September 12

Finding Divine Sustenance

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Kings 19:48

John 6:35, 4151

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Good morning! Can I just say how amazing it is to be here, in front of people, delivering a sermon today? This year has been so difficult, and even though we managed ways to stay connected through the radio and zoom, distanced outdoor in-person services in the freezing cold, and email, nothing compares to the strength and support of physically being together. In the three weeks that we have been back indoors, in person here at Marsh Chapel I have been so happy to see your faces, although masked, and to hear your wonderful voices. Don’t get me wrong, recording your sermon ahead of time has its advantages, like starting over if you mess up at the beginning, but nothing compares to being here, with you, in community praising God. It’s such a blessing on what is a very important day for me – more on that later! 

A few years ago, actually, I think it may have been a decade or more at this point, the candy bar, Snickers, had a commercial campaign that featured Betty White. You may remember this. She was depicted playing a game of touch football with much younger men and ends up getting tackled into a giant mud puddle. When she gets grief from the other players for not playing to her potential, she lashes out at them. And then another woman presumably the partner of the person Betty White is supposed to be depicting, hands her a candy bar and says, “Eat a Snickers.” Betty White then transforms into a younger man who says he’s now feeling much better and goes off to play more football. The tagline was “You’re not you when you’re hungry.Maybe some of us have experienced being so hungry that we end up in a bad mood, sometimes lashing out at others. Your hunger becomes so great that even the smallest inconvenience becomes insurmountable. I’m sure some of us are familiar with the term “hangry” – a portmanteau of the words hungry and angry. As a person who struggles with low blood sugar at times, I certainly know that I have embodied this “hangry” position and I am certainly not myself when I do. 

Earlier this year, there was a meme going around in my clergy friend circle discussing the passage from 1 Kings today. The meme is actually a tweet from Joy Clarkson, a PhD candidate in theology at St. Andrews University and host of the Podcast, “Speaking with Joy”( @joynessthebrave). It stated: 

“Remember that one time in the Bible when Elijah was like “God, I’m so mad! I want to die!” So God said, “Here’s some food. Why don’t you have a nap? So Elijah slept and ate, and decided things weren’t so bad. Never underestimate the power of a snack and a nap.”

Of course, this is an oversimplification of the story, but we get the point, right? Elijah’s story is relatable because we know that feeling. Getting “hangry” or overwhelmed, or even just not acting like ourselves when things are not going the way we planned. We get moody. We argue with others. We hyperbolize and say, “I could just die!” The bottom line is, we just want whatever it is to be over. We’ve all had times when things seem so impossible around us that we want to just throw up our hands at God and say “WHY? WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?” Some of those times may have even come up in the past year, or even the past weeks with the surge of the Delta variant, returning to school or work, and witnessing national and global news that leaves us at a loss for words. Our conversations with God often come in these moments of exasperation as we grasp for clarity.  My friends who shared the meme about Elijah’s breakdown were those who had endured a year of upended plans with their religious communities and faced continued situations of injustice throughout the world. They too were and continue to be frustrated in what they can and cannot do for others to serve them in a way that is does not completely deplete them of their own energy supply. Many of them were reaching a point of burnout 

A snack and a nap certainly are not going to fix all of the world’s problems, but when we have our basic needs met, it is easier to cope with extenuating circumstances. We cannot serve others or ourselves if we are running low on energy. Taking care of our needs can also help us focus on who and what supports us. For my clergy friends, remembering that it is okay and even encouraged by God to take care of themselves to better serve others was much needed. A silly internet meme resulted in a moment of reflection on God’s presence and guidance in maintaining one’s ability to continue the difficult work of seeking out justice in the world. In times of stress, remembering to drink, eat, and sometimes even just breathe can help us find grounding. 

Elijah separates himself from his community to express his frustration and ultimately finds that God continues to support him by providing him with his essential needs so that he can reset and return to his community. He can then go on to continue his important work as a prophet in challenging the actions of King Ahab and the cruelty shown to the people of Israel. God’s constant presence through the care shown to Elijah when he is at his lowest point enables Elijah to remember that God continues to support him, even in his darkest moments. Elijah has physical hunger, yes, but he also has a spiritual hunger that needs to be fulfilled. 

The theme of the sustaining presence of God in the world is carried through in today’s Gospel message. Jesus proclaims to the people, including the religious authorities, that HE is the bread of life and that whoever comes to him will never be hungry. Some may read this as a message meant to exclude, a condemnation of those who are not a part of Jesus’ movement. But, as one commentator put it, this is not a message of condemnation but of commendation. It is an invitation to people to come, taste and see that the Lord is good! Jesus creates a continuum between his Jewish heritage and the new message of what God offers to humanity. The Israelites relied on manna from heaven while they wandered the desert with Moses for 40 years, further establishing their trust in God. This new form of manna from heaven through the bread of life expands God’s covenant with humanity in establishing eternal life. It provides spiritual nourishment to all who come to receive it.  

In our Christian context, we immediately connect Jesus’ claim of being the bread of life for those who hunger and the living waters for those who thirst with our sacraments. Holy Communion allows us to eat and drink as Christ has instructed us, in his remembrance. Sharing together as a community in partaking in the bread and wine physically binds us to the reality of Christ’s love. As a central part of worship, the Lord’s Supper presents an opportunity for us as the congregation to share in the intimate act of eating and drinking together. Temporally and spatially, this act also connects us with the centuries of Christians throughout the world who have shared in this sacrament. Creating community around the table is meaningful because it recognizes the need to be spiritually and physically sustained in order to serve God. 

