We continue with week two in our foray into the sacraments. Those here last week were a bit surprised I did not talk more specifically about the Eucharist. I mentioned it, to be sure. Jesus blesses, breaks, and distributes the five loaves and two fish, much as we distribute the bread and wine during the Eucharist. Perhaps more significantly, John calls Jesus’ blessing a Eucharist, a joyful thanksgiving! But, as I said last week, the Eucharist was not the focus of last week’s readings. John was more interested in telling his audience that Jesus ranked higher than Moses. Much of what went on last week was Jesus’ claim that He was the Son of Man, the Anointed. He was the One to whom Moses was pointing; He was the One who had come into the world. The Eucharist, as you and I understand it, is not formally command by our Lord until the night of the Last Supper.
Seeing as how we have a small crowd and everyone is Episcopalian and we are introducing a new service today, though, we should spend a bit more time on our understanding of the Sacraments. If I asked you to define the Sacraments, could you. An outward sign of an inward and visible grace. You thought you were done with such quizzes when you were confirmed, did you not? I notice nearly everyone joined in as we said the definition. Everybody seems to be able to say the line. But do we know what it means? Are we able to describe to people in our lives the nature of the Sacraments? I suspect, were I to stop and quiz us, there would be some horrible panic. Don’t worry, we would not be alone. The idea of the Sacraments caused more than one skirmish in Europe and a number of fights within our own church.
For example, how many sacraments are there in our church? I heard a lot of “seven’s” and a lot of “two’s.” Those of you who said another number can see me in the Parish Hall about scheduling a new confirmation class! The sevens and twos drowned out all the other answers because that was where the fight was when our church came into being. If we look at the 39 Articles, yes we have articles of our faith, we can see that our forebears settled on two dominical sacraments. By that, our founders understood that Jesus only commissioned Baptism and the Eucharist. The fact that our Lord gave them makes them dominical in nature. But, more than a few of us have migrated to Advent from RC and Orthodox churches. Those stated seven because Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Unction are considered sacraments in other churches. We will not be resolving which tradition is right today, or any day in the future, for that matter, but we will be exploring their role in the Church, as they speak to the truth declared by our Lord today in the Gospel reading.
Our Gospel reading picks off right where we left off last week. Jesus has crossed over to the Capernaum by walking on the water, scaring His disciples in the process. Finding Jesus in Capernaum, they are surprised. He went up the mountain while the disciples got into the boat. How could He make it here ahead of them? So they ask. What follows is a conversation not unlike the one Jesus had with the woman at the well in chapter 4. Jesus gives them an answer to a question they do not ask. Jesus tells them they are looking for Him not because they understand who He is, but because they ate and were satisfied. Then He gives a warning: Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. Fair enough. Who would not want bread that gives eternal life? So they ask Jesus what they must do to perform the works of God, as if they are ignorant of the torah. Jesus instructs them that the work of God is to believe in Him whom God has sent. Naturally, the people are in the mind of the Passover. Jesus has just blessed the bread and fish and distributed. There was no prayer to God to feed the people. Jesus has accomplished this work on His own, laying claim to the idea that He ranks higher than Moses. But it is a remarkable claim! The people are unwilling to let the claim go unchallenged. Show us another sign, and we will believe You are the Messiah.
Jesus’ answer is effectively, I have already given you the sign. But His answer is also far deeper than they realize. God is the source of the heavenly bread, and Jesus is the One sent by God. The true manna is God’s Anointed, Jesus! The crowd’s response is nearly identical to the woman at the well a couple chapters earlier. The crowd asks for this bread, just as she asked for this water. Jesus takes on to Himself the role of the dispenser of God’s blessing. Water and bread were considered life giving symbols of God’s blessing. Jesus, in His instruction over these two chapters, is claiming to be The Distributor of God’s blessing on the people, both Jew and Gentile! It is an amazing claim! A claim that, without the power and testimony of the Resurrection, would be vapid! We know the rest of the story. We are not surprised. We are simply awed by the depth and presentation of Jesus to the people. Wow! He really is the life-giving spring. Wow! He really is the Bread of Life. The leaders, of course, will reject His teaching. But so will the people.
Why do I share this story in this way today and begin with the brief discussion of the sacraments? I wonder how quick we are, as the Church that stands in the shadow of the Cross and the glory of the Empty Tomb, to forget His promise and power and desire to do only good for us? Do we really believe He is the Anointed, sent by God, who wants nothing but the best for us? Our outward and visible testimony as a parish is that we do not. I am not a big fan of imposing my will on a parish. In fact, I am not a big fan of imposing what I think is God’s will on a parish during the first year of a relationship. There is too big a chance for hurt, for mistakes, for misunderstandings, and who knows what else. But we are a parish who, I have learned, is slow to lay claim to the benefits of His Passion. If we look back in Acts, we see the Church laying on hands and anointing, expecting God to work in their midst. The result was that people came to the Church for healing. Some chose to join; others chose to walk away. For all our claim of modern superiority, we are really no different than the crowds about which we read.
