Archives for August 2009

Love received is love to be shared, Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 17 (B) – August 30, 2009

(RCL) Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Love received is love to be shared.

Life is short – and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So let us be swift to love and make haste to be kind, and the blessing of God will be with us.

In the early chapters of Genesis, God says to Abraham: “I will bless you, that you may be a blessing to others.”

How intimately these two are tied together, always: the act of our being blessed and the act of our blessing others.

The first way it is known, in our human experience, is in the embrace shared by parent and child. Can anything fill one’s hearts more completely than an earnest exchange of hugs with those just learning to offer them? Little children are so intent in their first expressions of physical affection, to be the recipient of such a hug just opens your heart. Unconditionally.

Who is blessing whom in that exchange? Love received is love that is shared. It’s as simple and profound as that.

As we grow and discover love in all its intimacy, what a miraculous experience it can be! The heartbeat quickens, the imagination anticipates even a passing encounter with the beloved, the sound of their voice, a smile crossing their face as they recognize your presence, a casual touch. Oh my!

Our first reading today is a compelling expression of the giving and receiving of such love. The Song of Solomon can be given many allegorical interpretations, but at its heart, its imagery is as simple as the blush of first love, ignited by the holding of one lover’s hand by the other for the first time.

We can sense in this passage a growing excitement in this poet’s response to even the thought of the approach of her beloved:

“The voice of my beloved! Look: he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills! … like a gazelle or a young stag …Arise my love, my fair one, and come away … the time of singing has come.”

Goodness!

The surging of emotions is echoed in the Psalm: “My heart is stirring with a noble song.”

The should’s and the ought’s, the coulda’s and woulda’s of such relationships can, in time, get very complicated. But the human soul revels in the simple, mysterious act of offering one’s heart to another for the first time, for no reason other than the joy that its giving and receiving bring.

Love received is love to be shared. It is that simple and that profound.

The writer of the epistle of James also builds on this theme. Religious practices can get as complicated as interpersonal relations. Over time, we become more concerned about how we are “performing” those practices, and find ourselves further and further from the original fervor of religious passion that once impelled our religious choices.

James has to remind those who are growing long in the tooth in their religious practice that we need to be “doers of the word and not merely hearers.” They need to be reminded that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift is from above.” It is a gift we are given, the very motivation, the compulsion of the Spirit to join God in the act of self-giving love. It is not an accomplishment in ministry but a natural response of one beloved to another.

Again, in the embrace of lovers: who is giving and who is receiving in this exchange? Clearly, both, or something other than self-giving love is being exchanged.

It is so simple, when the heart of the beloved is truly led by love, until complications set in. And those complications are born of fear.

In his first epistle, John writes, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.” And soon thereafter, he writes, “We love because God first loved us.”

Acts of kindness, patience, forgiveness – so many Christian virtues are second nature when one is in right relationship, and the sole motivation shared is love of the other. We are simply seeking to imitate God’s love for us as manifested in Christ Jesus.

It is only when one has replaced trust in such love with fear of rejection, that acts of charity become a chore. We all understand this, for as surely as we have all experienced the excitement of the first blush of love, we have experienced the onset of the more complicated swirl of thoughts and emotions that later infringe on that love.

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, there is a story of a stingy old woman who sought, from the misery of hell, the lake of fire where she found herself after she had died, to be raised to the comforts and joys of heaven. “I wasn’t all THAT bad!” she asserts to an angel passing by. “What about the time when the poor beggar came to my door and I gave him an onion?”

The angel swoops down and hovers just above the old woman, as together they look back upon that scene from her life. The woman had resentfully come to the back door of her grand mansion to try to shoo the beggar away, complaining loudly about the filthiness of his hands and face. “You don’t even wash before you come to beg?” Nonetheless, the woman had reached down into the bottom of her larder and produced a rotting onion that she handed over to the beggar.

“Well,” said the angel, “that should be enough to open the doors of heaven for you.” The angel lowers to her a rope with that very onion tied to its end. The woman grabs on, but as the rope is lifted, others in the lake of fire climb on, hoping to be pulled out as well. The old woman, alarmed by this, cries out, “Let go! Let go! It’s not you who are being pulled out! It’s me! It’s not your onion! It’s mine.” And just when she says, “It’s mine,” the onion snaps in two, falls out of the rope, and she falls back into the lake of fire. The angel weeps, as she flies away.

If only the old woman had had it in her heart to say, “The onion is ours,” surely the onion would have been strong enough to have pulled all of them out together.

There is insight in this story, echoing the same wisdom as the teaching of Jesus in our gospel for today.

Here, Jesus is set upon by the Pharisees, who for all their earnestness and concern for the purity code, have traversed far from what James would call religion that is “pure and undefiled before God.” There are so many distractions for these too-well-practiced religious practitioners, the Pharisees. They care earnestly about their religion, but it is clear that only those who are equally obsessed with religious practices could relate to what they care about.

What Jesus is calling us to remains far simpler, and is, in the end, something that everyone, whether a professional religious practitioner or not, would understand and care about.

It is what comes from inside, from the center of our hearts, that will transform and quicken the heartbeat of our lives and the lives of those we encounter.

When one’s life is truly converted by God’s Spirit, the actions God yearns for us to know in our relationship with God and one another will be second nature to us. St. Augustine of Hippo once said, “Love God and do as you please.” If we are truly filled with love of God, what will please us will surely be what also pleases God!

Rumi, a Muslim mystic, spoke of the same phenomenon when he wrote: “Look inside and find where a person loves from. That’s the reality, not what they say.”

What does God require of us? What spiritual practices will open the gates of heaven to us?

It is, in the end, the return of the spirit to the place where love of God is born, not where it is mastered, that right relationship with God and one another will be found.

Remember that life is short. We do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. Simply, very simply: let us be swift to love, and make haste to be kind. And the blessing of God will be received and given, in one fell swoop, in our relations with others and with God each day.

Yes. It is that simple.

 

— Steve Kelsey is missioner of the Greater Hartford Regional Ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. Over the years he has been privileged to minister primarily with smaller, more remote congregations in New England, Alaska, New York, and Northern Michigan.

We are walking on holy ground, 12 Pentecost, Proper 16 (B) – 2009

August 23, 2009

(RCL) 1 Kings 8: (1, 6, 10-11) 22-30, 41-43 and Psalm 84 (Track 2: Joshua 24:1-20, 14-18 and Psalm 34: 15-29); Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

During Pentecost of Year B of the Lectionary, we have been studying the Gospel of Mark. However, for the past four Sundays we have digressed in order to delve into the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. Today, on the fifth Sunday of trying to absorb the signs and words of Jesus, we conclude this remarkable study on the meaning of Bread, at once corporeal, spiritual, and metaphorical.

There are few words in the English language that are as heavy with meaning and metaphor as the word “bread.” A poor woman in Greece comes to mind. She had had a very hard life both during the war years and immediately afterward. At a time when there were no washing machines, she was trying to survive by washing other people’s clothes. This woman would not allow even a stale piece of bread to be casually discarded; she had such reverence for it that she would kiss it before letting go of it. Somewhere inside her, even though she could not understand the difficult ecclesiastical Greek of the Eucharist, she acted in a manner of a priest with consecrated bread. For her, bread meant both survival and holiness.

Today, reading this gospel passage makes the reverence of a humble, illiterate woman understandable even to those who have studied theology and have delved into the intricacies of language. We are walking on holy ground as we hear Jesus saying, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” And later, “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died.”

The disciples murmur among themselves, “This is a hard saying, difficult to take.” Like so many of Jesus’ words, these were offensive to those who adhered to tradition in their religious practices and understanding. Jesus knows it: “Does this offend you?” he asks them.

Archbishop William Temple in his superb study, Readings in Saint John’s Gospel, makes it quite clear that eating the bread means receiving the power of self-giving and self-sacrifice, while drinking the blood means receiving the life that is triumphant over death. He says that both elements are essential for the full reality of the sacrament to be effected:

“It is not the momentary eating but the permanent abiding that is of primary importance. … The sacrament is normally necessary; but it is the communion alone that is vital.”

