Sunday, August 2, 2015

"Twinkies and Soda Pop" (John 6:24-35)

The older I get, the more important it is that I take good care of myself. I know this body of mine isn’t going to last forever.
So I do a little exercise. I ride my bike. I walk, and sometimes I run. I do pushups, pullups, situps. On our trip to Ohio for the General Assembly, I swam in the hotel pool and went for runs along the Scioto River.
I used to think that as long as I was exercising, burning calories, I could eat whatever I wanted. That’s how it worked for me in high school.
But it doesn’t work that way anymore.
I’ve learned that, even more important than exercise, is eating a good diet. Exercise is important, but no amount of exercise will keep you healthy if you’re always eating junk food.
I don’t drink soda. I choose my desserts carefully. (If I’m going to limit myself, I’m going to pass on the ho-hum desserts so that I can say yes to the really good stuff, because I’m not going to skip that!) And, if given a choice, I always choose whole wheat bread over white bread.
The reason is that the sugar that is in soda and desserts, and the carbs that are in white bread, act very rapidly on the body. They release all the energy at once, causing the body’s glucose to skyrocket. The body doesn’t know what to do with all this energy, so it stores it as fat.
On the other hand, whole wheat bread – and other complex carbohydrates – release their energy more slowly. Even if they contain the same amount of energy, the same amount of calories, it takes the body longer to process those calories, convert them into fuel. By being spread out over a longer period of time, the body can use those calories as they are converted, instead of storing them as fat.
And, because this process takes longer, you feel full longer. You don’t get hungry as soon. Which means you eat less.
The complex carbohydrates in whole grain food, and also fresh fruits and vegetables, last longer. They endure longer. They are better for you.

Almost every day, when I log on to social media, I see that someone has shared a link to an article on why millennials are leaving the church. Millennials are young adults, people in their 20s, give or take a few years. And in most churches, there aren’t many.
One day, the article might be the results of the latest survey, which shows that the percentage of millennials attending church is at the lowest it’s ever been. Another day, it’s an article about why churches are failing to attract millennials.
You want my opinion? I think the church is failing to attract millennials because we’ve been feeding them a diet of junk food. Twinkies, soda, and white bread… And those who have eaten it, find that they are still hungry.
Churches say “Look, we’ve got a cool praise band!  Look, we have a coffee shop inside our church!  Look, our pastor is a hipster!”
And millennials – and others as well – do look, and see, and say, “oooooh!” And they taste it, and it tastes good…
And they go home…
But they’re still hungry.
And after a while, with their hunger not satisfied, they stop coming.

The prophet Isaiah understood this. The prophet asks, “Why do you do this? Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?” [Isaiah 55:2]
The only actual bread the prophet knew, I think, was the whole grain good stuff.  “Why do you spend your money for that which is not the whole grain goodness? Why do you spend your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
That’s the question millennials are asking themselves. Why should I spend my energy on things that don’t matter, things that don’t last, things that don’t have any lasting meaning? I want what I do to mean something, and if it doesn’t… I don’t got time for that.”
The prophet says, “Eat what is good. Delight yourselves in rich food.”
Are we giving rich, good food, the really good wholesome stuff, to people? Or is it all white bread and twinkies and soda?

The people came to Jesus. They had seen him transform a few loaves of bread and a few fish into a meal that fed thousands. It was good food, but even good food doesn’t keep you full forever. So they came to him, wanting more.
Jesus said, “I got something even better for you. I got a food endures. It’s something that won’t just make you feel good now; it’s something that will make you feel good forever. It’s the food of the ages, for the life of the ages, the eternal life.”
The people were craving something more to life. They had a hunger for a life of meaning, a life of purpose, a life that made them feel good to be alive. There was so much in life that brought them down and made them feel bad: hardships, oppression, lack of economic opportunity, sickness, isolation.
It’s not so different today. Every day presents new challenges. It’s harder and harder to make it financially. The American dream is dying for all but the richest few. Children today know that they will not be better off than their parents were. The rich get richer, but everyone else gets poorer. Racism, which some had thought was a problem of the past, is very much present.
What will make this all better? Some try to feel better by purchasing new clothes, or new electronics. But the clothes fade, and the electronics, well… a new cell phone seems like the greatest thing in the world, but within a year, it’s already out of date.
It’s white bread and twinkies and soda.
If the church doesn’t offer anything better than that, why bother attending?

