Every Friday morning I have breakfast at Bread & Cie in Hillcrest. It's a public breakfast: I have a sign for the table and anyone who wishes is welcome to sit down and join the conversation. There's a core group of 3 or 4 parishioners who come almost every week, but some weeks there are ten or more of us in a long double row, engaging in several simultaneous conversations as we enjoy the delicious food. It's a great way to meet cathedral people if you are feeling a little on the outskirts of our community, and I enjoy meeting newcomers and hearing what is on people's minds.
This week one first-timer was a 94-year old woman, a family member of a parishioner, who had compelling stories to share of growing up in Europe, surviving as a refugee during WW2, of searching for her family, of love and loss. She said, "I know what it is to be hungry", and she spoke of being content with little, of being grateful. She exuded a joie de vivre that was inspiring for us who have never known real hunger, who have lived a relatively comfortable life.
Chapter six of John's Gospel is about hunger and about being fed. It's about the bread from heaven and our inability to see past the bread on our plates. It's about the incredible abundance of God, who comes to us in human form and feeds us sacramentally so that we might taste eternal life. And, along with today's Old Testament reading, it's about the seemingly infinite capacity of human beings to misunderstand God, to crave that which makes us sick rather than that which brings wholeness.
Jesus has just wrought two miracles: he has fed the multitude, and he has walked across the sea. The crowds are fed but they are hungry for more: more spectacle, more explanation, more ways to earn the approval of God. Just like their ancestors in the wilderness, they demand attention. They miss the point: these miracles are not about them, or about satisfying their needs. These miracles are about God, signs that point to the nature of Israel's God as one who is all-powerful and yet stoops to care for the undeserving creation.
Exodus tells the story of the manna: a word which means "what is it?", in Hebrew. The nature of the food God offers us is mysterious, unknowable. It provides just what we need for now, for today, but it cannot be hoarded. When the people demand more, demand to be sated, God sends quails - a type of small game bird, to provide a feast of what they crave. But the lectionary stops short of recounting the horrific consequences of the people's insistence on full bellies. If we read on in the Psalm, if we refer to the Numbers version of the Exodus story, we discover that the Israelites overindulged in their poultry feast. While the meat was still in their mouths, Numbers tells us with nauseating detail, they were stricken with a deadly plague, and many were lost. Such is the destructive nature of our cravings.
But the food that God provides for our souls will never make us sick. We can't over-indulge in God's goodness. It's when we imagine that we have to fill ourselves up, that it's all up to us, that we run into trouble.
July was a busy month at St Paul's, with the Pride festival, the conversations about the Cathedral Campus Redevelopment Plan, the continuing work of the Vision for Mission project, transitions in the staff, a number of deaths and hospitalizations, and well-deserved vacation time for some, which inevitably meant more to do for those still here. In such a time it is tempting to rely on our own abilities and resources, to imagine that it is all up to us, to set impossible goals for ourselves, to try fruitlessly to fill ourselves with the accomplishments and successes that we crave. In my prayer time I have found myself turning to the Christ whose power is manifested in weakness, who provides for us food enough, who says, "my grace is sufficient for you", who offers us just what we need for today and for this moment, who demonstrates through the miracles that the power and glory are God's alone.
Sometimes it's only when we are forced to go hungry that we are able to reorient ourselves to God, just as the generation that the Israelites spent in the wilderness taught them to finally detach from their addiction to the security of Egyptian servitude, and embrace the free but unpredictable future that lay before them as the people of God.
As this community moves forward to embrace our future we face many unknowns. We don't know exactly what it will be like to have a high-rise next door and to share our office and program space with upstairs neighbors. We don't know how we will have to adjust our ministries during construction. We don't know who our two new senior staff will be or what particular gifts they will bring. We don't know how our focus on being visible and available to the community will change us or what new possibilities and challenges it will bring. We don't know how climate change will affect how we minister. We may find ourselves hungering for the good old days, and we may be tempted to grasp for the certainties of short-term comfort.
But we have a new mission statement: Love Christ, Serve Others, Welcome All. And we have a vision of serving as a center of transformative love, faith and service. We have bread to eat and to share that can power this vision, the bread from heaven, sacramental bread, bread that gives life to all the world. We cannot hoard this bread; it must be shared. And there will be enough for everyone.
In the midst of all our changes and unknowns, we are contiually called to serve a world that is starving, starving for love, starving for community, starving for good news, starving for physical nourishment. Most of us have never known real, debilitating hunger, but our brothers and sisters across the world, across the border, and across the street, do know that hunger, and it's up to us to be Christ for them, to share our resources so that all may be fed. When Jesus fed the multitude he didn't just feed them words, he fed them with real food. He enabled them to take care of their bodies so that they might then be ready to take care of their souls. It's up to us to show Jesus to the hungry crowds and to feed them as he would feed them.
And as we make decisons about our future, as we plan programs and hire staff and form budgets, we must ask ourselves over and over: does this decision, this event, this spending plan show Jesus to the world? Is this ministry the work of God? Will this action bring life to God's people, or will it only satisfy their cravings?
God comes to us in our wilderness times, in our hunger, in our fear, in our nostalgia for the old days, and offers to care for us, to feed us, to show us the way. Can we trust in God to provide what we need? Are we willing to step out into freedom, risking the unknown, letting go of the unhealthy dependencies that have held us captive in the fleshpots? Do we dare to depend on God's goodness, God's manna, even when it comes in a form so unfamiliar that all we can say is, "what is it?"
This is the vocation of the church in our post-christendom, post-millennial world: to follow the prophetic voice through the wilderness, relying on the manna that comes day by day, and embracing the bright but unknown future that God has already planned for us.
August 2, 2015
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges