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Looking for Jesus

 

Introductory Note:

This summer’s lectionary suggests that we spend five weeks in the 6th chapter of the gospel of John. Today is week 2. On the previous day Jesus fed a multitude from a boy’s lunch and then during the night mysteriously crossed the sea of Galilee to meet his disciples, who crossed in a boat.

 

John 6:24-35

So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”
Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me,
not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.
Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

 

 

 

 

“Looking for Jesus”

 

Every faith community has its rituals, and UPC is no exception. Were you to talk to your neighbors who volunteer in the office each week, you would learn that different projects are assigned to different shifts. Some volunteers water plants, others ready the sanctuary for worship, while still others stuff bulletins—but it is the Tuesday afternoon volunteer who adds the coming Sunday’s sermon title to the signboard that faces Franklin Street.

For this preacher, that means that a sermon title needs to be supplied long before the sermon is actually written. For those of you who walk by Franklin Street and pay attention to such things, that can mean that you and I are pondering sermon material at the same time. Occasionally, one of you will share thoughts in an email, which I am always glad to fold into the stew.

On Friday I received a note from one of you, triggered by the sermon title. It seems that on a trip to see grandchildren in upstate New York, on a certain Sunday morning as the generations were gathering for worship in the sanctuary of Third Presbyterian in Rochester,
the three-year-old slipped underneath and then around the pew, obviously searching for something. When his mother asked what he was doing, he said quite simply, “I’m looking for Jesus. Where is Jesus?”

We come to worship for many reasons: sometimes out of habit,
or to please someone we love, sometimes to see friends with whom we have long connection, but if we have not dried up inside, at the heart of this weekly practice is the hope that we will be encountered by our maker. We come looking for Jesus.

For 2000 years people have wanted to know who he is and where they might find him. Apparently, it was that way from the start.

The crowd in today’s story is particularly eager to find Jesus, because just the day before he had multiplied a poor boy’s lunch[1] until it fed thousands of them in the wilderness. So enamored were they by his provision for their needs that they determined on the spot that he should be their king. But Jesus slipped away before they could seize him. So the next day, when Jesus was not where they expected him to be, they went looking.

By the time that they found Jesus on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the crowd was full of questions: How is it possible that you left us? How do we get more of this bread? How can we learn to do what you do? How will you mesmerize us today?

As is often the case, the questions that first rise in us are not the ones we most need to ask. In fact, Jesus is interested in being their king, but a different kind of sovereign than the one they imagine. In fact, Jesus wants to keep feeding them, but with something more life-giving than a barley loaf.  Where they see a loaf of bread that will remedy their immediate hunger, Jesus wants them to see a sign of God’s love
that will sustain them in all circumstances.
Jesus wants them to let go of transactional bargains. What he offers instead is a relationship that will free them to live abundantly, no matter what they face.

The more I get to know the Bible the more I think that Jesus always is asking us to enter further into relationship: with our God, with our neighbor, with the rest of the beloved creation, with our own broken hearts. All of those relationships get distorted—that’s the simplest definition I know of sin. Restoring those relationships—moving toward the relationships God intends—requires a radical kind of trust, a vulnerability that is born of knowing that we are held by a love more powerful than anything that will ever threaten us. That doesn’t mean we won’t get hungry for literal bread. It doesn’t mean we won’t suffer; it doesn’t mean we won’t die. It does mean we don’t have to be afraid.

I want to tell you a story about my older brother, John. I share it with his permission. He told me a long time ago that if I thought anything from his life might help someone else, I should just use it.

There were a lot of drugs in Florida in the mid-seventies when we were growing up and John got sucked into that culture. He was a handsome young man, with an affectionate personality and a sense of humor that’s gotten him out of a lot of scrapes. He hid the extent of his addiction for a long time. Eventually it cost him his marriage. On Christmas Day—I think it was 1991—John found his way into a 12-step program. His sponsor told him that he would need to change a lot of patterns. He would have to steer clear of old relationships and be wary about forming new ones. He was told that for a year his primary community needed to consist of other recovering addicts.

John rented a garage apartment on his own and worked hard to follow the program. One evening he was bitterly lonely. He’s never been much of a church-goer, but that night he found himself kneeling and praying with tears streaming down his cheeks. He said he prayed for some sign that he was not alone.

