“Gifts Beyond Our Understanding” Sermon for 8.02.09
2 Samuel 11.26-12.13a; Psalm 51.1-12; Ephesians 4.1-16; John 6.24-35
Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
From this morning’s Gospel: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
Like so many of us, I’ve been picking wild raspberries. I spot a few really ripe ones, but to pick them I often have to move around the thicket, and then I see more. To get them I lift some leaves, and bending over I see others, way deep down. What started out as a mouthful ends up as a tasty dessert. And then, of course, there are all of those half-ripe ones, waiting for me—if I’m watching.
My faith life has been somewhat like that. I am blessed by some encounter or event, and that in turn leads to other. Or maybe it doesn’t—immediately.
Our continuing story from the Gospel of John this morning tells much the same story in terms of bread. In last week’s installment, the people were fed so wonderfully that they wanted to make Jesus king. This week, they notice that he’s somehow gotten to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. They follow him right after him and now they’re asking questions. It’s a real exchange that can sound innocent or somewhat suspicious: “Rabbi, when did you get here?” “What must we do?” “What sign do you do that we may see it and believe you? What will you do?” And as a reminder, just to let him know that they know, “Our ancestors ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
Sound familiar, this interior conversation with God: What? When? How? And “Remember the promise that we’ve heard from Scripture and from our pastors?”
I love Jesus’ initial response and it too can be read as annoyed or as loving: “Amen, amen, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” It’s true that Jesus identifies their motives—pretty base-line survival—but the double “Amen”—yes, it shall be, yes, it shall be—suggests a confidence in God’s care for his people, and therefore a rebuke motivated by gentleness and understanding of their weakness. The bread had satisfied a real need, but it was also a sign for something more lasting, something greater.
The distinction between the bread that satisfies immediately—the deep purple berry all ready to pop into my mouth—and the sign—the berry as yet unripened, the significance that will emerge—has become precious to me. This is the gift that is more than it seems and that is so often beyond our understanding, beyond our ken. This distinction has become precious to me as I put together some events in my own life.
From the time I was a child, I heard a call to ministry. But when I was small, the ministry was not open to women in the Episcopal Church and so I became a teacher, a profession I have loved. By the time I was in my late 50s, the call came again so strongly that I had to respond. Through discernment in my church, I was encouraged to go to seminary and seek ordination. I was 60 by the time I entered Yale Divinity School. I had the time of my life and did well. Nonetheless, people who knew the Bishop’s feelings about age were afraid that I might be disappointed. But I was determined.
My bishop, who had been on Sabbatical when I first started the process, confirmed the fears of my friends. He felt that the church needed candidates under the age of fifty. Unwilling to allow for exceptions, he turned me down solely on the basis of age. I tried some other dioceses, but somehow nothing worked.
It was a bleak day when I finally realized that I would never be ordained as an Episcopal priest, made none the cheerier when my Dean told me to stop banging my head against the wall. Perhaps you can imagine my sense of failure, made all the harsher by the first serious discrimination I had ever personally experienced. What was I to do with my life, with my career, and worst of all, with my burning call? I kept asking, “Why?” I knew I had been hearing God’s voice, and I couldn’t reject that.
Only very gradually, through prayer and discernment and through the enormous support of friends, did I understand that my call and ordination did not have to be the same. Through it all, I kept saying the words that Pam sang to us so beautifully last week, “Here I am, Lord. It is I Lord. I have heard you calling in the night.” I became a Methodist, entered the Candidacy process, and, God willing, will become a licensed local pastor. My call, my passion for divine service, was a sign, not to ordination but to serve God’s people in God’s church as the Conference and you are allowing me to do here.
In a sense I had been banging my head against the wall because I had limited my call through one particular set of actions, one particular path. As I stopped punishing myself, as I listened to God’s continuing voice of affirmation and love, I found myself changing my church and changing my life.
What I realized—and it was not easy—is waiting for us in the exchange between Jesus and the crowd in our reading from John this morning. “What must we do?” asks the crowd. And Jesus answers, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Greek has so many more interesting tenses than English and this verb “believe” is a subjunctive that expresses duration: We must continue to believe. We must not stop believing.
We are impatient with signs and we get confused about them. A sign obviously points to a thing, to something greater than itself. But we need immediate comfort, healing, affirmation, direction. God knows our need as Jesus knew the need of the crowd on the mountain last week. Sometimes the feeding comes very quickly. And sometimes it is a slower process, not—I think—because God wants to test us, melt us down as in a refiner’s fire, but because God’s ways are mysterious to us.
Like the crowd, I was confusing signs and things. The people thought the bread was it. I thought it, the gift, was ordination, and that without it I couldn’t live out my call. But through God’s mercy, my desire for ordination actually became a sign that pointed beyond itself to another way in which God is now letting me serve. The gift beyond my understanding was indeed the service of God’s people in God’s church—but not in the church or the process that had long seemed the only possibility.
I’ve come to feel that the journey from sign to the real gift to which that sign is pointing—whatever it may be—is proof of God’s continuing love. Not only the Gospel stories but the stories that we tell one another help us remember God’s love as both sign and nourishment beyond that sign. The bread that we will share at the table this morning is both sign and gift from our God who provides us with never-failing nourishment, with life, both here and hereafter.
Let us pray in the words that we heard last week from Ephesians: Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.