Produced for North Church’s 2010 Vacation Bible School. This video was shown in worship at North Church, North St. Paul, MN, August 2010.
Produced for North Church’s 2010 Vacation Bible School. This video was shown in worship at North Church, North St. Paul, MN, August 2010.
I’ve never really liked Ecclesiastes. It’s always seemed quite disheartening really. The author of Ecclesiastes goes chapter by chapter talking about the different things humankind strives for, but how each is “vanity” and like “chasing after the wind” or in some translations “feeding on the wind.” This isn’t exactly something you’d see on a motivational poster in someone’s office or hear in a commencement address. Fortunately for us, this is not the only book in the Bible, nor is it the last book. God does not leave us in frustration or hopelessness. This book gives us a diagnosis of the human condition, but it does not give us the prescription. What Ecclesiastes tells us, is that we as human beings are hungry. We are hungry for something beyond what we can we can work to make or go to the store to buy. We are hungry for something real, something tangible, something lasting. We are hungry for fulfillment. We are hungry to stop being hungry. We are hungry for God.
Imagining the hunger of Ecclesiastes I can’t help but picture a scene in the movie Hook. The movie Hook is about Peter Pan after he leaves Neverland, grows up, gets married, and has kids. He is a ruthless and successful businessman who never seems to be able to find time to make his wife, children, and company happy. On a visit back to his wife’s grandmother’s home, Wendy Darling, who is the Wendy that we know from the story of Peter Pan, his life is jolted by a visit from the nefarious Captain Hook, who kidnaps his children and forces him to go back to Neverland to save them. Peter, with the help of Tinkerbell makes it back to Neverland, meets up with the Lost Boys, and gets trained in how to become who he was before, Peter Pan. After a long day of training, the boys sit down at a table full of plates, cups, and silverware and the boys begin to eat. The trouble is Peter doesn’t see any food in front of them. He gets into an argument with the leader of the Lost Boys and finally decides to go along with things and “pretend” to throw his food at the boy. Peter is shocked to see the food materialize, hit the boy in the face, and a food fight ensues. Peter then feasts with the boys and everything changes. This meal feeds him in a way he forgot he was hungry. It helps him to reconnect with his imagination, his hope, his creativity, and eventually his family. For so long he had been striving towards things that weren’t feeding him, weren’t helping him connect with who he was and who he was called to be.
Today we will be celebrating communion. Communion is not the food of the movie Hook. It is not imaginary. We have before us real bread and real grape juice. And, barring any mishaps, we will not be having a food fight here this morning. But the feast before us also requires a bit of imagination on our part. In the Upper Room, Jesus broke bread and poured wine and told His disciples, “This is my body broken for you” and “this is my blood” shed for you. In this Eucharistic feast, Jesus asks us to imagine His body as the bread and the juice as His blood. In doing so, we are able to connect to our very real God. A God that came to earth, lived walked, moved, breathed, and yes, hungered and thirsted.
When we join with one another in communion we eat not for the nourishment of our bodies, for communion will likely not fill up any physical hunger you may have, but we eat for the nourishment of our souls. We eat to taste community. We eat to taste forgiveness. We eat to taste fulfillment.
A lectionary commentary that I like to use in writing sermons is called “Feasting on the Word.” As the series website explains it, this book is made up of many “writers from a wide variety of disciplines and religious traditions. These authors teach in colleges and seminaries. They lead congregations. They write scholarly books as well as columns for the local newspaper. They oversee denominations… they serve God’s Word, joining the preacher in the ongoing challenge of bringing that Word to life.”
I like to imagine its authors sitting at a banquet table, silverware in hand, napkin on laps, and Biblical texts spread out in front of them. In “tasting” various texts they speak to one another, trying to explain how the flavor, texture, and scent of the Word all come together on their spiritual taste buds, to feed their own theological hunger. I imagine that they approach Scripture treating it not as a simple snack of some words strung together but as a feast rich with the flavors of grace, redemption, love, and compassion. They come to scripture expecting to see God revealed, and in their own delicious discoveries of the texts they help others to recognize the taste of God.
As we share in communion we are reminded that Jesus is the “Word that became flesh,” who yearns for us to “consume” Him, to have “communion” with Him in the Eucharist and in the word so that we “may have life to the full.”
There is a book I’ve read about spiritual disciplines, talking about how to recognize God’s presence within and among our experiences, called “Sleeping with Bread.” The introduction explains the title saying, “During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, ‘Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.’”
