The Bread of Life for All – a sermon

The new cecbg.com is now up and running, which means audio will soon be available.  Stay tuned.  In the meantime, you can read today’s sermon here:


I grew up the child of blue collar folk in a decidedly white-collar community.  Manheim Township was one of the richest tax bases in Pennsylvania.  As McMansions came into fashion, they were built in spades in my school district.  I went to school with the children of doctors, lawyers, and more than a few stockbrokers.  Folks drove nice cars, had vacation homes down the shore, and generally lived very comfortably.  My family lived in 1,300 square foot, post-war house nestled in a quiet, older neighborhood.  My parents both worked hard, but my sister and I knew that we’d never have everything our friends had.  Still, we were always comfortable.  We never knew hunger, and were always sure that our next meal would come.  The same couldn’t be said for some of the kids who rode our school bus, however.

Thanks to some political maneuvering over the years, the Manheim Township School District had come to include two blocks of Lancaster City that sat right alongside the railroad tracks.  The kids who lived in those rowhouses lived very different lives.  My shoes were knock-off Chuck Taylors, theirs were hand-me downs.  My clothes were always freshly cleaned, but theirs obviously were not.  I maybe didn’t have the spare lunch money to buy that Chaco Taco I wanted, but some of them didn’t have enough lunch money to buy anything at all.  Being a self-absorbed kid, I noticed the differences, it was hard not to, but my attention was mostly fixed on my own perceived need.  As I’ve matured in my faith, I often think of those kids and the thousands like them that I’ve met over the last decade for whom the desperation of hunger is a very real thing.

Last Sunday, we heard the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 people out of fives small barely loaves and two fish.  In that crowd, there were folk from every walk of life.  Some in the crowd would have been quite well off – religious leaders, lawyers, and tax collectors.  Some likely lived day-to-day existences – farmers, fishermen, and the like.  Many, no doubt, were the poorest of the poor – widows, orphans, and lepers, for example – living at the very margins of society, never knowing when their next meal might be.  For this group, to eat their fill and have food left-over was an unimaginable luxury.  It is unsurprising, then, that the next day, some out of the crowd of 5,000 would be out in search of another meal.

After a rough night on the lake, it would have been easy for Jesus to focus on his own needs.  Yet, as we’ve seen several times lately, Jesus is quick to see to the very core of people, to assess their needs, and to offer grace.  Jesus understood that the remaining crowd had been unable to experience the fullness of the miracle the day before because they knew nothing but hunger.  As the old adage goes, “a hungry stomach has no ears.” They only knew that for a moment, the desperation of living in constant hunger had gone away.  It is no wonder that they went in search of Jesus when they couldn’t find him – they sought him out in the hope that he might be able to feed them another meal.  It is easy to hear this passage as Jesus condemning this group of people for missing the miracle, but I think that it is much more likely that Jesus’ response to their hunger for literal food was compassion, and so he took the opportunity to teach them about what had really happened the day before.  “You missed the sign.” Jesus says, “What you are searching for today isn’t just another bit of bread, but rather, food that will abide – food that will endure – food for eternal life.”

I was struck, this week, by the reaction of the crowd to Jesus’ words.  As I heard the response of the crowd, I could see the faces of the myriad men and women who have come into my office desperate and hungry.  They come for all sorts of reasons and in need of all kinds of things: diapers for their child or the assurance of God’s love; gas to get to work or hope in the midst of hopelessness; money to have the lights turned back on, or someone who will just care enough to listen.  As they tell me their stories and we both come to realize that I might have some resources to be able to help, more often than not, their reaction is the same as the crowd, “what work can I do to earn this?”

