The Bible is a strange book sometimes. Sometimes the world in which the Bible stories with which we’re so familiar take place—sometimes that world seems so different that it’s hard to relate to those people, and it’s hard to relate to the message.
And then again there are times when I’ll read one of those stories and I’ll be so struck by the similarities, and I’ll say to myself, human nature hasn’t changed all that much in 3500 years. And that’s what really struck me in this week’s story about Moses and the two prophets with the very curious names of Eldad and Medad.
I swear, if I had twins, I’d name them Eldad and Medad. They’re really nice names, actually. Eldad means God has loved, and Medad means Beloved. In the Old Testament, the names of people and places usually mean something that’s important, and these names are all about love, God’s love.
So in this story, God has brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and in the wilderness has provided them with water and plenty of food in the form of manna, and now they’re complaining that it isn’t enough for them. Basically, they’re complaining about change.
One of the hardest things I’ve had to do, at least in the second half of my life so far, is the summer that I spent as a chaplain in training at a trauma hospital.
Being a chaplain is different from being a pastor. You share a common humanity with the people you serve, but you don’t necessarily share the same faith. And in our humanity, we all have spiritual needs. They might not be religious needs, but your job as a chaplain is to find out in a fairly short time under difficult circumstances: what does this patient need spiritually, and what do I have to do to make sure that need is met in order to support their healing.
So I served in a stepdown unit where the patients were very sick, most of them had just come down from the ICU, but they weren’t even ready for regular hospital rooms. And as I stood outside the room of each new patient on that ward, I never knew exactly what I was going to encounter when I went through into the room.
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.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?
“Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” What a thing to say. Shocking, really.
If I were in charge of the readings we use on Sunday—which in our church I’m not, they’re given to us—there might be a temptation to sort of skip through this whole section. But it’s a very vivid way to say that Jesus himself is the answer to our deepest hunger. It’s an invitation from him to become one with him in a way that is both intimate and life-giving. He says, “Those who eat my flesh abide in me, and I in them.” Abide in me, remain in me. We are in each other.
Every time I read this part of the Gospel, I’m reminded of that saying you are what you eat, you know? It’s actually the title of a diet book from the early 1940s. I doubt that any of us would know the specific details of the diet, but we all know the phrase and we get the point. If you don’t eat well, you can’t be your best self.
Interestingly enough, it also sounds a lot like something Saint Augustine said in an Easter sermon way back around the year 400. He said that when we receive the Eucharist—worthily, with the right intentions—”we become what we receive.” [i] We become the Body of Christ. You are what you eat.
Through the Eucharist, through the living bread that Jesus offers, we are one bread, one body. We become the Body of Christ. We become one with him, and through him with all other believers. I think this talk of living bread, bread from heaven, it’s kind of like poetry. It’s the language of mysteries too deep for ordinary words.
So why did you come to church this morning? What is it that you hoped to find here? What is it that you’re hungry for?
Maybe some of you didn’t have time for breakfast and you really are hungry, looking forward to the coffee hour. That usually gets me at about 10 of 11, even though I did eat breakfast. But probably, nearly everyone here—I would imagine—is hungry for something. There are some things missing in your life that you’re still yearning for.
For some of us it might be meaningful work, work that is good and work just to support ourselves. For some of us it might be a spiritual hunger for something more. For some of us it might be yearning for a greater sense of peace and security in these times that seem so uncertain and difficult. It might be as simple as good health. But nearly everybody is hungry for something.
So what is it that you’re hungry for?
A couple of weeks ago I was going somewhere south of here and I found myself in the new Whole Foods Market in Spring House. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there. Even if you’ve been in a Whole Foods before, this is something else. This is the new world. I was looking for some tea, that’s what I was doing in there. The days of the long, straight grocery aisles are gone, so in order to find what you’re looking for you have to sort of turn this way and that to get through the store. And every time you turn a corner you come across some display of prepared food that looks just incredibly delicious. Artisanal pizza, and baked goods, and hot stuff and a salad bar, and desserts.
When my kids were little, they attended a faith-based school. It was small. There was no lunch room. The food for snacks and lunch had to be packed at home every day and sent in a lunch box. Human nature being what it is, those lunch boxes sometimes got left at home, or in the car, or on the bus. Then you had a hungry kid and no place to buy food for them. Each of the teachers had a different way of dealing with this possibility, because it did happen.
