Rev. Sarah Buteux
Proper 14, Year B
John 6:35, 41-51
Fan. Follower. Admirer. Reader. Sister. Subscriber. I don’t quite know how to sum it up, but when it comes to questions of faith, justice, and what it means to love and follow Jesus, one of the voices I trust most in this world right now, is that of Sarah Bessey. If you’ve tuned in for church or vespers over the last many months you’ve almost certainly heard me quote Sarah or share a prayer by her.
For those of you who don’t know who I’m talking about, Sarah Bessey was a blogger who broke on to the progressive church scene around 9 years ago with her book, “Jesus Feminist,” – a title she was pretty sure would offend almost everyone.
Sarah is not a seminary trained theologian or an ordained minister, and she is most definitely a woman, so it came as no surprise to me that there are people on the inter-webs who have a lot to say about the fact that she would dare to say anything at all, especially about God.
But the essay she posted this past week broke my heart. It’s titled, “Unqualified,” and given that we both grew up in fairly traditional, patriarchal churches, I was pretty sure I knew what was coming.
She begins by talking about how tender and vulnerable she felt when she put “Jesus Feminist” out into the world and about all the wonderful authors who stepped up to endorse it – people like Jen Hatmaker, Brian McLaren, and her dear friend Rachel Held-Evans.
But that’s all just a lead in to the real story. The story of the theologian who not only refused to endorse her book, but went on to detail why Sarah herself was completely unqualified to write a book about Jesus at all. Apparently uppity women like her are why accomplished men like him can’t have nice things.
“He essentially said, (and this is Sarah speaking now)’Your entire style and background and lack of education is not suited to serious theological topics like this.’”
OOF! Right? Not cool man. Not cool at all. But not unexpected.
“I knew going to into writing – (says Sarah) – that there would be a tremendous amount of pushback and criticism, especially given the topic … I had pretty thick skin and, thanks to a dozen years of blogging on Al Gore’s Internet, a pretty good understanding of what happens whenever a woman dares to have an opinion in public.
But that one? That one hurt. And it stuck. He hit me right in the very tender spot of my insecurities and those words shaped me.
(And here is the heartbreaking part.)
Because I thought he was right.
(Some part of me still thinks he’s right.)
I am unqualified for theological writing because however much I study, at the end of the day, I am self-taught. …Because I’m outside the usual power and leadership narratives of the North American church, because I got my start by blogging, because I’m still in process and don’t pretend otherwise, because I know I’ve gotten some things wrong, because I tell stories from my pretty ordinary life to talk about God….To this day, when I preach, I almost always inadvertently mention that I haven’t been formally educated in theology. That disclaimer is rooted in that (man’s critique). I literally tell myself, “stop saying this!” and then oops out it comes again. My friends and fellow writers have often named this to me and lovingly rebuked it. … ” 1
And yet that man’s negative words took on a power of their own in Sarah’s life. They haunted her, belittled her, and caused her to question her right and apologize for her desire to speak about God.
That breaks my heart, not just because I have had to wrestle with similar lies, but because I depend on Sarah’s words. I watch and wait for them. I have been challenged and blessed by them. I trust that God is speaking through Sarah, not in spite of the fact that she writes from the margins of the theological world, but precisely because of she writes from the margins.
It is heartbreaking and sobering to realize how much power one person’s negativity can have to undo and undermine, damage and disqualify the life and work of another. I wish it were otherwise, but I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
In fact, I have no doubt that if we were to go around this room right now each and every one of us could dredge up a story that proves my point; an aside, a stray comment, an evaluation, or a full on attack that left its mark upon you, barbed words that tarnished people’s faith in you or, even worse, crippled your faith in yourself.
As I said before, Sarah is one of the few theologians whom I trust. She’s now a N.Y. Times bestselling author, one of the co-founders of the evolving faith movement, and a leading voice in progressive Christian circles. And yet this man’s words left even her questioning: “What is it that makes a person “qualified” to speak about God?”
If I could, and who knows, maybe I will, I’d thank her for daring to speak up anyway, because her words have been the bread of life for me. I might even send her a copy of this sermon, because the sad truth is that the doubters and the haters are nothing new, especially not for those of us who dare to question the status quo or broaden our understanding of what God is up to in the world.
In fact, even Jesus himself had to grapple with people who thought he was unqualified to speak for God, and this was right after he miraculously fed the 5000. Seriously, there is no pleasing some people.
You’d think such a miracle would be qualification enough, right? But when Jesus tries to get the crowd to think beyond the material and embrace the fact that God is doing a new thing through him, they turn against him.
John tells us that “the Jews -and here we always need to pause and remember that whenever John labels a group as “the Jews” he’s not talking about all Jewish people, but specifically about the Jewish leaders in the first century who opposed Jesus and eventually exiled his followers – “the Jews began to complain about (Jesus) because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 2
They grumbled because they simply didn’t buy it. “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Who does he think he is.
We know the house where he grew up. What gives him the right to speak for God? What qualifies this poor, itinerant, uneducated, non-ordained, son of a carpenter to teach us about faith? Because, you see, just like Sarah, Jesus was self taught too. He came from outside the the usual power and leadership narratives of Judaism, and it showed in the way he used perfectly ordinary things like bread and seeds and birds to teach people about God
Not only that, but these complainers don’t want to hear anything new. They think they already have it all figured out. They know the law and the prophets. They know the traditions and the stories of their faith. They think they know what God expects of them and the last thing they want is some nobody out of nowhere calling their understanding into question.
Jesus can sense this. He knows how uncomfortable he is making them even as he tries to broaden their understanding. And so having come out of nowhere, having just fed them in the middle of nowhere, and having heard them ask him to feed them again just like Moses fed the Israelites manna when they were in the middle of nowhere, he invites them to take another look at that very story.