And this communion is found in abiding in the Son as the Son abides in the Father. What comes through in this magnificent sixth chapter of John is the sense of abiding, a word that denotes continuity and communion – a kind of security in the Spirit, an assurance that we will not be cast out into the void.

Those of Jesus’ followers who were attracted to him because of his popularity and his healing miracles find these sayings hard to take. So on that day, many left the community of Jesus. They were not alone: many who carry the name of Christ today are offended by the miracle of the Incarnation.

It is even in vogue today for people to claim to be “spiritual” without having any church affiliation or even any religious conviction. We hear it in all walks of life: “Oh, I am spiritual, but not religious.” Archbishop Temple calls this “a vague religiosity which has no definite and critical moments, no fixed religious practice, no cutting edge.”

Jesus was not confrontational when many of his followers, finding his sayings hard to take, left him. Jesus didn’t stop them; he let them go. Throughout his ministry, he let those who were offended go. Unlike many of us, he used no PR, no gimmicks, and, above all, no magic to hold on to his followers. He allows us our freedom in the same poignant manner he used with his closest friends – the Twelve.

One can imagine the sadness in his eyes, the wistfulness in his voice as he asks them: “Do you also wish to go away?” And Peter, being truly spiritual – inspired by the Holy Spirit – answers for all of the disciples, “Lord, to whom can we go?”

After seeing the Light, how can any of us go to the Dark? After tasting living water, how can we drink what is rancid? After knowing the goodness of Life, how can we willingly choose death? After knowing you, Lord, to whom can we possibly go? As Peter said to Jesus, “You have the words of life eternal.”

Peter, together with the other followers of Jesus who stayed to the end, would feed on these eternal words as we are asked to do, Sunday after Sunday, when we receive “the Bread of Life, the Cup of Salvation.”

Again and again in Saint John’s gospel, the crucial key to understanding is the miracle of the Incarnation. If indeed the Word became flesh, “if that occurred, nothing else is marvelous,” William Temple reminds us.

Once we accept the miracle of the Incarnation, all other miracles, all other signs, together with the words of life eternal, find their proper place in creation. If we accept that, the greatest of all marvels, nothing else is marvelous indeed. We abide in the marvel of the Word that became flesh, the Bread of life.

Thanks be to God.

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of Light to the Darkness: Lessons and Carols, Public and Private (Morehouse, 2008), and she teaches at Appalachian State University.

Jesus leaves himself with us and for us, 11 Pentecost, Proper 15 (B) – 2009

August 16, 2009

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 and Psalm 111 (or Proverbs 9:1-6 and Psalm 34:9-14); Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Sometimes you have to wonder about after-church snacks, especially celebrations. Eating congratulatory cake doesn’t make for a good pre-lunch appetizer, does it? Some parents oppose having cookies available for their little ones and insist on fruit or other more nutritious snacks. What’s the hospitality committee to do?

Such minor controversy plays on the wider discussion about what we humans put into our stomachs. By now we are all familiar with the catchy and telling phrase “You are what you eat.” The teachings are legion. A child who fails to receive proper nutrition might become sick or even die. Eating food high in cholesterol can produce heart disease. An excess of sugar can lead to diabetes. And a person eating a proper, healthy diet grows and prospers. Clearly, what we eat is important.

That’s a central concept for us today because our gospel reading is all about eating. In it, we experience Jesus getting pretty graphic with his imagery. He said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life. … Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

Jesus could well have said, “You are what you eat.” He could have said, “If you don’t eat that which is Christ, you have no life – no real life – no life that is of lasting and true value. If you do not eat of what I am, you will become malnourished and get sick and die, spiritually.”

This is not unfamiliar territory in a denomination that values the Holy Communion. It might be instructive, however, to remember that the gospel reading we are considering comes from John and his version does not contain an account of the Last Supper, unlike Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul, who relate the story of Jesus taking bread and wine and telling his disciples to eat and drink of it to re-call him to presence.

