My dad is a volleyball coach. On the night before the big tournament of the season he used to have his team over to our house for a big pasta dinner so that in the day following they would have the energy they needed to play and win all day. In today’s hyper food aware climate we are finally on the back swing from the carbs-are-evil days of Atkins but with the knowledge that there are good and there are bad – that whole grains and unrefined sugars are going to be better for our physical health.
It is much the same in the way we feed our spiritual selves. We are a society that is very dedicated to the physical, whether it is the awareness of the growing problem with weight, attention to diet, dedication to regular exercise and physical activities. I know this to be quite an active and physically well congregation. I’m sure even as I speak some of our group is playing soccer this morning in lieu of worship or camping or in some other way taking in the beautiful fall weather. How well can we say we attend to our own spiritual health? It is an area in which I, at least, have much to confess.
In our passage from John, Jesus is getting frustrated with the people who are following him around. They too are preoccupied with the physical. He has been healing sick bodies and providing food to hungry people (wine to thirsty wedding guests) and his adoring fans are following him around begging for more. Show us more signs, heal some more people – oh Jesus you are so amazing. But he has this to say to them: “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you are your fill of the loaves. Do not work for food that perishes, but for food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”
The crowd is so impressed by the results that they have paid no attention to the cause. And they go looking for more of a magic show – more works and more miracles – and they want to know how they too can perform these magic tricks. They say “what must we do to perform the works of God?” But Jesus tells them that it’s simple – the only ‘work’ is to believe in the one that God sent. And he tries to make it clear to them that it is only through God who sent him, only though his connection to God, that such sign are possible.
I know for some people, taking care of their bodies can be a spiritual experience. I know that people who use yoga or even the time of their morning jog as a time of reflection and meditation. In fact in those times when I can work up the interest in exercise I try to do just that – combining the rhythmic breath of my jogging with prayer or imaging the life of God flowing through my pumping heart. But attention to and priotizing of what is physical does not limit itself to our bodies. I’m sure you can think of myriad things that occupy a place of priority over prayer and communion with God – I know I can: the many responsibilities of work that are tangible and piling up in my in-box, staying in touch with friends and family far and near, that book I’ve been meaning to read, the grocery shopping and chores. And attending to the physical things is also often more important than tending to the spiritual – adding to the bank account, shopping at the best stores, having the latest electronics, the right clothes.
In our regular diets conventional wisdom and the food pyramid dictate that we should eat healthful and nutritious food, eat regular meals and refrain from too much junk and processed food. The same can be said as it applies to our spiritual health, as I’m sure you’re not surprised. I know as well as anyone that it’s hard to stay away from junk. When I was a kid I would beg my parents to buy the Oreos and fruit roll-ups and processed snacks for my school lunches and fruit loops for breakfast. But of course my parents practically wrote the book “Living more with Less” (and literally contributed to it). They grew a big garden full of fresh produce and home made bread and granola. I’m grateful now that it nurtured an appreciation for whole foods and that I learned from my mother how to make bread – being able to make my own small loaves when my mom baked bread for the family – I got flour and dough everywhere.
I also appreciate the spiritual grounding and lessons in growing and nurturing a spiritual life that I got at home. I didn’t realize until I was a in my pre-teens that most families don’t read a devotion together after supper. Or even pray together before each meal for that matter. My family marked the seasons of the church through lent and Easter and always had an advent wreath which my brother and I were invited to light the candles as we waited for Christmas. In these daily and yearly rhythms of spiritual practice I was always aware that God was present and that Jesus loves me.
I think by now many of us know that there is a connection between our spiritual health and our physical health. Our bodies are indeed temples to God and how we feed our bodies both physically and spiritually will make a difference. I went to my doctor recently to talk about insomnia. That is my symptom of not paying attention to my spiritual and mental health. You may have physical ways that the spiritual makes itself, or tries to make itself known to you. I was hesitant to make a move to prescription meditation and remembering that I am a pastor my doctor said to me, “Some people try prayer and meditation – you’re the expert at that right?” And I was thinking ‘little does she know’ and I said, “well I don’t think I’m an expert…” And though I had known it in the depths of my self, I began to realize it more fully then, that attending to the health of my spirit and remembering my relationship to God in all things had not been a part of my daily practice, and it was manifesting itself in anxiety and insomnia – making the rest of my life suffer as well.
God welcomes our inattentive and distracted selves. Jesus will take us with open arms in conversation. To those troublesome and complaining Hebrews Moses says “Draw near to the Lord, for the Lord has heard your complaining.” This is not the natural inclination of the human heart, to invite to it persons who are irksome and whiny and complaining, but to God it is a sign of deep longing and need. Christ would like to be poured into the dry and hungry places of our rancorous hearts.
Several times now I have led youth in the a five part guided meditation that included letting go of attention to the physical through regularizing breathing and retreating into the heart. One part of this meditation invites the prayers, after meditating on a passage of scripture, to imaging Jesus sitting beside them. What would you say to Jesus? What would Jesus say in response. This kind of visualization has been very meaningful in my own practice of spiritual disciplines (and Jesus doesn’t always have to look like a bearded, robed middle-eastern looking fellow). And it has also been meaningful to youth, who, like all of us are distracted and busy and are putting their priorities in every place but spending time with God. When given this opportunity to converse with Christ, a deep connection can be made.
I want to make something clear. There is not a formula for a personal spiritual discipline. I should know I’ve tried all kinds of things and haven’t struck on a pattern yet. For years I beat myself up because though I would try, I could never get myself to keep up morning prayer and devotions. I’m not a morning person. And I was only able to let that go when I heard from my spiritual director, if you’re not a morning person, don’t try to be a morning devotion person. I was trying to spend time with God when I feel the most unclear and grumpy– not quality time. Instead I try to, at the end of each day, or at the end of a work day, examine my consciousness and the day gone by and locate God’s presence there. Sometimes I journal. I don’t always remember or feel like it – in fact I feel like I am preaching this sermon at a time when I particularly need to hear it. I often prioritize other things, but I am always welcomed back.
When Jesus’ disciples asked him to show them a sign like Moses showed the Hebrews, raining down bread from heaven, Jesus told “Very truly I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” And they said “Give us this bread always.” They were still thinking of God’s nutrition as limited and finite. They didn’t realize the magnitude of God’s grace and love, not how dwelling in God can give life. Yet Jesus said “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus can provide us the means in taking part in him, to have all the spiritual nutrition we need – And it will make our spirits and our selves healthier human beings.
Later we will pray the Lord’s prayer together. In it Jesus taught his disciples to pray for bread enough for today, both in a physical sense of having faith that God will meet our physical needs, and in the sense of depending each day on God’s grace and goodness and on God’s forgiveness of our wrongs. Asking for relationship with God not just like carb loading before the big game – remembering to pray in a stressful time (important thought that is), but always, so that we may know the bread of life always and never hunger, trusting each day in God’s provision of manna. Join me in praying a confession and together we will read the words of assurance from the communicator.
Generous and merciful God, We confess that our priorities are often not in our spiritual wellbeing,
We put our priority in other things,
in money, in work, in friends, in our bodies
Thinking this will meet our needs.
We forget your goodness.
We forget that you uphold the weak and care for us in our distress.
Help us to trust you
and to be as generous with you as you are with us.
Become bread to us and fill us with you love
So that we may become bread for the world.
We pray in the name of Jesus, the bread of life. Amen
Let us say together the words of assurance:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.