Sermon for Ninth Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 2 August 2015
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Trinity 9 HM
A few years ago at this time of year I was travelling in Chile.
Everywhere you go in Chile you see bread: for sale on street corners and markets, in shops and stalls. As soon as you sit down to eat, in the simplest diner or bar and in the most sophisticated restaurant, you will immediately be presented with at least one type of bread, possibly two or three. It is the foundation of the meal, the necessary beginning. It is emphatically not a side dish.
So when I went to church at the Shrine of Chile’s new saint, St Alberto Hurtado, I was listening carefully to what the priest might have to say about bread. My Spanish is limited, but attendance at many Masses attunes your ears to the familiar vocabulary of Christian worship. And I felt sure that bread would strike a chord with a Chilean preacher, especially in this particular church.
St Alberto Hurtado, who is buried nearby, was a Jesuit who in only twenty years of active ministry changed the Church in Chile. I have spoken about him here before; he challenged both the Church and wider Chilean society about the centrality of Christian faith to a just society; he was dedicated to showing that the Church was for all; that, far from being the preserve of the powerful and the rich, it was the natural home of the poor and the worker; that if people had really been offered Christ as Christ meant himself to be offered, they would not need Marx; that the church should be the sort of institution that would challenge socialism with action, not the politics of reaction.
Struck by a chance encounter with a sick homeless man, Hurtado had begun by acting: by acquiring a now-famous green Ford truck, driving through the streets and picking up those who he found sleeping rough and bringing them home, a home which swiftly became his new institution, the Home of Christ (Hogar de Cristo), where they were sheltered and fed: children and old people, sick and undernourished (later there would also be a women’s refuge), all came to the new ‘Home of Christ’. In a society which then had no welfare system his organisation became a significant contributor to alleviating the sufferings of those in need. In the centre of the ‘Home of Christ’ he naturally built a church and it was here that I had gone to join in worship.
I wanted to hear what the priest might say about today’s Gospel, about bread. I wanted to hear it because a month in Chile had given me a new sense of what Jesus was doing in the Eucharist. In Chile, as in Jesus’ Palestine, bread is not an optional item. It is the opposite of what it has become for many of us. Not long before this journey I had come upon something I thought truly preposterous: it was called a ‘bread boutique’. In the centre of the shop was an artistic display of different breads, an acme of a window-dresser’s art, subtly back-lit, without the slightest connection to food. If you had shown Jesus a bread boutique I should think he would have laughed, or possibly wept. We know there are homeless people and hungry people near at hand. Nonetheless they will be able to find some bread and other food as well. But in Chile (as in Jesus’ Palestine) there are many people for whom the ‘daily bread’ for which we glibly pray is not guaranteed. For them bread is not a decorative item, a camp joke.
You get a further sense of the fundamental importance of bread in Chilean society as you watch priests at the altar. As you probably know, the Spanish word for bread is pan. It is a strong monosyllable, and I noticed that the words ‘took bread’ (‘tomo pan’) were almost always enunciated with great force and followed by a marked pause: as if to say here is what we eat every day and Jesus used this. Which is why I wanted to hear what the Jesuit priest at the church next to Father Hurtado’s tomb – now a national place of pilgrimage – would have to say about bread.
The church was packed for the fourth Mass of the morning. The sermon began with a call to identify our home cities, so I played the game; when, following a catalogue of mostly Chilean cities, I shouted, ‘Londres’, a loud gasp filled the church, followed by applause. Santiago and Chile are provincial places and the shrine, located in the older residential area of the city, is not easy to find in a city where maps are rare and inaccurate and few visitors venture beyond the deceptively shiny city centre or the plastic new suburbs in the foothills of the Andes.
Then the sermon began. The priest moved quickly to the gospel and his proclamation did not disappoint. Jesus, he said, simply and repeatedly, is as necessary to us as bread. Bread in this context was not something to stared at in a boutique, but made at home or bought for less than a penny in a little shop or street-stall nearby. Jesus is the food that makes the difference between life and death.
For Saint Alberto Hurtado, and for the preacher, that truth led unavoidably to two conclusions.
First, that we all need Jesus: he isn‘t a whimsy or an option (like so much in our society, exhausted by choice). Second, that in our Christian daily bread, the Eucharist, Jesus is present to us to help us recollect (‘do this in remembrance…’) who we are, that we Christians are alive, that we do not merely exist: the Eucharist is not a religious snack which we choose; the church is not a boutique. It is vital, literally ‘the staff of life’, because it reminds us (‘do this in remembrance’) not only that God loves us and is with us, but that he loves and wants to welcome home those who are not here, those who have not the bread of life. He asks us what we will do about that.
It was said of Hurtado that ‘He was incapable of seeing pain without wanting to remedy it’, an epitaph of which any Christian might be proud. Pain comes in many forms, to rich and poor alike. In the end Hurtado simply did something about the pain he met. He saw, suddenly, in a particular poor man, that unless we share our bread (both material and spiritual), the Eucharist, and our faith, is just a boutique.
God intends it to be a feast of life to which all are invited; we, who are fed, are called to share it. When, after we are told to ‘Go in the peace of Christ’, we answer ‘Thanks be to God’, we are committing ourselves to doing that.