In that portion of the passion story that John recounts, he gives us the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. And so, it is in the passage of today’s gospel – John’s version – that we don’t hear about Jesus acting out the sacrament but we hear instead of Jesus teaching about its meaning. Jesus helps us understand what we know as an outward sign of a profound spiritual truth. Bread and wine, through the power and spirit of God, become for us what Jesus really is. And if we are faithful and committed, we can become what we eat.

In regard to the Holy Communion as we experience it in the twenty-first century, what do we know and how much do we know about this eating that Jesus gives us to do? What do we understand about it? How much do we have to know to get it right? How old do we have to be to know enough?

Some parents and clergy puzzle over when the right time is to bring children to eat the food that Jesus bids us eat. This is based on the question of not cheapening the sacrament by feeding Jesus food to someone who doesn’t know what it is. So, what is the proper age? When is the time of maturity, the moment when it can all make sense?

For generations, the time was set at confirmation. This would mean that individuals were well prepared and old enough to claim the faith for themselves, ready to discern the meaning of eating Jesus’ holy meal. Others settled on a Roman Catholic-like “first communion” at age seven or eight. This view is based on the belief that children of such an age can understand enough about the Lord’s Supper for it to have true meaning for them. Where does one draw the line? When is old enough really old enough?

Perhaps a story from some years ago can be instructive. A priest abided by his bishop’s directive to give communion to children only after they reached first grade and after both they and their parents had received adequate instruction. Sunday after Sunday his 4-year-old son came to the alter rail and lifted his little hands for the bread, but the priest smiled and reached down to touch his head in blessing. One day, as the priest reached down for the blessing, the son pushed his hands in defiance, and after his father continued to withhold the bread, the child shook his fist at him in anger. The boy was gesturing what he could not fully articulate: “You are giving out bread to everyone but me, and something is wrong about that.”

The lesson taught by this preschooler is helpful. If he was able to understand being excluded, he was old enough to sense the importance of being included with those experiencing the feeding Jesus insisted will give spiritual heath. This gives credence to those who desire to open the table to all baptized, to anyone able to take the bread and wine that is the Body of Christ. It is the same theological perspective as baptizing infants. It’s not about us – not about what we initiate but what God does for us.

Feeding children the bread of heaven at an early age is like feeding them mother’s milk or pouring out parental love on them. Isn’t it powerful to think that children can grow up not having remembered a time when they did not eat at the table of the Lord? It would be like the reality of a good parent’s love – the absence of which they never experienced.

As to what they understand or when they are able to understand it, who knows? But one thing is for sure, if we communicate children early, whenever the time comes for them to understand, they will be receiving the same sacrament of love as the rest of us. And who’s to say that any of us understands everything about what Jesus meant when he said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.”

Don’t we all continue to grow in our understanding of what this means? Why shouldn’t we begin the learning at the earliest age? What’s wrong with mothers and fathers guiding children at the altar rail, helping them learn to eat and drink the food that can help them learn to recognize themselves as part of the very body of Christ? What’s wrong with parents whispering to children at the altar rail, “Remember, you are what you eat”?

We want children to eat of this special food because that is how they learn; that’s how all of us learn. That is how we grow, through this feeding. And since we become what we eat, we need this food always.

We are what we eat; therefore, we must mind carefully what we eat and digest spiritually, for the health of our souls. The world offers us a lot of unhealthy diets – diets of materialism and greed and selfishness. Feeding on the word of God and partaking of the body and blood of Christ ensures life-sustaining nutrition for the spirit – food for the soul. By faith, eating the bread and wine of Holy Communion, we can enable the process by which Christ penetrates our beings and nourishes our lives. In this sacrament, God’s very life comes to us through the elements of bread and wine so that we can have union with God. We are re-called to the truth that this union with God through Jesus, the Christ, is the connecting link for us with all that is good and true and holy.

The early church writer Irenaeus said it this way: “The word of God, Jesus Christ, on account of his great love for mankind, became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.”

Jesus leaves himself with us and for us, and eating what is the Christ nourishes us into what he is – because we are what we eat.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Paul invites us to live an authentic life, Tenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 14 (B) – August 9, 2009

(RCL) 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 and Psalm 130 (Track 2: 1 Kings 19:4-8 and Psalm 34:1-8); Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

What is it about youth-group songs that make them stick in your head?

