From the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Proper 13 Year B, August 2, 2015
In this week’s Gospel lesson, the crowds ask Jesus: “What miraculous sign are you going to give us or do so that we may see it and believe you?” What sign will you do? At first we might want to dismiss the crowd – they just want Jesus to perform another miracle for them. They have seen him feed five thousand people and cure the sick already. Signs, though, are important in the life of faith. Many of us have probably asked God for a sign at some point in our lives. We gather here this day and every Sunday and Wednesday at noon to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Eucharist. The sacraments are outward and visible signs of God’s inward and spiritual grace. As the church, we are entrusted with these holy signs of God’s love. I believe we are also, as the church and as individuals, invited by God to lift up other signs as well in order to get the world’s attention, to remind the world of both God’s justice and mercy. What signs are we being, are we giving the world that we and they might see and believe?
When I talk about religious signs, our thoughts might flash to the literal sign wavers: “The End is Near – Repent” (or some other negative message I would rather not repeat in this pulpit) or “God loves you” or “John 3:16.” We may think of the church marquee signs that inspire faith with such words as “Don’t let worries kill you. Let the church help!” I was impressed by a picture I saw of an Episcopal church with a somewhat bold financial marquee message which read, “Tithe if you love Jesus. Anyone can honk.” I’m not sure if it got people to increase their pledge, but it was creative. St. George’s has our own “Wayside Pulpit,” and the communications and evangelism commission would welcome suggestions about ways to use that sign to really inspire passers-by. Signs, though, go much deeper than posters, billboards, and bumper stickers.
In the Old Testament lesson we heard today, the prophet Nathan has been sent by God to call King David to account for his many transgressions. He has been sent to be a sign of God’s justice. David’s story is worth retelling briefly. God chose David, a shepherd boy, over all his older brothers to be the next king of Israel. David fought and defeated the giant Goliath with only a sling and a stone. King Saul felt so threatened by him that he tried to have him killed. Eventually God gave the kingdom to David and David promised to serve God. His story is one of the Bible’s examples of how God’s grace can do anything.
But power corrupted David. One day he spied on a married woman named Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop. He used his power and authority to take her into his bed. Her husband, Uriah the Hittite, was a dedicated soldier serving abroad in David’s army. When Bathsheba became pregnant, David tried to cover the whole thing up, and when it didn’t work, he arranged for Uriah to die on the battlefield. Then he took Bathsheba as one of his wives. The scripture refers to her repeatedly as the wife of Uriah to remind us that David broke God’s law in so many ways. David, so faithful in other parts of his story, did wrong, really wrong. God sends Nathan to deliver that message. Nathan could have walked in with a big sign that said, “You are a sinner.” He might have gotten his head chopped off. Instead, he takes a more subtle approach and tells David a story of an injustice committed against a poor man by a rich man. When David reacts strongly against the actions of the rich man, it creates an opening for Nathan to present David with his own crimes. “You are the man!” he cries. Because of the story, David sees his own hypocrisy and is able to hear the truth about his actions. The story is a sign. It gets David’s attention so that David repents on the spot: “I have sinned against the Lord.” Psalm 51, which we said today, is attributed to David after Nathan confronts him about Bathsheba. The verses, “have mercy on me O God, according to your loving kindness,” show David’s contrition and his desire for God’s help. The sign was effective.
God’s prophets have not always been as clever as Nathan. Many prophets have faithfully shaken their fists at the powerful hypocrites without making much headway. Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann once noted that “It is permissible to talk about speaking truth to power. If truth is to have a chance with power, it must be done with some subtlety.” Perhaps this is why God sends Jesus. Jesus is so subtle, most people do not recognize him immediately as the son of God. They see him as a teacher and miracle worker, perhaps even a prophet, but Jesus is not a prophet with a sign. Jesus is the sign. Jesus is the one come to show us not only how we have wandered away from God’s path but more importantly how we are called to a new life. Jesus comes to show us what we can become through God’s grace.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” He is the sign of God’s sustenance: spiritual nourishment that can make all our earthly hunger and thirst seem insignificant. Jesus uses the image of bread, the basic food that sustained life in those days, to get the people’s attention and interest them in going deeper.
What signs, then, are we called to bear? There is so much injustice in the world. We can shout about the wrongs and condemn those who do them. How can we, like Nathan, bring a word of condemnation that inspires repentance? What signs might we perform that not only get the attention of the powerful but open their hearts? We live in a world that has been increasingly skeptical of religious people and their signs. If we tell people, “Jesus is the bread of the life,” they might respond, “I can’t have Jesus, then, because I’m on the paleo diet.” Lauren Winner, who keynoted the St. George’s Shrinemont weekend a few years ago, has a new book called “Wearing God…Overlooked Ways of Meeting God.” There is a great chapter about bread as a sign for God. She mentions a study of women with eating disorders: two-thirds of those women who regularly participate in Eucharist reported they received communion less often because they were worried about calories in the bread and wine. What signs do we offer for any people who have been victims of our culture’s love/hate relationship with food and the body? What signs are we offering the Bathshebas of our day, women who suffer unjustly? How can we say, “God loves you” in a fresh and authentic way to any of us who have been victimized? What signs will not further wound but will open our hearts, minds, and bodies to a deeper and life-giving encounter with God? This is the challenge of evangelism in our world.
During the latest General Convention, I saw several posts on social media asking whether Episcopalians were the snarkiest denomination, based on all the cynically witty posts we were making on Twitter and Facebook in response to happenings at Convention. It might seem harmless for religious people to put each other down in amusing ways. Meanwhile people with little interest in faith are scrolling past our posts without a second thought. What signs might we perform so that others see them and actually want to know more about a deeper, abundant, fulfilled life that is only possible through God’s grace?
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” In that statement, he invites us to become bread too. In her book, Lauren Winner talks about asking church people what kind of bread they imagine Jesus to be. Think about it: what kind of bread is Jesus for you? Winner says, by the way, that no one chose the convenient but barely edible wafers we use in communion! Her question makes me want to pose another question: If Jesus is the bread of life, and we are called to be bread too, then what kind of bread do we want to be? What kind of bread-like sign do we want to be, with God’s grace, that nourishes, delights, and invites a table conversation? Perhaps we are rolls gleaned from the sandwich shop to give away at The Table. Are we white or whole wheat or rye? Are we crusty on the outside with a richly textured interior? And we also remember the people who have been Christ-like bread for us. How can we share the miracles they have showed us?
One of the enduring images I have of grace comes from a story a friend of mine told about serving in the Army rangers. Once during a really tough field maneuver, a sandwich miraculously appeared from a superior officer at a moment when he needed both something to eat and a gesture of kindness. That bread and cheese was the body of Christ for him, and the story has stuck with me. Whatever bread we are, whatever sign we bring to the world, God can give us the grace to perform it with the cleverness, courage, and subtlety of Nathan the prophet, Jesus the Christ, and all the evangelists who preach the Gospel and, when necessary, use words. Signs are important. We may not be able to bring manna from heaven. We might, with God’s grace and in hopes of renewed life, give people something good on which to chew.