One thing that I appreciate most about the Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper is the acknowledgement of the mystery that surrounds it. We take Jesus at his word when he states that the bread and the wine are his body and blood. Our faith is bolstered by the fact that we continue to receive this mystery. Even if we believe we are unworthy to accept God’s grace, it is still given to us through the promise found in Holy Communion. Our consciences are eased by the reality that there is nothing we need to do to earn this means of grace from God, but that it is given to us freely.  

Here at Marsh Chapel, last week we had our first experience with Holy Communion together in the same space after 18 months of depravation. Communion did not happen in our traditional way of intinction. We used pre-packaged communion kits rather than receiving the bread and wine from one another. While we may have fumbled to get the plastic wrappers off of our wafers or carefully pulled back the foil on top of our cup of grape juice so not to spill it on our clothes, we still heard the words of institution spoken and received the mystery of the sacrament together. It was still a special moment filled with God’s stated presence here with us, joining us together. Eating and drinking has been something  many of us have missed in these days of isolation and social distancing. Avoiding having a meal around others has been essential to maintaining our physical health in the past year, but finding a way to still partake in this sacrament in a COVID-safe way has brought back spiritual nourishment for us. 

Holy Communion has played a pivotal role in my own sense of vocation and call. Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I only infrequently encountered other ministers in my youth My primary clergy person was also my dad. I witnessed my father celebrating communion almost every week in the churches he served. However, when you’re a PK, your connection with the church can be somewhat challenging. If your pastor is your parent, it’s hard to not see their vocation as just a “job” or really understand what it is that they do. For some PKs, it causes them to develop some uneasiness around considering ministry as a potential vocation. That’s why, when I went off to theology school after college I made it very clear that I was NOT going to be pastor. I figured my studies of religion and theology were enough to feed my spirituality. I had stopped regularly attending church in college and didn’t feel any sort of drive to return even when surrounded by those who were seeking out ministry as their vocation. 

In 2011, things changed. My mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that originates in the bone marrow and affects the white blood cells. Fortunately, she was diagnosed early and had access to cutting-edge care at the University of Pennsylvania hospital, which has oncologists who specialize in this type of cancer. The prospect of a loved one, or even yourself, going through cancer treatment is terrifying, however. Watching at a distance as she went through chemo, losing weight and eventually her hair, it was hard to not question: Why? Why was this happening?” Like Elijah yelling at God in his frustration, there were many times when I found myself angry with God. My family trusted the doctors, who were sure that at the very least her disease would be manageable in the future, but nonetheless it was scary in the moment.  

I finally got to visit my mom after she had her largest dose of chemo and her own treated stem cells transplanted into her body, resulting in a 17 day long stay at the hospital, from which she had just been released. My parent’s minister, the minister of the church to which my family belonged while my dad served as an interim minister for many years, came to the house to give her communion. I had never experienced communion at home before (which seems like a silly thing to say in today’s context, when some of us have now taken part in communion services over Zoom). For me, communion was always a full church experience – I connected it with being in front of the altar and surrounded by others. Sure, I knew that my dad would go out and give communion to those who were too sick or homebound, but I never experienced it first-hand, let alone from another minister. My mom, dad, and I sat in their living room as Pastor Sharkey unpacked his communion kit and asked my mom about how she was doing, comforting her in the challenges she now faced in her recovery. He went on to offer us each communion, stating the words of institution and placing the wafers in our hands followed by small cups of wine.  

Although I had heard “The body of Christ, given for you,” “The blood of Christ, shed for you” many, many times before, in that specific moment I felt a connection so much deeper than anything I had ever experienced. I felt spiritually fed. I felt supported by God. I knew that God was there to help us get through this moment. It wasn’t that my experiences in the church prior to this were not spiritual or meaningful, but it helped me to see and understand ministry in a different light. I knew that ministry involved the care of others in the most difficult of times, but I don’t think I ever truly understood what it meant to those who were hurting until I experienced it myself. As someone who has innately sought to help others in whatever jobs I take on (perhaps because of my upbringing) I began to see ministry as truly viable option for my future. When the opportunity to serve as the Lutheran Campus Minister here at BU arose after this experience, I jumped at the chance to enter into the beginning steps of a long process of discernment to pursue becoming a minister of Word and Sacrament.  

Throughout my journey of candidacy, I have continued to encounter moments of God’s sustaining presence, keeping me spiritually fed. Getting to know the ins and outs of Chaplaincy from my colleagues, learning about the experiences of my students, and providing care for others has helped me grow into my vocation. The road has not always been easy, it has certainly been long, and there were times when I had those moments with God questioning why I had to go through what I was going through. I found a community of people who support and care for me, cheering me on as I hit each milestone and encouraging me when things didn’t go as planned. Through it all, I felt God’s presence with me in this community. And now, this afternoon, for the first time ever, I will preside at the table for Holy Communion at my ordination service. I can’t put into words what that moment will mean for me. While, again, it won’t necessarily be the experience I thought I would have because of COVID, being able to help direct the congregation that will gather in this sanctuary to the mystery of God’s grace brings my heart joy. Perhaps someone will also find comfort or strength in the words of institution, being spiritually fed through the bread of life and the living waters. 

God stands with us in our hardest moments. When we yell out in our frustration hoping for something better, God hears us. God’s constant presence reminds us that we are not alone. We gather together in community with one another to find the strength to continue through whatever challenges we might face. Christ invites us to partake in the bread of life to have our hunger and thirst perpetually satisfied. We are physically and spiritually fed through Holy Communion, hearing the Word proclaimed and receiving the body and blood of Christ given for each one of us. We are divinely sustained as a community. As the Psalmist states “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who take refuge in God!” Amen. 

-Rev. Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

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