During divinity school, I lived in a Methodist church on the main street of busy downtown Chapel Hill. I lived rent free, but with the understanding that I would open the building in the morning, secure it at night, and print their bulletins on the weekends. It was a wonderful experience, made even more wonderful when I married Karen and we spent our first year of marriage together in that church. And though my official tasks were to open the building, close it at night, and print the bulletins, they also gave me a list of unofficial tasks. Chapel Hill had a fairly robust homeless population, a fact that the city wanted to sweep under the rug. The great paradox is that Chapel Hill is full of fairly progressive minded folks who, when it came down to it, didn’t actually want to get their hands dirty with the street people. They would rather write a check to the homeless shelter than get to know the very people sleeping in those beds. So, on that list of unofficial tasks was making sure no homeless people slept in the church, even if the weather was dangerous and inhospitable.
So when the weather would unavoidably get bad, I would attempt to live by these rules but do what I could to make life a bit easier for the street folks. I’d buy sleeping bags, tarps, and jackets. I would give my umbrellas away, and buy hand warmers. And while this was good, it just wasn’t enough. So I began to break the rules. I’d find a spot in that church that the folks could sleep in, and I’d make sure they were up in the morning when I did my rounds. But I was honest about this. I told the pastor, and gave them an ultimatum: you can tell me to move out, but you should know that I won’t be turning any homeless people away from this point on. Surprisingly, he trusted my judgment, agreed to my proposal, and from that point on the church came to be known as a friend to the friendless, a place to find solace and shelter.
But even more interestingly, I developed a bit of street cred with the homeless population. I eventually became good friends with some of the folks, and began inviting them up to eat lunch with me from time to time when I found out they were hungry. What was so surprising, shocking even, was how much this simple act of breaking bread meant to them. Even when what I shared was Chef Boyardee out of a can, something magical began to happen. Barriers began to break down. Laughter was shared. Sometimes even tears, a sign of deep human connection between people otherwise occupying different places in the world. But such is the power of an invitation, that barriers initially thought to be insurmountable become like vapor, here for a moment then gone.
And while these invitations were, on the surface, just about simple things like ravioli and a spot to sleep, there was something else under the surface. They became a way for me to share the Living Bread of Jesus Christ…a way to take a simple invitation for food and fellowship and make it about so much more. Jesus said, I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. It wasn’t the case that every meal I shared ended with an altar call, or an explanation of the Gospel. Most of the time is was simply sharing a meal, sharing my life with these folks, and in turn hearing their stories and learning from them. But I experienced those encounters as a way to live out Jesus’ call to make disciples, to love the least of those in my community…I experienced those encounters as some of the most profoundly challenging and formative ways I have ever shared the gifts I have been given by God…a genuine response to Jesus’ call to love and serve those I met. Because of my convictions that Jesus really is the Living Bread come down from heaven, I wanted to invite people into such a relationship with Jesus even if the invitation began only with sharing cheap food and even cheaper beer with them.
Now, it’s not the case that Wisdom’s call in Proverbs and Jesus’ teaching are limited to, or, for that matter, are actually referencing sharing meals with those living on the streets. But the deeper conviction out of which I shared my life with those street folks is a conviction that any Christian must wrestle with, and perhaps exploring that conviction can begin with this question: to what lengths am I willing to go in order to share the radical, life-giving love of Jesus Christ with those in my community? Or, asked in another way, am I willing to risk my comfort, my reputation, or my social standing on inviting people into the journey of faith that is fed and sustained by Jesus Christ, the Living Bread? This conviction, and these questions, are predicated on the fact that the Church throughout history, and our parish here, confesses and believes that Jesus Christ truly is the bread of life…that his life gives us a life that we could not achieve on our own…that his life opens to us the possibility of deep relationship with the God who called all things into existence, and through that relationship, we are able to taste, touch, and see the goodness of God in a way that changes and transforms us. If this is something we truly believe, then is it even possible to find a reason not to share this Living Bread with those we encounter, whether we are meeting them for the first time, or whether we have known them our whole lives?
Think, for a moment, about the way you have felt loved and accepted by Jesus Christ. Remember the feelings of satisfaction you have when you hold in your hands the Bread of Life and take to your lips the Cup of Salvation. Hold at the forefront of your mind the truth that you have been changed and transformed by the Living Bread come down from heaven, Jesus Christ. And ask yourself: Am I inviting people to “come and eat of the bread and drink of the wine God has mixed for us”, or am I holding this treasure with tightly clenched fists?
*A sermon preached at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM on August 16, 2015. The texts were Proverbs 9:1-6, Ephesians 5:15-20, and John 6:51-58