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One

John 6:24-35

 NYE Reflection #3: What Must We Do to Be One?

 The sounds, the images, the feelings of National Youth Event still linger on. Indeed, we imagined a better world and a blessed community in which all people were welcomed and accepted for who they are, and their gifts embraced. Our imaginations were expanded to believe that this just might be possible, even in our hometowns and cities. And then, after the thrill and wonder of it all, we got on buses and we came home. Back to the grind of work, preparation for school, the daily routine, and life. And the great event we experienced and the miracle of blessed community that filled us and made us whole now was in our memories. But what next…

And so it was for the characters in our Gospel story in John, just right after the great event of the feeding of the 5000 and then Jesus’ Gold medal performance in the Olympic water walking event. Crowds of people were looking for Jesus all over the place and couldn’t find him. When they finally did, he was on the other side of Lake Galilee. Apparently, Jesus’ bus didn’t blow a tire. The crowds weren’t looking for him so they could thank him for such a great teaching or because they were so satisfied by the sign of such a great meal of bread and fish with such an open community. They went looking for Jesus because they wanted more. And, they wanted to figure out what all this meant. But what next…

As they found out, though, they were not about to get more bread for their stomachs or another miracle, but instead an interpretation of what had happened. Your stomachs are full, said Jesus, the supposed miracle man of Nazareth. Don’t eat the food that doesn’t last, but eat the food that lasts forever. Well, the people had to have been interested now. Not only had Jesus filled their hungry stomachs, but now he was promising to give them a lifetime supply of all they could eat buffets! Imagine getting the word from your favorite restaurant that you can come whenever you want and eat all you want for free. They were ready for that and said: Okay, Jesus, so what do we have to do to perform the works of God? In other words, just tell us what to do so we can get what we want! But again, not quite the answer they expected. Jesus responded with: Believe in the one whom God sent, and that is a work of God. Uh, okay. But they needed a way to control this God-stuff, something tangible so they could believe in it.

                   So the people spoke: What miracle will you perform so we can believe in you? What are you doing that’s so special, Jesus? I mean, look—our ancestor Moses was pretty awesome, because when we were stranded in the wilderness, Moses gave us bread that fell out of the sky. It didn’t require some ornery kid with a few loaves and fishes. If fell out of the sky, man!

Then Jesus spoke: Really? You’re going to bring Moses into this? He didn’t give you that bread from heaven. It was GOD, by the way, and the bread that GOD gives you is way better than any buffet you could imagine. GOD’S bread gives life even to the whole world! Now the people were REALLY excited, because this sounded even better than the manna: Give us this bread always. But 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. And then the 14 hour bus ride seemed like 24.

          They were focusing on the wrong kind of bread, of course. Their bread would eventually get stale. And Jesus was asking them to widen their perspective to experience the bread that endures. Meno is the Greek word for endures in verse 27. Meno is used often in John to describe Jesus’ relationship with those who follow him. You remember the image of the vine and branches. Jesus said: If you Abide/Endure in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit. Abide/Endure in my love. This enduring bread is a metaphor of Jesus’ relationship with us, humanity. This relationship is accessible to all. There are no left out people, because this relationship endures. It endures through changing cultures, times, and circumstances. This relationship bread nourishes us and sustains us.

At National Youth Event, we experienced much of what this enduring relationship can look like. We were together and all being fed in the way we needed to be. I was so impressed with the acceptance, tolerance, and compassion of the teenagers. I saw this kind of abiding love in them. We looked forward to what we would do with this nourishment—how we would bless people. But our bread and fishes miracle event didn’t last forever. Eventually, we all returned to our homes and churches. Sadly, reality was different than what we experienced in Indiana. For if we’re honest, we know that the bread we most often consume is WAY below the standards of bread we are offered. Like the crowds in our story, instead of looking forward, we look back to our past and think that the things of old will always satisfy us–even if some of those things are intolerance, prejudice, close-mindedness, fear. Like the people looking for Jesus, we keep looking for something to satisfy us and quite frankly, we never find it, because we are looking for the wrong things. Sitting in a pew won’t satisfy us; proclaiming a doctrine or creed won’t fill our stomachs; quoting Bible texts to support our point of view won’t quench our thirst; walking through the old rituals won’t make us whole; hanging out with the same people who are just like us won’t enrich us; just believing without living it doesn’t bless people.

          I think there’s so much to this bread metaphor, if we’re willing to embrace it. So much grace, because in a world full of conflicts, walls, divisions, and unsatisfying things, we can choose to believe in a GOD who endures with us through it all. We can choose to believe in a God who is present in our suffering–always there and still loving us when we doubt and fear and say unspeakable things when no one is watching or listening. We can choose to fill our mind and hearts with an eternally patient and forgiving God of love, even when others seem so eternally impatient and hateful. We can choose to remain, abide, and endure in a love and mercy that is meant for ALL people. We can choose to believe that our mountaintop, miracle moments that often end abruptly in a bus ride serve to push us forward with new energy, joy, perspective, and hope. They miracle events may not last, but the bread will.  

And the bread is meant for all people. If you ask me, that’s where we get sidetracked, when we lose purpose today in the church. We ought to consider such wonderful bread as a gift that is not limited to just us or to those we like. We ought to endure in our own walk with God–not criticizing someone else’s relationship with God because it’s not like ours. See, we’re all tempted at some point to go looking for Jesus to try and make sense of this faith thing and this God stuff, to fit it into a category, but we miss the point. Faith, God’s love and mercy–this enduring relationship—are not things to make sense of. They are things to embrace; to be thankful for; faith and God’s enduring love is for us to live.  

None of this church stuff matters unless we live it out there. Now listen, regardless of whether you like or don’t like the letters of Paul in the New Testament, this Ephesians passage certainly is relevant. The dynamic was this: in the 1st Century, Jews and those who were not Jews [Gentiles] had a hard time accepting each other. Both groups couldn’t quite wrap their minds around the concept of unity through reconciliation. It was really difficult for them to accept that those “far off” were now equally gifted by God and that the dividing walls had been torn down through Christ.

I don’t think the distinction of Jew and Gentile works for us in our context. Today there are different walls between people. We make distinctions between races or ethnicities. He’s black, she’s white; he’s brown; she’s yellow; you’re green. We divide ourselves by social class—rich; paycheck to paycheck; just scraping by or dirt poor; bmw or bicycle or Septa bus; big house with a nice yard or one bedroom apt or cardboard box. We build walls of sexuality—gay or straight; bi or trans; active or chaste. And like the 1st Century folk, we separate by religious belief or lack thereof—Christian [with too many categories to name], Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Agnostic, Atheist, Neopagan, Sacred Earth.

          And yet, the dream of God for us—for all people—is that through the enduring, reconciling bread of Christ, unity is still possible. Jesus was the one who broke down the dividing wall or the hostility between us. But unity—being one—does not mean that we are all the same. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Unity doesn’t blur distinctions or uniqueness. The Body of Christ, what we today refer to as the church, is defined as: the wisdom of God in its rich variety. It’s all these different people bearing with one another. The uniqueness doesn’t go away, nor should it. The uniqueness is a blessing. And it doesn’t prevent us from growing together.

          In fact, it is our acceptance of one another as we are that helps us claim the really, really satisfying bread. When we speak up for someone who is not our best friend when he is bullied; when we reach out to help someone who doesn’t speak our language; when we show hospitality to a stranger; when we invite in someone left on the outside; when we rejoice, cry, laugh, pray, eat, dance, sing, hug, donate, repair, cook, lift up, encourage, and surprise with kindness. THAT is the fruit of our enduring relationship with our God. Because we all eventually go home and face reality. We all find ourselves looking for Jesus and purpose and something to satisfy us. And then, we realize that the most important part of the bread that lasts is how we burn the calories. Who do we love? Who do we help? Who do we reconcile with? Who do we call friend? And then, with these actions inspired by the bread, we do find unity. And we find wholeness, too. Amen.

