St. John’s Episcopal Church
207 Albany Avenue, Kingston, NY 12401

Sermons

  • Become What You Receive – The Rev. Michelle Meech

    August 08, 2021

    Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  When Jesus talks about being the bread of life, what is he talking about?

    Metaphorically speaking and, quite literally, “bread” is something that is life-giving.  So, it might be helpful to talk about what it means that something is life-giving.  When something is life-giving, we mean that it is sustenance for us.  It is something that feeds this fire of metabolism within us and gives us energy.  It prevents us from dying.  Also, when we talk about something that is life-giving, we talk about the things that bring us to life – perhaps hobbies or relationships or experiences.  Things that enables us to thrive and engage with the world around us, making us a part of it in some way.

    Jesus – or, more specifically, the way of Jesus – is life-giving.  Jesus is the bread of life.

    To walk the way of Jesus, is both a path that sustains us and, perhaps, more importantly, a path that gives us what we need in order to thrive and engage with the world around us.  It is a way of life that, in a very real way, connects our bodies, our minds, and our hearts to one another.

    Table Fellowship by Sieger Koder

    And we have a Eucharistic practice that invites us to receive this sustenance.  You may have noticed that when I offer the invitation for Eucharist, sometimes I use the phrase, “All are welcome at God’s Table” to remind us of the radical hospitality God offers in this act of reconciliation.

    But I sometimes use the phrase, “Behold who you are.  Become what you receive.”

    This second phrase is a revival of one of the oldest invitations to Eucharist in the church.  It comes from St. Augustine, from one of his sermons written about Eucharist. St Augustine of Hippo was a bishop in North Africa and the originator a problematic doctrine called Original Sin, which stated that human nature is inherently sinful.  At least, that’s how most people read it and how the church has used it to oppress people.

    But I read something a little different.  I don’t think Augustine really had such a dim view of humanity, as the interpretations of this doctrine have led us to believe.  I think he loved people very much.  But I also think he understood just how lost we can become when we focus too much on the bread of the world instead of the bread of life.

    In other words, when we spend our efforts trying to live up to the world’s standards,

    • trying to live by our own self-will, becoming the gods of our own lives,
    • trying to get it all together because we think that everyone else has it together and so feeling shame for when we lose control of things,
    • trying to manage everyone and everybody because we think that is what will save us.

    We learn from a very young age just how much of a risk it is to be vulnerable and so we start protecting ourselves. We keep vigilant and alert as we try to navigate the dangerous world. Before long, we’ve forgotten how to open our heart, how to be our authentic self.  We forget how to stop managing the world and just let ourselves be, fully vulnerable and fully receptive of God’s love, and, therefore, fully surrendered to God’s Will.

    Yet, every week we’re called back to this Eucharistic practice to be nourished again: “Lift up your hearts…” the invitation is offered before we begin. “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”  the prayer is spoken before we partake.

    The Table of Reconciliation is one of healing.  For us. To receive love so that we may become more loving. To receive mercy so that we may become more merciful. To receive grace so that we may become more grace-filled. To receive the sustenance that brings us to life again. To open us up, the bread of life broken open for the world God has made.  To become love incarnate.

    Jesus said: “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.”  He says: “I am the living bread. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

    We think that the bread of the world, this manna, will save us… this striving that we do.  But it is the bread of life that is more nourishing because the bread of life is about love.  Love received and love given.

    In his sermon, Augustine says:  What you see on God’s altar… is simply bread and a cup – this is the information your eyes report. But your faith demands far subtler insight: the bread is Christ’s body, the cup is Christ’s blood. Faith can grasp the fundamentals quickly, succinctly, yet it hungers for a fuller account of the matter… My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit…

    So now, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: “You are the body of Christ, member for member.” [1 Cor. 12.27] If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table!

     It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying “Amen” to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear “The body of Christ”, you reply “Amen. Behold who you are; become what you receive…

    What we receive at this Table is mercy. What we receive at this Table is hope.
    What we receive at this Table is true freedom. What we receive at this Table is love.

