8/20/2012

The Wine of Astonishment and why preaching is hard work.


I know what a great privilege and gift it is to be allowed to preach in the Church. I know on a regular basis how hard it is to provide words that capture something of the hope in, under and around the biblical word, something of the Word of God in the words we hear. 
About an hour before having to preach I wonder if I missed something and wasn't called to preach but to wash dishes. I begin to think that my hearers will hear only my words, not the Word of God, and that they will find me out, send me packing to the scullery and otherwise throw me out for stupidity. (Sigh...)
At St. Peter's in Lewes, the little town by the edge of the bay and the big water, the preacher on Sunday has a double chance to wonder about vocational misappropriation. We have two services, 8 and 10 - exactly the same except for choir and occasional baptism at one or the other. The preacher is on twice.  

I always write out my sermons and depending on the energy in the church and in me, one or the other is nearer the written text.  This last Sunday the first round was pretty much the text, with reasonable energy for 8 am. The second was the text plus, with a lot more energy and engagement with people. At the close of the sermon several people shouted out "amen" and one or two shouted out "kvetch, kvetch."  (I loved it.)  
The Gospel, from John's account of the "Bread of Life" sayings, is for me one of the most difficult readings to preach on. I know its promise, I know its hope. But I also know its reach exceeds the grasp of language and we end up on the edge of being flesh eaters. Unless the poetic imagination is there there is wreckage in the fast lane indeed. 
 Here is the second sermon. No way to put in the energy piece.
The Wine of Astonishment: Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost.
This sermon is about Astonishment.
Today’s readings are about the astonishment that arises when the promise of abundant life is realized… when the good King rules, when the fear of the Lord yields wisdom, when we eat bread that sustains us forever, not just until tomorrow.
There was a band in the late 60s and early 70s called “Good News.” Among their songs was one with the line, “you have made me drunk with the wine of astonishment.”  It was a great song, and was played at our son Matthew’s baptism.
“The wine of astonishment.”… the phrase itself is from the KJV of psalm 60:3, “You have shown your people hard things: you have made us to drink the wine of astonishment.”  
As is often the case, the KJV uses expansive metaphorical language, and the Good News Band took this phrase and expanded on that, so that the “wine of astonishment” became not only the wine drunk in hard times, but in good times as well, in times of bad news, but also times of good news.  It became a song about all our time – the whole of life.  Life itself becomes a place where we drink the wine of astonishment, where we discover that all of life can be blessing too great for words – we can only hint at the abundance of the blessing.
The Astonishment of the Bread of Heaven:
The core of the readings is this most peculiar section of John’s Gospel, the record of the “Bread of Life” sayings.
To get a sense of the power of these sayings we need to remember two things: (i) the Hebrew people had a strong memory of being fed by God in the desert in hard times, and (ii) all people remember the pervasive reality of desperation in starving for daily bread, and more, for hope.
The Hope for Bread that Sustains.
The memory of the Hebrew people is that God fed them in the wilderness, providing manna, bread from heaven. These past few weeks we have been reading “the bread of life” teaching or sermon which was given at least in part at the synagogue in Capernaum. As any good preacher might do, Jesus began by stating the theme of his remarks:
He says,  “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” Jesus is playing on a reference back to the memory of the events in the wilderness, and the manna. He uses that to set the theme.
Jesus then moves that story a step further, into the present: ““I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  He has built a metaphor on the memory of the manna in the wilderness. He himself is the manna in the wilderness of the present moment, in the despair of these days.
At this point the kvetching begins… “What, what is this bread of life business? Isn’t he the kid down the block.”
Then Jesus pushes even further: “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died.  But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”  Now he is proclaiming himself to be bread unlike the manna, but bread by which we will live forever.

More kvetching… “So now he is coming down from heaven!?”

And then today, we have this: He says,

“Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.”

Well, now he’s gone and done it!  He has done what sometimes happens to the preacher when the words carry the preacher to the edge of language. Now Jesus pushes the metaphor over the edge… his flesh and blood is the food that, unlike the manna, is food for eternal life.  He is saying, "eat me. drink me."

He is flashing on something poetic, but beyond poetry, on something that is hope, but more hope in spite of despair. And at the height of the proclamation his imagery boils over, the metaphor takes on metaphysical significance. It’s the sort of thing that theologians love and it has led to all sorts of things – for example the doctrine of transubstantiation.  Let’s not go there!

But we know, and Jesus knows, he has pushed the language of the metaphor about bread and body about as far as he can go.  And we want to go with him there…bread of life, bread that sustains. Jesus provides….

Finally then he calms down and returns to the theme he began with:

“This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
Jesus is making a remarkable claim.  It stretches a metaphor to the breaking point and then celebrates that act.  He begins and ends with the bread of life being similar to, but greater than the manna in the desert. Just as God feeds the people in the wilderness each day, so now, in Jesus God feeds us for ever.  He is the bread of true life…life in its fullness. Who ever eats of him will never be hungry again. It’s everything he promised. 
And we remember what he said elsewhere: “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.” And we want that abundant life!
He pushes his hearers and us to a new place. When the people cried in the wilderness for food, what they got was food for today. Every night manna came, and they gathered it and ate. It had to be repeated daily.
At the same time, the desperate need for daily bread is about hunger and the fear of death. If I don’t eat today I will die. There is the core of the desperation of days, the hard times.  But death is a reality, one day it comes. Beyond the fear of that death there is something more…
Into these hard times Jesus comes, not to feed us today, but to feed us for life, for eternity, for abundance. He says, “I am the bread of life, whoever eats me will never be hungry again.”
There are some commentators who believe the phrase “Give us today our daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer needs to be translated “Give us today the bread of tomorrow”, in order to indicate that we are praying not for momentary sustenance, repeated, but for continuing sustenance, that is, forever.
Given hard times someday there will be a day of no bread, or sickness and death will make there being bread irrelevant. Manna is there, but people die.  
And on that day we will remember, Jesus says we “do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the Mouth of God.”
It is so astonishing a turn – from the bread for today to the bread forever – that even Jesus, teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, can be forgiven when he pushes the metaphor to the limit.  Caught up in his own astonishment, he ends up saying “eat me, drink me.”  Amazing.
We know what he means. So we too, astonished and filled with wonder, following him the great preacher, and we want to take him all in, for he is the bread of life. We want to ingest him, take him in, be with him, breath with him, sleep with him, awake with him...be him in the world. Amazing. 
The good preacher hopes for the moment of astonishment, when the congregations dances and sings with the preacher, and follows where no words suffice. Then it is astonishment, wow, amazing.  If not, it is time for more kvetching.  But not this time. AMEN.

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