First, thanks to Reverend Debra Thomas for being here today to say hello. She is just what we need, a professionally trained leader for our Christian Education program and for our continuing spiritual development as a congregation. Faith is reaching out to God in all ways; Community Service, Worship and Music, and of course, Study of the Scriptures. With Deb, we are demonstrating concrete plans to shore up our Christian Education program.
Education is about understanding our Worship service, why it is structured the way it is; what the principles are on which our Presbyterian faith is built; why we call anthems, anthems; why we sing the Gloria. Education is about how and why we do community service and outreach. We do that well. And, while Christian Education is about all these, Christian Education is also about teaching our prime building block, the power of the Bible at all levels. So, this morning is a good time to talk about that little wedge of our faith cornerstone.
In public school, we tell the first graders we are going to start with stories. And, we let our children know we will come back to these stories later. We show children that they are learning road signs right now, that there is a path, and High School and then College is out there. In arithmetic, we learn to add and subtract the numbers, but later we learn more complex operations with the same numbers, and later still we learn the deeper meanings of these same numbers and what beauty they reveal. The numbers don't change, our understanding changes and deepens.
We teach children that when we listen to music, we hear it and enjoy it, but each time we hear it, we hear it differently. The music doesn't change, but we change, and the way we hear changes, for example, some popular songs or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Beethoven's Ode to Joy may be the same old music, but we never tire of listening to it. It is the same music, but different each time we hear it because listening to it changes us.
It is similar for Christian Education. First we teach the stories. Then, because children are naturally curious, we fan their curiosity and encourage them to think about what these stories mean today, and later, we guide them into thinking on what the meaning might be for us tomorrow. The Bible is a very powerful teacher. Today, let's use this morning's scripture lesson to take a very brief look at how our Bible teaches. We can't explore this in depth today, but we can get a taste of how our Bible teaches.
Our Bible teaches us at four different levels. The first level is the story. This is the literal level. The first level tells the story, this is what happened; this is what was said and by whom. This is the core of what we teach our younger children in Sunday School.
The second is the teaching level where lessons are drawn from the stories. What do the stories point to. This second level, teaching, holds the moral lessons and the teachings of the faith. Sermons, like this one, are drawn from this second level.
The third level is called by different names, but I like what the old Jewish Rabbis call it – Remez, or “Hints”. At this third level we look for connections and awakenings that stretch our minds to where the scriptures want to take us. These little hints take us beyond the "moral of the story" to the deeper connections and insights. There is a fourth level, too, of profound teaching.
The first level, the story level is history. The next three levels are spiritual levels.
The old rabbis also say there is a fifth level. They called it the Mystery level. The Mystery level is never accessible to our reasoning conscious minds. It isn’t meant to be understood by our mind. It is food for our souls. It is meant for our spirit to feed on. This is the level of deepest satisfaction to our souls, it is direct communication from the Creator God himself to the divine spark he places inside each human being. This deepest level is always operating at every level of study, beyond our conscious awareness, from the time we hear our first Bible story in Sunday School until the last Psalm is read at our funeral.
So to say it simply, 1 is the story, 2 is the teaching from the story, 3 is awakenings and hints about the kingdom of heaven, 4 is teaching about these hints of the kingdom of heaven. And, 5 is the feeding of our souls.
We do a good job at teaching the first level to our younger children. Craig does a great job for all of us at the second teaching level – morals, principles of the faith, relationships, lessons for how to live our lives. Every week Craig draws lessons from scripture teaching strength for today and courage for tomorrow. There isn’t space or time during a worship service to explore the next level, the hints, the connections and teaching from these hints. This is one of the tasks of Christian Education and Spiritual Development. This is what is being hinted at in the passage we read from Paul's Letter to the Hebrews. There is more to be learned than the simple rudiments of Christianity. There is more available, more to open our minds, teens and adults, to prepare us to feed on this feast of heavenly food.
And speaking of feasts, lets look at today’s passage from Isaiah. Isaiah speaks for God, saying: Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Let's unpeel this free lunch offer and how it relates to the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. We certainly look at this as a Jesus miracle and draw lessons of how God provides for every need to those with faith. This is a true and important lesson from this story. Let's call that moral lesson; a level two teaching. We start with the story of feeding the hungry families in that deserted place by the shores of the Sea of Galilee. We learn this story as children, and we've seen it illustrated in Sunday School books. It is a great sermon topic. The lesson? God will provide for our needs if we have faith in him.
But there is more. There are hints to be explored. Isaiah gives us hints, as does Psalms, as does the Book of Numbers, as does Jesus. In Numbers, as in Exodus, we are told the Israelites were freed from Egyptian slavery through a series of incredible miracles, and are now wandering in the Sinai desert. They soon run out of food. The people complain to Moses. God answers in a mysterious way beyond what they could imagine. God provides manna in the desert.
Manna, a mysterious food that strangely satisfied. It dropped from heaven fresh every morning. Manna had an appearance like no food ever before, with a delicious honeyed taste. Everyone gathered as much as needed that day freely and in plenty. There was no competition for this food. No one was short; and if anyone gathered too much, thinking to hoard it for the next day, it spoiled. Yet every day it appeared fresh and plentiful.
