On Tuesday, July 7, I was personally touched by history. Kathy and I were in Los Angeles for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, and on that Tuesday morning I went for a bike ride in Griffith Park. If you know anything about the geography of Los Angeles, you know that Griffith Park is right next to Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood Hills. The way I was personally touched by history is this: I went out for a bike ride at precisely the same moment that Michael Jackson’s family motorcade left their Encino house for the private family funeral at Forest Lawn (which was then followed by the televised funeral service at Staples Center later that morning). So how was I, a lowly recreational bike rider, touched by history? Here’s how: just as I was about to exit Griffith Park, the police shut down all the park exits for the duration of the motorcade and funeral. So along with some miscellaneous joggers and other bike riders, I was trapped inside Griffith Park chatting with the policemen for a couple of hours as television helicopters hovered overhead. I kept waving at them, but they didn’t seem to notice. Even so, you might say I was in the neighborhood of international fame. When I did finally get to leave the park, I was shocked to see thousands of people lining the streets, even though the Jackson family was long gone. It was kind of like my own personal Tour de France. Now, I admit it wasn’t much of a brush with history—let’s just say my family and friends are sick of hearing me talk about it, as now are you—but it was a memorable event.
I have thought a lot about Tuesday, July 7, 2009 since that day, and not only because of my forgettable brush with history. That Tuesday was also the opening day of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, which met for the following ten days in Anaheim. If you live, as I do, mostly within the friendly confines of the Episcopal Church, our General Convention is like the Super Bowl, World Series, and Stanley Cup Finals of Church groupie life all rolled into one. Church activists live for General Convention. If they made action figures of bishops and deputies, many people I know would collect the set. Because Seabury had a booth and hosted two events there, I had spent the three months leading up to General Convention working with people who talked of nothing else. So imagine that you are me, Joe Seminary Dean and part-time church nerd, at the epicenter of Anglicanism on the opening of an event when not only the whole Episcopal Church and even the Archbishop of Canterbury are gathered in your home town, and there is not one single mention of it in a newspaper, on television, or even public radio. I mean zero, zip, nada. There was, to be sure, dawn to dusk media coverage of Michael Jackson’s funeral, but not one word or picture or column inch of print devoted to a church gathering which would be asked to make some momentous decisions regarding the future of a major Christian tradition.
As I’ve thought about Tuesday, July 7th and its cultural impact, my reflections have less to do with the habits of the media than you might think. Because what really strikes me about the confluence of these two events—the death of a pop star, the opening of a church convention—is how people responded to them. Whether you like Michael Jackson’s music or not, you have to admit that millions of people around the world found something in his life and death that touched them so much that they had to stop in their tracks and grieve when he died. And whether you’re a devoted or a casual Episcopalian, you have to grant that the opening of our triennial convention on the same day was largely a matter of national indifference. Why do people seem to reach out to figures like Michael Jackson to make meaning of their lives? And why do they not seem to want what we in the church have to offer?
"I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. . . .I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." [John 6]
You and I live in complicated cultural and historical times, and when I try to think about what it means to be a Christian in days like these, I usually turn first to the writings of St. Augustine. Augustine lived and served as a bishop and theologian and pastor in the late days of the Roman Empire, a time when social and cultural change were rampant and life was deeply unsettled. How does one--as a finite human being beset by unrest and change and disruption on all sides—how do you and I get and keep our spiritual and moral bearings in days like these? When I ask myself those questions, I turn to Augustine for help. And when I turn to Augustine, the first thing I come upon is his famous statement as he addresses God in the opening paragraph of his Confesssions: “Inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te.” “Our heart is unquiet [or restless] until it rests in you.”
“Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Augustine is speaking to God here. And what makes him so profoundly relevant to you and me in the 21st century is that he speaks as a Christian person who begins his reflection on life and its meaning from the standpoint of the restlessness of his own heart. Augustine knows that he is a human being made in God’s image. God is the source of his being. Yet to live in the world is to be in some sense separated from God, from his source. Some deep part of Augustine’s being knows itself to belong to God and to yearn for reconnection with God. So Augustine begins his extended autobiographical prayer with the admission that his heart will always be restless until it rests in God.
