You are hereSailing close to the winds of change

Sailing close to the winds of change

By Elaine Bardwell - Posted on 12 August 2018

Dr A G Salvesen, LLM

Exodus 16:2–4; 9-15; John 6:24-35

We got back last night from 2 weeks away. Thanks to internet connectivity, which is a bit of a mixed blessing when you’re on holiday, we were as up with national and international news as when we’re in Oxford. And the bizarrely hot, dry weather continued. Not just in the UK, but where we were in Denmark and Norway too - in fact it seemed even stranger there, especially to the locals, who told us that July and August were normally cold and wet. In Bergen it reached nearly 33º, which was apparently a record. Hard to deny climate change, one would have thought.

It isn’t just the weather that is unsettling. 2 years after the referendum that shall not be named, we still haven’t a clue what will happen in 2020. The centrist consensus in British politics has collapsed and the public is being pulled to the extremes instead. The Grenfell inquiry is revealing multiple failures by institutions and manufacturers. European countries are moving to the right. American politics and foreign policy lurch from one absurdity to another. I could go on, but I won’t.

Still, it’s not apparent that the majority of us are really hungry for change, rather than a return to the way things were 3 years ago and more. We want the old, familiar ways to work; or we want radical change, but can’t accept that there may also be unintended consequences as well.

This kind of neediness is expressed by the people in both of today’s readings. In the one from Exodus, the people of Israel have been delivered from the oppression of slavery in Egypt, but now have no homes or food supply. They find themselves in an in-between stage, wandering in the wilderness until they reach the land God promised to their ancestors. They’re dependent on God and God’s prophet Moses. According to a key tradition in scripture, for the 40 years of their wanderings, God provided miraculous food on an almost daily basis (but never on the Sabbath!) – the people only had to go out and collect the manna every morning in order to be fed.

So when the crowd in the gospel reading experience a miracle, when the packed lunch that consists of a few loaves and fishes becomes enough food for 5,000 people, they immediately think of the biblical story of the manna sent from heaven in the wilderness. We should note that they are sincerely seeking God — ‘what do we do to perform the works of God?’, they say. But the question for them is whether the very ordinary-seeming guy Jesus of Nazareth could be the promised ‘prophet like Moses’ God had foretold. They don’t want to be gullible and deceived. So they challenge Jesus to authenticate himself, prove himself a prophet, by doing a special sign.

But Jesus points them beyond their traditions. He’s not a Moses-figure, he’s the heavenly bread sent by God, to satisfy the spiritual needs of the world forever. God is doing something new through him: the manna of the exodus generation has become the symbol of a new act of God, constantly feeding us in Christ.

But still the crowd don’t get it - unsurprisingly, I don’t think I would in their shoes - because what Jesus says doesn’t fit their existing frame of reference, It doesn’t make sense to them because they’re trying to map the present onto the patterns of the past. So they are asking the wrong questions, and so also the answers Jesus gives them don’t match what they want to know.

As I thought about the readings this week, I reflected on the state of the church in Britain, and in our own congregation. Numbers are falling in terms of those who claim to be Christian and those who attend church at all. Clearly we’re not meeting the needs of a public that’s hungry and thirsty, not just for food and drink, but for meaning in our lives as well. Are we in effect offering ‘stones’ – ‘stones’ being good, solid traditions that have worked well in the past but maybe are not so appropriate today - when we should be offering ‘bread’ - something fresh and sustaining, direct from God for today’s world?

And are we asking God the ‘right’ questions about where to go in our church life? (not just in St Michael’s, but throughout the nation). Are we understanding the answers God might already be telling us? Or are we too hidebound by the past methods and ways of doing things? Can we work out what to hold on to or put aside? Can we allow fundamental changes in our outlooks and practices, in order to meet today’s needs? (I think the same also goes for our other national institutions and politics, where we also need new vision and new ways of doing things, but that’s less relevant here.)  In church, we also need the power to follow through on new vision. This is not at all easy when our resources are so limited, and our days are so full of work and family needs. But God has worked through weakness and lack of resources many times before.

One of our themes in St Michael’s this summer is pilgrimage — the pilgrim people of God. We tend to think of pilgrimage as journeying to a holy place on foot, like Santiago da Compostela or Canterbury or Rome or Jerusalem. But in many cases, pilgrims would have done much of the journey by sea, under sail. Last week we watched a family in a sailing boat, tacking their way back and forth across a fjord. They weren’t experts at it (according to David!), and the children were not doing much of the actual sailing. But they were certainly moving and making progress, thanks to the sails and the wind. The helmsman and the crew (the parents?) were learning as they went. Let’s seek the wind of the Spirit and work out how to set our sails, so we can be driven along by the Spirit’s power.


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