It happened. My worst pulpit supply nightmare.
The bulletin said 10:30am for the service. I arrived at 9:50am thinking I would have plenty of time to meet with my liturgists and get ready for the morning, then greet some members and guests as they arrived. Walking around the corner, water in hand with my robe slung over my left arm, I heard the organ playing. I figured the organist was just practicing before worship. As I walked on, I could hear voices singing. Okay, the choir was practicing now, too. Then I saw it…the church sign: Worship 9:30am.
I wasn’t early. I was actually 20 minutes late to worship and that wasn’t the music rehearsal just before the service, that was the congregation singing along to the hymns. What do I do?
Well, I walked in and they were so gracious that the first thing they said, aside from “can I get you some water?” was, “please don’t stress or be apologetic. We noticed that he bulletin time was wrong and figured you’d just planned to come in time for at 10:30 service. We are so glad you’re hear early!” I insisted on dressing in my robe right there in the narthex, spotting a coatrack just to my right where I could drop my purse and car keys, but they wouldn’t have it. I was to go up the stairs, breathe and take a moment (or three) to relax in the church office, and only when I felt prepared would they take me into the service and announce my arrival so we could complete our time of worship.
Yes, the pulpit supply showed up late to worship on Sunday! My worst nightmare happened, but you know what, I survived. I didn’t, however, get a recording of the sermon, so a reading will have to suffice for the week.
Blessings on the graciously understanding congregation!
My husband texted me saying that the letter had arrived from the hospital and would I like him to open it to tell me the results. “Yes!” I typed in response almost as quickly as my little fingers could find the letters on my phone. The mere 45ish seconds of the three little dots blinking across my screen as I awaited his reply were almost panic inducing.
What would be the results?
Would I have cancer…again?
Was everything fine but the postal worker just had trouble finding our new address to deliver me the message?
WHAT IN THE WORLD DOES THE LETTER SAY?
COULD YOU POSSIBLY TAKE ANY LONGER TO RESPOND TO ME??
Since I was consumed with those sorts of thoughts, I missed the picture pop up on my screen. Really, Really? You had to take a picture? Just TELL ME already! Sheesh! My eyes scanned the words at lightning speed until they landed on a bolded line in the middle of the page that was in a paragraph all to itself:
Your most recent breast imaging procedure showed no signs of cancer.
Good news! No, GREAT news! Relief spilled over me like a waterfall on a scorchingly hot summer afternoon. This, this was good news! He was a happy husband because he sent me a smiley face, praying hands and a celebratory trumpet full of confetti and streamers as the next text. We could relax and be grateful for the good news, living thankful and happy lives now that we knew the results.
You see, my family history is strewn with cancerous diagnoses, and my husband of ten years has already lived through one round of thyroid cancer with me, and a round of breast cancer with my mom, so I think he is probably more grateful than I to receive a bill of cancer-free health. I’m several years younger than the experts suggest a woman be before her first mammogram screening, so when my doctor told me to have one done, we started to become a tad bit worried. She assured us it was just because of family history, but with such an intense family record, one can’t help but doubt a wee bit. The results, the news, meant we could stop doubting and be joyful. Thanks be to God for the gift of joy over fear! And thanks be to God for the gift of Good News, even when we don’t know how to receive or respond to it!
The human condition, I believe, prevents us from fully embracing the magnificence of the Gospel news. Take our scriptures, for example. In both passages we have followers of the Lord receiving sustenance, and in both passages the same followers don’t quite understand what is happening. Each story includes a lavish gift from God in order to prove to us, those who are incapable of understanding, that God will and does provide for all that we need. Our Exodus scripture lesson illustrates how we too frequently focus on the horror of our current situation over the possibility of provision in the future. The Gospel passage calls to attention our need for immediate sustenance, and therefore, inability to rely on the perpetuity of God. Both passages, however, point to the sufficiency of God’s grace. And yet, we miss it in both places.
In The Organic God author and teacher Margaret Feinberg shares a story of her friend named Jay who followed God’s call to move to a small town in Colorado with the purpose of starting a church. Per the story, Jay had never even been to Colorado before, and certainly had never started a church. Margaret was hesitant for her friend, but when she encountered him again, she was in awe of his success with the church plant. Of the nearly 100 new members, more than 75 were brand-new Christians who had only recently committed their lives to following Jesus. Margaret expressed her surprise in saying that most churches will pull from other churches in order to survive, much less thrive, but not Jay’s church. She queried as to his success; Jay asked one simple question of new people he met: What do you love about Jesus? The question was unexpected and caused her to reflect for herself:
“The thing I love about Jesus is his beauty. Though the prophets tell us that there was nothing in his physical form that would attract us to him, the redemption of Christ takes my breath away. When I read through the crimson words of the Gospels, I see Jesus entering people’s lives, and in only a few words or sentences, he penetrates to the core of who they are, and at the same time reveals God’s great love for them. The Son of God’s ability to expose the brokenness of humanity and the depths of his Father’s love is not just attractive but captivating.
