Year B; FB. Proper 13; August 1, 2021
One of the first things Father Monroe Freeman taught me during my year of priestly discernment at St. Titus’ Church in Durham, North Carolina was how to make pastoral visits. Father Freeman was the rector of St. Titus’ Church and sent me forth to visit two beloved members of the community to share communion with them. Mary Harris lived in the nearby nursing home and Sylvia Brown lived at home and had lost her eyesight due to diabetes.
My first visit was to Mary in the nursing home. I brought with me the little communion kit, a small linen corporal and my brand-new combination prayer book and hymnal. Father Freeman told me about Mary and her late husband. They were revered and respected educators in the African-American community. They had had no children of their own. They had dedicated their lives to teaching. Now, Mary had dementia and was wheel-chair bound.
I developed a ritual when I visited Mary. She always greeted me with a gracious smile. And I would greet her and remind her who I was. The first thing I did for our ritual was to ask her if I could wash her glasses. I don’t know how it happened, but every single time I visited Mary her glasses were smeared with mashed potatoes.
So, the first thing I did was to wash her glasses. Then I found a table or the bed stand and set up communion with the little linen corporal and the little paten for the bread. The kit did not include a little chalice or wine. Anyway, I’ve discovered over the years that those I’ve visited in nursing homes tended to choke a bit on the sip of the strong wine.
On one of my first visits to see Mary, I set up communion and began the prayers. Without fail, she would look up at me with a light in her eyes and say the Lord’s Prayer with me. Then, when it was time to receive the bread, I would take it myself first and say, “The Body of Christ. The Bread of Heaven.” Then I offered it to her “The Body of Christ. The Bread of Heaven.”
On that particular day, I put the wafer on her tongue. She brought it into her mouth, held it a brief moment and then, to my surprise, spat it out. She spat it out so ladylike and gently that I wasn’t even sure what had happened. But it was clear that she just didn’t want it. I picked it up and put it in the cover of my prayer book for safe keeping. Even then I understood that consecrated wafers were not to be tossed in the trash because they represented the Real Presence of Christ.
After I ended the prayers and said my good-bye, I went out to the parking lot. There was a boxwood hedge lining the parking spaces. So, I put the sticky consecrated wafer on the ground under the hedge.
I do believe that the Real Presence of Jesus was in that consecrated wafer. But I also believe that whether or not we believers ingest the consecrated wafer, that surely Christ is in every single moment of our lives, consecrating each day, hour and minute.
I’ve thought about Mary often lately as we have had to do without “the bread of heaven” these months of pandemic. I’ll never know why she spat out the wafer. But I was clear that she and I had shared the gift of Christ’s body together. I believe that our experience was holy and that Jesus was with us offering himself. I never, ever doubted that Jesus was present, no matter what happened with the wafer.
The gospel story today follows the feeding of the multitudes and walking on water miracles. The crowds ask Jesus, “Where were you?? How did you get here??” a kind of invasive kinds of questions. Jesus doesn’t answer them. He knew that they still didn’t understand who he was and what signs he was giving them of God’s generous provision. I’m sure they still wanted to grab him and make him king!
By this time, Jesus had had enough of their anxious intrusions. He turned around and said in a not very nice voice, I think:
“I know you are looking for me, not because of the holy meal you had, but because you ate and were filled. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
Don’t you hear that edge in his voice? “You don’t want me. You don’t want God. You just want more grub!”
Jesus compared the feeding miracle to the Exodus story of God providing manna from heaven to sustain the hungry Israelites who were wandering in the wilderness. Jesus wanted them to see that even the manna of Moses came from heaven. But the Israelites didn’t understand that it was provision for each day, that it was a gift from God one day at a time. They didn’t trust the “daily bread” given to them, and so they stored it in the barns where it rotted. “Give us this day our DAILY bread” is meant to teach us to trust in God’s provision one day at a time without anxiously chasing after more.
Even the bread that had just filled the multitude was more than bread. It was a sign that pointed directly to Jesus on whom God had set God’s seal. Jesus desires for them to look for the food that endures for eternal life. It’s more than filling their bellies and craving more.
And so, the people ask, “What must we do?” I think this is a prayer of humility more than their ignorance in asking for direction. I think the people truly do not understanding Jesus, and many of them wanted to. Jesus answers their prayer on the spot, “What must you do? Do the ‘work of God’ which is faith in him. ‘The work of God’ is to trust in the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
During Lent this year, as we came to the one-year anniversary of the closure of in-person worship, the clergy of our diocese met on Zoom for a Lenten retreat with Brother Curtis Almquist. Like many of us, the clergy were feeling a profound sorrow that we had not been able to share the Eucharist with our congregations.
Brother Curtis spoke to us of the grace of Eucharist. That the meaning of all the roots of the word Eucharist have to do with grace, gratefulness and thanksgiving. We experience Jesus in the outward and visible signs of bread and wine, but the inward and spiritual grace, Brother Curtis said, is given by Christ in the “NOW” of our lives.
Jesus is in that moment. Brother Curtis described each moment of NOW as having “Eucharistic power.” I remember this “Eucharistic power” when I’m hungering deeply to break bread together with you. I think about this “Eucharistic power” in the memory I have of Mary Harris, smudged glasses made clean, wafer taken in and spat out. Every moment in our lives has Eucharistic power because Jesus is the bread of life whether or not we are able to share the bread.
Every single Sunday when I’m in front of my iPhone in my little dining room chapel or out here in the memorial garden or live streaming in the nave with five or six of us, I experience the “Eucharistic power” of Jesus. It is palpable and inspiring even in a pandemic.
Jesus boldly proclaims, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me shall never be thirsty.”
Beloved friends, this is our invitation:
that we welcome Christ’s Eucharistic power every day of our lives.