I am the resurrection [clap].
And the life [clap, clap, clap, clap].
Those who believe in me will live a new life.
I am the resurrection [clap].
And the life [clap, clap, clap, clap].
Those who believe in me will never die.

Who remembers that one? There’s a story about a teen, taking her first tentative steps on her Christian journey who turned up at a youth group. She hears the group sing that song, but it puzzles her. There has to be more. Maybe they clapped because it was a fill-in-the-blank song? She didn’t know.

Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians could have perhaps helped out that teen. While scripture makes it clear that it is through “grace that we are saved – through faith, not by works,” when we decide to follow Christ, old life is shed and new life is embraced. Kind of like when a child outgrows a winter coat and the loving parent gives the child a new coat of the right size. We don’t earn the new coat – it is given in love.

However, we are to respond to the new life given with Christian action. Paul’s letter provides us with a set of refreshingly clear instructions that guide us as we take off the old “coat” of secular living, of old life, and put on the new coat of Christian life. It’s a list of some of the instructions to guide the actions necessary for Christian living, as applicable today as they were nearly 2,000 years ago when they were first written.

Let’s look closely at a few of Paul’s instructions.

First, Paul instructs his reader to “put away all falsehood.” We, as followers of Christ, are to lose all dishonesty, lies, deceit, and tendency toward fabrication. Paul invites us to live an authentic life marked by truth and honesty.

In an era of Bernie Madoff, one doesn’t need to look far to find poignant examples of people whose entire existence is based on lies and falsehood. And there are less extravagant examples all around us. During these tough economic times, the excess and lies of the last decade are becoming apparent. Looking at the number of foreclosures, the staggering amount of credit-card debt, and other signs, it is clear that many Americans have been on a spending binge, spending well above and beyond their means. Isn’t spending what one doesn’t have, and pretending to have more than one does, qualify as deceit and fabrication?

Some churches are like this too – dipping deep, or even exhausting their endowments if they are fortunate enough to have them, and spending more than their finances allow.

William Barclay, in his commentary on “The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians” addresses why truth is such a core component of Christian life:

“We are all members of the same body. We can live in safety only if the senses and nerves pass true messages to the brain. If they took to passing false messages, if for instance, they told the brain that something was cool and touchable when in fact it was hot and burning, life would very soon come to an end. A body can function healthily only when each part of it passes true messages to the brain. If then we are all bound into one body, that body can function properly only when we speak the truth.”

As members of the body of Christ, we must live an authentic life marked by truth and honesty.

Paul also addresses the role of anger in Christian life. In verse 26, Paul advises us to “be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”

Recently a priest was picking up his clerical shirts from the local dry cleaners. Short on time and with a to-do list a mile long, he ran in for the shirts, expecting the stop to only last a minute or two. As he asked the young woman behind the counter the superficial question, “How are you?” tears filled her eyes. She said, “Father, I have a hate-filled heart, and I don’t know what to do.” Clearly, this was not going to be a quick stop.

The priest listened – holy listening, on God’s schedule, not ours, as is often the case – and the young woman explained that she had lived with her boyfriend, a drug addict, for the past two years. He had been in and out of rehab, and he had now relapsed once again. The night before he had brought home a man that the police were after and let him stay on their sofa. She had spent the night in fear for her own life.

The young woman explained that she knows it is the “Christian thing to do to forgive,” but that she just couldn’t do it any more.

The priest thought long and hard, and he explained that her anger was certainly justifiable. Anger is an emotion, and we can’t help but feel angry. He also explained that forgiveness does not mean that people who sin against us are not responsible for the consequences of their behavior. Radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlesinger once had a phone call from a woman expressing a similar sentiment and Dr. Laura responded by saying, “Being a Christian doesn’t necessarily make you a wimp!”

Forgiving her boyfriend for his relapse is one thing, but allowing him back into her life is far different. To allow the boyfriend to return time and time again had allowed the anger to fester, and the “hate-filled heart” she described was the result – the “making room for the devil” to which Paul refers.

