Beyond the Gift Shop — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read John 6:35-50

A few years ago, we visited the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley. I remembered the times we went there when my sons were small. Each time we had the same challenge.

There’s a gift shop just beyond the ticket counter. Our sons typically wanted to go directly to that gift shop. It was filled with toys and games, with stuffed animals and coloring books. Never mind that acres of lions and tigers, baboons and bears, snakes and sloths, lay just around the corner.

They wanted the gift shop. They were happy to settle for fluffy stuffed penguins and squirt guns shaped like flamingoes. They were children. Who could blame them?

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

We, however, are not children. Yet, we settle for so little in our life with God. This brings us to Jesus’ question in today’s gospel reading. Why, he asks the crowd. Why would you settle for so little? Why would you sprint around the lake for a crust of bread when the Bread of Life is standing right in front of you?

Are you willing to look beyond the gift shop?

That is my main thought for today. Are you settling for too little in your walk with Jesus? What are the ways we settle for the gift shop when an adventure awaits us?

Are you willing to look beyond the gift shop?

John six begins with the Feeding of the Five Thousand. The crowds pursue Jesus from one shore of the Galilean lake to the other. They long for healing and wholeness, for bread and blessings, and most of all—for Good News. The disciples are afraid they will drown in this sea of human wants and needs. “Send them home!” the fearful disciples demand.

Jesus has other plans. With five fish and two loaves he feeds the churning crowds. The leftovers fill twelve baskets—one for each tribe of ancient Israel.  The disciples are still blind to the meaning. The crowds, however, began to comprehend. “This,” they tell each other, “is indeed the prophet who is come into the world!

The next day, they are back for more. You can imagine that the word has gotten out: Free bread—all you can eat! That’s when Jesus asks the deeper question. Are you willing to look beyond the gift shop?

Beyond the gift shop is the Good News! But what is that good news? Jesus tells the crowd, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’”

Here is the Good News. Jesus fills us with purpose, with peace and with power.We can be part of God’s life-giving mission for the whole world. This is the life “worthy of the calling to which we have been called.” Jesus calls you and me into the greatest purpose possible for human beings.

We can know the peace that comes from depending on God in life and in death. This peace of mind and spirit comes from the Holy Spirit. When we trust Jesus to provide what we need, anxiety dries up and blows away.

We can have the power that comes from the Holy Spirit living in us and through us. That power is expressed in our spiritual gifts. Those gifts are for the good of the body of Christ and for the life of the world. Christians exist in part because the world needs your spiritual gifts for mission and service here.

Are you willing to look beyond the gift shop?

Where do we settle for too little? In the church we often settle for nostalgia when Jesus offers new life. That is precisely the response of the Hebrew former slaves in our first reading. “If only we had stayed in Egypt…” It is a wonderful thing to celebrate, for example, congregational anniversaries. But that is to be a springboard for the future, not a pining for the past.

The grumbling takes on a theological cast in the Gospel of John with the complaining of “the Jews,” representatives of the Jerusalem orthodoxy of the time. Let’s be careful not to slip into some unthinking Antisemitism at this point.

“John’s narrative is written by a Jew, about Jesus the Jew, who is believed to be fulfilling Israel’s divine vocation and global mission as a light to the nations and a blessing to the world,” Paul Anderson argues. “Thus, in no way can the thoroughly Semitic Gospel of John, the most Jewish of the Gospels, be considered anti-Semitic. If anything,” he continues, “John represents a radical view of the Jewish vocation, in that it sees Jesus as the embodiment of typological Israel as a means of blessing the nations” (pages 12-13).

The complaining is not about the amount of bread but rather the supposed identity of the Baker. Unlike the Synoptics, in John the complainers observe that Jesus is the son of Joseph. Of course, we know (wink, wink) that Jesus is the Son of God. The son of Joseph would come from earth. Only the Son of God can come from heaven.

Jesus takes on directly this line of grumbling. “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Do not keep on grumbling with one another. No one is able to come to me unless the Father who sent would draw that one, and I will resurrect that one on the last day” (John 6:43-44, my translation).

The Holy Spirit never goes backward. That is an important spiritual rule of thumb, so it is worth repeating. The Holy Spirit never goes backward. We can and should identify the high moments in the history of a ministry. We do that to celebrate God’s goodness and grace. But we cannot go back. Our purpose as the church is always to build forward, not to turn back. The Holy Spirit calls us out of nostalgia and into adventure, out of the past and into the future.

Are you willing to look beyond the gift shop?

On a personal level, this is the Spirit’s treatment for our “if-only” disease. We can spend personal time and energy ruminating over our regrets and resentments. Or we can respond to the Spirit’s call to move forward. Forward is where the life is!

How does this work out in a congregation? It is clear that our gospel reading has echoes of Holy Communion. I hope you see that Jesus feeds us so that we can feed others. The Lord’s Supper leads to a concern for the hungry around us. Or it is a dead end.

I am so grateful for all the hunger and food ministries rooted in ELCA congregations across this country. Members support food pantries with donations and cash and volunteer hours. They give generously and frequently to many relief and support agencies locally to many such organizations beyond their community. They support ELCA World Hunger efforts and Lutheran World Relief. I am honored to be associated with such efforts.

We hope that members experience Jesus’ welcome at our communion table. The Lord’s Supper leads us to welcome others to the table. Or it is a dead end.

Hospitality is often identified as one of the best gifts of many congregations—especially when it is connected with food. While we will look in more detail at the Eucharist in John’s gospel next week, certainly this week we can look at who is welcome, or not, at the table.

I have experienced and observed an evolution in my thinking and the thinking of other ELCA Lutherans in this regard. We still officially expect the Lord’s Supper to be available only to the baptized. But that is certainly not the practice in many congregations.

The debate is often whether the “Table” (the Eucharist) can lead to the “Font,” (Baptism) rather than insisting that only the “Font” can lead to the “Table.” In my experience, the more a congregation is involved in reaching out beyond the walls of the congregation, the more flexible the congregation must become in this ordering.

When I was involved in weekly ministry with offenders and ex-offenders, I knew that many of the regular communicants had not been baptized. If I had insisted on the “proper” order of things, any number of those folks would not have returned – either to the Table or to Sunday worship.

For the sake of caring in Christ, we exercised (as that congregation still does) a liberal flexibility in this regard. Anyone who comes to Jesus will never be driven away – if we are faithful to what we see and hear in John 6.

The good news is that such a welcome and openness begins with and is applied to – me! I come with all my selfish agendas, intentional misunderstandings, and perverse prejudices. And I still hold out my hands to be filled, expecting a welcome and a feeding. Too often, I simply take that welcome for granted rather than experiencing it as the astonishing reality it is.

Jesus tells the clamoring crowd, “The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They respond with hope, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Will that be your prayer as well?

Are you willing to look beyond the gift shop? Let’s pray…

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