Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 01, 2021 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Exodus 16:2-4;12;15 | Psalm 78:3-4;23-25;54
Ephesians 4:17; 20-24 | John 6:24-35

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.

In our Gathering Song this morning, we sang about “food for all who hunger, and drink for all who thirst.” But in our capitalist, property-rights-oriented country, food is not an explicit human right. it’s a fact of life in this country that your access to food is determined by how much money you have.

About fifty-four million Americans are projected to struggle with hunger this year—an increase of forty-five percent from last year as noted by the United States Department of Agriculture. And according to The Washington Postmore Americans are shoplifting for basic necessities at the grocery store more than ever before. Since the pandemic began, there have been more incidences of shoplifting than in previous economic downturns. Industry experts say that there is a key commonality in what’s being stolen across grocery stores nationwide. People stealing staples such as bread, pasta, and baby formula. Why? The United States Census Bureau says that nearly twenty-six million adults reported not having enough food to eat as of mid-November of last year, which was a record high.

In our economic system, if you are an honest person who plays by society’s rules, you have to pay a grocery store or restaurant money to get food. Shoplifting or leaving a restaurant without paying the bill could get you arrested and convicted of a crime. Unless you can find someone willing to give you food, you have to pay for it. Although humans need food for survival, in the United States, your survival is, unfortunately, your own problem.

At the end of the day, the thing that’s driving people to shoplift food is hunger, which begs the question, what’s the right thing to do? Is it OK to steal food from a grocery store if you are hungry but too poor to buy food? The answer to that question is not a blanket “No” as our law-and-order conservative sisters and brothers would like it to be. In fact, the appropriate response to food shoplifting is an evolving issue with police and the Courts.

The Book of Proverbs tells us, “Thieves are not despised who steal only to satisfy their appetite when they are hungry.” This biblical passage may have come to life in July when New York City police officers chose not to arrest a woman suspected of shoplifting at Whole Foods in Union Square and, instead, paid for her food.  Myles Werntz, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Hardin-Simmons University applauded their actions. He said, and I quote,

“Policing should be about helping the community grow and flourish, not only about monitoring infractions of the law. By paying for someone’s food rather than incarcerating them, the officers were contributing to the good of society as a whole rather than only the good of some of society.”

The secular world is inching ever more closely to a goal of recognizing food as a basic human right for everyone. An argument can be made that shoplifting increases prices for everyone else. But isn’t that similar to taxing people to support food-stamp programs? And don’t forget, if a hungry person without money is incarcerated for shoplifting, that person will be fed at public expense while confined. The point is, one way or another, hungry people without money are going to get fed at the expense of the general public. The operative variable is, “under what terms will they be fed?”

In last week’s Gospel, we heard about how Jesus fed a mob of hungry people. There, we saw yet another demonstration of the identification of Jesus with the human condition when Jesus did what was necessary to satisfy their physical hunger.  In today’s first reading, we again have a mob of hungry people. The Israelites looked to their leader, Moses, for food. Moses had led them out of captivity through the Red Sea, out of slavery to the Egyptians, into freedom on a journey wandering through the wilderness to the “promised land” then occupied by the Canaanite tribes.

In those days, there were no restaurants or even farmer’s stands along the way where they could stop and buy food. They pretty much had to be hunters and gatherers along their journey, which meant they didn’t know what was available to eat from day today. They were both homeless and hungry. They were solely dependent on God to provide physical nourishment to them. What kept them going, was their trust and reliance on God for survival.

In today’s Gospel, the people listening to Jesus had just seen Jesus feed five thousand people with just a few loaves and fishes, which led them to associate Jesus with food to satisfy physical hunger. Jesus responds by reminding them that the food they eat perishes and will not give them eternal life. He tried to convince them that, in the same manner, that the Israelites in today’s first reading received food to satisfy their physical hunger, those who pay attention to Jesus will receive the bread that gives eternal life…and that bread is Jesus Himself.

The most important statement in today’s Gospel is that God gave Jesus to be bread for the world. Bread symbolizes life. Bread, as nourishment, sustains life. The manna that rained down from heaven was food that God provided to the nation of Israel so that their bodies would not starve.

Today’s Gospel is also about faith and trust in God to feed us but in a different way. It’s about what we really get from receiving the Eucharist.  A very small wafer and a sip of wine is not a meal in the sense of satisfying bodily hunger for food. It was never meant to be that.  The Eucharist is spiritual food.

That spiritual food is Jesus Himself.  However, the crowd that faced Jesus in today’s Gospel was skeptical of that idea. The notion of spiritual food is bound up with faith. Spiritual food and faith are part of each other. To get the crowd in today’s Gospel to accept this idea, Jesus had to sell Himself. If you’ve ever been in a sales job, whether it’s for an employer or your own business, the first step in getting someone to buy anything, is to get that person to trust you.   To make the sale of Himself to the crowd, Jesus had to overcome that skepticism. He had to get people to trust Him. He had to get people to have faith in him. As I have told you all many times previously, faith in Jesus is not just accepting his existence but putting your trust in Jesus.

Today’s Gospel contains a dialogue illustrating how people went about placing their trust in Jesus. The people asked Him, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in You?” The people were looking for something that would give them the security of a comfort zone, to know Jesus was the real thing. Jesus, however, challenged them to step out of their comfort zone, and so must we, as part of the mission of the church, challenge the world in which we minister.

