Pentecost 12 August 16, 2015 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Pentecost 12 Proper 15 Year B
Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 34:9-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
Christ Episcopal Church
Sunday, August 16, 2015
The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Michelle was a nursing student in my course on Medieval Christianity, a class I taught this past January at PLU. Each day, she would arrive early for class and then spend some time cleaning her classroom table with a Handiwipe (or two or three). Let’s see, I thought to myself, a nursing student with a cleaning compulsion: no germ will ever be safe in your presence and no hospital patient will ever have to worry about a sterile environment if you are running the show. That being said, I admired her energy, her commitment to nursing, and her singular devotion to doing the course work. And this, too: she drove me a little bit crazy. As a student of the sciences, she was eager to learn the “facts” about medieval Christianity. And as a student raised in a conservative evangelical church, she had learned to interpret the Bible in a “factual” manner, as if it were a scientific textbook – something it never claims to be.
Thus, as you might imagine, it was a challenge for this lovely and earnest young woman and many of her classmates to recognize that the language and ethos of religion is much less
about giving one’s assent to the “facts,” and much more
about living into a life with others animated and shaped by the many images that emerge from both Scripture and that ongoing conversation we call Tradition: images that enchant us, comfort us, challenge us, give us meaning, provoke our doubt, and animate our courage. With others in the class, Michelle was surprised that medieval Christians could hold together diverse images of the central act of Christians, the Eucharist. “Isn’t it just a reminder about the past?” she asked.
They were surprised, then, by reading Hildegard of Bingen, the medieval Benedictine mystic, who spoke of the Eucharist as God’s free giving of “greenness” and heavenly rain to those who are dried up by loneliness, despair, or sin. They were perplexed, some even alarmed, when Julian of Norwich, the English anchorite, claimed that Christ is our mother who nourishes us at the altar with life-giving drink from her ample breasts. They thought Francis of Assisi a little bit crazy for preaching to a group of birds after he was run out town and pelted with stones by the townspeople who were insulted when he preached that their disregard for the homeless who were hungry was disregard for Jesus the Poor Man.
While the logical framework found in the theology of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps one of the world’s greatest theologians, was appealing to many of the students, they wondered why such a bright guy would be utterly devoted to the Eucharist, a devotion that inspired him to compose numerous hymns [one of which we sing today]. They wondered about his insistence that the Eucharist is not, is not, merely a reminder of something from the past but rather an encounter in the present with the mystery of Christ, with the wounded and risen Christ who offers himself within the signs of bread and wine. They puzzled over his insistence that these words of Jesus – “I am the living bread that came down from heaven” – are neither a scientific statement about heaven’s location nor
an image, a metaphor, they could toss to the side simply because their sweet rational minds could not comprehend it. But here’s the great irony: it was the self-identified atheist and social work major in the class, a graduate of Stadium High School just down the street, who asked the question: “Were Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas friends? Because it seems to me,” he continued, “that there might be some connection between the whole ‘living bread’ thing and the homeless who are dying for living bread.”
I wanted to shake his hand, pat him on the back, or kiss his broad atheist forehead (none of which I did) for he named, in his question, a dynamic that asks for your attention and mine. You see:bread has no other purpose than to nourish
. It is not an object to be admired. Its one longing is to feed those who are hungry.
Indeed, violence must be done to bread in order for it do what it needs to do: it must be torn apart and then shared, for no mouth in this room or in any room or street on the planet is large enough to consume an entire loaf at once. Bread has no other purpose than to nourish those who are hungry.
It is of scandalous interest to me and I hope it is to you that we live in the nation that has the highest rate of obesity and the highest rate of food waste in the world. We are ranked lowest among all 35 industrialized nations for childhood hunger. One of every four children in our state lives with insufficient bread on a daily basis. “Does not the irony strike your heart,” asked the Benedictine mystic, Photina Rech, “that in a world filled with hungry people, Christ appears as bread, as bread to be shared far beyond the altar table?” I wonder, then, if the One who gathers us at his table and feeds us with his life, is the Poor Man of Nazareth, what might he ask you and me to do with our gifts of daily bread?