Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
August 2, 2015
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 13B
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Perhaps it’s an example of clergy cynicism best left behind at those shadowing gatherings of the ordained that, like trips to the dentist, one endures, but never welcomes. Nonetheless, I will take the plunge this morning and share with you a remark that I have heard on several occasions at such events, especially when the sensitive subject of “average Sunday attendance” is raised for report or discussion. And the matter creeps into discussions frequently these days when so many other activities compete for our attention on Sunday mornings—to which Christian’s still refer, without even a hint of irony, as the “Lord’s Day”—in our increasingly secular, competitive, and consumerist culture. The remark is often made when clergy are bemoaning low attendance at Sunday services, and it usually goes something like this: “I wonder just how many people would come to Church on a Sunday morning if we advertised in the local press that each and every communicant would receive a one-hundred dollar bill at the altar rail. I’ll bet that attendance would skyrocket!” To which the more cynical among us—who shall, of course, remain nameless to protect the guilty—have been known to respond: “Why one-hundred dollars when fifty or twenty would likely do just as nicely!”
Well, I think that the holy evangelist John is saying something very similar to this in this morning’s Gospel. Jesus has just fed the hungry crowd through the miracle of sharing at his foretaste of the Messianic banquet, about which we heard last Sunday. You may recall that the evangelist remarked then that Jesus’ obtuse followers “did not understand about the loaves” because “their hearts were hardened.” Now, this week, we hear Saint John the Evangelist specify just how and why this “hardening” of the heart takes place: Like the people of Israel in today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, they crave “the food that perishes” to fill their empty stomachs. And who can blame these share-croppers, peasant farmers, day-laborers, and fishermen of rural Galilee? As Dostoyevsky observed in The Brothers Karamazov, “People must be fed before you can expect them to develop virtues.” And yet, there is something more at issue here than the rigors of poverty in the rural towns and villages of Galilee, however real. This crowd is frantically seeking Jesus not because he has the “words of life,” but “because they ate their fill of the loaves.” And they want Jesus to show them another “sign” and wonder “so that we may see it and believe you.” This is indeed a hungry crowd: hungry for all of the wrong things and for the wrong reasons. And we sense, in both the Gospel and in the reading from the Hebrew Bible that both desperate crowds are on the brink of crisis and may turn against their leaders at any moment if they fail to satisfy the crowd’s desire. This is a very volatile and dangerous situation for Moses and Aaron in Exodus and for Jesus throughout the Gospels. These men know that a leader is just a scapegoat with a life-sentence, and that the volatile crowd might turn against them at any moment for yet another unedifying episode of “sacred violence” among the “people of God.” And the cynics among us might even be tempted to quip, “What a surprise!”
Now, before we get all sanctimonious and self-righteous this morning—another vice to which the clergy, in particular, are especially prone—by presuming that this problem of distinguishing real from apparent goods is restricted only to those benighted and obtuse folks of biblical times, it’s worth remembering that our fallen, though not forsaken, human nature has not dramatically changed since then, even under the de-mythologizing influence of the Gospel. Or, as my maternal grandmother liked often to say in her own homely metaphor for what Saint Thomas Aquinas referred to more politely as “incorrigible ignorance”: “the leopard never changes his spots.” So I won’t presume to speak for you, but I know for a certainty that I have too often looked to God to supply me with the material goods of this world, especially those for which I have a misguided sense of “entitlement.” After all, absolutely everything—including my life—is a gift of God. And I have even found myself asking God for spiritual goods from time to time, especially in periods of spiritual “desolation” when I have hungered for “consolation” before its time. These are the hopes and desires of the “old self,” the “false self”; they are not worthy of the “new creation” that we have become by virtue of our holy Baptism into Christ Jesus who is the “bread of life.” “The one who comes to me,” Jesus assures us today, “shall not hunger, and the one who believes in me shall never thirst.” So no wonder that the crowd pleads, “Lord, give us this bread always.” When we “abide” in Jesus Christ, and he “abides” in us, we already have—both individually and collectively, and by the power of the Holy Spirit—every spiritual gift we need in the Church, the “Body of Christ,” as we heard in this morning’s oft-quoted passage from the Letter to the Ephesians.
Last Sunday during the announcements, I quipped that we had just experienced a “foretaste” of the good things to come; that our worship together at the sacred liturgy Sunday by Sunday is the closest we are likely to come to the “heavenly banquet” on this side of the grave. When I read this morning’s Gospel to prepare this homily earlier in the week, I realized that I had blundered into the truth last Sunday! At every celebration of the Holy Eucharist, we are privileged to eat the “bread of heaven” and to drink the “cup of salvation”; the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ; the “bread of angels” in the wilderness of this world. Where else could a Christian possibly be on a Sunday morning, the “Lord’s Day”? Where else might we find such a “priceless pearl” in the corrupted currents of this passing life?
In another place in the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart also be.” And so, we find ourselves, please God, back at that altar rail about which I spoke at the beginning of this homily. My sisters and brothers in Christ, we have something much more precious here than money or, as we call it in English slang, “bread,” a food that quickly gets old and stale and eventually molders away. In the sacred liturgy, “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” (BCP) Christ makes himself fully and really present to us, feeding us with “food that endures to eternal life”—life fully lived in the presence and service of God. If we truly believe this in our hearts—that is, with biblical “hearts of flesh” and not those stony, stubborn, “hardened hearts” of the “false self”—and if share this “good news” with the world around us through lives of missionary discipleship, evangelism, and servant witness, I guarantee that this church would be more crowded on a Sunday morning than if we actually were dispensing one-hundred dollar bills at the altar rail! For so long as we continue to fall into the trap set for us by our secular culture, which regards so-called religion as a private, individual concern and an elective affinity, we will continue our slow and steady decline from a “mainline” Christian denomination into an irrelevant, “sideline” denomination, a social club with a little pomp and circumstance. In the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, we already have “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” for which so many in our violent and distracted world hunger and thirst. The human vocation is to be truly human and, in the words of Ephesians today, to attain “to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” And in Jesus Christ, God has revealed this fullness of humanity to itself. So, let us pray this morning for the faith and the courage to believe this in our hearts and to take this “Gospel,” this “good news” about redemption and salvation, healing and renewal in Jesus Christ, to all those places where we live and work.
So proclaim the Gospel; bring a friend to church! For here, everyone will find a true “foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet,” the “Marriage Feast of the Lamb” who never ceases to give himself in spousal love to his bride, the Church!