Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Speaker: The Rev. Deborah Meister
Tags: christian, episcopal, sermon
My third year in seminary got off to a rocky start, largely because I had no money. I had been awarded a partial scholarship by the Diocese of Los Angeles that year, but they were going to send it to the seminary after my tuition was due, so I had to pay in full, then wait to be refunded the extra money that the Diocese sent in. Usually, this was a quick process, but this time, it took weeks. Classes began, and I had no refund. Textbooks had to be purchased, and I had no refund. I went to speak with the divinity school’s bursar, but she refused to release the funds, explaining that she had more important things to do than help the students. I pointed to the sign on her desk, which read “Student Support,” and reminded her that her job was to help students. This did not help me or the other couple hundred who were waiting. (It later turned out that she was embezzling funds, and that the holdup with everyone’s tuition refunds was part of an attempt at a coverup.) In the meantime, I had twenty dollars in my bank account, and three weeks before there would be more.
About ten days in, an envelope arrived in my mailbox. When I opened it, I found a letter from the Episcopal Church Women in Los Angeles, explaining that they had raised funds to help seminarians and were sending me a gift with their good wishes. The enclosed check was small -- a couple hundred dollars -- but it would allow me to buy food. The thing was, I had not applied for help or for a scholarship. I did not even know more than one member of that ECW. That check arrived as sheer gift, a blessing from strangers who sent it out of kindness, and it gave me more than food: it gave me hope.
This week, we are entering what I usually call, with some sarcasm, the Summer of Bread. You see, the Jesus who appears in the Gospel of John is as verbose as the Jesus of the other gospels is concise, and, early in his ministry, he gives a long talk about bread, wine, body, blood, and faith. And so, for the next five weeks, we are going to hear Gospel readings about bread. As you can imagine, this is a nightmare for the preacher: you can talk about hunger, Eucharist, yeast, and then you still have two more weeks to fill. Fortunately, that’s when we have other preachers taking over!
So I’d like to start this series by talking about gift. Not the gifts you give and receive at Christmas, or on your birthday or your wedding anniversary. I’d like to talk about the gifts that come unexpectedly when we are desperate for a bit of hope. Those gifts: the ones that point us straight toward the grace of God.
This summer, some of us in the parish are reading together a book called Enrique’s Journey, which tells the true story of a boy named Enrique who travels alone from Honduras to try to join his mother in the United States. Like many of the children who were streaming across our border last summer, Enrique tried to ride the trains north, nine hundred miles, risking his life and his health to avoid bandits, thieves, hostile strangers, and immigration agents, not to mention the routine dangers of being shot by police or dragged under the wheels of the train. Over and over, he tries to get through the state of Chiapas, which is known as “the Beast” for its relentless hostility to migrants. On his eighth attempt, he manages to break through and travel on to Veracruz, where some strangers run up to the train and cock their arms to throw something at him. Enrique flattens himself on top of the train to avoid the rocks he is expecting (because that’s what people were throwing in Chiapas), but instead the strangers call out to him and press bundles into his hands: bread, water, clothing. It is the first time in weeks that someone has shown him kindness.
I want you to hold that story in your mind as we turn to John, where Jesus is preaching to a large crowd. The scene is one of a significant disconnect. Jesus climbs a mountain and sits down with his disciples, just as he does in Matthew when he is about to give the Sermon on the Mount. The crowd, however, are not seeking words of wisdom. They’re going after healing and food. What they want is only the smallest fraction of what Jesus has to give: they are cut off from the fullness of God by the smallness of their own desire.
And yet, Jesus does not disdain their need. Let me repeat that: Jesus does not disdain their need. What they want is small, ordinary; it won’t save their souls, but Jesus does not turn away. Rather, he looks to the disciples and wonders how to feed the crowd. And when Philip points out that they haven’t got resources to do it, Andrew notices a small boy who has some food -- just a few loaves and a couple fish, and Jesus knows that will be enough. It will be enough because the boy is willing to share them.
