Year B Proper 13: Of Orange Chicken, the Nature of Happiness, and Baptism
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Psalm 51:1-13; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”
Have you ever noticed that there are some kinds of food that you eat that never really satisfy your hunger and only leave you hungrier? Take-out Chinese is like that for me. I’ll pile up great mounds of orange chicken, beef and broccoli, fried rice, and egg rolls only to discover half an hour later that I’m hungry again. In our gospel for today, Jesus is asking us to examine what we feed upon. You are what you eat. Be attentive to what you seek nourishment from and where you find it.
Part of what it means to be on the spiritual journey, to learn to walk the path of love, is to learn the difference between the kinds of foods that don’t satisfy and the kinds of foods that offer enduring sustenance. We all have to eat. The question we can ask ourselves is what is it that I feast on? Is it the bread of life? Or is it some other kind of food that only seems to nourish us and is really just empty calories?
The folks around Jesus in our gospel story are confused about the difference between food that perishes and food that endures for eternal life. Having seen the miracle of the loaves and fishes—that revelatory sign act of the overflowing abundance of God—the people think that they’d better stick pretty close to this Galilean flatbread and tilapia dispenser. Who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch?
Jesus is trying to show them that they need to root their lives in faith, to ground themselves not in that which passes away, but in what does not change—God. But they don’t really seem to understand. Instead, they cast Jesus as Moses 2.0 thinking that it was Moses (not God) who brought the manna down from heaven during their forty-year excursion in the wilderness. They worship the creature instead of the creator. They fill their bellies with loaves and fishes, but miss the deeper reality to which it points (inexhaustible abundance lavished on all who hunger and thirst). They had the experience, but missed the significance as T.S. Eliot would say.
We’re not too different, of course, from the crowds around Jesus. Part of the human condition is to be confused about what nourishes, feeds, and fosters growth, and what doesn’t. One definition of original sin is coming to full, reflective, self-consciousness without an awareness of God’s presence in the depths of heart. Since we are made for union and communion with God, since we are literally made for the happiness, bliss, peace, and rest that is the enjoyment of God, we quite naturally go looking for it in other places not knowing that it is close at hand, present before we even begin the search. Like the Prodigal Son who journeys to that far country in search of content, we too travel far and wide looking for that which will satisfy our longing, our hunger, and our thirst.
Different types of people look for happiness in all sorts of different ways, but you can basically break the substitutes for God into three basic categories that serve as poor and ultimately unsatisfying substitutes—power/control, affection/esteem, and safety/security. Say we grew up in a chaotic household where the love of a parent was in short supply. We might devote ourselves to the cultivation of affection and esteem in those we encounter to make up for the lack of love we received as a child. We lavish gifts on others not because we want to give freely as God has given but because we need love. We’ve come to full, reflective self-consciousness without an awareness of God’s presence and think this is only way we’ll ever be happy.
Sometimes, perhaps often, these strategies work. But inevitably there comes a time when they don’t and we are thrown into a tizzy. The one of the afflictive emotions—fear, anger, jealousy, sadness—comes up in response to this frustration of how we normally secure our identity and before we know it we are off on an emotional binge that can last ten minutes, ten days, or ten years. So the pursuit of happiness in places that can’t provide it is the definition of feeding ourselves on the food that perishes. At best, we secure a temporary peace, a fleeting sense of being ok, but ultimate and final rest, which comes from God and God alone, eludes us.
The spiritual journey is all about dismantling the particular program for happiness under whose thrall we find ourselves. It’s not something we have to do on our own. It’s not another self-improvement project to which we have to subscribe for the low, low cost of only $19.95/mo. The dismantling of our programs for happiness occurs when we open ourselves up to the presence and action of God, when we repent and change the direction in which we look for happiness from the satisfaction of our emotional programs to the deeper ground of the food that endures to eternal life—God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Today we are baptizing Audrey Lynn Wiliamson, and the liturgy moves us through a series of renunciation and affirmations. In a sense, you could say that the baptism is really about reminding us of the kinds of food that feed, nourish, and sustain us, and the kinds of foods that just leave us hungering for more, fidgeting for our next fleeting fix. Part of what it means to be Church to Aubrey, is to know the difference in our own lives and to model it for her. It doesn’t do much good to tell a child that they shouldn’t eat junk food while we are stuffing our faces with potato chips. The nourishment for which we hunger, the living water that will slake our thirst is not something that happened in the dusty annals of the history books. This nourishment is available to us right now in the person of Jesus.
Through deep prayer, regular participation in the sacraments, dwelling upon God’s word in Holy Scripture, and serving those in need, we gradually wean ourselves from the junk food diet of self-preoccupation that only makes us more lonely, isolated. When we learn to eat right, to nourish ourselves on the food of love, connection, and self-forgetfulness, we discover that the bread of heaven always abides. It endures through thick and thin, through good times and bad times, sustaining us with a quiet confidence in the peace that passes all understanding.
When, together as a family we pronounce with boldness our answer to question of whether we will support Aubrey in her life in Christ—“We will!”—it is no small thing. The forces that toss us to and fro, the enticements of consumer culture, and the craftiness of a politics of fear an exclusion that assaults on every side are real and potent. But they do not have dominion over us.
May our walk with Aubrey be defined by the prayer of those around Jesus—“Sir, give us this bread always.” May we nourishes ourselves on Him, and be that bread for Aubrey as she grows up into the full stature of Christ, into love, that is her true calling, and the true calling of each one of us.