“Sir, Give us This Bread Always!”
Some of you may have seen the 2017 film, “All Saints”, starring John Corbett, based on the true story of Pastor Michael Spurlock, and his church in a rural part of Tennessee. The movie tells the story of this paper salesman turned Episcopal priest, whose first assignment is to nurse a struggling church to a peaceful death — the membership has dwindled to a faithful few, and they can no longer afford to make the mortgage payments. The priest does what most of us do when arriving in a new context — he seeks to familiarize himself with the neighbors and the priorities of the community. Initially, he meets the sort of people you might expect in small town Tennessee. But soon he also discovers a large population of refugees from Karen State in Myanmar.
Spurlock learns that one of the challenges the refugees have experienced in moving to the United States, is a loss of their way of life, which was mostly based in agriculture. While the parish has few people in the pews on Sunday, it has an abundance of land surrounding the sanctuary. Corbett’s character begins a relationship with the refugee families, offering the use of some of the church’s land for farming. What transpires not only benefits the refugees economically, but peaks the curiosity of the parishioners.
They begin to work alongside one another in the fields, and develop meaningful relationships. They become so invested in one another, that the church no longer needs a miracle. The people in their midst are the miracle. There was always more work to be done for All Saints, but they just couldn’t see it, because they could only imagine that work happening inside their walls, with the people who had always been there.
I realize All Saints might seem somewhat exceptional, if for no other reason than they had a movie made about their story, in which the star of my Big Fat Greek Wedding played a priest. But this story is far more common than we might like to believe. Not for a lack of good intentions, but a scarcity of imagination, we often miss what God is up to in our midst. The good news is, God is incredibly creative in responding to these and so many other human shortcomings!
When my fiancé, Nic, and I were discerning our next call, my future mother-in-law kept insisting that we see this movie! Now she lives in rural Texas, and every time we would talk with her, she would ask if we had seen the movie yet. I could only imagine she was trying to connect with her son’s girlfriend, who professed this new-to-them Episcopal faith. Eventually, we saw the movie, and soon discovered her true motivation. The Episcopal Church in the town adjacent to hers was in danger of being closed down because the elderly pastor had just died. She saw an opportunity that might bring her eldest son closer to home!
The next thing you know my soon-to-be-mother-in-law was sending me emails with Google Earth images of a church, and lets me know she can get me keys to the church the next time I visit if I want to take a look. Somehow the Diocese covering the Texas panhandle got a hold of my contact information and started calling with the intel that I might be looking to move into that area. Fortunately, the St. Michael’s search committee also got my information, and we are very happy where we ended up! But in those very few moments when I pictured what it might be like to lead a struggling, rural congregation, I was reminded that church is less about the details of what happens on a Sunday morning, and more about the people who are gathered. We come to church to worship, but we stay because of the people who make it a community.
Today’s accounts from Exodus and John’s Gospel are prime examples. In John’s Gospel, the people are on the hunt for answers. After Jesus feeds 5,000 people, their curiosity is peaked, and they follow Jesus as he continues on his mission. They’re seeking answers — certainly about the miraculous feeding, but more importantly, about who Jesus really is. They’re trying to make sense of Jesus, in light of their history with God.
Jesus’ response seems to be less than helpful. Instead of the formulaic resolution for which they were hoping — follow this prescription: do these things, in this way, with these people — Jesus declares that He is the answer. This completely confounds them.
But, there’s something important that happens in this moment — Jesus brings the seekers out of the past, and into the present. Jesus reminds them of their full bellies, and his presence in their midst. God is not a God who once provided, God is the God who continually responds and provides. God is not relegated to the past tense. God is always also in the present tense.
An additional illustration comes in our story of another feeding in the wilderness from the book of Exodus. The Israelites are up to their usual — complaining at every turn. Moses intervenes on their behalf, and God agrees to feed them. This is one of my favorite moments in the Hebrew Bible — God provides exactly what they need, both meat and bread, and they do not recognize it!
When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat. (Exodus 16:15)
Whether hardness of heart or pure stubbornness they are unable to see that which God has placed before them. They are starving, God feeds them, and they don’t have the eyes to see the very food for which they have been longing.
God provided manna for the Israelites. The meaning of the word
manna has an Aramic etymology, deriving from the phrase “what is it?” This story is referenced over and over again in the Abrahamic traditions, emphasizing God’s willingness to provide manna in the wilderness. But, this story takes on a more nuanced meaning if we’re willing to read it as follows, God provided, “what is it?” in the wilderness. Meaning, God provided what we thought we needed, but we couldn’t identify it; truthfully, God was providing all we needed, we just didn’t have eyes to see it.
Jesus reminds the faithful who have followed him — it was not Moses’ divine intervention that provided what you needed. God always provides what is needed, it just might not be what you expect. Jesus is not the savior they had been expecting. But, he grounds them in the present moment, reminding them of the fullness they have just experienced.
Jesus continues to feed us with food that spiritually nourishes. When you stop to think about it, this act of eating the bread that represents the body of Jesus and drinking wine that represents the blood of Jesus is very, very strange. But it’s a symbol we desperately need — it is a tangible demonstration of the many ways in which God provides. To come to the communion table on Sunday morning, is to be fed by the nourishment God provides. We need constant reminders of unexpected fulfillment of our hungers.
To explain to another what happens at this table on Sunday morning, we might be well served by referencing the manna from the wilderness. We share “What is it” through the work of the Holy Spirit. Meaning, we share all that God has provided, through the body and blood that we receive.
And yet, the mystery endures. By returning to this table each week, we are no closer to answering the question of who Jesus was and is. We are no closer to answering the universal curiosity about God’s place in the world. But somehow, we are full of the love and mystery of God. Fellow preacher, Will Willimon, describes his understanding of our commitment to the Eucharist in this way, “To feed upon the truth who is Jesus Christ, to find primary sustenance in him, is better even than to understand him.”1
To seek to understand is a natural human inclination. Post-Enlightenment, and the digital age of instant answers to questions large and small, it’s no wonder that not everyone is eager for a spirituality that requires we lean into the mystery that is God. It is presumably unsatisfying that you can’t yell “Alexa explain my existence to me during this commercial break!” and get a coherent answer from your Apple or Amazon device. The deeper we go into our faith, the more profound the mysteries we encounter. We learn from the past, from each story of God hearing and tending to the needs of God’s people.
And, we recognize that God has never, and will never provide only one thing for one people at one time. To dwell on what happened to a particular people at a particular time, we risk missing what God is up to right in front of us! Not for a lack of goodintentions, but a scarcity of imagination, we often miss what God is up to in our midst.
When John Calvin, French theologian, was asked to explain the Eucharist, he said that he would “rather experience it than to understand it.” The wisdom of today’s scripture makes the audacious invitation to risk experiencing God’s activity in our midst, rather than seeking to understand it.
The Rev. Beth Magill