Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2012

Gospel: John 6:56-69

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 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.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
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When many of his disciples heard Jesus’ sermon, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” What made this teaching so difficult? Was it the explicit way that Jesus spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood? Perhaps. But we seem to have gotten beyond that particular bit of squeamishness. So what is it about Jesus’ teaching that makes it so hard for us to accept?

I think that it is this: When we choose to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink Jesus’ blood, we are accepting, at least for that moment, that the material and the spiritual worlds are one and the same.

The real challenge facing us as Jesus’ followers is allowing the flesh and the spirit to come together. We tend to compartmentalize our lives, saying, “Here is my spiritual life and here is my other life.” Jesus calls on us to let them be one and the same.

How can we view the material world as both incarnational and spiritual filled? We are invited to experience the joy of an undivided life, to recognize that life, all of it, is imbued with spirit.

The invitation is a strange and difficult one for citizens of the 21st century. Jesus is calling us, through the sacrifice of his body and blood to awaken not just to a narrowly defined religious domain, but to his presence made manifest in the material world as well.

What if every bite you took of life was filled with the same sense of presence you bring to the receiving of Christ’s body at the altar? What if every sip you took of life’s nectar was swallowed with the same presence of mind you have when the chalice is raised to your lips?

Now it is true that it is easier to stay in touch with the domain of the spirit when we can separate ourselves from a world obsessed with the material. Monastics of every religion have long recognized that they could best be true to their faith when they lived in isolation, within a religious community, where a formally structured life of prayer and work and simple meals, keeps them in touch with spirit.

Have you seen the film “Beasts of the Southern Wild”? It doesn’t take place in a monastery, but on a small isolated island called Bathtub, barely above sea level, off the coast of Louisiana. The inhabitants have thrown together ramshackle dwellings fabricated from materials discarded by others or washed up on their oily shore. They subsist on the crabs, shrimp, and fish that they manage to net or noodle from the oily channels and bayous weaving through their island home. The landscape is stark, with the smoke stacks of petrochemical plants looming on the horizon and a shoreline adorned with the bare skeletal remains of once mighty oaks, life drained from them by an ever rising salty sea. The central character is a resilient seven-year-old girl, called Hush Puppy. Hush Puppy is nurtured by the tough love of a troubled, terminally ill father, who with limited skills, tries his best to instill in her the strength he knows she will need when he is gone. And as if her physical circumstances weren’t harsh enough Hush Puppy has a recurring apocalyptic vision of a mob of fierce, tusked, bison-like creatures, who trample the earth, bearing down on her, leaving a path of destruction in their wake.

This isn’t a film with a lot of God-talk, but through it all Hush Puppy retains a fierce connection with Spirit. It’s a connection she must have learned more from the land and the sea than from instructive parents or church. The child speaks with wisdom well beyond her years, whispering, “When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces.”

And later, seeing her fragile world on the edge of decimation, she intones, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted.”

The world of Bathtub, Louisiana is so far removed from our world. Theirs is a world where what they have they glean from the sea or gather from the shore, or reach down and find deeply within themselves. Most of us depend on something we purchase, something manufactured, something produced specifically to entertain us, soothe us, or satisfy us. We run the risk of becoming mere consumers, maintained by what we can buy, rather than being sustained by the Spirit that lies within.

In fact virtually all of us in Bentonville, myself included, depend economically on the presence of a corporation that would not survive if people around the world were not ravenous consumers. I really don’t know how to combat the power of consumerism head on. It seems a losing battle. An end run seems a more effective strategy.

“The powers and principalities” arrayed around us urge us with all the resources they can muster to envy, to desire, to purchase and consume. The process is most effective if we do it mindlessly, because if we stop to think about it, we don’t really need most of the stuff we pile on our shopping carts.

I don’t often get this practical in a sermon, but I have a few suggestions for staying in touch with spirit, while living in a material world. Don’t let your stuff own you. Don’t work harder than you need to, just so you can acquire more things than you can usefully possess. Try bringing the presence of spirit to every purchase. Recognize the animal and vegetable life that was sacrificed for the food you put on the table. The clothes we wear, not just the cotton or wool or silk, but even synthetic fabrics, were transformed from petroleum that was itself a carbon life form some millions of years ago. Be conscious of every gallon of gasoline you put in your tanks, not just because it costs almost $4.00, but because life, life imbued with spirit, went into its creation.

Enjoy, relish what you have. And be generous with your money, not taking its accumulation too seriously.

I wonder if you can bring to a sales clerk at the checkout counter at Walmart, the same presence of mind that you bring to the chalice bearer at communion?

A number of years ago, when I was single and on a serious quest to explore the nature of prayer, I mentioned to a woman I was dating that it was possible to pray over the vegetables at a Whole Foods Market – to recognize the spirit, the life-force contained within them. She dumped me pretty quickly after that. With good reason. It’s hard for people who insist on maintaining the illusion of a duality of spirit and matter, who try to keep the material world and the spiritual world neatly separated, to embrace the potential chaos that happens when two worlds spill over into one another.

But Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me.” We are called to a kind of spiritual abiding that takes place in a world of flesh and blood. Can we consume what the world has to offer and still abide with the Christ? Jesus spoke to his disciples of spirit and life, teaching them that without life-giving spirit the flesh is useless. That is our challenge as well.

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