This is a “tale of two sermons” from Proper 14, Year B
Epistle Lesson: Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Gospel Lesson: John 6:35, 41-51
Sermon #1: Saturday Contemplative Eucharist, St. John’s Episcopal Church
Additional Reading: Coming to God: First Days by Mary Oliver
“Here is the bread, and here is the cup, and I can’t quiet myself.”
In the pace of this world, we relish the things that save us time. There are books on 15 minute dinners, websites filled with time-saving life hacks and instructions on how to accomplish as much as possible without wasting a precious second. I understand this: I’m a multi-tasker myself and nothing makes me roll my eyes more than feeling like my time is being wasted. But if I’m cutting corners on time to fill my life with more busy things, that really isn’t saving time; that is just rearranging my busy.
Pausing a moment to let ourselves inwardly digest the lessons the we just read, I offer to you a few thoughts to feed on when Jesus says, I am the Bread of Life.
Bread is not always a quick thing. The best breads I have ever tasted are slow-rising, yeasty and made patiently and lovingly. Every Christmas I bake a yeast bread that rises overnight, a gift in recipe form from Franziska, an exchange student from Switzerland who stayed with us one year while I was in high school. Or, just this past summer, in the middle of an all-day, every-day class on The Sabbath, my Jewish professor Naomi brought loaves of freshly baked challah with her for our final class together, the taste of which was like being given a beautiful taste of her family’s cultural history to welcome the Sabbath as we closed our time together. The delight of these gifts are not that they are quick and easy; it is that they require time and love. Broken and shared, they fill us with a sense of being valued, cared for, remembered and embraced by love.
Bread, even savory bread, requires something sweet. Yeast actives and lives by the breaking down of sugars, so into almost every kind of bread a little sweet must enter: a pinch of sugar, a bit of honey, the sweetness contained within a particular grain or liquid which sets the action into motion. Even in a savory loaf…right alongside the saltiness…there is still a need for the sweet in order to activate fully. There’s a lesson about sweetness baked into bread which reminds me not just of the Gospel lesson, but the exhortation in Ephesians, too: “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
When we quiet ourselves, we begin to settle in to this imagery of bread that Jesus shares, and perhaps to taste the depth of what it means for Him to be the Bread of Life that comes down from heaven. This bread is patient, kind, filled with loving-kindness. It conveys to us a story of who we are, and where we belong. When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” He extends divine love and grace to feed and nurture us with spiritual food. Like the sweetness added to the yeast, these words activate the life-giving nature of Jesus’ message to expand beyond that fixed point of time and space, reaching out out across time and context to nourish hearers in every age.
In some communities, the invitation to Holy Eucharist uses a paraphrase from St. Augustine, “Behold what you are; become what you receive.” As we pause before this bread and this cup, as we wrestle with our swirling thoughts in an attempt to quiet ourselves, we are called to remember that we aren’t asked to be in perfect, harmonious alignment before receiving this gift. Like Jesus’ love for the whole world, we are simply given it, receiving into ourselves with sweetness the life giving potential that Jesus, the Bread of Life offers to us. As Mary Oliver names us: we are the wanderer who has come home at last, opening to transformation and receiving the gift that Jesus has given for the life of the world.
Wanderers and travellers, we gather here to welcome a time for silence, for prayer, for healing, and for communion. In the love of Christ, we are met just as we are and nourished with this gift of love from the One who wishes to make us one, and to be one with us. The words that I have been holding in my own silence this week are from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, from Mass on the World. I offer them up as a prayer, as we move into this time to be loved, to be fed, to be transformed together:
This bread, our toil, is of itself, I know, but an immense fragmentation; this wine, our pain, is no more, I know, than a draught that dissolves. Yet in the very depths of this formless mass you have implanted —and this I am sure of, for I sense it — a desire, irresistible, hallowing, which makes us cry out, believer and unbeliever alike: ‘Lord, make us one.’
Sermon #2: Sunday Holy Eucharist, St. John’s Episcopal Church
I’ve been thinking a lot about bread this week. Growing up in Buffalo, my favorite winter days were when we baked homemade bread. I loved the way the whole house was permeated by the scent of those freshly baked loaves. I married into the Price family, who are also bread lovers, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that my daughter Cassandra is becoming a pretty expert bread baker herself. Any excuse to bake bread is a good excuse in my mind, not just cold winter days. Suffice it to say, I haven’t been able to stray far from thinking about bread this week, studying the Gospel lesson and preparing to break bread together with this community at St. John’s on this final Sunday serving with you as your summer Mid-Atlantic seminarian.
