This morning’s services went well, especially since it was the first time several of us have celebrated this rite, especially together. Everything went relatively smoothly (if you allow for a couple of whispered prompts). I think I was not pitch-perfect on a couple of the chanted parts, but everyone was too polite to say anything.
Among the three morning services, we sweated through several layers of vestments — but there were no sacramental catastrophes, no awkward silences. Just a couple of extra genuflections, and heaven knows that won’t hurt me.
I’ll post the sermon in the extended section. for now, I’m taking the rest of the day without any productive activity (apart from walking the contrasting dogs: 10-pound Beatrice and 90-pound Scout).
Proper 13 B, August 2, 2009
Ex 16:2-4, 9-15/Ps 78:1-25/Eph 4:17-25/John 6:24-35
So mortals ate the bread of angels.
In the name of God Almighty: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — Amen.
When the parish warden was bidding Margaret and me goodnight earlier this week after a wonderful evening’s visit, he made two requests concerning the sermon. First, he asked that I explain to us how Christ Church, this lovely, precious congregation, could do best to live and grow and flourish over the next ten years. And second, he said: “It’s summer. Keep it to five minutes.”
Alas, he was speaking to the wrong preacher. The sermon will take longer than five minutes, and the preacher will not set out a ten-year plan for securing the future of Christ Church. But God willing, the passages we have just heard from Scripture may offer a clue to how we may thrive, and it ought not take even a half hour to expound some of the ramifications of the particular clue I have in mind.
The clue to which I refer was the pattern displayed in all of our readings this morning, whereby people vest their hopes and energies in what they want, rather than rejoicing in what God offers. In the Book of Exodus, Israel escapes brutal slavery and marches forward to a promised land flowing with milk and honey — but in the interim, they crave the barbecues and salad bars they left behind in Egypt. The Gentiles in the letter to Ephesus have been embraced by God into a new way of harmony and peace — but they apparently still craved the bodily pleasures that they remembered from their former way of life. Even the crowds who thronged around Jesus, following him from place to place, misplace their hopes: they seem to have been grasping after souvenirs of a spiritual rock star more than they were taking up the way of discipleship that he opened for us.
Now, misplaced desire is a topic about which I know a little, brothers and sisters. Those of you who remember the skinny assisting priest from twenty-plus years ago will detect that over those years, I have desired — and taken — several extra helpings from the buffet tables of life. I would wish not to be leaving my wife and family behind as I prepare to move to Scotland. And I wish that my father had not died last spring, days after I had come to you preaching resurrection life at the Easter Vigil. I long for another opportunity to visit him, to introduce him to his grandson’s new wife, to show him some of his granddaughter’s recent writing. I desire an opportunity to straighten out some of the differences that grew up between us. In all this, I crave unrealities that I imagine vividly: spiritual desires, and gustatory and erotic and financial desires. And by enshrining those desired good things in my imagination and my heart, I yield space to things that never were and that will not be, and I neglect the gifts that lie before me.
But these lessons don’t simply point to the maxim that we should all just be thankful for what we have. There may be some here, after all, who have more than enough of life’s pleasures already; contentment might come easily to them. And in most congregations, we can find people who have access to so few even of life’s necessities that it would be cruel to say only, “Go in peace, be satisfied with what you have.” The gospel we hear in this morning’s lessons goes beyond endorsing contentment with the status quo; the gospel reminds us that everywhere, in all circumstances, God makes available blessings that belong to a profoundly different order than mere cravings and desires.
The gifts of God come to us not as the mere immediate satisfaction of our cravings, but as the transformation of our understanding of the world and what we care about. Israel was grumbling for the good old familiar, predictable days of slavery, but God had brought them out into freedom. Their release from bondage didn’t wipe out every problem they confronted; they were still hungry, they were still tired, they were still captive to a nostalgic desire for the Pharaonic past to which they could not return. And as a message to Israel, God responded to their grumbling not with the discovery of a fast-food Egyptian-cuisine restaurant on the road to Canaan, but with food of an altogether different nature, stuff they had never seen before, with strange qualities: fine, flaky, lying like dew on the ground itself. Manna was God’s way of prompting the people to realize — “Moses, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Egypt any more.”
And the crowds who came to Jesus in John’s Gospel sought a second helping of that surprising picnic that he hosted with the five barley loaves and two fish he cadged from Andrew’s friend. They wanted more of the same, a dessert of signs and wonders after the main course of supernatural bread. And although we hear often enough that we should follow Jesus (as the crowds followed him), that we should ask faithfully for what we need (as the crowds asked of him), these ardent followers of Jesus had nonetheless missed the point. They came to Jesus seeking nourishment for a day, while Jesus was preparing them for all the fullness of heaven.
Maybe it’s a good thing to be content with what we have, if by that we mean giving up fantasies about cravings that reality will not, and should not, fulfill. It’s a good thing to appreciate such goodness as surrounds and sustains us. But the gospel for this morning teaches us not to be content with what we have, if our contentment eclipses our vision of God’s grandeur. We may not just settle for “OK” when God sets “spectacular” at our disposal. We must not turn back for the fleshpots of Egypt, when the Bread from Heaven has come to us, to equip us to do the work of God.
So if I were presumptuous enough to advise Christ Church about how to flourish for the next ten years and beyond, I would second what I heard Mother Kathryn saying last week. By God’s grace, we have come together in this holy place, to partake of a life of worship so rich and so wondrous that few people can even imagine how great a blessing it is, from simple Morning Prayer to Solemn High Mass to exquisite choral Compline. To that extent, some of our neighbors are like the characters in this morning’s readings; confronted with divine glory, they wonder why it isn’t more ordinary, more like what they’re used to. Not everybody wants to come into God’s presence with thanksgiving. Some people would rather eat meat in slavery than manna in freedom.
So the cardinal question may not be how one invites people in, but how one makes it possible to see that something greater than our cravings has overtaken us here. I have no word from the Lord on this, but I suspect that our best explanation of this greater blessing comes from actually living transformed lives. As the Letter to the Ephesians says, our participation in the transcendent glory of God’s life inspires us “to put away our former way of life, our old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and to clothe ourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” If we hope that our neighbors will catch a glimpse of manna in the routine of daily life, we can encourage them by living in ways that display the transforming effects of the bread from heaven: by doing the work of God, as Jesus says.
And most important of all, as we offer to God the generosity, the patience, the cooperation, the humility, the gentleness, and the constant attention to our neighbor’s vital needs, we can demonstrate the transformation at work among us by living out not a grim-faced punch-the-clock discipleship, but a discipleship that overflows with a joy that radiates from within. The transforming grace of God at work in our spirit makes possible a delight in all these ministries that begins the process of explaining why we persist in making our lives a visible explanation of God’s glory.
Such a demonstration of God’s transforming grace will take more than five minutes; it will take more than ten well-planned years; it will take more than a vestry, a congregation, a church. Such a joyous enacted steadfastness in God’s transforming grace, the very “work of God” to which Jesus calls us, signifies and explains the transformation that takes hold of us as we share in the glory of Christ, the true Bread that comes down from heaven. In such persistence, in such ministries, in such a transformed joy, mortals such as we can partake of the bread of angels — and God will provide for us food enough.