2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
John 6:35, 41-51
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
Every time I go on a diet, I gain weight. I did this last week. I decided to go on a diet to lose weight and then I started putting off the actual discipline of less caloric intake. So, I ate more rather than less and I gained. It’s a phenomenon that is common. And it’s not just that I don’t have enough discipline. Neurologists say that our bodies actually react to caloric reduction through brain chemistry that can cause this dieting challenge. As one neurologist put it, “any drastic reduction at the outset of your diet can cause your metabolism to slow down, prompting your body to hold on to excess weight because it senses an impending period of starvation.” Even if you can stick to a dietary change, the first couple of weeks brings on more challenge than just eating less. So, dieting is difficult.
The problem is not really discipline though, it’s change. I don’t want to change my life style, but I do. I don’t want to have to give up bread and pasta, but I want to stop eating foods that are not good for me. So, I eat more bread while trying to eat less. If I could just change my lifestyle, I could lose weight.
In this conundrum, I found myself this week singing Carrie Underwood’s classic song, Jesus Take the Wheel. Oh, if only it was that easy. If I could just turn my life completely over to Jesus and lose that weight. That’s sort of like hoping Jesus will magically take the weight off of me if I just believe enough. But we know it doesn’t work that way.
Today’s readings are a good place to reflect on the themes of change and identity. David is reaping some tough losses after some sinful behavior as Nathan warned that he would. Paul begs the Ephesians to live virtuous lives and follow certain disciplines. The guiding principle in this section of the letter is given in the opening words of the section, where the Ephesians, and through them us, are urged “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called … bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” What a lovely phrase. “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called … bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus faces some complaining from the crowd of followers he has just fed and sets them straight.
All of these readings have led me to ponder here at Grace, Radford what sort of identity crisis or discipline to change are we facing and how can we dig a little deeper and live into that challenge.
To reflect on this question in this Gospel lesson, we have to think about what we eat.
John continues to interpret Jesus’ identity through the story of the manna, God’s miraculous bread from heaven that their ancestors ate for survival in the wilderness back when they were wandering around looking for the promised land. Although the crowd was initially receptive to the idea that Jesus could provide them with manna (verse 34), he goes on to indicate that he is the new manna.
In the first “I am” statement of John’s Gospel (compare with John 8:12; 10:7; 10:11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:5) Jesus states that he is the “bread of life” (John 6:35). Both this phrase and the phrase “bread from heaven” were references to the story of the manna in the Exodus story (Exodus 16:2-15). Jesus’ initial statement (verse 35) associates him with the life-giving power of the manna. In the wilderness, the Israelites had neither food nor drink and would have died without God’s provision. So also Jesus has just provided miraculous food for 5,000 people (John 6:1-14).
Like the manna story, Jesus is not only talking about the relief of literal hunger. The manna story is a story about trust in God. God saved Israel from slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 14-15). But once in the desert, Israel did not trust God to provide for them. Even so, God provided both food and water throughout their forty years in the wilderness (Exodus 16:35).
Just as the Israelites complained to Moses, now also the Jews complain about Jesus. The grumbling of the crowd characterizes them as the Israelites in the Exodus story. They have experienced God’s salvation and yet do not fully trust in God.
Manna had to be collected according to the instructions God gave (Exodus 16:16-26), and therefore was a training ground for learning to trust God’s word. Deuteronomy summarizes the story this way: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3). The memory of the manna story was not simply that God fed Israel, but that eating manna was akin to learning God’s wisdom and abiding by God’s law (compare with Psalm 78: 11-25; Wisdom 16:21-29).
John emphasizes throughout his Gospel that we should believe in, or a better translation is trust Jesus.
The bread Jesus provides is like the manna because of a sort of discipline found in gathering manna and living off of it in daily gratitude. “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me,” says Jesus (John 6:45). So, according to scholars, (see Susan Hylen) not anyone can eat of the manna, but only those who followed the instructions of God. Jesus, the Word, is life-giving in the same concrete ways that manna was. God’s will through Jesus, the Word, cultivates a relationship of trust between human and divine.
So, that’s the end of the lecture part of this sermon except for one caveat: Jesus suggests that he is different from the manna in one way. The ancestors died in the wilderness, but the one who eats Jesus’ bread “does not die” (John 6:50). This is not a criticism of the manna. The death of Moses and the first generation was a well-known part of the Exodus story, resulting from Israel’s idolatry. Jesus as manna offers to overcome that part of the story. Those who come to Jesus have learned from the Father. They are followers of God’s word who are promised a life-giving relationship that endures.
So, in order to thrive on the manna that is Jesus, you have to believe in Jesus. That means being in relationship with Jesus which is more akin to daily self examination than asking Jesus to “take the wheel” and just run your life for you. In daily self examination, we take on the discipline of opening ourselves to change. And God changes us each time we open up this way. So the very life of a Christian is based on change. We are changed when we encounter Jesus the first time, and then again, and again we face changes throughout our spiritual journey.
I have a Jewish psychologist friend who published a self-help book on change a few years ago. He calls it “Change Happens.” I like the subtitle too, which has a lilt of Yiddish humor to it, “When To Try Harder and When to Stop Trying So Hard.” He reports in this book that a study was done that reported that about half of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions but only 55% of them are able to sustain the resolution for more than two weeks. He uses the example of a weight loss program. You know, you start going to the gym more and eating less, etc. etc. But you don’t follow through. He says this is because we don’t really want to change on the inside and are merely answering external motivations, which don’t usually work.
To make his point, he shares a story from the classic series Frog and Toad called The Garden. Toad asks Frog to teach him to grow a garden. Frog gives Toad some seeds, tells him to plant them in the ground, and he will soon have a garden.
Toad went home and planted the seeds, but he got impatient because the seeds did not come up right away. Toad talked to his seeds, sang to his seeds, he even yelled at his seeds, but still they did not grow. Frog told Toad that his seeds were not coming up because he had scared them and if he would just leave them alone for a few days, the seeds would grow.
A few days later, when his seeds still had not come up, Toad decided the problem was that his seeds were afraid of the dark, so he sat outside all night in his garden with lighted candles and read stories to his seeds. Then Toad fell asleep. The next morning Frog came by and woke Toad and pointed out that little green plants were coming up out of the ground.
Toad was ecstatic, but exhausted, and said, “You were right, Frog. It was very hard work.”
Sometimes in our practice of repentance, we need not work so hard at making the changes ourselves but must rely on the Spirit to lead the way. We cannot force God to do things our way yet still we cannot not change, we can only choose to stay in relationship.
Maybe Carrie Underwood was right to a certain extent. Maybe I can just let Jesus Take the Wheel. But the sentiment comes up short because I have to then do the footwork of following him. It’s not just a deal where you eat the manna and then climb on board the cruise ship and eat whatever else comes off of the cafeteria dessert line.
In this morning’s leaflet you can read again the collect of the day with which we began this service.
Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as are right, that we, who cannot exist without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Rite I)
Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Rite II)
This is a very old collect that dates back prior to the Gregorian sacramentary. In 1662, when Cranmer kept it for us Anglicans, he changed a word to clear up a theological point. In the 1662 revision of the prayer, he made the substitution of “enabled” for “able.” Cranmer made this change to reinforce the idea of the need for God’s grace. We are not just able on our own or through a one time meal, we are enabled through our daily repentance and meal and relationship with Jesus. This collect is a succinct statement of the doctrine of grace: it is not only true that we cannot think or do the right thing or live according to God’s will without His grace; we cannot even exist without the grace of God. (Hatcher, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, p. 190.)
Another more recent American monk wrote a similar prayer and I will leave you with this. It is a prayer by Thomas Merton.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”