Texts: 1 Kings 19:4-8 • Psalm 34:1-8 • Ephesians 4:25-5:2 • John 6:35, 41-51
There is a video that’s making its way across the internet faster than anything in recent history. It’s not Susan Boyle’s show-stopper of a performance on Britain’s Got Talent, and it’s not clips from the recent finale of So You Think You Can Dance, though that’s getting warmer. It’s a video clearly recorded on somebody’s personal camcorder of a recent wedding in St. Paul, Minnesota at Christ Lutheran Church. More specifically, it’s a five minute clip of the wedding march for a couple the world knows simply as “Jill and Kevin,” and the minute I saw this bit of video I knew it would eventually end up in a sermon.
As the video begins we are looking toward the back of a sanctuary filled with people facing forward, at two ushers as they stand at their posts. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the song “Forever” by Pop/R&B singer Chris Brown comes on and the ushers fling their stacks of remaining wedding programs into the air and begin dancing down the center aisle of the church like it was the Soul Train line. The assembly’s eyes pop open, but they are delighted and begin keeping time in adorably Lutheran fashion – clapping ever so slightly off the beat, as if to a John Philip Souza march. Soon the entire wedding party is making an entrance, working the aisle like a runway at New York Fall Fashion week. They fall back and enter a second time as a group, and then the groom, Kevin, comes somersaulting out of the center of their cluster, leading them all to the chancel where we see a pastor standing in wait for them, evincing just the slightest bit of rhythm as she shifts her weight from left to right to the beat of the music. The wedding party strikes a pose and moves in slow motion to their places.
Then as the song’s chorus hits its final repetition the bride makes her appearance at the rear of the sanctuary. She dances down the aisle on her own, her bright face beaming with joy, and the congregation leaps to its feet in applause as her soon-to-be husband leaves the wedding party at the altar and meets her halfway. They fall into a stylized sway step and escort each other to the place where they will make their vows to love and guard each other for the rest of their lives.
The first time I saw this video it was forwarded to me by a friend in San Francisco. It had been on the internet for about 24 hours at that point, and was breaking all kinds of records. I think it was viewed over 10 million times in less than a week. The wedding party was on national morning television and radio stations talking about the phenomenon. Everyone was struck with the irrepressible joy with which they approached their wedding. Even my mild cynicism was powerless against their happiness. The first time I watched the video I ended up with a big lump in my throat at the end. Love! Love is alive in the world, and even in the chancels of our churches!
My friend said it best. He said, “if your denomination was smart it would air a 30-second version of that video on television and end the commercial with something like, ‘the 4.6 million people of the ELCA, and its 10,400 congregations, would be overjoyed to have you join us for worship any Sunday morning.”
That’s the sentiment expressed in our hymn of the day today as well. Go ahead and take a second to open your hymnals to ELW 488 (“Soul, Adorn Yourself with Gladness”). Look at that second verse,
Hasten as a bride to meet him, eagerly and gladly greet him.
There he stands already knocking; quickly, now, your gate unlocking,
open wide the fast-closed portal, saying to the Lord immortal:
“Come, and leave your loved one never, dwell within my heart forever.”
Great words, right? I’m telling you – we put some thought into this whole hymn selection thing! And the rest of the verses too, you’ll see when we get to it in a few minutes. You wouldn’t immediately think of a 17th century hymn tune named Schmücke Dich as the Chris Brown wedding march of its day but, in the right context, the comparison holds up.
How do you approach the topic of your faith, of your relationship with God, of your response to the good news of God in Christ Jesus? I’m not just talking about how you feel about your church – though I am talking about that as well – but, more generally, how do you approach the altar? Are you dancing with joy when you come forward to receive the bread and wine of communion? Are you filled with immeasurable happiness when you rise each morning to the gift of a new day? Does your heart burst with gratitude when you see the plight of the poor and hungry people of this world, and you realize that God has given us to the world to be their bread?
Or, as Martin Luther put it in one of his coarser moments, “I wish I could get you to pray the way my dog goes after meat.”
In this third week of five Sundays focusing on the sixth chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand and subsequent declaration, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…,” we are focusing on the response of the people who heard his declaration and responded by complaining. They say, “is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?’”
I find it interesting that their complaint with Jesus’ declaration isn’t that he calls himself bread, but that he says he is the bread that came down from heaven. But the people listening to Jesus might not have found that part so shocking. They were familiar with the texts that Jesus was alluding to – the bread from heaven that God provided for the Israelites as they fled from slavery in Egypt; or, as in this morning’s Old Testament reading, the bread provided to Elijah by the angel as he hid in the wilderness after defeating the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel. These church-going Judeans knew all the stories about bread from heaven, but in their experience – according to what they’d been taught – those stories were understood to be affirmation that they were God’s chosen people, the children of Abraham and the descendents of those whom Moses guided into the land of Israel.
blatantly challenges their sense of religious entitlement. He responds to them by saying,
Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.
