Pentecost 10B, Proper 13
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of my favorite stories of my life as an uncle relates to one of my favorite stories of my life in this Christian vocation. I am Godparent to my oldest nephew. He was born just weeks before I left Louisiana to begin seminary in New Jersey, and my brother and sister-in-law convinced the priest in their parish to move up his baptism to an irregular date - one beyond those set aside in the Prayer Book as being “appropriate” for baptisms - so that I could be present and begin my service as his Godparent before leaving for seminary. His baptism was just days before I moved out of the state.
|Uncle Jon and Brooks (2009)
Throughout his life so far, Charles and Amanda have taken that role that they entrusted me with pretty seriously - as have I. One of the ways that they’ve taken it so seriously is by keeping me up-to-date on Brooks’ growth into his life as a church member and as a Christian. They ask me questions. They tell me stories. They tell me about the questions that he asks them.
I remember one Sunday afternoon, when Brooks was probably about three years old, and they called me almost in a panic. I was in my second year as a seminarian intern at St. Paul’s Church in Chatham, and by that point fully engaged in the ordination process. I knew that I would someday be a priest.
My brother isn’t one of those people who particularly enjoys talking on the phone, and he doesn’t call a lot, so when he does, I make every effort to take the call. As soon I answered the phone that Sunday afternoon I could hear the concern in his voice.
After a bit of small talk, and hearing that something was on his mind, I finally asked him, “So what’s going on? You sound like you have something you’re trying to say.”
He answered: “I think we may have messed up this morning at church.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “We went up at the Eucharist this morning like always. We brought Brooks, like always. And then, when the priest came by, he held out his hands to receive communion. He’s too young, so he usually gets a blessing, but for some reason, this morning, he held out his hands.”
There was a long silence.
“So what happened?” I asked.
“Well, the priest gave him bread.”
“And then what happened?”
“Well, he ate it and we all went back to our seats.”
Clearly, with each uncomfortable silence, my brother was waiting for me to react. Finally I broke the silence and said, “I don’t see what the problem is.”
With a wave of anxiety washing over him, my brother said, “But he’s so young. He hasn’t had any classes. He’s never received communion before. He can’t possibly know what he’s doing!”
I couldn’t help smiling through the telephone. My Godson had had his first communion. And it had happened organically. It had happened because he knew he was a part of the community, and he knew that he was missing something that his community shared. When he was ready to be fed, he felt confident enough and assured enough of his place within that community to hold out his hands and to ask to be fed. With the boldness of a little child he held out his hands and asserted his belonging. I told my brother all of that, and then reminded him of bigger picture:
“You’re right,” I said. Brooks couldn’t possibly know what he’s doing when he receives communion. He just doesn’t know enough yet. But tell me, Charles - do you? Do you really understand what happens in the Eucharist? Do you really understand how Christ is present in the bread and wine? Do you really understand that hunger that draws you to the table again and again? I know I don’t. I receive communion several times a week - every week - and I don’t really understand it. I’ve read a lot of books by a lot of really smart people. I’ve preached and written, myself. I’ve spent hours thinking about it and praying about it for years now, and I don’t really understand it either. I know there’s something there, but I don’t really even have a clue what it is. I know that it satisfies a hunger, but I don’t know how, and I don’t even really understand the hunger.”
“So it’s okay if Brooks doesn’t understand. It’s enough that he knows how to handle it. It’s enough that he knows that his community is there to help him with it. It’s enough that he knows that he belongs.”
The story we hear and study in the Gospel lesson today is the same kind of story as the one of my nephew’s first communion. It’s the same kind of story that we heard in my brother’s anxiety.
Last week we heard the story of the feeding of the five thousand. You’ve all heard it before. It’s another one of the “greatest hits” from the Bible. It’s one of the big miracles that captures our imagination, and makes for great artwork, and tangible illustrations for children’s Sunday School lessons.
But in the wake of the people’s captivation after that miracle - in the wake of their wonder, and the crowds, and the fame - Jesus reminds us that it’s not about the bread. It’s not about the “thing”. It’s not about the material possession or even the physical need. It’s about so much more. So much more, in fact, that we can hardly wrap our minds around it.
The things in life that are most real are often that way: love, justice, faith, truth… Our attempts at capturing them in words are feeble, at best. They’re not so much to be known and understood as they are to be experienced.
That’s part of why I am so moved by the central place that the celebration of the Eucharist has in our tradition: the core of what we believe isn’t captured in a creed, but in an action. It’s an action that is rich in metaphor and symbolism - so rich, in fact, that we have to experience it again and again. So rich that it can’t simply be explained - it must be felt.
We’ll spend the next few weeks exploring the metaphor of bread. Today is its second of five consecutive appearances. If you push your mind too deeply into it, it might begin to feel laborious. But try not to overthink it. Try not to simply understand it, but look for that deeper, ineffable truth that lies within it. Listen for the tiny whisper of truth that God might have for you.
Reach out your hands with the boldness of a child to take this bread. You’re among friends. You may not understand, but you might just come to know. Amen.