When the people got hungry and came back to Jesus for some more bread, he said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
This is what we have to offer to people. Jesus. The bread of life.
A praise band is a great thing to have. I don’t drink coffee, but I do know that a really good cup of green tea is a delight. And a cool, hipster, pastor? I wouldn’t know anything about that, but perhaps that would be nice, too.
But if we don’t have Jesus? Twinkies and soda.
And what does it mean to have Jesus, to believe in Jesus? Scholars say that when the gospels use the word ‘believe,’ they are talking about a deep devotion to Jesus and his cause. It’s not just believing that Jesus existed; even the devil and the demons believe that. It means being committed to Jesus and what he stood for, what he stands for today.
Jesus declared his mission to be this: “to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.”
That is our mission, too. When we do that, we taste the bread of life.
According to the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord says that “the educated should not boast of their knowledge, warriors should not boast of their strength, the rich should not boast of their wealth.” Such things do not endure. They are white bread: good for a moment, but always leaving you wanting more.
According to Jeremiah, the Lord says that “those who boast should boast in this: that they understand and know me.” And just as the word “believe” means something deep and profound, so does the phrase “understand and know.” It’s an understanding and a knowledge that inspire commitment and devotion…
“…they should understand and know me, for I am the Lord who acts with kindness, justice, and righteousness in the world” [Jeremiah 9:23-24].
The way of Jesus is the way of kindness, justice, and righteousness. To put that another way, the way of Jesus is doing what is right and true, and doing it with love.
Taste that, and you will never again be hungry. You will never again crave a life of meaning, a life of purpose, a life of deep down satisfaction, for you will have already found it. You will have found the life of the ages, the eternal life.

Disciples all over North America have been reflecting on the recent General Assembly in Ohio. Many did indeed find there the wholesome spiritual food that they crave.
One reflection was written by Shannon, a high school sophomore from North Carolina. She was apprehensive about attending her first General Assembly. She lamented the eight-hour ride to Ohio in a van full of people she didn’t know which turned into a twelve-hour ride due to traffic. She was startled upon arriving in Ohio to discover not dozens of youth, but hundreds of youth, not to mention thousands of others!
I suspect that, like me, she is an introvert.
But things changed when she attended the opening worship. Here’s what she wrote about that:

 “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” That is the scripture that stuck out to me. It’s from Isaiah 40:1 and it made me look back. I looked back at all the times that I had been comforted and how many times I had comforted others. There was a gap between the two that I hope to fill in the coming years. I wanted to be comforted more than I wanted to comfort others. I found that when you take the time to comfort others and help in ways that are uncomfortable for you, the reward is great. You don’t get cash or prizes, you receive love and it makes you feel good knowing that you spread God’s comfort and love to others.”
The reward is great. That, my friends, is the voice of one who has tasted good, wholesome bread.
You don’t get cash or prizes. You don’t get twinkies or soda.
You get love, and it makes you feel good.

I do worry that my love isn’t enough. I know I can preach a sermon; but if I don’t have love, I’m just a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. I know I have the ability to speak the truth; but if I don’t have love, I am nothing. I can sacrifice all my time and all my energy to the church, but if I don’t have love, I gain nothing.
Do I love enough? I feel that others here are so much better at loving than I am. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
I don’t know that I love enough. I am certainly not perfect when it comes to love. But the love that comes from Christ – the love that we receive every time we gather around Christ’s table – never ends. That love endures. It is the bread of life. I may fail at love, but Jesus’s love never fails.
The truth is that, given where our society is at today, I’m amazed at how many we do have coming to church. I’m talking about people here at Bixby Knolls Christian Church, especially young people. I’m talking about people like Shannon from North Carolina; youth and young adults who are a part of the church, not because someone makes them, but because they want to be here.

And when they come to church – whether they are youth or millennials or Generation Xers like myself, or baby boomers or those who have the wisdom of years – it’s not because of me. I know that. It’s because of Jesus. It’s because they have tasted the bread of life, and have found it satisfying.

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