“I am the living bread that came down from heaven…” John 6:51
That’s right. He’s still at it. Jesus is still talking about bread. We’re on Week 3 of this metaphor, only by now it’s starting to stir up a little trouble.
The people who have known Jesus the longest are understandably confused by his declarations about bread and eternal life. Remember that they’ve watched him grow up. They know all the ordinary things about him. How old he was when he started walking. That time he went missing in the temple. The acne he had as a teenager. The jokes he likes to tell. His favorite snack.
So for Jesus to make these sweeping claims that he has come down from heaven, that he can offer eternal life – it all seems like a bit much to take from Joseph and Mary’s boy. He’s telling them something extraordinary, but they want him to remain ordinary.
But Jesus is both. That’s the power of being at once the bread that came down from heaven and the guy who grew up down the street. He has come so that the deepest, truest kind of life will not be a distant abstraction for the people he encounters. That life has flesh and blood. What he brings is as ordinary and as essential as bread.
We see it in that story of Elijah the prophet. Most of the time we know Elijah as a defender of God’s ways and a person who challenged God’s people to follow those ways. Elijah has just come from a violent battle with some false prophets – and he’s gotten word that their sponsor Queen Jezebel wants him dead. When we meet him this morning, he is exhausted, wrung out, unable to move forward. He sits down under that tree in the wilderness, and he begs God to let him die. We don’t know what specifically has led to his depths of despair, but we can hear it in his plea: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.” Then he does what often feels like the only thing we can do when we don’t know how to move forward. He lies down and goes to sleep.
God sends an angel to Elijah. Not just any angel, but a persistent one, encouraging Elijah to get up, bringing him food to eat and water to drink. That angel does not take no for an answer. When Elijah doesn’t respond the first time, the angel shows up again. This time Elijah listens, and with renewed strength he is able to take the next steps.
We all have our sitting-under-the-broom-tree moments, times when we feel stuck in our own hopelessness. These times are lonely and awful. One of the things that Jesus shows us – that he literally embodies for us – is that God comes to us in ordinary ways in our most desperate, difficult moments. Not as a fairy godmother to wave a magic wand and whip us up a ball gown. Not to guarantee that life will be perfect and without pain. But to be present. To be present with us in those dark and desperate times. To nourish us when we are at our most hungry and scared, not just with physical food, but through the small kindnesses of others. That’s what it means to be the bread of life that comes down from heaven. His love is not a distant abstraction. It is here, sometimes in such ordinary ways that we take it for granted.
It’s precisely because we have received nourishment in those under-the-broom-tree moments that we are able at other times to be the angel whispering to someone else, “Get up and eat.” We share the bread of life – which sometimes means providing actual bread and sometimes means sitting down beside someone under that tree and sometimes means coming back again and, like that angel, saying, “No, I meant it. It’s time to eat.”
I’ve seen it in my own childhood when people showed up with food for families who were in mourning. And while broccoli casserole or pound cake can’t make grief disappear, they sure do taste like love when you need it most. I’ve seen it in those who regularly feed people who are homeless and have to figure out how to pull together a dinner from the donations that are left in the refrigerator at the end of the week. I’ve heard the stories about when this sanctuary was being finished by church members, and certain folks who couldn’t do the hard labor would show up with lunch for the workers. Ordinary, small acts of generosity become the bread of life because of the flesh-and-blood Savior who gives us the power to do them.
I think a lot about the Civil Rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s. Over the years, as I’ve studied that movement, it’s often easy for me to idolize the extraordinary sacrifices of those who put their lives on the line to stand up against vast and powerful injustice. The people who faced fire hoses and police dogs, nights in jail and cracked skulls – they are deserving of a special place in history. But in honoring what they did, it’s easy to overlook the countless small, ordinary contributions of other people whose pictures do not appear in history books.
One of my favorite writers, Jacqueline Woodson, has written a memoir called Brown Girl Dreaming, in which she captures her childhood in a series of poems. She grew up in the 60’s and 70’s moving between Brooklyn and South Carolina, where her grandparents lived. As an African-American child, she couldn’t help but be aware of the growing civil rights movement. In one particular poem she observes how their South Carolina neighbor Miss Bell participates in the movement – not by marching herself, but by feeding the people in the movement and by praying for them. Make no mistake. As you’ll hear, the ordinary act of feeding people is risky for Miss Bell. But she does it anyway, grounded in her faith that things can be different.
As you listen, ask yourself: In what ordinary ways can I support what’s right in this world? Having been fed with the bread of life, to whom can I give some bread? What does the bread I can offer look like?
They look like regular people
visiting our neighbor Miss Bell,
foil-covered dishes held out in front of them
as they arrive
some in pairs,
some just little kids
holding their mothers’ hands.
If you didn’t know, you’d think it was just
an evening gathering. Maybe church people
heading into Miss Bell’s house to talk
about God. But when Miss Bell pulls her blinds
closed, the people fill their dinner plates with food,
their glasses with sweet tea and gather
to talk about marching.
And even though Miss Bell works for a white lady
who said I will fire you in a minute if I ever see you
on that line!
Miss Bell knows that marching isn’t the only thing
she can do,
knows that people fighting need full bellies to think
and safe places to gather.
She knows the white lady isn’t the only one
who’s watching, listening, waiting,
to end this fight. So she keeps the marchers’
glasses filled, adds more corn bread
and potato salad to their plates,
stands in the kitchen ready to slice
lemon pound cake into generous pieces.
