Do You See What God’s Up To?

Today’s scripture readings:
1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2
John 6:35, 41-51
Sermon audio:

Those of you who were here when I preached a couple weeks ago heard me tell a story about a trip I took recently to visit a primary school in rural Kenya called Daylight School. I returned a couple weeks ago but a huge piece of my heart is still there, so I hope you’ll indulge me if I tell just one more story about my trip in this sermon today.

One of the things I was told about beforehand but couldn’t fully comprehend until I had spent some time in Kenya was the concept of “African time.” Our trip leaders encouraged us before we left to keep an open mind and to go with the flow; we were taught that Kenyans have a more relaxed relationship with time. Once we arrived in Kenya we discovered just exactly what that meant: Those of us from America who are so used to organizing our lives around our calendars and keeping a close eye on our watches spent a lot of time confused and wondering what was going on. No class period ever began “on time.” The 30-minute mid-morning break for tea always lingered well beyond the time allotted for it. Teachers ended lessons when the lessons were done. And nobody at Daylight School thought twice about canceling an entire afternoon of classes to make time for different kinds of activities that gave the American visitors an opportunity to really get to know the Kenyan students.

At the end of the day, that’s really what “African time” is about: It’s about relationships. Some have said Africans have more of an “emotional time consciousness” that is different from our Western “mechanical time consciousness.” There’s more of an emphasis on the personal interactions happening in the present than on strict adherence to a schedule. Most of the time, those 30-minute mid-morning tea breaks went longer than planned because Americans and Kenyans were sitting together having good conversations, and in that moment, those good conversations mattered more than the class schedule. School lessons were postponed to create opportunities for Americans and Kenyans to spend time together, because in that culture, relationships take priority. In Kenya, there’s a greater awareness that life is unpredictable and precarious. Who knows what tomorrow will bring, or if we’ll even have a tomorrow. So let’s not squander the present. Let’s make time for the people who are with us today.

The sad takeaway for me was that we Americans often cut short those most important moments because we have busy schedules to keep. Too often we miss the amazing things happening right before our eyes because we’re determined to play out the agenda we had planned ahead of time. We’re so certain we know how things are supposed to go that we don’t even notice when something awesome and unexpected is happening right in front of us now.

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The crowds of people in today’s gospel lesson who had come to see Jesus were so certain theyknew how things were supposed to go that they couldn’t see what God was actuallydoing right before their eyes.

Jesus had told them that he is the living bread from heaven, and that those who eat of this bread will have eternal life. But the crowds aren’t having it. They ask one another, “Isn’t this Jesus, Joseph and Mary’s kid? How can he say he came down from heaven?” Jesus was the local boy and everyone knew him. And they knew for sure that he hadn’t come down from heaven.

And what’s this talk about him being “living bread”? The Bible has lots of stories about God providing miraculous food—stories that would have been well-known to Jesus’ audience. There’s the story about God sending down manna for the Israelites to eat as they wandered in the wilderness. There’s another story about the prophet Elijah being fed miraculous bread by an angel to sustain him through his exhaustion and desperation. The crowds of people gathered around Jesus knew these stories and they knew what miraculous feeding was supposed to look like. And now Jesus is saying heis the bread sent from God that will sustain people forever. What does that even mean? That’snot how God feeds people. That’snot how this is supposed to go.

Jesus responds by telling the people that no one comes to him without being drawn to him by God. The point is, we can’t understand who Jesus is on our own. Using our own brainpower, we’ll never understand what it means that Jesus is “living bread from heaven.” If we rely on our own human reason to figure it out, we’ll get stuck thinking he’s just Mary and Joseph’s kid. If our imaginations are confined to the biblical stories of miraculous feeding, we’ll never be able to make sense of Jesus’ claims that he is the bread of life. It reminds me of that line from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism—many of you probably have it memorized: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel.”

The point is, when we are so certain we know how God works, we miss what God’s actually trying to do. We need God to draw us to Jesus and help us see things a new way. We need God to break us out of our tired old ways of thinking.