Ecclesiastes tells us of the great hunger that we feel for life, a hunger only satiated by God’s presence in our lives. When these children were hungry, only food could calm their fears and help them to know that they were safe. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “there are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” To these children, God was in the bread. That was what they ached for and what was provided.
Sharing God with the world means feeding both the physical and the spiritual hunger. The trouble is sometimes differentiating between the two. In scripture, Amos said: “There is a famine upon the land: not a famine of bread, or thirst for water, but for hearing the word of the Lord.” In our world today there are famines. There are famines created by improper distribution of food in countries with political instability. There are famines for thirst in countries without technology or resources for digging wells for healthy drinking water. Though food, water, and money, will help to alleviate some of the effects of these problems, what we are dealing with is more than a famine for resources, it is a famine for compassion, for love, and for justice. This deep societal hunger can only be filled by actions fueled by the bread that keeps us from never going hungry, God.
There was controversy this past week over a t-shirt for sale at Urban Outfitters that had “Eat Less” printed across the front of it. Various celebrities and bloggers responded on how they felt about the message of this shirt. Some said it was offensive and promotes a culture that encourages and glamorizes eating disorders. Others said that it was a witty response to too much consumerism in American culture.
I wonder why this shirt was created at all. Our culture does have issues with consumerism, but this is not any kind of message of healing, compassion or kindness. Wearing this shirt will not promote any positive change or relationship in how we interact with food or how we provide for one another. The reality of this is not that we need to be promoting eating less or eating more, but eating differently. Eating in a way that truly nourishes who God created us to be. Partaking in both physical and spiritual nourishment. Fueling our bodies in ways that create opportunity for others to be fueled.
Society is not structured so that humankind may be fed in the way that it needs. Even when we eat, we are not being truly nourished. Milk costs $3 a gallon, soda is less than a dollar, so many parents are faced with hard decisions about what they are able to provide. The cheaper choice may quench a family’s thirst, but their hunger remains. They consume plenty of calories, but do not get the nutrients they need for healthy growth, development, and well being. They are not nourished.
There are “all you can eat buffets” where even the title states that the goal is not to eat until you are nourished, but to eat until you can eat no more. You may be full, even sickeningly so, but you will not be nourished.
Food is used as a means of power in far too many ways across our society. It is denied from the poor to keep corrupt governments in power. People with eating disorders may deny their own bodies of food to seek power over self-esteem or body image. Food is used as a distraction, a comfort, a crutch, a band aid, a replacement for what we are really hungering for. Far too often it is used as anything but nourishment.
God knows that we are hungry. God knows that what we need is life-giving food. We need this bread and this juice. We need reminders that among all the hungers of this world, when we partake in the forgiveness Jesus gives us, we will never be spiritually hungry again. God is real and present and available. Anything less than God will keep us hungry. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” May you seek this week to be fed and to help others be fed with the nourishment that only God can provide. Amen.
Imagine this, it is hot, uncomfortably hot, a day where you could probably fry an egg on the sidewalk if you try. It’s noon, the hottest part of the day. Your house doesn’t have air conditioning, so you are sitting out on the porch in front of your house, trying to at least catch a breeze or two. You are frustrated, because you and your wife are having trouble conceiving and you’re worried that you may never have children with whom to share your life, love, and legacy. You sit, unsure of the future. You see three men walking by your house. They look tired and you know that they could probably use some food and shade. What do you do? Do you invite them to sit on your porch? Do you offer them something to drink or to eat? Getting up and going in your house would take you from your somewhat comfortable porch and if you shared some food you may have to go out to the grocery store later. Is it really worth it to go out of your way to help them? Someone else will offer them something, right?
Imagine this, it’s Sunday morning. You’ve had a tough week. You got in an argument with a friend, you weren’t able to be at your kid’s swim team meet because you had to work, you forgot an appointment and had to reschedule for next month. Your parents don’t understand you. Your kids don’t understand you. You come to church, sit down at your regular table and talk to your close friends. You are relaxed, comfortable. Then, you see three people walk into the Hall. You’ve never seen them before; realize they’re probably visitors, and they look a little unsure of what to do or where to sit. What do you do? Do you invite them to sit at your table? Do you point them to the donuts and coffee? Getting up and greeting them would take you away from your comfortable conversation and inviting them to join you would change the conversation. You might not be so comfortable anymore, and really, you’ve had a tough week and just want to be comfortable. Someone else will welcome them, right?
