“Smiling, Snarky Jesus” John 6:1-21

I find the Gospel of John to be particularly difficult to preach on, not because of any lack of details, themes or stories to work with, but rather because there is quite often so much going on that it is difficult to know just where to “dive in” and how far to go!

John’s gospel is driven by a series of signs and discourses.   Jesus “does” something which is recognized as a sign that is to reveal something about who Jesus is.

Then in the wake of the sign done, “who Jesus is” becomes the subject of a conversation or a “discourse” around that particular sign.

Practically, what this means is that it is very difficult to react to just one story in John isolation; as the stories are all inter-connected, one to another by the discourses, each one giving you a sharper picture of who Jesus is.

So for instance today we start what will be five weeks of looking at the “Bread of Life Discourse”, John 6:1-71.

What we get in the reading today is just the “sign” part of it, the feeding of the 5000 and the story of Jesus walking on the water which ends at verse 21.

But the whole “discourse” runs through verse 71 and it will culminate in Jesus’ declaring, “I am the bread of life.”

Once that declaration is made, “I am the bread of life” you are then forced to look back over the whole series of events and conversations to make sense of the whole discourse.  All of the details of the story end up depending upon you knowing that this is where we are heading, and that this is what the “sign” you experienced was meant to reveal.

There are marked differences between how John tells the stories of the feeding of the 5000 and the walking on water event, as opposed to and how Matthew, Mark or Luke tell them, and at this point in the sermon on several drafts I wandered into those differences.   It seemed somehow important to show John’s take on the stories, and detail what was different in order to point out how John was lifting up this particular “sign” that pointed to Jesus as the Bread of Life.

But, in each and every attempt to do that, what I found was that in wandering into the details, Jesus was getting lost amongst them.  The sermon became more of a thesis paper on the differences and similarities of the gospels and less of a point of proclamation.   The sermon said a lot, but it didn’t say anything directly to you.

I will be celebrating 30 years of ordained ministry today between services, and so a few folks have asked if I could sum up my years of service.  You know, give a quick snapshot of where I’ve served, what I’ve done, the kinds of places I’ve been at and what happened there.  It’s fairly easy for me to wax nostalgic about all of that.  Easy to remember back to Emmanuel in rural Nebraska, Our Saviour’s in Lincoln, doing a mission start, adventuring off to upstate New York, and finding myself back here in the Midwest doing interims.

I have no shortage of stories, and I could wander there.

But like wandering into the details of John’s gospel, I find that the more I do that, the more Jesus seems to get lost amongst the details.   The stories I tell seem to become more and more about “me” and less and less about what God was up to, and is still up to in this world.  I could say a lot, but not really say anything at all directly to you.

That’s the tricky thing about signs, and that’s really what we’re talking about, they are meant to point somewhere.

John spins out the story of the feeding of the 5000 with all the details in order to point to Jesus, but in our quest to understand and figure it all out, or in the hunger for the next meal we end up missing the very thing the story is meant to drive home.

In the same way, when you ask me to talk about where I have served and what I have seen or done these past 30 years, you might find that to be interesting, but what you are probably more interested in are the signs.

You want to know where God has been moving.

You want to see what God has been up to in those 30 years, where I have seen God’s action and activity, in all those years, the signs of hope for the future.

Signs of a life well lived, and signs of what God does when Jesus is around.

So let me take a little different tact that I think is in keeping with John’s gospel, an observation from it.

If you just look at this sign of feeding the 5000, and walking on water, you can conclude a couple things about Jesus that I have found to be true in my 30 years of doing this.

One is that Jesus works pretty well with little or nothing.

And two, is that Jesus just seems to delight in surprising people.

I think that pretty well sums up what I have learned and experienced in the past 30 years of ministry.

It’s really rather ironic if you think about it, because in the call process we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to take those very uncertainties out of the equation for the church.

We want to know what we have to work with, and we don’t much like surprises.