Jesus responds to their sense of religious entitlement by reminding them that their ancestors, guided by Moses, ate manna in the wilderness, entered the promised land, lived under King David’s rule, built the temple and the whole system of sacrifices that was practiced there, were taken into exile and practiced their faith in a foreign land, and so on and so on, but that it was not their history that made them the favored people of God – it was God’s love, freely given like the manna from heaven that sustained them in the wilderness, that made them the favored people of God; and further, that the prophets had already witnessed to God’s love for all people, “they shall all be taught by God.” All people are God’s favored people.
It’s ironic then that so many centuries later Christians read this passage and get fixated on the saying, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me…Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” Here, in this passage where Jesus is combating the religious exclusivity that has taken hold of his people, directly after a miracle of abundance that points to God’s boundless generosity and unimaginable abundance, Christians have too often decided to focus on whether or not these words mean that there is any salvation outside the Christian church.
To me that’s like watching the video of Jill and Kevin’s wedding march and asking, “but could she have been just as happy if she was dancing down that aisle to meet some other guy?” She’s not! She’s not dancing down the aisle to be with some other guy. She’s dancing down the aisle to be with Kevin, because she is in love with Kevin! According to their website, Jill and Kevin met four years ago when they were both in the wedding party of another couple who were childhood friends of theirs. They encountered each other and they fell in love. They can’t imagine their lives being as rich apart as they are together. It is a subjective experience, like a belly full of bread – not an objective proposition, something to be considered from afar as a truth claim you could accept or reject.
The love of God, like all the many forms of love that spring from it, is not an abstract proposal. It’s not a doctrinal claim we must assent to so that other theological maxims like reconciliation or redemption can make sense. It is carnal, incarnate, present, felt, immediate, and necessary for life. It is like bread. It is invitational, it is always there for you. It isn’t presented to you, as if on a menu of other forms of divine love or experience, waiting for you to decide if you would like it or not. It is not for you to choose. It is for God to choose, and God has chosen. God has chosen you! God has chosen you! God loves you!
That is the kind of truth that should have us dancing down the aisle the way Kevin and Jill did, or the way Kenneth runs down this aisle each Sunday for the children’s message. But it doesn’t, or at least not always it doesn’t.
Paired with Jesus’ challenging words that he is the bread that has come down from heaven for all people is the story of the prophet Elijah, taking shelter in the thin shade of a solitary broom tree in the wilderness. Drying up and withering away. He has been called to do an impossible thing – to stand before the power of the king and queen and their prophets and to call Israel back from idolatry. He has just faced off against a multitude of opponents in a show down that led to a mighty display of God’s power, so we might expect to find him among supporters celebrating his win. Instead he is scared, he is tired, and he wants to give up. He is ready to lay down and die and, in fact, he asks God to take away his life.
Many of us have been in this place, caught in the depths of pain and despair that Elijah feels. Even though he knows that God has called him and chosen him, that God has used him to effect amazing things, Elijah is human and cannot trust that God’s abundant power, demonstrated in the past, will also be found in his future. He struggles with his faith. He wants to give up.
This is the danger and the cost of human idolatry, which takes so many forms. In the story of Elijah, the idolatry is literally the worship of another god, Baal. But it is also evident in the actions of Queen Jezebel, who believes that her power and authority are absolute. We live in a world of governments and corporations who respect, even worship, their own power and pursue it at the expense of everyday people. We have been hit with examples of military abuse and corporate greed so often in the last ten years we can rattle off the examples with very little effort: Guantanamo Bay, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, Abu Ghraib, predatory lending, a broken health care system, and on and on. The idolatry that surrounds us in so many forms makes it easy to despair that the world we live in cares nothing about us, cares nothing about people in general, to lay down under the tree and wish to die.
There are also the small idols we worship, the ones that infiltrate our personal lives and poison our relationships. Pride, envy, jealousy, wrath, prejudice and intolerance. We are created and sustained by a God who has chosen all people to be God’s chosen people. We ourselves live inside God’s amazing grace as a complete gift, yet we harbor grudges and speak ill of each other rather than committing ourselves to the much more difficult, though also much more rewarding, work of peace-making and reconciliation. Paul’s advice to the Ephesians holds true for us as well,
…let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil…Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear…Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love…
The battle against idolatry is not, in our time, an effort by our churches to persuade us to choose Christ over some other religious practice. In Christ, God chooses us! The battle against idolatry is the struggle to root out all those other habits of the heart that leave no room for us to love each other well, and thereby make it difficult for us and others to feel loved in and of ourselves. Because we need love. We need it so much more than all those other things the world is constantly trying to sell us, or persuade us will make us happy. We need love, and we know how badly we need it when we see it evinced in the joy of two people dancing down the aisle to give themselves freely to each other and we find a lump in our throats.
We need love as much as we need bread, and in Christ Jesus God is giving us, all of us, both. Bread for the hungry, love for the lonely; everybody in – nobody out. That is not an abstract proposal for you to mull over. That is the reality of grace, of love that grips your life and fills you with joy and then sen
ds you out, dancing, nourished by the food that gives life to become God’s abundant bread for the life of the world.