Sunday, August 20, 2006

Aug. 20 Sermon, "Mystery Meat"

Proverbs 9: 1-6
John 6: 51-58

It has been a week now since school started, and perhaps you teenagers or teachers have already been served a legendary meal in the school cafeteria: mystery meat. I remember my days in the school cafeteria—some of you would probably point out that it wasn’t that long ago.
I remember as a 1st grader at Root elementary school capturing the attention of my whole table by taking my milk carton and pretending it was a monster truck and the little compartments filled with the leftover food were the different mud-pits and other kinds of obstacles that the monster truck had to ramp and race through. My tray became a mess of food and the screams of delight and horror of my little colleagues gave way to the horrible sound of Seth, the kid across from me, throwing up his lunch as he was overcome by the entertainment I was providing.
Yes, the infamous mystery meat of the public school system leaves a similar pit in the stomach. My wife and I have differing opinions on the value of mystery meat. She confessed to me less than a month ago that she actually really enjoyed the burgers at school. “Do you think that those were soy burgers?” she asked me. “Who knows?” I answered her.
It seems that Jesus’ audience was just as flummoxed by his teaching that we heard today. According to the text, not only was the audience offended, but some of his own disciples stopped believing at this point and stopped following. Eat my flesh and drink my blood and you will have eternal life, says Jesus. Huh? says the world. Even the Biblical literalists don’t accept these words of Jesus at face value.
We hear the words in the context of our celebration of communion, but the problem is, at the time Jesus spoke these words, the Eucharist had not yet been instituted. Actually, the gospel of John contains no story of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, but if the timeline is compared, Jesus at this point in his career had not yet covered that subject with his disciples.
What could Jesus possibly mean when he said these words? Did Jesus go back to camp later that night as my son sometimes comes home from daycare—with bite marks on his arm, or back? Were there those who heard Jesus and followed, expecting that Jesus was going to offer himself in some kind of cannibalistic ritual?
This text illustrates perfectly the reasons we have for reading the text of the Bible in a way that frees its words from face value. A contemporary theologian, Sallie McFague, says that “metaphor is a strategy of desperation, not decoration.” Jesus was speaking with desperation. He had just fed 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish and was now being followed by a multitude who wanted to “take him by force and make him king.” What we read today was the third installment of a discourse where he tries to hammer into his audience’s mind that HE is the bread they should be hungry for. He moves from speaking about his words as bread to referring to his very flesh and blood as the bread these hungry crowds should consume.
I think it is wonderful for us to hear texts from the Bible that leave us puzzled. This puzzlement has the power to trip us into the real practice of faith. In Zen philosophy, there is a practice called the koan. The koan is a riddle that is unanswerable to the rules of logic. Zen masters give their students a riddle such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping, or what did your face look like before you were born, and then asked to meditate on that question for weeks at a time. The students are called before the master periodically and asked to give an answer to the question, and when they inevitably get it wrong, they are slapped on the back with a stick and told to go try again. Eventually after weeks of contemplating the koan, the riddle will become a roadblock to the intellect and ego and will allow the mind to travel onward into the realm of enlightenment.
Sometimes the mysteries of our faith give us a route to truth outside the realm of logic and factual information. The great blunder of 20th century theology is to hold up the truths of our scripture to the limited capacities of knowing that are encompassed by fact and logic. We can delve more deeply into this and other texts if we unloose our minds from the hitch of fact and let them run free in the pasture of metaphor.
So, what could Jesus mean by referencing this “mystery meat?” Jesus gives us another reference to bounce his teaching up against. He says, “This is the true bread from heaven, not like the manna that your ancestors ate. They ate and died. Anyone who eats this bread will live eternally.” We are one step closer to discerning what Christ is by defining what Christ is not.
You may or may not be familiar with the story he’s referring to from Exodus 16. Here, the slaves from Egypt are in transit to the promised land, and they are out of food. They grumble and complain and wish they had never left their shackles and chains, and go to Moses—“Who is this God we’re following that would let us go hungry? Take us back to Egypt!” God heard the grumbling and complaining and caused the dew to become bread for the people to eat. But the bread only sustained their bodily life—it didn’t transform their hearts! In the next chapter, the people are complaining about water, and then they complain about the lack of diversity in their diet.
