Text of the sermon preached on Proper 14B (August 9, 2015) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.
Remember where we are in the Gospel of John. Jesus has miraculously fed five thousand people with just a couple of loaves of bread and two fishes. Then he has crossed the Sea of Galilee, and they have followed him. He has accused them of following him simply to get more of the “magic” bread, when in reality they have missed the point. The bread they truly need is the sustenance that he can offer if they believe in him and in God. He is the bread that they need.
Today, once again, he says, “I am the bread of life.”
And once again, they don’t get it. He is promising them eternal life, eternal sustenance, and they don’t buy it.
Let’s imagine we are these local folks, people who have lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire for several generations. Life is hard. We have been taxed until we have nothing left. We know we are God’s chosen people, but it sure doesn’t feel special. We are the bottom rung of the political ladder. We know we’ve been promised someone sent from God to save us.
And we hear about Jesus and what he can do — Miracles! Healing! Great Preaching! — and we wonder if he is the promised one who is going to make our lives different. Someone who can lead us in conquering the Roman overlords. So we go to hear him preach and teach, and in the midst of his powerful preaching and healing, he feeds us with the most marvelous bread and fish, even though there was hardly any bread and fish to be had! A miracle, to be sure. He must be the promised one!
But then he slips away, across the water, and we follow him — but he seems annoyed with us. “You’re just here for the meal, but you’re ignoring what I have to offer that will really keep you going.”
And then we get aggravated. Who does he think he is? Isn’t he just that guy who was the son of the carpenter, that Joseph? What makes him think he is so special?
We don’t need any arrogant kid from the neighborhood, we want someone who will be our king, a powerful conqueror who will take the nation of Israel and make it the most feared and mighty nation on earth. No more Roman taxes. No more being treated as second class citizens. No more Roman soldiers being garrisoned in our towns and taking all of the good food, so that we barely have enough bread to feed the children.
No, Jesus cannot be the promised one, despite that little trick with the bread and the fishes. He’s just a neighbor’s kid, not a conqueror. Bread of heaven? We think not. He is not what we want.
Once again I find that the crowd who follows Jesus speaks for us, or at least for me. John narrates that these people who have followed Jesus, regarded him as a teacher, and witnessed his miracles, and also know him as one of their own. That is, they knew his parents and his brothers and sisters. They watched him play and learn his trade — grow up and eventually leave home. In other words, they know him, just like they know all of the kids from their old neighborhood. And for this reason you see — because he is just like them, because he is common — he can’t be all that special, and he certainly can’t be the one God sent for redemption.
And so, once again the crowd speaks for us, or at least for me. Because when I am in need or distress, when I’m hurt or afraid, I want to see a God who shows in strength and through miracles, I want to call upon a God who answers clearly and quickly, and I want to rely on a God who is there, I mean really there, when you need God.
It’s little wonder then, that the people in the crowd — and perhaps us — are put off, offended, angered even, by Jesus’ suggestion that he, a man just as they are, is the answer to their deepest longings and greatest needs.
And why not? Think of the audacious claim that Jesus is making. Who ever heard of
a God having anything to do with the everyday, the ordinary, the mundane, the dirty? Gods are made for greatness, not grime. They are supposed to reside up in the clouds, not down here with us commoners. I mean, who ever heard of a God who is willing to suffer the pains and problems, the indecencies and embarrassments of human life? It’s down right laughable. No wonder the crowd grumbles against Jesus’ words. These words seem to make fun of their understanding of God’s majesty and, even worse, to mock their own deep need for a God who transcends the very life that is causing them so much difficulty.
No wonder they’re upset. They know, first-hand, all of their own flaws and shortcomings, of their own faithlessness and failures. They know of their own doubts and fears, of their betrayals and broken promises. Their petty grudges and foolish prejudices. They know all of the shame and disappointment and regret which each person carries around on his or her back like a snail carries its shell. And so if Jesus is really like they are, then they are doomed. For how can someone who is like them save. How can someone like them be saved? And so they grumble because they are angry, yes, but even more so because they are afraid. Afraid that in the end, they’re really not worth saving.
Are we all that different? I know that I, at least, am not. For rarely does a day go by that I don’t think of just how fragile the foundation is upon which we base our faith. I mean, really, can the words we hear in sermons make that much of a difference? Shouldn’t someone who is more eloquent preach, or a heavenly chorus sing God’s praise? And the water we use in Baptism. It’s not holy, or special, or different. It’s from the same tap from which we drink and bathe and brush our teeth. Same with the bread and wine of communion — these aren’t special either. They’re ordinary, common, mundane — hardly worthy of God’s attention, let alone God’s use.
And yet we are bold enough, audacious enough, perhaps even foolish enough, to confess that God does use such ordinary things, such common elements, to achieve God’s will and to bring to the world God’s salvation.
How? Why? we might as well ask. Because of this very one, Jesus, who was common, ordinary, mortal like you and me, and yet who was also uncommon, divine, the very Son of God. This is the claim Jesus makes in today’s gospel. The claim which offended the crowd who followed him then, the claim which still offends any who take it seriously today. For where we expect God to come in might, God comes in weakness. Where we look for God to come in power, God comes in vulnerability. And when we seek God in justice and righteousness — which is, after all, what we all expect from a God — we find God, or rather are found by God, in forgiveness and mercy.
This is the claim and promise Jesus makes today — that God became incarnate, that is, became carnal, took on flesh, became just like us, so that God might save us and all people who come to faith by God’s word.
The carnal God, the God who does not despise the ordinary and common but rather who seeks such out by which to achieve God’s will — this is the promise that rests behind the sacraments. For as God does not despise water, bread, or wine, such ordinary, common things, so we also know that God does not despise or abandon us, who are similarly such ordinary and common people. And so in the sacraments we find God’s promise to take hold of us and make us God’s own, to remain with us and to never let us go.
But we also find in the sacraments another promise which God makes to us. It is the promise not only to redeem us, but also to use us — to make use of our skills and talents, inadequate or insufficient though they may seem, to continue God’s work of creating, redeeming, and sustaining all that is. And that, is an incredible promise.
So today I invite you to come…and then to go. To go from our place of worship to lives which are full of God’s love and directed to God’s purpose in the world. Come to this service of worship and then leave to do service in God’s world. That’s our call. To use the common, ordinary things that God has given us in our world today.