Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 14 August 12, 2018 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
It’s hard to stay focused. I remember being a kid and losing interest in any kind of talking situation, whether it was a sermon in church or any kind of social occasion that was just adults talking to each other. On Friday, after Virginia and Patrick’s beautiful commitment and blessing ceremony, they graciously took all their guests out to a wonderful sit-down dinner. Our group of 30 or so adults and children filled the whole back room of the restaurant. As we waited with increasing urgency for our wine, my table-mates and I lamented the noisy children at the table behind us — and the noisy adults at the table across from us.
Our irritation was tempered by understanding that kids will be kids, and sometimes adults will be, too. When kids are bored, they tend not to be shy about showing us they’re bored and, God bless them, they find ways to entertain themselves. And we took solace in knowing that they would quiet down after the food came out. Then our spiritual food came out, too, the moving and heartfelt toasts offered by the couple’s best man and maid of honor, and we remembered, oh right, we’re here for more than food, we’re here to celebrate love.
It’s easy to get worked up over tiny annoyances. Faulty technology, inaccurate information, other drivers cutting us off in traffic — no, actually, we should bring back stoning for that. But when we do succumb to this very human tendency, we lose focus on what’s important. When I was in Cambridge for Gwen and John’s wedding, I booked a room at Christ’s College. And I brought my vestment bag which weighed in at 30 pounds and which could only be carried, awkwardly — no wheels. And my duffel bag. And it was hot.
I thought I was clever because I was taking a bus from the train station to the college and saving about £6 versus a taxi. I didn’t feel so clever when the bus stopped partway there. The driver said his shift was ending but the relief driver would be there in just a moment. I think you know where this story is going. The new driver didn’t materialize, but the next bus came. It stopped there, too, for no apparent reason. So I gave up and started walking. Uphill. In the heat. Lugging my heavy, awkward bags. I was so worked up over these tiny annoyances that I walked obliviously past the entrance to Christ’s College, which was within sight of the bus. Blinded by my aggravation, I kept walking, for about 20 minutes, before I realized how far off I’d gone, set my bags down for a moment, and set my grievances aside in order to refocus on my goal and make a new plan to get there. And I decided that going back, I’d spring for the taxi.
It wasn’t exactly 40 years of wandering in the desert, but it wasn’t so different, either. God loved the intimacy with Israel that the desert required, but not the idolatry. Because Israel turned their focus away from God and on to idols, God kept them wandering until a new generation had replaced them, a generation that had never known the slavery and paganism of Egypt, a generation brought up on God’s providence, the manna and the Law, a generation who promised greater faithfulness, greater focus, and could therefore enter the promised land.
That seems to be what St. John had in mind as he told and unpacked the story of the feeding of the 5,000. We’ve seen a large group in the wilderness at Passover, the celebration of the Exodus. We’ve seen a miraculous water crossing, miraculous feeding, divine teaching, and now, of course, we see grumbling. All part of the experience, and Jesus takes it in stride. Jesus’s challengers — who may well have been part of the crowd that marveled and rejoiced when he fed them — are now quibbling over a petty non-problem. They object to Jesus describing himself as “the bread that came down from heaven.”
They must have thought they were pretty clever by pointing out that they knew Jesus came from a human family. Though of course, he also wasn’t literally a loaf of bread, either. Their attitude had limited their attention so much they couldn’t even consider a whole sentence. If they had, they would have realized that of course Jesus was speaking figuratively, and was revealing the wonderful and profound truth of God’s love, which was being made available to the world in a breathtaking new way in Jesus. They certainly couldn’t have realized the consequences.
It’s easy to get worked up over all the little things that could and should be better, all of life’s petty injustices and flaws, and it’s perfectly natural, because it’s perfectly natural to forget God’s love, and providence, and promises. Rejecting Jesus is more destructive than making noise in a restaurant. When we reject Jesus, we make room for lesser things, things that might seem appealing but lead us further astray. In other words, turning away from God means turning towards idols. Losing our way spiritually is more serious than losing our way geographically. But fortunately, God is not a place or an object passively standing there, indifferent to being found or overlooked. God actively helps us get closer to Jesus, both directly and through the saints, the church, and our brothers and sisters on the way. God is all-loving and all-forgiving, actively sending us to Jesus, and feeding us all along the way.
Remembering God’s love, and providence, and promises puts all life’s little annoyances into perspective and drives them far away. And that is but a foretaste of the fullness of grace we will experience in heaven, where we are reconciled and united to God at the great wedding banquet prepared for us. That is the consequence of Jesus’s saving presence in our lives. God does more than just invite us, God leads us all the way there. You can’t miss it.