life even in old age.
May the Bread of Life nourish your soul this morning. May Christ’s cup quench your thirst for meaning and may you hold on to the why of your faith and choose to live a meaningful life by serving the Church of Jesus Christ and raising a ruckus about the things that we care about as disciples of Christ. Amen.
 Henry Nouwen. The Wounded Healer, p. 38.
 John 6:15.
 Victor E. Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 74.
 Parker J. Palmer. “On the Brink of Everything,” p. 2.
 Ibid., p. 6.
 Ibid., p. 25.
 Ibid., p. 3
Sermons are meant to be preached and, therefore, all sermons are prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation rather than on proper grammar and punctuation required of written documents.