Today I am preaching and presiding at our diocesan cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral, just downstairs from my office in Springfield. The readings for this ninth Sunday after Pentecost can be found here.
As this nation continues to mourn the loss of life of those who are victims of gun violence in this nation, and as this city mourns, in particular, the life of Marine Gunnery Sergeant Thomas J. Sullivan, I invite us all to a moment of silent prayer. I pray that the profound sense of loss and mourning that touches this city on this day and affects all of our lives will translate into a renewed resolve to do all that we can to enact meaningful gun legislation in this nation. Amen.
For those who don’t know me, I’m one of the tenants who work upstairs in the bishop’s office. My name is Rich Simpson, and I’m just a couple of months into my third year as Canon to the Ordinary. While my primary region of responsibility is Worcester County – this cathedral has a unique role in the diocese and I’m grateful to be with you again today.
Since I was last with you, you have said goodbye to Dean Jim Munroe. Those goodbyes have accelerated a process of transition – or (dare I say this word out loud among Episcopalians?) of change.
It is of course an illusion to think there is anything else in this world. What is alive is changing. Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all our years away. Jim came here as dean within a month or so of my arrival at St. Francis Church in Holden, in early 1998. Over longer ministries that last fifteen or sixteen or seventeen years there are lots of changes, but they usually tend to come as little ones along the way – more evolutionary than revolutionary—and therefore they are experienced more gradually and sometimes even imperceptively.
Yet when clergy retire we are no longer under any illusion that things will stay the same from one day to the next. As the players change, as even the sound of the voices up front changes, some embrace the new and others feel some internal resistance kick in. So you are all in our prayers. We on the bishop’s staff pray regularly for both the cathedral and for all of our congregations in transition – now we have you covered at least in those two categories! As Tom Callard leads you through this season as priest-in-charge, some things will definitely change down here, as they changed upstairs a few years ago when a new bishop walked on the floor. While we know that can create some anxiety, we are also witnesses that there is new and even abundant life on the other side of change. I hope we can remind you that it can all be a kind of adventure and a lot of fun, too: just buckle up like you are on a roller coaster and enjoy the ride. And also remember the one constant in our life-together, Jesus Christ – the Church’s one foundation. Be patient and kind and gentle with each other as you try to listen for the lure of God’s Holy Spirit and this next chapter of your life together unfolds.
Alright, let’s talk about today’s gospel reading. The lectionary has taken a sudden turn away from Mark’s Gospel, from which we’ve been reading for some time now, to a little five-week detour into the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. Five weeks focused on just one chapter! It’s incredibly important stuff and one of the most carefully crafted chapters in the whole Bible; an outline of John’s Eucharistic theology.
The whole thing is held together by this claim: Jesus is the Bread of Life. The sixth chapter of John gives us a chance to reflect on what we do here every week when we gather to break the bread and share the cup. This chapter begins, as we heard, with the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. Next week Jesus will be talking about the manna in the wilderness and then he’ll say that his flesh is food indeed – that it is the super-manna that will let them live forever. And finally, that those who eat his flesh abide in him and he in them and that yes, this is a difficult complicated and dense teaching that is fraught with misunderstanding and leads to all kinds of theological arguments. It’s not literal language, but it’s more than metaphor: it’s mystical, sacramental language that invites us to reflect on this notion that we are what we eat, that we are called to become the Body of Christ, broken and shared for the life of the world. As St. Augustine once put it at the fraction when bread and cup are held up before the assembly: behold who you are; may we become what we receive.
So John begins with the story of the feeding of the five thousand, which is found in all four gospels, suggesting that this miracle occupied a central place in the imagination of first-century Church. (Even the birth of Jesus is told only in half of the gospels – Matthew and Luke!) The gist of it remains the same across all four gospels: it’s about God’s abundance. It’s about how there was enough and even more than enough; about how everyone was satisfied and there were even leftovers. But there are some interesting little differences, too, and it’s in the little details that each gospel writer makes his own theological point-of-view clearer.
It’s like when somebody’s telling a story and her spouse, or brother, or a friend interrupts to say, “no, that’s not exactly what went down. You are forgetting about this detail, or that…” In Matthew, Mark and Luke, for example, the disciples distribute the bread to the crowd. It is as if Jesus is training them for ministry, teaching them how to be servant-leaders. That’s a powerful message. You give them something to eat! And maybe that’s a good message to hear for a congregation in transition – that Tom isn’t meant to pick up everything Jim did, because Tom and Jim are different people. Rather this time of transition is an invitation for all of you to reflect in new ways on what you are called to do, and what this cathedral will be about in the twenty-first century. You give them something to eat.
