It was a joy to baptize someone who began coming to St. Aidan's during the pandemic.
August 1, 2021, Holy Baptism & the 10th Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 13B:
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Psalm 51:1-13; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
Good morning, and for those of you who are visiting today, whether in person or via Zoom, a particular welcome to St. Aidan’s today.
When my family and I were on vacation last month, I read several novels, something I don’t always have the brain space for in my everyday life. After I finished a gripping thriller, G, our eleven-year-old, insisted I read a book he’d just finished, Holes by Louis Sachar, originally published in 1998 and made into a movie in 2003. It was nice to have the tables turned on me, since I often pick out the books we read together in the evenings before bedtime. The story centered on a hapless youth named Stanley Yelnats IV, whose first name, following his forebears, is the reverse spelling of his surname. His life seemed always to unfold under the shadow of a curse that stemmed from a failed action by his great, great grandfather. When Stanley ends up at a boys’ detention center in a desert, incongruously named Camp Green Lake, for a crime he did not commit, he joins a motley crew of other boys who spend each day in the blistering sun digging a hole five feet wide and five feet deep. Through several twists and turns, including both observing and experiencing wildly unjust treatment, Stanley and a friend end up running away from the camp into the life-threatening heat. The two unwittingly follow in the footsteps of Stanley’s unfortunate ancestor who, according to family lore, had somehow survived a flight through this unforgiving landscape by perching on “God’s thumb.” That ancestral legend had always sounded bizarre to Stanley, except that as the two boys fled they could see a weird mountainous protuberance on the horizon. In desperation, they climb the thing and discover – partial spoiler alert – a completely unexpected, naturally occurring plot of onions growing in mud. They gorge themselves until they regain their strength and plan their next move. I laughed out loud at this turn, it was so hilariously, wonderfully biblical. Truly, you never know the strange ways that hunger and thirst can be assuaged, and the unexpected events and – most importantly – people who can point the way.
Of course, the first story my mind flashed to at that moment in Holes was the Israelites in the wilderness. God had dramatically liberated them from bondage in Egypt, leading by pillar and cloud of fire out through the parted waters of the Red Sea. But now that they were out in the bleakness and heat of the desert, the food of their oppressors loomed in their imaginations. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread,” they wail (Ex 16:3). In a parallel account in the book of Numbers they say, “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up…” (Num 11:4b-5). What exactly did God have in mind, bringing this people out into such a harsh landscape? But where the miracle of their liberation was dramatic, their feeding in the desert, though understated, would be no less significant. God would cause quail to come up and cover the camp in the evening, providing their meat. Then the provisioning would continue overnight as a fine, flakey substance would emerge from the lifting of the morning dew. Quail were no mystery, but when the Israelites saw the substance in the morning, they asked “what is that?” “It is the bread God has given you to eat,” Moses replied (Ex 16:15). They called this bread manna, reflecting their initial reaction with the Hebrew word “what,” man. A few verses after our passage, we learn a bit more about it: “it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” As it turns out, manna is a naturally occurring substance in the Sinai region. The tamarisk bush, which grows in parts of this area, produces sap which is then consumed and excreted by scale insects that infest these bushes. The sun crystalizes the excreted globules, and they fall to the ground. High in carbohydrates, they can indeed keep a starving sojourner alive. You just never know what the endlessly inventive, liberating God will offer as sustaining bread along the way. But sometimes it’s so unexpected or strange that we need an imagination beyond our own to be able to see and share it.
In a different way, our gospel passage also challenges our imaginations to see in and through relationship the bread given to us. Now in the second of a five-week sojourn in chapter six of John’s gospel, our passage follows from the Feeding of the Five Thousand which we heard last week. The crowd that had been miraculously fed the day before discovers that Jesus and the disciples have left the scene, but not in predictable ways. Jesus had left behind a second boat, but he hadn’t been in the boat with the disciples whom they saw leave, so how and when had he managed to cross the sea? But Jesus isn’t interested in answering that question (can you imagine him saying, “I walked on the water. Next question.”) In any case, they’re only looking for him, as he says, “not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26). They want more where the bread came from. And then he says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Humanity will give you” (6:27a). Now the manna in the desert, which the group goes on to reference a bit later, had not in fact endured beyond the day it was gathered. It was only to be gathered for that day, with the exception of the day before the Sabbath—then it would keep an extra day. The idea of miraculously provided food that would endure was perhaps even more intriguing than its original appearance. And if, as Jesus said, they were to work for such imperishable food, what did that work consist of? Jesus answers that they are to believe in the one whom God had sent.
