Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: Ice Cream Man

Read Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

I really admire the Ice Cream Truck drivers who get up early on the weekends and drive down the streets of neighborhoods peddling their ice cream treats to sweaty kids out playing in the hot sun. I remember being one of those sweaty kids, caught up in my own world playing ball in the back yard of our house, or riding my bike up and down the street of our middle class neighborhood in Vandalia. And whenever I heard the sound of the Mr. Softee or Good Humor ice cream truck coming down the street I stopped everything I was doing, and ran to the curb with anticipation. Now I started my first job as a paperboy when I was just 10 years old…so I always had some change in my pocket ready to spend. And I couldn’t think of anything better to spend it on, then an ice cold snow cone, popsicle or dilly bar. You ever eat a dilly bar? It was a round vanilla ice cream bar surrounded in hardened chocolate. My other favorites included the red, white and blue rocket popsicle and especially the peanut and chocolate covered drumstick. Now that was living!

You might be wondering, just what does ice cream have to do with Jesus? Well, one church seemed to make an interesting connection. In the August 22nd issue of USA Today last year there appeared a story about the New Life Christian Church in Centreville, Virginia who spent $10,000 on an ice cream truck and began driving it around their community handing out free ice cream all summer long. Talk about a cool way to get attention.

They even have a blog chronicling the experience. Of course, most people were shocked that the ice cream was free. One lady was so blown away by free ice cream her only response was, "I gotta start coming to a church that gives out free ice cream."  In addition to the ice cream, they gave out fliers advertising an upcoming movie night, which is a nice, non-churchy way for people to experience the church. Free ice cream—now there's sweet idea. It seems that giving out ice cream is a sure fire way to make friends.

And it’s those kinds of gifts, the gifts of compassion, giving, hospitality and friendship that Jesus never seemed to exhaust. I was particularly struck by our text today. You might remember last week when our gospel text dealt with the death of John the Baptist, and how King Herod was afraid of Jesus because so many people were beginning to follow his teachings. Jesus had been teaching and preaching and healing people all over Galilee and was in desperate need of a break. So he gathered his disciples together and headed off to a remote place to rest. But someone got sight of Jesus and spread the news that he was in town. Before you know it, a huge crowd began to form and gathered at the place where Jesus intended to rest. When Jesus caught sight of the crowd that had gathered, the text says his heart was broken for them, and went right to work teaching and healing them.

Many of you probably read this and say, but I’m not Jesus. I can’t always be helping people. I get worn out and tired…and quite honestly, sometimes I just need to say no. And I’m right there with you. So why should we help a stranger who stumbles in the street? Why send money to faraway victims of tsunamis? Why volunteer at soup kitchens who feed the homeless or offer caring words to a neighbor we don’t really know? You might be surprised that there is actually scientific evidence that shows helping others is actually good for you. Scientists have concluded that altruism is one of the greatest mysteries: it feels good, is linked to better mental and physical health, and is intrinsic to who we are, yet no one can quite explain how it evolved. Some have suggested that when we protect our kin we protect our own genetic legacy; that when we give, others give back to us, and that generosity enhances our reputation. Even so, at the heart of altruism is a big question mark. Why does giving feel so good?

Now a new study suggests that altruism may be partly guided by genes that regulate the neurotransmitter dopamine — the one linked to craving, pleasure, and reward. The study finds that a specific kind of dopamine is highly linked to altruistic behavior. The research, conducted at Hebrew University, was published in the journal of Molecular Psychiatry in 2005. Psychologists and geneticists looked at 354 families with more than one child, measuring the individuals' tendencies to serve the needs of others. Their fascinating findings: that many of us are indeed "hardwired" for giving. It may be that generosity feels good because it is rewarded by spikes in dopamine levels. The scientists even speculate that further research could reveal variations in dopamine genes that favor generosity to kin, and others that favor giving to all. Next time you hold the door open for a stranger struggling to balance a bunch of packages, think of those innumerable little dopamine-loving neurons lighting up your brain with bliss.

I hear many people talking about spirituality as though it were something special, something out of the ordinary, something separate from the day-to-day job of making a living and taking care of the family. But spirituality isn’t something that is outside of us. It’s inside…and an intregal part of who we are. It’s more about making a generous effort to contribute to the betterment of our world than chanting, or meditating, or even worshiping at church. I believe the essence of a spiritual life is being devoted to your family, and to your spouse or partner. It’s getting involved in your neighborhood, and caring for others, especially children. It’s being a loving person. And that’s where we find God.

I doubt that we will ever see God in this life as some pure spirit. Rather, God becomes visible only in the reality of human need and in the world's suffering and life's possibilities. The ultimate trick in the spiritual life is to glimpse the meaning of incarnation: that the divine appears in the costume of the flesh, and we humans are not granted the prerogative of seeing divinity directly. That means that our spirituality has to be incarnate as well. It can't be too formally spiritual, except as rehearsal and preparation. And if all we do is rehearse at church, then what does it all amount to?

The ultimate teaching we find in many traditions is this: Give your life to others and you will find it. Today just about everybody is looking for an identity, a sense of being, and a feeling of being a person of substance. We are still trying to gather up the courage to be. So there is a paradox in the ordinary path to spirituality: Don't look for it self-consciously in your personality; rather, discover it at the very moment when you surrender, when you give up the self-stuff altogether. Service, justice, ethics, compassion — these are the primary routes to the deep self.

Hopefully the church as an institution will be come obsolete. For it is typically here that we come to experience the hope that our lives can be better, and that God loves us. It’s here in a community of faith that we acknowledge the realm of God is among us. But your call as disciples of Christ, is to take that knowledge to your homes, and places of work, and neighborhoods, and schools and public places. Wouldn’t it be great, if every place was filled with the excitement of the ice cream truck rolling down the street ready to give you that cool, creamy treat you’ve been longing for all day?

Guess what? It can be. And just like Jesus showed us, it begins with you. Amen! (Resources: www.spiritualityhealth.com)