Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2009 (Proper 16, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 23, 2009 (Proper 16, Year B)

The phantom rector has finally arrived. The one who’s been lurking in the rectory the past few weeks; the one who’s made countless trips to the town dump to recycle the myriad moving boxes; the one who’s been sneaking out to other churches on Sunday mornings; the one who’s secretly carted crates of books up to his new office; the one who’s met a few of you along the way – at Nona’s or Hennessy’s or wherever.

And I have to say it feels great to have finally started my ministry in your midst. To finally begin this new relationship after so much anticipation. To finally embark upon the mission to which we have been called: seeking and serving Christ in one another and in the world. So I’ll announce right here, right now that I am officially done lurking. 

Which means we can all get on with the task at hand. Which, this morning, is all about bread. We’ve heard a lot on this theme the last few Sundays. John’s gospel is full of references to bread and every three years we get them all lumped together in the middle of the summer. So at the various churches Bryna, Ben, Zack and I have been to over the last three weeks we kept hearing about bread. At St. Stephen’s in Cohasset we heard Jesus say “I am the bread of life;” At Christ Church, Quincy Jesus proclaimed “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh;” and last week at St. Luke’s in Scituate, our last Sunday as Eucharistic nomads, we heard Jesus tell the disciples, “The one who eats this bread will live forever.” It makes anyone who’s been to church over the past month want to stand up and scream “Enough with the bread already!”

Now, I like bread. Bryna and I were delighted to discover Atlantic Bagels just up the road. Who knew you could get a decent bagel outside of metropolitan New York? And the Eucharistic theology embedded into all of these passages forms much of the basis of our sacramental understanding of communion. That Jesus is fully, if mysteriously, present in the bread that has been consecrated upon this altar for the past 126 years.

But there’s also a reason John keeps coming back to bread – it matters. Not just metaphorically, not just as a symbol but as a tangible sign of God’s love for each one of us. And in the context of the Last Supper where Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives bread to the apostles, we begin to see why everything in our liturgy builds to the crescendo that is communion; to receive the body and blood of Christ through the bread and wine of the eucharist is to participate in the sacramental intersection between the divine and human. It is to both spiritually and bodily ingest Jesus Christ; to incorporate him into your very heart and soul. And it all starts with a piece of bread. Or, more specifically, the bread of life that is Jesus Christ.

Today we begin a journey whose foundation is that bread of life. Christ has been in the midst of this congregation for generations. The divine presence will be here long after we’re all gone. But today we step out in faith on this particular leg of our spiritual journey. As the psalmist says, “Happy are the people whose strength is in you! Whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way. As fellow sojourners along the divine path, our hearts are indeed “set on the pilgrim’s way.” Not because Plymouth Rock is 26 miles south of here but because we are all fellow spiritual pilgrims. God has called us together at this particular moment in time to love one another as Christ loved us, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to worship God in heart, mind, and soul. That’s our mutual undertaking, our pilgrimage if you will. 

And pilgrimages aren’t always easy. Whether it’s traveling across the Atlantic Ocean in 1620 or walking 100 miles across the desert to Mecca in 2009. Pilgrims often encounter difficulties along the way. But fortunately, with Jesus Christ as our witness and guide, we are in good hands. He will show us the way.

St. John the Evangelist tells us in this morning’s portion of his gospel that “Because of this [difficult teaching – the one about eating bread and living forever] many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Jesus knows full well that the way of discipleship is not easy; that to be a pilgrim of Christ can be difficult.  He basically gives the disciples an out when he asks “do any of you wish to go away?” He wouldn’t condemn them for it. But he also offers us a choice: will you pick up his cross and follow him or will you leave it lying on the ground before you? That’s the question of Christian commitment that comes back to us again and again and again. That’s our pilgrimage.

And, while there will be challenges along the way, I’m excited to walk with you along the pilgrim’s path as a fellow disciple of our risen Lord. By being here this morning you’ve made a commitment to pick up that cross, to enter into ever-deepening relationship with the living bread that is Jesus Christ. Sometimes the cross is picked up tentatively; sometimes it’s picked up with boldness. But the good news is that we’re not asked to pick it up in isolation. We do so with the help and encouragement of a community of faith. At times you’ll bear more of the burden; at others it will be borne for you. My brothers and sisters in Christ, it will be a privilege to bear that cross with and among you. Let the pilgrimage begin. 

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2009

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