“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