Congregations want to know what the Pastor will be like, what is his or her experience? What is the pastor good at?   What are his or her competencies?  Accomplishments? Weaknesses?  Growth areas?  Etc.

And Synods end up trying to “match” congregations with Pastors with the right competencies as determined by the paperwork filled out, the needs of the congregation, and the ability to afford the leader, taking out the uncertainties to give the relationship a smooth start.

Pastors sometimes look at congregations as if they were buying a used car.  How much wear and tear is on the place?   How many miles on it, left on it?   What’s their benevolence like?   What is their generational makeup?   Are they open to change, or resistant to change, or desperate or….

We play this game you see, of trying to eliminate as many uncertainties and surprises as we can.

We’re right there with Philip in this Gospel lesson, when Jesus asks him how we are going to feed all these people.   Philip does the calculation quickly, the measurement is taken, “6 months wages wouldn’t get them more than a morsel….”

Like the despondent disciples in the story, congregations and pastors alike sometimes take stock of what they have, what they have to work with, what they think is possible, and like Andrew, or maybe more like Eyore in “Winnie the Pooh”, they give their assessment.

“There is a boy here who has five dried out loaves and a couple of fish, but what is that among so many?”

And this is where Jesus smirks.   I can see him!  Smirking, snarky Jesus as we sometimes call him in our coffee gatherings.

I used to be really annoyed with John’s Gospel whenever Jesus was portrayed like this of having foreknowledge.  “He said this to test him, for he knew what he was going to do.”   John says.  I always heard that as a Jesus who was never surprised, always knew what was going to happen before it happened.

But I hear that differently today.  Today I hear that phrase as, “of course he knew..”  for we are so predictable, we disciples!   We never think God is up for the challenge, or that God can do more than we can possibly imagine, and it just delights the daylights out of Jesus to have a chance to do that, to give a sign that God is a God of abundance, and of care, and of love, and of provision.

Here is the truth of the matter that I’ve learned in 30 years of doing this.   I never felt like I had enough of whatever it is I needed to do the job properly.

Here is the truth of the matter in 30 years of doing this.  I have never served a congregation that believed they had all the resources they needed RIGHT NOW to do whatever it is that God was calling them to do in their community.

There has always been a tight budget.

There has always been a hand wringing treasurer, or nervous council, or a controlling finance committee.  “What is this (whatever ‘this’ might be,) among so many needs?”

And in 30 years what I’ve seen is a lot of Jesus smirking.

If you want to see a sign of God at work in your midst, it never comes from outside.  It always comes as you surprise yourself, as Jesus does something in your very midst that surprises you, catches you off guard, and leaves you wondering what it is that you have just seen and experienced.

Ministry never goes the way you think it will, no matter how carefully planned or executed.

Here is the truth of ministry, and you can argue with me if you want to about this, but it’s just been my observation through the years.

Jesus works pretty well with little or nothing.   In fact, he seems to prefer it that way, because then what happens is really of God, and not our own doing.

That’s what makes me see the twinkle in Jesus’ eye when he asks Philip this question.  I hear the question now as Jesus just delighting in showing those who would follow him some surprises about what is possible when he takes, breaks, blesses and is in the midst of us.

You want me to sum up 30 years in ministry?   It is found in this gospel, in a Jesus who smirks when he asks us what we think, and who then goes ahead and works things in our midst that we could never have imagined.

It is found in our constant under-estimation of what we have been given, and how God can transformed dried up old loaves and smelly fish into a banquet fit for a king with abundance overflowing, if we but sit down, trust, and deliver what we have into his hands.

Here is the truth of ministry.   We all just end up making it up as we go along, but we go along with Jesus.  We go along with smirking, smiling, snarky Jesus, who is ever ready to show us a surprise or two, about ourselves, about our own capabilities, and about what God has in mind for us.

In 30 years of ministry, I still don’t like that much.   I’d prefer the assurance of certainties over signs!