In our scripture today, we hear of Abraham’s reaction to such a situation. It was the heat of the day. Abraham had plenty going on in his own life for which he needed comfort. He and his wife, Sarah, were worried that they would never have children. In the chapter before this we read of the Lord appearing before Abraham and making a covenant with him that he will make him the “ancestor of a multitude of nations,” but Abraham is 99 years old. As much as he would like to have confidence in God’s promises, he’s still not entirely sure how God will make this covenant happen. In our cultural context, we could completely understand Abraham letting these three men pass by, but that is not what he did.
Abraham bows before them, offers himself as a servant to their needs, and humbly offers “a little water,” and “a little bread.” Then Abraham runs into the house and does not just grab yesterday’s bread and a little bit of water. No, instead, with the help of Sarah and their servants he prepares a quick feast of cakes, calf meat, curds and milk.
Now it does turn out that among these men is the Lord, but Abraham doesn’t know that. Abraham can’t see the halos and the wings that so many artists have given them in their depictions of this event. Abraham is not being hospitable to them because he knows that they’re about to tell him his wife will have a child. He is simply being hospitable, because that is what he knows.
Throughout history Jewish and Christian tradition have placed an emphasis on this kind of overwhelming hospitality, likely because God reminds us throughout scripture that God’s people have so often been the stranger. Exodus 23:9 says, “Don’t take advantage of a stranger. You know what it’s like to be a stranger; you were strangers in Egypt.” In Leviticus 19:34 we read, “When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don’t take advantage of him. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt.” In total, there are 36 biblical warnings against the mistreatment of strangers.
We have all, at some point or another, been a stranger. Try to remember the last time you were a stranger. Perhaps it was your first day of school, your first day of work, moving into a new neighborhood, going to a new grocery store, joining a new sports team, or perhaps coming here this morning. How did you feel? Were you welcomed? Were you comfortable? Were you able to get to a point where you no longer felt like a stranger?
Hospitality can look like Abraham’s bending over backwards approach, but it can also look like simply welcoming people into our own experience, helping them transition from being the other to being in community. This type of hospitality looks a little messier, because here not everything is behind the scenes as it is in Abraham’s account and as it in another quite famous story of biblical hospitality, the story of two sisters, Mary and Martha. Follow along with me on the screens: “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’”
In this passage, Martha, like Abraham, goes out of her way to meet the needs of the Lord, and is admonished for it. This passage can be confusing, and I know it would be even more confusing for people in Martha and Mary’s time and culture. The cultural expectation was for people to entertain their guests, going to all lengths to make sure that their guests were comfortable. But Jesus says that He does not want her to be “worried and distracted” by her efforts of making sure all of his needs are met, but rather to simply be present as her sister, Mary is. We are asked to leave our busy kitchens, or attempts to make everything perfect and enter into a kind of vulnerability, letting go the non-essential acts of welcoming a guest, in order to be hospitable in a more real and direct way.
In the book, Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren F. Winner, a Christian converted from Judaism, speaks of the practice of hospitality throughout Jewish and Christian history, as well as how we may live it out now. She writes, “To be a hostess, I’m going to have to surrender my notions of Good Housekeeping domestic perfection. I will have to set down my pride and invite people over even if I haven’t dusted. This is tough: My mother set a high standard. Her house is always immaculate, most especially if she’s expecting company. But if I wait for immaculate, I will never have a guest.” She continues, writing, “The reality of God’s Trinitarian life suggests that…we are not meant simply to invite people into our homes, but also to invite them into our lives. Having guests and visitors, if we do it right, is not an imposition, because we are not meant to rearrange our lives for our guests – we are meant to invite our guests to enter into our lives as they are. It is this forging of relationships that transforms entertaining into hospitality.”
This fall, on October 10th, the God Connection team will challenge you to put your hospitality into action by inviting at least one guest to worship and fellowship with us that day in a celebration of Christian hospitality we will be calling “Be Our Guest Sunday.” As we enter into this day of hospitality, we are to keep in mind the words of Lauren Winner and Jesus’ admonishment of Martha, welcoming our guests not as outsiders and strangers who we are attempting to impress by putting on a show of what we think the perfect church should look like, but rather by welcoming people into our community as it is. Because of this we will have, more or less, a regular Sunday, with two worship services and fellowship in between. Worship is a strength of this community, as is our sense of family in our fellowship, and as a church we will be inviting and welcoming others into the community as it is, without much external change, but hopefully with an intentionality in how we open ourselves to others and how we show grace to one another.
