Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sermon -- 2 August 2009

PROPER 13 / 9 PENTECOST — 2 August 2009
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 a.m.

2 Sam 11:26-12:13a Ps 51:1-13 Eph 4:1-16 John 6:24-35

The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

A few Sundays ago over at Trinity in Iowa City I was observing that one of the features of the Revised Common Lectionary that we are now following is that it takes the Old Testament readings seriously as stories, indeed our stories, not just as some kind of prophecy of the Gospel reading for the day. That’s fine. The downside of that is that sometimes the stories themselves are fairly long, and so we don’t always get the full picture in any one Sunday. The selection from Second Samuel this morning assumes we remember last Sunday’s reading. We have to recall that the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of David’s generals in the Israelite army, was named Bathsheba? Remember Bathsheba? Well, David had an affair with Bathsheba and got her pregnant, and then arranged to have her husband Uriah killed in battle against the Ammonites. But at the end of today’s reading the lectionary gnomes leave out the final part, another ten verses or so, after David confesses his sin: the Lord still punishes David by striking his and Bathsheba’s baby with a fatal illness. How just of God! (I’m not at all sure what the fundamentalists make of this story. I suspect that those who interpret the Bible strictly literally probably haven’t actually read it.) The story of David and Bathsheba was made into a fairly awful movie with Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward back when even I was very young. I’ve put it in my Netflix queue. So we’ll see!

I have absolutely no idea how to link this story with the Gospel today. But it’s an important story for its own sake.

In the Gospel we have been hearing about the feeding of the five thousand. The folks got fed last week, you recall, as we switched from St. Mark’s Gospel to the sixth chapter of St. John to hear his account of the feeding. (The feeding of the multitude is the only story, apart from the Passion narrative, that occurs in all four Gospels. Actually, it occurs six times in four Gospels. But I digress.) This Sunday we continue working through John’s sixth chapter, and we will keep that on for a few weeks yet, hearing Jesus' discourse about the Bread of Life, before going back to St. Mark at the end of the month.

So today the folks catch up with Jesus again after the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus tells them, "You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves." (Not because you put your faith in the in-breaking Reign of God, but because you got your own perceived needs met.) "Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you." God does not always agree with us about what is really important, or about what we really need.

Well, then, the folks go on, "what must we do to perform the works of God?" And Jesus replies, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."

Believe in Jesus. What's this about? I've come to the conclusion that "believing in Jesus" is one of the most misunderstood notions in the Bible. "Believing in Jesus" is not the same thing as assenting to certain doctrines about Jesus. I don't mean that doctrines about Jesus aren't important, or that what the Church teaches about Jesus isn't true, or that we shouldn't believe them. I just don't think that's what Jesus was talking about when he said, "Believe in me." I also don't think Jesus meant anything very much like, "Accept me as your personal savior." I don't mean that personal commitment to Jesus isn't vitally important, I just mean that I don't think Jesus intended to present himself as an object of religion. Being doctrinally correct, and having a personal relationship with a savior, however important they may be, can still be ways that we satisfy our own perceived needs rather than commit ourselves to God's cause. When Jesus says, "Believe in me," I think he means, "Believe in the message I am telling you, believe in the word I speak to you as God's Word, believe in the Kingdom of God which I am proclaiming and enacting among you, believe in me as the one who embodies God's Reign." To believe that Jesus is the true bread which gives life to the world - not just that "Jesus is the True Bread," but that the bread which gives real life to the world is indeed precisely that which Jesus proclaims and enacts and embodies, the loving sovereignty of the living God — to believe that Jesus is the true bread which gives life to the world is to commit ourselves to his pattern of life as true human life, to commit ourselves to his values, to his cause, to his vision, as the values and cause and vision of God, to commit ourselves to him precisely as the Way and the Truth and the Life.

Specifically how does all this play out? Well, that's what we're given this life to work out. I don't think there are any cheap or easy answers. I certainly think we need to question all those assumptions which self-servingly try to turn God into the provider for our own perceived needs. I am convinced that when God is really providing for us, God is giving us what we really need in order to share with our Lord in giving life to the world.

1 comment:

Castanea_d said...

Concerning the OT stories in the RCL:

I hope that their presence can tend toward the healing of a long-standing breach. Namely: children learn, or used to, "Bible stories" in church school (though probably not this one about David and Bathsheba), and once they go to "grown-up" church, including grown-up forums for Christian discussion and formation, one rarely hears another word about the old stories. I think that this creates a disconnect and contributes toward the drifting away of our children as they grow up. They get the suspicion that their training in church school had nothing to do with Real Life, if these subjects are not considered worthy of adult discussion. They begin to suspect that it was all a bunch of fables, like the ones they were told about Santa Claus.

Part of it, I think, is that preachers are shy about dealing in a serious way with stories such as the Serpent in the Garden, or Noah and the Flood, or all those plagues in Egpyt, to say nothing of the bit you mentioned about God smiting Bathsheba's baby. Part of it, too, is the time-honored heresy of presuming that the Old Testament does not matter any more. And part of it is that I suspect that many clergy and adult Christians do indeed view most of the Old Testament stories as little more than children's fables, unworthy of attention by Sophisticated Modern Adults.

Well, the stories do matter, as you effectively said. The stories are OUR stories, for better or worse, and the Gospel accounts of our Lord are not comprehensible without them. (Nor is the Old Testament comprehensible without the Incarnation.)

We still tend to act a lot like these Old Testament characters, and could learn much from their actions, and their consequences.

The authors of the historical books wrestled mightily with the question "Where is God in all of this?" The current bit about David is a fine example; he is getting away with murder, "but the thing that David had done displeased the Lord," and the Lord intervenes.

The question of where and how God acts in the events of our own time is a matter of considerable interest. The old historians might be able to help us in this, but not, I think, in an obvious or straighforward way.