Food, Grace, Abundance: A Sermon for Bread of Life Sunday #1

Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
29 July 2018 + Lectionary 17B (Pentecost 10)
John 6.1-21


Last week, I preached a sermon about rest. In the midst of so much busyness and hurry and important but exhausting work, Jesus bids his disciples to come away and rest… And in the midst of our own lives — all the important but exhausting work we do — we hear echoes of our shepherd Jesus bidding us to come away and rest. Rest. Take care of your spirits and your bodies. The work of the gospel, proclaiming good news to the poor and the oppressed, is important — but so are we, bodies made in God’s own image, bodies God calls very good, bodies that need care.

And so in that sermon just seven days ago, I encouraged us to take time for ourselves, to rest, to recharge, to replenish our bodies. And yet, I must confess: Not five minutes after the final “Go in peace,” I was already out the door, off to work: driving to my office, taking a Lyft to the airport to pick up a rental truck, driving back to the office, loading up boxes upon boxes, and finalizing last-minute details for a conference the following day — work that kept me in the office for three hours on a Sunday afternoon, awake until nearly 1 AM that night, and nonstop on-the-go throughout the majority of the next day. In the midst of work, I took no time for myself, no time to notice the needs of my own body and spirit, no time to rest. Quite literally, I didn’t do a very good job of practicing what I preached.

Then on Tuesday morning, something happened. As I sat in the chapel on our retreat campus for day two of the conference I had been so hurriedly planning, our morning devotion leader invited us to ponder a relationship in our own life that had somehow shaped or transformed us. My mind went immediately to the church home I had found after college — a place that welcomed and embraced me for who I was, exactly as I was, no strings attached. The community that enveloped me in those two years helped me imagine a new way of being church together that was bold in our proclamation of the gospel, radically inclusive in our welcome of all people, and relevant in our Monday-through-Saturday lives. That community is, in many ways, the reason I am standing here today as a child of God called to be a pastor among God’s people.

Tuesday morning devotions invited me into a moment to pause, to reflect, to rest. Our devotion leader also invited us to recognize these relationships as experiences of abundant grace. Together we sang a short call-and-response refrain that became something of a theme for our time together this past week:

All who are thirsty, come to the waters.
All who are hungry, come here and eat.
All who are thirsty, come to the waters.
There’s enough for all.

Today’s gospel reading takes us on a detour from our year of Mark into the beginning of five weeks of John — reflecting on what it means that Jesus comes to us as the Bread of Life, or, to use a favorite word of John’s, abiding in these enigmatic texts for an extended time. But today, before we even get to Jesus’s declaration “I am the bread of life” (that comes later), we have a miracle of abundance. The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle story common to all four gospels, and I suspect that should tell us something about how significant this story is.

Before we try to figure out what this miracle means, I think what happened is just as important on its own: five thousand hungry people were fed — not in some spiritual sense — but with bread and fish, satisfying physical hunger. Karoline Lewis, a scholar on the gospel of John and a favorite theologian of mine, suggests that being literally fed, as Jesus does for the crowd, is a hallmark of the presence of God. She says, “Where people are fed, literally, is where you can expect to experience grace — see it, taste it, smell it, feel it.”

At the conference this past week, our time together was punctuated by meals — breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks each day. Every day we ate together, and every day we talked with each other over meals — forming relationships and strengthening community by sharing food. Then on the last night of the conference, we gathered for a banquet, one final celebratory meal together, where we heard the stories of ELCA missionaries who have completed their service in countries around the globe. It was a sacred time to experience stories of what God is up to in the world through the missionaries of our church, a time to experience the abundance of God’s grace in our lives, and a time to eat a meal together.

The intertwining of God’s people, around food, experiencing grace in abundance.

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ELCA Summer Missionary Conference Banquet, Thursday, July 26, 2018 (photo credit: Josh Evans)

The first time I came here to preach, way back in May, which feels like ages ago, the fellowship hall was filled with USPS boxes overflowing with food collected for your food pantry, which I would later learn is one of the largest food pantries in your neighborhood, feeding your hungry neighbors in need. Every week that I’ve been with you since then, you have gathered as a community after the liturgy to share coffee and treats and catch up on one another’s lives. And every Sunday you meet, you gather around this table, to eat and drink and experience God’s grace given for you, shed for you.

Food and grace in abundance are the hallmark of God’s presence and living together in the community of the church.

The poet Mary Oliver, in one of my favorite poems, writes:

Why worry about the loaves and fishes?
If you say the right words, the wine expands.
If you say them with love
and the felt ferocity of that love
and the felt necessity of that love,
the fish explode into many.
Imagine him, speaking,
and don’t worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy.
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word
spoken with love.

For now, this first of five Bread of Life Sundays, we rest, we abide, in the miracle — the abundance of loaves and fishes and grace. We don’t need to understand it, to analyze it, to spiritualize it. It is enough to experience it. Food and grace and abundance — taste and see that God is good.

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