Between Skepticism and Literalism

Paula Northwood August 5, 2018

Scripture John 6:1–15

I almost starved once, or so I thought. I was a young child at summer camp in southern Michigan. One day after a long hike, we ended up at Mosquito Hollow, a natural round land depression that they used for evening campfires. It was a magical place with a big fire pit surrounded by logs to sit on. The hollow was sheltered by tall trees. By the fire pit was a huge black cauldron that was used for making big vats of popcorn, stirred by a canoe paddle. We settled in on the logs and a counselor starting building a fire. We were starving. I don’t think I had ever been so hungry. We were told that we would have a picnic dinner this evening instead of eating in the dining hall.

Then the fiasco began. One counselor asked another for the sandwiches. An argument ensued about who was responsible for bringing the food. It was soon clear they had forgotten our supper. There was an audible groan from the campers. We were really hungry by now. One counselor named Tom said, “No problem, I have a magic stone and can make stone soup.” For an 8-year-old, I was skeptical but also intrigued and slightly disgusted. Tom put this magic stone in the cauldron and the caldron over the cracking fire. “I do need some water though,” he declared. Most of us had a little water in our canteens and we poured it into the cauldron. He assured us that the germs would be boiled away. Of course, you likely know the story. Tom tasted the soup and said it would be better stone soup if it had an onion and one of the counselors just happened to have found wild onions on our hike. The soup was tasted again and declared that it might be even better with a little potato. The camp craft instructor had a few potatoes that she was going to use for potato prints but she could spare them under the circumstances. Between a number of tastings and other counselors who just happened to have carrots, lentils and spices for very plausible reasons, we had a stone soup that was declared ready to eat! By now we were famished almost to the point of fainting, and the smell of the stone soup was divine. Steaming bowls were passed around; there was plenty for everyone. It was the best stone soup I have ever eaten.

In our text this morning, I think we can relate to the crowd. Everyone was going to hear the new guy. John the Baptist had been killed and many of his followers were looking for someone to take his place. Some people said this new guy, named Jesus, was John resurrected, and others thought that he was the chosen one, the Messiah. But the group hadn’t planned on hanging around him for so many days, and they were hungry. I find it interesting that in all the versions of the feeding of the 5,000 and 4,000 (there are six stories in the four gospels), there is not one word about what Jesus taught, only how he responded to people’s hunger. Like stone soup, the feeding of the 5,000 makes a great story. There is achingly deep hunger and then . . . hunger satisfied. We get tripped up if we try to figure out how it happened literally—but we get nothing out of it if we are skeptical.

How it happened—this feast from a few items of food—isn’t the point, is it? Jesus, by example, is showing that there is a different way of being in the world. There is a different way to address hunger. It is about blessing, sharing, generosity, abundance and inclusion. Jesus’ most consistent social action was eating in new ways and with new people, encountering those who were oppressed or excluded from the system. In the scriptures, we notice how often Jesus was criticized for eating. On one side, he’s criticized for eating with notorious tax collectors, women of ill repute and sinners; on the other side, he’s judged for eating too much or with the Pharisees and lawyers. He didn’t worry about pleasing people and was often breaking the rules and extending the table, making it bigger.

What does that say about the spiritual significance of what we eat, where we eat, and with whom we eat? According to Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, it would seem that Jesus didn’t want his community to have a social ethic; he wanted it to be a social ethic.[1] And so, as we prepare to share Communion, the Lord’s Supper, it is good to be reminded of what it can mean. God’s table is open, inclusive and welcoming. Too often the church has taken what was a radical meal and made it a safe ritual.

Many of you have said to me that you feel uncomfortable with Communion, the whole body and blood thing . . . but do you see what’s happening? You are making it literal in a church that doesn’t “do literal.” Jesus knew it wasn’t really his body in the bread or his blood in the wine. But on the other hand, to approach the table with skepticism and dismiss any meaning in the ritual is to miss out on the mystery, that sacramental chemistry by which the mundane is transformed into the holy. Why is this important for us today?

Because the spiritual practice of sharing food is important. Because it is good to be reminded of how sacred eating is. When Jesus knows the end is near, he takes something so ordinary, so basic and so necessary and gives it new meaning. When we share the bread and the cup, we are remembering how Jesus takes table bread and daringly calls it “my body” and the cup of wine and calls it “my blood.” He knows life is full of hurt and suffering, but in the sharing of your life, you will find true life. He is inviting us to let our lives be broken, used up and spent. In the letting go of ego and truly sharing of yourself, you will discover your true self in God. “Unless the single grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat.” The crushed grain becomes the whole loaf of bread, and the crushed grapes become the intoxicating wine. Spiritual food for our souls.

If you are starving this morning, chew on this mystery, drink this mystery and let it become a part of you. Divine truth is known by participating in and practicing this table fellowship, not by more thinking or discussing or even believing. You eventually just have to “eat and drink” the truth more than you ever understand it. That’s how transformation happens . . . and by some small miracle, you find that your life becomes a sacrament when you bring your full attention to any task. Bathing babies or taking a bath reminds us of baptism. Mindful eating with family and friends becomes communion; making love; gardening; going to school; working to save the planet or your neighborhood; persisting in recovery from addictions; resisting violence, sexism and racism—everywhere we make a sacrament of the ordinary, we make it holy.

The purpose of our spiritual quest is not to solve the mystery but to deepen it. I know we long to peek behind some curtain of meaning and have our problems solved. We come to worship with high hopes. We want a small taste of transcendence, and those moments do happen, but we often go away disappointed, because we are skeptical and expect nothing, so receive nothing. Or we desire a literal explanation, and it never makes logical sense. But somewhere, somewhere in between skepticism and literalism is that thin place of transformation. This morning, let us be open to it. Amen.

[1]This meditation is influenced by Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations from the week of July 22, 2018, available on the Center for Action and Contemplation website: https://cac.org/.