I heard this story once; perhaps you may have heard it too, about a monastery. As the monks were getting older and passing away, no new monks were coming into the community and eventually there were only five monks left in their order. A few miles from the monastery lived a hermit who many thought was a prophet. As the men of the monastery discussed the bleak state of their order, they decided to visit the hermit to see if he would have some advice. The five monks went to the hermit and explained their situation and he said that he didn’t know how the monastery could be saved. He said the only thing he could tell them is that one of them was an apostle of God. They were confused by this and wondered what it could mean. They were doubtful that one of them could be an apostle, and each wondered if it were true, who could it be? As they thought about this things began to change in their community. Because they weren’t sure who was apostle among them, they began to treat one another with a new kind of grace and respect, on the off change that one of them might actually be an apostle of God. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the apostle spoken of by the hermit, each monk began to treat himself with extraordinary respect. As others from the outside visited the community, they noticed the care that the monks showed one another and some decided that they too wanted to be a part of that community. Within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order of respect and grace.
This phenomenon of seeking God’s divinity revealed through the other is what Barbara Brown Taylor would call reverence. In her book, An Altar in the World, she writes, “reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self–something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding…reverence stands in awe of something–something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits–so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.” By showing reverence toward the other, we show reverence to God.
As we read in our scripture today, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The listeners in our passage are confused, asking “when did we do any of those things?” But Jesus, responds ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
There are plenty of opportunities to be hospitable to others in our everyday life. We can let others in front of us in the grocery store line. We can hold the door open as someone enters a building with us. In the life of a church we can show hospitality by inviting people to worship, and particularly the Be Our Guest Sunday in October. We can invite our neighbors’ and coworkers’ children to attend Vacation Bible School and we can welcome others who attend Vacation Bible School throughout this week. When God appears in your life this week as a stranger, will God be welcome?
On the popular show, House M.D., the main character says, “If you talk to God, you’re religious. If God talks to you, you’re psychotic.” I would say that this is a pretty accurate reflection of the perception that the secular world, and even often the religious world, has about interaction with God. It seems quite normal and appropriate for someone to pray to God. But we don’t often pray expecting to hear the voice of God responding back to us. Maybe it’s because we aren’t listening, maybe it’s because it seems impossible, or maybe its because we just don’t recognize God’s voice when God’s speaking to us. However, the Bible gives us several examples of how God speaks to people. Mainly I see God as speaking to people in three different ways.
Sometimes God is loud, tangible, and in your face.
Imagine this: You are shepherding your father-in-law’s flock of sheep. You go through the wilderness, over some mountains. Just a typical day helping out the family, right? Well, all of a sudden, you come across a bush, and it’s on fire; big, crackling, flames kind of fire. At first you start to panic, worried that you and your sheep might be harmed by whatever or whoever caused such a fire so far out here, but then you look again. Though the bush is surely aflame, it somehow is not burning up. You come closer, curious to see what exactly is going on here. And then, you hear a voice. God is calling your name. “Moses, Moses!” (Exodus 3:1-4)
The story just gets stranger from here. God then tells Moses to remove his shoes, because the ground he is standing on is holy. God identifies God‘s self and Moses hides his face, intimidated by the awesome God that speaks to him. God tells Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and Moses is incredulous. “You want me to do what?”
Moses fears God’s presence and God’s commands. Moses argues with God, pleading not to be sent.
This type of response within the Bible has always frustrated and confused me. It’s odd to me when I read such stories in the Bible, that someone would hear the true voice of God, knowing that it is God, and not automatically respond. I feel like sometimes it is so hard to understand the specifics of where God wants us to go or what God wants us to do, and here Moses, hearing God speaking to him, would rather pass the responsibility off to someone else.
Fortunately, God doesn’t leave him there in his incredulity and insecurity. God legitimizes Moses’ leadership through a series of plagues and miracles. God spoke to Moses and through Moses, was able to save a whole people from slavery, whether Moses really wanted to follow God to this sort of leadership or not.
