An Interview with Sara Miles

Sara Miles is the author of Take This Bread, an unusual and sacramental consideration of the journey toward Christ, His concern for the oppressed, and the invitation to meet Him at His table. I found the book unsettling, rich, and well written. I requested an interview, and Sara graciously consented. My questions in red..

Your own journey through activism and to the table is quite an amazing one. There are few threads that seem to carry through.. except food! And it seems that food has become a sacramental thing for you.

The places I have hung out.. evangelical and charismatic circles.. have largely lost a sacramental way of seeing the world. And it seems to me this has fed a poverty of spirit. Is "sacrament" .. grace through ordinary things.. becoming for you a way of seeing the world?

One of the great Anglican prayers remembers that Jesus revealed himself in the breaking of bread, and asks God to "open the eyes of our faith." I experience the sacraments as ways to open the eyes of our that we can see the world as it really is: saturated with Christ.

Another piece of your experience I identify with strongly is the movement beyond a dualistic faith.. where matter and spirit are separated and matter .. the physical.. is devalued and salvation itself becomes only a spiritual transaction and a life insurance policy. This seems so far from Jesus teaching on the kingdom. Has the kingdom of God become important in your thinking about faith and in your practice and at the table?

The spiritual life is a physical life. And the Kingdom, Jesus tells us, is here now...not a dream, hovering in a disembodied future tense. It's like when Moses says, "Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It's not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?' No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe."

The moments when I've caught a glimpse of the Kingdom have felt, at the same time, totally surprising and like recognizing something utterly familiar, known forever. I remember being at the food pantry and watching the most unlikely mix of people come in the door in a stream---literally hundreds of people of all ages and languages and nations; talking and laughing and eating and working and embracing, and the whole thing feeling slightly out of control, as if anything could happen....and at the same time deeply calm and joyous. Something about the extreme, unboundaried nature of the scene signals "Kingdom."

The Word is very near to you.

How do you make sense of the duality in Jesus kingdom teaching: at one time the kingdom is here in the presence of Jesus; at another time it seems to be something in the future that will come in a dramatic and supernatural intervention. Is this future hope important in the way we shape our lives here today?

You know, I think God does tense (and makes sense) differently than humans do: our attempts to understand time logically and sequentially don't adequately describe the reality of God's time...which is simultaneously about everything that was, and is, and is to come.

The duality isn't about God, but about us. I believe we are already fully saved, redeemed, restored, freed...and that we live on Earth waiting & struggling to know this fully.

I don't think there's one supernatural moment at a fixed moment in time in which the Kingdom will be revealed to everyone. I think that moment is here, already, but that our individual and collective abilities to apprehend it flicker on and off: sometimes we see it bright, and sometimes through a glass, darkly.

If I recall, later in your story you reflect on the Imago Dei.. the image of God.. in the people you are mixing with. Yet, that Image is clearly marred and muddied. We carry this treasure in jars of clay. Do you think you could have made this discovery without the poor?

The poor are a gift to us because they remind us that we are loved as we are and where we are. I wonder if so many churches are impoverished because they have not made this discovery?

I'm a bit wary of talking about "the poor" as separate from "us." I think whenever people start living in cross-class, cross-racial, cross-national ways something happens. It's hard--because the world rewards those divisions, and it's tempting to cling to our differences. And it's a great gift---because all of us are changed by the discovery of something bigger than those humanly created divisions.

Your story moves from a certain reflective distance to a kind of immersion. Maybe there is no other way to go when we gather around the table. Is that what this invitation to eat is all about.. that "the deeper we drown, the higher we go?"

I like that...communion as baptism. Yes, I think there's a similar invitation in both sacraments: the invitation to die to the idea of yourself as a separate individual ruled by your own will, and to be born, re-created, re-membered, as a piece of one body.

Salvation is more than individual. In the New Testament we see entire families being saved. And when Paul talks about salvation he rarely speaks in individual terms. It was at the table that you discovered that this journey in Christ is a communal journey. How has that insight continued to grow and expand for you?

