Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Bread of Life: The Heart of Ecumenical Ministry

Homily for Ecumenical Lenten Series
Sunday, Mar 2nd 2008
Preached at Thornhill Presbyterian Church
By the Rev. Daniel F. Graves, Assistant Curate,
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
Texts: Exodus 16:2-4,9-16; John 6:25-35

“I am the Bread of Life.”

The consensus of the Hebrew people wandering in the wilderness was that the experiment had failed. The memory of the tyranny of their Egyptian masters, their past oppression, their utter and inhumane subjugation was now being eclipsed by the hunger pangs they felt as they traveled through the wilderness. The pain of the present made the injustice of the past seem but a distant and fading bad dream. They had needs that must be met now. And like many great leaders who remain in power beyond the initial revolution, the lustre of Moses’ leadership was beginning to fade. Hence, the people cried out in anger, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger!” How quickly their tune had changed. Things eternal had given way to things temporal.

In St. John’s Gospel we are told of a Messiah who knows the depths of the hearts of those who encounter him. Under the fig tree he peered into the depths of the soul of Nathaniel; in Jerusalem he unlocked the mysteries of heaven to a Pharisee named Nicodemus; to a Samaritan woman by a ancient well he saw into her past and offered her a future filled with living water; to all who encountered him he offered the gift of himself and abundant life. He offered to mend their brokenness, touch their hearts, and most poignantly, give them food that would fill them more deeply and with greater sustenance than any earthly food. But even with the heavenly food in sight; even having tasted it themselves, longing for multiplied loaves, they sought after things temporal rather than things eternal.

It is by the mercy of God, though, that their needs were met. Although the Hebrew people needed first, and foremost deliverance from slavery, oppression and subjugation, they were not left bereft of physical sustenance; for they were given quail to eat and manna from heaven. And although our Lord Jesus Christ offered living water and bread from heaven, he also multiplied loaves and fishes in order that none might go hungry in body, much less spirit.

But how do we respond to such graciousness on the part of God who meets our physical needs? In the meeting of our practical needs do we then take for granted the graciousness of God who offers to meet the needs of our hearts, who applies salve to the wounds of souls, and who mends the confusion of our minds. Do we choose to live by bread alone? And more importantly, do we choose to teach our children to seek after things temporal, to the exclusion of things eternal?

In the early nineties, when I was doing an undergraduate degree in religious studies at York University, I first heard of the ecumenical movement. I was enrolled in a secular Church History class. The professor was a member of the Orthodox Church of America, and most of us were of different denominations. Indeed, I was a cradle Anglican, and in this class I met my wife, a Pentecostal. There were Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, members of the United Church, Roman Catholics, non-denominational Christians, and even an agnostic or two thrown in for good measure. At the beginning of the year, our Professor told us that the academic thinking of the day was that the glorious hope of post-war ecumenism had now failed, and that the ecumenical movement was virtually dead in the water. As someone who had lived through the optimism of the former days, this deeply troubled him. However, he said that he was convinced that ecumenism was not actually dead, but taking on new shape and new hope. By the end of the course, this eclectic group of people, in a secular university, had formed a tightly knit community that academically explored the question “what is the Church?” Our Professor suggested to us, and we found this to be true, that in exploring the question together, we had in fact, been the Church together, in spite of all the practical things that separated us from one another.

Well since those days, I have heard time and again the death knell of the ecumenical movement being sounded. It is certainly true that if we look at a number of issues on which we spend a great deal of time as Christian people in ecumenical conversation, things look pretty grim. I think that we should not be afraid to name them: There is the question of recognizing each others’ ordinations and orders of ministry; there is the question of shared communion around our altars and communion tables; and what exactly is this thing we call the Eucharist, is it a memorial, a sacrament, a sacrifice, and what about the real presence? Are women recognized in holy orders? What is our position on the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the Church? These issues present difficulties and questions not only for the ecumenical movement, but also in the internal theology and politics of our own denominations. It may seem to us that what divides us is greater than what binds us. It may seem that the centre does not appear to be holding. It may seem that we are growing farther apart, rather than closer together.

