Core Stories

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, August 5, 2012
Blair Pogue

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

            When I was growing up my father’s family repeatedly told a story about my grandfather Welch Pogue.  Grandpa Pogue was a hard working farm boy from Iowa.  When he returned to the farm each day from school his mother insisted that he finish his homework before he could play.  Grandpa Pogue, then known as Welchy, developed incredible powers of concentration so he could get his work done and play before the endless routine of evening farm chores began.

            Grandpa Pogue eventually left the farm and went to the University of Nebraska where he met my grandmother, Mary Ellen Edgerton.  He wanted to be a lawyer and to study law at Harvard, but didn’t have the money.  It was the Great Depression, and my grandma and grandpa had two boys and the clothing on their backs – and that was about it.  In an unbelievable act of faith my grandfather moved his family to Cambridge where he began to sit in on and audit a class taught by Felix Frankfurter.  Outside class my grandfather took any jobs he could find to support his family.  Somehow, juggling a multitude of responsibilities, he applied himself to his studies the way he had as a child.  One day no one in class had read about a particular case, and Frankfurter was getting frustrated.  On a lark, he called on my grandfather.  Prepared as always, Grandpa Pogue was able to discuss the case in detail.  Frankfurter was so pleased that he admitted my grandfather to Harvard that same day.

            This is one of my dad’s family’s “core stories” and it’s pretty obvious what that side of the family values: hard work, courage, and persistence.  All of our families have core stories, as do the companies, clubs, neighborhoods, schools, and churches we are involved in.  The stories we tell provide critical information about us including what we value and hold dear.

            It’s thus fascinating that many of Israel’s core stories, especially when she escaped from Egypt and was wandering in the Promised Land, present the people of Israel in an unfavorable light.  They are the people you DON’T want on your cross country or camping trip.  Are we there yet?  I’m hungry?  Is that our dinner?  My back hurts.  Why aren’t we staying in a nice motel with a hot shower?  Why did we have to come on this dumb trip anyway?  The stories of Israel’s journey in the wilderness aren’t the inspiring core narratives most of us would embrace or invent to make our people look good – tales of courage, faith, hard work and persistence.  Instead, they are tales of complaint, faithlessness, and fickle people fantasizing about returning to a life of slavery in Egypt where they at least knew the lay of the land.  Just look at the first part of today’s passage from Exodus and imagine that you are Moses or Aaron leading some sort of congregational trip and the Israelites are the people you are supervising: “the whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.  The Israelites said to them, ‘if only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread: for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’”  I have to confess that I would have little patience with this group.

            And yet regardless of their complaints and lack of trust, God provides daily bread.  God provides just what the people need – no more, no less.  While Israel’s faithlessness should have led to calamity, the Hebrew Scriptures tell a different story.  God doesn’t give up on Israel, and Israel reaches the Promised Land.  This incredible turn of events tells us something very important about God and God’s nature.  Thanks to God’s faithfulness and provision, Israel was able to make it out of slavery and wilderness and into the “land dripping with milk and honey.”.

            Now this, as we all know, isn’t the end of the story.  Once in the Promised Land, Israel and her leaders, first Judges, then Kings, continue to doubt God’s promises and provision.  Israel often fails to remember and care for the stranger in her midst.  She is often unable to follow God’s teachings including the Ten Commandments or Ten Best Ways to Live, which would have deepened community bonds and brought her the fullness of life God intended.   But even though Israel was reprimanded and punished for her faithlessness, God’s love and commitment persisted.  It says a lot about the Jews that their holy scriptures make them look bad, and God look good.

            Today’s Gospel from John is also a story meant to teach us something about who God is.  The crowds continue to follow Jesus, this time having witnessed his multiplication of the loaves and fishes.  Their physical hunger has been met, and they are still hungering for more – more miracles.  They want to know what they need to do to perform the works of God and if Jesus can perform another sign so that they can see it and believe in him.  They mention the manna Moses gave them in the wilderness.  Jesus reminds them that it was God, not Moses who gave them the manna or bread.  He tells them that God gives the true bread from heaven, which gives life to the world.  When the crowd says “give us this bread always” Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

            Imagine being in the crowd and hearing these words from Jesus.  What does he mean?  Isn’t bread a physical substance, that basic food we need in order to live?  What does Jesus mean by this “I am” statement?  How can he be my bread?  How can it be that if I believe in him I will never hunger or thirst again?

            Many of us have core stories of faith responding to Jesus’ assertion that he is the bread of life.  Many of us have stories of years of hungering and thirsting for something more than success, achievement, and pursuit of our own welfare.  Finally, despite our fears, stereotypes and protestations, we begin to be open to the possibility that Jesus and the Way of Life he calls us to is the one that will feed our deepest hungers, and satisfy our unending thirst.  We decide to choose soul food over chocolate doughnuts or deep fried twinkies on a stick – foods that look good and give us a quick sugar high, but don’t sustain us for the long haul. 

            Just watch commercials for food for five minutes, if you can bear it, and think about what the advertisers are promising: health, happiness, friends, and now with the Olympics on, athletic prowess.  Companies are knocking themselves out to have their products labeled the official food of the Olympics.  The other day I bought a four pack of Chobani yogurt and noticed it had been renamed “Chobani Champions.”

Believing that Jesus is the bread of life is often not something that happens in an instant, but is a lifelong or at least long process in which we begin to understand that God is truly at work in our lives and the world.  God continues to offer us physical and spiritual nourishment, and despite our strong impulse toward self sufficiency and control, we are increasingly drawn into a new story in which God is at the center and we are part of a story and web of relationships much larger than ourselves.

            What are you hungering for?  Who is Jesus for you?  Does one of your core stories say something about how Jesus feeds you?  How does God invite you into his work to feed others?

            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” (6:35).