Sermon: Sunday, August 26, 2012: “A Game of Thrones; Act 3, Scene 4 — Imperishable Perishing”

Texts:  1 Kings 8:(1,6,10-11), 22-30, 41-43 and Psalm 84  •  Ephesians 6:10-20  •   John 6:56-69

In our household, Kerry and I have worked out a pretty simple division of labor.  I do most of the grocery shopping, he does most of the cooking.  He’s a much better cook than I am, so that works out well for me, but I’m still mastering the art of grocery shopping.  There are plenty of prepared foods and canned goods in our cupboards, but since we both value trying to eat fresh and would like to cut down on the amount of preservatives we ingest, I am having to break out of my old habit of shopping once a month and buying only foods that will last.  There’s an art to grocery shopping that I haven’t quite mastered.

It bums me out when I open the fridge and see that something I bought has gone bad.  It’s usually the bread.  Again, I don’t want to buy the national chain breads that have all the preservatives baked right in.  I want the local bakery bread, the stuff with real flavor that you actually have to chew.  I want sourdough or rye or multigrain.  I’m convinced by the smell of the loaf as it’s pulled from the oven and I put it in my cart, imaging how good it will taste set on my plate next to a fresh salad or whatever Kerry throws together in the kitchen.

Then life happens.  Kerry works late, and I’m not in the mood to make dinner, so I run next door to Charcoal Delights and pick up a patty melt.  Or, we’re rushed to get out of the house in the morning and, instead of packing a lunch, we figure we’ll just grab something over the lunch hour.  A few days pass, we open the refrigerator and pull out the bread only to find it’s got mold growing on it and we have to throw it away.

The reign of God is like a loaf of bread.  That’s what Jesus has been saying for the last month.  More specifically, he’s been saying, “I am the bread of life.”  It’s an odd mixture of perishability and imperishability in the Jesus loaf.  On the one hand, we know that Jesus dies on a cross.  If he is the bread of life, he is bread that will perish.  On the other hand, there is a promise that to take part in the life of Christ is to be joined to eternity, to become imperishable.

Today we come to the last week of the summer series that I’ve titled, “Game of Thrones,” during which we’ve followed the rise of the nation of Israel, charted through the house of David.  It also happens to be the last week of these sayings from Jesus found in the sixth chapter of the gospel of John known as the “bread of life discourse.”  We’ve mostly stayed away from all the talk of bread in order to focus on the story of King David’s rise to power, and the tragedies that befell his house.  Last week his son Solomon had taken the throne and prayed for the wisdom to lead.  This week Solomon dedicates the temple, but something happens in gospel that ties these readings together, so let’s stay there for a moment.

Jesus says, “this is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”  Do you recall the story from Hebrew scripture in which bread comes down from heaven to feed the people?  // The story of manna from heaven is a story of God’s intentional perishability.  As the Israelites travelled through the desert from slavery to freedom, they were forced to rely on God to provide for their needs.  God sent manna from heaven which could only be eaten on the day it fell.  Moses instructed them gather as much as they needed, and to be sure everyone was provided for.  When some of the Israelites tried to gather up more than a day’s worth, they would awake to find the surplus infested with worms and gone foul.  They would have to throw it out.

The Israelites were escaping from a master who used slave labor to build an empire.  Even though they’d crossed through the Red Sea, they hadn’t yet become free people because they were still living with the empire’s value’s in their hearts.  The forty year journey in the wilderness was the transformation of a people that took a generation to complete.  Once they entered the promised land, they were ruled not by kings but by judges, people of wisdom and faith who guided the people and encouraged them as they lived a different kind of existence than the tribes that surrounded them. They were people called to live a life of radical dependence on God.

But the cost of their difference was great.  The tribes of Israel were surrounded by larger, mightier nations who had amassed great surpluses of wealth that bought armies.  Armies required expansion to provide the goods needed to keep the armies and their infrastructures well maintained. In fact, it’s dangerous to have a standing army around if you’re not prepared to keep feeding it what it wants, since it has the means at hand to unseat you and rule in your stead.  The tribes of Israel weren’t worried about the problems of kings and armies however, since they were too busy being conquered to consider what happens after you win.

So Israel asked its last judge, the prophet Samuel, to name for them a king.  In doing so, the people made a decisive break from trusting in God to provide what was needed, their daily bread, and to go the route of their warring neighbors.

