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God’s Faithfulness in a Wilderness Season

God’s Faithfulness in a Wilderness Season

A sermon taken from John 6 and Exodus 16 and preached by Bishop Ken Carter at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, Florida on August 1, 2021.

So in the pandemic one of the ways life got really disrupted was sitting down to a meal—in some ways this was hard, and in some ways this was good.   And, friends, we are not out of these woods yet.  But that is another story.

Seventeen months ago, we began socially distancing, wearing masks, getting into our pods and shutting down.   I could not eat in my favorite restaurants.  I could not gather with some of my closest friends.  For the full cycle of a year, we celebrated family birthdays on Zoom!  We were not together for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

It was hard.  But something else happened.  We began slowing down, eating more meals at home. We planned carefully. We appreciated the essential workers who grew our food and got it to us.  Pam began cooking these amazing dishes.   On a very few occasions, and I can count them on two hands, we had meals with friends, outside on our porch.  This was our life for more than a year. 

Meals during the pandemic:  The worst of times, the best of times.  And, of course, it changed the way we could worship and share the meal of Holy Communion together.

Why is all of this important? 

+ At The Heart of the Story of Scripture is a Meal

  • Israel tells its story at the Passover meal, one of deliverance from slavery and entrance to the promised land (Exodus 12). 
  • Jesus shares this Passover meal with his own disciples (John 13), and commands them to eat this meal in remembrance of him (Matthew 26).   
  • Jesus feeds the multitudes (John 6), eats with sinners (Luke 15), and shares a mysterious meal with two of the disciples on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24). 
  • The first Christians break bread together with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2).  Later, there are abuses in the practice of the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 11). One of the most misunderstood concepts in Christian faith and practice, the reference to eating the Lord's Supper in an unworthy manner, referred to the experiences of gluttony and poverty at the common meal. 
  • And our Christian hope is in the expectation of a Messiah who will preside over a great banquet (Luke 14). 

At the heart of the story  of scripture is a meal.   I want to connect this meal with our common experience.  Family meals can take on different connotations; sometimes there is a special occasion, sometimes a sense of urgency, and at other times the daily meal is nourishment and sustenance. 

Think for a moment about the truly significant meals across your life.  A few come to mind.  As a teenager I ate many meals at my grandmother's home---she was an amazing cook and she made a roast beef dish with a small bottle of Coca-Cola!  I was a voracious eater.

When Pam and I were dating we had one of those coupon books, we were students with almost no money and so we would eat wherever we could find a "buy one, get one free" meal.  There were some terrible meals along the way, but it didn't really matter-we were together. 

I think of our wedding rehearsal dinner; the venue we had selected burned to the ground ten days before our wedding!  Once we got over the shock, we finally had the meal in my wife's parents' home.

I think of other meals that, in hindsight, were also unique. 

Our older daughter's best friend in high school and college is of the Muslim faith.  We had dinner, our family and her family, at a Chinese restaurant in Chapel Hill and at a Thai restaurant  in Charlotte.  A year later her father, who was my age, died unexpectedly.  

I think of a meal in Jerusalem with an observant Jewish family on the Sabbath, and another with a community of Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem, just a few miles but a universe away. 

I think of a meal we shared this summer, with a few friends, as Pam and I celebrated forty years of marriage, a small gathering postponed from six months earlier. 

Meals are the occasions for many of life's richest experiences.  This is true for us as disciples of Jesus. He said,” Do this in remembrance of me".  And so, we eat this meal together.  But what is really happening?

I was a local church pastor for twenty-eight years, and at the conclusion of worship I would often say these words:  "Communion draws us closer to God and closer to one another."   

+ The Vertical and The Horizontal

Communion has a vertical dimension and a horizontal dimension.  The vertical dimension has to do with grace.  Holy Communion is a sacrament for us, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

What is grace?  Here is a favorite definition:  Something we did not earn, something we do not deserve, something we can never repay.  And so those who take communion are 
not the deserving, those who have it all together.  Those who take communion are hungry and thirsty for love, for grace, for God. 

That's grace, the vertical dimension of communion:  something we did not earn, something we do not deserve, something we can never repay.  So it is a meal, but it is a meal that we eat together.  It is spiritual but it is also social, it is vertical but it is also horizontal.   And so we come together, we kneel together, we confess together, we receive together.   Grace is God’s gift but we experience it through relationships, in community.   This was what made the last sixteen months so hard.

