(Photo of Inuit woman making bannock, a pan bread popular with the indigenous people of Canada and the northwestern U.S., taken by Ansgar Walk, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
--Collect for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Book of Common Prayer, page 219
The collect this past Sunday tag-teams this year in the lectionary with the story in John 9 of the man, blind from birth, who was healed when Jesus put mud on his eyes. The reading is quite long, and we hear a lot more about what happened after the miracle, compared to the miracle itself. You see, it occurred on the Sabbath, and that created quite a stir among the Pharisees. They interrogated the man, the man's parents, and who knows who else--we only know of the ones that made the press. Really, in terms of community betterment, this story doesn't have a particularly happy ending--they drove the man out of the temple, anyway.
It reminds me a story of another person who was driven out and "bread" figures into the story.
About two years ago, I was doing my early morning ritual of checking Facebook status updates on a morning approaching the weekend--I forget what day it was, I just remember it was somewhere in that "Thursday to Saturday" period. One of my 2nd year medical students had posted--"I can't believe I was thrown out of church."
In following the comments, I had surmised the following: She belonged to a small fundamentalist church in town. She had been to the Wednesday night service, and evidently, the subject of Democrats had come up somehow. The message from the pulpit was that Democrats of any sort were not welcome in this congregation, because of their disrespect of the concept that life begins at conception, and all the associated political hoo-haa that goes with reproductive health services if one does not believe in the "sanctity of the lives of the unborn."
Well, as it turns out, my student was an unrepentant Democrat, and one conversation led to another, and she was expelled from this congregation. She only had about two and a half weeks to go before she would be leaving Kirksville for her rotations in Jefferson City. She was basically thinking "Oh, well, I'll just be churchless for a couple of weeks."
My heart took a tumble. Many of you know how much I love Kirksville. Unfortunately, I don't love everything that happens in Kirksville. The more I thought about it, the more I realized this was not the memory I wanted her to have of faith communities in rural NE Missouri.
So I messaged her. "Hey," I said. "I know you only have a couple of weeks left here, but you are welcome to attend my church, Trinity Episcopal. We would love to have you, and more importantly, I'd love it if you could stay for coffee hour and just hang out with us. That's where the fun really happens in our parish. The worship will be a lot different than what you are used to--it will be really "catholic" compared to what you're used to--but all baptized Christians are welcome at our communion and I think you might could stand a dose of a church community just being friendly to you."
To my surprise, she took me up on my offer...and for two weeks, she came to church with me, and stayed for coffee hour, and was one of the last ones to leave both times. The folks at my parish shared cookies, coffee cake and other coffee hour delectables with her, but mostly, they all shared their stories and laughter with her. Before she left town, she thanked me heartily for those two Sundays at Trinity. As students tend to do on their clinical rotations, she has kept up only sporadically with me. I don't know where she ended up for a church home in Jefferson City, and that's okay. Really, it wasn't my job to convert her to my denomination. It was my job simply to share bread. When I look back, it wasn't even the bread of the Sacraments that she needed, much as I love the Sacraments and their power to change lives. It was the bread of cookies and coffee cake in the undercroft that truly fed her.
In our collect, we are reminded that Jesus Christ is the true bread of heaven. Certainly, he resides in the sacrament of bread that is consecrated at the altar. But once that bread gets inside our bodies, I think every Toll House cookie, every hunk of biscotti, even in every slice of zucchini bread put out for coffee hour, becomes just as sacred when we share it in post-Communion fellowship.
It also brings to light something about church communities that may not be something that is always touted in the articles about "congregational development." Most of the scholarship related to congregational development and "hospitality" are written with the goal of bringing new members to the congregation. But I think we have to consider another aspect of "hospitality" is simply providing the true bread of Christ when it is only needed for a lifetime, a season, or two weeks. Being a welcoming presence should come with no strings attached, and we should be just as content if a person needs our parish family for a short time as on a long term basis.
I remember being very content about the way this story turned out for two reasons. One was simply the joy of being able to help provide my student with two laid-back Sundays where she could feel totally accepted in a faith community. The other was the gift that others in our parish gave her. I was heartened that, even though everyone in the parish knew she was only here a short time, that they gave her the same level of fellowship as if I had told folks, "She's looking for a church here in town." It warmed my heart on two levels, and I felt the joy of it all radiate back to me, when my intent was for my student to have joy. Joy, I discovered, is not an either/or proposition. When the True Bread of Heaven is in the room, no one has to go home hungry.