See above-- participating in Eucharist, in its deepest sense, means a continual dying and rising, going under and coming up. It means struggling over and over with my own sense of difference, separateness; with my own desire to be in control of my life, and to decide who else deserves God's love.

But if you understand the Body of Christ to be made up of all humanity, then it's impossible to believe here's such a thing as individual salvation. It's tempting-- I'm tempted by it because I don't necessarily want to be bound up with all these difficult, unlikeable strangers...the "me and Jesus" fantasy is so much tidier. But it's a fantasy. We are the body of Christ.

Sara, do you include those who have not yet met Christ as part of His body? Are you a Universalist in that classic sense?

Note. I really struggled with how to frame this question. I realize I am in process in my own thinking about this issue. Generally in my circles to speak of salvation has meant to talk about eternal destiny; it has had little sense of "now" and the way we live today. in response to who God is and what He has done for us. It has had little to do with healing... or wholeness.. or justice .. in this life. In other words, it has had very little connection to this world of sails and ships and sealing wax, cabbages and kings. And the more I see that larger frame and Jesus teaching on the kingdom, the less happy I am with this question that seems to reference eternal destiny in response to a one time decision. I think the question that occupies me more now would be around "conversion" more than a decision. Anyway..

I'm not sure what the classic Universalist position encompasses...let me see if I can put this in descriptive terms. As someone who knows God through Christ Jesus, I know God more through all people, whatever they confess or believe. As someone who's part of a religion that historically stomps on other religions' experiences of God, I'm hesitant to "claim" others for Jesus.

Bishop David Zac Niringiye was interviewed last year in Christianity Today. He said,

"We need to begin to read the Bible differently. Americans have been preoccupied with the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the Great Commission: "Go and make." I call them go-and-make missionaries. These are the go-and-fix-it people. The go-and-make people are those who act like it's all in our power, and all we have to do is "finish the task." They love that passage! But when read from the center of power, that passage simply reinforces the illusion that it's about us, that we are in charge.

"I would like to suggest a new favorite passage, the Great Invitation. It's what we find if we read from the beginning of the Gospels rather than the end. Jesus says, "Come, follow me. I will make you fishers of men." Not "Go and make," but "I will make you." It's all about Jesus."

What do you think? Is "the great invitation" a truth that can help us place "the great commission" in a new light?

I'm currently writing about another commissioning....when Jesus breathes on the disciples and tells them they've got the power to forgive sins...that is, to do what Jesus does. I think this commission, this filling of humankind with the Spirit, has nothing to do with the kind of "missionary" work that means convincing other people to believe something. Jesus doesn't tell his disciples to make "believers." He tells his disciples to feed the hungry, heal the sick, forgive sins, love one another, and raise the dead.

I've been thinking about the connection between listening as a powerful mode of hospitality, and welcoming the stranger. Henri Nouwen writes,

"To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept. .. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you." Henri Nouwen

I love this; it seems to hit at something deeply true about the gospel - that unless we create safe places for others, there is little chance they will ever know they are loved. One of the strong refrains in your book is the "open table." Do you think we have hope of deeply engaging the world apart from an open table?

Well, the Table is open....eternally. When churches forget that it's God's Table, and act as if it's theirs to control, then they lose God's power to touch, heal, feed and love without exception.

The buzz about your book and your speaking engagements tell me that you have "hit a nerve." What is touching people so deeply? What is the hunger?

I've heard from all kinds of people--Catholics, evangelicals, Mormons, Salvation Army, emergent, rightwing and leftwing...I think they're all hungry for communion: connection with other people, and with God. So much contemporary religion winds up separating people from one another...drawing doctrinal lines, establishing purity codes, enforcing boundaries of correct belief and practice. And yet people yearn, with God, to be made one.

Sara, if you could add another story to your book, what would it be?

I'd write about the woman I saw raised from the dead. But that's for the next book.... --

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• © 2005-2008 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on April 18, 2008