There once was a nice Italian restaurant I liked when I lived in the Roanoke area. They made an excellent chicken Marsala, and I would find opportunity to return with friends at least once a month. There really wasn’t any other reason. Soon, it was getting more and more inconvenient for me to come all the way across town to get my chicken Marsala fix, so I decided to make it myself at home. First, I had to find a recipe. It turns out the dish is so common, many Italian families have their very own version. Since my family isn’t Italian and didn’t have a recipe, I was out of luck. Google didn’t exist at the time, so I went and browsed cookbooks in bookstores and the public library. I also went back to the restaurant a few times to figure out what was in the dish. Eventually I found a recipe to get started. And when I thought I was making a better chicken Marsala than the restaurant was serving, I just made it at home. I did still get out with my friends, but we found other places to eat.
The crowd we read about in the gospel had eaten their fill. In last week’s gospel Jesus had multiplied bread and fish, and his disciples managed to collect twelve baskets of leftovers. Then the people thought of carrying Jesus off to make him king. But when they looked around, he was gone. Eventually they found him on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. “Rabbi, when did you get here?,” they asked hoping to mask their true motive. But Jesus saw right through it. “You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” But is that really so bad after all? Most people don’t know how to say they like something. But their actions always give them away. They liked what Jesus had to offer – not quite what he had to say, but that he satisfied their physical hunger. Most people will be willing to sit and listen to a boring lecture if they knew they were getting fed. And they might come back if they enjoyed the experience, just so they could have some more of the same.
What is it we truly seek, you and I, that we return to this place week after week, and I don’t mean just this place specifically, but church in general? If you are a visitor, and have been with us before, or if this is your first time at St. John’s after having found us on the internet, we welcome you warmly. There is much likelihood you already belong to another church community someplace else. So your coming to be with us today is a logical extension of that more familiar experience with your church back home. In any case, you know what you came for. If instead, you are on a spiritual quest, and just happen to join us today, if you stumbled in through the open doors, perhaps drawn by the angelic singing, or the sign on the front lawn, or the air-conditioning, we hope you will find what you seek, and that you might return to join us in the future. And do let us know if we can help make your visit more rewarding.
While traveling across Europe these last few weeks, I eventually found myself at Sunday mass. And unlike what I see here on a weekly basis, there was lots of room in those churches. Do we know something they don’t? Or perhaps they know something we don’t. We all have experiences of church that cause us to rejoice, and give thanks, and keep returning week after week. However, we also know people who do not share our enthusiasm, people we love and care about, people we invite repeatedly to discover what we have known for a while. Yet despite their reasons for coming to church or not, we should really take the occasion to examine our own.
When I made plans to visit Rome and London and Dublin this summer, I had every hope this would be my first trip of many to come. I knew I wouldn’t get to see and do everything I wanted on the first visit. So I considered this a visit to set the stage for future visits. I would see places and meet people who would inspire me to return, perhaps because of the rich history, the soaring structures, the awesome landscape, the deep intellectual, emotional, and spiritual satisfaction of encountering earthly beauty, and experiencing a taste of the sublime, something out of this world, something of God. I’m talking about art, and music, and most significantly, food. I made an effort to take photos of everything I ate while I was traveling. I hoped to post a final entry of those photos on my blog. But when I got home, I noticed I had not taken nearly as many pictures of the meals I thought I had eaten. I admit I sometimes finished my meal before remembering to take a picture. So I will attempt to describe those meals without help of visual aids. Easily, each region has its own unique flavors, and I was always able to find something I could enjoy. So if and when I return, I know what to expect.
But more than anything, all these wonderful experiences – looking at castles and stately homes, walking up and down winding staircases and garden paths, examining expensive tapestries, and frescoes, and oil paintings, marveling at elaborate sculptures, enjoying the music of church choirs, and folk singers in pubs, and theatre musicals at London’s West End, savoring Italian pasta, and authentic fish and chips, and genuine Guinness and beef stew, and whatever it was I ate at that Thai restaurant in Covent Garden, it all added up to food to nourish my soul, food for that very special occasion of my trip which I would want again perhaps. But it’s an expensive commute to eat that food everyday. What I need above all is food to sustain my daily living.
Jesus offers us today bread for our daily lives. We will continue reading from the Bread of Life discourse of the gospel of John in the coming Sundays, and we will hear Jesus offer us that very food. “I am the bread of life,” he tells us. ”Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” But it is clear from his encounter with the crowd who ate the bread and fish he multiplied, that he wants to satisfy more than a physical hunger. What Jesus desires is to nourish our spirits with food that endures unto life eternal.
What is the food you seek when you come to church? Is it primarily what satisfies a physical hunger? Is it your socialization with friends at church that feeds you? Is it the satisfaction of the senses, of feeling good after finding peace of mind and heart, after voicing your needs in prayer, after being inspired by stirring melodies and flowery words, after shelling out a few bucks into the collection basket? Jesus offers himself to us as food. All the things that satisfy our other hungers we can find in other places, in stately palaces and cathedrals, in art galleries and museums, on Broadway and London’s West End, in fancy restaurants and exotic destinations. What Jesus offers us, we will never find elsewhere. Do we even want the food he offers? What is it you come for when you come to this place? Do you seek Jesus, or just a morsel for your physical hunger until something better comes along?