Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2006
Deuteronomy 8: 1 – 10
Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2
John 6: 37 – 51
They had, literally, been at their wit’s end for a generation. Promised a land of their own, they struggled mightily to claim it. In war after war, battle after battle, they struggled, against the odds, against stronger enemies on every side. In every defeat, they saw divine punishment, in every victory, divine favor. This land was their land, after all, promised to Abraham and to his descendents forever. Now, at the end of his life, they looked to the great old man who had led them through times of triumph and loss, across the desert and to edge of the Great Sea. But the old man was hooked to machines that breathed for him and pumped his old lion’s heart. Ariel, God’s lion, was silent. So when their enemies struck them again, they reacted with the pain of the mourners, with the fury of the frightened, with the fearsome power of the cornered beast.
And the blood flowed and the mothers wept and the Great Powers that rule this present darkness stood by idly and watched it all: the ruined land, the broken hope, the end of justice, the absence of bread. The descendants of Abraham, as if unaware that they all share the inheritance, make war on each other, and the dead lie stinking in the hot summer sun.
Long millennia ago, on these very same hills, another old man spoke to his people. He reminded them that they were not there because of their military might, but because God had brought them there. They too had struggled for a generation, against the odds, against more powerful enemies, and now they could enter into a land with flowing streams, with springs welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where they could eat their fill of bread and bless their God from daybreak to night’s fall. The Hebrew people were home, finally home, and now the real struggle would begin.
It would be a war, not against enemies round about, but the enemy within. A war against wrath and wrangling and malice. A war against injustice, a war against hatred, a war against war itself. They lost that war, and the world is poorer for their loss.
But like the sweet aroma of yeast, bubbling through rising dough, there came another message for them, from the carpenter who became a Rabbi. Wherever he went, grand things happened, impossible things, like feasts out of nowhere. And the people chased him across the hills, seeking their share, and more than their share.
He slipped out across the great lake, perhaps to nibble on a leftover bit of pita, and wash it down with cool, red wine. But they found him again and begged for another feast. “You aren’t looking for me because you heard a single word I said to you, but because you had a great party. Well, I’m not in the party business; I’m in the believing business. And you don’t want to believe what I’m teaching. Forget the bread, work for food that will last beyond your next meal.”
Oh, they thought. This is one clever miracle-working Rabbi. We’ve just got to get the magic words right. “Okay,” said one, “what’s your sign? Can you do that bread thing again, like Moses in the desert?”
He chewed his pita slowly. “Here’s a sign: Moses didn’t give you bread, but my Father will give you bread from heaven and it will bring the whole world to life.”
They nudged each other. They had the koan figured out. “Please, give us that bread.”
The world held its breath for his response. And it could not have been stranger. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
The crowd exhaled in disbelief. This was crazy. What happened to the great wonder working power? Who did this guy think he was anyway? They knew his parents, they knew his brothers and sisters, they knew he grew up in a working class neighborhood in the Galilean backwater of Nazareth. He was a carpenter, for crying out loud!
But Jesus Josephson was on one of his disciple-squashing rolls. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
It’s bread all right, but not the plastic packaged, refined white flour and hydrogenated oil stuff that lines the shelves at the Piggly-Wiggly. No this is the real thing, kneaded and rolled, pushing back against the floured board, and finally baking slowly on a hot stone hearth. This is bread you dip in the sacred oil and its taste lingers on for a lifetime. This is the bread of life itself. And you only find it when God grabs you by the back of the head and crams it in your mouth.
If any of you have ever wondered why so many people who try to follow Jesus do such a bad job of it, all you have to do is consider today’s Gospel. Nobody can actually follow Jesus: God has to draw you along on a path of hunger to the source of food. And then you have to take a giant bite out of the hand that feeds you, all the while not even knowing how to begin to swallow what’s in your mouth.
It would have been easier to have followed some prescribed recipe, mixing two cups of sifted flour, a tablespoon of yeast, a pinch of salt. Instead Jesus gives us himself and tells us to eat. But what’s that really mean?
It means that there are no easy answers to the questions that you ask in the darkness. It means choosing to rest in the ambiguity of not knowing, of nibbling away at the mystery of God without fully understanding the whys. It means hearing and learning from a Father you have never seen, and trusting that even though it doesn’t feel like it, this journey is taking us somewhere.
Should the church ordain women? Should the church welcome gay and lesbian people as full members? Should Christians make war on other people because they have corrupt leaders or deserts full of oil? Should the church accept the widening gap between rich and poor as the inevitable fallout of a global economy? Should the church support embryonic stem cell research or work to stop global warming?
Jesus says we can’t follow him without learning to love the questions, since those who say that they have all the answers keep trying to put them recipe form and bake them. But all they get is air-puffed Wonder Bread.
We are hungry. We don’t want to wait for the last day. We want a sign, now. We want an Ariel or a Moses. We want manna from heaven. We want our share, our feast from nowhere, our bread. We’ve trekked to the far side of the lake in search of a recipe and when we get there, all we find is Jesus—Jesus holding himself out for us to eat. If we are willing to eat what he sets before us our hunger and thirst will be gone forever.
Most of the commentators believe that today’s Gospel is about the Eucharist. And so it is, sort of. In the sense that when we come together to the great feast, we feed on Jesus in hearts by faith. He really is present when we gather together to remember. When we believe in him, we get raised up. When we allow God to draw us along the way, we stop looking for the right answers and our hunger disappears. We find the living bread, baked and broken and given for us. It has been there all the time.