The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 12, 2018
I Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34: 1-8
John 6:35, 41-51
Why are we here?
Like all Roman Catholic priests, I have a degree in philosophy, but I’m not asking this as an existential question about the meaning of life or the nature of humanity. I’m just pointing out that it is Sunday morning in Tacoma, and we all could be somewhere else doing something else, not least sleeping in. Why are we here? I mean, Mother Janet is being paid to be here, but she came out of retirement to do that. Why are we here?
Some of us are old enough to remember the 1940s and 1950s, when religious attendance in the U.S. was probably at its height. It seemed like everyone was going to church. Of course, the situation is very different in 2018 in the Puget Sound area. There is little social or cultural pressure to go to church religious services; if anything, there is some pressure not to. A considerable majority of the residents of western Washington will not attend religious services this weekend, or any weekend. Yet we aren’t a fringe group—hundreds of thousands of people in this region are going or have gone to a church or synagogue or mosque or temple. Why? Why are we here?
The answer is going to be a little different for each one of us. A few us are here largely because a family member is here, and we want to be with and support that family member. Many of us have attended church all our lives; it has been something we have done for as long as we remember. This doesn’t quite answer the question, though—we all know people who were raised as churchgoers but no longer participate. Some of us, I know, stayed away from church for a while, maybe a long while. So why are we here?
Perhaps some of us feel, or have felt, like Elijah. We all know that Elijah was a prophet speaking out against the injustices of Ahab, the king of Israel. Ahab murdered subjects to add to his property and introduced a cult to solidify his rule. Elijah led a campaign to restore justice, and in the first reading we see the results of that campaign. Elijah is fleeing for his life, finally collapsing under a tree, broken and asking God to him die. Why are we here? Maybe like Elijah we feel overwhelmed by the injustices of the world, or by the burdens of life, and are looking for comfort, hope, and inspiration to continue the journey. Yet perhaps we are more like today’s psalmist, who proclaims gratitude that the Lord heard and answered, who calls on listeners to bless the Lord at all times. Maybe we too are here because we feel blessed and grateful for God’s gifts. Why are we here? Perhaps we are here to experience the transcendent in some way, to see and imagine a reality beyond this one, to become closer to God. Many of us want to be in community with other believers.
Why are we here? The reasons we are here are multiple, varied, and have likely changed over the course of our lives. Underlying all these reasons is one simple truth: we are here because we value being here. We are here because being here addresses some need or nourishes us in some way. We are here, because being here feeds us in some way, feeds us like the bread and wine we will soon receive.
Today’s gospel is the Bread of Life discourse from John. It is proclamation of Jesus of who he is and promise to us of what we will do. “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry”. “Whoever comes to me…” Here we are, coming to Jesus on a Sunday morning. I hope each one of us has specific instances, perhaps from many years ago, where we came to a religious community and felt particularly nourished and fed, again like Elijah, to whom God provided cake and water. Perhaps we too were going through a difficult time and a community of faith rallied around us. Perhaps the message of a sermon, or wisdom expressed in a quiet conversation with a pastor , continues to impact us. Perhaps we encountered God in a remarkable, powerful way in a parish retreat. Perhaps we were moved by serving members of the broader community, myabe literally feeding the hungry with actual bread. Perhaps we were rejected by one faith community, but felt acceptance and love from another. In each of these instances where we felt nourished and fed, Christ’s promise to be the Bread of Life was fulfilled. Think of that: each one of us can point to a particular, life-changing experience of being nourished and fed, an experience of Christ’s promise fulfilled. That’s not just true of this community here Christ church, but also of the churches down the street, throughout Tacoma and the Puget Sound region, across the country, around the world, and down through time. Millions and millions have been fed, and Christ’s promise, God’s promise, continues to be fulfilled.
There is another side to this story. Churches and religious institutions can feed the best of human aspirations like hope and acceptance and service, but they can also feed the worst of human impulses. Religious communities can feed intolerance, indifference, injustice, even hate and violence. I know at least some of us have felt neglected or even abused byreligious communities, by either their members or by their institutional practices. All religious organizations, including the Episcopal Church, have this as part of the story. This willingness of faith communities to at teams feed hurtful, hateful impulses in our society is one reason why a considerable majority of the residents of the Puget Sound will not be attending religious services this weekend—it’s not the only reason, but it is one reason. People have been fed and nourished by religion, but they’ve also been hurt by it.
This part of the church’s story reminds us that we, the members of the church, are participants in Christ’s promise that those who come will never be hungry. Two weeks ago the gospel was John’s version of the feeding of the large crowd. There is no doubt that it is Jesus who performs the miracle of the multiplication, but members of this of this ad hoc faith community—this temporary church, if you will—participate in the miracle. In this story a boy gives away the only food he has; people sit down and pass the food around; the disciples gather the leftovers so nothing goes to waste. A community was fed because they trusted Jesus, because they listened to Jesus, because they let the power of Jesus work through them. In a similar way, Jesus invites us to participate in the miracle of feeding by trusting him, listening to him, and letting his power work with through us. We do this by acting like true Christians, by acting like the Body of Christ as we receive the Body of Christ. Paul summarizes this in his letter to the Ephesians: Put away bitterness and wrath and slander, either toward individuals or particular groupings of individuals, either within the faith community or outside of it Be kind to one another, forgiving of one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Be imitators of God, Paul says. That is how we feed the Bread of Life to one another and to the wider community.
Why are we here? We are here because we have been fed the Bread of Life. We are because we want to feed the Bread of Life to one another, and to all those who hunger for it. We are here because we are recipients and participants of a miracle and a sign that goes back to the ministry of Jesus and beyond. We are here because, in the words of the psalmist, we have tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord. Amen.