Grace is really hard to comprehend.  Grace is antithetical to the American Way.  There is no bootstrap theology in the Gospel, but rather, the stark realization that everything we have is a gift from God, and there is nothing we can ever do to earn it.  For the hungry crowd, it was hard to fathom that someone would just give you food that endures forever.  For those of us who know only comfort, I think grace is even harder to imagine.  Only those who have known desperation can begin to understand grace.  Only those who have cried out in hunger, fear, or despair can begin to know what Jesus is talking about when he says that the only work we have is to believe, and even that, the tradition teaches us, is a gift from God.  It is only those who have known what it is to live in need who can experience what it means to cry out to God and say, “Lord, give us this bread always.”

The good news of God’s grace is that even if we can’t comprehend it, even when we don’t know we need it, we are still invited to receive it.  To the hungry crowd, Jesus is eager to share that all throughout history, God has been in the business of freely giving away the true bread of grace. From Adam and Eve to Abraham and Sarah.  From Moses and the people of Israel to the here and now.  In the person of Jesus, God continues to offer the bread of life.  This bread, which the crowds don’t know they really want, which we often don’t know we really need, is made fully known in Jesus who declares, “I am the bread of life.”  In the Greek language and in Jesus’ Jewish context this declaration puts Jesus on par with God who, when Moses asked for a name from the burning bush, proclaimed the name “I AM,” and it affirms Jesus as having been present when God gave life to humanity.  Zoe, the Greek word used here for life, is the thing that animates, the soul, the breath of God, which was breathed into Adam and Eve at the beginning.  There is no one out there who isn’t in need of this bread of life.

Four blocks away, there is another set of railroad tracks that draw a dividing line.  On the other side, there live many families who know what it means to experience real hunger.  As followers of Jesus, our response to the grace of God should be the same sort of compassion that Jesus had for the crowd that sought him out.  As we gather today to ask God’s blessing upon a new school year, we pray for our own kids while also remembering those who will attend Dishman-McGinnis, where we will once again have the opportunity to serve as mentors, reaching out with the love of God to children, many of whom have known the real hunger of the crowd in today’s Gospel lesson.  We who have been given the bread of life are called to share it.  And so, let us continually pray that being nourished by the bread of life, we might have eyes to see, hearts to love, and hands to serve.

Open our eyes, O Lord, to see your hand at work in the world about us.  Help us to see the bread of life which has been offered to us, and be thankful. Help us to see those with whom you invite us to share that living bread, and be generous.  Give us hearts of compassion to reach out in loving service that one day, by your grace, the whole world might know the gift of your Son, the bread of life.  Amen.

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Bread of Life

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Sunday’s Gospel lesson exposes a comedy of errors on behalf of those who are trying to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.  It would be easy to look down our noses at “those foolish Jews,” and ignore the reality that, if we are honest, every Christian struggles to follow Jesus in a similar way.  Rather than reading the story with a chuckle and thinking, “Gee, I’m glad I’m not like those people,” it might behoove us to look at the narrative arc of the story and see that maybe, just maybe, we have something to learn from a crowd of people who, while struggle with faith, have traversed the Galilean Sea several times in search of Jesus and his disciples.

The story picks up sometime after the Feeding of the 5,000.  Jesus, having realized that the crowd, misunderstanding what he came to do, was about to declare him their king, retreated to the mountains for some time to reflect and pray.  In the meantime, his disciples got into the boat and crossed to the other side of the lake, and Jesus caught up with them by walking across the surface of the water.  As day broke, the crowds realized that this amazing prophet was gone, again, and they set out in search of him.

When they found him, the one they claimed as prophet and king the day before, they call him Rabbi, which means teacher.  He’s slid back a bit in the hierarchy over night.  They’ve come in search of him, Jesus notes, not to worship or believe, but because bread wears off, and they are hungry again.  “What you need,” Jesus says, “is food that will endure, and that comes only from the Son of Man.”  Somewhat confused, the crowds wonder what they must do to earn this bread.  Jesus tells them to believe in the one whom God had sent, and here’s where things get interesting.