I found wisdom in Paul Stroble’s recent article on this scripture passage in the most recent Christian Century. He writes, “IN my own spiritual path, sometimes I’ve confused manna for living bread. Both are God-given, but manna doesn’t nourish indefinitely. Think of manna as the aspects of the church life that are suitable and grace-full, but fleeting. Manna is the preaching style of a certain pastor whom you love (but what do you do when a new pastor comes along with a different style)?
Manna is the program ministry of the congregation, or the church’s music, wonderful and beneficial but sometimes a source of disagreement. Manna is the small group to which you’re attached—but people move away and the group magic disappears. Manna is the congregation that you love—that you’d rather would never change. And what if a crisis in your congregation brings out the worst in the people you trusted as spiritual models? Our walk with Christ can be hampered, even ruined, when we allow impermanent aspects of church to define our spiritual journey.
Christ on the other hand, is the bread that gives us meaning. Christ gives us eternal life. The living bread doesn’t just fill our belly, it changes our heart.
The Ephesians text this week said “don’t get drunk on wine, for that cheapens your life. Instead, fill yourself with the Holy Spirit! That will lead you to life-enriching behavior. Yes, what great images to contrast—filled with wine to the extent that we are disoriented, impaired, slow-witted vs. filled with Spirit to the extend that we are oriented, enabled, intelligent. Spirit vs. spirits. Permanent and eternal vs. fleeting and consequential. Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
Christ says that it is the will of the Lord that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood “abide in him” and he abides in us. Abide is a word that I often translate as “make a home in.” For John, the basis of faith in Christ is a relationship. It is one that can be characterized as making a home in each other.
When we eat something, the nutrients that it gives us are absorbed in our intestines and are incorporated into our very cells. Christ wants to be part of our lives. Christ doesn’t want to just walk alongside us and leave footprint in the sand. Christ isn’t just asking to be our lifelong buddy, a loyal golden retriever, or a constant companion. Christ wants to live in us. Christ wants to become part of us—wants us to be nourished by his presence in our lives. Not just in our lives like our spouse or children or friends are “in our lives” as a part of the life that is lived by the individual “you.” Christ offers us the chance to live eternally. We don’t live eternally without his presence inside of us because we don’t have the power to do that. What I call “me” is temporary. It is made from dust and it will return to dust. But the aspect of “me” that I give to Christ lives through Christ’s power to move beyond death.
This isn’t just an idea to accept and give assent to. It is not just a belief. It is not a doctrine to be saluted so that we can all go to heaven. Christ’s life in us is a way of living. It is living in the light. It is living as a child of the light. And it’s not just ethics or morality. Living in the light is a life in the presence of God’s life in us. It is abiding, or making a home in Christ—and in so doing making a home for Christ in us.
And the amazing thing is that this is just one of the meanings of these texts that we’ve read today. It unfolds further, and a life in Christ guides us into the mystery. The mystery is not a riddle to be solved. It is a riddle that saves.
Jesus wants to help us get by—Jesus wants to be for us that bread in the wilderness that sustains us and keeps us going. But that’s not all Jesus wants to do. Jesus wants to give us new hearts. As the prophet Ezekial wrote, “I will take your hearts of stone and give you hearts of flesh.” Christ wants to set our hearts on fire so that we may live like lighthouses, exposing the darkness and bringing others into the light.
Are you open and willing to let Christ in to your life—literally? Not just as a friend, but as food? Today’s passage from Proverbs gives a metaphor for wisdom as a rich woman throwing a housewarming party. Lady Wisdom’s household is complete, it is represented by the seven pillars of the house—which represent completeness. The table is set and the servents are sent to spread the invitation far and wide. The meal is lavish—meat and bread and wine. This image is contrasted with the other household that offers distractions that mask death. And the “strange woman” of the house sits out in the street on a stool, hawking her wares.
Are you willing to be shaped and nourished by his word—the true bread from heaven? Christ transcends time and space and offers himself as a full course (lifelong) meal. We can dine with Lady Wisdom and accept this invitation, or we can go down the street and stuff ourselves silly with Dame Folly. The choice is ours.

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