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August 13, 2006 (Sunday 19 • Time after Pentecost)—“Good News and Bad News”
Interim Pastor Steve Jensen
John 6:35, 41–51
In providing pastoral counseling over the years, at some point in the sessions I would often say to people, “I have good news and I have bad news. Which would you like first?” No matter their choice, the answer was always the same: “The good news is you have choices. The bad news is you have choices.”
We humans celebrate that we have the ability to make a myriad of choices throughout our lives. We sometimes speak of it as a gift of God, the gift of free will. On the one hand we rejoice that he did not make us puppets or programmed people, but rather allowed us to select from various options. Yet as we read the story of Adam and Eve or listen to commentators or preachers, there is not infrequently a reminder that life seemed to be better, the relationship between God and his children more pure, when we only knew how to follow God’s will.
The good news is we have choices. The bad news is we have choices.
This week marks what would have been my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary, but also the 28th anniversary of my dad’s death at age 54. As this week rolls around every year, it causes me to pause and reflect on our life together, its impact on me, and what otherwise might have been.
My understanding is that Dad’s father died when Dad was only 9—of alcoholism. The difficult life for Dad and his family before and after his father’s death, I was told, caused him to make the choice not to drink when he came of age.
However, Dad joined the Army Air Corps fresh out of high school early in the Second World War. Still a teen and away from family and friends, his need to fit in seemed to overcome the earlier decision not to drink—and he chose to imbibe with his fellow soldiers. The comradeship he enjoyed in those challenging times that centered around alcohol apparently led him to develop much of his social life around it there and long after his return. Eventually alcohol became the primary factor in even making simple decisions about family events and outings. If there was no availability of alcohol, we didn’t stay long or we didn’t go.
Periodically he would realize or it would be pointed out that it was affecting the relationship with his family, and he would swear things would change. They never did.
I specifically remember returning home from seminary one year at Christmas time and Dad was performing his traditional role of setting up the tree and putting on the lights. When I looked in the living room, I noted he was crying. My mother’s response to my questioning his tears was that the doctor had told him that day if he didn’t stop drinking, it would soon kill him. The horrible truth was clear to both Dad and me at that moment: he was no longer able to make the choice not to drink.
Recently I participated in a Navy retirement ceremony for a sailor I’ve known some ten years. He’s a tall, large African American from North Carolina who can be both a stern, no-nonsense task master and a teddy bear.
When it was time to make his remarks, he thanked his wife and family for their support and acknowledged the “Momma,” who had flown it to surprise him, for giving him life and encouragement. But he concluded his remarks by saying he was also appreciative that “Dad” was at his ceremony. People naturally looked around for an equally large Black man and then noticed that he was looking directly at me. What looks on their faces! Most of the people at the ceremony had no idea until that moment why he had asked me to do the invocation and benediction instead of the unit chaplain.
He explained that, while his mother had given him life, the ministry I led had given him new life, a second chance at life, and so he has since considered me his dad. (His momma and I joked that it was about time we met.)
He, too, had been trying to feed a hunger, a craving he didn’t fully comprehend with food and alcohol. We encouraged him to identify the real hunger, but to also identify from whom he was trying to escape—and to whom, in his heart of hearts, he knew he needed to walk. There was a “God-shaped hole” that he was trying to fill with all the wrong things, and it was making his life miserable. His wrong choices caused him to despise himself and to punish himself even more.
When he was able to comprehend that it was his soul that needed to be fed and that God had never abandoned the child he had created and chosen to be his, everything changed. He became a new person and was able to make better choices. The first choice was to acknowledge God’s presence and purpose for his life. Later and persistent choices centered around loving the unlovable and sharing his understanding of the “God-shaped hole” in their lives.
The tributes at his retirement were all about his care for others and his choice to appreciate and make use of the new life he had been given. He chose to love others, to forgive others, because he had been loved and forgiven. He thus not only gave others second chances and advocated for them with higher authorities but encouraged them not to squander those new opportunities, not to take them for granted, and he was always quick to point to God as the source of his strength and purpose.
Dad’s frequent use of alcohol to quench a thirst for love and acceptance eventually led to his being robbed of the choice to quench that thirst and hunger with anything else. This sailor was fortunate enough to still be able to choose—and he chose God.
Jesus, in today’s Gospel, warns that choosing to ignore the call of our souls to be fed by God can put us in Dad’s situation—where we can no longer hear God’s call or know how to respond to his voice; where we look to ourselves for all the answers and to turn the wrong things—money, materialistic acquisition, food, sex, power, fame, thrill-seeking, drugs, and more—for nourishment of our starved souls.
After having fed the 5,000 to the point where they were sated and there were still 12 baskets of food remaining, the Son of God tells them that he offers a bread which, after eating, will never again let them hunger. In post-resurrection light, many suggest he refers to his body and blood given and shed for us. Jesus, on the other hand, tells the people that it is the love of God in Christ Jesus that feeds their hungry souls. I am the bread of life. I bring the Creator of the unimaginable vast universe down to dwell in the concrete flesh and blood of sinful humanity.
When you choose to eat of this bread that God offers, your soul will never hunger again. In fact, you will be so filled that His love will spill over to feed and fill others. That bread, that love, will cause you to make other right choices in your life in response to God’s gift. You may, in fact, realize that love isn’t a feeling but a choice. And God’s love for us in Christ allows us to choose to love others.
Mother Teresa, you will remember, was joined by her Sisters of Charity walking through the streets of Calcutta seeking the poor who were left to die on the sides of the roads and the alleyways of the city. They brought these dying people to their mission where they bathed and cared for them. “Every person at least one time before they die needs to know that he or she is loved,” Mother Teresa asserted.
The leader of the Church of South India some 50 years ago, D. T. Niles, defined evangelism in this light: “one hungry person telling another hungry person where to find bread.”
Jesus is the bread of life because he came to show the world of human beings that we are loved—loved by God and loved by God’s people who, as the church, live to extend that love to others. I’m a hungry person telling another where to find bread, and I invite you to share that good news as well.
“I have good news, and I have bad news,” Jesus tells us. We have choices. Yet there’s more good news. God has chosen us. And Jesus has chosen to follow the will of the Father, accept punishment for our sin, restore the relationship between God and his children, and conquer death so that we might have life eternal. We’re asked to choose to stop resisting him and open our souls to the call from him.
When you come to the Lord’s Table today to receive the body broken for you and the blood outpoured, tell God you have heard the Good News and will open your heart and soul to receiving His love. Then go from this place where you have been fed and tell another hungry person where to find this gift of life. The choice is yours.
Copyright © 2006 Steven Jensen
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org