When we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus in Holy Communion, we are no longer spiritually hungry.  But we don’t satisfy our spiritual hunger by working our tails off for food that satisfies only our bodily hunger and then perishes. Instead, we get that eternal food that is the Body and Blood of Jesus by being open to receiving Jesus as the imperishable food of eternal life. Jesus is the food that can, and will, satisfy us forever.

The world is desperate for that kind of food. What is significant for us in the here-and-now, is how the lack of any spiritual food whatsoever in the lives of many people affects them as individuals and society as a whole.

Many people who are progressive in their social thought distinguish themselves by lauding the secularization of society, where concerns about God and Jesus are swept aside as supernatural nonsense, irrelevant to contemporary life. This quest to expunge God out from their lives, however, fails to account for the desperation I see in the faces of hungry people.  Very seldom do I see people praying or looking to God to assuage their hunger. Indeed, forty-five percent of Californians seldom, if ever, attend church. Religion is simply not part of their lives.  But how many of those people who have spurned God are truly happy with their lives?

I truly feel sorry for those people whose lives lack the presence of God. The godless lives of so much of our population should send a message to us as Christians. That message is that all of us must do a much better job of educating the world around us about Jesus, not only with words but how we live.

As I have said over and over, Christianity is not a doctrinal religion.

Christianity is not a law-book religion.

Christianity is not a political religion.

Christianity is not a religion to regulate your sex life.

Christianity is, however, a behavior religion.

Christianity is a religion about how you honor God and how you treat other people.

A country that says, “Your personal survival is your personal problem” is not a Christian country.

A country that says, “Your personal survival is your personal problem” does not honor the image of God in whose likeness every person was created.

A country that says, “Your personal survival is your personal problem” insults human dignity.

The world must change to rid itself of that nonsense. The route to doing that is a deep commitment to Jesus as the Bread of Life for all of humanity. We must allow the Bread of Life to transform us and to transform the world in which we live.

Transformation means change, but fear causes many people to resist change. We can see that in the hesitancy of the legal system to change the way it handles food theft. Only in the last twenty years or so have we seen the enlightened approach I earlier described.

To those of you who find change uncomfortable, I have three words: “Get over it.” For nearly two thousand years, Christians have viewed the very idea of the Eucharist itself as transformational: ordinary bread and wine are transformed into the Real Presence of the resurrected Body of Jesus.  We accept this transformation because we trust the Holy Spirit will make it happen.

God chose Jesus as God’s instrument to build up that Kingdom by transforming the world.  God calls us to do likewise. The Eucharist is meant to change us so we can change the world around us. The crowd in today’s Gospel was transformed into believing in Jesus, and by the Eucharist, we are, too.

Today’s second reading calls us to transform ourselves by no longer living as others around us do. It calls us to put away our old selves and former way of life and to put on a new self. That’s what Jesus, physically present in the Eucharist, does for us.

Receiving the Eucharist allows us to be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and allow a spiritual revolution to overtake us.  It allows us to put on a new self and live as an instrument of God’s peace and compassionate justice.  All of that requires faith and trust in God that that process will actually occur.

Feeding on the Body of Jesus in the Eucharist nourishes us on our journey to our ultimate goal is to be like God and become one with God. In this process of transformation, we can transform the world around us, by calling out injustice and caring for the least among us.

The Bread of Life from heaven changes us so we can change what needs changing in our world. It gives us the courage to do what we have to do to build up the Kingdom of God, to not be intimidated by the forces of evil which are always so ready and anxious to get in our way.

We overcome evil by our continued trust in Jesus and our allegiance to him. We can trust Jesus because the message of  Jesus is all-powerful and more than capable of defeating the spiritual malaise infesting our world.

Christians conquer the spiritual lifelessness of today’s world by living as the hands and feet of Jesus. In his Epistle to the Romans, Saint Paul gave us practical advice about how to do that. Paul exhorts us to not repay evil with evil. In other words, executing a murderer does not propagate God’s justice.  Instead, we are to let God deal with the problem. As Paul said, “Do not avenge yourselves but leave room for the wrath of God.” Fully consistent with the message of Jesus, Paul tell us,

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Jesus, the Word made flesh, Jesus, the Bread of Life nourished our souls with that kind of thinking. When we act in those ways as the hands and feet of Jesus, we actively place our trust in Jesus as our Savior and Redeemer. Although they don’t explicitly say they are following Jesus, the police and prosecutors are doing exactly that by dealing with impoverished and hungry food shoplifters in a humane manner.

Jesus arose from the earth as God in human flesh. God formed Jesus into a loaf just like God formed us. Just as bread rises, Jesus rises, and the Bread of His Body is shared with us in Holy Communion, to give us a taste of the heavenly banquet. When bread bakes, heat surrounds it to fix it into its final form according to the intention of the baker who created it. The heat of  God’s love bakes us. God surrounds us with warmth, showing God’s intention that we are meant to be loving beings, leaving sin behind, and rising with Jesus. We accept God’s love by showing our trust in God.

Just as bread nourishes our physical bodies, Jesus gives eternal life to all of us and sustains it within us. Jesus is the wholesome food that heals us, unites us, and brings us joy. Like the people in today’s Gospel seeking a sign from Jesus, for us here today, the Eucharist is that sign, a sign that Jesus is here among us, with us, and in us, as the Bread of Life for everyone, everywhere, and forever. AMEN.