But the Israelites remembered the savory fleshpots, the garlic and onions of Egypt, and they craved meat. Here in the desert, God provides a strangely satisfying new food, free for the gathering. But the people grumble and complain. They want Johnny Angels hamburgers. They want KFC original chicken, they want Doug's fish fry dinners.
God was giving them their daily bread, and it was wonderful. At the same time God was feeding their bellies, God was also feeding their souls and spirits. But in Numbers we hear that Manna was not enough, the Israelites grew bored. As Paul says in Philippians, ...their God was their belly. They wanted the material stuff of this world. They wanted meat.
They asked for meat. God sent a great flock of quail - easy 'pickins.' They got what they asked for and gorged themselves. They immediately fell sick from the quail and vomited, and many died of a disease. In the end, God said, "This generation shall never enter my rest." Because they complained and rejected God's gift in preference for the familiar stuff of life, they were doomed to wander forty years more until their children were the ones to enter the promised land. See a hint here?
Then, Isaiah hints to us, warns us, the stuff of the world does not satisfy. He asks why we spend our money for that which does not satisfy when much better is available for no money, without cost. Isaiah hints that the things of this world we struggle after burn up our money and still provide no happiness. Yet God provides that which brings happiness and satisfaction for free. For no money. At no cost. But, instead of eating this miraculous daily bread which he gives us in response to our daily prayers, the people of Isaiah's time craved the visible things of the material world.
Shocking news! Even today, some people put first priority on career, on success, on big houses, BMW's and Mercedes. This is precisely what Paul in Philippians hints at in the phrase, "Their God was their belly." By belly, he means more than stomach. Belly means the material world of sense and human desire we see and are trained to operate in. God knows that we need to feed and clothe our families and provide for the kids' education. But this is a hint about priorities. We can connect this hint to the mysterious story of Jonah in the belly of the whale. Being trapped in the belly of the whale implies being trapped in the material world of logic, reason and the physical senses When we refuse to follow God's clear direction, we become trapped like Jonah. Many people today are traveling inside the belly of this enormous whale of materialism.
How does one get out of the belly of the whale? Jesus instructs us, "Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven and all these things shall be added unto you." The key is what do we seek first. Do we pray only for our own health and success, or do we also pray to praise and glorify our Maker. Do we pray for the world, for the redemption of all creation, or do we only pray to beg God for yet another favor?
Here's the hint. The manna, the daily bread God feeds, is not meant just to avoid the accident, or pass the test or thwart the bad guy who means to hurt us. Our daily bread is more than help in time of need. The bread God feeds us for free is deep satisfaction and joy in the simple. The bread he hands out with an open hand in daily doses is just what we need to open our inner eyes and ears and see and experience the invisible, the immaterial sea of heaven in which we freely swim every minute; the sea of God in which we live and move and have our being.
In our scripture today Jesus is surrounded by a hungry crowd of adults that came to hear his teaching. Jesus asks his disciples, "What do you have to feed these people?" Jesus knew, of course, but he was asking them to first focus on their own resources. They responded they had little, just five loaves and two fish. Jesus instructs them, "Bring them to me."Jesus asks for and will accept the little we have and will return it transformed and huge, whether it is little faith, little confidence, little talent, little patience, little strength, little wisdom. Jesus takes what we give him and multiplies it many times. Then, he returns it to us, as he did to the disciples, for us to put into practice and distribute to others. The disciples took their multiplied talent and wisdom and discernment and desire and will and patience and love and bread and fish and gave them freely to the community. The community ate their fill, with more left over than when they began.
I began this morning talking about our Christian Education program. We have the chance to not only prepare our children for entry into the promised land, to teach them to choose manna rather than the false gods all around us, but we have a second chance ourselves to choose manna. This heavenly food is available. As much as anyone can handle, today. This feast is available in sermons, in private prayer, worship and missions. But what I want to emphasize today, this feast is in our pew Bible, it is in our Bibles at home. It is available in our Church through Sunday School for children, full of the stories of the Bible. It can and will be available in Church for our teen-agers hungry for content, for meaning, for Wisdom - available through learning HOW to read scripture. Jesus wants us to look at our resources, assess what we have, then give it to Jesus for miraculous multiplication. He will return it to us to put into practice in the world.
Our Christian Education needs strengthening. We do well by our youngest teaching the Bible at the story level, but things drop off after confirmation, just when the next stage of learning should begin ... and continue through the rest of our lives. Once having learned the basics it is time to grow into mature adults in our Christian faith. God is hinting, challenging us to open our minds to become more than we are today. The Bible - and our Church - is richer in content, in discernment and Wisdom than all the philosophers and scientists from Plato and Kant and Hegel and Jung, to Curie and Einstein and Crick and Watson.
All of us, together as a Church, need to fortify the milk we serve our children, and we need to provide solid food for our teens and adults. It's our sacred obligation as a Church to provide a spread table for this heavenly feast. We all need to eat this feast ourselves. Then we will be able to feed others. And, we don't need to worry about running short. There will be basketfuls left over.