    So that we may become living embodiments of: mercy, hope, freedom, love. We become compassion – love incarnate.

    We are reconciled to God in coming to the Table with our hearts lifted and open, ready to surrender our worldly fears and desires so that we might fully receive, might fully become what God would have us become – the Body of Christ, divine Love incarnate.

    The wisdom in the realization that our worldly attempts, our anxiety, our insistence on seeking the worldly bread… whatever that looks like for us… our worldly attempts are often a thin veil for our fear, the fear that we aren’t enough, that something is wrong with us, that something is missing.

    But nothing is further from the truth. We are whole, beautiful, exquisite, beloved creations of God… just as we are.  God made creation and called it good.  God called us good!

    When we give up the striving and the certainty and come to rest in our vulnerable, seemingly imperfect selves, we find such an abundance of love… that it overflows. Just as we always have what we need at our Table and so we share this abundance with whomever comes to receive.  This Table overflows.

    So what gets in the way?  Why isn’t it as easy to receive as we think it could be?

    Let me respond to this by admitting that I am well-acquainted with the feeling of resentment.  In any 12-step program, we are asked to do a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.  This is step 4.  In other words, we are asked to make a list of how have we missed the mark, how have we unknowingly hurt others.

    But what’s interesting, is that in order to do this work, we don’t start with that question – “How have I hurt other people?” We start with this question: “How have I been hurt?  Who or what do I resent?”

    And we might think that evil is the opposite of the bread of life.  But it’s not. Resentment is.  Resentment is the opposite of the bread of life.  Resentment is defined as a bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly.  Now, sometimes we truly are treated unfairly. Sometimes, in fact, we have been abused or neglected.  But, most often, resentment arises when we hold on to hurts and inconveniences.  When we hold onto embarrassments, aggravations, and disappointments.

    How does this relate to how we hurt others?  Very simply, the belief that we have been hurt or disrespected in some way, gives us implicit permission to act out in some way.  To blame someone.  To become aggressive or passive-aggressive.  Even to withdraw our presence.

    Again, I’m not saying that sometimes those hurts are not valid. But often, we find, when we take a deeper look, we have more agency than we think we do in situations.  We can choose another way of interacting with others.  And, more importantly, we can cultivate the ability to see things from a little further away and come to understand that most people are really just doing the best that they can.

    This is the path of Jesus.  As he was hanging on the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them.  For they know not what they do.” I will admit, that this is a mighty tall order – to be able to forgive the people who are literally taking your life as they are doing it.  I’m not sure I personally know anyone who has that capacity.  Because Jesus isn’t asking us to become doormats for the misbehavior of others.

    But what the example of Jesus teaches us is that we must learn to prevent ourselves from letting the behavior of others define us and control what we do or do not do. When we remember that we are God’s beloved, extravagantly loved by God, fed and nourished by the bread of life itself, we grow in our capacity to forgive others and, perhaps more importantly, forgive ourselves. And, except in cases of abuse or violation, we also look at how we may have contributed to the situation.  Perhaps something we said or did.  Perhaps we were acting out of anxiety or fear.

    When we do this, we can begin to see where we actually have agency and we can learn to interact in ways that are life-giving, instead of cutting ourselves off, or killing our relationships with people we love, by acting out.

    The bread of the world, this need to strive and keep ourselves protected and safe, keeps us indignant and resentful.  It never feeds us.  It never allows our soul to be free from the chains of bitterness and anger.

    But the bread of life… in that we will never be hungry, never be thirsty.

    In finally coming to rest in our own belovedness, we are able to live more compassionately as Paul implores in his letter to the Ephesian church:

    “Do not let your anger stew so it will fester into resentment and revenge.  Encourage those who struggle to share with others.  Only say what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear… Find ways of living without bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, malice.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted… Forgive one another, as God has forgiven you through Christ… Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

    St. Augustine’s words: Behold who you are.  Become what you receive.

    May we open our hearts.  May we rest in God’s Will.
    May we become mercy, hope, freedom.
    May we behold what we are and become what we receive.