While we all feel anger, as Christians we must seek to resolve our anger. And as Christians, we must use our words to build up the body of Christ. In verse 29, Paul writes that we must not let “evil talk come out of our mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that our words may give grace to those who hear.”

It’s a funny thing about human nature. It seems that we have a tendency to try and make ourselves seem better off by talking badly about others. While people of all ages can be guilty of this practice, at no other time in life is it more true than in middle school.

There’s a story about a 13-year-old girl, active in her local Episcopal youth group, whose Christian faith ran deep. Most evenings at about bedtime she could be found on her window seat, quietly praying, wholly on her own accord. One Sunday after youth group, when this passage from Ephesians was explored, she came to her mom, looking downright scared. She asked, “Is that really true? Do you think it is a sin to talk bad about someone? Should we really only say things that build up other people – no matter where we are?”

Her mom could only imagine her 13-year-old’s thought process. After a long discussion – and without a lecture or mandate from her mother – the girl decided that for the entire season of Lent she would only say things that would build others up.

There were challenges; at school, with her siblings, and even once at church. But by Easter she was able to explain to her mom that that she realized that putting other people down really didn’t make her feel any better about herself. In fact, it made her feel worse when she thought about it. Taking the time to be intentional about her speech allowed her to break a bad habit.

If a middle school student is able to live by Paul’s words, we as adults certainly should be able to as well. As Christians, we must use our words to build up the body of Christ.

Paul’s instructions conclude with the summary of that point:

“Put away from us all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

It is noteworthy that Paul adds the importance of forgiveness – forgiveness of self and others, as God has forgiven us.

In reality, very few of us can always live by the guidelines for Christian living that Paul lays out for us. Maybe today your heart is heavy because you aren’t living a completely authentic life – maybe the world and even your church family see an inauthentic you. Paul’s words suggest it is time to start living in truth.

Or maybe today you are harboring a festering anger – an anger that may well have been justified. Paul’s words suggest that it is time to let it go. God has more for your heart and soul to do than nurse a previous hurt.

Or maybe today you’re thinking that your words aren’t always used to build up others. Paul closes with forgiveness.

So today as our worship continues and we pray together, pay particular attention to the Lord’s Prayer – to forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Recalling the youth group song, it is through the gift of God’s forgiveness that we “can live a new life and never die.”

 

— The Rev. Suzanne E. Watson has worked at the Episcopal Church Center in New York for over three year in the areas of strategic planning and collaboration, Center direction, and small-church ministries. Prior to her current position, she served in congregations in New Zealand and Carmel, California. She is a graduate of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and a proud mum of three teens and a tween.

Jesus is daily sustenance, 9 Pentecost, Proper 13 (B) – 2009

August 2, 2009

(RCL) 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a and Psalm 51:1-13 (Track 2: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 and Psalm 78:23-29); Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

A widower had some raspberry bushes. The first summer after his wife died, a woman from his church asked if she could come over and pick raspberries. She knew he and his wife had grown the bushes from the spindly young canes that came from the mail-order catalogue into thick healthy shrubs laden with fruit. “They have to be picked if you want them to keep producing,” she explained. “And I want to make you a pie. You don’t get raspberry often because it takes a whole lot of berries and you have a whole bunch of berries just waiting to be made into pie.”

She picked the berries in the morning and returned in the afternoon with the pie: homemade crust, red raspberries and filling peeking through the golden brown lattice crisscrossing the top, and still warm.

“Enjoy a piece with me?” he asked. “I can’t eat an entire pie by myself.” He poured them each a glass of 2% milk and cut two pieces of the pie. It was marvelous – sweet, tart, gooey delicious fruit; flaky, tender, slightly salty crust. Perfect, especially with the milk to wash it down and clear the palate for the next bite. He thanked her for the pie.

Although the pie would have been a luxurious treat – he could certainly have enjoyed it piece by piece by himself – he got an idea. He packed up the pie and went to visit a friend. “Here, have a piece of pie,” he said. He sliced a piece and dished it onto one of the paper plates he had brought along. “I won’t stay long, but I think you will enjoy this.” They visited while the friend ate the pie, a small piece, enough to taste, but the richness of the sweet and tart and tender pie made a small piece just the right amount.

