Friday, September 21, 2012

The Ember Days: Food for Ministry in a Hungry Time

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. (John 4:31-34)

On Wednesdays in Embertide, the Gospel lesson appointed at the Holy Eucharist is taken from Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4. The portion read is during something of an interlude in that conversation, where Christ speaks to his disciples, who had been absent from him for a time, while the Samaritan woman gathers up many fellow villagers with the Good News of her encounter with “the One who has come into the world.” This interlude has profound meaning for all Christian ministry—and with a particular verdict on our own day.

The disciples assume that Jesus is hungry—which he may well have been. But Jesus is concerned with deeper things than the mere satiation of physical passions. This is, right off, a lesson that we need to internalize. It has been said that one of John Wesley’s maxims was that each minister of the Gospel should be ready to do three things with only three minutes’ preparation: pray, preach—and die. This complete openness to God’s immediacy, an access to grace borne of a deep inner communion with God, is not somehow “optional.” It is at the heart of effective lay or ordained ministry. How much is this being taught or encouraged in the contemporary Episcopal Church?

Jesus’ response to the Apostles’ delightfully Mediterranean suggestion: “Rabbi, eat!” is to state that he has food of which they know nothing about. They immediately assume someone must be bringing him food secretly. Perhaps they want to know who is “horning in” on their unique access to Jesus. Maybe they were concerned with their failing to provide for their teacher—and especially afraid that a woman (and a Samaritan, at that) had done so. The possibilities are endless.

But the point is that Jesus is speaking of spiritual sustenance—a food that fills the soul rather than the stomach. This food, he tells them, is to do his Father’s will and to complete his work. Here is, metaphorically-speaking, the meat of the exchange.

Jesus is telling the Apostles, and by extension all his disciples through the ages, that the “food” of ministry is doing God the Father’s will. Our share in the Gospel ministry is nourished solely by this food. A diet of anything else will lead to spiritual malnutrition and (potential) death.

Each Embertide, I think about the state of my own ministry. I read Scripture and use various prayers to do this diagnostic work, rather like the blood draw and subsequent report I get from my doctor a couple of times a year. These prayers (such as the Litany of the Holy Spirit and the Litany of Remembrance—a.k.a. “The Southwell Litany”) help me to analyze the condition of my spiritual health as an ordained minister of the Gospel, to see where my diet is leading to healing, growth, and life…and where I have been eating and drinking of the things of this world, resulting in imbalances costly to me personally and all to whom I am sent to share Christ’s Good News.

In doing this Embertide reflection, I always trace new ways God is working in my life—and ways in which old, familiar patterns of illness seek to keep me locked in sin and sickness. The former are causes for thanksgiving and praise; the latter are fruit for sacramental confession.

Fasting is one of the Embertide disciplines I have continued to wrestle with over the years. I have a natural aversion to being a bit hungry. Now, I can go for days without eating at all—the total fast of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday—but the ascetic fast of Fridays, Lent, and the Embertides…this is very much harder. These hunger pangs of a skipped or reduced meal force me to see how much I substitute earthly food for that heavenly food Jesus speaks of in the passage from John. It really grates on that “false self” that still somehow thinks it can live apart from God to find out exactly how puny, fragile, and limited it really is.

I find that the best recourse to my aversion for ascetic fasting is consciously to seek that heavenly food Jesus alone gives—to go and pray before Christ in the Holy Sacrament reserved in church. When I do this, I come face to face with the reality of my poverty, my need—and God’s overflowing grace. I actually feel myself being filled up with that heavenly food. By the end of such times, I know hope anew, and my sense of sharing in God’s mission is re-energized.

This, in turn, leads me to look out beyond my usual quest to satiate myself on earthly things, toward the world God calls me to love and serve in Christ’s Name. This is precisely the pattern in John 4. Jesus turns the disciples from the fixation on physical food, material sources of strength, and towards the fantastic opportunity he calls the Plentiful Harvest. Time “wasted” with God yields fruit giving energy and vision beyond what any ordinary meal could grant. Isn’t this one of the meanings of the Eucharist we share each week? That meal is the “meal for mission” par excellence. Yet, I am not convinced we understand it as such, what with all our focus on trying to make the Eucharist about comfort, ease, and no-cost discipleship.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing things I see in our Diocese—and around the Church generally—is a tremendous lack of energy. We hear, almost from the get-go at meetings of clergy and lay leaders, of a sense of fatigue. Our vision so easily moves from Jesus’ Plentiful Harvest to the level of institutional survival or the replication of worn-out patterns and slogans. Clergy whisper despairingly about the seemingly insurmountable odds facing them in trying to “make churches grow” (as if it were their job, rather than God’s). Lay people are often quick to remind clergy that they have “real jobs” in the “real world,” presumably meaning the secular world, as opposed to the apparent hobby of the Church world. Anyone visiting from outside could be pardoned for believing us to be on our last legs. And, perhaps we are.

I say this because of a profound belief that we are at the end of an era, a season when we still contrive to believe that by tweaking one or another thing, or by simply peddling religion, we can find the magic formula that will lead to growth and “success,” whatever that means. The seemingly endless programs, gimmicks, sure-fire techniques trotted out by our hierarchy and various consultants over the last decades lead one to think—much like a yo-yo dieter—that this time, the secret has been found. In reality, of course, the real issue is much greater and more global. It has to do with one’s relationship to food itself.

This is true for the Church, as well. Ministry is hard work. The reality of what it means to live the Gospel in our world can quickly become overwhelming, and anyone who thinks otherwise is either foolish or ignorant. It demands a right form of nutrition.

Our food cannot be the empty calories of the consumer culture, the damaged fats of division, the gluttony in turning a blind eye to injustice, or the caffeinated buzz of carnality in all its forms. It must be the Gospel. I think our fatigue, our simple lack of zeal for the Church as Christ’s Body and thus truly Good News, is deeply connected to the food we are eating. Whether it be the toxicity of much mainstream Christianity, or the spiritual eating disorder in our own church brought on by decades of divisiveness and the search for an illusory and ideological “purity,” we really must stop dumpster-diving from spoiled leftovers and get back to the one diet all Christians crave: the will of the Father. This is the diet the authentic Church eats and serves. Anything else will lead to ruin.

The way we will know we have begun to recover as a Church is when we grow in energy and vision, when we recover a sense of the joy of unity and of sharing life in the Body of Christ the way we might enjoy sharing a new product from Trader Joe’s today. It has been so before…and when God wills it and we respond, it will be so again.

Until then, Jesus words to the Apostles will remain the verdict upon us: “I have food to eat you do not know about.”


  1. My dream for the parish (and myself) is that any notions that we need to "do" anything would be relinquished; that our "program" for spreading the Gospel primarily be living and moving and having our being in the Holy Trinity; and that being so fed, we will naturally share that food with those who are hungry.

  2. And this does really become our "mission plan," so to speak. We aren't pedaling mere "religion," so we don't need to produce a product or a use gimmicks. Rather, we are nourished on the authentic food of Faith, and then share with others, much as we see Christ do in John 4. If we see the Church primarily in organic terms (as do the Scriptures), rather than institutional terms, the mission becomes about that sharing, rather than elaborate but futile systems or plans.