And yet, we must ask, what is the centre? What is it that binds us rather than separates us? What is it that we hold in common? What is the miracle of which we so often lose sight? What is it that sustains us as a family as we threaten to go our separate ways? Or more properly, who is it?

Sometimes we seek a miracle at the expense of recognizing the miracle in our midst. This was certainly true of the Hebrew people freed from their bondage. They were free, and yet they remained slaves to their pessimism. This was true of those around Jesus: The bread of life was in their midst, and yet they asked for bread to eat, blind to the true bread from heaven. Overwhelmed with disappointment – disappointment about their leaders, about themselves, about the world – people of any time can fail to see the gracious touch of salvation and blessing of hope amongst them. It is often easier for us to cry aloud as the Hebrew people did so long ago that it would have been better never to have even tried, than to be in this mess that we are in now. Or as with the disciples to moan and cry that we do not have enough to feed the faithful. It is all to easy to give up when we lose sight of the centre; when we lose sight of what truly sustains; when we lose sight of the bread of life, when we become obsessed with things temporal at the expense of things eternal.

It seems to me that as Christians we spend a considerable amount of time focusing not on the centre, not on what binds us, but on what separates us. In no way do I mean to suggest that the things that separate us are simply periphery. There are many important issues about which we disagree, but shall our disagreement pierce the heart of God? Shall we choose to turn our backs on the centre, our Lord and Saviour, by seeking after the lesser of breads?

The forty years of this Lenten series serves as a resounding “no!” to that question. For forty years, Christians of this community have come together to worship, pray, and learn together, because of what binds us together rather than what separates us from each other. For an even longer period of time, clergy and lay workers of this community have come together in fellowship and Christian brotherhood and sisterhood, with a passion for the sharing the Good News of the Gospel of Christ and living out our call to be partners in that Good News for this community. In this neighbourhood, for as long as many can remember, Christian brothers and sisters of so many branches of this wonderful family have reached out to the community and the world in love, service, compassion and charity. And how has this been possible? Is it because we have chosen to focus on what separates us? By no means. Rather, it is because we have chosen to focus on what binds us and sustains us – Our master and our friend, the Lord Jesus Christ. We seek first the things eternal, the living water, the bread of heaven. In seeking first things eternal, our Lord himself -- as he did so many years ago, both in wilderness and in ancient Judea -- attends to things temporal. And our needs are met.

It is only too easy for us to cry in the wilderness or long for the multiplication of loaves. It is only too easy for us to believe that only when issues around the periphery are solved that we can sit down together as brothers and sisters. It is only too easy to look to what separates us and lose hope and sight of what binds us together. A great songwriter once wrote these somewhat discouraging words:

You say potato, I say potahto
You say tomatoe, I say tomahto
Potato, potahto, tomato, tomaho
Let’s call the whole thing off.

Sometimes it seems that this is where the ecumenical movement has taken us. Sometimes it seems that the differences in the way in which we pronounce our faith distance us greatly from each other. But let us not forget the experience of these forty years. They have not been a wilderness, but a time of great exploration, friendship, companionship and hope. It has been the best time to be the Church together. Has there ever been any other age in which Christians of such diverse branches of the family have worship, prayed, learned and served together. What a wonderful time to explore our life together. It would be easy to look at what separates us and “call the whole thing off,” but oh, when we look at what binds us, what exciting times we have had, and what exciting times lie ahead! Let us not forget that the songwriter continued the song with the following words:

But oh, if we call the whole thing off, then we must part
And oh, if we call the whole thing off, then that would break my heart.
So we better call the “the calling off” off.

Indeed, in Christ, we, like those lovers who fought over pronunciation, have more in common that what separates us. Let us not break our own hearts, much less the heart of God, by “calling the whole thing off.” Instead, let us stay focused on the centre, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, on the miracle in our midst. And finally, as we seek to pass on the sustenance of our faith, let us pass on to our children what we have believed, known and experienced together as brothers and sisters in this community, the bread of life, our Lord Jesus Christ, in our midst.

Text copyright the Rev. Daniel F. Graves, 2008. This sermon may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means without the express written permission of the author. "Let's call the whole thing off," by George & Ira Gershwin.

No comments: