August 2, 2009, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

August 2, 2009
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
Proper 13, Year B

A Minneapolis couple decided to go to Florida to thaw out during a particularly icy winter. They planned to stay at the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon 20 years earlier.
Because of hectic schedules, it was difficult to coordinate their travel schedules. So, the husband left Minnesota and flew to Florida on Thursday, with his wife flying down the following day…
The husband checked into the hotel. There was a computer in his room, so he decided to send an email to his wife. However, he accidentally left out one letter in her email address, and without realizing his error, sent the email.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Houston, a widow had just returned home from her husband’s funeral. He was a minister who was called home to glory following a heart attack.
The widow decided to check her email expecting messages from relatives and friends. After reading the first message, she screamed and fainted.
The widow’s son rushed into the room, found his mother on the floor, and saw the computer screen which read:

To: My Loving Wife
Subject: I’ve Arrived
Date: October 16, 2005
I know you’re surprised to hear from me. They have computers here now and you are allowed to send emails to your loved ones. I’ve just arrived and have been checked in. I’ve seen that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then!!!! Hope your journey is as uneventful as mine was.
P. S. Sure is freaking hot down here!!!!

This joke is about a sign, a mistaken sign true, but a sign nonetheless. So are the readings we heard today.
In our lives seeing signs is not always easy. We miss things. We overlook things. We can often mistake them for something else, or not know how to read them (the discernment of spirits and holy things is considered a charism, a gift, by the Church), or simply fail to see the signs around us all the time.
Signs are tied to belief in God as Jesus tells us. When we perceive a divine sign we respond by trusting in God and deciphering as best we can from the sign what we are to learn and apply. For the Israelites in the wilderness the point was to trust in God and learn obedience. The story is recounting part of their formation as a people who came to live in a particular way that shaped them in a good and holy life.
The same is true for those of us who follow Jesus. The signs are meant to lead to belief, but somehow people are never satisfied. They seem to equate belief with a steady display of amazing and spectacular feats, rather than a way of life, a perspective on the world as Paul so eloquently writes to the Ephesians.
In today’s story for instance Jesus is tracked down by some of those who had been part of the feeding miracle and they ask the most mundane question: when did you come here? Does his arrival date have any real bearing on the message of food for everyone? Is the point somehow more valid if he says he is Elijah returned after hundreds of years or if he just arrived yesterday? Jesus, in that philosophical way of John’s language, confronts them on this. Then they do ask a pertinent question: what must we do to inherit eternal life? He answers to believe in him. Then they ask the most stunning thing. Give us a sign so that we may believe in you. I always read this and want to say, “Hello?! What about yesterday and the bread and fish? Does this happen every day? “
They want the bread, though. They keep asking for it, so they are getting closer. Yet the desire for spectacle is still present. It’s as if they will believe in, admit the presence and power of, a God that can do these things, but can’t make the leap to application. The sign isn’t done so we can stand gaping with our eyes as big as saucers and saying, Wow, God is really something, ain’t he?
God really is something that is most true. And on days when I feel the presence of God I can think of no more appropriate response than to simply let awe wash over me and stand in silence before the divine reality that is so much greater than I. The sign is done so that we see what type of life God hopes for us now, that life we make alive, incarnate, betwixt and between ourselves. As the Body of Christ we are an active part of God’s unfolding plan in the world. When we as a whole aim to live into the point of the sign we can do, as Jesus says later in John, even greater things than these.
To believe in Jesus is to put our trust in him and what he teaches us, asks us to do. The feeding miracle showed the divine hope for spiritual and physical nourishment for all and that this is something we can do for each other if God is in our hearts and in our midst. The temptation is to worship the miracle and somehow extract our selves from the causation. Yet Jesus says time and again that if we dispose our hearts and minds in a certain way, the way taught and lived by Jesus, the miracle can be a part of every day life. As we ingest this bread we are spiritually fed for are we filled with love, wholeness, compassion, the peace of Christ that can reshape all aspects of our lives.
The feeding of the 5000 was an intensified, encapsulated way to see in a compressed moment the desire God has to feed all the hunger in the world and that it can be done, with our participation and belief. That belief is not so much that God can do some act that leaves us incredulous, but rather that in the sign we see in an instance the will of God, the kingdom. God feeds all and we can do the very same if we put our trust in God’s words and God’s word: Jesus. This belief the signs point us to is belief in Jesus. It is a belief, a putting our trust in, who Jesus is. And while for some this means very much accepting certain dogmas of his nature as divine it also means more than that. It is to study and imitate his life and apply his teachings true to his spirit as best we can here and now. If we apply the teaching of mercy even in the small scale of our daily lives, less revenge, less anger, less retribution are experienced and it has an effect for the good. If we apply the teaching around not serving wealth we look at issues of common good and common expense and giving to others even at the cost of less to ourselves in a new light and they may be no longer a burden but a joy. And so it goes.
To trust in Jesus and seek to model our lives and emotions and thoughts to be reflective of his life is to be fed and shaped spiritually. It is eternal bread that is always there and it is something that no one can take away. Ultimately, I believe it means seeing each person as a reflection of Jesus and of the divine and then living out of that place. Hard? Most certainly! But I find it is a spiritual discipline that is continuing to feed me, help me see my sin, and allow me to grow more and more into the compassionate person I hope to someday be.
Believing, or trying to believe, in this way allows me to see the signs that are all around me. It all starts with the point of view and the criteria I use to understand what I am seeing. An example. When a particular crop in my tiny little garden comes into season it produces too much for me to eat. It is a repetition every season of the manna in the wilderness and the feeding of the 5000—in it I see these signs. The sign is that abundance of life, that generosity of earth, the miracle of plenty that comes from one tiny seed. It shows me again and again the presence of a life-giving God in the most daily of things. I see something sacred in the earth and its fruits.
It all boils down to, I believe, the words Jesus says at the end of this Gospel passage: for the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. We may disagree on particulars as we faithfully try to apply this for life is complicated no doubt, but in that teaching is an entire stance, a clear starting point, a specific perspective that is to help us see what is around us and see what really is. It is the ground of being fed by that food that never ends, the bread of life found in Jesus. It’s within our reach. It is being revealed all around us and within us. Jesus wants to feed us with this bread and quench our thirst with this water. He is inviting us to come to him and to keep coming to him. And that at least to my ears, is Good News indeed.