The congregation of the Israelites did not do much more than complain to Moses and Aaron about their plights, even going as far as to wish the Lord had left them for dead in the wilderness. This wasn’t going to happen, however, because their God was and is filled with a passionate love for them that prevented him allowing their death. God’s love was so great that despite their vitriol, God chose to provide them sustenance and life. The crowd that had been with Jesus and apparently was no more, inquired about his arrival in Capernaum after they had searched for him. In their questioning, Jesus reveals the truth of their seeking: that they merely wanted more fill of bread. Here, the Son of God reveals to them, and to us, that we are all working for satisfying our hungers, our needs and what we feel that God wants us to do and say, for the purpose of feeling vindicated as good Christians. When the crowd asked for Jesus, he saw straight through their false concerns about his whereabouts, for Christ sees to the core of who we are – we feign care for others, in this case our God, so that we can feel good about ourselves.
We Good Christians, we followers of Christ, we…work for food. We work for that which fills our needs now and not that which fulfills the kingdom and provides everlasting nourishment. We are shortsighted.
Each of today’s passages includes a test. God names the testing in Exodus v.4: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instructions or not.’” The Lord seeks to establish their dependence upon God’s lavish grace. Scholars suggest that this testing is an opportunity of intimacy. Old Testament instances of testing and temptation, particularly when the certainty of death existed, are gift moments. These are the moments of intimacy, nearness with the Divine. Pastor Thomas Stegald states, “The exodus narrative itself compels the theological affirmation…that God is the patient (if sometimes impatient!) provider of every good and perfect gift. These gifts include freedom, food, and water; deliverance, protection, and haven; presence, guidance, and regulation. God hears the prayers and interrupts the misery of the chosen people to provide even for those who neither expect it nor recognize it for what it is.”
Can I get an AMEN! at this Good News?
The crowds in John’s gospel message have been tested about their awareness of God. First, they demanded Christ be their king (earlier in verse 15), but then when they’ve managed to find him again, they are completely oblivious to what they really seek and need from Jesus. When they ask about his arrival, Jesus calls into question their own sense of location, or purpose. Where are they currently, both literally and spiritually? Do they even realize what they are asking or needing? Saint John Chrysostom thought that the crowds inappropriately sought only to be filled of food and not for their lives, saying: “By His words to them He was all but saying this, ‘It is not the miracle of the loaves that has struck you with wonder, but the being filled.’” In other words, they – just as we – are missing out and overlooking the point of the grace. As both of theses passages today note, God often tests us to help us re-locate ourselves: Why do we do what we do?
Margaret continues her mind-shifting experience with Jay saying:
“In his interactions with people, Jesus flashed the beauty of his Father, a God who is breathtakingly beautiful. Such beauty is a reflection of his holiness, a representation of the harmony of the Trinity, and its expression is manifested throughout creation. I see this expressing played out time and time again in the form of redemption. God is redeeming me – removing the stains and darkness of my own soul, and at the same time, redeeming others, revealing the beauty that is but a reflection of his own.”
What we see in our scripture today is a God who is redeeming and refining our souls. When we complain, God gives lavish food from heaven. When we seek that which we don’t need, Christ redirects our attention to what we do need and what we should wholeheartedly desire. What we see today is the Good News of Grace. But we are a hardheaded people. We rebut, asking what we need do to deserve this? We ask what works we must complete? Verse 28 notes: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” The response is grace-filled. The response is like opening a letter from the hospital that has caused restlessness, which reveals great news. The response is this: Accept it. Receive it. Stop doing what you’re doing. Don’t try so hard. Just be.
In a recently published article, NT Wright admonishes our Western church for how we believe the good news of the gospel. He feels that we too often see it as a series of thoughts and rules, or simply good advice. Wright believes that he Gospel is “news about news,” meaning that it’s about an event that’s already taken place. The kingdom has arrived when Christ walked on the earth. It’s news about an event that transformed the world. Wright suggests that we too often fall into the habit of seeing the gospel through the lens of a laundry list of behaviors. He compares the extracanonical gospels like the Gospel of Thomas to our canonical Gospels, noting that they are books about how to reorder personal spirituality. “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are news about something that happened that changes the way the world is now, whether you reorder your private spirituality or not,” he says. “We can’t make it happen. It has already happened. God has raised Jesus from the dead in a sovereign act of sheer, powerful grace. So what we have to do is live in the light of His resurrection. That means living out of gratitude rather than grasping.”
We grasp. We work for food. We do what we feel needs to be done because it’s what we think God wants us to do. We live out of fear of retribution and not gratitude for Grace. Friends, We need to open the letter and read the Good News. And do it repetedly. Often. Rejoice in what is written for us, what has taken place already for us. We need to take a beat and realize that Christ is peering through us, exposing us for who we really are, and even still, offering us the heavenly food for which we don’t need to work. Christ’s words in the Gospels reveal a deep, penetrating love, something that we could never possibly earn if we strove for it all the days of our existence. It’s bread of everlasting life. It’s the finest wine that quenches the direst thirst. It’s grace. It’s good news. Really, it’s the best news we’ll get all year. I promise.
And they said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” (v. 34)
In the name of God the Creator,
Christ the Sustainer, and the Holy Spirit,
 Margaret Feinberg, The Organic God, pgs. 48-49.
 Thomas R. Stegald, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3, pg. 290.
 Saint John Chrysostom: Commentary on Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, Homilies 1-47, trans. Sister Thomas Aquanis Groggin, S.C.H., in The Fathers of the Church, vol. 33 (Washington , DC: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1957) 443.
 Feinberg, pg. 49.