But God prefers the enigmatic use of signs, and seems to like it that way.  And if you think about it, you can see why.

Certainties always become about me, about what I can do.

Signs are always about what God is doing, with us, in us, despite us sometimes, and through us.

So, in 30 years of doing this, I’ve grown used to looking for that smirking, smiling Jesus, and introducing you to him.   It is a Jesus who always seems ready to launch in and show us something, and usually something unexpected, even and especially by me.

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 “Far From the Maddening Crowd”

18493172581_c10fa920a4_zThe memory of it is vivid still, undimmed by the years.

We had gone to Washington D.C. over the 4th of July weekend.  After years of watching “A Capitol Fourth” on Public Television we decided we would like to experience it for ourselves live.   So we found ourselves down on the Mall of our Nation’s Capitol with about 250,000 other folks for the music and the fireworks.

The national symphony was playing on one end of the Mall, up by the Capitol. The Beach Boys were scheduled to play down by the Washington Monument.

At the end of the concert the orchestra struck up “Stars and Stripes Forever” which is the signal to kick off the fireworks display.  They played it all the way through, no fireworks.

They played it again, still no fireworks.

Finally a voice came over the speakers informing us that because of a delayed flight for the Beach Boys, the fireworks would be delayed until after their concert.

People stayed, and waited, and eventually everything the fireworks went off, but no music.  So that night everything ended at the same time, which meant 250,000 people were all trying to get on the subway, busses and highways at exactly the same time.

It was a mad crush of people, made worse by a malfunction at one of the Subway Escalators.  Instead of being shut off and used as a stairs as it should have been, it was left running, and so it was dumping a steady stream of people down into the station where room was running out quickly.   People were being crowded ever closer to the edge of the Metro train tracks, so the police came with a mounted patrol, and on horseback began to herd people back away from the station.

Panicked cries went up everywhere.  “Get me out of here!”   “My baby, take care of my baby!”   “Help me!”  “Look out!”  “Don’t push!”  “Move aside!”  “Step back, Stay back!”

That vivid image of a maddening crowd pressing in on every side comes to my mind as I read this Gospel lesson for today.

Is this what it was like for Jesus?   Hounded wherever he went?   Pressed upon at every turn, no time for himself, not even to catch a sandwich?  Demand upon demand, need upon need, no leisure at all.

No wonder he urged the disciples into the boat, and tried to find a lonely place for himself and for them.

The crush of people, the overwhelming needs, the constant attention – it’s all too much for anyone.  “Come away” Jesus says, “rest a while.”

There was a day when I looked at this text with great envy — and a little guilt.

Look at what happens when Jesus comes to town!   Look at the crowds that he gathers!  Great throngs like at the Capitol Fourth.   Look at the press of people to meet him and hear about him!

My church doesn’t look like that.

It especially doesn’t look like that in Kansas City in the summertime!

I used to beat myself up about that.  Why is it that people do not flock to find out about Jesus anymore?

Is it my preaching?   Have I not introduced him as I should?  Am I not dynamic enough, or sincere enough, am I too heady or too simple?

Is it the style of the service, the language used?  The music?   Should we be more ‘hip’, change up the liturgy, quit using the organ, or the praise band because that is passe’ now?

Maybe the reason people aren’t flocking, pressing in upon me to hear about Jesus is because I’m not a very good Pastor.  That particularly occurs to me as I approach the 30th anniversary of my ordination.  Maybe I’m worn out, burned out, irrelevant to the needs of the emerging generation.  Maybe I’m too stuck in my ways to adapt as needed to proclaim Christ to this day and age.

Maybe the problem lies in the facility, or in our location, or maybe it’s the kind of coffee we serve after worship!

Maybe the reason my church doesn’t have hoards of people clamoring to get in is because our ministry isn’t really effective, or very attractive, or faithful.

Oh, how the pressure of this text sometimes weighs upon me. Why can’t I pack them in like Jesus did?

