By: Christa Meland
Sara Miles was raised as an atheist, but everything changed the day she entered a church at age 46, ate a piece of bread, and took a sip of wine.
“You could say I took my first communion but the fact is it took me,” said the author and former journalist, who also serves as director of ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. “God was alive and in my mouth.”
Miles—who later wrote Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion; Jesus Freak: Feeding Healing Raising the Dead; and City of God: Faith in the Streets—kept going back to church, was eventually baptized, and started a food pantry at the church that now serves hundreds each week. During two, 90-minute teaching sessions on Wednesday, Miles shared her perspective and experiences when it comes to evangelism, service, and unleashing God’s generosity. Here are six key thoughts she presented:
Stories evangelize us. Miles said her life continues to be transformed through not only her own story and stories from the Bible, but by the stories of those she encounters. “As a writer, the gospels just blew me away,” she said. “As a listener, the stories in scripture…keep evangelizing me.” Miles said she’s come to see our own stories like the parables in the Bible—and like Jesus’ parables, they have the power to evangelize, to share the good news.
The keys to the kingdom are in the parables of our lives. “Each one of us only gets a glimpse from time to time,” said Miles. “I can’t begin to know what the kingdom’s like until you tell me what it’s like for you. We have to find meaning in these stories together.” The keys to the kingdom are right here in the stories and enacted parables of our lives, which are mixed irrevocably with the life of God. Miles said the kingdom of heaven is feasting with friends. It’s you when you’re taking care of your family member. It’s like a net thrown into the sea that throws up fish of every kind. “All we can do is gaze in wonder at the fish,” she said. “This is what happens when God’s generosity is unleashed.”
The most important word in the Bible is “with.” The holy trinity is about “with,” she said. God is always gathering all humanity into relationship and bringing us more deeply into life with God. “God is not actually for any one person in isolation. God sticks with us, accompanies us, delights in us, plays with us, suffers with us and uses us and abides with us.” Consequently, our work in the world must be “with” and not “for,” Miles said. It’s often easier and safer to do something for someone—to act on their behalf. Being with them is riskier because it means we both might be changed by the relationship.
We need to let others in and allow them to help us. For some of us, it’s difficult to learn to let other people help us, but we must let other people into the kind of relationship that’s patterned after what God is doing for all of us, Miles said. “We receive our lives from God. Whatever we do with what we’re given, whether we make more or less of it, we eventually leave it all and give our souls back to the God who made us.” Receiving and giving and receiving and giving in relationship with God and other people around the table—that’s how our lives are transformed. “Everyone has something to give. Each person needs to give and each person needs to receive, which is what happens when we make Eucharist together,” she said.
Everything we do says something about who we are and how we understand God. “If we’re choosing to follow the example of Jesus, our service must be an imitation of his service,” she said. That’s why the food pantry that Miles founded doesn’t require people to produce papers or proof of income in order to receive food. “If we’re just going through the motions, so does our activism and service work,” Miles said. “Justice becomes a program. Food becomes a ministry. Mercy becomes an issue. Instead of actual scarce cash pulled out of my own pocket and put in hand of an undeserving poor person, we work in spreadsheets about deliverables…Really sharing bread and wine or really sharing groceries or really being a neighbor means conversion, not grudging or fearful—it means dying and being reborn…becoming one body.”
Evangelism isn’t bringing church to the streets, it’s witnessing the ways the body of Christ is already there. “The truth of evangelism is that the people are God’s people,” said Miles. “They’re already out in the streets…encountering Jesus, Mary, saints, demons, angels…they’re out there praying, sinning, repenting, being baptized into the muddy river of daily life…They’re constantly creating their own theologies from the stories of their own lives. They’re not waiting for missionaries of any stripe to go outdoors and save them. God is saving me from my own pretentions so we can come together in this holy city.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church