20 years ago when I first started serving at the Rescue Mission, I was introduced to a local minister named Mike Engle, or “Pastor Mike." That’s how he was known to everyone around here in the local community: just “Pastor Mike.” Until he passed away in 2016, he was the pastor of a small Wesleyan congregation just around the corner from here. He was the pastor there for 41 years.
I think if Pastor Mike had been in our tradition, he would have most surely been an Episcopal deacon. Even though he was the pastor of a church, his heart was always facing out toward the world. His hands were always open to the hurts and needs of people who weren’t connected to a church in any way.
When I first met him, Pastor Mike was the Rescue Mission’s “bread man.” I didn’t come up with that name. That’s really what everyone around there actually called him. When the staff or volunteers at the Rescue Mission would see him, they would say, “Oh here comes our bread man.” When people on the streets would see him go by in his van, they would say, “There goes Pastor Mike, the bread man.” That name had to do with what Pastor Mike did with extra bread that he got from the Mission.
You see, at the Rescue Mission one of the things we rescue is food. Seriously.
The amount of daily food waste that takes place in this community and probably almost every community is staggering. You just wouldn’t believe what ends up in dumpsters because restaurants and food service institutions often have no way to really save or supply their leftover food or get it to people who might need it. No one likes throwing away good food, but in a world where people often go hungry, that logistical gap between abundance and scarcity is actually a matter of justice and injustice. Pastor Mike felt so strongly about this that he started doing something about it. He called it his “Bread of Life” ministry and he decided he was going to do what he could to fill that gap.
This is how it all worked: Every day at the shelter, we serve free meals to anyone who’s hungry. We serve three meals a day. They are open and available not only to our shelter guests, but also to anyone from the general public. Anyone can come to eat a meal there. In some years, we serve over 60,000 free meals. The only way that’s possible on our small budget is with the help of food donations.
So each weekday I send out a driver to pick up food donations from all kinds of restaurants and institutions around Henderson County. In the summer we get a lot of food from the summer camps we have here in the mountains. It’s all good food that’s usually from the day before, but it’s been kept in safe containers and transportable conditions. We rescue it from being wasted and we bring it back and try to incorporate it into our free meals.
The challenge is that by the time we get it, some of it has a very short shelf life. In fact, a lot of it has to be used right away. Of all our food donations, nothing has a shorter shelf life than bread, especially the bread we get. Bread never hangs around very long anyway, but many of the places we pick up from sell or use bread that has little to no preservatives. That’s what gives expensive artisan bakery bread it's delicious, fresh flavor that people pay extra money for. Because it has such a short shelf life, most places make it fresh every day. That means we get a lot of bread.
You can probably see where this is going. We rescue it and keep it from being thrown away, but then we end up with so much of it, with such a short shelf life that we risk having to put it into our dumpster ourselves because we just can’t always use all that bread before it goes bad. You can only freeze so much bread.
In steps Pastor Mike with the save. His solution was to pick up that extra bread from us and deliver it himself to people who needed it before it went bad. I always wondered how he found time to be a pastor of a church because he would spend the better part of many days driving his van and trailer full of vegetables and bread out to rural parts of our area, He would go to neighborhoods and homes where transportation was very limited. That’s how he became known as the bread man.
I’ve never seen anyone who was as happy giving our food as Pastor Mike was when he was giving out free bread. Hence, the name he came up with: “Bread of Life” ministry.
There was just one problem. Pastor Mike wasn’t supposed to give it out in front of or anywhere near the Rescue Mission. Most of the food donors give us all kinds of food and not just bread. We have carefully negotiated agreements with them about how it will be served and where it will be served. Some of our food donors are part of much bigger corporate structures that have all kinds of liability concerns and limitations. (That’s the real world we live in.) That means we’re not permitted to directly distribute it because we're often limited to using it only in our meals which are served in controlled settings like our dining room.
The last thing we needed was for it to appear we were somehow intentionally violating our agreements and distributing food right out in front of the shelter. but Pastor Mike just couldn’t help himself.
After all, he was the bread man, right? He would barely pull out of our gate before he would be out on Maple Street passing out bread: “Here’s some for you and you. Have some of this. Y’all want to try some pumpernickel.” It looked like one of those floats on during the Apple Festival parade where they toss out candy, except Pastor Mike and his associates would be tossing out bread.
So here I was on one side, the custodian of all these signed rules and regulations and on the other you basically had Santa Clause with bread. Even though we loved each other, this put us on a collision course with each other over and over again.