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Welcome

John 6:1-21

 NYE Reflection #2: Extending Extravagant Welcome

 VIDEO: NYE: Carissa Yinmed

You just heard from Carissa Yinmed, a high school student from Wailuku, Maui, in Hawai’i. Carissa shared her experiences as an outsider who at the age of ten, left her Micronesian community of Yap for Hawai’i. Carissa was one of the featured speakers at the National Youth Event at Purdue University, during the day themed “extravagant welcome.” Carissa talked about her struggles and the isolation she felt when she was not accepted by others, simply because she spoke another language or practiced different customs. She also shared her gratefulness for the tutors from her church who smoothed the way for her immersion into her new culture and new school experience. “Christ’s extravagant welcome brings us all together as one family even when no one looks like anyone else,” she said. “That welcome breaks down the barriers of race, color, sexual orientation, everything.” Carissa finished with a challenge, encouraging all of us present to remember the welcome that we have received, and to strive to offer that welcome to others. “God extends that welcome through us,” she said. “I will do it, will you?”

Carissa’s experiences and her spoken challenge to us shine light on an important truth for people of all faiths: hospitality is important. No matter what culture we come from, or where we live, hospitality is important. We all want to feel welcomed, don’t we? If someone invites you over to her house, you hope that when you walk in the door, your host will make you feel comfortable and welcome. If you host a dinner at your house, certainly you want your guests to feel that they matter and that you truly want them to be there in your home. We do all sorts of things to make people feel welcome. Sometimes it’s as simple as preparing great food and sharing it. Other times it could mean asking someone beforehand if they have any dietary restrictions. Or perhaps you greet them at the front door, take their coats, offer them something to drink. Hospitality extends beyond our homes, too. Schools and organizations make their buildings accessible to those with special needs. Teachers and administrators wear name badges. Some monitor the hallways and help anyone who gets lost. Hospitality can take many forms. But in every case, in order to truly be hospitable, one has to be intentional about it. We cannot be hospitable to someone unless we do something that helps them feel welcome, as Carissa shared. Hospitality requires work and even risk-taking sometimes.

            Of course, the other question about hospitality is: to whom do we extend our welcome? Is hospitality limited to our family and close friends, those we share commonalities with and are used to? That is safe hospitality, for sure. But what about those who are different? What about welcoming someone who looks and acts totally different than we do? What about people who speak other languages, eat different foods, have different customs? A few weeks ago, I was co-leading a day of interfaith learning for 25 gifted HS students from around the world. They were Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Buddhists, Hindus, and Catholics. Part of our day was eating lunch together. Tricky. There were lots of scenarios we had to consider. It wasn’t as simple as just ordering a hoagies tray. We had to be sure that the food was kosher or halal and also that any meat was not on the same plate as vegetables. It wasn’t easy. It was work. It was more complicated to show our hospitality. We did figure it out, eventually. We were able to find a pizza place that actually followed both kosher, halal, and strict vegetarian guidelines. The way they made the dough, the kinds of vegetables and cheese—it was all acceptable. So what happened? A tricky moment became a great one. 25 high school students, as they are known to do around the world, ate to their heart’s content and got to know each other better. The pizzas disappeared. They felt welcomed.

            Our story today in John is all about hospitality and welcome. We actually get two stories in this passage: the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water. Remember that John, the 4th Gospel, is very different from the other three [called Synoptic Gospels], Mark, Matthew, and Luke. John often borrows from the others, but some of John’s storytelling details are different; or nuanced. And the order of events is often different. Each Gospel has its purpose for telling the story a bit differently. Today we will focus on just the story of the feeding of the 5000, which does in fact appear in all four Gospels. Many of the details are the same in all four: 5000 people always get fed, there are always 5 loaves of bread and two fish from the start, and there are 12 baskets of leftovers.

