11TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST, 8-5-2018
Pentecost 11B 2018
Texts: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a, Psalm 51: 1-13, Ephesians 4: 1-16, John 6: 24-35
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:35
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart, be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
We had a cat by the name of Cota. Actually she was David’s cat. She was as sweet an animal as God ever put on this planet. She was a cat that was really more like a dog. She greeted us at the door whenever we walked into the house. She followed us around and always had to be close to one of us. But when David was home, wherever David was, Cota had to be. The sun rose and set over my husband as far as she was concerned. She loved the rest of us, but she adored David.
Cota was sweet and loving, and she quite possibly was the most annoying cat in the entire state of Missouri. She wasn’t annoying in a mean, hissy sort of way. She was annoying in a needy, loud, constantly talking at you sort of way.
The problem with Cota was that she had a medical condition which left her perpetually hungry. She had an allergy to almost all protein and was on a very expensive food that had broken down all protein into such small amounts that her body didn’t recognize it as protein and as a result she never felt full. The food cleared her system so quickly that what was there was not recognized as food and it was as if she hadn’t eaten at all. She was never satisfied.
The other problem was that because she was always hungry, if we forgot and left food out for our dog or our other cat and Cota got into it, an allergic reaction occurred which caused her to rip out her fur. One small exposure could take weeks, if not months to clear her system. So if she got into the wrong thing, if she ate something that she shouldn’t, she was always itchy as well as hungry. All food could feed her, but not all food could nourish and sustain her.
In today’s Gospel reading from John we have something similar. But as we are in Act two of this story, let me set the scene for you. Last week’s gospel had the twin stories of the feeding of the five thousand and the storm at sea. Jesus and the disciples had taken a boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. It was near Passover and a large crowd had been following Jesus. Jesus asks Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip tells him that six months wages wouldn’t be enough to buy all the food necessary to feed the crowd.
Andrew remarks that there is a boy present that has five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus has the crowd sit down, blesses the bread and fish and then distributes them and there is more than enough. The people are about to take Jesus by force and to make him their political king. Jesus will have none of that and so he leaves the crowd and disciples and goes up the mountain to pray.
That evening the disciples get back into the boat and start across the Sea of Galilee to go back to Capernaum. A storm blew in and who do the disciples see walking towards them on those storm tossed waves? They see Jesus and it terrifies them. He tells them to not be afraid and he gets into the boat with them and they reach the other side safely. It is here that our story picks up.
At some point the crowd realizes that Jesus is no longer with them and that he didn’t leave with the disciples. Some of the crowd go looking for Jesus and sail to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. When they catch up with him they ask how he got there. Jesus tells them they are looking for him, not because of the sign he gave them the day before as to who he truly was, but because they wanted more bread.
Jesus tells them that they are chasing after food that will in the end leave them hungry again. It is not the physical bread that will satisfy them. It is not the barley loaves that are the bread of life. The crowd wants to know what they must do to earn this never ending bread. Jesus tells them that their work is to believe in the one God has sent to them. The crowd then asks to see a sign so that they can believe him.
Jesus has already given them the sign in the feeding of the crowd the day before. The sign was right in front of them. As one pastor has written, they were at the meal, but they missed the message. The crowd knows what it wants, but it does not have a clue as to what it needs. The crowd wants to be filled, but Jesus wants more for them; Jesus wants them to be fulfilled.
Having enough food to physically sustain life is important. I think we can all agree on that. Our food ministry here at St. Luke’s testifies to that. We are never quite ourselves when we are hungry. When we haven’t eaten in a while we can get jittery and dizzy, our stomachs growls and we can’t really think about anything else. Having enough to eat is crucial for life and far too many people live in hunger or with food insecurity. Having enough food is important. And notice that in this story Jesus physically feeds the crowd first and then teaches them that there is so much more to life. Jesus teaches them that food can fill them, but only he can truly fulfill them. Just because we have our physical fill doesn’t mean that our emotional and spiritual needs are met. We always seem to be hungry for something and what we think will satisfy us often fails to sustain us.
We try and fill that God-sized hole with things that might tap down our hunger for a little bit, but ultimately because what we take into ourselves is not nourishing or sustaining, it clears our system so quickly we are ravenous once more.
What we take into ourselves, what we think will get us through one more hard day, one more lonely night, one more trying circumstance in actuality numbs us to our pain and the pain of others around us, and instead sets up a recurring pattern of increased pain and reactivity that can take weeks, months, years, perhaps even several life times to clear up.
We gobble up power and wealth believing they will sustain us and make us less vulnerable to the trials and tragedies of life. We mistake sex for intimacy, and social media for true connection and community and then wonder why we still crave both.
We reach for the brass ring rather than the bread of life and fill our days with a new status symbol, incessant busyness, believing that the busier we are the more important we are and that we need to justify our importance and our existence through what we do and then wonder why we are still emotionally and spiritually starving. We think we know what we want, but Jesus came to give us not what we want but what we need.
This came home to me in a very powerful and jarring way many years ago. I was on my way down to Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis one Saturday morning as Archbishop Desmond Tutu was in St. Louis for a service. My mother, a life-long smoker, had just been diagnosed with stage three lung cancer a few days before and given six months to a year to live. I remember driving down to the cathedral in tears.
I got to the cathedral and found a seat and I have to tell you, I remember nothing about the service except what I am about to share with you. It was a Eucharist that morning, of course. That is what we do as Episcopalians; when the family gathers together we eat the bread of life.
Because of the large crowd there were communion stations throughout the cathedral. I remember this Eucharist vividly because both the priest and the chalice bearer said words to me I had never heard before and that have never been said to me at a communion service since. What’s more, the priest and the chalice bearer didn’t say these words to the person in front of me, or to the person behind me, or to the person behind her.
I remember walking to my station and putting my hands out and receiving the host from the priest, “The body of Christ, the bread of life” the priest said. And when I was receiving the chalice, the chalice bearer, instead of giving me the chalice and saying, “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation” said, “The blood of Christ, strength for the journey.” My knees buckled at those words. I don’t remember how I got back to my seat. I felt like I had been hit with a sacred sacramental sledgehammer that caressed all the pain I was carrying inside of me.
“The body of Christ, the bread of life.” “The blood of Christ, strength for the journey.”
What I wanted more than anything at that moment was for my mother not to be dying of lung cancer. What I needed more than anything was strength for the journey that lay ahead and God in all graciousness gave me exactly that.
In receiving the body and blood of Christ, I was given something that no other substance could give me. In taking in those holy elements a hunger of life and death-sized proportions was satisfied and I was sustained through my mother’s illness and death.
This was all gift. It was a gift I did nothing to earn. It wasn’t a gift I worked for or had to prove I was worthy of; it was a gift given freely and with no strings attached. That Eucharist all those years ago fed me in ways that could only be described as miraculous and the power of that Eucharist sustains me still.
Come my friends, come together, come to this altar and receive the bread of life, receive strength for our journey ahead.