Yet, even when we are scared of the call God places on our lives, I have to admit, I still feel so much better just in the knowing what God is directing me to do. I’d give anything for that kind of clarity, when God speaks in the second way I noticed God speaking in the Bible, speaking through silence.
This way is very hard to understand, because at the time it seems like God isn’t saying anything. These are the times when our lives become overwhelmed with sadness, devastation, sickness, or grief. In these times our circumstances are so loud that we may not even think ourselves capable of hearing God speaking to us.
And when we are in the midst of experiencing such terrible things it really is hard to understand people who will say it is all in God’s plan or that it is for some divine purpose. Such a story takes up an entire book in the Bible, giving us the story of Job.
Here is Job. A man whom we are told is “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turns away from evil.” (Exodus 3:1-4) We are also told of his ten children, his expansive collection of livestock, and his devout practices of burnt offerings on behalf of his children. Job has everything anyone of his time could wish for, but then Satan enters the story, and as you may imagine, things get complicated.
Within a few paragraphs Job has every possession and loved one taken away from him. Yet, despite Job’s grief and suffering, he maintains that it is all within God’s plan. It’s hard to understand the Jobs of the world who process loss and pain, without questioning their faith. We read the book of Job and we, like Job’s friends want Job to snap and curse God. And though Job curses his own life, he will never curse God. And I believe that is the lesson of Job, not as some interpret it that God allowed terrible things to happen, but that God transcends our experience and our ephemeral earthly possessions and relationships, and gives us an eternity of hope and peace beyond what we are capable of knowing on earth.
More often than not though, I believe that God speaks in whispering voice as we see in our lectionary passage today: “The LORD said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.” (1 Kings 19:11-12, NIV)
The voice that Elijah hears is not loud. It is not the type that sets aflame our passions and the bush in the Horeb mountains. No, instead God presents God’s self simply in a whisper to Elijah. However, if you look back on the entirety of the passage, God does not just speak through the whisper, but through all of the actions of the angels working on God’s behalf. God is present and vocal through the shelter of the broom tree and cave; the providential bread and water; and the near voice of God, the Lord, who speaks intimately with Elijah, even preparing him to listen for God’s voice.
This same accompanying voice of God speaks into our lives, our relationships, and our sense of vocation. This voice may be hard to recognize since it is rarely one that identifies itself as God’s own. This voice most often comes from those in our communities: siblings, teachers, parents, co-workers, and congregation members. These people call us by name, not out of a burning bush, but out of their desire for the goodness of God’s will to be manifest in our lives. God uses such people to reveal God’s self through community. Community, according to John Calvin, was not only important, but essential to faith. He believed that it was only through communion with others that we were able to know anything about God both through the history of the Christian church and through God’s presence revealed through the words and actions of one another.
When I think of God speaking through others, I can’t help but think of the show Joan of Arcadia. In the course of each episode God speaks to Joan through custodians, school secretaries, legal stenographers, school outcasts, and my favorite, a seven-year-old girl. Each manifestation of God becomes known to Joan as God, when each addresses Joan by name, as God does throughout Biblical narratives. These manifestations of God relate to Joan’s current struggles, sometimes giving her seemingly obscure or random tasks to complete. Throughout the course of each episode the purpose for such a task is revealed, and the character of God within the show explains how God is using the small things Joan does for a greater purpose.
I believe that God truly does speak in this way, providing communities and people in our lives to point us towards God’s call for our lives. I personally, have heard God whispering to me, calling me towards ministry in the church. This started first as a whisper of my parent’s will for me to be incorporated into the Christian community through my baptism. The whisper came again through church members who taught me in Sunday school classes, Vacation Bible School, and youth group. When I began confirmation class, and he encouraged me to take on various leadership roles within the youth group and church, the whisper got louder. The joy that I found through both participating in worship and leading devotional groups and retreats helped me to make out just a few of the details of this whisper. God was calling me to ministry.
Now, after my second year of seminary, I continue to experience these whispering calls through my interactions with others and the opportunities that come my way, calling me to further service of God’s kingdom. Such a call has led me here today, in worship and fellowship with you. I am grateful for your support in allowing me to take part in this community, and it is my hope that we will whisper what we believe to be God’s will to one another throughout the following months, so that God may be further revealed among us.
It is my prayer that as you go out into the world today, you may listen for the many ways God is speaking to you, and that you may be willing to seem at least a little crazy in hearing and responding to God’s call in your life.