This answer generates a further question from the crowd, recalling the manna in the desert: what work are you performing, to facilitate this belief? Never mind the proliferation of the loaves and fishes the day before. Was there something Moses-like that Jesus could now please do? But Moses was not the point, Jesus replies. God was. “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (6:33). Yes, yes, the crowd replies, please give us that bread, always. Imperishably. To which Jesus replies “I AM the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (6:35). This is one of the several “I AM” phrases in John, an emphatic form of the verb “to be” that could be translated “it is I who am.” The person, the relationship, is the bread, is that which nourishes and sustains, not physical bread, however unexpectedly or bizarrely acquired. It is Jesus the Christ who shows us the face of God, who brings us more closely into relationship with the one who created us and leads us into newness of life. The one who says “I AM the bread of life” turns us to relationship as life-giving, often surprising nourishment in the bleakest of moments.
And that relationship is not simply between us and God. It is with one another. Our reading from the letter to the Ephesians in its baptismal language – indeed the liturgical language with which our 10 AM service begins -- reminds us of this truth. There is one body and one Spirit, one hope in God’s call to us. One baptism founded on the oneness of the God who created us all (Eph. 4:4-6). We cannot find the manna on our own – our imaginations could not allow us to perceive it. We need the unique gifts we bring to one another in community, the grace uniquely given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift, as Ephesians puts it, whether we are called to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or teachers, scientists, artists, musicians, engineers, builders or cleaners. Together we equip one another for the work of the whole, for building up the body of Christ. In and through one another, we are brought into a connection deeper and more profound than we can imagine, what Ephesians names as “maturity,” a growth into the full stature of Christ (Eph 4:13). Building on the imagery of Paul’s other letters, Ephesians speaks of Christ not simply as an individual in whom God came among us now two thousand years ago, but as us, as a collective body, the body of Christ. The foundation of our relationship, our connection, sacramentally speaking, is baptism. Its waters connect us to the stories that fundamentally shape us, that open our imagination to and fire our energy for the work of God among us and for the world. We have the immense privilege today as a of supporting Jolie in this foundational moment of being embraced in that collective body. And we are invited in that embrace to renew our ongoing commitment to God’s call, to seeking out and sharing the strange and miraculous bread of God in the world in and through relationship.
If we know anything about the rhythm of life in this body, about the power of God revealed in and through relationship, we know it means change. Being part of Christ’s body is far from a static affair—it changes us along the way. We change one another along the way. The church itself, in fact, is changed along the way. We celebrated a sign of such collective change in the life of the Episcopal Church this week as we marked the 47th anniversary of the ordination of the first women as priests in the Episcopal Church on July 29th, 1974. For years, many women and allied men had been laboring to bring this momentous shift about, and finally, after the General Convention had declined in 1973 to clarify that women are indeed able to be called to the priesthood, the eleven women with supporters, including the three retired bishops who would ordained them, and the Rev. Paul Washington, the Vicar of Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, made the ordination happen. It was a day of the Holy Spirit bursting the bonds of ecclesial reluctance, and moving us boldly forward at long last. And it was a day that should forever remind us as a church that we continually need to be about the work of growing up into the full stature of Christ. It may have been a day about ordination, but it was truly about the baptismal foundation on which we stand, our being bound together in life and love. We are nourished together as members of Christ’s body. We share the bread of life, broken in and for this world, with one another. We are change one another and are changed, again and again. And so we celebrate that truth, that call. Thanks be to God for the bread of life, revealed in unexpected places and perspectives. Thanks be to God for the waters of baptism, washing us clean and making us new. Thanks be to God for transformative power of the Spirit blowing in and among us again and again. Amen.
 http://www.louissachar.com/holes.html  As my son reminded me after this sermon, while naturalized, the onions were not actually endemic to the locale.  P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., “Exodus” in The HarperCollins Bible Commentary (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988, 2000), 135  For a brief description of the Philadelphia Eleven, see https://www.episcopalchurch.org/glossary/philadelphia-eleven-the/