To be sure, at time we at Advent have tried a Healing service. Always, I am told, it has been a behind the scenes effort. Maybe it was done at a weekday service; maybe it was done at a weekday service for a season like Lent or Advent. It does not seem to have been a primary focus of the parish. Why? If God is God, if God has taught us to lay on hands and anoint for healing, if there is a need in our parish community and the wider community, and if so many of us devote our lives to healthcare, why is this not a central part of our identity? Why are we not a parish that expects God to move powerfully among us and heal us and heal our visitors? Have we accepted the sign? Have we accepted the Truth?
After some discussing with the Search Committee, the Vestry, and Liturgy & Worship committee, I agreed to go ahead and launch this service early. I won’t go into all the details, but the event that caused me to ignore best practices and plunge headlong into this was the Time & Talents work of the Vestry. My small group all identified healing as a gift, a charism, that I should be claiming. When I asked why, they had no real concrete answer. All agreed; yet none could explain. To me, it sounded much like a Holy Spirit moment. You see, I have had that charism confirmed far too many times to ignore. Here was another. They knew I should be about healing for God, but they did not know the back story. So, by way of sharing with you and lowering some anxieties, I now share with the parish.
Some years ago I was called by a hospital to come and do last rites for a man suffering from a brain aneurism. The nurse calling me said I needed to hurry. It was after 2am, so this was her way of saying he would be gone by morning and that I could not wait. I got dressed and headed to the hospital. When I got there, I grabbed my prayer book and oil from the van. I headed to the room to give last rites to a man from a neighboring parish (it turned out his priest was on vacation). When I entered the room, the medical staff cleared out to give me, the wife, and the dying man some privacy. His wife, as you might imagine, was pleading, crying, acting as one who could do nothing for the man she loved. She was so sorry I had been woken up, but she had nowhere else to turn. I opened that prayer book, turned to page 462, and got stuck.
You have all only known me for seven months. Have I struck you as someone whose tongue is often tied? It’s ok to laugh. I did afterwards as well. I am a pretty good reader. Before I was ordained, I was one of those readers that would step in last minute at my parish. But I found myself unable to say the words, Almighty Father, look on this Your servant, lying in great weakness, and comfort him with the promise of everlasting life. Three times I tried. Three times I failed. Then I recognized what was happening. Still, even though I realized that my tongue was being bound, I was unwilling to give words to the prayer welling up inside of me. I had a soon to be widow next to me, softly crying and sniffling. If I prayed the prayer willing up, what kind of sick bastard was I? I felt a . . . compulsion to pray a prayer of life-giving power in front of a soon-to-be-widow. My words, I knew, would hurt her immeasurably in the days, weeks, and months to come. I asked her to step out. She refused. I told her I was sorry, but I had to pray a different prayer.
I wish I had written it down. Brothers and sisters, to this day it is the most remarkable prayer ever to cross my lips. I reminded our Lord that it was the season of Epiphany, that season when we celebrate the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles. I reminded the Lord that He was the Healer and that I stood in a place that claimed to be full of healers. How cool would it be for Him to act yet again, reminding doctors and nurses where true healing was to be found and manifesting His glory to a world in desperate need!
I had no sooner got the words out when the man sat up and said, “I’ve got to pee.”
Brothers and sisters, as your new pastor, I would like to claim that I understood what had happened right at the outset. I would be lying. I think the first words right out of my mouth were “holy crap!” or something along those lines. I had a dying man trying to get out of bed and go to the bathroom. We needed help.
I don’t think the wife understood the significance either. As I explained that I would get a nurse and he continued to struggle to get out of bed, she pig-piled him. Between the sniffles and struggles, she was giving him the “you listen here” that only couples who have spent decades together can get away with. He was giving her the “what is wrong with you” just as well.
Now I had an elderly man and his elderly wife wrestling on a hospital bed. I just knew there was a broken hip or concussion headed our way. So I ran down the hall to find a nurse or doctor. I found “Susan.” Susan, I need your help. He’s up trying to go to the bathroom and his wife is trying to pin him to the bed. “Father, father, I know you want to believe that God does miracles. I have worked as a nurse for 22 years. I can tell you with certainty, God, if he exists, does not heal.” Great, great, someone needs to tell the patient because he seems to think he needs to go pee. “Father, he can’t be talking, he can’t be moving. I’ve seen the scans. He’s probably already gone. We just called you because his wife asked for someone.” Great. You come tell him he’s dead and does not need to pee and should not be wrestling with his wife.