The crowd, numbering 5,000 men, not counting women and children, which Jesus had fed with five loaves and two fish just the day before says to him, “OK, well, what kind of sign will you give us to prove that you are the one God has sent into the world?  Moses gave the people bread every day.”  This is the ultimate in “what have you done for me lately,” and it is so human as to be absurd.  This is the reality of most of us who follow Jesus, and everyone who lives on the fringes of faith.  We might know, deep in our heart of hearts, all that God has done for us, but in this moment, do we have faith?  In the moment of hardship, when a diagnosis comes or when the pink slip arrives or when our lives don’t work out the way we think they should, do we look back on all that God has done for us, or do we, as is human nature, look up and say, “I thought you loved me!”

To the crowd, and to us, Jesus is quick to point out all that God has been doing in salvation history – the true bread that has been given to Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the people of Israel – and the bread that God continues to give in the person of Jesus.  This bread, which the crowds don’t even know they really want, which we often don’t even know we really need, is Jesus who in a bold claim, one of seven “I AM” statements in John, declares himself to be the bread of life.  In the Greek language and in Jesus’ Jewish context this declaration puts Jesus 1) on par with God who is the great “I AM” and 2) as the one who gave life to humanity at Creation.  Zoe, the Greek word used here for life, is the thing that animates, the soul, which was breathed into Adam and Eve at the beginning.  For those who are hungry, Jesus offers the very breath of God as the bread of life.

I was hungry, and you fed me

As is the case most mornings, as I got ready for work today, I turned the TV to SportsCenter on ESPN.  Amidst the coverage of the MLB trade deadline and the Mets getting totally blown out by the Nats (baseball has a serious problem) was the story of Lebron James, through is foundation, opening a new public school in Akron, OH.  In the interview with Rachel Nichols, who is one of the best in the game, she noted that one of things that caught her attention was the ways in which this new school was working to change the lives of kids.

RN: As I look around here, one thing that caught my eye just beyond all the academic stuff is that kids will go here for a longer school year and also longer school days. They’re here until 5 o’clock, partly just so they’re in this supported system and not out in the world as much. The other thing was food. That if a kid is hungry, it’s hard to learn, so you guys are giving these kids breakfast, lunch and a snack. How important is that?

LJ: I think first of all, fueling the body keeps the mind sharp. I remember when I was a kid, my attention span — I mean, you can have me for a little bit, but you have to keep me engaged. I think obviously fueling these kids and giving them food and breakfast and lunch and a snack — but just keeping them here under our support, keeping them here under our guidance, giving them objectives and criteria that they can match and not feel stressed and feel like they’re family. That’s what we want to create. We want to create an environment of family and not like a workplace. Sometimes you can get tired. If you look at it like work, you kind of get tired of it. We want to create an environment of family, where you want to always be around your family no matter the good and the bad, you always want to be around that support system. So that’s what we’re creating here.

As I listened to Lebron talk and thought about my own experiences at Foley Elementary and now Dishman McGinnis Elementary, the words of Jesus to the crowd that he had fed with five loaves and two fish came to life.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we hear Jesus speak frankly about the human condition. “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 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.”

First and foremost, people came to Jesus because they were hungry or hurting or in need of something they thought he could give, but the reason they stayed wasn’t because of a few pieces of bread and salted cod, but because of what else he had to offer.  Lebron James is making sure hungry kids are fed, not simply because feeding them is the right thing to do, but because it is the right thing to do, but because by filling their stomachs, the possibilities for learning open up.  In the same way, we reach out into the community not simply to make ourselves feel good or to have photo opps with our homeless neighbors, but because through sharing the love of God in action, we have the opportunity to share the love of God in word as well.

Every Wednesday at 11am, Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green opens its doors to feed 80-100 folks a free lunch.  Our volunteers don’t stand safely on one side of a service counter, however.  Instead, they are sitting at tables, hearing stories, learning about our neighbors, and, generally, just treating the stranger as a human being.  Our ministry at Dishman McGinnis, in which we might do as little as simply have lunch with a kid, means that for those 30 minutes, an adult who would otherwise have nothing to do with them, cares, and that act of caring can make all the difference in the world.  It isn’t an either/or proposition.  We don’t just feed someone’s body without also feeding their soul with the bread of eternal life, and in return, we too are fed.