            But John’s story differs thematically: in John, Jesus initiates the concern about feeding the crowd—not the disciples. The story begins with Jesus on a mountain just like Moses and Elijah before him. He comes down from the mountain with a great idea. And like many of his great ideas, it starts with a question. Jesus says to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” It was a test, because again, Jesus already had his great idea. Philip, like most people, could only think in dollars and cents. Feed all these people? No way.

Then another disciple, Andrew, spots the boy. He’s got barley loaves—the poorest quality of bread. Two fishes. The disciples saw the low numbers of food and the high number of people. No chance for this to turn out well. But Jesus saw things differently. Let’s rewind a bit in John’s Gospel to chapter 4. Jesus urged the disciples to “look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting” (4:35).  They had been in Samaritan territory and the Samaritans were now coming to Jesus. Fill in the word Samaritan with any group of people that is hated, gets their stores vandalized, or their good name walked all over. Jesus was asking the disciples to look past what they normally saw to see Samaritans who were coming over to follow Jesus. 

And here again in chapter 6, Jesus “looked”–or “lifted up the eyes”–“and saw that a great crowd was coming to him.”

            So our first lesson in extravagant welcome is to look up and see people—to look at them in the eye, to not ignore them, to see them as human beings—people like us with the same needs and hopes. Of course, we cannot overlook another detail in this story. A child is the one with the food to feed everybody. The kid is the hero. And the kid shares. My experience for the entire week of NYE was so positive because of what I saw the youth doing, saying, and living out. We’re usually taught from the time that we are young that we ought to share—our toys, our food, our time. But then kids grow up and are often taught the opposite. I bet if we paid more attention to the children and youth around us, we just might realize that extending extravagant welcome means sharing what we have with others.

            The details continue to lead us on this path. Look at where they were. It’s a place full of grass, says the story, reminiscent of the image of Psalm 23—perhaps a field, a safe, nice place where people can be together, a welcome place. Besides, Jesus made it clear that this was not some sort of drive-thru fast food experience. Recline, he told the crowds. Stay a while. And they did stay—maybe 5000 people? We could play around with this number’s significance, I suppose. 5000 people gathered in one place appears like a Roman legion or a military force, girding up for battle. But this was an alternative gathering, a beloved community of people of all sorts. This community gathered to be fed, cared for, and welcomed. John’s Gospel continues to draw us in with ties to what we call the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. Jesus took the food items, gave thanks, and then gave them. The people received as much as they wanted and were satisfied. They were made whole. And a wonderful detail at the end: Jesus told the disciples to gather the fragments of what was left over. Nothing and no one would be lost or left behind.

In John’s version of this story, the event is uniquely called a sign. It’s a miracle of community. The sign of this community points us to the miracle of God’s extravagant welcome. Jesus feeds this crowd simply because they are there. Jesus is a good host who shows hospitality to those who have come to visit him. He not only provides food, but he also serves the crowd himself. By doing this, he teaches his disciples (and us) an important lesson. As I mentioned before, there is hospitality far beyond what our societies and cultures define as welcoming others. The hospitality of God’s grace welcomes all people wherever they are. As followers of this Jesus the Great Host, we are called to welcome all whom we meet as an honored guest, as a child of God.

This is the sign of a welcoming community. We don’t focus on how the world defines people. We care less about where they went to school, grew up, what language they speak, the clothes they wear; it doesn’t matter if they are straight or gay or lesbian or bisexual or whatever; it doesn’t matter if they are rich, poor, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, agnostic or atheist. If we follow the call of Christ to this radical welcome, our purpose clearly is to show all people love and compassion. We look up and see them in the world, and we welcome them. We share. We eat together. We are made whole. I want to allow someone else to close this sermon. Miah Noel Yager, a recent HS graduate, a young person with Down’s syndrome, brought down the house at NYE. It’s hard to describe just how much her speech moved us. And it was a sign of blessed community, because as she spoke, often she struggled to get the words out. And then something miraculous happened. The youth among the 2500+ in the crowd shouted out encouragement to her. They cheered and applauded. And as you will see in this clip, towards the end of her speech, Miah was overwhelmed by this hospitality.