He thought next of who might actually not just enjoy a piece of the pie, but need the pie; who might need some simple pleasure, some tangible reminder that unassuming things like berries and sugar, flour and salt can be transformed into something that lets you actually taste summer in a mouthful; who might be served by this undemanding manifestation of care and love in edible form.

The pie was too good not to share. He spent the rest of the day sharing the pie, slice by modest slice. He and those with whom he shared it found that even a small piece could convey the essence of it: sunshine, earth, abundance, creativity, compassion.

He came to think of it as communion by pie.

It was a kind of grace that conveyed the knowledge that he was part of a larger community and that connection was part of what he hungered for. The pie did not cause the connection, of course. But the pie was the means for it, a way to say: “I see you. I want you to join me in enjoyment, in nourishment, in a moment set aside. Take off your work gloves, turn off your computer, set down your cell phone, check book, dish towel. Sit down for a moment and do nothing more than enjoy a piece of pie.”

Pie is not bread. A good homemade pie says indulgence in a way that most common loaves of bread do not unless one is truly hungry. But a good homemade loaf can also remind us of humble elements transformed: flour, salt, yeast, maybe some egg to glaze the crust. The tangible and instantaneous connection with foundational processes of life: sun ripening grain, earth and rain feeding growth, human labor and creativity transforming raw materials into life-sustaining nourishment.

Attention to the ingredients connects us to a web of labor and laborers whose efforts make this food possible. We may even catch a glimpse of generations past whose ingenuity and fortitude laid the foundation for the bread before us.

We could go all the way back to ancient times, but we don’t have to in order to show the preciousness and perseverance of people dependent upon bread for their daily sustenance. Immigrants packed their trunks with wheat seeds when they journeyed to the great plains of North America. Refugees sewed seeds into the hems of their skirts and their children’s shirts for the voyage so the new life they longed for would be sustainable in a new home. They knew that with even a bit of bread, they could be nourished. They knew they could sustain life – planting, tending, harvesting, milling, mixing, kneading, waiting, shaping, baking, taking, giving thanks, breaking, sharing.

We meet Jesus in today’s gospel just after he has fed the multitudes. After everyone has had their fill of bread. They have had the pleasure of eating enough. We know that people have pushed away from the table Jesus set for them in the wilderness feeling sated, satisfied, because according to the story, there are even leftovers.

They ate until they were satisfied. They had enough.

Funny thing about “enough.” Just what is “enough”?

The people Jesus had fed wanted a guarantee that they would always have enough. Jesus’ provision of plentiful bread seemed to them something they wanted more of. So they pursued him. They thought if they could have him, they could have bread – limitless, wonderful, unending bread. Enough.

Jesus fed hungry people. He knew people need to eat. He told his followers to feed people, real, physical, tangible, nutritious food. But he also promised that he himself would be enough.

He didn’t want to be just a provider of physical bread. He wants to be our bread – our sustenance, our nourishment, our daily strength, our source of satisfaction.

Jesus is bread, but he wants to fill the hunger of our hearts and not just our stomachs. He wants to fill the gnawing, aching emptiness that we try to fill with lesser things, to satisfy the longing or the boredom that we use substances of all sorts to quiet, to put an end to the grasping, fretting, worrying about having enough of anything that will in the end possess us, rather than allowing ourselves to fall into the hands of the one for whom we were made.

Jesus is daily sustenance. He is bread to be savored, gathered around. Bread to inspire thanksgiving, to remind us of the wonder of life, to strengthen us. We can contemplate him thoughtfully, chewing slowly, pondering, but we will gain more if we come to him as hungry beggars, open to whatever he places in our outstretched hands.

He was taken, blessed, and broken. He is to be shared. The sharing of his life invites us to exercise the creativity of an artisan bread-baker and the compassion of a mother sewing seeds into the clothing of her children so they will always have sustenance for the journey.

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.”

 

— The Rev. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland.