The Ninth Sunday of Pentecost [Proper 12], July 25/26, 2015
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist

Be gentle when you touch bread. Let it not lie uncared for—unwanted
So often bread is taken for granted. There is so much beauty in bread
Beauty of sun and soil, beauty of honest toil
Winds and rain have caressed it, Christ often blessed it
Be gentle when you touch bread.

This wonderful little poem, attributed to David Adam speaks with tender eloquence of that sacred moment at the heart of our Gospel lesson for today … the feeding of the 5,000. This miracle is the only such account that is recorded in all four of the Gospels. The early Church considered it a profound moment because it appears in one way or another six separate times in the four accounts of Jesus’ ministry.

Charles Hoffman, a Methodist pastor from Encinitas, California, reflecting on his life made the following observation:
The church of my youth (in the Pacific Northwest) majored in a miserly view of God’s grace. Its message was grim. Life had no edge, no elegance, and no joy, but was only a bitter temporal existence largely limited to preparations for the sweet hereafter. … That early religion held no attraction for me. …
All of that changed when a new minister walked into our church. He was winsome, engaging, honest, and without guile. One Sunday morning he preached the most important sermon of my life. His text was John 10: 10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” … In that moment the Word reached out and claimed me. [The Christian Century, July 25, 2006]

I resonate with Charles Hoffman’s observation because I am convinced that these words of Jesus are the essence of our faith and can be transformative. Jesus came into the world not to foster guilt in our lives … or fashion a yoke of laws and regulations to grind us down … nor did Jesus come to save some and condemn others. No, Jesus came that we might all have life and have it abundantly.

Our Gospel lesson captures a moment when Jesus had attracted a huge crowd of people. The multitudes were drawn to him because his words made sense, he had a power and an authority that brought healing and hope and liberation to them. At one point Jesus and the disciples tried to escape from the crowds, to no avail. When Jesus sailed away in a boat, the people figured out where he was going, and they raced on foot and were waiting for him when he arrived.

In our Gospel lesson for today the crowds had spent the day with Jesus and the sun was setting. We are told simply that Jesus had compassion on the people for they were hungry, far from their homes, and the day was almost over. Jesus was determined to care for them, but he wanted to toy with his disciples.

Our Lord turned to Philip, who lived in that area, and ask him where they might find food for the people. Shocked by the request, Philip argued for sending the people away: Lord, six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.

John tells us that Jesus had the people sit down. Working with a shared portion of barley bread and a couple of sardines, the food of poor people, Jesus fed the multitude in a manner that has never been forgotten.

Whatever happened that day in the wilderness was not a surprise to Jesus, but it was for those who did not believe that so many people could be fed with such meager resources. John captures the change in vision from … How can we serve so many? …to the conclusion … All ate to their fill and still there was food left over.

The miracle in our Gospel lesson asks us as committed followers of Jesus Christ:
 Do we believe that God will provide what we need to do the ministry God wants done?
 Do we operate out of a mind-set of abundance or of scarcity? … a mind-set of abundance that encourages generosity and compassion … or a mind-set of scarcity that fosters anxiety and competition.

This memorable scene at the start of the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel sets the stage for what will follow. Here in this beautiful imagery we have the essence of what we know as the Holy Eucharist … the Sacrament of Holy Abundance.

I am not sure we speak about the meaning of Holy Communion with the frequency it deserves. This sacrament represents the most commonly experienced religious practice in our lives as Christians, and yet we go about it with the same casual spirit with which we might say “God bless you” when someone sneezes or “Have a nice day” when we take leave of a friend.

The sacraments hold a precious place in our lives and yet we often have trouble articulating what they mean. We need to be gentle and mindful as we touch the bread! Although regular worshipers receive the Eucharist often, most people find it challenging to explain what the action means for them. St. Augustine has called the sacraments … Visible Words … actions that mirror the Spoken Word that we hear from lectern and pulpit. The sacraments are the essence of what we believe … expressed in water, bread, and wine … so we can touch them and feel them and taste them. Extraordinary!

Through the years there has been much debate about the meaning of the Sacraments …
Should we baptize infants or should we wait until an individual has reached the age of understanding and can request baptism? Is baptism a necessary pre-requisite for receiving Holy Communion, or is the general invitation to “come to the Lord’s Table” for all?
Who should be admitted to the Lord’s table … only those who belong to a particular expression of the Christian Church … those who are properly prepared … have reached a certain age … are without sin? How frequently should Holy Communion be offered … at every service … monthly … festivals?
What do we believe happens when we experience Holy Communion … is Christ truly present with us … are we simply remembering his goodness and mercy, his death on the cross for us … a sacred memorial day?

The Sacraments reveal great truths we need to hear. First of all, they remind us that we do not control our destiny … we never know what will happen tomorrow … but the Sacraments assure us we will never be alone.

The Sacraments link us with others in a world and at a time when we are drifting toward radical self-centeredness and isolation. The sacraments buck the trend by anticipating that people will come, kneel together, and be fed by the Lord.

The Sacraments embody hope … the promise that God’s people, fed and inspired, will make a difference in the world. We have certainly seen that happen at Washington Memorial Chapel. The dark cloud of scarcity no longer defines this congregation. No longer are the wagons in a circle ~ secretive and defended. Today we reach out in a spirit of hospitality, welcoming new members and reactivating long-time members, calling everyone to engage in mission that the world might believe.

Let us give thanks to God, who fed the five thousand and continues to feed us in so many ways. I have come, Jesus said, that you might have life and have it abundantly. This is the truth we taste each time our hand is filled with the body of Christ, the bread of heaven, and our spirit intoxicated by the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.

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. Amen. [Ephesians 3:21]

Washington Memorial Chapel