A Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 15, 2021
Preached at La Parroquia Catedral de la Natividad
in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Lord Jesus, in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, you gave us a memorial of your passion, death and resurrection. Grant that we may venerate the sacred mysteries of your body and blood in such a way that we sense within us the fruit of your redemption. Who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
You satisfy the hungry heart
With gift of finest wheat
Come give to us, O Saving Lord
The Bread of Life to eat
As when the shepherd calls his sheep
They know and heed his voice
So when you call your family Lord
They follow and rejoice
With joyful lips, we sing to you
Our praise and gratitude
That you should count us worthy Lord
To share this Heavenly food
Is not the cup we bless and share
The blood of Christ outpoured?
Does not one cup, one loaf declare
Our Oneness in the Lord?
You satisfy the hungry heart
With gift of finest wheat
Come give to us, O Saving Lord
The Bread of Life to eat
500 hundred years ago, Christians in Western Europe were engaged in a vicious and often bloody conflict over exactly what it was that happened during the Mass, the Holy Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. One group contended that at the words of Consecration, the very reality of the bread and wine were changed into the actual body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. Another group suggested that Jesus became present in a very real but mysterious way. They rejected terms like “transubstantiation,” and preferred not to even try to come up with a term or phrase which explained what happened. They had learned to be cautious about the use of philosophical terms, and feared that too much defining created a kind of rigid and narrow view. Others rejected the notion of Sacraments at all. They argued that this was just a symbolic gesture which recalled something which had happened in the life of Jesus. For some of them, the washing of feet which was a part of their celebration was just as important as anything which happened with bread and wine. And finally, there was a quite interesting group which said that what really happened at the Eucharist was the consecration of the gathered community into the Body of Christ.
Each of these groups claimed that their own view was clearly and unmistakably supported by the Christian Scriptures. Each of these groups anathematized and damned anyone else who did not agree with them. And, in some cases, even went so far as to torture, abuse, and kill those with whom they disagreed. I am sorry to say that it was not the finest moment for Christianity!
I don’t think that there is much point in saying much more about Eucharistic theology today, other than that it sems to me that the words of Princess Elizabeth of England, before the death of her sister, Queen Mary, are as good an explanation as anything else I have ever read about this topic:
“Twas God the Word that spake it,
He took the Bread and brake it:
And what that Word did make it,
That I believe and take it.”
Today, I would like to reflect with you on the famous passage from the Holy Gospel According to Saint John, which is often referred to as “The Bread of Life Discourse.” Without focusing on particular and specific words, I would invite us to consider what the passage as a whole might tell us about God, about what it means to be human, and how all of this might assist us in our desire to truly become a Beloved Community—also known as the “Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.”
The first thing which immediately occurs to me is that even before he preaches, teaches, or explains anything to those who are following him, Jesus takes action. He notices that there are hungry people. And he feeds them. Only after that does he engage in a dialogue with them. When we encounter people who are starving, God challenges us to feed them—not to try to convert them, not to try to educate them, not to try to equip them for ministry and service. This is essential. We have to honestly acknowledge that for some, this is all that they will feel they need or want. That is ok. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison, protecting widows and orphans, welcoming foreigners and caring for those with any need—these are ends in themselves and need no other justification than that is what Christ has commanded us to do!
It is insulting to speak to someone who is starving about the life to come—it is insulting to them, and it is insulting to God! This is the very thing which Marx and others condemned. This is “pie in the sky” theology—and it has nothing to do with authentic Christianity. First, those who are starving must be fed, they must be cared for, they must be loved. Only then, do we have the right, as Saint Paul would tell us, to “give an explanation of the reason for the hope which is in us.”
Do we know what it is like to be truly hungry? Most of us have never starved. We might have missed an occasional meal or two. There might have been times that we were not able to eat the meals which we might have preferred. But very few of us understand the horror of real hunger pains! Few of us know what it is to fear that we will not find something to eat. Few of us know what it is like to wonder if we will survive. Few of us can even imagine what it is to go to sleep in pain, aching, because our bodies crave a morsel of bread or a sip of clean water. But in our world, even in our country, state, and county, there are people who experience debilitating hunger as a daily reality. A Beloved Community is one in which the gracious abundance which God freely gives is shared so that the needs of every person are met!