Then it hits me.

I’m not Jesus.

It may be that I have an unreal expectation, to “pack them in.”   At any rate, in that moment of feeling the pressure to do so I do begin to understand what this Gospel lesson is all about.

This Gospel lesson is not so much about me comparing my ministry or my church to what Jesus was able to accomplish.

This Gospel is about what Jesus tells all of us to do when we are faced with what seems to be insurmountable pressures.

“Come away…rest a while.”  He says.

That is so counter intuitive to the American experience.  When things are going bad, when the pressure is on, we above all other people seem to be compelled to DO something, even if it is wrong!

Come away?  Rest?  Jesus, the world will fall apart if I don’t do something and do it quick!  That’s what we believe, and that’s what makes Jesus words hard for us follow.

Where do you feel the scary pressing in of things?   The crowding in of things you can’t control?

Maybe it’s in your job.  Maybe there are too many things to handle, too many demands.

“It’s just not fun anymore.” I remember my dad saying about farming as he stared into the pile of regulations to be met, the bills to be paid, and the government paperwork to be filled out for planting and subsidies and soil conservation.

Maybe where you feel the pressure is in the ending of employment.  Retirement is nearing, am I ready for it?  Have I planned well, saved as much as I need to?  Will I have enough to retire comfortably or will I have to keep working, and at my age, what can I do?

Maybe the pressure for you comes from the demands of family, of roles and expectations.  That suffocating feeling that comes from plans and dreams put on hold because of life circumstances, the birth of children, the change of job, an unexpected moves, children or grand children coming home again, re-entering your life at a time that you thought would be your own.

Whatever the pressure may be, you know it by what it does to you.

It makes you feel out of control.

It makes you feel powerless.

It makes you feel like with any little nudge, one way or another, things could go really sour, really bad, get really ugly, and you feel the panic well up inside you.

You want to DO something really badly.  Anything!  Throw yourself into the work, into the retirement planning, into the family, into the situation, the urge to “fix it and fix it quick” overwhelms.

“Come away,” Jesus says,  “Rest a while.”

That is what you really need to do.

Now, there are a couple of things you need to know about this matter of coming away.

First of all, lest you think that this is just a license to slip off by the lake, the “coming away” Jesus prescribes is time with him!   It’s not just vacation time!

It is time spent in the presence of Jesus, and bringing all of your concerns, troubles and fears to him.

It’s time in conversation with God to hear what God has to say about who you are.

It’s time to Be, and not to Do.

Important time to hear what God has to say about you, and what God says is that you are loved and worthy and capable and a delight in his eyes.  That’s what you need to hear when you feel lost in the maddening crowd.

That is not to say that you could not spend time in Jesus while you’re at your camp, or on vacation, or simply in a quiet place, in the tub, or the spa.   You can, it’s quite possible.

You can find Jesus with you at the lake, or in the cabin, or in the quiet coffee spot.

The larger question is will you?

Will you be intentional about seeking Jesus in this time off?  For most of us, if we don’t plug the church into the time away, the temptation is just too great you know.  We just try to escape the pressures for time, and then find that we fret about them all the more when we get back instead of taking the time to be in Christ and asking God to be with us in what we have to come back to.

The answer to that question of “will you come away with Jesus?” is important, because the other thing you need to know about this “come away” invitation is that it does involve a going back.

No sooner is Jesus off the boat than he is crowded in upon once again.  The pressures will find you again.

The demands of life will present themselves again.

Will you be ready to face them secure in who and whose you are because you have spent time away with Jesus this week?

This is an invitation from our Lord, not to be content with little escapes from the things that press on us.

“Come away.”   Jesus says,  “Rest a while.”  Rest in my love, rest in the promise that I am with you always.

Don’t be content with trying to escape life’s pressures, learn how to deal with them, handle them, and find joy in them.  You can only do that if you’re well rested in Jesus.