The Rev. Maggie Arnold // August 5, 2018
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord our strength, and our Redeemer. Amen.
It’s a great joy to get to join you in worship today. Thank you, to all of you, for the work and prayer you have offered for the future of St. Stephen’s. I am so looking forward to getting to know you and learn from you. You might want to know something about me, so this is a kind of introduction. For a long time, I’ve had this feeling of wanting to be involved with the meat and potatoes of life. I’ve always been hoping to arrive at the classic, honest, unpretentious, distillation of whatever it is I’m doing. Not the fancy dessert, not the teasing, showy appetizer, but the main course, the thing that nourishes you. In college, I went to art school, a place where you can be immersed in every trend and movement, you can fall in love with what’s cool and provocative in the moment. Perhaps that experience solidified my commitment to what is timeless and true, to serving something greater than myself, something my grandparents would recognize. The meat and potatoes is how it gets expressed in my head, but you might think of it in another way, especially if you are vegetarian—what I mean is something basic, fundamental, like bread. If you’re gluten-free, maybe bread doesn’t work for you either, but let’s stick with bread—it has a good heritage, this image.
How do we sort out what the bread is, for each of us, in our own lives? How do we decide on what is worthwhile and necessary, as opposed to what might be fun or distracting for a while? It’s a lifelong process—it can be called finding your vocation, or discerning a set of values that you’ll hold to, that can bind you to others who share them, creating a family, a community. In graduate school, I studied the history of the church, focusing on the work of the sixteenth-century reformer, Martin Luther. He was a theology professor, at the end of the Middle Ages. For the past thousand years, monasteries and universities had echoed with endless debates over the meaning of the Bible and God’s will, everything from who Jesus is to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The amazing thing about Luther was his ability to see through this dense atmosphere of constant conversation and identify the few, simple questions that were relevant for real people’s lives. What is worthwhile, and necessary? It’s as vital, and as complex, a question today as it was then. That process of evaluating is different for each of us, and it evolves throughout our lives, as we bring a new sense of ourselves to a changing world. There isn’t one right way to think about it. One person’s bread might be a chocolate chip cookie, and that’s ok. God shapes, and desires, all our various abilities. What’s important is to engage in it thoughtfully, to honour the gift of our lives by offering what we are and have to God and each other, as St. Paul says, “to live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” To do that, we have to take our choices seriously, about how we spend our time and do our work. If you are truly a chocolate chip cookie person, whose transcendent baking could possibly bring about world peace, or even just make a hard day better for your child or a friend, how much time do you want to give to gorging on Skittles? Is that really going to satisfy you? There are so many bids for our time and attention—developments in technology have certainly brought us a crazy salad bar of options for every instant of every day, and yet they haven’t brought us even one more second of time in the day, or one more hour in the week. So the question of value, of worth, is crucial. What’s the junk, and what’s the bread?
In our own lives we will find different answers. In the common life of the church, there is a bread that we share. Jesus tells us, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me, will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” We have been given God’s Word, to nourish and satisfy us, in the scriptures and in the Sacraments. Christ has promised that, amid all the confusion of life, the demands pulling us in every direction, He will be here, for us. Each of us will be able to find Him in different places, in painting or running or solving problems or education or healing or whatever fulfills our God-granted talents, for “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” But all of us will be able to find God here, in the bread of life. This is where we come together, in the Word, in the flesh. Not that it’s easy, or uncomplicated, because life’s not like that. But this is the place where we wrestle with it, together, keeping faith with one another in this endeavour. There will be parts of the Word that we don’t understand, that we have to help each other with. Some of the Bible doesn’t feel like nourishing bread to us—some of these words are cruel, or contradictory. Some of our experiences of how these words have been used have been damaging and hurtful to us or to others, and we need to admit that.
It is my prayer and hope that we will engage together in this process of sorting out what’s important, what’s worthwhile and honest and true, for our life as a community of the Body of Christ and for God’s call on all our own lives. Doing that, together, takes trust. The journalist David Brooks wrote this past week that “Trust is won by persistence through failure.” As we explore and try things in this process of following Jesus, some things will fail, and those will be the most important things. Sometimes, we won’t get it right. Sometimes, we won’t understand. But what matters is being there again, for the next time. In fact, that’s the whole story of the Gospel, in a nutshell. Trust is won by persistence through failure. So that we might trust, completely, God even learns to fail, as we do. What is the crucifixion but the ultimate failure, of Jesus’ ministry, of God’s outreach to the world, of the unity and perfection within God’s self, a failure of everything, for all time. Just so that there could be, through that failure, persistence, a return, to those very same friends who had betrayed and abandoned Him. They were questioning, and searching, weighing their options, just as we do. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” They had been looking for some cataclysmic sign, a massive miracle like food raining down from heaven in the desert. Instead what they got, what we get, happens quietly, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”
That’s the meat and potatoes, the bread, that I have found, that I am grateful to be able to share in here, with you as we begin to walk in Jesus’ way together: Seek the truth where the Truth is found. When it all falls apart, come back again, in love, in trust. It’s not showy or trendy or even new at all. It’s the old, old story, of forgiveness and faith, the only one worth telling.