Now that may sound like a platitude or a truism, but it is profoundly true in more ways than I have time to talk about or even name this morning. When I’m honest with myself I admit that my heart, too, is restless, that there’s always something I want or need or long for that I cannot quite grasp. As a human being, my attention can be diverted to watching what is worthless, to thinking that if I only have x or y or z then I will truly be able to relax and be happy. My x or y or z may not be the same as yours—for one person it’s a relationship, a job, a house; for another it’s an achievement, personal health, or recognition; for a third it might be world peace, universal health care, environmental justice. The point is, all of us, like Augustine, have restless hearts. What Augustine knows that we often don’t is that there is only one cure for restlessness—and that cure is not a job, not a person, not an achievement, not even physical and psychological wellness. The only cure for what ails our restless hearts is finding our rest in God. God is our source. We look for peace and fulfillment everywhere, but we find them only as we reconnect with the ground of our being.
And that, I believe, is what Jesus means when he says to us that he is the bread of life. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. . . .I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." Certainly John’s Gospel talks about bread at many levels here—real, physical bread for one thing, and the bread of the Eucharist for another. But when Jesus calls himself “the bread of life” at least one of his meanings is to name himself as that which alone will satisfy our hunger. There is a space in us which nothing but God can fill. We try to fill it with other things—with things that pass away or satisfy only briefly—but an important step on every person’s spiritual journey is the realization at some point in life that our deepest needs call out to the One who is our source. “Our heart is restless until it rests in God.” Another way to say that is that Jesus is the bread of life. Whoever comes to him will never be hungry or thirsty. We think we know what we want and we need, but we really don’t. We are restless without God, hungry for Jesus. No matter how good they are, a pop star or a political figure or even a religious leader is not going to satisfy that restlessness and hunger. Only God, the source of our being, can do that.
What were the millions of people who registered online for 1700 tickets to Michael Jackson’s funeral hoping to get from that experience? If we use Jesus’s or St. Augustine’s language, they were seeking nourishment for the empty places in their souls, they were looking for a restful place to quiet their restless hearts.
I am, of course, being ironic when I say that I was personally touched by history on July 7, 2009. But the people who talked of Michael Jackson’s music and funeral as transcendent experiences were not being ironic. Many of them talked movingly about how his music had given shape and meaning to their lives. While it’s tempting to be critical of those folks, they are telling us something we need to hear. At the very least let us admit that they are one step ahead of many of us in that they acknowledge their need for connection with something bigger and deeper than themselves. While I’m not advocating that you rush out of church this morning to buy a copy of Thriller, I do want to suggest that you and I have something to learn from those who arrange their lives around something many of us would probably consider trivial.
“Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” “I am the bread of life.” Each of us has a restless heart, and each of us yearns to be fed with something that will fill the emptiness which every one of us at some point must confront. It is easy to lose your way, to find yourself, as the poet Dante did, in a dark wood in the middle of life’s journey. We all wish to count for something, to be remembered, for our lives to have mattered. All of us are vulnerable to every imaginable kind of loss—the death of a wife, husband, parent, child, friend; the loss of a place, a person, a job, a friend. We can’t help but organize our lives around things and people that are passing away. Jesus knew that. Augustine knew that. But they also knew something else, and that something else is what God has on offer for you today.
Our restless hearts will never be at peace until they rest in God. Our deep needs will never be met until we reach for the bread of life which is, of course, Jesus himself. God knows that you are restless and hungry, and God also knows that you cannot help yourself from chasing after shiny worthless things, that even the relationships which mean so much in each of our lives will not endure forever. God knows that and the pain of that, and God knows what you most deeply need, and has given us an image of the answer to our questions in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus does not ask you to turn from the people and things we love so much but to look through those things and people to the ultimate source of what is good and true and life-giving. And that of course is God. And we see what God looks like when we see Jesus.
That people have to sign up for a lottery to get tickets to a pop star’s funeral while many of our churches stand empty should wake us up to our responsibility, as followers of Jesus, to bring the world in to our sharing of the bread of life. We are hungry for what God offers, and it is pretty obvious that the world around us is hungry, too. Our job in the church is both to receive and share that bread with each other. But we’re not being faithful if we don’t open it up to others, too.
In a world which surrounds us with idols and ideas and even good and loving people as ways to give meaning to our lives, God offers you today and always the opportunity to see through them to their source, to the One who really matters. That One knows and loves and accepts you and calls you to be an agent of love and acceptance and blessing to others. You and I have been personally touched by history, and not because of some ephemeral connection with a television camera or a pop star. We have been touched by history because we have been made and loved and saved by God in Jesus. Our hearts need no longer be restless. Jesus is the bread of life. As we share this bread in love and service to God and each other and those we don’t even know yet, we may get a glimpse of a place and time when all our hungers will be satisfied and our hearts will be truly at rest. Amen.