Now I’m not going to pretend that the gospel of John is easy to understand and we don’t have time for me to parse out every verse, so I’m just going to try to sum up what I think Jesus is doing here.
When he calls their attention to the manna story what he is really doing is giving them the opportunity to remember that it’s not just a story about God physically feeding God’s people, but the story of how they came to trust that God would continue to not only feed them but teach them and guide them and be there for them always… because God loved them.
The Israelites sojourn in the wilderness is a story about covenant, commitment, and relationship. It is the story of how the Israelites became God’s people and God became their God.
In fact, if you go back to the book of Deuteronomy (8:3) it says “God 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.”
Out in the wilderness, God fed the people in a new way – “in a way with which their ancestors were not acquainted” – fed them in body and in soul as they walked with God. Salvation for the Israelites then depended on trust and a radical openness to what God was doing in their midst.
And now, today, says Jesus, God is here to feed you in a new way once more, not just with the bread I made for you yesterday, but with the life giving words of my teachings. So humble yourselves, just as they did. Learn to trust, the way they did. Open yourselves to this new thing God is doing, like they did, and you will know life and know it abundantly.
Now let me just pause and acknowledge that a passage like this can provoke anxiety when it comes to the mechanics of salvation. People want to parse out these words to ensure that they are “believing” the right things so that they will be, “raised up on the last day.”
They get all tied up in knots trying to figure out where God’s sovereignty ends and our free will begins and, honestly: It’s. Not. Clear.
The way I read it: no one comes to God without God’s help and God is going to help everyone (see that little word “all” in verse 45) so relax.You don’t have to understand how God saves us, you just need to trust that God will.
Trust. There’s that word again.
If you remember Todd’s sermon from last week, you’ll remember that the word “pisteuo” here translated as “believe” really means to “trust.”
What Jesus is trying to teach us is that faith isn’t just about knowing the right answers or believing the right things about God once and for all so you can one day go to heaven, but about walking in right relationship with God and living into the joy of bringing heaven to earth right here, right now.
Faith is about trusting in Jesus enough to walk in his way. It’s about using his teachings about loving God and our neighbor as our guide through this life just as the Israelites used God’s commandments as their guide when they walked with God through the wilderness.
Friends, our faith is full of mystery… and anyone who says differently, who thinks they have all the answers, is fooling themselves.
Don’t let them fool you too.
And please, for the love of God, don’t let them disparage you if they don’t like your answers or think that because of who you are or whom you love, where you went to school or where you go to church, what you do for a living or what you’ve done with your life, that you aren’t qualified to speak about God.
“Yes, we need scholars and academics, leaders and ministers (says Sarah),
AND we need people like me – low-church self-taught untrained laity …to grapple with…deep theological issues, (to) bring… our stories, our wisdom, (and) our experiences… to the larger conversation.…In fact, this is one of the first invitations of decolonization or dismantling white supremacy and patriarchy from our own spiritual lives: we are invited to consider whose theology is shaping us and adjust accordingly. If we are only being formed by one particular voice or social location then we’re missing part of the image of God. If the only ones we allow to teach us are straight, white, well-educated male seminarians then we’re missing so much about what makes God beautiful and true, good and loving.”
Friends, Jesus is inviting us all into a relationship with God marked by humility, trust, love, and generosity. Jesus is inviting us to be radically open to the new things God is always doing in our midst. Because when we do we become the bread of life for one another.
This doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with people, but it does mean learning to disagree in a way that doesn’t disparage. It means learning to correct in a way that doesn’t belittle. It means learning how to redirect in ways that encourage people to keep seeking rather than shaming them for believing they have the right to wonder about God at all.
I think that’s where Sarah’s critic lost his way. Even if he was right, and he wasn’t, the way he spoke to her was not in line with the way of Jesus. Even if he had spoken the truth, and I don’t think he did, he failed to speak it with love. And even if he was right yesterday that only certain people get to speak for God, and again, I’m pretty sure he was not, a careful reading of scripture reveals that God is always doing a new thing.
God is always expanding our understanding of who and how we are to love. Our job is to be open and receptive so that we can be a part of the kingdom as it comes.
One last word. At the end of her essay, Sarah tells the story of going back through her archives recently and finding that email. She printed it out and discovered that she remembered almost every word of it even though she hadn’t read it in over ten years. Friends, that’s how powerful and positively hellish our words can be. And you know what she did? She hit, “delete,” permanently erasing those words from her files.
“And then (she writes) I took the printed email naming one of my biggest insecurities in my work and witness, and I very safely, quite deliberately set it on fire.
I would be lying if I did not admit that this was satisfying…those words don’t get to shape me anymore. I’m allowing myself to be shaped instead by the invitations of Jesus…”
And friends, I hope to God that you will too. Amen.
1. To follow/subscribe to Sarah Bessey click here:
2.“Throughout this Gospel, John uses the phrase “the Jews” as a shorthand for that portion of the Jewish community who did not come to regard Jesus as the Messiah — and who, at some point fresh in John’s memory, expelled followers of Jesus from the synagogue. Those expelled followers were also Jewish, of course (as were Jesus and the disciples!), so the phrase “the Jews” should by no means be understood as referring to the Jewish people as a whole, but rather to the authorities and others who opposed the emerging Christian (or “Jewish-Christian”) movement for whom John wrote. The pain of expulsion comes through in John’s language. But we should never lose sight of the thoroughly Jewish ground on which John stands — including in this week’s passage!” Salt https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/8/7/trust-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-eleventh-week-after-pentecost