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The God Who Gives

God in the Present Tense
Cycle B Gospel Text Sermons for Pentecost Middle Third
We had a very tasty meal. So when the tour guide said, "Let's load the bus and visit the site," I think I was near the front of the line. Lunch that day was pita bread and tilapia, a round thin fish that resembles a sunfish. Our destination was Tabgha, a spot on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is a couple of stones' throw from the ruins of Capernaum, at the bottom of the hill where Jesus gave the Beatitudes.

Tabgha is the place where people believe Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish. These days the Benedictines run a little tourist chapel there. "Watch your step," said the bus driver, "and be sure to see the mosaic in the floor." Indeed it is pretty. Little chunks of porcelain tile have been shaped into loaves and fish in a simple pattern that is on the plate and chalice we're using for communion today. As you might expect, Christians came along and built a communion table on top of the mosaic.

I expect you remember the story. A large crowd of hungry people gathered around Jesus. Some say there were about 5,000 people; although I am certain no one took the time to count. The country had been occupied by the Roman army for some time and most of the people who lived in the north country had precious little to eat.

But something attracted them to Jesus. Luke says they came to listen to him speak. John says they heard about all the healings he did for the sick. Who knows why they really came? Jesus did not screen the crowd; they simply showed up. All four gospels say he took a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, gave thanks to God, and proceeded to feed everybody. He fed every single one of them and there was lots of food left over.

This is what happened in Tabgha. The tour guide said, "If you come over here, you will see the Byzantine basilica style, which incorporates the remains of a fifth-century church." Those of you who have been to the Holy Land know this is the same kind of thing you hear whenever you visit one of the sacred spots. You pay your admission, work your way through the gift shop, and take your camera to the place where something important was supposed to have happened. By the time we got to Tabgha, I was kind of sick of it. I did not take any pictures.

You know, it is one thing to hear the Bible stories of some miraculous, generous action of God -- I think the story of the loaves and the fishes was one of the first Jesus stories that ever stuck with me. It is one thing to hear the story but it is another to stand there, smelling the fumes of tour buses, watching out for pickpockets, seeing the pious kiss the floor, and the indifferent look at their watches. Of all the spots I visited in the Holy Land, Tabgha was the biggest letdown.

We can understand why the crowd chased after Jesus the day after he fed them. The miracle was over. The leftovers were stale. Their empty stomachs were beginning to ache again and Jesus had gone on ahead of them. Some of them probably figured, "We had a free meal once so let's go get another." The rest followed along because they did not have anything better to do.

They ask about his travels. "Rabbi, when did you come here?"

Jesus talks right past them: "You are looking for me, not because of my signs, but because of your stomachs." Then he adds, "Don't work for perishable food. Get the enduring food that gives you life."

I wiped my brow at Tabgha and took a minute to scan the crowd. There was a fat woman in blue spandex bossing around a short little guy who may have been her husband. Three dark-haired beauties were crossing themselves, fumbling with beads, and praying in Italian, while their bored-looking taxi driver took a drag on a hand-rolled cigarette. I saw a large group of puffy white people (maybe they were Lutherans from Lake Wobegon, Minnesota). They read a few Bible verses, had a short prayer, and posed for a photograph.

Why do people go to places like this? Why pay $2,500, fly across a continent or two, and endure the obnoxious security people? What is the attraction? What is the need to get away? Is it a need for something to do? Is it a need to blow the children's inheritance? Why go to Tabgha, of all places?

The people said to Jesus, "Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness. We know the Bible story. A long time ago, people wandered in a barren place. The Bible verses tell us that God gave them bread from heaven to eat. It happened a long time. The Bible said it happened. We believe God fed a lot of people a long time ago."

A tourist with a camera said, "Evelyn, stand over there by that pretty mosaic and I'll get a picture of you in the place where Jesus once fed the multitude. This one's for the Bible class back home. Smile!"

Jesus said, "The Son of Man will feed you. It wasn't Moses who gave you the bread of heaven. It is my Father who gives you the true bread of heaven. The bread of God comes down and gives life to the world. I am the bread of life."

Now, isn't that something? They remembered but Jesus revealed. They said, "A long time ago, our Bible told us," but Jesus says, "Today is the day." The people said, "Our ancestors ate bread from above," and Jesus counters them by saying, "My Father gives." In that subtle change in grammar is the fundamental change of perception from history to faith. Jesus brings the history into the present tense. Jesus brings God into the present tense.

The Bible tells a lot of stories about what God did a long time ago. You can pay the travel agent, visit the spots, and see what God did once upon a time. Or you can take an even more amazing trip without ever leaving home. I'm talking about the journey that begins when you say, "The God who did a lot of things in the past is giving us life in Jesus Christ."

You can go down to the Red Sea and remember how God split the waters and brought the people out of slavery. You can remember that. Or you can look around and see where God is bringing people out of slavery to alcohol, freeing the oppressed, and lifting up those who were once beaten-down.

You can rent a camel and ride out to Mount Sinai, look up at that big rock, and say, "Wow! Once upon a time there was fire and smoke, God spoke, people received the Ten Commandments, and it was really impressive." Or you can look around and see people reading the Bible, studying the Bible, listening to the Bible, paying attention to the Bible, and finding some direction and purpose and joy for their lives.

You can go to Bethlehem and drive out past a new row of condominiums and say, "This is the place that we sing about every December: 'While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night'; 'Hark, the Herald Angels Sing'; 'Angels We Have Heard on High, Sweetly Singing Over the Condominiums.' " You can declare, "This is the place where God touched down on earth and became like us." You can remember all of that. Or you can sing, "O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today."

Jesus Christ brings the past activity of God into the present tense. Can you remember all that God did? The promise of the gospel is that Jesus still does it. In the power of his resurrection, he is not bound by history. Rather he is free to come and feed us. For in Christ, the God who gave becomes the God who gives. Everything we need to flourish in life -- everything -- is given to us.

It is hard to keep this in view. No sooner do we understand it and it goes out of focus. Sometimes we think we should be out there earning it. Like they said to Jesus, "What kind of work should we be doing? Tell us about the works of God and we'll do them." Sign us up for the mission trip. Tell us where to take a casserole to the hungry. Let us know if we can buy food for the migrant workers. Give us something to do so we can have the assurance of earning our own way. Give us some paint, and we will make a great big sign that says: "Will work for food."

Jesus says to them and to us, "This is God's accomplishment -- this is God's gift -- that you come to believe in the One whom God has sent."

I think what he means is that we are supposed to go home after each miracle. I think it means that, rather than look around and remember, we simply need to look around. See if we can detect some trace amounts of holiness and generosity. We pray that, rather than grow weary and cynical when we hear what God used to do, maybe this time we will stay awake enough to see what God is doing right here, down the street, or somewhere else in the neighborhood.

The God who gave has become the God who gives. For Jesus says, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."

In that declaration, the ancient promises of God become real here and now. Do you believe this? Amen.
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