The Measure of Christ’s Gift

Paul is careful, very careful, to make sure the Ephesian Christians know from whence their help has come.  As he lays out before them the various gifts of the Spirit, he is sure to mention that these are not merited or earned, but are given through grace by the measure of Christ’s gift.  It is a somewhat archaic turn of phrase, which the New Living Translation tries to make more understandable by rendering it, “he has given each one of us a special gift according to the generosity of Christ.”

The Church, to her credit, has continued to try to remind Christians, especially those who are called to leadership, that the gifts they will utilize in their ministries are precisely that: gifts.  In the Examination of a soon-to-be-ordained Priest, the Bishop, finishes the prologue with these words, “In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace…” (BCP, 531)  One of the questions asked of a soon-to-be-ordained Bishop echos those words, “As a chief priest and pastor, will you encourage and support all baptized people in their gifts and ministries, nourish them from the riches of God’s grace, pray for them without ceasing, and celebrate with them the sacraments of our redemption?” (BCP, 518)

As Evan Garner helpfully reminds us in his post for today, it is easy to forget that grace is a gift.  Rather than stand on the mountain top with our Savior, we tend to slip down one side or the other: either forgetting all about God in our successes or feeling totally unlovable in our failures, but grace is given out of God’s generosity to those who think they don’t deserve it as well as those who think they don’t need it.

Paul’s message to the Church in Ephesus is the same message Jesus tried to give the crowd in Capernaum: it isn’t about the work you do. Instead, salvation is about the work God is doing, constantly pouring out his gift of grace and the gifts of the Spirit for the up-building of the kingdom and the restoration of creation.  There is great freedom in accepting the reality that grace is simply a gift, but it also comes with real responsibility.  We are to use the gifts of God wisely, not for ourselves, but for the whole world.  We are to share the grace given to us, to use the gifts of preaching, healing, administrating, teaching, etc., to grow the kingdom and to bring honor and glory to the Father from whom every good gift comes.

Works vs. Work

The crowd that finds Jesus in Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee is full of questions.  This seems only right, I mean it was just yesterday that he fed them, at least 5,000 of them, with five barely loaves and two fish handed over by a little boy.  Stranger than that, after it was all over, he seems to have disappeared.  They saw the lightening flashing on the Sea, they heard the thunder, the felt the gale force winds.  Yet through all of that, Jesus seems to have made his way, safely, across the Sea.  Their first question is obvious, “when did you get here?”  It couldn’t have been through the storm.  He couldn’t have walked here in time.  There seems to be another miracle afoot, Jesus, so when, exactly, did you get here.

True to form, Jesus doesn’t answer their question.  John tells us that after walking on the water, Jesus stepped into the boat and “immediately” the boat landed on the other side, but Jesus won’t be telling the crowds about that.  He’s not here to be a carnival show, boiled down simply to a worker of miracles.  No, Jesus has something else that he is about, the Kingdom of God.  In his response to their question, Jesus nudges the crowd in that direction, encouraging them to think not about the material needs of today, but rather the universal needs of the kingdom.  They start to get it, if just barely, and so their second question is much pointed.

“What must we do to perform the works of God?”  Jesus wants to talk about the bigger things of life, and the crowd, acting as appropriate foil, engages him on that level.  Or they try to, but still they miss the point.  Their question, literally, is “What should be do in order to go on doing the works of God?”  They are interested in the specifics of Kingdom living, the sort of things I wrote about yesterday: humility, gentleness, patience, love, unity, and peace; but here again, Jesus calls them to something deeper; something bigger.