One of the things that I’ve been pondering is that bread, even the savory kind, requires something sweet. Yeast actives and lives by the breaking down of sugars, so into almost every kind of bread a little sweet must enter: a pinch of sugar, a bit of honey, the sweetness contained within a particular grain or liquid which sets the action into motion. Even in a savory loaf…right alongside the saltiness…there is still a need for the sweet in order to activate fully. There’s a lesson about sweetness baked into bread which reminds me not just of the Gospel lesson, but the exhortation in Ephesians, too: “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
It’s a fitting image for us, the Body of Christ, to inwardly digest.
Today, in John’s Gospel, we hear words and metaphors of the Bread of Life through the ears of those in Jesus’ own cultural, Jewish context. Those who took his words literally were shocked and horrified; we’ll hear more from that group over the next two weeks. But today’s Gospel gives us insight into their confusion and attempts to take in and process this new information. The Jewish people who surrounded Jesus had been fed on the mountain side in miraculous ways, and were seeking to be filled again. They had just experienced the “bread of heaven” as miraculous loaves which had fed 5,000 hungry people from a young peasant’s lunch. Now, they wanted more.
Jesus moved the crowd gathered from meal to metaphor, describing God (the great “I AM” of the tetragrammaton) as the bread of heaven, more life-giving than bread that fills our stomachs and, in fact, even more life giving than manna in the wilderness. To the ears of those devoted Jewish followers, manna was the bread that came down from heaven, one of the primary historic actions of a loving God toward beloved people to sustain them in the wilderness, recounted at every Sabbath observance with the bread that they shared. So, when Jesus says, “I am the bread that came down from heaven” he isn’t making a generic statement or waxing poetic. He is using a metaphor specific to the people hearing him, situated in their shared cultural context, in order to open their eyes and ears and heart to a new understanding about God’s providence, and Jesus’ own divinity. This statement would have been jarring to their ears and their imaginations, opening up an entirely new understanding of Jesus’ ministry.
We all need these moments of being shaken from our expectations to open us to new possibilities, but we don’t always receive that new information well. Continuing the bread baking metaphor, I might even suggest that we get a little salty! So, no surprise that Jesus’ hearers do what we all do when we are overwhelmed by new and challenging information: we fall back to practicalities: wait, isn’t this Joseph and Mary’s son? How could he possibly be the bread that comes down from heaven?
When we read this lesson, though, we should never blame this group of people for doing exactly what we do all the time. All of us, even those who consider ourselves followers of Jesus in this age and context, have a long history of dismissing that which is mystery in favor of something we can more easily wrap our heads around. But that fall-back position may keep us from being broken open to receive a new and vital message.
When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” he extends the metaphor across time and place, aligning not just with his own cultural context and surroundings but with all of us, broadly and uniquely: “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.”
I’ve sometimes heard those words misused in an attempt to limit eternal life to particular groups with certain fixed beliefs. But Jesus isn’t limiting the extent of love and grace; Jesus is being expansive. Like the sweetness added to the yeast, these words activate the life-giving nature of Jesus’ message to expand beyond that fixed point of time and space, reaching out out across time and context to nourish hearers in every age.
Time and again this week, I come back to the thought of how wonderful it is that bread looks and tastes differently from culture to culture and region to region. Even in my own life, I know I’m feasting in Church Hill when I’m tasting the crusty, grainy smokiness of Sub Rosa, or that I’ve landed in San Francisco when serving up avocado toast on a smooth, chewy slice of seeded sourdough. Someone hearing this lesson about the Bread of Life in Mexico might picture a freshly pressed corn tortilla, or a spongy injara in Ethiopia or a pillowy naan in India. Jesus is the Bread of Life whenever and wherever this Gospel is proclaimed. It is a profound reminder to us that the bread of life does not have to look and taste the same in order to nourish and sustain us. Jesus is the bread of life.
We can get so caught up in our own context that we lose sight of how transforming hat message is. We can think that our parish is better, or our denomination, or our race, or our country. But Jesus extends life to all. Jesus invites us to be fed with the Bread of Life so that we can celebrate the ways in which we become that which feeds the world. Our Epistle lesson reminds us we are called to become imitators of God. “Behold what you are; become what you receive” we sometimes say, paraphrasing St. Augustine. Every ingredient is essential; every person a member of the Body of Christ.
The bread we break together is the Bread of Life, which crosses ages and contexts and spaces of worship. We participate together in a sacramental life which doesn’t dissolve our diversity and difference, but which embraces it. Fed by the bread of heaven as we gather here together, our Christ-filled-ness transforms us to break bread with the world. Christ becomes known in the bread we share with friends, and with strangers. Christ the Bread of Life becomes known when we feed those who hunger in body; when we extend the Good News of the Gospel as the spiritual food to those who yearn for love; when we allow ourselves to feed and be fed as one community, one body where differences are welcomed and celebrated. We are one bread, and one body in Christ who gives us life.
“Behold what you are; become what you receive.”