A sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

You can barely see his head peeking above the piano, but by now, I think most of you have probably noticed that this morning’s musician is not Vaughn. Some of you, many of you know—but maybe not all—that this is my husband, Chris, who usually worships with the Society of Friends on Sunday morning, but has been kind enough to come and play the piano for us.

And so that was an inspiration, knowing that he was going to play the piano, to do something different—as they used to say on Monty Python—“Now for something completely different.” And so we picked some hymns that aren’t in the hymnal, some of which you’ve mentioned liking from past singing of them, and some of which are favorites of mine.

And that first hymn that we sang, “Here I Am, Lord,” it’s based primarily on the story of the calling of the prophet Samuel. In the third chapter of First Samuel, the young Samuel is a protégé of Eli and he’s asleep in the temple. He hears a voice, actually three times, calling him: “Samuel, Samuel.”

He thinks it’s Eli. Eli finally figures out that it’s the Lord, and this is the beginning of Samuel’s call as prophet. But it’s a very interesting hymn because woven in—it’s pretty short—woven in, there’s this whole series of Scripture references, including the one that relates to today’s Gospel: “Finest bread I will provide till their hearts be satisfied. I will give my life to them.”

This is the fifth of five weeks that we’ve been reading our way through the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John. All about the bread of life, living bread, the bread that comes down from heaven. It began with Jesus feeding 5,000 and more with five loaves and two fishes. The crowds were so impressed that they followed him. When they didn’t find him in the same place the next day, they jumped into boats and went across the water looking for him.

But as he continued with his teaching about the bread of life, the bread that comes down from heaven, little by little they drifted away. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

So they’ve gone from 5,000 and more to today where there are maybe 12. It doesn’t say for sure, but it seems like that last dialogue is taking place just between Jesus and the Twelve. And he says to them, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who don’t believe.”

And finally he says to the small group, “Do you also wish to go away?” And Peter says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” It’s very touching. Of course we know that Peter did wander away. But he wandered back.

He wasn’t there on the night before Jesus died. He did betray Jesus. He came back. A lot of times in the Gospel, Peter sort of gets it not quite right, but this time he gets it exactly right: “To whom can we go.”

So there’s a lot of talk in these passages about belief. And I want to emphasize that it’s not just belief as in believing a fact that might be difficult to accept. The word in the original Greek is πιστεύω. It means to believe facts, but it means more than that. Its means to trust. It means to have a relationship with somebody that’s really unshakable. You know like, if someone who’s your mentor says to you, “You can do it. I believe in you.” It’s not a fact they’re talking about, it’s a relationship. And that’s what this word is all about.

I came across a story on the Internet.[1]So you have to be careful about stories on the internet, but a wise woman said in a workshop I attended last year, she said, “All stories are true and some actually happened.” And whether or not this story actually happened, it is true. I think there’s deep truth in this story.

So it’s a story about a dog who went to church. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a dog in church. I remember being on vacation once in the Adirondacks. It was a summer kind of community. I imagine the priest was a retired guy, probably filling in on Sundays, and his dog came in with him, went up in procession and actually, as I recall, spent the service under the altar. Very well-behaved. Better than some children some that I … know. I was going to say some that I’ve raised, but that wouldn’t be nice.

Well this dog actually isn’t in the procession in the story. This dog is a guide dog. The story is told by a man who goes to see his parents and he’s way out in the country, and it’s this little country church, and when he shows up, the priest again is a retired guy. He’s pretty deaf, and nearly blind, but he gets through the service as most of us more or less do.

And when it’s time for communion, that’s the first time the storyteller notices the dog. The dog is a guide dog, and he leads a man who is blind from the back up to the altar. And when he gets the man to the right place for communion, the dog lies down and waits very patiently, gazing at the altar. The author of the story says, “He behaved with all the ceremony and propriety that you could ask of someone who has to go to church wearing a collar.” What a great line.

So he waits patiently, and when the man has received the bread and the wine, the dog gets up and leads him back to his pew.

And after the service the author of the story’s talking to the man, saying how good the dog was to behave so well. It was as if he almost understood communion when he was there. And the author said, “I don’t think my dog would’ve been that well-behaved.”

And the blind man said, “Well, he brings me every Sunday. We’ve been coming for ten years. He’s been to church more than 500 times, and he’s a Labrador.” The guy says, “They’re good dogs. Their respect for food is very deep. That is why he understands the Eucharist. He grasps it, not at as an idea, but in its real depths, the mystery of it. It is food. He knows that, and sometimes I have felt his hunger. There is holiness in all of God’s creatures.”

So, in a way, the dog was a believer. Not in the sense of accepting certain facts that we say about what the bread is or what the wine is. He understood it in a very holy way. It was food. And this man, his master whom he loved, was being fed.

Many of you—most of you maybe; I’m looking around—if you were raised in the Episcopal Church, you might have grown up on 1928 prayerbook. And you might have known the rule that you weren’t allowed to receive communion until after you’d been confirmed. And then, with the adoption of the 1979 prayerbook, that was changed. And it was Baptism. Because that prayerbook represents a much fuller idea of Baptism, and how it’s incorporation into the community, into the Body of Christ.

And it’s really all we need. There’s no other requirements for coming to communion. But sometimes, parents are a little reluctant, you know. I’ve seen priests that give babies the wine as soon as they’re baptized. A little dip of the finger. Because they are part of the community. Baptism does that.

But parents don’t always want that, and sometimes they’re reluctant even to have their toddlers, their walking babies receive communion. They say, “They don’t understand it.”

They don’t understand it. Well, who among us really understands it? When we say we believe, it’s not about being able to write a paper about for seminary explaining what it is. It’s about that relationship of trust, and love, and knowing that this is the thing that we’ve found—maybe the only thin—that can feed that hunger that’s deep inside of us.

I had a wise mentor as I was preparing for ordination who said that when parents say that to her, what she says to them—in addition to the fact that none of us really understands it—what she says to them is, “What they learn, these children, is that when they put out their hands to God, they will be filled.” Belief as trust and as relationship.

We come to the table because we’re hungry. We come because believe, but even more than, we come because we trust. We come because we’ve found nothing else that can truly satisfy that deep hunger that we’ve experienced. We’ve come, as Peter said so very simply yet truly, because where else would we go?


[1]Ben Myers, “A Guide Dog at Holy Communion.” http://www.faith-theology.com/2016/09/a-guide-dog-at-holy-communion.html, accessed Aug. 25, 2018.