The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: August 12, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Maybe you don’t try God’s patience as much as I do, but I have several times had the distinct sense that God was giving me The Look. You know, the I-told-you-so look. It usually comes with a sigh. It usually happens in times when I have worked myself into a state, worrying over details and futures, when I’ve fretted over whether my carefully crafted plans will work out, only to have everything quite obviously come together…quite obviously not by my own doing. And when I suddenly notice how well things have turned out, then I hear the sigh. I’m good at this especially when traveling, like on our recent trip west. Inside I’m wringing my hands: We left too late, we’ll be pulled aside by the TSA and miss our flight! And we arrive at our gate with an hour to spare. Next I start worrying: My old friend and I will run out of things to talk about, it’s been too long and we won’t get along! And we talk nonstop through our three days together. Then it’s: The kids won’t manage this backpacking trip, it’s too high and too hard and besides, we’ll never get the wilderness permit for the trail we want! And the ranger hands us one of the last permits, and the kids climb over the 12,000 foot pass. And God gives me The Look, and there’s the sigh. But it’s all full of love. ‘Could you just try trusting me this once?’ Well, God, maybe next time.
But I know it’s not unique to me and God. Maybe some of you know what this feels like. And it’s not just us either. You could perhaps sum up the whole of the biblical story with this: God provides; people grumble anyway. Thank goodness God doesn’t decide to throw in the towel.
Jesus does a little of this sighing in today’s gospel, further in the passage from John about bread. Bread is a big part of the story all through the Bible. Remember the manna that the Israelites ate in the wilderness? They set out on their journey of escape from Egypt with only a few provisions, not enough to last for what turned out to be a decades-long journey. They began to grumble and complain. God’s brought us out here to die. We have nothing to eat. But God then began to feed them, with manna, the miraculous bread from heaven that came every morning with the dawn. The manna came with instructions: the people were to go and gather it and eat and be satisfied, but not to try to hoard it or go gather it on the Sabbath. Of course some of them tried all of that anyway. But they soon saw that this manna really was going to come every day, enough for them to eat and be nourished and fed along their way. It was one of God’s ways of telling them, trust me. God had brought them out of slavery, and God was bringing them to the Promised Land, and God was going to keep feeding them and caring for them every step of the way. They could trust God’s providence.
But, they grumbled anyway. The manna got boring and they wanted meat. Waiting at the mountain took too long and they wanted a golden calf. Moses was annoying and they wanted someone else. And yet throughout all their grumbling and complaining, God continued to feed them. They could trust that food, they could trust God’s hand to give it to them, the relationship of love God had begun with them was not going to end no matter what they did.
There were lots of ways God continued to try to reach out to the people over the generations, but they most of the time kept on grumbling and complaining and turning away. So then Jesus came, and gathered the people together, and fed them again – 5000 of them with only a few loaves and fish. A reminder of what God had always been trying to do, to feed them on their journey. And the people all ate, someone cleaned up the leftovers, and then they started complaining again. This guy doesn’t look like God. We know his family. He’s just ordinary. What’s all this nonsense about the bread of life? No matter that he’d just fed them with miracle bread.
Would you just stop?? Jesus says to them. Do we have to keep going over this? Do you not see that I’m inviting you to trust again, to keep trusting in the God who has always fed and cared for you? And he sighed. And he probably gave them The Look. But he loved them anyway.
For many of us, it is so hard to trust God – no matter how many times God is proved faithful. Sure, everything worked out last time, we say to ourselves. But this time is different. This time I don’t see how it can be made right. We can list all the reasons why not, and so we worry.
There’s sort of a continuum to this, how we respond to God’s faithfulness. On the one end, we all know people who don’t believe, whose worldview 100% does not include God or anything like God. If something good happens, it’s luck. If something bad happens, it’s further proof that there is no God. That’s the way they see the world, and nothing will change that – though of course God always has ways to change anybody, but that’s another sermon. But from their perspective, there’s no point proving that God can be trusted, because there’s no such thing.
But we also all know people on the other end of the spectrum, people whose faith in God’s trustworthiness is unshakeable. Some of them are here in church with us today; some of them, though not all, are elders. In their experience, there is no time in their lives when they don’t see God at work, God’s providence making a way. They feel and know God’s presence, and they radiate that lovingkindness all around them. They are the people you want to sit a little closer to, to try to get some of that blessed assurance. They’re the ones I look to as models when my own faith gets less certain.
But most of us, really, are somewhere in the middle of those two poles. We’ve come to church on a hot and sticky August Sunday, so we see some reason for spending our time this way. But maybe we’re not entirely able to articulate just what that reason is. And we’re New York enough to be suspicious of some sweet-talking traveling preacher who says, C’mon, trust me. Just give me everything, and trust me. We may have spiritual high points where we feel absolutely certain that God is caring for us; but we also have plenty of other times when we’re really not sure at all. So we look for signs to show us – the parking place, the healing, the miracle – and then we’ll believe that God’s got bread for us to eat.
But here’s the really hard part. If we think God isn’t to be trusted, then pretty much nothing is going to change our mind. And if we’re convinced God IS to be trusted, then nothing can change that either. Because it’s the decision to trust, not the responding to evidence, that’s really the thing. It’s the lenses we look through, the attitude we take up as we start our day, every day. Deciding to trust God is in itself trusting, even when we don’t see the evidence. And that’s the trusting God invites us into. That’s the willingness to enter into relationship – not to sit back and respond to statements of fact, evaluating with our heads what response is reasonable, but to come in wholeheartedly with our very selves. The way we do when we fall in love.
That’s what Jesus offers the crowds around him in the gospel passage, and that’s what Jesus offers to us: the living bread that comes down from heaven, what God has always given – the living bread that is nourishing, sustaining love, love that opens doors in our closed hearts and makes new things happen where we’ve despaired. God sighs when we don’t want to go there not because we’re disobeying or doing something wrong – God sighs because loving, trusting relationship is just so much better, so much more nourishing, than anything else we can come up with.
How do we get that trust? How do we eat that living bread? We just hold out our hands. We just try it today, and we try it tomorrow, and we try it the next day after that – through the high points and the low points and all the ordinary days that make up our lives. It’s not heroic or magical; it’s just persistent. It’s daily bread, the stuff we eat every day – what our souls and bodies need to live. Here today at this table, later today in a moment of quiet, hold out your hands to be fed. Be nourished. Let the living bread give you life.