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.