12 June 2012

Soul Food

Psalm 111 & John 4: 31-42

Second Sunday After Pentecost/ June 10, 2012

On Wednesday evening the Session took some time to reflect upon John 4, particularly verse 34.  It’s the same verse I want to focus on this morning. Therefore, let’s set it up and put it in context.

John 4 contains the story of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well near the city of Sychar in Samaria.  He is passing through the region on his way from Judea back to the Galilee in the north. Now, remember the Jews and the Samaritans don’t get along.  The Jews considered them unclean, untouchable.  As John says, parenthetically, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9).  So the fact that Jesus would ask a Samaritan woman to give him something to drink, to touch the cup he would use to drink with, is, in itself something quite remarkable.  But that’s not my focus.  What we need to know here is that Jesus is alone with the woman at the well.  Why?  Because, John tells us, parenthetically, “His disciples had gone to the city to buy food” (John 4:8).  This is what we need to know for our purposes, for when we get to verse 31 we have the disciples returning and saying to him, “Rabbi [– teacher –] eat something.” 

            And what does he say in reply?  “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” This is a puzzling response, rather vague.  The disciples haven’t a clue what he’s talking about. They murmur saying, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”  Sometimes we miss the humor and the sarcasm contained in the gospels because we think we have to be so serious around them.  This is funny – the disciples talk amongst themselves.  Food?  What food?  Who brought him food?  We just went shopping for you and now you’re not hungry?

            Then we have verse 34:  “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”  It’s obvious here that Jesus and the disciples are talking past each other.  They’re both talking about food, but they’re not talking about the same kind of food.  The disciples are operating with a surface-level understanding of food and hunger.  Jesus meets them there and then takes them deeper, into a deeper meaning of things – because that’s where Jesus lives, that’s where his mind and heart are, and that’s where the depth of his being, his soul really is.  To be a follower of Jesus means going into the depths, leaving the surface meaning behind, and embracing a far more profound understanding of life and reality. A life in the depths, as opposed to the surface, a life of profound meaning and purpose, is what I mean by soul.  I don’t mean what’s left after the body dies and decays. I don’t mean what goes to heaven.  By soul I mean the core of who we are, what’s deep in our guts, which our bodies also know to be so.  Soul is that which ultimately matters, which gives our lives purpose and vision and meaning.  All of this seems to be implied when Jesus says he has other food.

            Last week, I heard the psychiatrist Tom Kirsch reflect upon his career and the direction of psychology today.  Based upon the people he works with in his practice in California, he said that despite all of the great technical and scientific advances of our age (and they truly are remarkable, unimagined even five to ten years ago), people are still hungry for what he called “soul food.”[1]  This is a hunger that all of our technical and scientific advances cannot satisfy for us.  If it were the case, there wouldn’t be so many people struggling for deeper meaning and purpose, especially in North America and Europe.  Humanity is adrift and we know it.

            That’s how I felt this past week watching the transit of the planet Venus across the sun. I followed the transit on the video-stream on the NASA website.  I’m grateful for the amazing images that Jeff Bolognese shared this week from the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory.[2]  Stunning.  Amazing.  Incredible.  As I watched Venus move in front of the sun I was struck by the massive size of the sun and the smallness of the planet Venus.  I was struck by the enormity of our solar system and the smallness of my single, solitary existence on this planet, which is close to the size of Venus.  Think of your existence within the vast, reaches of the universe, the approximately 14 billion light years from our sun.  That is humbling.

            All this technology, but where is soul?  Who are we?  What does it mean to be human in such an amazing universe? Why are we here?

            One of the great minds of the 17th century, the philosopher-mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) had this to say when he contemplated his life among the stars: 

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fell, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant and which know me not, I am frightened, and I am astonished at being here rather than there, why now rather than then.  Who has put me here?  By whose order and direction have this place and this time been allotted to me?  The eternal silence of those infinite spaces frightens me.[3] 

He didn’t know just how immense and silent those spaces really are.

            In those moments of existential awareness you can’t help but ask what your life means, who are you, whose are you?  Why are you here?  Why do you exist?  What does it mean to be human, to be alive, to be given this life?  “What is a life and what is it for?”[4]  These are soulful questions. The psalmist said it so well, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8: 3-4).  It’s the same question Pascal raised.  What does it mean to be human in this universe?  Who am I?  The psalmist continues, “Yet you have made [us] a little lower than God, and crowned [us] with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5).