An additional word about the horizontal and social dimensions of the meal: it was very clear in the gospels that Jesus ate with sinners.  He was criticized for this very purpose at the beginning of Luke 15, and this occasioned three parables---the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost (or prodigal) son.   Methodist tradition grasps this in the hymn of Charles Wesley,

Come sinners to the gospel feast
let every soul be Jesus' guest

And so we practice open communion:  if you feel led to receive the grace of God (that's vertical part) and if you will seek to live in peace with your neighbor (that's the horizontal part), you are welcome.  Just as you are

Communion is a meal, it is providence and sustenance and grace; it is a meal that we share together; and it has a larger purpose.   I thought this week about a common prayer that is often said in the contexts of fellowship dinners, and usually by members of the church, who are generally less wordy than preacher types. The prayer might go something like this:  "Bless this food for our use and us in Thy service."  I have heard some variation of this prayer all of my life.  Sometimes an addition phrase is added:  "Bless this food for our use and us in Thy service and make us mindful of the needs of others."  

So what is the larger purpose?  The meal is not only for us, the meal has been prepared for all. 

+ A Tale of Two Churches

When Hurricane Irma came across our state two years ago, it devastated many communities and churches.  We quickly began to travel across the state and see how our people were doing.  A day or two after the storm we visited two churches. 

In the first, we were standing in a dark church building, the water line a couple of feet up the wall, about fifteen of us.  A man was speaking.  He said, “we have no power, we don’t expect power anytime soon, all of the food in our freezers has gone bad in the church, food for our church dinners, we look forward to getting electricity back on so we can get back to doing that again.”

And about forty-five minutes later we were in another church building.  The same storm.  A woman began to talk, her voice cracking to hold back the tears.  We lost everything, we lost our house, we can’t rebuild it but, you know, we are alive.  We don’t have electricity and we won’t for a while.  All of our food began to thaw and everyone decided they would pull their grills out into the streets and every night we had a cookout, Korean food, Cuban food, hamburgers and hot dogs, I met neighbors I didn’t know.”  And then she said…

“Every night was like a feast.  It was like the kingdom of God”.

Again, the communion hymn of Charles Wesley:

Come sinners to the gospel feast
let every soul be Jesus' guest
You need not one be left behind
For God has bid all humankind

All humankind…make us mindful of the needs of others.

Back to scripture.  At the heart of the story scripture is a meal.

God’s Grace:  Available to All, Sufficient for All

There is a hungry crowd, and the disciples wanted to send them away, and Jesus' comment, "you give them something to eat", and the appeal to a little boy, "what do you have in your basket?"

Five loaves, two fish.  That turns out to be sufficient for the multitudes and the lesson is clear:  God's grace is available to all and sufficient for all.  And this is our mission:  to connect the love and grace that we find here with the world.  In the Great Thanksgiving, we say, about the elements,

Let them be for us the body and blood of Christ—-that is the vertical part.
That we may be for the world, the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood—-that is the horizontal part.

The vertical is our dependence on God—give us this day our daily bread.  It is a confession that we are not self-sufficient.  We are not.   Daily bread is manna in the wilderness, it is the provision of God, great is thy faithfulness.  

We are living in an extended wilderness.  We do know that God’s people have lived in the wilderness before us!  And in the wilderness there was bread!  Morning by morning, new mercies I see, all I have needed….
Thy hand has provided…

I won’t presume to speak for you, but I will say this for myself.  This last season has reminded me that I am not in control, that my plans are contingent and not absolute, that I need God.   

I need God.

Give us this day our daily bread.  We listen closely to the words we say and something is obvious.  We don’t pray, give me this day my daily bread.  It is not my bread, or yours.  It is our daily bread.

Give is this day our daily bread.

The vertical part of it, the bread comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.  The horizontal part of it, it is our bread to share with each other. 

An Invitation to Experience Grace and Community

In a pandemic we hunger for the spirit and we don’t take the table for granted. Our spiritual lives are connected to the body of Christ that sustains us.  At this table we get  the energy to respond to the great challenges of the world.  And at this table  we are reminded of our human need for communion with God and with each other, so that we might engage with the world that also needs this grace.  

And the miracle, if we have eyes to see, is that all of this is true whenever two or three of us gather at a table, any table, with friends, with people we love, Jesus is with us. And he is saying….

Do this in remembrance of me.

So, the invitation is to a meal:  when you commune, you are in a relationship with God, through Jesus Christ.  That's grace.  When you commune, you are not alone, you come with others, other sinners.  That's community.  And if we have met God in this meal, if we have met each other, in this meal, we go into the world as different people: more aware of the faithfulness of God, more connected and less isolated, and, yes, more mindful of the needs of others. 

As we make our way through this wilderness—and it is a wilderness, and God will make a way for us and with us—-may we know that God will feed us with manna, new every morning, daily bread.  All we have needed God’s hand has provided.  We claim the great promise:  Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Resources:  The Hymns, “Come Sinners to the Gospel Feast” and “Great is Thy Faithfulness”.  The missional initiative, Fill The Table.  And the relational evangelism resource, “The Gospel of The Burnt Ends”, also in God Will Make a Way (Abingdon Press, 2021)