11 Pentecost, Year B
The Rev. Dcn. Nancy Crawford
1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
In today’s Gospel we continue the story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, his desire to find refuge from the crowd of people, and the crowd’s inevitable seeking for Jesus so they can be in his presence and receive from him gifts from God and Bread from Heaven. After they questioned Jesus and the works he was performing, they became so content and said, “Give us this bread always.” But that was last week and this is this week. Today we see the contrast between those who are ready to accept Jesus and his message and those who still question his authority. Now the complainers have spoken up. Isn’t this Jesus? Son of a carpenter? We know his mother and father. Who does he think he is? Bread from Heaven? Hah! Jesus answers them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.”
There’s another one today who also questioned authority. Elijah. When Elijah went a day’s journey into the wilderness, he sat down under a solitary broom tree. Elijah had come to ask God to let him die. For him solitude was a place of refuge and despair. You see, as God’s prophet, Elijah was called to challenge the authority of King Ahab and his support of the foreign gods brought to Israel by Queen Jezebel. Jezebel’s response to the challenge was to threaten Elijah with his life. And so Elijah fled into the wilderness. Yet when Elijah fell asleep, he was presented with a contrast to his despair. He was renewed by an angel of the Lord who gave him cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water and he went in strength to continue his call to be God’s prophet.
Thomas Merton, the Anglo-American Catholic writer and mystic of the 20th Century, wrote that solitude is the life of one drawn by the Father into the wilderness to be nourished by no other spiritual food than Jesus, where one loses taste for any other life or any other spiritual food. But Merton also wrote that there is a gift in partial solitude, when we taste solitude’s value by contrast with another value. When I lived in Northern Virginia and worked in Washington DC there were people everywhere. The monuments and the national mall teemed with students and tourists. The subway system was packed with those coming and going to work, and the roads were filled with cars and drivers trying to get where they were not. Here was an energy like no other I’ve known, pushing one to strive hard and experience everything such a place offers. Yet in all that hustle and bustle I found a place of partial solitude, all the richer for its contrast.
About an hour and a half drive from DC, going west into the Virginia countryside was a crossroads with no traffic light and not even stop signs as I remember. And overlooking that crossroads was a little church, closed during the week, where one could sit on the steps, eat a brownbag lunch, watch the cows in the field below, and listen to the birds. It wasn’t completely isolated; cars and trucks still occasionally went through the intersection, slowing down a bit to look for others on the road. A farmer could be seen working out in the field. But for me it was a divine place, so much a contrast to the noise and congestion of city traffic, and I was drawn there often. Had it been my home, I may have been drawn to the city. There is value in contrast to appreciate what you do and do not have, and to appreciate who you are and who you are not.
When we look at our parish we find as much contrast as is possible in such a place. There is a gift here in the contrast of values and it is something to appreciate. This is a church of hustle and bustle. When is there not a meeting going on? When is there not music, from Sunday services to weekday organ practice to afternoon piano lessons? Many people love this aspect of our church and come here to be a part of its liveliness. Others come here for partial solitude. It can be found in the weekday lighting of a vigil candle or on a Friday afternoon as the office work of the week comes to a close. When a knitting class for novices was offered here a few years ago, I decided to give it a try. The class was nearly silent as we began our lessons. All our concentration went into counting the proper number of stitches, or trying to remember when to knit and when to purl. Over time we learned to listen to conversation and knit, and then to talk and knit. The evening group continues to be one fairly quiet, where one can find a refuge from the over-stimulating activities of the day. In contrast there is the afternoon Needle Arts Guild gathering. Needles click and the variety of projects keep everyone curious about their progress. New cookie recipes are sampled and conversation flows. This group is equally inviting in its contrast.
Here at our parish we learn from the ancient Scriptures, and here we learn about the latest social causes. Here we celebrate the baptism of a baby, and here we celebrate the life of an elder now gone. Here we worship in the Guild Room or in this space where two or three are gathered together in prayer or where hundreds come to the table to share in the Eucharist. Here we worship with those close to our age, or with those of every age possible. There is no reason to press for uniformity or to suppress another’s values. For it is through Jesus Christ that we are one. Jesus himself came to us as a contrast. He didn’t come announcing he was God to inflict his authority on us; he came as a baby to grow and live among us. We have our shared values to bind us as one, while respecting those good values that may not be our own.
I recently was told by a long-time parishioner that this was the happiest she has seen the congregation in a long time. There are no major areas of contention or loud grumblings from the pews. Now is the time, if you haven’t already, to join in this place of contrast. From this place of shared values we can work together to create more of what is good. And in that sharing trust will grow, trust to be vulnerable about who you are, and to know that you will be safe. Perhaps you are thinking that you can’t imagine sharing certain values. Be curious and find how the variety of values can become shared values. Appreciate others for who they are, what they value, and what gifts they bring to this place.
What is to be gained from all this? You will be drawn by God and you will end up in the heart of a loving God who delights in your contrasts, your uniqueness. God’s love is our beginning and end and it is in that love that we are truly free to learn, to minister, and to be our own true self.