The kindergarten teacher kept a bowl, and the child who had no lunch box had to take the bowl around to his or her classmates and accept what they wished to give out of their lunch. This happened once when it was Grandparents Day, so my mother was there. She was bothered by the fact that it was voluntary. She felt that no one should be allowed to get away with being selfish, that every child should be made to share some of their lunch. But we all know that acts of generosity are authentic only when they are undertaken of our own free will, so that’s how it went in this classroom. That day and all the days that it happened, the child who forgot the lunch box had enough to eat. Everybody had enough to eat. There was enough. I think of this as a miracle, actually, a human miracle.
Let me explain that. I had a seminary professor who gave us a definition of miracle as an unexpected event that brings us into the presence of God. I really like that. In the case of these kids, it’s unexpected that kids, that anybody, would share their lunch just because some other kid had no lunch. Presumably—although I remember what a challenge it was to pack those lunch boxes—presumably you’d put in there what your kid liked and would eat to get through the day.
We usually think of time as linear, by which I mean that it goes forward in a straight line:, today, tomorrow, next month, next year. For some of us, life might consist of some zigs and zags, but we think of time as just always going forward.
But actually in our lives, there are also cycles, circles, and in some ways, as we’re moving forward, we’re also going through these cycles again and again. So we have the cycle of the seasons. We have that cycle that repeats every year, with new life springing forth in spring, maturing in summer, dying, or at least going into some kind of hibernation in the fall, and resting through the winter. And we begin again with the same cycle when the next spring comes.
In the church, in the liturgical calendar, we have a similar kind of cycle, beginning in Advent, and we go through that period of waiting with longing for God to enter the world incarnate in Jesus. We celebrate his birth. We go through Lent, and Easter, and now we’re in Pentecost. It’s a similar cycle, in some ways, to the seasons in nature, but its purpose is a little bit different. It’s educational, and it’s also meant to remind us that God’s time is eternal. That in some ways, the life of Christ is always happening. All of these things are happening constantly. God is always coming into the world. The resurrection is always happening.
So we also have a cycle in nature of day and night, of waking and sleeping. We go about our lives in the world, and at night, we go home, and if we’re lucky, we sleep. And science is teaching us that that sleep isn’t just a nothing happening time, that even though we’re unaware of it, really important things are happening. Our brains are actually reorganizing themselves. Our bodies are both resting and repairing things that need to be repaired. And hopefully, we wake up refreshed and begin a new day and begin the cycle over and over again.
It’s no secret that I love my electronic devices. They say there’s an app for everything, and I think I have most of them. One of my favorites is a packing list app. You can make your packing list on anyone device you happen to be working on, and you can see it on all the others. You can sort everything according to category—my electronics list is rather long, though some others are short. And you can check each item off as you put it in the suitcase, so you can see what you have left to pack.
Over time I’ve developed a sort of template, a master list, so I don’t have to start from scratch every time. When it’s time to travel I just look at it and decide which things I need and which I don’t, and that’s my packing list.
Chris has a slightly different system. He’s actually in Cuba right now, traveling with the Bucks County Choral Society, singing in a couple of concerts and also touring around. Communications aren’t that great, even in this Internet world, but he’s sent a couple of emails to say that he’s having a wonderful time. But his system for packing is a little different. It involves a lot of wandering around the house on the day he’s leaving, saying, “I wonder what I’m forgetting to pack?” over and over again.
A couple of months ago, I stumbled across some old correspondence between me and John Strong, Kathy’s dad. John had asked me for a copy of a quotation I’d used in a sermon. It was from a book called When Breath Becomes Air, written by a brilliant young brain surgeon who was dying of cancer just as he was finally finishing his medical training.
I guess you could call it a cancer memoir, because it was about the last few years of this man’s life, but don’t get the wrong idea: it was much more about how he lived through that time than about his dying.
The part John asked for was this: “Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult—sometimes almost impossible—they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily of act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love.”[i]
It wasn’t hard to understand why this resonated with John. It was a few months before Jane died—Kathy’s mom—and Kathy was fighting her own illness, and the daily, ongoing balance of life and love and pain and hope must have been very present for John.
It certainly was very much so for all of us in the Strongs’ parish family at Good Shepherd Church. And so it would continue to be right up to the day when Kathy finally lost her fight to live—at least to live in the mortal body that suffered so much these past few years—and we lost Kathy.