Sara Miles story offers a glimpse of the power of what can happen we we share bread and wine.
It was a winter morning when Sara Miles went out for a walk. Taking a walk was nothing unusual for her. Walking past St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, a wooden building with shingled steeples and plain windows, was nothing new. She had passed it before.
But on this day, she randomly decided to go inside to see what they did in there.
“I had no earthly reason to be there,” she would write later. “I’d never heard a Gospel reading, never said the Lord’s Prayer. I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian – or, as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut.”
She said she went in with no more than a reporter’s habitual curiosity.
She was a journalist. She had reported on wars in El Salvador and in the Philippines. Before that, she was a cook in restaurants in New York City. This was kitchen work, nothing as fancy as being a chef.
Her parents had left the faith of their parents long ago and Sara was raised with no religious experience or knowledge. For her, Sunday mornings were a great time to drink coffee and read The New York Times.
But on this day, she walked through the doors of St. Gregory’s to see what was going on. She entered as the least likely to find this to be the moment that would transform her life.
By her own description, she was a “blue-state, secular intellectual, a lesbian, a left-wing journalist with a habit of skepticism.”
What was going on was a worship service. You know how that goes. People sing, they stand up, they sit down. They all seemed to know what was going on – except for Sara. She tried not to draw anyone’s attention. It all seemed innocent enough until a woman priest announced: “Jesus invites everyone to the table.”
The whole crowd began to move toward the table and Sara moved with them. On the table were some dishes and a goblet. Let Sara pick up the story from here:
“We gathered around the table. And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying, ‘the body of Christ’ and handing me the goblet of sweet wine and saying, ‘the blood of Christ,’ and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.”
I don’t imagine that many of us have quite that same experience when we come up to share communion here, even on a World Communion Sunday. But I think Sara Miles’ story offers us some glimpses into the power of what we do here when we share bread and cup.
She wrote about her experience and delved into the meaning of communion in her book, Take This Bread: The Spiritual Memoir of a Twenty-First Century Christian.
Those of you who have been here a while have heard me talk about her before, but it’s been a while. It seems to me her story and her understanding of communion have a lot to say to us on this day when we remember that across the centuries and around the world, one of the things that binds followers of Jesus together – and divides them, I might add – is sharing bread and wine as Jesus did with his closest followers on the night before he died.
As Sara Miles said, after she ate that bread and drunk from that goblet that was handed to her, she found herself off balance, both physically and emotionally. She could not figure out why, but she new that something extraordinary had happened to her that morning in church.
She tried to figure out all sorts of psychological explanations, but she kept coming back to this:
“That impossible word, ‘Jesus,’ lodged in me like a crumb, I said it over and over to myself, as if the repetition would help me understand. I had no idea what it meant; I didn’t know what to do with it.
“But it was realer than any thought of mine, or even any subjective emotion. It was as real as the actual taste of the bread and the wine. And the word was indisputably in my body now, as if I’d swallowed a radioactive pellet that would outlive my own flesh.”
Isn’t that an amazing description of the mystical power of connecting the simple meal we share here with the reality of Jesus?
The crumb lodged inside her, the word Jesus – the word made part of her flesh.
A life inside her that transcended the boundaries of reality as we know it.
Sara knew that none of this would make sense to her friends, who were not exactly churchy types. She wrote, “It seemed as crazy as saying I had eating a magic potion that could make me fly.” And her friends would later tell her that she was acting sort of strange in the weeks after that morning when the Jesus lodged inside her in the form of bread crumbs.
Later, as she learned more about Jesus, she would read the stories of how his followers thought this whole bread thing was a little weird as well when Jesus told them they would eat his flesh and drink his blood. That’s a pretty horrifying image for us simply as humans. It was even more horrifying for first-century Jews for whom touching flesh and blood were simply beyond the pale.
But she also learned what a central role food played in the stories of Jesus and she knew how much meaning food have in her life, not as physical sustenance but as something binding people together in the most unlikely circumstances.
There were those days and nights in the restaurant kitchens, bound together with the cooks in the chaos of food preparation, grabbing bites for themselves along the way, even sometimes feeding a poor person who came to the kitchen door.
When she was covering wars, she learned how vulnerable everyone’s bodies were and how they could feel connected in the midst of constant danger.
She wrote: “Never was that feeling stronger than when people fed me, which they did constantly. In El Salvador, a priest gave me a cookie; in the Philippines, a peasant woman gave me a fish. Over and over, despite the poverty of the places I visited, despite the danger my presence often meant, strangers fed me, freely. Food took on new meaning for me in the war years, as I searched to make meaning amid suffering.”
And then she became a mother, giving birth to Katie, her beautiful daughter. “A nursing child is elementally flesh and blood,” she wrote, “linked to the mother through eating in the most visceral way.”
Sara Miles had some pretty vivid experiences with food giving meaning to her life. Now, as she tried to figure out what it meant to eat bread and drink wine and suddenly feel that Jesus was lodged within her skeptical body, she began to explore the stories of Jesus.
As she put it, “I was working my way toward a theology, beginning with what I had taken in my mouth and working out from there.”
Here’s what she wrote:
“As I interpreted it, Jesus invited notorious wrongdoers to his table, airily discarded all the religious rules of the day, and fed whoever showed up, by the thousands. In the end, he was murdered for eating with the wrong people.
“And then – here’s where the story gets irrational. I didn’t exactly ‘believe’ it, the way I believed in the boiling point of water or photosynthesis, but it seemed true to me – wholly true in ways that mere facts could never be. I believed this God rose from the dead to have breakfast with his friends.
“I read about the crazy days after Jesus’ arrest, death, and burial, when the terrified disciples were scattering, just as I’d seen peasants and revolutionaries run from the violence of soldiers in Latin America.
“A stranger hailed them on the road to Emmaus. They told him what had happened and he explained it all by citing Scripture, recounting old prophecies in impressive detail. Then, according to the book, they came to a village and invited the stranger to eat with them, as the night was drawing near.
“He sat down at the table, took bread, and broke it. Suddenly, ‘their eyes were opened,’ reported the book. ‘He made himself known in the breaking of the bread, and they felt their hearts on fire.’ Then he vanished.
“In another story, he reappeared cooking food on the beach. In another, he showed up to tell his followers that he was hungry and wanted something to eat. They gave him a piece of fish.
“All of it pointed to a force stronger than the anxious formulas of religions: a radically inclusive love that accompanied people in the most ordinary of actions – eating, drinking, walking – and stayed with them through fear, even past death That love meant giving yourself away, embracing outsiders as family, emptying yourself to feed and live for others.
“The stories illuminated the holiness located in mortal bodies, and the promise that people could see God by cherishing all those different bodies the way God did. They spoke of a communion so much vaster than any church could contain.”
All of this took Sara into joining that vast band of people who try to follow Jesus. She put it this way: “I discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the despised and the outcast are honored.”
And that took her into feeding the hungry, starting with making food available once a week right there in the sanctuary of St. Gregory’s right around that table where people ate bread and drank wine. Then it turned into a network of food pantries. She was feeding people once again, only this time, she was connecting her work with the work of that itinerant rabbi from two thousand years ago.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus told his followers. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Today, let us share in that meal.
And let us sing a hymn. This one, number 333, “O Bread of Life,” has words that resonate with our theme today. And the melody and the harmonies stretch us into that global sense of communion that we honor this day.
The music is from China and text include some Buddhist images that expand our boundaries while connecting with people in China. Let’s join together in “O Bread of Life.”