It isn’t about works, Jesus says, but about work.  There is a single task through which the Kingdom of God will be made manifest on earth as it is in heaven, “go on trusting in the one whom God has sent.”  As is often the case in these sorts of interactions between Jesus and the crowd, the crowd just can’t quite handle what Jesus is asking of them.  Maybe they can’t see that the very act of chasing him down showed that they already trusted Jesus.  Maybe they couldn’t quite wrap their minds around the fullness of who Jesus really was.  Maybe they just really needed a checklist of things to do.  Whatever the reason, they can’t seem to handle this singular task, the work of God, and so they ask Jesus another question.  “What sign will you do that we might trust in you?”  The Feeding of the 5,000, the seemingly miraculous crossing of the Sea of Galilee, the deep call to discipleship and trust; it all flies out the window with the crowds insatiable need for something to do, something to see, something tangible to hold on to.

The work of God is impossibly simple.  Believing in the one whom God has sent seems to easy, and yet, without the ongoing miracles, the ever present high calling, the engaging preaching and teaching, it can be so hard to maintain.  So we look instead for works, for things to keep us busy, to keep us preoccupied over and against or worries whether or not this Jesus can be trusted.  It happened even as he walked the earth, and heaven knows it happens now.

Summing Up Discipleship

Most Episcopalians are familiar with the opening rite to the baptismal service.  Most probably dont realize that “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Perhaps they will notice on Sunday when the fourth chapter finds its place in the Lectionary.  I may say more about those famous lines later in the week, but today I’m struck by the sentence that comes immediately prior in which Paul does his best to summarize what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Humility, gentleness, patience, love, unity, peace and above all the Spirit: these are the hallmarks of a live seeking after the kingdom whether you’ve been a disciple for 15 minutes or 100 years; whether you are a layperson or a bishop.  It starts with the Spirit through whom we are strengthened to endure the hard work that is peace and love and patience. Inviting Jesus into your life is only the first step in the path to salvation. The lifelong journey that begins in baptism assumes that your will join with the Spirit in seeking after the goals of the kingdom.

I wonder why the baptismal liturgy doesn’t go back to include Ephesians 4:1 explicitly?  The Bapismal Covenant assumes many of the items from Paul’s discipleship but oddly we skip the overt biblical citation, we pass over these beautiful words and never look back.  I’m not preaching on Sunday, not for another five weeks in fact, but if I were, I might spend some time on these seven keys to discipleship. After all, you’ll have plenty of time to deal with the Bread of Life Discourse.

Sir, give us this bread always

Over the weekend, I had the honor of serving as one of the Eucharistic Ministers for the Episcopal Ordination of J. Russell Kendrick, IV Bishop of the Central Gulf Coast.  I was partnered with a new priest in our diocese, who thankfully has a sense of humor similar to mine.  When faced with the question of who would distribute the bread and who would have the cup we used the only reasonable means to settle the issue: rock, paper, scissors.  I won, and chose to distribute the bread.  Being on sabbatical means that this was the first time I’ve distributed bread since the end of May.  I was a chalice bearer a couple of times while at Sewanee and once while at General Convention, but for the first time in my seven and a half years as a priest, I’ve gone more than three weeks without having the pleasure of sharing the broken body of our Lord with my fellow hungry souls.

Photo by Robbie Runderson

The logistics weren’t perfect, which meant there were several distractions (running out of bread not least among them), but there was, as always, a deep sense of connection and call as I took part in communing part of the crowd of nearly 1,500 who had come to celebrate, to offer thanks and praise, and to be fed by Word and Sacrament.  Together, we joined with generation after generation of disciples who have come to ask of Jesus, “give us this bread always.”

As we will hear repeatedly over the next several weeks, Jesus is the bread of life.  Those who are hungry for righteousness, justice, compassion, healing, and love will find their fill in the Eucharistic Feast.  The Bread of Life is broken and shared that the whole world might receive their fill now and always.  I miss my table ministry, and am excited to return to share the family meal with the good people at Saint Paul’s and our new bishop on August 9th.  I’m grateful for the chance to share the feast with so many on Sunday, and I look forward to many years of taking my part in sharing the bread of life with a hungry world.