Sometimes we pray and do not recognize an answer, but on that particular night, in God’s gracious timing, John was given a gift he could not deny. With his cheeks still wet, a knock came on his door. There stood a neighbor’s child. Her parents were immigrants from Mexico and spoke little English, so John had helped the child from time-to-time when she had a question about her homework. She stood there in the twilight in a beautiful pink dress, holding a piece of birthday cake and a glass of lemonade. She was nine years old, and she had come to show John her fine new dress. She wanted him to share the food of her family’s celebration.

John says that, for him, that piece of cake and glass of lemonade were the bread and cup of communion; they were a sure sign that he was not alone.

Before we move on, let me say that John’s story does not have a fairy-tale ending, but the life of faith is not about fairy tale endings. It is about a flow of mercy that knows no bounds.

When we come to this table, when we draw strength from the same bread, the same fruit, the same prayer, the Spirit means to bind us to each other and to equip us, together, for service in the world. Like it or not, we come to this table not as individual bodies, but as members of one vast body, all over the world, whose lifeblood is God’s own.

In a world so painfully divided, the church is called to embody a different life—a more truthful, courageous, committed, and humble life. We belong to each other—we are one—not because we agree about everything, but because God has given us to each other.

That unity does not mean uniformity. The author of Ephesians is clear that we are given different gifts, and are called to different corners of the vineyard. But none of us can be who God intends for us to be without the others. As each person is welcomed into the body, we become more whole, and more equipped to serve God in the world.
Unity is, at the same time, both God’s gift to us, and a defining commitment of the life to which we are called.

I love the way that the author of Ephesians puts it: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head,
into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

With compassion and respect we are to give voice to the gospel’s imperatives as we hear them. With the same compassion and respect we are to listen to our neighbor. Together we are called to grow up and into Christ.

I learned something new about those verses from Ephesians this week. I learned that the Greek word that we translate equipped comes from a noun that means “the setting of a bone.”[2] How like God to use even our broken places, the bones that must be set, to equip the church, to build up of the body in love. Our God wastes nothing that we offer in trust.

I hope we never stop looking for Jesus. Sometimes we will find him in the places we least expect. Sometimes we won’t hear our invitation to the party until we are at our wits end. But if, together, we are the Body of Christ, then our life, our words, our choices are intended to be signs in the world, pointing others to the goodness of God. Wearing his name comes with great responsibility; it means others who are looking for Jesus, may be looking to us.

Will you pray with me?

Holy One,

None of us feels equipped to represent you in the world, but you never ask any of us to do this work alone. You give us to each other; you promise to be present when we gather in your name; you assure us that your Spirit will keep setting our broken places, for in some uncanny way, your strength is made perfect in our weakness. Thank you for the children and the strangers, who light our way. Thank you that grace abounds and mercy flows without measure. Give us such grateful hearts, for it is a privilege to love the world in your name. We do pray in the name of Jesus, who is still our daily bread and the home toward which we move. Amen.

[1] Bread made from barley was considered inferior to that made from wheat; it was the food of the poor. 1st century philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, reports that barley “is of somewhat doubtful merit, suited for irrational animals and men in unhappy circumstances” (De Spec. Leg. 3.57), see Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh’s Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998. p. 126.

[2] G. Porter Taylor, commentary on Ephesians 4:1-16 in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, p. 304.

Margaret LaMotte Torrence , Interim Pastor

Email: margaret@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 111

Bio:

Margaret came to serve as UPC’s interim pastor in September, 2017. She expects to remain in Chapel Hill until a new pastor is called, likely in 2019. She grew up in Sarasota, Florida, living across the street from the church her father served. Margaret met her husband, Lee, when they were first-year students at Davidson College. She did not sense a call to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament until she was in her 30s. By that point their family also included a son, Nate, and a daughter, Hanna. They all moved from California to Princeton—to begin seminary, kindergarten and preschool respectively—while Lee worked to make it all possible. In the intervening years, Margaret has served churches in New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida. She and Lee live near Asheville, in a home they share with Margaret’s parents. Margaret considers it a great privilege to serve in community with others who are seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow that leading. She is grateful for the many sisters and brothers who have shared their lives and stories along the way. When she is at home in the mountains, she finds particular joy in hiking, gardening, stacking stones, and volunteering with a remarkable ministry known as the Haywood Street congregation. Margaret frequently leads conference worship in Montreat.