 

CLOSING VIDEO: Miah Noel Yager

 

 

Aside

Heal-Feed-Now

Mark 6:30-34; 53-56

 Healing and Feeding Today

VIDEO: NYE DAY ONE

Our NYE experiences began on Monday night at Mensch Mill Camp and Retreat Center, continued on buses for many, many hours through Pennsylvania and Ohio, eventually landing us in West Lafayette, Indiana and Purdue University. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday were filled with countless opportunities for us to imagine what God was doing in us. Friendships were forged and strengthened as we played, sang, ate, learned, worshiped, walked, sweated, laughed, cried, and questioned. There is no doubt that all the youth and adults who participated in NYE each had his/her own unique experience. It is hard to sum up such an experience, actually, but if I were to tell you one thing that fed and healed me that week, it would be this: the teenagers both from our group and all the various groups at NYE. The youth fed me and healed me. They fed me with their unfiltered ideas for the church and for their community. They fed me with their dreams, creative thinking, and energy to make new friends. They healed me with their acceptance of all kinds of people—ALL KINDS—without a tokenism about it or any sort of hypocrisy. They healed me when they cheered for their peers who led worship or spoke; they healed me with their laughter, honest tears, and difficult, probing questions. The youth fed and healed me.

These days we hear so much talk about how younger generations don’t go to church anymore and thus most religious institutions fear tomorrow. In fact, most of the rushed, poor decisions about religious programs are decisions made out of fear and not innovation. I hear church leaders talk about technology or overscheduling and sports activities on Sundays–how these societal changes have kept young people from the church. Studies show the declining interest in Christian churches among younger generations and the doomsday prophecies begin among denominational leadership and yes, leaders in local churches, too. Budgets are cut and programs forgotten. Time and energy is put into survival and the guarding of traditions. Younger generations terrify the church, because their ideas do not fit into existing structures and they see the world differently. And whenever we fear people, we tend to ignore them or avoid them, and so overall, the church has chosen to avoid youth. But none of this was our experience on Slater Hill.

It was Friday night, our last evening in Indiana. It was hot. The sun was relentless. Slater Hill, on the north side of campus, slopes down to a stage where the closing worship service of NYE was about to happen. Our house worship band, Tribe of Judah out of Chicago, got things started as they always did. We sang. We sweated. Slater Hill was sprinkled with white t-shirts with the phrase “I have faith in…” The Collegium of Officers, your national United Church of Christ staff, offered their blessings and encouragement, and then, the Communion service began. Boxes of juice [mine was frozen, thank God!] and packages of Goldfish cookies got passed throughout the 2500+ t-shirt clad assembly on the hill. The worship leaders reminded us to Take. Thank. Share.

Slater Hill was an appropriate setting on that Friday, hot as it was. And I admit that as I sat on that hill with the youth and adults from our group, I was drawn into the story of the loaves and fishes in the Gospels. Somehow in the midst of being uncomfortably hot, in the middle of the creative chaos happening on the hill and on the stage, between bites of Goldfish cookies and chipping away at frozen juice—the story came alive. It’s a little weird that our story in Mark skips over the feeding. We get it next week, though. Today we get the before and after of it, which, come to think of it, also seems appropriate. The before of the story is that the disciples, those who were following and learning from Jesus, had been busy. Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while. Jesus always had good timing. He sensed the disciples need to hit the reset button; the crowds were large. It was time to get away. So they did—on a boat.

Ironically, though, in their effort to escape the crowds, people followed and people were waiting in neighboring towns. Jesus’ compassion did not wane. He saw the people like sheep without a shepherd. He fed them with teaching. But the disciples didn’t quite understand. The people were physically hungry, too. This is the part of story we did not read today. The conversation about food between Jesus and his followers led to the loaves and fishes event; then to Jesus appearing to walk on water and the disciples freaking out in a boat, once again; then to their boat crossing over to Gennesaret. And more crowds. People waiting. Sick, confused, left out, needy people gathered in the marketplaces. They pleaded for healing. And like the courageous, bleeding woman of another story, they believed that a simple touch of Jesus’ cloak would be enough. And they were right.