There are many kinds of hunger: physical, mental, spiritual. Each of these hungers is valid. God desires to feed all who are hungry in any way–and in every way–with an abundance which will surpass any hunger or longing which they ever experience.
Among the many kinds of hunger, though, there are three which seem to me to be paramount—after the first physical craving for nourishment is satisfied: the hunger for God, the hunger for community, and the hunger for the beauty of creation.
In the passage from the Gospel of John, after Jesus feeds the crowd, they follow him. Some of them are looking for another free meal. But many others are looking for more than that. Jesus engages them. He takes time to speak with them, to get to know them, and to hear from them the longings and desires of each heart. Then, and only then, does he share with them an invitation to go deeper—to lean more, and then to become disciples. Jesus gives us the very model of evangelism. We do not preach to those we do not know. We get to know them first, identify with them, listen to them explain their needs, desires, and longings. Then we share with them the way that God has satisfied our own longings and desires—individually and collectively.
It is all about relationships. Only if we are in relationship with God will we be able to help others to find a way to connect with God. Only if we have prayed, we be able to help others learn to pray. Only if we have read the Holy Scriptures, will we be able to assist others to listen to God speaking through them. Only if we have washed the feet of others will we be able to help them to find ways of loving and serving others in turn.
Above all, we must never try to impose our own experience on others. What has worked for us may not work for them! But we can give them a template and invite them to find ways of using it in their own journey towards God. I will go so far as to say that the hunger and longing for God is the most basic need of the human heart. It is foundational. Without encountering God and experiencing God’s transforming love, I do not think that we will ever really know lasting happiness. There will always be an emptiness, a vacuum inside us! It was Saint Augustine who wrote of this reality so beautifully: “Our hearts are restless, O God, and will find no rest until they rest in you.”
We were not created to be lonely. We were made for relationship. This means that we are called to not only to seek God, but to find and experience God in community. The beauty of authentic community is that it is diverse, inclusive, and comprehensive! Those who are well-connected often feel that it is easy to enter into community. It is often not the case. Some people have been hurt and wounded by community. Some have been exiled, excluded, shunned, and rejected. Some are fearful of giving community another try for fear that they will be rejected again. Some find that they live in large cities and do not know anyone. Some know lots of people, but do not feel that they really have any friends.
True community, beloved community, has the power to heal the loneliness which so many experience. It has the capacity to encourage, empower, affirm, and enable in a way that quite no other entity can ever do. The power of that love, welcome, and inclusion, can be transformative—even life-changing! True community has the ability to help each of us overcome our limitations and liabilities and develop our potential.
A wise monk once told me, community is like carrying a small back full of rough stones. Over time, those stones will rub together as you walk. Eventually, all the rough edges will be removed, and the stones will become smooth. The character and beauty of each of the stones will then be revealed. True community is productive and generative. It produces abundance to share with others. It is in true community that each of us finds our vocation, our calling, our purpose.
When God created humans, we were placed in a garden. Later, we were given responsibility to care for and to nurture creation. It is in that work of tikkun olam, as Jewish mystics call it, of “working to heal and repair wounded creation,” that we become co-creators with God. We experience the beauty of creation, we become creative. We become artists, artisans, craftspersons. We take the gifts of creation with which God blesses us in such abundance and we transform them into offerings for the world. Our act of offering them to God allows them to be made holy, to be made sacred, to become food and drink for those who hunger and thirst.
The offertory prayers used in Judaism and many Christian traditions speak of this “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation. You give us bread from the earth and the fruit of the grape. By the work of human hands they are transformed into bread and wine. And you transform these gifts into our Spiritual food and drink.” From creation, from human work, from the outpouring of God’s Spirit, we receive the very Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation.
You satisfy the hungry heart, with gift of finest wheat. Come give to us, O saving Lord, the Bread of Life to eat. And then, dear Lord, transform us into bread to be broken for others, and wine to be poured out in loving service to all who long and hunger–for you, for community, and for your presence in creation.