            Many centuries later, our Presbyterian forbears who wrote the Westminster Shorter Catechism knew that every journey of faith begins by asking this question: “What is the chief end [or purpose] of humanity?  Humanity’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”[5]

            That’s the kind of food, I believe, Jesus was talking about.  Living this question daily is the kind of soul food Jesus feeds on, it’s what gives his life meaning and purpose, doing soulful things, feeding on the things that feed the soul, which provides meaning and depth. And for Jesus, his soul food is doing the will of the One who sent him.  That’s what gets him going.  That’s what gives him strength.  That’s what gives him life. 

            What is our “food”? What satisfies our hunger?  What do we hunger for, both individually and together as a church?  What feeds our souls?  We can easily come up with a list of all the things that bring us to life, those things that excite us, things about which we are passionate.  But Jesus is talking about something else here, something deeper.  He shows us something we might have forgotten about ourselves or maybe shows us something about what it means to be human that we never knew before, even if we’ve spent all of our lives in the church.

            When the early Church affirmed Jesus’ full humanity without sin it was a way of saying that Jesus embodied what it means to be fully human.  When we look at him we come to fathom what it means to be authentically human, we see what a human life is for.  And the extent to which we fail to reflect his way of being, we fail, we sin, that is we miss the mark. Biblically, theologically speaking we are not human yet; we are on the way to becoming human, as Jesus was fully human.  And so what we discover, what we learn from Jesus – as the truly human one – is that, like him, we are all born with a hunger, a soul-hunger, a deep desire to “feed” on the will of God, and that our souls are never really satisfied, are never really content until we rest in, live in, and hunger after God’s will, God’s purpose for our lives and for creation, God’s desire for our lives and for creation.  The desire to glorify God by doing the will of God is one of the deepest desires of the human soul.  The fact that this is not immediately apparent in our age is evidence just how alienated we are from our souls and how far adrift we are as human beings. 

            But to the one who opens one’s soul to God, who prays heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul with the Source of one’s being, you know, as St. Augustine (354-430), discovered in the fourth century, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord.”[6] Writing about his return to God in his spiritual autobiography Confessions, Augustine said to God, “You called, you cried, you shattered my deafness.  You sparkled, you blazed, you drove away my blindness.  You shed your fragrance, I drew in my breath, and I pant for you.  I tasted and now I hunger and thirst.  You touched me, and now I burn with longing for your peace.”[7]

So what is God’s will? That’s the twenty billion dollar question.  My sense is that, for most, this question is more of a burden than an occasion for joy.  Maybe we’re afraid of getting it wrong, of getting judged for not getting it right.  Perhaps we carry around with us a judging image of God who is waiting to pounce if we answer the question incorrectly.  Maybe we’re afraid of knowing the answer because we’ll have to do something about it (or not).  The will of God is really very simple, but we’ve complicated it, because a fearful ego loves to complicate things.  So let’s uncomplicate it. 

What is God’s will?  What does God want from us?  Glorify God with your life.  Enjoy God.  Live the good news of God’s grace.  Embrace faith, offer hope, extend love.  Liberate the oppressed.  Forgive.  Share.  Open your heart.  Grow.  Create.  Be merciful.  Be compassionate.  Be generous.  Do justice.  Be a peacemaker.  Be a healer.  Love your neighbor.  Love yourself.  Love God.  Enlarge your heart.  Embrace the stranger in yourself and in your neighbor.  Serve.  Suffer with those who suffer.  Rejoice with those who rejoice.  Set your fear aside.  Come alive.

All this is the will of God.  This is what we were created for.  And if we’re honest and courageous enough to plumb the depths of our soul and listen to its desires, we will discover that this is what every human being hungers for.  This is the will God.  All of this is what feeds our souls.  It’s why we’re here.  And our task, our job, our calling, our challenge, our joyful burden is for you and me, on a daily basis, to try to figure out what all of this looks like, to make it real, to enflesh it where we live and work and play and worship.  This is what’s complicated; this is what is difficult. However, do not despair in your struggle, because this, too, is also the will of God; we are called to figure it out, and in this holy struggle, too, our souls are fed.

[1] From a lecture for the Jung Society of Washington, given at the Swiss Embassy, 1st June 2012.
[2] Images may be found here: http://venustransit.gsfc.nasa.gov/
[3] From Pascal’s Pensées  (“Thoughts”) from 1669. Cited in William Barrett, Death of the Soul:  From Descartes to the Computer (New York:  Anchor/Doubleday, 1986), 8. 
[4] The core theological question posed by James E. Loder, The Logic of the Spirit:  Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 1998).
[5] Question 1 and Answer, Westminster Shorter Catechism (1648), Book of Confessions, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
[6] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, I.1.
[7] Confessions, X.27, 38.

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