The Tenth Sunday of Pentecost: Proper 18 —John 6:24-35
For the next few weeks, our Gospel readings will be focused on bread. Last week we heard the story of the feeding of the five thousand, miraculously accomplished through the division of five loaves and two fish from someone who was willing to share their food.
No matter how we might explain that miracle, it is a story of abundance. Every Sunday we celebrate that abundance of God’s love here and in churches all around the world. Some gatherings are small, some large. My job takes me to many places around the country in which I have had the opportunity to worship in many settings. From a large, ornate cathedral brimming with people to a few people gathered in a circle under a large tree, the eating of bread and drinking of wine – from one loaf and from one cup – symbolize our unity through time and space.
I got to experience a daily Eucharist along with an average of 3,500 people in July at General Convention. Each worship service involved 36 to 40 deacons, two to six vergers and a dozen altar guild members. They used one-and-a-half cases of Taylor Tawny Port and 96 loaves of bread from a local bakery. The elements were distributed by 144 Eucharistic ministers at 12 stations. Not quite one loaf and one cup – but we were one in Christ. Fed with the bread that lasts forever.
There’s another particular church I have visited in San Francisco that many of you may have heard about. St. Gregory’s of Nyssa was built in 1995 in a not-so-great neighborhood of Portero Hill across from a brewery. Their mission statement is “to see God’s image in all humankind, to sing and dance to Jesus’s lead, and to become God’s friends.” Their liturgy is fully participatory and all are welcome–especially strangers—to communion. The sanctuary is incredible: the saints dance high above, depicted by Mark Dukes, a local African-American iconographer, who painted the entire rotunda with a mural of ninety larger-than-life figures, ranging from Teresa of Avila to Malcolm X and King David, dancing in a circle led by a dark-skinned, risen Christ. And as they move in their space, singing and dancing, they move from an area where the Word is shared to the table, where the gather around, centered below the dancing saints.
But it is not just what goes on in that sanctuary during a Sunday morning Eucharist. It is also what occurs on and around that altar during the week that takes Jesus’s words to heart: Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Sara Miles, writes about St. Gregory’s in Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion:
One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans — except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.
Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all, but actual food — indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people.
And so I did. I took communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going, compelled to find new ways to share what I’d experienced. I started a food pantry and gave away literally tons of fruit and vegetables and cereal around the same altar where I’d first received the body of Christ. I organized new pantries all over my city to provide hundreds and hundreds of hungry families with free groceries each week. Without committees or meetings or even an official telephone number, I recruited scores of volunteers and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.
St. Gregory’s hosts a food pantry in their sanctuary several times a week now, and the altar is filled with loaves of bread, bags of potatoes, and whatever produce is available to give away. Sometimes 800 people in a day. Yes, they are feeding those in need with food – but they are also feeding as an extension of Jesus – with love, compassion, and welcome.
Jesus wants us to share bread with everyone at church, but that’s not all. Jesus wants us to share bread with everyone who is hungry in the whole world. There are lots of ways to do this. You can make a meal and bring it to someone who is sick or stressed out. You can donate money to an organization, like Episcopal Relief and Development that helps hungry people. You can volunteer your time at Manna House of Hospitality in South Norwalk; you can donate to a food pantry. Did you know there are nine food distribution centers in the Wilton / Westport / Norwalk/ New Canaan region? St. Mark’s in New Canaan has harvested thousands of pounds of fresh produce for the New Canaan Food Pantry since 2006 from their Gospel Garden. This past Wednesday I visited two other communal gardens: Food for All Garden at Holy Advent in Clinton and Common Good Garden at Grace Episcopal in Old Saybrook. These gardens are literally sprouting up all over the country – feeding those who normally would be eating their vegetables out of cans.
In today’s Gospel, those that follow Jesus fail to understand the wonderful gift they have been given. They are focused on the miracle and wanting to be able to do such “works.” They are focused on what that could or should or must do, rather than on what God is doing right in front of them. Today Jesus is declaring what God is doing. Jesus is declaring that we have eternal life in God through the incarnation of the Son. The bread that endures forever is the Son himself, whom the Creator gives for the world.
Cynthia Kitteridge, dean of Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas writes:
As Episcopalians, the celebration of the Eucharist is foundational to our spirituality. The role of signs in the Gospel of John can expand our appreciation of the breadth of the symbolic and narrative association of the Eucharist. Not only is it a farewell meal as we hear in the synoptic Gospels but it is a massive picnic in the wilderness. In Moses’ time, in Jesus’ time, and in our own time. Not only is the bread Jesus’ body, but it is manna from heaven, the bread of angels.
The word Eucharist means – Great Thanksgiving. It is our giving thanks and praise with the recognition that we are flesh and blood and have a little bit of God within us, taking God within us and becoming something new and changing us. We become what we eat.
Go forth today, rejoicing in the little bit of Jesus that you will soon eat: bread that gives you life that you can then share with others.
Notes: A sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Wilton, Connecticut.