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The Rhythm of Welcome -- John 6:24-35 (10th Sunday After Pentecost)




One of my preaching professors – a big influence on me – Rev Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr. – Pastor Emeritus at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland – Dr. Smith says that the work of the preacher is to find a Word of Grace at the intersection of Scripture and the life we live today. In every encounter with Scripture, we take the ancient but timeless story and the life we are living, and we look for where they converge – to find a living Word for today.


Dr. Smith says that this journey can take different paths.


· Sometimes, he says, the preacher starts out on the East-West road of Scripture, until she comes to the place that it intersects with the North-South road of experience.


· Sometimes, the preacher starts out on the North-South road of experience until they come to the place that it intersects with the East-West road of Scripture.


Always looking for a Word at that intersection.


Over the past couple weeks, I have been travelling the North-South road of Interstate 5 – so this morning, I thought I’d start there. On July 12, Jeff and I loaded up the car and headed out on vacation, took a left turn just before Sacramento – and journeyed north on I-5. Through Redding, on to Ashland – and then onto Portland to visit friends there – and then on to Seattle. And then back home again.


This is an exaggeration – but it had been a while since I had been out of the house. For a year and a half of pandemic, my life has been lived here at home in Marin County and on our family compound on Tamarindo Drive in Florida. This was my first time out – in a long while – on an old-school road-trip – and I found that things have changed.


The world has adapted for pandemic. At roadside hotels, you don’t find breakfast bars any more. Just paper-bag breakfasts you can pick up in the lobby. Things are structured so that face-to-face human contact is limited only to that which is necessary. You don’t go to the front desk, except to check in. Even at the most basic hotel, you phone, and then things magically appear at your door. Fewer and fewer restaurants hand out menus. They have those QR codes at the table. You scan them with your phone’s camera, and the menu magically appears on your phone. I don’t usually eat fast food, except when I’m on a road-trip, so I was amazed to find out that McDonald’s has kiosks now. You order by pressing buttons, without talking to anyone, and your meal appears. And, of course, every place you enter, you have to figure out what the masking protocol is there.


Beyond pandemic, there are signs of climate emergency everywhere. Lake Shasta looks more like a pond. Mount Shasta has almost no snow on it. None on the South Face, and only a bit on the North. When we arrived in Ashland, we couldn’t smell smoke, but our eyes burned from the not-too-far-off Bootleg Fire – so much of the West Coast dry and brittle. Further north, we were able to spend time along some streams and at the beach; we stayed on the shore of Lake Washington, but in these days of drought, being so near to water feels almost surreal.


What hasn’t changed is that on the road trip we experienced the hospitality of strangers and friends – spending time with some of our best friends who have moved to Portland, and with some of Jeff’s friends from Sonoma State who are settling in to their new life on the Olympic Peninsula. Welcomed in, and then back off to the next destination,

welcomed in, and then back out on the road.


We often talk of our life of faith using the metaphor of journey. A going out, and a coming home. A gathering, and then a sending. We do that explicitly in worship. We gather, experience the Living Word of Christ together, and then we are sent into life and the week, trusting that in seven days, we will gather again – a rhythm of coming and going, of gathering and going out and gathering again.


We enter into that rhythm in this morning’s Scripture. The disciples and the crowd are on the road with Jesus. They’ve been gathered together, and Jesus has performed healing miracles. Jesus moves on, and the crowd follows him. Jesus and the disciples cross to the far side of the Sea of Galilee (really a lake), and the crowd follows. The disciples see the crowd gathering and Jesus wonders, “Where will we buy bread enough for all these people?” They find a boy with five loaves and two fish. Jesus hands that out, and then tells the disciples to pick up what’s left and keep feeding, and everyone gets fed – all 5,000 of them.


Then, Jesus and the disciples set out again in the night. The disciples go ahead of Jesus in a boat, and Jesus catches up with them walking on water – assuring them – “It is I; don’t be afraid.”


And they arrive, on the far shore, in this morning’s Scripture. And the crowd tracks them down, and gathers again. All these miraculous signs. This gathering, and moving on, gathering again, and moving on.


And we have this exchange. The crowd asks: “How did you get here?” And Jesus responds, “You’re not looking for me because of miraculous signs. You’re looking for me because you ate some good bread and had your fill.” They’re here for what they think is an inexhaustible supply of food.[1] And then Jesus says, “Don’t work for the food that perishes. Work for the food that lasts through eternal life, the food from the one God has sent.”


And they ask, “What must we do to do the work God requires?”


You see, they’re not really catching on to what is going on, but Jesus keeps trying. In response to their off-target questions, Jesus says two important things: The first thing: “The work of God is to believe into the one God has sent.”


Now, I know that you’ve heard me say this, and probably Joanne before me – when we come to this word “believe” in the gospels – particularly in the Gospel of John – we’re nottalking about “believe” in the sense of signing off on certain propositions. It’s not a checklist. “I believe in this, and this, and this, and this.” When we’re talking about the Greek word here – pisteowe’re talking about trust. And here in John, we’re talking about trusting into. There’s a very specific preposition that comes with it. “The work of God is to trust into the one God has sent.” One writer puts it like this: “[Trusting into], Believing into is a commitment that involves the total person following Jesus into thinking and doing and fulfilling the will for God as a steward of creation.”[2]


I did a quick scan of what writers have to say about trust – and was surprised at the number of writers who chime in across all sorts of disciplines – theology, psychology, business (“how to build trust in your organization”).[3] Here’s what I gleaned, some common themes:


· Trust begins by standing before another in a position of honesty and integrity – trying, hoping that we can both be who we say we are.


