(a sermon for June 14, 2020, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Ephesians 4:1-16 and John 6:24-29)
Since confession is good for the soul, it seems like now would be as good a time as any to tell you that one of the things that Lisa and I have been doing to pass the time in these days of quarantine is “binge-watching” old episodes of the television show Survivor.
Now, we’ve actually been watching that show off and on for the 20 years (!) it’s been on the air, but recently we’ve been re-watching the first few seasons from back in the early 2000’s and it has been… (please don’t judge!) not only entertaining but fascinating! To begin with, those early seasons were more wholly focused on two “tribes” of people literally working to survive alone together on a south sea island: you got to see them struggle to make fire, battle the elements, build a shelter, eat bugs and beetle larvae (which my wife still can’t bring herself to watch!) and at the end of each episode vote off the weakest link until there’s one “sole” survivor, all the while wasting away to nothing and getting filthier by the day! Back then there were no “hidden immunity idols,” nor an “Edge of Extinction” island as a way of staying in the game longer as is routine now, and the so called “reward challenge” often yielded little more than a bag of Doritos and a Mountain Dew!
In many ways Survivor is a very different show than what it was when it started; but what’s interesting is that from the beginning the basic premise has always been the same: that you gather this group of people of vastly different backgrounds competing to “outwit, outplay and outlast” each other all for the sake of winning a million dollars; while at the same time, perhaps, maintaining their own personal integrity in the process. And if you’ve ever watched Survivor, then you know what I’m talking about here: every season, almost every episode there’s always some contestant who’s lamenting as to how they can actually lie to, lie about or otherwise manipulate a fellow contestant – some of whom they’ve actually grown rather close to out there in the wilderness – all for the sake of moving themselves further along in the game and closer to that million bucks. Trust me here, folks, there ends up being a whole lot of generally “good” people who end up doing some really terrible things on Survivor! And what gets me is that their reaction to this kind of behavior usually goes one of two ways: either they say, “well, it’s just a game, after all, not real life,” or else they confess that “At the end of all this I need to be able to look myself in the mirror,” and thus act accordingly. And isn’t it interesting that – not always, mind you, but generally speaking – these aren’t the people who end up the sole survivor! If the question asked on a show like this – and on countless other shows these days – is “what would you do for a million dollars,” the answer would seem to be, “almost anything!”
The real question, of course, is, “why?” Why do this; even for a million bucks, why would you ever diminish yourself, your character, your reputation and your integrity do this? Now, I understand that there’s a fair amount of fakery on these so-called “reality” shows, so I don’t want to overthink this, but I suppose that at heart the reason comes down to human nature; our inner yearning, to quote the Rev. Thomas G. Long, professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, to “hit the jackpot… to [garner those] windfalls that give us more of what most people are after – fame, power, fortune” and even security. It’s basically the same reason people buy lottery tickets or enter the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Giveaway; we want all of the benefits of that which we believe a million dollars will provide… even if ultimately, it won’t; or even if it’s not the true blessing we’re looking for!
Now, lest we think that this is a latter-day phenomenon of human life, consider the crowds from our gospel text this morning from John, who the day before had been well fed with a miraculous abundance of loaves and fishes and who were now actively seeking Jesus out, even following him eagerly all the way from Tiberias all the to Capernaum in boats, ostensibly to be nearer to Jesus and to hear more of his teaching. But when they finally do find Jesus, he sees right through them, saying, “You are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Or, if I might draw from The Message here, you’re “looking for me not because you see God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs – and for free.” In other words, they figured they’d gotten one good meal, so why not another! And in the process of looking for that next meal, to quote Thomas Long again, they’d confused “the difference between the hunger for a blessing and the lust for a jackpot.”
And, friends, therein lies our confusion as well. What Jesus makes clear in this passage is that he’s not about to be a short-order cook for the crowds at Capernaum, any more than our following Jesus is evef meant to be a means of wish fulfillment. No, it goes much, much deeper than that. “Do not work for the food that perishes,” Jesus says, “but [work] for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
Yes, these people had had their bellies filled in an amazing, miraculous way… but what Jesus was giving them was more than just perishable food that temporarily relieves a passing hunger; Jesus is offering up the nourishment of God, he food that feeds the soul and satisfies our deepest hunger. And the beauty part is that it’s not even something that we have to earn, or win or “survive.” It’s just given us as a gift… gracefully, lovingly, purposefully. “This is the work of God,” says Jesus, “that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
For each one of us as believers, you see, the most important question before us comes down not to what we’d do for a million dollars, but rather what we are willing to do for that which really matters. How willing are we to work for the blessing rather than go for the jackpot? Would we be willing to let go our grip of dependence upon all those things of this world and this life that will most certainly perish? Are we willing to let go of all that so that we might grab ahold of the life that is true and abundant and eternal? Are we willing to believe in something greater than ourselves, and then give over the whole of our hearts and lives to it? Are we willing to renounce the need for windfall, or entitlement, or privilege for the sake of loving our neighbor – all our neighbors – as ourselves and as Christ as loved us? Are we willing to lead lives worthy of the food we’ve been given, “the food that endures for eternal life?”
I’ve always been very fond of our second text for this morning, that portion from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in which he writes, “I… 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.” And also, by the way, once again drawing from The Message version of these verses, “Mark that you do this… not in fits and starts, but pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert in noticing differences and quick at mending fences.” I love this passage because it serves as a reminder not only that our calling as disciples is a marathon rather than a sprint – a lifetime commitment to working for the bread that endures – but because of that bread, the work provides its own reward. So though we might wonder what would happen if we made it to that final “tribal council,” for fame, fortune and security, ultimately really doesn’t matter if we never win the million dollars; just as in the larger landscape of our lives ad living, it makes no difference if the other castaways stick with their alliance and vote us off the island. What matters is how we “played the game,” so to speak, because we know in faith that there’s a greater place and better meal awaiting. Strangely enough, friends, the great Frederick Buechner expresses this perfectly. He writes, “No matter how much the world shatters us to pieces, we carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home and that beckons to us.”
What matters is that our true home is ever and always going to be with God, beloved. What matters is that the sum total of our lives will never to whatever fifteen minutes of fame we might have achieved along the way, but rather in how we were able to live lives worthy of all of God’s graceful gifts that have been bestowed upon us. What matters in times of conflict and uncertainty is both that we stood up for justice and that we conducted ourselves after the manner of God’s whole peace – God’s shalom – and made that our intent and priority for the world. What matters is that we love as Christ has loved us, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. What matters are the ways we “[speak] the truth in love, [growing] up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body [is] joined and knit together.”
I pray that this will be the vision that beckons to each and every one of us, beloved, “until all of us is 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.”
So might it be… and thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!