First Reading Exodus 16:2-4,9-15
Psalm Psalm 78:23-29
Second Reading Ephesians 4:1-16
Gospel John 6:24-35
“So they ate and were well filled, for he gave them what they craved.” Ps 78:29
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
I imagine each of us has been approached by someone in need. On a downtown street, at the gas station, or outside the Church door, someone has probably come up to each of us with an outstretched hand. I’m sure we have all seen a person on the side of the road at the end of the off-ramp with a sign requesting help. If you are like me, all sorts of thoughts begin to bubble up ... they say they are hungry so I’ll just get them a “Happy Meal”, but I know they just want money ... if I give this person a few dollars they will probably just go buy alcohol or drugs ... they ought to stop spending their time begging and get a job. Perhaps the most common reaction is to avert our eyes, look away, if I can’t see them they won’t see me. I’ll avoid this uncomfortable encounter so I can get on with my busy life. Today’s gospel invites us on a journey of discernment, where Jesus encounters a hungry crowd. We can explore, “What would Jesus do?”
But didn’t we answer this question last week? Jesus encountered a hungry crowd of five thousand and fed them with five loaves of bread and two fish. That is what Jesus did. But we do not keep such miracle power in our pockets. I put feeding five thousand in the same category as turning water into wine or walking on water. Even with great faith, these are just not in my repertoire.
But in today’s gospel, we encounter a new hungry crowd, actually those who remained after the feeding of the five thousand. After sleeping off their feast, they find their stomachs empty again, and look around and notice Jesus is nowhere to be found. They go to great lengths to find him, even following Jesus across the sea. When they find him, they act very casual. Oh, fancy meeting you here, across the sea, at meal time. Jesus knows they are seeking him to satisfy the hunger in their bellies. Rather than feed them bread and fish again, Jesus invites them into deeper relationship. “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. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Jesus is talking about God. What the people want is a meal. Oh, we can play along. Give us a sign so we might believe, and as a suggestion, God fed the people manna in the wilderness. Hint, hint. They even quote scripture to Jesus, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” Jesus makes sure everyone is clear, it was not Moses, but God, who gives the true bread from heaven. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
That is what Jesus would do. That is what Jesus did. The problem with seeking guidance in “What would Jesus do?” is that we are not Jesus. Try quoting John 6:35 to a hungry, homeless person in need and see what happens. This is a hard saying for those who have nothing and whose needs are great. Perhaps even harder for those who have everything and need nothing. But we all have the same need, to be transformed by faith in relationship with Jesus.
Perhaps we should ask, “What would Jesus have me do?” Jesus tells us to “Feed my sheep.” But how? With what food? We are called to help others in need, but it is hard to know what to do. We all have encounters with people in need. The lesson in today’s gospel is that the beginning of all our efforts is in relationship. “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (BCP p.855) If we throw a few dollars to the homeless person on the sidewalk, the only relationship formed is a power dynamic of those who have and those who have not. Though unintended, our well meaning efforts often place us in a position of superiority, with the knowledge and resources to “fix” another person we perceive as “broken”. Often, what is viewed as caring for the poor often becomes superficial and impersonal, and creates dependency, entitlement, even division. In all our care for others, relationship is the foundation. And as in our Baptismal covenant, to respect the dignity of every human being.
People regularly approach the Church seeking assistance. On the first encounter, I ask the person their name. It is easy to keep someone at a distance if they are unidentified. But just as Jesus offered his divine identity, “I am” in the statement “I am the Bread of Life”, we should invite persons in need to declare their personhood by simply asking their name, giving ours, and identifying them as a fellow human being. Years ago, participating in street ministry in downtown Atlanta, a homeless person noticed the Episcopal shield on my cap. He called out to me, “Hey, are you an Episcopalian?” I was caught off guard. Not what you expect to hear from a homeless person. I responded, “Yes. Yes, I am.” He replied, “I am too!” I learned his name was Darin, and he shared with me his involvement with The Church of the Common Ground, a worshiping community of our diocese that consists of and exists for the homeless population around Woodruff Park. Darin did not ask anything of me but to be recognized and rejoice in our shared tradition of faith. Care for each other starts in relationship.
Following the example of the Good Samaritan, our goal is to create a circle of care around those in need. When people come to the Church for help, I follow certain guidelines in distributing assistance. In an attempt to be a good steward of the community’s resources, one of these guidelines is that we rarely hand out cash. In establishing relationship, we try to determine what someone really needs, perhaps help with a utility bill, or a bus ticket. For example, after chatting with a person who initially asked for money, I was able to refer him to the many ministries we support that provide food, clothing, and prescriptions. During our conversation, he described how his feet hurt. I observed his shoes were old and worn. He revealed what he needed was a good pair of shoes. St. Paul’s was able to buy him a new pair of shoes that brought a smile to his face and a little bounce in his step. Through relationship, we were literally able to walk with him on his journey for a while.
Of course, it does not always go so well. Sometimes people simply and directly ask for money. Upon realizing they will not receive cash, they often walk away or hang up the phone. A couple weeks ago, an individual called from Louisiana asking us to pay for a nights stay at the hotel where he was living. When people call from other communities, I try to help form a circle of care around them with local resources. I began pulling up Episcopal churches in his area on my computer, and he became irate. He proclaimed the sin of taking care of immigrants before veterans, his hate for the government, all colored with many profanities. Finally, before hanging up, he declared, “I don’t need God, and I don’t need you!”
What would Jesus do? What would Jesus have us do? Jesus offers us himself in relationship to care for one another in the simplest of commandments: Love God, love one another. Jesus offers himself in relationship to feed the world. "The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." Here is the bread of life. Here I am. Do you want it or not?
Jesus invites all of humanity into relationship. We may not be able to feed five thousand. We may not be able to perform healing miracles. We certainly cannot offer salvation. We will not be able to help everyone who comes to our door. Some are not willing to enter relationship. We can help serve weekend lunch. We can bring items to share with others. We can offer financial support for Haitian Hope. We can volunteer with Path To Shine or Loaves & Fishes. We can play Bingo with our neighbors at St. Paul’s Apartments and Villages. We can enter into relationship with others, spending time with them, listening to them, learning their names and acknowledging their personhood. We can invite Jesus to be the Bread to sustain our new relationship. Jesus will take care of the miracle, and we will never be hungry or thirsty. Amen.