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Proper 14 – 8/8/2021 – St. Paul’s

I love the old Abbot and Costello comedy routine, “Who’s on first?”  It’s a conversation about a baseball team whose players have names like WHO, WHAT and I DON’T KNOW.  The dialog goes on like this for about five minutes:

Lou: “Who’s on first?”

Bud: “Yes, WHO’s on first.”

Lou: “That’s what I want to know, who’s on first?”

Bud: “Exactly, WHO’s on first.”

Lou (exasperated): “That’s what I want to know.  What’s the fella’s name on first?”

Bud: “No, no.  WHAT’s on second, WHO’s on first.”

Lou: (pulling hair and glaring): “Let’s try something 

different.  Who’s on third?”

Bud: “No, no, no.  WHO’s on first. I DON’T KNOW’s on third.”

Lou (yelling): “If you don’t know, who does?”

Bud: “Yes WHO knows, he’s the captain.”

I think of Who’s on first? frequently when I read the Gospel of John because it is full of stories about Jesus talking at cross purposes with people. The woman at the well and water, Nicodemus and being born again, Pontius Pilate and what it means to be a king, etc. This recurring theme of talking at cross-purposes high-lights John’s basic theme; we are separated from God and Jesus has come into the world to heal that separation.

In his book, The Deeper Life, Yale professor of Philosophy Louis Dupre meditates upon Michelangelo’s painting of the creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Adam is stretched out on the ground, dazed and confused, one arm, one finger reaching out toward an old and slightly wild looking God, who stretches out his arm, one finger almost touching Adam’s finger. Dupre says that our entire life is lived in that tiny space between God’s finger and Adam’s hand.

It reminds us that we are separated from our source and that religion is a quest to reconnect to God. The problem is, we don’t know how.  We try to be good enough, or smart enough, or spiritual enough, and none of it really works.  None of it works because we base it on us; our talent, our ability, our intelligence, our persistence.  And none of it works.  The only thing that will work is the grace of God.

New Testament scholar and Preaching professor Fred Craddock in his commentary on these texts. (Preaching Through the Christian Year – B) points out that it is too early in the John’s gospel for the “bread” references to be about communion.  Here, John is more concerned with showing Jesus to be the logos, the Word of God. Note verse 45 and its language about being taught and hearing and learning. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the father comes to me.This is not a direct quotation from any of the prophets but summarizes themes that can be found in Isaiah (54:13), Jeremiah (31:34), Micah (4:2) and others.  It also picks up on biblical themes of God’s word as food that nourishes and gives life. The reference here is not to Jesus’ flesh as bread, as physical stuff one eats; it is to Jesus’ actual, physical presence in the world as the actual, physical, presence of God and God’s Word in the world.

Just as the manna in the desert was God’s answer to the Israelites very real, physical need for food in order to survive; Jesus, God’s Word is God’s very real, physical response to humanity’s very real need for that which gives truth and meaning to our existence. In chapter 6, John is making the case that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Word of Law and Promise has taken on flesh, has united the physical and the spiritual, has come into our midst to teach us, in word and deed, about God’s love for us and for all.  Jesus, in the flesh, is our manna, our bread not merely a sign, symbol, or signal of God’s love, but rather the very real, physical presence of that love.

In 1967, Doug Nichols went to India as a social justice missionary.  He worked to dig wells and improve agriculture.  While there, Doug got malaria and entered a sanitarium.  Though he was not then a missionary, Doug was a Christian and he had brought along some pamphlets and some copies of the Gospel of John in the local language, which he did not speak. During his recovery, Doug tried to give away his literature.  Everyone politely refused to take it.

For several nights, Doug woke up at 2:00 AM with a hacking cough.  One morning he noticed an old man across the aisle trying to get out of the bed.  He tried and tried and then would give up in defeat and fall back into the bed weeping.  The next morning Doug realized why the man was trying to get out of bed.  He had messed himself and the stench was awful.  The other patients yelled at and insulted the old man.  Angry nurses complained bitterly as they cleaned up the mess.  The old man curled up into a ball and wept. That night Doug again woke up coughing.  He saw the old man sit up on the side of the bed and try to stand.  And again, he failed and fell back into the bed.  In what he did next, Doug admits no purity of motives.  He just didn’t think he could stand the smell again. He got up, and went over to the old man, picked him up out of the bed and carried him to the toilet. There he held him under the arms while the man took care of himself.  Then he took him back to bed and went to bed himself.

The next day Doug was awakened by another patient giving him a cup of tea and picking up one of his pamphlets.  Throughout the day other people came by his bed and asked for a piece of literature. Doug was mystified by all this until a pastor friend who knew the local language came to visit and had a conversation with some of Doug’s fellow patients in nearby beds.  They told the pastor that they took the material because they wanted to learn what vision of God would motivate someone to do something like that for another person.

Jesus Christ has come to us in the hospital ward of our souls, has come to us midst of our confusion and doubt, come to take care of us in the midst of our inability to tend to ourselves.

Faith in Jesus is not something to be measured or calculated. It isn’t an algebraic equation with so many miracles equaling so much of a savior. It isn’t a matter of knowing Jesus’ parents or discovering his historic identity. Faith is trusting in the poetry that says Jesus is more than you can wrap your mind around. He is the Word that can never be fully spoken. He is bread that will not much feed your body but will eternally nourish your soul.

Faith takes imagination. It takes a heart that is open to see what the mind cannot. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus said. If this is true, what does it mean? It means that your soul will never be satisfied with the things that fill your belly. No food, no loved one, no job, no wealth, no success, no fulfillment, will satisfy a lover of poetry. The open heart will understand when Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd, the Vine, the door of the sheepfold, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The open heart will be moved by a world in need because it sees beyond the surface. It sees the face of Jesus in every person who is poor or ill, is naked or in prison. The open heart will be moved and transformed by the message of the poet.

Jesus Christ has come to us with one sign, the sign of love and compassion, the sign of tender mercy and gentle healing. Jesus Christ has come to us in the sign of the cross, where with one hand stretched out to God and the other stretched out to us, he fills up that tiny space that separates us from God and from each other. “Who’s on first?”  We are.  First on God’s mind, first in God’s heart, first in line to take up our own cross and follow Christ into the world as a sign of God’s never-ending love and compassion.

Loving God, 

sometimes you are easier to relate to when you come to us 

as a set of ideas that we are to think about or spiritual habits 

that we are to practice.

Sometimes it is easier to relate to you 

with our minds than with our hearts.

Yet, in our better moments we know 

that we can only come to understand you by your first coming to us. We must apprehend you more by revelation 

than by our human experience.

Therefore, we pray that in this time of worship 

you would open our hearts that we might see you more clearly 

and love you more dearly and follow you more nearly.

Teach us that deep truth that we cannot teach ourselves, 

that you are not merely the wise teacher, the high moral example, the son of Joseph and Mary. 

Let us see you as none other than the Christ, the Son of God, 

the bread of life, 

the whole truth about God for whom we hunger and thirst. 

If you do not fill us with your presence, 

we know that our deepest hunger will never be satisfied.