But in John’s Gospel, the one that is before us today, Jesus himself gives the bread because for John Jesus is the Bread of Life. Jesus gives us his very life, so that we might live. He gives himself to the crowd even as he continues to give himself to us today: behold who you are; may we become what we receive.
John also gives us a liturgical context: it’s Passover, the same liturgical context that the other gospel writers give to the last supper. It’s like code-language; John is saying, pay attention – this is really important, this is Eucharistic language. And then he speaks about how the “fragments are gathered up” after everyone eats their fill. In one of the earliest Eucharistic prayers of the Church—even before the gospels became written documents—the community gathered and prayed this prayer in the Didache:
As this fragmented bread was scattered upon the mountains, but has been gathered up to become one; so let the Church be gathered up to become your kingdom.
And then there is this “lad.” John is the only one who remembers a boy there who was willing to share his lunch. And that adds a lot to the story for me – making it my own personal favorite version. Because I think that we, the Church, are lot like that boy. As we heard in today’s epistle reading, God is able to accomplish “far more than we can ask or imagine.” But only when we say yes to sharing what we have. And too often what holds us back is fear. Fear especially that there is not enough, or worse still that we are not enough.
This boy shares what he has, as we are called to do. I can’t explain to you the rest of the miracle. Maybe others were simply inspired to share what they had as well. I’m not trying to reduce the story here, or Jesus’ miraculous powers, but simply want to suggest that even if the miracle was only about sharing it’d be a great story. Think of it this way: we have enough bread in the world to feed everyone. The problem is not that we don’t have enough; the problem is in the distribution. The problem is that some people have way more than they need, in a world where the most vulnerable will go to bed hungry. So I think that it would be pretty miraculous if we all learned to share what we have. But however it happened, the big point all four gospel writers make is that when we bless what we do have and share it—even though we may feel small or insignificant—God uses that to change the world. God does God’s multiplying thing with what we have.
It’s possible that John is remembering the story from II Kings about Elisha and the man who came from Baal-shalishah with twenty loaves of barley bread. In that earlier story, Elisha tells the man to give it the crowd to eat, but the man objects: “how can I set this before a hundred men?” Elisha insists that it will be enough and in fact that it will be more than enough, that there will be leftovers. (See II Kings 4:42-44) So this bread thing isn’t just a New Testament thing: God has been in the bread business for very a long time, in the abundance business, in the sharing business. In both that Old Testament Elisha story and in John’s inclusion of this boy with the loaves and fishes to offer, the point is that when we offer what we have, God fills in the gaps.
Too many of us have been taught that what we have to offer isn’t good enough. We may worry about our ability to parent, or to be a good friend, or to get good grades in school, or to play a musical instrument or to sing in a choir. We are sometimes almost embarrassed that we seem to have so little to offer. What, this? It’s nothing, really… I think this vignette remembered by John about this boy is akin to Jesus’ reminder not to let our light be hidden under a bushel basket, but to let it shine. When we take the risk of sharing what we do have (rather than insisting it is nothing, not nearly enough) then God blesses the gift and stretches it in ways that go far beyond what we can imagine. An act of kindness to a stranger, an ice-cream cone for a sad Little Leaguer, a casserole dropped off at a friend’s house whose husband of forty-seven years just died—these are not no-things. They may be little things but it is little things that change the world, and it is little things that often mean the world to someone.
We are sometimes tempted to say, “what is this in the midst of the enormity of pain and hurt in the world? Some barley loaves and a couple of fish in a starving world? It’s nothing!” But the miracle pushes us back to insist: “just offer it and let God bless it and see what happens.” You may just be surprised by how far it goes, and by how far God can stretch it…
This story and our Eucharistic life are reminders – outward and visible signs—that ministry is about doing “mini” things—little things—that have the potential, with God’s help, to bring about maximal effects.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. .
Come then, to eat this bread and drink this cup – they are strength for the journey. As you do so, ask God to open your eyes to see, and your heart to love, and your hands to serve – especially as this next chapter in the life of this cathedral begins to unfold. Help write it! And know that the risen Christ gives us his own body as food for the journey. Know that there is enough, and more than enough.
Behold Jesus, the Bread of Life, the Cup of Salvation. And then dare to become what you see, Christ’s Body, broken for the life of the world; Christ’s blood, shed for all.