In the community of migrants who ride the trains, Veracruz is legendary for its generosity. In the year 2000, 42.5 percent of Mexicans lived on less than two dollars a day, and, in rural areas, thirty percent of children had so little to eat that their growth was permanently stunted. Nonetheless, in Veracruz, it is the poorest of the poor who feed the migrants on the trains. They feed them because they know what it is to be hungry. They feed them because their own children are migrants, and they are hoping to pay it forward. They feed them because their bishop emphasizes charity toward strangers and urges them to shelter migrants. They feed them as an act of protest against a culture of brutality in which migrants and others are routinely beaten or shot by police. They feed them, not from time to time, not even monthly as we do when we make casseroles for SOME, but three and four times each day, taking bread from the mouths of their own children to help strangers. When the children on the trains realize what these strangers are doing, they often break down and cry.
The thing that prepares us to give is not our superfluity. The thing that prepares us to give is our experience of need. Over and over I have seen it: the poorest member of a parish works long hours to help those who are also in need. The man whose father is in jail will comfort those who have just been released. The woman who is struggling with cancer reaches out to support the person newly-diagnosed. The one who has been a stranger helps the newcomer make friends in town.
You see, feeding is about more than bread. It’s about the kindness of God, who made us because he delights in us, and meets our needs just because they exist. Kindness does not calculate; it does not weigh immediate action versus future need; it does not focus on the resources of the giver, but on the humanity of the person in front of us. It does not require forms and procedures; it just offers what it has, one human being to another. That’s why it shows us who God really is. In the other gospels, the evangelists note that the people are far from home and need bread for the journey, but John says no such thing. It’s not even clear that the people really need food. But Jesus works with the request they are willing to make, showing his generosity, because the thing about gift is that it opens the heart.
A number of years ago, a group of Christians had been taken prisoner in South America. They had been imprisoned for their faith, and were strictly forbidden to pray, to read the Bible, to live in any way that marked them as Christians. As Easter drew near, they longed to take Communion, to share the bread and wine one more time before the unfolding of future they did not know and could not trust. And so they gathered that morning in the prison, surrounded by a large group of their fellow inmates, who had offered to laugh and chatter and play cards and to make so much noise that the guards could not tell what was going on.
And the Christians bowed their heads and prayed; they prayed for those they loved and for one another. They prayed for those in prison and for all who were trapped or wrongly accused or condemned to death for no reason. And when the whisper of names had faded to silence, the priest who was among them prayed the Words of Institution. He had no bread, no wine, and so when he came to that part, he just stretched out his empty hands and said, “This is my body, given for you.” And he passed the imaginary Host from one palm to another, hand on hand, and then he lifted an imaginary chalice, saying, “This is my blood, given for you.” And they had nothing -- nothing! -- except the body and blood of Christ, not found that day in bread and wine, but made real in the bodies it had nourished, made real in the determination of a few souls to honor their God with whatever they had, even if that was only their bare selves.
Three weeks from now, we are going to be visited by a woman named Ruby Sales. When she was sixteen, she was jailed for participating in a civil rights demonstration, then unexpectedly released in a town called Hayneville in Alabama. She and a few of the others went into a store to get a Coke because it was a hot day, when a man appeared with a gun, and one of the other demonstrators, an Episcopal seminarian named Jonathan Daniels, took the bullet for her and died to save her life. Ruby has lived fifty years in the shadow of that self-offering, but the thing is, so have we. Every one of us has been died for. Every one of us has been fed with the body of Christ, given willingly on the cross for us.
St. Paul writes, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph 3:18-18) What would our lives look like if we received that gift, not as a theory or as a doctrine, but as bread for our hungry souls? What peace, what freedom would we find? And what offering would we be able to make to those who stretch out their hands to us?
 Last winter, when we were experiencing a tight budget situation, a number of you increased your 2015 pledges to enable the church to have a balanced budget. Those gifts also gave me hope. Thank you.
 Sonia Nazario, Enrique’s Journey, p. 105.
  John Poulton, The Feast of Life. Geneva: World Council of Churches,1982.