Food that endures

art 04Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life. (John 6:27)

Tired and hungry after spending so much energy that Sunday morning, I wanted nothing more than some quiet solitude to replenish my soul and a good lunch to nourish my body. I got those things and more. I received a gift of grace that brought me a deep inner peace, and a spiritual banquet on which I’ve been feasting ever since.

As a pastor I’ve learned to work fairly well in public settings, and as an introvert I’ve learned how much physical and spiritual energy I spend doing so. After one particular Sunday morning being “out there” with others, I needed a quiet place in which to rest and renew my energy, so I drove to a nearby restaurant for what I thought would be merely a good meal. I wasn’t prepared for how I was about to be fed.

After being seated, I began to notice my surroundings. The gently lit dining room, tastefully decorated with green plants and rich wood finishes that softened the city’s hardness. The servers in crisp khakis and Izod shirts taking orders and delivering drinks and meals. The line chefs tossing salads, shelling oysters, and wrapping warm loaves of bread for the tables.

Then I noticed the diners around me. Across the room an Asian couple tried to settle their young children. Nearby some men in business attire were in animated conversation over an array of file folders and plates of food. Closer still, a couple who looked as if they had come from a Hell’s Angels rally sipped their drinks. In one corner, an older couple sat mostly in silence, occasionally offering a few quiet words to each other. A couple of dozen people were there, all told – all backgrounds, all ages, in every kind of dress, from fine suits to tattered jeans.

As I waited for my meal, it suddenly hit me: As different as we all were, as varied as our interests and conversations and activities, everything and everyone there was quietly and invariably organized around one thing: the diner’s simple act of lifting fork from plate to mouth. The one thing almost no one appeared to pay attention to was the one thing everyone was most involved in. We were being fed. Our hunger was being satisfied.

Everyone I know is hungry in some deep way, and almost everyone I know is aware of it when they stop and think about it. The prophet Haggai described us and our age to a tee. “You have planted much but harvested little. You have food to eat, but not enough to fill you up. You have wine to drink, but not enough to satisfy your thirst. You have clothing to wear, but not enough to keep you warm. Your wages disappear as though you were putting them in pockets filled with holes” (Hag. 1:6 NLT).

We are hungry, you and I. We’re hungry for friendship and genuine love from family and neighbors and even from strangers. We are hungry for acceptance, support, and encouragement from those we admire and respect. We’re hungry for meaningful work to do and the respect of those we do it with, and for meaningful contributions to make to our community. We’re hungry for courage and patience as we try to live the lives God gives us to live. We are hungry for the warmed hearts and direction and meaning in our lives that flow from a deeper, more authentic relationship with the source of life.

And a large part of why we are here in this congregation, I believe, is that we’re hungry for people who can gather us. Near the end of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, a powerful novel about slavery and its aftermath, one of the characters reflects on the impact one woman had on his life. “She is a friend of my mind,” he says. “She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”

We are here in large measure, I believe, because we need people who can gather up the pieces of who we are and give them back to us in all the right order; because we need people who can see us truly and help us see ourselves truly, in all our variety and complexity and wholeness, and because we have the hope, when we’re at our best, of finding such people here.

We in the church often concentrate a lot – too much, I’m convinced – on what it takes to run the organization: on committees, and building maintenance and improvements, and operating and capital budgets; on program planning and strategic planning; on taking out the trash and taking in dollars and new members; on small talk in the hallway and holy talk in the sanctuary. From time to time it’s good to remember that under all that, something else is happening, something so subtle we might not often pay much attention to it. Under all those things we’re doing, we are quietly being fed with the true bread from heaven, with the bread that gives life to the world.

We are a motley collection of diners, and sometimes I wonder how we all end up at the same table and – what’s a greater puzzlement – how we stay at the table with each other. (Sometimes we don’t.) We usually pay attention to everything under the sun except what’s really happening here: the feeding, sustaining, nourishing of our souls by the grace of God.

How many people in the restaurant that Sunday really paid attention to savoring the meal they were eating? I don’t know; maybe no one. But we were fed anyway. How many of us are so involved in the details of living or working or schooling or practicing religion that we pay little or no attention to the simple gift of relationships that help us see each other truly and put our lives together and give them back to each other in all the right order? I don’t know, but the bread of heaven feeds us anyway. And before we concentrate on all we have to do together, maybe we could concentrate first on the food that endures.

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