Two things jump out at me. First, that Jesus invited people to come away to a deserted place in order to rest. And second, in that deserted place of rest, people were fed and healed. I wonder: what is our deserted place? Where do we need to go in order to rest, and then to be fed and healed? Let’s be frank about it—we’re not a culture of rest. Most of us work ourselves into the ground and don’t think twice about it. We struggle to even give two hours a week to ourselves for rest and the deserted place. And I don’t mean two hours in front of the TV or the computer. I mean going somewhere that’s outside of your normal routine—a place where your phone can’t distract you and Facebook won’t be able to lure you in again. A deserted place. For rest. Where is yours? Where is Jesus Christ calling you to? Come away to your deserted place; rest.

For many of us, the deserted place was West Lafayette, Indiana for a week. For you, perhaps your place is a break from the routine, a moment to stop and reflect or learn or absorb. As always, when Jesus invites us to something, it’s beyond what we may think. Jesus doesn’t invite you and me to take a cruise, though that can be replenishing in a different way. Come away and rest is a Christ-invitation to loosen the chains that keep us caged up—cages we’ve built ourselves, believing as society does, that more is better and the way to happiness; work is the way to more. But Christ invites us to the deserted place; to rest. Why? Because in the deserted place, we discover that we’re not alone! Apparently, there many, many people just like us—people who are burned out, overworked and over tired, confused, hurting, sick, depressed, angry, sad, doubtful, and lost. Sheep without a shepherd. And they all find each other in the deserted place.

And there we are fed and healed. Jesus Christ draws people of all sorts to himself. Some are hungry for food; others for teaching. Some are sick physically, mentally, or spiritually. Others crave forgiveness and cannot find it. Some have lost hope and just need a reason to get up in the morning. And just like on Slater Hill or in Gennesaret, the fellowship gathered is completely open to all. Christ doesn’t differentiate or create categories. We all go to the deserted place. We all get fed and healed. The dividing walls we have built between ourselves are torn down like the ones in Jericho, because our God builds community out of people, and not stone, wood, glass, or steel, ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, cultures, or social levels. God builds community out of people who are drawn to the Christ invitation. Because in our world we are divided by a thousand things. Because in our daily routines we encounter prejudice, greed, hate, and even violence. Because most of life is not a blessed, accepting fellowship of people who believe and live out Christ promises, who love each other and love the world.

And so we should be moved to accept Jesus’ invitation. It’s a gift, and not an obligation, you know. Because when we accept Christ’s invite to follow him to the deserted place, the feeding and healing await us. We’re healed by the making of new friends who are people drastically different from us; we’re fed by the worship, singing, praying, learning, absorbing, exploring, experiencing, and serving that happens in blessed community. But all this is not limited to be just some sort of religious therapy. After the feeding and healing, we’re then sent out to feed and heal others. The disciples took a while to get this. We struggle with this, too. We’re supposed to feed and heal—you and me. And the beauty of it is that we never do it alone. In the deserted place, it’s actually quite populated. People of all sorts are there. We all get fed. We all get healed. Then we go out to our towns, cities, and places to offer the same gift to others.

The closing benediction for the final NYE worship service on Slater Hill was offered by youth from various UCC Conferences. They shared the blessings they experienced at NYE and their commitment to make a difference in their communities. Students from France and Germany expressed their gratitude in their native languages for the extravagant welcome they had received. And then Rev. Geoffrey Black, the UCC General Minister and President sent us all out—to our towns, cities, rural areas, and churches. The sun had finally set and our deserted place actually became just that. Slater Hill emptied. Buses returned home. Bags were packed. Tearful farewells were exchanged. Hugs and cell phone numbers. People autographing each other’s t-shirts. We all left the deserted place to go back home. But being fed and healed we knew that the next chapter of the story was the most important—bringing it home with us to share.

VIDEO: Closing Ceremony

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