Folks, I was literally tugging at her to come with him. I knew it was a matter of time before we heard the crash of this older couple knocking over equipment. The whole time down the hall she is giving me the “lecture” about never seeing a miracle, never seeing a sign that could point to a god. I’m like can we please walk faster! Finally, we make it to the room. It takes her a second. An eighty year old man and mid 70’s year old woman are wrestling on a hospital bed. But, professional as always, Susan recovered her wits, entered the room, hit the emergency button, and started trying to disentangle the couple. The cacophony of sounds will stay with me to my dying day. Susan trying to get the couple to quit wrestling before someone got hurt, the wife telling the husband he will be staying there until a nurse or doctor gets there, the patient fighting mad about having to pee, and the voice at the other end of the button trying to get us to state what response team was needed. God had acted marvelously, and humanity was confused!—much like our story these two weeks.
In many ways, though, it is the after-effects of the sign that I want to point out. After all, how many of us sitting here today tell ourselves that, had we eaten of the fish and loaves, we would have known who Jesus was and never demanded another sign? Don’t raise your hand; just place yourself in the story. In mine, there were a couple of interesting take-away’s. For some months after this miracle, I would be grabbed by a nurse or doctor or someone who had heard about the priest in the green shirt. The miracle had occurred in Epiphany (and I wore white), but somehow it came to be associated with the green shirt. Father, would pray over this one. Father, do you have a minute? Any time I went to visit a parishioner in the hospital, someone was grabbing me to pray for the desperate, the ones for whom medicine had no answer. What really disappointed me as a parish priest was the fact that so few doctors and nurses had come to my church in the aftermath. I’m a parish priest. One of our job descriptions, whether it is formally acknowledged or not is “grow the church.” Surely, after such an incredible miracle, and make no mistake—doctors and nurses told me repeatedly for months that they had never seen anything like it--, people would be drawn to the church, right? I think three doctors and their family units made it to Easter, but none, so far as I know, found their way into a church community.
I would ask. Where were you? Where are you going? Maybe the sign was for you, why are you not seeking Him? Over and over I would ask, to no effect. Then a strange blessing happened. My parish got well. Although we were an older parish, I went 26 months or so between hospital visits. I was not shirking my duties. No one was getting sick; no one was getting hurt. We started to notice it. I wondered aloud what was going on. One of my intercessors, a lady who will be far closer to the throne than I, pointed out that God was not allowing Himself or His priest to be used. The sign of healing had been given to healers, and they had rejected it. Her guess or prophesy was that I would not return until those doctors and nurses had forgotten the sign. She was right. Once illness and emergencies return to my cure, most in the hospital had forgotten me.
Why do I share a downer ending and focus on Jesus’ ignoring peoples’ questions today? In a few moments, we are going to start a new service at Advent, one of Healing. I will invite all those who would like prayer and anointing to come forward. I will anoint with healing oil consecrated by our bishop, lay hands, and pray. I do not yet know the prayers I will say; I do not yet know the need in this congregation. But I will pray. And you and I will expect God to act.
Here’s the thing. When we approach our Lord and ask questions, He does not always give us the answers we seek. He gives us, instead, the answers we need. In a few minutes, the brave will come forward, hopeful that our Lord will act in their lives. Some will even come bartering, telling God if He does this they will do that. Brothers and sisters, God is not manipulated. God is not a quid-pro-quo kind of Lord. He is our Father in heaven who wants only great things for us. You will come and ask for pains to be eased, for disease to be cured, for relationships to be reconciled, for provision, and for any number of other perceived needs. I will dutiful anoint and pray over you. In the end, though, we must trust the One whom He has sent, the One upon whom He has placed His seal and His pledge. We must trust, no matter the outcome, that our Lord wants only good for us and that He is always working to redeem evil in our lives. But, and we must hear this but, we are not placing our faith in the cured backaches, the wiped away cancer, or even the stalling of death that I shared this morning. Our trust is in the Lord! He will act and do what is best for us, whether we know it or not, whether we agree with it or not, and whether the world will notice or not.
Each week we gather around that altar and pray to God that we receive all the benefits of His passion. Today, we will begin to claim those benefits, not as timid or frail, but as deeply loved firstborn sons and daughters. We will approach that throne of grace asking Him once again to do what is best for us because it is in His nature so to do. We will ask the Healer to heal, not because we deserve it, but because we have placed our faith in Jesus, His Anointed. The Bread of life and the source of all life-giving water. But we will do so, and I will remind you in prayers, cognizant of the fact that we have a share in His Son’s ministry. Sometimes, how we handle suffering is the means by which God reaches into the lives of others. You and I may desperately want another sign, as did our brothers and sisters in Capernaum 2000 years ago, but The Sign has already been given. We will trust, as He shows up this morning in power, that the healing He gives us is the healing we need. Then fortified, and maybe in light of yet another sign, we, many of whom who are healers, will return to the world ready to tell yet again of the wonders the Healer has done.