I would say, “Pastor Mike, you’ve got to stop this. I’m the one fielding complaints about this.”
Every time I would talk to Pastor Mike all of this, he would just pull a little farther down Maple Street and give it out. I finally reached the point where I was like, “Just please pull around the corner on Seventh Avenue so I can at least not have to see you breaking our rules.”
Pastor Mike got pretty savvy at all this too. Instead of parking and handing out the bread. He would just pull to the stop sign and wait. People knew his van and he would just sit there and let people get on the cart and pick out what they wanted. He wasn’t actually distributing it himself near the Mission. When I would ask him about it and why he wasn’t making more effort to control it, his response was always the same. “It’s not my bread. It doesn’t belong to me. I’m just transporting it and people help themselves.”
So here’s the thing about all of that. The closer I get to eternity, the more I realize that the spirit of the Gospel was and is always on Pastor Mike’s side of things. He was right. I was wrong. I wish he’d lived long enough for me to tell him so.
I was focused on what could go wrong. He was focused on what could go right. I was focused on protecting the rules. He was focused on feeding hungry people. Guess which one sounds more like Jesus?
Last week we used the lectionary readings for the Feast of St. James because James is the patron saint for this parish, but the normal reading for last week, the one that leads up to today’s Gospel is the story of Jesus taking five loaves of bread and two fish and freely feeding over 5000 people with it. That’s one of the rare stories that actually occurs in all four Gospels. It was that universally important to the life of the early church and who they understood Jesus to be and how they understood themselves. It’s almost as if the church was saying, if you don’t get anything else, please understand this:Jesus is about feeding hungry people.
That’s what Pastor Mike was about too.
My sisters and brothers, if there’s anything I am now convinced of after all these years, it’s this: The church needs to be more about what Pastor Mike was about.
The church needs to be more like Pastor Mike because Christianity needs to be more like Jesus, who is the Bread of Life.
We need to be more focused on the abundance and generosity of God and less worried about if we are doing it wrong or getting it wrong or somehow letting the wrong people in.
If Jesus really is the Bread of Life, which came down from heaven to give life to the world, then the church cannot be stingy with Jesus. We shouldn’t be in the business of erecting barriers around Jesus.It’s not our job to see who is worthy and who isn’t. The Gospel never tells us to set up limitations, exclusions or restrictions on the Bread of Life. We’re not called to keep people out.
If anything, the Gospel calls us to move in the opposite direction. It calls us to break down barriers that keep people from being fed.
Do you recall ever hearing a story in the Gospels where Jesus says, “Keep them away from me. Make sure they don’t get near me”? What we hear over and over is this: “Let them in. Let her through the crowd. Let the children come to me. Go out into the highways and hedges and invite people to the banquet. Give them something to eat.”
So if there is anyone here, or anyone watching this on our livestream, who's ever been wounded or made to feel unworthy or unwelcome, if you've been excluded and told to stay outside the life of the church, please hear me now. That did not come from God. That’s not what Jesus is about. Jesus indicates in today's Gospel that God generously gave the Israelitees manna and God generously gives the Bread of Life to us.
Let me take this one step further. If you have ever been in a church or a faith tradition where the body of Christ in the bread of the Eucharist was restricted from you and used as a tool for control, punishment, coercion, compliance or reward, I am so sorry. I am sorry that something which God intended to feed those who are spiritually hungry was ever used as part of someone’s power game.
Pope Francis said it well back in June when he said “The Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
The truly ironic thing about all of that is the only time I ever find the New Testament really saying anything about partaking this bread in an unworthy manner is in 1 Corinthians 11 where St. Paul addresses it being used as a tool to visibly divide the have’s from the have nots. In other words, the only way to really get this whole bread thing wrong is to not be generous with it.
Even if we’re different from each other. Even if we agree politically or see eye to eye on much of anything. We can still pray together and partake of this bread together.
Why? Well, to use the words of Pastor Mike: “It’s not my bread.” It’s not my bread. I’m just delivering it.
It’s not my bread. It’s not Tracey’s bread. It’s not Christie’s bread. It’s not St. James, Hendersonville’s bread. This altar belongs to the Bishop, but it’s not even Bishop Jose’s bread. It’s not the Episcopal Church's bread. It’s not the Baptist Church’s bread. It’s not the Roman Catholic Church’s bread. For 2000 years, it has belonged to something bigger, someone bigger than all of us.
Jesus is the Bread that gives life for the WORLD The Bread of Life belongs to whomever is hungry.and that means all are welcome. In the Gospel, all means all.
Because it’s not my bread.