· Trust involves being vulnerable – to the other and to our lack of control. Brenée Brown says it like this: “Trust is choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of something or someone else.”[4]


· Then, trust involves courage – the courage to step forward – to risk...


· And then to give the other person the opportunity to be who they say they are – to give them a chance to be authentic and courageous and loving too. And hopefully, they do.


· And then, you take that experience – that experience of being vulnerable and courageous, and receiving each other’s authenticity together – and you add that in to how you understand and love the world. And then you try it again.


We act in vulnerability and courage in the midst of the unknown; we experience authenticity; and we build trust.

The best I can come up with for an image of this is a simple one. I think of learning how to jump into a swimming pool. I think of a young child, standing on the edge of the pool – their parent is in the pool, encouraging them to jump, “Don’t worry, I’ll catch you.” And that kid, is like, “No way. Are you out of your mind? This ground here feels safe.” But then they give it a try – they take a step – a leap really – into the unknown – splashing into the pool, and being caught by parent – just like they said they would. And then they trust the parent to do that again. And again. And then they trust that parent to walk alongside them in the pool, as they flounder around learning to float and tread water and kick, and one day they find themself swimming.

Now with humans that’s tricky. We trust others to be who they say they are, and sometimes they aren’t. And we learn from that.

But with God... well, that’s why Jesus says this second important thing. The disciples may look like they’re tracking. “Yeah. Um huh. Yeah.” But then they say, after Jesus says all this, after all the miracles: “So, what sign will you show us so that we may see and believe?” This crowd that has seen just Jesus heal the sick, that has just watched Jesus feed 5,000 – the taste of bread still in their mouths. The disciples just saw him walk on water. After all that, this crowd now says, “OK, so what miraculous sign are you going to do so that we’ll believe?” As if they hadn’t already seen signs enough. I’m just glad that Jesus didn’t give up on us right there and then.

Instead Jesus says, “You’re still thinking about that bread you ate yesterday. You’re talking about Moses and the manna. I’m talking about the bread that God gives – the bread that comes down from heaven – the bread that gives life to the world.”

So they say, “Yes, yes, give us that bread always.”

And Jesus says: “I am the bread. I am the bread of life. I am. I am. I am the one whom God has sent. I am the one who gives life to the world. I am the one who always will sustain you. I am the one who will always catch you when you jump into the pool.”

“The work of God is to believe into – to trust into – the one God has sent. [Jesus says:] I am that one. I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes into me will never thirst.”


In the rhythm of all our coming and going, in our gathering and going out and gathering again, Jesus says: “I am the bread of life – I will always welcome you in. Trust into me.”


While we were on this road trip, I did a fairly good job at staying away from email and mostly from the news. But we did keep up with news of the pandemic – of the Delta variant – watching the changing responses across the nation – the vaccine denial – the return of masking indoors.


When we started out on this journey, we grabbed on to the phrase here “Moving Forward Together,” and it has served us well. What I liked about it is that it is distinct from going back or standing still. We are moving forward together.


I think collectively, here and globally, we’ve also thought that we are heading to a specific destination – a day when pandemic is entirely behind us. Now, I don’t know about you – but in these days where the end – whatever that may mean – sees more and more elusive – as we are on this road trip through pandemic, I hear this voice from the backseat of my head saying, “Are we almost there yet? When will we get there?” God, when will you show us that miraculous sign?


And, heading back south on I-5, I had this realization. When the people of God were wandering through the wilderness, way back when, maybe... maybe... the Promised Land wasn’t the point. Maybe the Promised Land – the destination – wasn’t the main thing. Maybe the point – maybe the main thing – was the rhythm and the life-giving blessing of moving forward together – with God and each other – one step and then the next – one day’s journey and then the next – each new day, finding manna in the morning, water from the rock. Maybe the main point was that rhythm – the blessing of living into a life of trust and love – living and trusting into God – together.


Jesus says to the crowd, “The work of God is believing into – trusting into the one God has sent.” Jesus says, “I am that one. Whenever you venture out, I will always be there to welcome you in – every day, at every stage in this journey. I will welcome you in, and we will move forward together.” Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever trusts into me will never hunger. Whoever comes to me will never thirst.” That’s the miraculous sign.


This relational rhythm of welcome and trusting into Jesus is the way we find our way to life.


Amid all our comings and goings, in our gathering and going out and gathering again, we live into this rhythm every time we gather at this table and live out these words – “This is my body – I am the bread of life” – this is my life, poured into you. Friends, moving forward together on this journey, let’s gather again, at this table, and experience together, the Real Presence of Christ.


© 2021 Scott Clark

[1] Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (New York: T&T Clark Publishing, 2005), p. 205. [2] This sermon looks in large part to the translation and interpretation offered in Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (New York: T&T Clark Publishing, 2005), p. 206. See also Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Commentary in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year B (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), p.34 [3] See, e.g., Andrea Bonoir, “7 Ways to Build Trust in a Relationship,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/friendship-20/201812/7-ways-build-trust-in-relationship ; Maggie, Wooll, “How to Build Trust in the Workplace,” https://www.betterup.com/blog/how-to-build-trust [4] See Ava Whitney-Coulter, https://www.mindful.org/brene-brown-on-what-it-really-means-to-trust/

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