Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 12, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
|1 Kings 19:4-8
|John 6:35, 41-51
“Get up and eat”
“The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights
–1 Kings 19:7-8
Those of you who come to church every week have probably noticed that as far as the Gospel reading is concerned, someone seems to have pushed the pause button. For a while now our Gospel text has been drawn from the very same chapter of the Gospel of John. Today we reach the midpoint of a stretch of five Sundays in which the Gospel passage comes from Chapter Six of John’s Gospel, the chapter in which Jesus feeds the five thousand and then launches into a long meditation on being the bread of life. The imagery of Jesus as bread from heaven, as bread for the soul, is so evocative and so important that here at the height of summer our lectionary brings it back to us week after week, so that we can chew on it a while savor it, relish it, wonder about it, and perhaps really take it in.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus tells us today. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). Jesus is offering himself to us as food and drink, and naturally our minds turn to the Eucharist. What wisdom are we learning here, Sunday after Sunday, as we listen to the familiar words of consecration and receive again the bread and wine? How does receiving Communion shape our souls, so that gradually we come to radiate the love that created us and that will greet us at our journey’s end? There are many ways to answer these questions, for the Eucharist is inexhaustible — it can never be fully grasped or explored. We are in the presence of a mystery that is larger than our minds can fully comprehend. But as I consider the Eucharist, three things stand out for me, three ways that the Eucharist teaches us how to take in the bread of life. As I see it, the Eucharist speaks to us about intimacy, attention, and thankfulness. So I will say a word about each.
The God I meet in Jesus, the God I meet in every Eucharist, is a God who seeks intimacy with us, a God who longs to draw close. So many of us are filled with self-doubt. So many of us speak harshly to ourselves, or find constant fault with ourselves. What a contradiction it is to that inner voice of self-attack and self-rejection to meet a God, Sunday after Sunday, who is eager to welcome us home, eager to listen to us, to bless us, to receive us just as we are. There is something very intimate about standing up to approach the altar, about stretching out our hands to receive the bread and hold the cup. God in Christ is longing to meet each one of us in particular, and as we take in the bread and wine, we are saying Yes to that encounter, Yes to a very personal, quiet, and intimate moment in which we take God into our depths.
When I distribute the bread, I trust that the bread I am placing in each outstretched hand will go exactly to the place in that person’s soul that most needs healing or transformation. Perhaps the person is coming to Christ with a broken heart, or perhaps the person is restless and dissatisfied, searching for something more. When we kneel at the altar rail, we may be worried or angry, lonely or joyful. It doesn’t matter. Whatever we bring with us to the altar whoever we are, whatever our wounds or delights Jesus longs to meet us right where we are, to heal us, to give us what we most deeply need: himself.
These quiet moments of communion offer us intimacy not only with ourselves and with Jesus. They also give us a glimpse of our connection to each other. We share the one bread. We drink from the same cup. And afterward, as we return to our seats and sense the presence of others who share our wounds, our longing and healing in Christ, we may be startled by the sudden discovery that we are part of one another. We share a connection that goes deeper than any merely social identity. Now Christ’s blood is flowing in our veins. Now Christ’s body becomes our body. We can never again fall for the illusion that we are isolated and alone, or that our identity ends with our skin. We are part of a larger whole. Through the Eucharist we taste our intimacy with Christ, and Christ is always enlarging the boundaries of our love. There is no limit to love.
So, I am learning about intimacy. The Eucharist also teaches me to pay attention. Let’s be honest here. For those of us who often come to church, it can be easy not to pay attention. Many of us have probably memorized most of the words and gestures, and it is easy to slip into automatic pilot and just go through the motions, standing, sitting, or kneeling at the appropriate times, while our minds rush hither and yon from one distraction to the next. It’s not surprising, really we live in a fast-paced, go-get-‘em culture that favors multi-tasking and speed. Some years ago I read an article in Newsweek that reported that the goal of fast-food outlets is to get to 90: that is, “to take an average of 90 seconds from the moment a driver places an order at the menu board to the moment when the food is handed out of the takeout window.1” I wouldn’t be surprised if the food goes down in 90 seconds, too, before we’ve had a chance to really taste it. Most of us live faster than humans are designed to live.
I think it’s vital that the Eucharist be a meal that we do not hurry, a meal to which we give our full and undivided attention. For this meal, at least, we park the car and put down the cell phone. We shut off the TV. We take our time. We savor the familiar words. We give reverent attention to one bite of food, one sip of wine. We know that God is intimately present to us, and we become as present to God as we can, listening for the nuances, the surprises, listening for what happens within us when the experiences of the week just past come up against the truths of God. Every Eucharist has something fresh to give us, some new insight to disclose but only if we pay attention.
And isn’t paying attention one of the basic practices of the spiritual life? When we pay attention, we notice the present moment. We find the sacred not in some transcendent, untouchable realm somewhere else, in some heavenly place “out there,” but right here in the present moment, just as it is. Contemplative awareness is sometimes defined as living on the spot where you are, or living in the now, making contact with the present and staying there. Maybe learning to be present for this sacrament is a training ground for learning to be present for the rest of life. Every moment can be a sacramental moment, a moment of perceiving and participating in the presence of God, but that can happen only if we are paying attention, only if we are awake.
And finally, the Eucharist teaches us to give thanks. That, of course, is the meaning of the Greek word, eucharistia: thanksgiving. In our “Great Thanksgiving” we recall the blessings of life and above all God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ. Every week, we proclaim that it is a “right, good, and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks” to God. What a powerful reminder of the fact that when we are fully engaged in life, we are full of thanks. Whenever we look clearly into experience, we realize that everything is surprising, everything is gift. I awoke this morning thank you! There are people to love thank you! There is work to do thank you! There are challenges to face thank you! There is a breath to inhale, a breath to exhale thank you! I am alive, and here I am, in this miracle of a day thank you! As Jewish writer and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Just to be is a blessing; just to live is holy.” When we make a practice of giving thanks, thankfulness eventually takes hold of us, not because something special has happened, but just because we are. Why is threre something rather than nothing? Why am am I here now, rather than not here? In our brief lives, we live an unfathomable mystery. What to do in the midst of a glorious mystery? Give thanks, give thanks, give thanks. More than one person has begun to seek God simply from a need to give thanks.
Intimacy. Attention. Thankfulness. These are three spiritual practices that I learn from the Eucharist. Like Elijah, we may arrive at the table feeling depleted, even desperate, and yet when we do what the angel urged Elijah to do, when we “get up and eat” (1 Kings 19:5,7), we discover that in the strength of this food the journey ahead is not too much for us. Jesus came to bring us life, abundant life, and thanks to the gift of himself in the Eucharist and moment by moment as we go through our day our deepest longing is satisfied. God is with us to strengthen and guide, to bless and give cheer, and we do not walk our journey alone.
1. George F. Will, “At the Table/On the Road,” Newsweek, June 26, 2000, p. 68.