Surprise Package

SJF • Proper 14b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
They began to complain about him, because he said, I am the bread that came down from heaven. They were saying, Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?+

Have you ever gotten a surprise package? They come, you know, in several forms. One kind is the grab-bag: sometimes a store or a mail-order company will dispose of excess stock by offering you a selection that you pay for sight unseen — and which, who knows, might contain a wonderful bargain. And then there’s the birthday or Christmas gift that you weren’t expecting, the carefully and lovingly wrapped package that contains a wonderful surprise. Have you ever gotten a package that surprised you — opened a gift you expected to contain one thing, and then been delighted to discover it was something else? something you never expected? There is a lot of fun in a good surprise package!

The common thing about all of these surprise packages is that you don’t know what’s inside; that’s what makes them a surprise. Either you can’t guess the nature of the contents, or you think it’s one thing and it turns out to be something else. In both cases, you’re in for a surprise.

In today’s Gospel, the leaders of the people have received a surprise package in the person of Jesus. He’s just told them something extraordinary: that he is the bread that came down from heaven. The problem is he doesn’t look like bread from heaven. He looks like Joseph’s son, like a man whose father and mother they know. How can he be bread from heaven? He’s just a carpenter!

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Many years ago, long before steamships and radios, there was a sailing ship in sore distress out on the Atlantic. The ship was in trouble because their supply of fresh water had run out. It was like that memorable line from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” The crew were perishing from thirst, because the saltwater all around them, however tempting as it might look, would if you drank it lead only to delirium and death. With hope almost gone, they sighted a ship approaching in the distance and hoisted their distress signal pennants: spelling out, “No water.” And as the captain looked earnestly through his telescope, the distant ship hoisted its pennants and signaled in return. But what the answering flags spelled out was not “We’re on our way,” but “Dip it up.”

“Dip it up?” the parched and weakened crew moaned. What heartless mockery, they said among themselves. To suggest that they dip up buckets of lethal salt water! They signaled again, “No fresh water,” but the very same answer a second time, “Dip it up!” Finally, in despair, they lowered a bucket and hoisted up some of the sea water To their amazement and joy it turned out that the water in which they were sailing, even out in the Atlantic Ocean, was fresh, sweet water. They hadn’t know it, but they were sailing through a current of water that flowed from the mouth of the mighty Amazon river, flowing out into the Atlantic Ocean fresh water flowing invisibly far out at sea. All the thirsty while, they thought for sure that the water surrounding them was useless, yet the means to save their lives was all around them.

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Yes, Jesus was a carpenter. It’s said he made good yokes; easy, light ones, as he said himself. And yes, he was reckoned to be the son of Joseph and Mary, well known to the folks in town. But he was also the bread which came down from heaven, to give life to the world. He looked like a man, and so he was — but he was also the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the bread of life, whom to eat is to live for ever. He was and is the surprise package for the world’s birthday, the unexpected miracle that looks so ordinary, and turns out to be beyond our dearest expectations.

We are here in this church because we have accepted the surprise package. We’ve bought the grab bag. We’ve been presented with the greatest gift ever given. And when we open it up, what do we see? What do we see when we come to this altar to receive communion. Bread! And skeptical folks today like the skeptical folks from Jesus’ home town might say of us, as they said of him, How can they believe that is bread from heaven?! Don’t we know it comes from Vermont Church Supply, shipped by UPS in cardboard boxes. Don’t we know how much it costs and how it’s baked? How can we imagine it to be bread from heaven? How can we imagine that it is the Body of Christ, given for the life of the world, that whoever eats of it will live forever?

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There was once an elderly woman who made her living by making and selling artificial fruit. One day a potential customer came into her shop and after looking around with a frown, complained that the artificial fruit she made was not realistic enough — it was too perfect. She pointed to an apple sitting there on the counter. “Look at that,” she said. “It is far too red, it’s too round and it’s too big to be a real apple.” The old woman nodded thoughtfully, picked up the apple (which happened to be her lunch) and proceeded to take a nice big bite out of it!

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You see, there will always be people who will never understand that things are sometimes exactly what they appear to be; that sometimes you find a perfect apple it looks too good to be true — but it is — and is it ever good! And on the other hand, there will always be people who will never understand that some things are not what they appear to be, that our wrong understanding of a thing can make us believe it is something other than what it is. People can go off the road of understanding on both sides.

Anger, for instance, can so preoccupy us that we miss the new opportunities offered to us. People can get so angry at things not going their way that they fail to see how much better things are going than if they had gone their way. Fear can make an old hollow tree on a dark road look like a monster. Simple ignorance — just simply not knowing — can make us think that clear fresh water is deadly poison. Pride can convince us that we know more about apples than an apple grower, or more about art than an artist. Familiarity can make us miss the marvelous hidden in the people and places we think we know through and through but who contain wonderful surprises for us. Contempt for the ordinary can cause us to miss wonders — or worse. For remember that when the king wanted to come among us to see what we really thought of him, he took the distressing disguise of a poor man from the Galilean hill country, son of a working family and a working-man himself!

God has enriched this world with surprise packages so numerous that life can be a perpetual birthday party if we’ll only allow ourselves to look for the mystery and the surprise instead of being happy with the obvious, or missing the depths of reality as our limited senses skim only the surface appearance. The stranger you pass by on the street, the person you neglect to greet, may have some wonder to show or tell you, or a smile that could light up your days for a month of Sundays.

There will always be people who will tell you that bread from Vermont can’t possibly be bread from heaven. There will always be unbelievers who will say that Jesus was just a poor misguided human being, the son of quite ordinary small-town folks, who got himself into trouble with the law and suffered the consequences. There will always be sober and serious people whose lives contain no surprises, who pass up the grab-bags because they don’t want to risk losing out — and consequently never have the pleasure of a surprising bargain. There will always be angry people so bitter that things don’t go their way that they miss the sweetness offered to them; unhappy, angry people who frown ungraciously at the gifts they receive simply because they aren’t what they expected. There will always be people who will die of thirst because they will not dip their buckets into the living water that surrounds them. There will always be people who die from hunger and pass into oblivion because they won’t take and eat the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

But sisters and brothers, thank God that we are not among them. Thanks be to God that we have seen the signal pennants aright, we have heard the words, life-giving words from the mouth of God and his son Jesus Christ: Dip it up! Take and eat! And isn’t that a wonderful surprise! +

The story of the fresh water current is adapted from Donald Deffner, “Seasonal Illustrations,” Resource 1992