Sunday, August 2, 2015

"Bread of Heaven": a sermon

Year B Proper 13
St Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond, VA
“Bread of Heaven”

We all have wants and desires.  As Eugene Peterson put it in The Divine Conspiracy, humans are defined by what they treasure.  Our "treasurings" make us who we are, roughly paraphrased.  When my wife comes home, and I do not feel the mood to cook, which happens occasionally, I might ask, “What are you in the mood for?”  Often she is good and says something that can easily be fixed, but sometimes I can talk her into going out.  And this is on a whim.

Whims are hard to deal with.  We are often like Homer Simpson who cannot resist a doughnut if he sees one.  A spontaneous impulse, coupled with opportunity, is a hard temptation to fight.

But today we are not speaking of wants, or whims.  Today I want to speak about the deep hungers of the Soul.  What is our heart’s desire?  Many of us might not even be able to name it quickly.  It is hard to pin down the one the we want most.

This week I was rewatching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  My wife had mentioned that it was Harry Potter’s (supposed) 35th birthday, and I happened to mention that it was J. K. Rowling’s 50th birthday.  Neat coincidence that she shares her birthday with her main character.  Huh?  And if you remember, in this film, Harry confronts the Mirror of Erised.  (For those not familiar with the book, Erised is Desire spelled backwards.)  Headmaster Dumbledore finds him staring into the Mirror after hours.

“Can you think what the Mirror of Erised shows us all?" Harry shook his head.
"Let me explain. The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is. Does that help."
Harry thought. Then he said slowly, "It shows us what we want... whatever we want..."
"Yes and no," said Dumbledore quietly.
"It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you. Ronald Weasley, who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them. However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.
"The Mirror will be moved to a new home tomorrow, Harry, and I ask you not to go looking for it again. If you ever do run across it, you will now be prepared. It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that. Now, why don't you put that admirable cloak back on and get off to bed.”  [Emphasis mine]
J.K. Rowling,  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Our desires give us neither knowledge or truth.  People have wasted away looking for it.  We must not dwell on dreams and forget to live.  I thought this was a children’s book?  

As we learned from last week’s reading and this week’s as well, King David let his desires get the better of him.  While he thought he was being sly and cunning, people saw what took place.  It was out of character for him.  It was a departure from the man of God they knew him to be.  Nathan the prophet knows if he comes to it directly, David will shut him down or shut him up, or put him down, even.  So he approaches it with a parable.  A British author, humorist and Christian, Adrian Plass tells the story this way.  The Nathan Rap by Adrian Plass. [Adrian Plass, “Clearing Away the Rubbish,” Kingsway Publications, ISBN0551031735, p162-165, 2000]

It was evening in the palace when the prophet came by,
There was trouble in his manner, there was thunder in his eye,
He was still for a moment, he was framed in the door,
And the king said, ‘Nathan! … What are you here for?’
The prophet said, ‘David, I’ve a tale to tell,’
So the king sat and listened as the darkness fell,
While the hard-eyed prophet took a seat and began,
The story of a merciless and evil man.
‘This man,’ said Nathan, ‘had a mountain of gold,
Sheep by the thousand he bought and sold,
He never said, “Can I afford it or not?”
What this man wanted, this man got!
And one thing he wanted, and he wanted real bad,
Was the only living thing that a poor man had,
And he knew that it was wrong, but he took it just the same.’
‘I’ll kill him!’ said the king, ‘Just tell me his name!’
‘It was a lamb,’ said the prophet, ‘just a little baby lamb,
But he saw it and he took it and he didn’t give a damn,
And he knew that it was special, and he knew it was a friend,
And he knew about the sadness that would never, never end,

And that same man began to plan a far more evil thing.’
Then David rose and cried aloud, ‘He’ll reckon with the king!’
‘So do you think,’ said Nathan, ‘we should stop his little game?’
‘I’ll smash him!’ shouted David, ‘tell me his name!

‘Be careful,’ said the prophet, ‘don’t go overboard,’
For David’s eyes were shining like the blade of a sword,
‘Perhaps you should be merciful, perhaps you should try
To understand the man before you say he must die.’
But David said, ‘I understand that wrong is always wrong,
I am the king, I must defend the weak against the strong.’
Then Nathan questioned softly, ‘So this man must take the blame?’
And the king was screaming, ‘Nathan! Will you tell me his name?

Then a silence fell upon them like the silence of a tomb,
The prophet nodded slowly as he moved across the room,
And, strangely, as he came he grew more awesome and more wise,
And when he looked at David there was sadness in his eyes.

But David’s anger burned in him, he drew his sword and said,
‘I swear, before the dawn has come, that sinner will be dead!
No more delay, no mercy talk, give me his name!’ he cried,
Then Nathan said, ‘It’s you, it’s you!’ and the king just died.

When confronted with the truth of what he had done, and after his declarations for justice, David’s heart was moved.  A few times in Scripture it is said that David was a man after God’s own heart.  And I do not believe that that in any way implies that David was perfect.  We know that he was not.  What I do believe is it is the way God saw David, and maybe the way God sees us.  Not who we were, or are, but our Best Selves.  The Person we can be, and in Christ could be.  And maybe when all our imperfections are purged away, will be.

In an act of contrition, David wrote one of the most beloved psalms, one filled with RAW honesty, Psalm 51.  We read it today.  We use lines from it all the time.  We read it in full on Ash Wednesday when we prepare for Easter.  David wrote this prayer of confession in response to what he had done.  We pray it still today for those times when we chase our whims or our selfish desires.  

In the choices we make, we often are against our own self-perception and our self-interests.  We choose for the moment, and not the long-term.  We are not acting in accordance with our Best Selves, the one God sees and seeks.  As Paul put it in our Ephesians passage so bluntly.  “We must no longer be children.”  I have used this quote before, but it is so apt I hope you will indulge me using it again.  C. S. Lewis here:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Lewis calls us to make our desires not weaker, but rather stronger.  He urges us to choose the best, not the momentary.  He calls us to walk in the way of Christ.  Another fabulous quote by Lewis on Desire reframes it in the way Jesus does in our Gospel today:

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

As Susan shared so well last week, John gives a list of Signs, not miracles, that point to who he is.  The crowd who had been fed, wanted more.  They may have thought that they were being spiritual, but even their request for a sign pointed to their bellies.  They told Jesus of Moses and the Manna from Heaven.  Jesus responded that the Manna came from God, not from Moses.  This Manna that they were calling for is an unknown.  It was unknown to them, as it is to us.  It was like coriander seeds, with the consistency of a resin.  In fact the word, Manna, is the Hebrew for “What is it?”
We could say the same of Jesus, as John requests us to do.  Instead of “What is it?” we could say of Jesus, “Who is this?”  In his declarations he points to the idea that he is the Manna from Heaven.
6:33 "The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."
6:34 They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."
6:35 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.

Lewis: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”  

Jesus and Lewis both want us to reframe our desires, move them away from the fleeting whims and daily desires.  Jesus does not dismiss them, remember he taught us to pray “Give us this day our daily bread.”  They are there, and he acknowledges our needs.  But he calls us to our Best Selves, our Highest Selves.  He calls us to him.  He is the Bread of Life.  He is what we really desire.  He is what we really want.  As David prayed: “Create in us a clean heart, Oh God, and put a new and right spirit within us.”


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Blessings, Rock