Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
There was a young mother teaching her son how to zip up his coat. “The secret,” she said, “is to get the left part of the zipper to fit in the other side before you try to zip it up.” The frustrated boy, almost in tears, looked at her quizzically, “Why does it have to be a secret?” It reminds me of the little girl in pre-school, who told me, that, “A secret is something special- that you tell one person at a time, like my mother.” Sometimes we use the word secret to describe hidden tricks that provide a shortcut in life, and other times we use the word secret to describe what is a bit of knowledge, or a method that lead us to a more successful outcome. We do it all the time. “The secret to better gas mileage is, avoid sudden starts and stops. The secret to a happy marriage is to be considerate and supportive of your spouse.” Or the secret I often share with young pastors, “Until you’ve mastered the art of preaching, always use somebody else’s material.”
The secrets to joy and peace, satisfaction and contentment in life, however, aren’t necessarily hidden tricks at all. They are often simple and profound truths. Regretfully, we often choose to ignore them, and try to find a secret trick instead. That is where our gospel story begins today.
Last Sunday, we heard the story of the miraculous feeding of 5000 people with only a few fish and bread. According to St. John, 5000 pilgrims were on their way to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem, when they had a chance encounter with Jesus. They followed Jesus and his disciples along the Sea of Galilee to a deserted area. When the hour was late and the crowds were hungry, Jesus instructed his disciples to let the crowds be seated on the grassy hillside and to feed them. A boy, who had been drawn to the crowds, heard the disciples describe the need for food, and he offered Jesus his picnic lunch of five loaves of bread and two small fish. Thus, the miracle of the feeding of 5000 unfolded with Jesus multiplying the gifts of fish and chips, and closing with disciples gathering 12 baskets of leftover crumbs. The boy was astonished. It was a great miracle.
Unfortunately the effect on the crowds disappointed Jesus. It would have been nice if the hearts of the people had been changed by what they had seen. Perhaps if they had become more trusting, or daring, or loving or caring. Or perhaps, if they had been so grateful and enthusiastic that they ran off to Jerusalem in a great fervor praising God, Jesus would have been pleased. Instead, St. John writes that they just kept following Jesus around the Sea of Galilee. They were not searching for Jesus’ secret to authentic living. Instead, they were searching for a hidden trick. They were seeking a fast food that would fill them quickly, but that would never truly satisfy their inner longing and hunger.
My friends, there is no hidden trick or short cut to the Christian faith. The true secret to life, marriage, and fulfillment is to live and embrace an authentic life- a life in which your words, and actions and values match. Jesus’ message to the crowds is a challenge and an invitation to each one of us even today. “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures for eternal life.” So where do you begin? What is worth truly pursuing in this world?
Somehow, we know almost intuitively that the food which is worth pursuing is not earthly or physical. We know that treasures can give us moments of pleasure, but they don’t really last. We know that not all human activities are life-giving. As the saying goes, “Nobody on his deathbed ever said, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” Nor do they say, “I wish I’d made more money.” What they say is, “I wish I’d spent more time with my family and done more for society or my community.” Each one of us hungers for something. We are searching for the secret to authentic living, but we are often too easily satisfied with a food that perishes. So where do you begin? What is worth truly pursuing in this world?
I would like to suggest three worthy pursuits. 1) That happiness is found in relationships. 2) That a fulfilling life is one which uses your gifts and abilities to serve God and make the world a better place and, 3) That inner peace comes from the knowledge that you are doing what you ought to be doing.
First of all, we know that happiness is found in relationships, unfortunately, there is no hidden trick to sustaining and nurturing these fundamental relationship though it may be a bit embarrassing for some. As I joke, “I know a Norwegian man who loved his wife so much, he almost told her.” We need to find ways to create and demonstrate happiness in our relationships.
My father was a quiet man. In his later years he routinely went through the entire list of the names of the six children in our family when he saw me, but that didn’t dismiss the memory that I have of him always being there and caring. Sociologist William Pollack lists four basic categories that you and I fall into in our human relationships. They are caretakers, playmate-teachers, disciplinarians and the disengaged. It’s no surprise that only caretakers and playmate-teachers have any lasting positive effect upon children and friends. These are the ones who have demonstrated that they are there and care- and are the food which endures for eternal life. Even when they forget our names. It is a work worth pursuing.
Second, we know that a fulfilling life is one which uses our gifts and abilities to serve God and make the world a better place. There is no hidden trick to using your gifts, but there may not always be immediate and glamorous rewards. On Thanksgiving, when most Americans think about turkey, I think about hands. As children in kindergarten, we often traced our hands on paper, and then we colored them. The imprint of the thumb was the turkey’s head, and the fingers formed the turkey’s colorful tail. So it shouldn’t have surprised the young first grade teacher when she instructed her class that they should draw a picture of something for which they were thankful, that one of her children would draw a hand. It wasn’t a turkey, however. It was just an open, empty hand. It was a curious picture. When the children were done with all theirs drawings, the teacher invited them to sit down in a circle and to talk about their pictures. There were drawings of pet cats and dogs, drawings of families and houses, even a few favorite toys; all things for which they were thankful. But the drawing of the open, empty hand had captured both the imagination of the first grade teacher, as well the students. So she asked the class, whose hand could it be? One child guessed it was the hand of a farmer who had raised the food to be eaten on Thanksgiving. Another child suggested that it was the uniformed patrol officer who helped them walk safely across the street to school every morning. And so the discussion went on. Then the class bell rang. It was the end of school, and the children ran out the door quickly.
One boy, however, lingered and stayed behind, and he was the artist. He was timid and often almost always forgotten by his classmates when they chose teams for games and when they sat down for lunch. He was left alone and lonely. The teacher bent down to help him zip up his jacket, and then she asked him whose hand he had drawn. The little boy looked away and murmured, “It’s your hand, teacher.” She suddenly recalled all the times she had taken this boy’s hand and walked with him here or there, as she had done for all the other students. How often had she said, “Take my hand, we’ll go outside.” Or, “Let me show you how to hold your pencil.” Or, “Let’s do this together.” The people whose lives you touch may not always say thanks, but they’ll always remember the hand that reaches out. It’s a work that endures for everlasting life.
Finally, we know that inner peace comes from the knowledge that we are doing what we ought to be doing. There is no hidden trick to God’s inner peace. Unfortunately, as long as you and I focus on our being heard instead of really listening, we will hear only what we want to hear. In so doing, we refuse to consider the perspective and needs of others. Yes, as long as you and I focus on picking and choosing our own causes instead of confronting the injustice and inequality that challenges our neighbor, we will live an unauthentic Christian life that no one would to choose embrace.
But there is another choice. You don’t have to be like the crowds along the Sea of Galilee, chasing after the bread that perishes, you can seek the bread of life which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. Jesus wants to be your bread of life. It is a life-long pursuit of being in communion with God.
A reporter was visiting an elderly couple who had just celebrated their sixty-fifth wedding anniversary. He was touched by the way the husband continually spoke to his wife in terms of endearment, always calling her “Sweetheart,” “Honey,” or “Dear.” “It’s so sweet, the way you address your wife in those endearing ways,” the reporter said to the husband. He was surprised. “Well, to tell you the truth,” the old man answered, “I forgot her name about ten years ago.”
This is the secret to an authentic Christian faith. It is in pursuing this bread that you are given the assurance, that even when you forget God’s name, he will not forget yours. We need this bread to live from day to day, and so we pursue it. Jesus comes to you in this bread offering his word of salvation, the forgiveness of your sins, and the promise that he will lift you up when you are low. Yes, he comes to you, if you will simply come to him. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.