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What are the human ways of knowing that we need to set aside so we can see what God is actually trying to do among us?

Maybe it’s setting aside our expectation that God will answer our prayers exactly the way we expect God to answer them. When we pray for healing, for example, are we expecting God to provide a cure? Or are we attuned to the ways God might be offering healing in other ways, even as we continue to hope that a cure may be found? Might God be answering our prayers for healing by surrounding us with loved ones to journey with us through our illness or to comfort us in our grief? Or could God be answering our prayers by giving us grace to come to terms with our mortality and experience in more profound ways what it means to be alive, or grace to trust that death won’t have the final word?

Or maybe God is calling us to resist the mindset of fear and scarcity that pervades our culture and, especially these days, our politics. It’s the mindset that convinces us that there’s not enough to go around, that if others get more, then I will have less; that if we are for welcoming immigrants, then we must be against native-born Americans; that if we are for clean water, then we must be against small family farmers; if we are for transit funding in the Twin Cities, then we must be against funding for roads and bridges in rural Minnesota; if we are for gun violence prevention, then we must be against hunters and sportsmen. It’s the mindset of fear and scarcity—this idea that there’s not enough money or resources or care or compassion to go around—that causes us to pit groups against one another, and demand that they compete with each other for their own survival. It’s that myth of scarcity that’s behind the tired narrative in our politics about an urban-rural divide, which suggests it’s impossible to build a politics that works for everyone regardless of our geography. We need God to draw us out of these tired old ways of thinking to see the truth that’s right before our eyes—that we have an abundance of resources and an abundance of compassion and there’s enough of it all to go around.

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Some of you know of a Lutheran pastor named Nadia Bolz-Weber, who serves a church called House for All Sinners and Saints, a sort of alternative congregation in Denver that was founded for the kind of people who aren’t really attracted to traditional churches like ours. In the beginning, House for All Sinners and Saints was successful in attracting a huge following of people who felt like outsiders elsewhere. But after awhile, “normal” people started coming to the church. It wasn’t just drag queens and junkies anymore; suddenly bankers in Dockers were showing up on Sunday mornings. And Nadia wasn’t happy about it. She was determined to help these “normal” people understand that they didn’t belong.

She was discussing the situation with a friend of hers, trying to figure out how she could make these people see they didn’t fit at House for All Sinners and Saints. And her friend told her, “Yeah, you’re really good at welcoming the stranger when it’s a young transgender kid, but sometimes the stranger looks like your mom and dad.” Nadia was so sure she was right, that House for All Sinners and Saints existed only for people who didn’t fit in anywhere else. She was so determined she was right that she couldn’t see what God was really up to—that God was finding a way to proclaim the Gospel to normal people through her weird congregation.

Nadia Bolz-Weber describes the scene at House for All Sinners and Saints today: “Out of one corner of your eye there’s a homeless guy serving communion to a corporate lawyer and out of the other corner is a teenage girl with pink hair holding the baby of a suburban soccer mom. And there I was [before] fearing that the weirdness of our church was going to be diluted.” It took her awhile to see it, but that’swhat God was up to at Nadia’s church. What is God up to in ours?


Resources consulted:

Ginger Barfield, “Commentary on John 6:35, 41-51,” WorkingPreacher.org, 2012, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1406.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint (New York: Jericho, 2013).

Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).

Wayne A. Meeks, “John 6:35, 41-51: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).

Brian Peterson, “Commentary on John 6:35, 41-51,” WorkingPreacher.org, 2009, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=368.

Craig A. Satterlee, “Commentary on John 6:35, 41-51,” WorkingPreacher.org, 2015,http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2551.

“Transcript for Nadia Bolz-Weber — Seeing the Underside and Seeing God: Tattoos, Tradition, and Grace,” On Being with Krista Tippett, September 5, 2013, http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/nadia-bolz-weber-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace.

William H. Willimon, “John 6:35, 41-51: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).


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