Grown Up Children of God

A sermon preached on August 1st, 2021 based upon Ephesians 4:15; Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; and John 6:24-35 entitled, “Grown Up Children of God.”

I want to take a piece of each of the three of the Bible readings assigned for this Sunday.  First, in the letter to the Ephesians, Paul’s been talking about the extraordinary God’s love revealed in Jesus – a gift, not something we earned – pure grace – a love that takes down the dividing walls of hostility.  In the fourth chapter Paul talks about the importance of living a life that is in harmony with the reality revealed in Jesus.  Having been graced, we need to live graciously ourselves.

I want to highlight the 15th verse: “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”

This morning I want to lift up the theme of “growing up.”

Every Sunday at the end of our children’s sermon we watch a short video of little Michael waving, reminding us of Jesus’s words, “Unless you turn and become like a child, you will never enter the kingdom of God.”

So, how do we hold these two ideas together: Paul telling us to grow up – be adults – and Jesus telling us to turn and become like a child?

Let’s take a moment to consider these two words:  Child and Adult.  What are the positive and negative associations we have with them?

First, “Child.”  What I think we find really appealing about children is their lack of self-consciousness, and with that, their capacity to live in the present moment. We are drawn to their capacity to give themselves over to play, to be spontaneous and experience joy.

Okay, what are our negative associations with the word “child?”  Well, children can be… bratty.  They have quite the capacity for complaining.  They can perceive themselves to be helpless even when they aren’t.  Sometimes they can be really self-absorbed.

Okay, now the word “adult.”  What are the positive associations?  Ideally, an adult is somebody who is willing to take responsibility for their lives — somebody who is reliable, somebody who is free from the self-absorption that keep them from considering the needs of others — somebody with enough courage to do what needs to be done when life gets scary.

Okay, and now the negative associations with the word “adult.”  Well, it’s essentially the tendency we adults have to lack the capacities we prize in children.  Often it can seem like we lack the ability to just let go and play.  We can get so preoccupied with anticipating the problems of the future that we don’t know how to stop and smell the flowers.  We can lack spontaneity and the capacity to think outside the box.

So, how do we grow up and still hold onto the qualities of a child we find so attractive?

In pursuit of this balance, our example is Jesus himself. Whether alone in prayer or in the company of another, he was fully present.  He loved a good party.  And he was also the epitome of brave – embracing the hard road God had called him to travel.

He wasn’t — as we often can be – “passive-aggressive.”  Rather, as Paul said, he spoke the truth in love.

Turning now briefly to the Old Testament lesson, we hear the story I talked about with the children from Exodus (16:2-4, 9-15). Through the mighty hand of God, Moses has led the Israelites out of their bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt.  But life in the barren wilderness proved challenging. We pick up the story in the 16th chapter, beginning in the 2nd verse.

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.”

Did you catch that?  Their fear of starving to death in the wilderness leads them to re-write their personal history.  That life wasn’t so bad as Pharaoh’s slaves.  That somehow Moses had forced them to leave their supposedly comfortable life, when in fact they freely chose to come with him.

They don’t want to take personal responsibility.  They don’t want to grow up.  They want someone to take responsibility for them – someone to blame when the going gets tough.

Something very basic about human nature is being expressed here.   Maybe you can recognize parts of yourself in their moaning and complaining, their self-delusion and need to blame others.

Moses proceeds to consult with God.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them,

kind of like the Israelites are in some sort of school

whether they will follow my instruction or not.”

As the story continues, that evening birds — “quails” – appear, seemingly out of nowhere, giving the people protein to eat.  And in the morning, this flaky substance appears on the ground, and the people ask, “What is it?”  And Moses replies,

“It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

Manna from heaven.  God meets them where they are — in their childishness, providing for their basic needs.  But there are things God expects them to learn out there in the wilderness and it begins with trusting God, day by day.

Every morning thereafter, this “manna” will appear in the morning.  They were to take enough for the day – not try to store it up for tomorrow.  When they tried to do this, they discovered it turned rancid.

The point being much like the one Jesus would make many years later in his sermon on the mount, when he said, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Keep your focus on God. Keep clear about what truly matters in life, and what doesn’t matter.

The Israelites would end up spending 40 years wandering in the wilderness. You know the old joke, “Why did the Israelites wander for 40 years in the wilderness?”  Because being led by men, they were too stubborn to ask for directions.

There may be some truth in the joke.  Pride gets in the way in our spiritual journey.

The 40 years in the wilderness was a time of spiritual preparation for living in the Promised Land – kind of a school to learn how to live faithfully, if you will.

You and me – we’re in that same school.  It lasts a life time.

In the story we highlighted this morning, we see the Hebrew people acting like children at their brattiest worst.  Whining and complaining, but mostly intimidated by their fears.  They need to relearn that child-like-quality of living in the moment, which requires learning to trust.

But they also need to learn to take responsibility for their actions.

At the end of their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, Moses gives what sounds rather like a commencement address, placing a challenge before the Hebrew people as they are about to finally pass over into the promised land.

I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live… (Deuteronomy 30:19)

In other words, take responsibility for the choices you make in the course of your journey. Make conscious choices that enhance life. To choose not to choose is still to choose.

Somebody I was talking to this week described a moment of clarity in her life in which she suddenly realized she had a choice regarding whether she would live in fear and shame and anger, or live with joy and love.

Growing up involves taking responsibility for our choices and forgoing blaming others. It involves finding in Christ the balance between letting go and mustering up courage.

One of the best guides for the day-to-day process of growing up is the Serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept that which I cannot change,

to refuse to let that part of ourselves run our lives that would endlessly worry over the all that is out of our control in the future.

The courage to change that which I can,

to face down the demons of fear in our lives that would paralyze us, keeping us passive in relation to the actions we need to take.

And the wisdom to know the difference,

which only comes through paying attention – getting out of auto-pilot.

So finally, let’s briefly consider our Gospel lesson from John 6:24-35 which echoes our story from Exodus.  A little while this reading Jesus has performed the miracle out in wilderness in which the offering of one little child — five loaves and two fishes — becomes enough to feed thousands.  Hungry people with empty stomachs had their fill of bread.

The boy both trusts and acts decisively to do his part to share.  Pretty grown up of him, I’d say.

But now people are hungry again, and after searching they finally find Jesus, but they seem to be stuck in anxious complainer mode, looking for Jesus to perform the same miracle again to fill their bellies. The people recall how, out in the wilderness Moses gave their ancestors manna from heaven. They want Jesus to do the same.

The reading ends this way:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

They are different ways to think about what happens when we share Holy Communion.

Today I invite what might be a new way of thinking.  We receive the gift of Jesus’ body – the bread of life – to fortify our spiritual muscle.

We take Jesus inside us to find the courage to live as grownups in the very best sense of the word, with the joy and open-heartedness of children.  We claim his promise to be with us always.

So as you receive the bread and the cup this morning, I invite you to reflect on the question, “What would it mean for you to grow up?”