And in the morning, just before she pulls
her uniform from the closet, she prays,
God, please give me and those people marching
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom [God] has sent.’” John 6:28-29
One of the delights of being on vacation is enjoying some wonderful meals in local restaurants. My family has a few favorite spots for seafood when we’re at the beach, and my sister Claire and I recently got some excellent advice about places to eat up in Saratoga Springs. The wait staff at all of these places brought us bread as a start to our meal. It’s common practice, as you know. Sometimes it’s dinner rolls, sometimes freshly cut slices; sometimes it’s sweet, sometimes savory. Sometimes they bring you a little butter to slather on that bread, and other times you’re given some rich olive oil in which to dip it. Whatever form it takes, that bread is delicious.
There are many theories about why restaurants bring us bread before our meal, including the notion that it keeps customers from being less annoying while they wait for their food to arrive. Chef Jonas Luster presents a more inspired reason, noting that bread has always been a sign of hospitality. He says: “[Bread is] not something fancy or expensive but it is a staple. To share it with guests means to welcome them and make them part of your family. When days were bad, bread was what people had. When days were good, bread is what people made every day. This hasn’t changed for most parts of the world.”[i] I love Chef Luster’s idea of bread as a family food, an essential food that can fill us even when times are hard.
Whatever the reason that restaurants give us bread, my favorite part is that it just shows up. We don’t have to ask for it. We don’t choose it from the menu. It’s simply there, warm and delicious, nourishing us while we wait for what comes next. It feels like a gift, especially when that melted better seeps into the crevices of the bread.
Last week Pastor Sease may have given you a heads up about this strange season we are in. Every three years the designated readings for the summer land us in the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John. It begins auspiciously enough with that great story of Jesus feeding thousands of people on a mountain near the Sea of Galilee. But now we enter four consecutive weeks of talking about bread. Jesus loves a good metaphor. I am the bread of the life, he says – but then he spends 71 verses fleshing that out for us. (Pun intended.)
Not to worry. There’s plenty in these 71 verses to feed us for four weeks. For a lifetime, really. Let’s see what today’s slice of scripture serves up.
What’s most striking here is the difference between how the people understand being fed and how Jesus understands being fed. We begin as the crowd has chased Jesus down. You can’t really blame them. What if your stomach had been growling up there on the mountainside and then someone conjured up a generous picnic that more than filled you up? You’d be intrigued by the person who made that happen, wouldn’t you? So off they go until they find Jesus again.
Jesus sees their hunger for what it is – a desire for more literal food. They want those bread baskets to keep on coming to their table. But Jesus has other ideas in mind. Having addressed their physical hunger, he wants to meet their spiritual hunger.
The people are confused by this shift from the literal to the metaphorical. They know there’s no such thing as a free lunch, so they expect to be given a way to earn more bread. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” they ask. It’s a natural question. What do we have to do to get this enduring food you’re talking about? What must we do? They can’t imagine that it’s anything other than transactional. We do something. We get rewarded with the bread. We don’t understand what this bread from heaven is exactly, but we know how bread works. We work, and we receive it. We perform, and we are rewarded.
Imagine their surprise when Jesus defies those expectations. No, this bread is not something for which you labor. It’s something for which God has already labored. You are given this bread. Just like that manna showed up morning after morning for your ancestors out there in the wilderness beyond Egypt, so too does God provide you with nourishment. Day after day, moment by moment you are given the true bread that sustains life and hope. It is pure gift. All you have to do is believe – to trust that the manna will be there again tomorrow morning and the morning after that and the morning after that.
It’s exactly what our reading from Ephesians captures so beautifully when it says: “Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” The measure of Christ’s gift. Not according to the measure of our net worth. Not according to the eloquence of our latest self-righteous rant online. Not according to what we wear or how our children behave or our current mood. Not even according to the good deeds we’ve done. We are given grace as a gift from the one who is our true bread.
That true bread isn’t fancy or expensive but is a staple, whether it comes to us in loaves or crusts or crumbs. To share it with others means to welcome them and make them part of the family. When days are bad, that true bread is what we have. When days are good, that true bread is what we have.
The true bread himself is given to us freely. He shows up at this table – the Lord’s table – without any deserving on our part. This is my body, given for you. The true bread – the true life – is ours for the taking.
In the spirit of that true bread, I offer you this poem by one of my colleagues, the Reverend Layton Williams. It’s titled “Small Comfort,” and it captures how grace can show up in the ordinary moments of daily life when we feel least worthy of it:[ii]
Some days are just hard
for no good reason,
other than that you feel lonely
and maybe lost or sad
and a little small.
I think of these as mouse days:
when you wake up,
shivering in the cold cave
inside you where fear lives.
On mouse days, this tiny hole
seems like a perfectly good
hiding place, even though it’s
a pretty inhospitable space.
On days when I feel this small,
I am grateful for a God
who lets me be a little mousy,
a little pouty,
but doesn’t leave me
I am grateful for the tiny
that life offers me:
a good laugh,
a kind word,
a soft breeze,
or a warm ray of light.
These simple gifts
are like a gentle kiss
that doesn’t take,
but only gives.
They are crumbs
God sets at the mouth of my cave
to say: Stay as long as you need.
I’ll be just out here, waiting,
and whenever you’re ready
we will feast.