The Thing We Need
Some of you know that during my second summer in seminary, I lived and worked on the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Reservation in south central South Dakota.
Rosebud is one of nine reservations of Lakota/Dakota/Nakota people in South Dakota and a classmate and I were based at the Episcopal Church Center in Mission, South Dakota. As seminarians, we preached every Sunday in different parishes, led bible studies, did a lot of pastoral care and bereavement ministry, ate a lot, because for every event or occasion or coffee hour, there was tons of food, and we were the liaisons for work groups coming in to help over the summer.
We lived in a double-wide at the end of a dirt road. The carpet in the trailer was Astro-turf; our couch, the middle seat from the busted up van we drove all summer with a blanket thrown over it. We had an old a/c unit we duct taped into the living room window that leaked all over the Astro-turf when it rained, but we were oh so grateful for its cool air on 105˚ days. Our beds were wooden platforms with old mattresses on top; the kitchen floor linoleum buckled and had holes in it. We each had taken a suitcase of clothes, a bible, a BCP and a journal, but that was it. Our big night out every week was driving over the state line to Valentine, Nebraska, eating at Pizza Hut and doing our weekly shopping at the local equivalent of Walmart, which is to say, it was NOT a Walmart. Not a lot to do in Valentine, Nebraska or Mission, South Dakota either. At then end of the summer, we agreed we’d never worked harder or been happier.
That summer 20 years ago was when this privileged, white woman learned what true poverty looks like and how privileged she really was. My classmate Craig and I lived in relative luxury compared to many of our neighbors on the reservation. We had a roof over our heads and food to eat, clean water to drink and we were safe. We had good work to do and wonderful people to do it with. That summer I learned what I really needed, and what I didn’t really need, to live.
What do we really need to live? Do I really need the kind of apartment I live in? Do I really need all the clothes in my closet? Do I really need the monthly visit to the hairdresser? Of course, I confuse want and need quite a bit. Don’t we all? The difference between “I want” and “I need” can be great. But if we are to answer the question “what do we really need to live?” we have to know the difference and we have to fully grasp the idea that abundant life already exists, that we do in fact have enough and that Jesus gives it to us in and through relationship, with him and with others.
The answer to the “what do I really need to live?” question isn’t always easy or clear, because we’re living human lives, focused on earthly things. We need food and water, shelter and love. But those things can quickly turn into a need for champagne, a bigger house and constant attention. They get warped because we focus more on what we want than what we truly need. Albert Schweitzer once said, and I’m paraphrasing him, that “civilization is doomed because it has developed faster materially than spiritually – the equilibrium has been destroyed.” I think John tells us this morning about that equilibrium. He tells us exactly where God is in the scheme of these things.
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
It’s almost too easy. The “I am the bread of life” statement is so familiar. We quote it, but are we really sure we understand or believe it? Are we truly prepared to believe that we will never hunger or thirst again if we accept Jesus’ statement and what it offers? It’s a daunting proposition: to believe that God will provide all things, that God will bring us manna from heaven. Despite the fact that we know of God’s history with Israel and know of God’s revelation in Christ, we still can’t quite bring ourselves to be totally dependent on God -- to trust God with our physical, emotional, spiritual and practical well-being.
We heard last week about how some ten or fifteen thousand people were fed by mere crumbs. But somehow, the very real miracle of Jesus went completely unnoticed by at least some of the crowd because this week, they challenge him, much like his neighbors in Nazareth did: how is it possible that the kid we’ve known all his life, one of the ordinary children of Joseph and Mary, is claiming he is equivalent to manna, the food of angels?? When they were being fed earthly food, their bellies were full, but they were spiritually blind. They couldn’t quite see what God had sent them, what was being revealed to them.
So what’s the point for us? If God will just give us more loaves of bread, more fish……faster cars, bigger houses, more efficient ways to cram a few more hours into the day and make some more money—a few more of those kinds of gifts, of that kind of bread—then surely we’ll hunger no more. In effect, we’ll never die. Do the people in the crowd hunger for the gift of the eternal bread of life? No! They don’t even know they’re empty. Until Jesus opens their eyes to the fact that God has sent them manna from heaven—in himself.
The question for us, my friends, is how do we get to that mysterious place of believing? Who are the people, what are the experiences in our lives—few though they may be—that convert us, transform us, help us to know that Jesus equals bread, Jesus equals life? Think about this for just a moment. My first experience, and a person was involved—my best friend, unwitting though she was—came during my first Holy Week in The Episcopal Church in 1987. It came with tears and sorrow and a generosity of Spirit that led me to understand that Jesus is my bread. The second came a decade after that, sitting on a holy mountain in an old growth forest on top of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, looking at a larger than life white-washed cross and feeling my life’s call being literally pulled out of me. It also came with tears and fear and an almost preternatural knowledge that Jesus was going to lead me into the bread of my vocation. That was almost 25 years ago. The most recent was just last week, floating weightlessly 30 feet under the water of the Pacific Ocean, holding onto the hand of the love of my life as together we experienced the wonder of God’s creation in the exquisite life of the ocean and in each other. Again, it came with tears—which is an odd thing when you’re already under water, like crying in the shower!—and an awe and a joy that is almost inexpressible. A handful of experiences in 56 years. But that’s enough.
In a moment, we’re going to share some earthly elements—bread and wine—in the Eucharist. Because we believe that Jesus is who he says he is and because we believe that he will be present in that bread and wine through God the Holy Spirit, those earthly elements will be transformed into sacred things, holy things. And because we believe that Jesus is present in us and in those moments when we see more clearly the Bread of Life before us, we are transformed into sacred people, holy people. People who are filled and satisfied with Jesus the Living Bread, Jesus the Living Water.
For those times when we think we don’t have enough….for those times when we confuse want with need….for those times when we recognize exactly what we need to live….let us remember….eat and drink of Jesus and be fed. And live forever.