It’s been an instructive journey, traveling with Israel through the reigns of King Saul, King David and King Solomon.  The stories have been filled with the kind of pathos we expect from Greek tragedy or night time dramas.  The people get what they asked for, a king to rule them and an army to protect them; but they also get what Samuel warned them of, a love of power that consolidates wealth in the hands of the few and returns them to the kind of life under empire God had worked to liberate them from when God brought them out of Egypt.  King David — once a sensitive, overlooked shepherd boy — becomes a king so taken with his own success he proposes to build a house for God.  His son, Solomon, begins his reign by marrying a daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt, allying himself with empire, then building the temple his father hadn’t.

It makes it hard to interpret Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple in this morning’s reading from 1 Kings.  Biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman, quoted on the front of your bulletin, spells out the difficult dynamics of this scene.  The temple is intended to serve as a visible reminder of God’s commitment to the nation of Israel, but also stand as a tribute to the power and wealth of the regime that got it built — not only for its citizens, but for the nations that surrounded them.  It was an act of establishment that said, “look what we have built — may it stand forever.”

The spirituality of establishment takes root in all of our lives, in our national politics and in our personal dramas.  It is the quest for immortality by our own efforts, the legacy projects we take on to make sure our names outlive us.  In order to be remembered, whether by the history books or by our grandchildren, we work to amass fortunes or achievements that will be the benchmark for those who follow us.  We adopt the cultural values that surround us in the workplace, striving for notoriety, recognition and promotion.  We live the values of self-help and self-actualization instead of trusting in God for what is needed this day and making sure that everyone has enough of what God has provided to make it to tomorrow.

There’s a really anti-Judaistic way of hearing Jesus’ words when he says, “this is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died.”  When we’re caught up in our tribal prejudices we can hear these words as a kind of replacement theology, as in, “God’s gift of manna to the Israelites is inferior to the gift of God in Christ Jesus that the church claims as its own.”  I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying at all.

Rather, I think Jesus is calling to mind the whole history we have been studying this summer.  The history of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery under Pharaoh to its slow, subtle re-adoption of empire values that brought them to the place where we will leave them this Sunday.  Solomon dedicated the temple, but is the last king to rule over a unified kingdom.  After his reign the nation falls apart until, generations later, they are taken once again into exile.  Living under Roman occupation, Jesus reminds the people that placing their hope in empire’s tools to defeat empire’s ways has never worked out well for them.  Jesus invites them into a mystery, one in which imperishable life comes only through perishable means.

Empire will not defeat empire, and wealth will not solve the problems of poverty.  The reign of God calls for life lived by a completely different set of values.  We hear them listed in the passage from Ephesians, where the author speaks of the “whole armor of God” as the “belt of truth” and the “breastplate of righteousness” and the “shield of faith,” but most importantly “as shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”  If you’re troubled by the militaristic imagery, trying hearing it as a direct challenge to militarism.  The whole litany invites us to live our lives by a different set of values.  Where the world dresses for war, we are called to dress for peace.

The ancient Israelites were not the only ones to put their trust in empire.  Whether we look at the lives ruined by faith in the stock market, nations devastated by ethnic cleansing, or neighborhoods divided by wealth — mapped out by the haves and the have nots — we live in a world that expects us to put our trust in ourselves, and punishes those who don’t play the game of self-sufficiency well enough to win; the poor, the differently-abled, the undocumented.

Jesus invites us back into lives of radical, uncomfortable dependency.  Lives lived not for ourselves, but each other.  One day at a time, one meal at a time.  Bread without preservatives — fresh if eaten today, now; bread that will not wait until tomorrow to be eaten.

In Jesus, God is calling each one of us to lay aside our desire for self-sufficiency and to invest ourselves in one another.  “Does this offend you?” Jesus asks.  “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”  Many who had followed Jesus up to this point were turned off.  “This teaching is difficult,” they responded.  “Who can accept it,” and they left him.  But Peter and the others remained, giving us the words we sing each time the Word of God is read in our assembly, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

As we leave summer behind — and with it the stories of David, Saul and Solomon — we take with us the reminder that the pull to establish our legacies, to build our empires, is strong and is with us still.  As we move into the Season of Creation, we will be reminded of the price paid by the very earth for the kinds of empires in which we now live.  This day, as much as any era before us, we are challenged to reshape our lives with a radical reliance on God at the center.  It begins with the practicing of eating the bread laid out for us at this feast, daily bread, that moves us from unsustainable ways of living into life imperishable.  Amen.

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