Sermon, 8/15/21. Comestibles: comestus, pp. of comedere to eat, fr. com- + edere to eat

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12 Pentecost

Psalm 111; I Kings 2:10–12; 3:3–14; Ephesians 5:15–20; John 6:51–58

Giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Ephesians 5:20

Our lectionary over these last four plus weeks has been unrelenting. Eating and drinking have held center stage, from the feeding of thousands to the declaration of Jesus that he gives himself as food.  And as if reflecting week after week were not sufficient, my mailbox is stuffed weekly with flyers from area supermarkets reminding me that summer cookouts and grilling are essential to my well-being.  I intend no disrespect when I say that we are bombarded on all side with images of food.  Is it then little wonder when I say that we have food on the brain?.  Well, this morning I am going to give this theme a rest, at least as we image it. 

Instead, I want to tell you a story, a true story.  Caution! A spoiler alert: My two part story recalls how two parishes, similar in all respects except in location, responded to Jesus’ desire and mandate that God’s will is that all should be fed.  And my story, like every good story, has a title, and it is: “A Tale of Two Parishes,” told in two parts.

Part One:  Once upon a time (that’s how good stories are supposed to begin), when I was a “transitional deacon” and in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, my then bishop assigned me to an urban parish (the Church of the Ascension), situated in the west-central wedge in the City of St. Louis, about two miles from the city limits.  I lived five miles away, two suburbs directly to the west.  The parish had once been a cardinal parish in the diocese.  Its huge, stately edifice reflected its status as a society parish.  It was once what we today might designate as a corporate parish.  The people who had once attended this parish, had been the movers and shakers of the city.

In the course of time, at least by the time the bishop had assigned me there to assist the rector, the parish had seen better days.  The neighborhood around it had seen better days.  Those once imposing, one-family dwellings had been subdivided into 2 and 3 family tenements.  Neglect, both human and structural, had set in, and urban flight to the suburbs was almost complete.  Ascension’s active membership had dwindled to about 20 pledge units, and so there remained little to do but to close the parish.  The rector, who himself had been in place for not quite two years, recognizing the parish’s fate, moved on.  My compensation for my brief time there was the exquisite Persian rug, which ran down from the high altar to the chancel. I turned again my attention full-time to my degree program.  I had no quarrel with the rector, for he was a forward-thinking progressive, assigned to a conservative parish that, to save itself, had turned in on itself.  Literally and figuratively, Jesus’ admonition to feed his flock and to provide for and share with others God’s grace had not taken root.  Here endeth part one of my story.

Part two of my story is not one that I witnessed firsthand.  Rather, out of curiosity about how lessons in our Book of Records gained real life footing, I chanced upon a book written by Sarah Miles entitled Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion, (Canterbury Press Norwich, January 1, 2012).  Miles recounts the journey of a West Coast parish that was quite similar to the one that I encountered in our Mid-West.  The other parish, All Souls, San Francisco, is a longer, but an equally true story.  Like Ascension, All Souls was also located in an urban setting.  It also had an older population.  Its building was also huge and deteriorating, and urban flight was underway. 

The diocesan bishop assigned a young interim to All Souls, with the expectation that at the end of the six months, the young interim priest would have experienced a life that was completely different from his upbringing.  Indeed, Fr. Derrick was inexperienced, but he came to know and to love his dwindling congregation, making sure to counsel them and help them through the various stages of life’s journey.  But, in the process, he did something else.  In their real grief of losing family members to nature, he recognized also the grief of seeing a once-thriving parish become weaker and weaker.  He helped his parishioner to identify their options.  They took several months, and diocesan headquarters wondered why it was taking so long to close the place. 

At the end of the six month interim, to his surprise, to the surprise of the congregation, and mainly to the surprise of central administration—and no one was sure exactly how the faithful few got there—the members chose unanimously to undertake one more effort to save their beloved parish.  The group of mostly over 70-year-olds decided they were not quite ready to give up the ghost because the community around them needed them and their witness.  With renewed energy and sense of purpose, that congregation looked at the population of unwed mothers and teenagers on the surrounding streets.  They looked at the 13-, 14-, and 15-year-olds living in doorways and worse—the “throwaway kids,” many of whom, so it was later discovered, had been thrown out of their homes because they had confessed to their parent that they were gay.  They saw illegal immigrants living in the shadows.

That group of senior citizens said, “This community needs more grandparents,” Miles records.  They said, “We can be grandparents.”  They said, “We want to do that.  We want to matter again.  We want to make a difference… and we think we can.”  “Even if we can’t do anything else, we can love the babies.”  And, they said, “Besides, Jesus asked people to love the babies.”  All this from a group of staid, mainline parishioners!  They read and reread the stories that you and I have read over these last four plus weeks, the stories about food, comestibles:  The disciples came to Jesus and said, “Send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”  “And Jesus said to the disciples, but the one who eats this bread will live forever.”  Jesus listens to the disciples, but then makes a counteroffer.

During those six months of discerning, the members of All Souls heard that offer.  They knew where their endowment stood, and what the diocesan gossip about their parish was, but they also knew that “man shall not live by bread alone,” that it was necessary to feed the hungry, in whatever form the hunger came.  Finally, in faith they knew, “that where two or three are gathered together in [his] name, there [he] will be in the midst of them.”

They heard Jesus say as clearly, as bells once rang out to summon folks to matins, to mass, and to vespers, “You give them love.”  They realized that they could not close their doors and leave behind the immigrants, the teenage parents, the homeless youth and adults, those fellow humans made in the image of God, but who were hungry for comestibles of all sorts: for food, for clothing, for wisdom, for compassion, for hope, for experience, for family, for connection.  They realized, as people of faith, they at All Souls had lived too long and received too much from God’s grace, that walking away was [not] an option.  In their hearts, they just knew.  Despite and perhaps because of the pandemic, All Souls has had to revise its operations, but it remains open.

Father Derrick was given permission by his amazed superiors to stay on, and when he was asked about the success of All Souls, he said, and I quote:  “Well…it’s not as if there are other churches out there trying to steal our parishioners.  We don’t have a lot of competition in this demographic!” 

I do not conclude my tale of two parishes with the stock phrase, “and the parishes lived happily ever after. The End!”  In fact, one parish closed its doors.  And, to this day, the other parish struggles with its ministry and its budget.  One turned its back, and the other asked for wisdom and guidance, as did young king Solomon at the beginning of his reign, a story read so eloquently just moment ago by our lector.

Sociologists have documented for us that one quick way to ensure that a deteriorating neighborhood will fall further, is to close the doors of a church.  People may not fill the building, but the building signifies hope that all is not yet lost.  The church is a visible anchor, even in a secular, post-modern, post-Christian society.  And that is our challenge.  St. James is neither Church of the Ascension, nor All Souls.  St. James is St. James.  We have here the wonderful opportunity to find our own unique ministry to God’s broken, but yet truly beautiful, creation.  This is that with which we, as a congregation and we in our vestry, must wrestle, beginning today in our parish meeting.  What is the new ministry that God is calling us to do here?  It is absolutely essential that we concern ourselves with saving and maintaining our physical plant, but we must not make that our sole reason to exist. This pandemic has brought much stress into our lives, both in our individual and our communal lives.  But this pandemic has offered us the opportunity to rethink what we do here.

I wonder what our discipleship and that of other communities of faith would look like to our creator God, if we, en masse, stopped sending people away to find comestibles for themselves, into a village down the road, but instead welcomed them into our fold.  I wonder.  Amen